Historical Baseball Questions (Ken Burns)

For that matter, Paige was not 46 when he pitched in the 1948 World Series, he was 42. Tall tales about Paige’s “Real age” have long been told, and Paige himself claimed to not know for sure (but he liked poking fun at reporters and seeing what he could get them to believe) but his birth certificate was quite literally found and confirmed by Bill Veeck in 1948. Paige was born on July 7, 1906, a date which incidentally makes total sense with regards to his big league career starting in 1927.

Crazy stories about Satchel Paige are more numerous than the actual facts. Of course no sane person would let him do something like that. In 1948, Paige walked 22 men, hit another, and gave up 61 hits and two homers, all in 72.2 innings. Very impressive numbers but not perfect, and a man with PERFECT control would walk and hit no one and give up way fewer hits than that. His control when he was younger wasn’t that much better, and he threw incredibly hard - Paige was very similar to Tom Seaver, or Max Scherzer if Scherzer remains good enough to pitch in the majors when he’s in his mid-40s, but Paige threw harder than Scherzer, at least relative to his peers. Gerrit Cole has amazing control; would anyone who doesn’t have a death wish let him try to pick a cigarette out of their mouth? Come on.

No, they just repeat Larry Tye saying it, which isn’t the same thing as reporting it happened.

Books about baseball are often appallingly ill-sourced and full of tall tales. Journalists often seem to figure if it’s baseball, it’s not important to get all the details right or cast a skeptical eye on anything.

The big issue is there is no such thing as “perfect control” in baseball pitching, otherwise you would have pitchers who literally never walk anyone other than strategic intentional walks. Since that has never occurred, and given our knowledge of pitching mechanics, we simply know that a real human will lack perfect control of a baseball, pitch in, pitch out. There are certainly many professional pitchers who can put that ball in a very specific, very targeted area of the strikezone with high regularity. “High regularity” is not 100%. And for someone throwing a fastball aimed an inch from your cranium, that % just isn’t good enough, especially for other ballplayers who would know all this and know the risks involved.

The idea of ballplayers doing some stupid, risky thing…I can believe. The idea that maybe even one day goofing around, in a particular moment of idiocy for the cigarette smoker, someone did this stunt with Paige? Sure, it’s possible, and it’s possible it was pulled off–I don’t think we have definitive proof. I find it highly unlikely this was something he did regularly, and if he had done it regularly there would have been stories of people getting beaned.

Alternatively, this was staged regularly. Kinda like the old “catch a bullet in the mouth” trick but with baseballs.

I can only see it as a trick. Not many people would risk breaking their nose and face if the guy was off by an inch in a legit stunt. Not comparable to know where fame and fortune might result from stupid but creative displays.

Here’s a burning question: was Vern Stephens (a shortstop in the 1940s-50s) really a liability in the field?

If you believe David Halberstam in Summer of ‘49’, Stephens was pretty much of a joke as a fielder, kept in the lineup because of his power hitting. However I just read an SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) profile of Stephens, and it mentions that he was highly regarded in his day as one of the best fielding shortstops, admired for his range and strong arm. Stephens also was in the top 10 for MVP votes 10 out of 12 years during his prime.

*In eviscerating mistakes he found in Summer of '49, Bill James noted, “Why on earth didn’t he hire somebody who knows something about baseball to read this book carefully before it came out?”

It’s very difficult to ascertain the defensive skills of players in the past, but here is what we know:

  1. Stephens played shortstop almost exclusively until he started getting hurt at age 30. Nobody would leave a terrible fielder at shortstop just for shits and giggles. The first thing you’d think if you thought your shortstop could hit but not field is “where can I move this guy to?” The only reason not to do that is if the guy can hit but hitting positions are full with even better hitters, and that wasn’t at all true in St. Louis and wasn’t even true at first in Boston, where Billy Goodman was the first baseman when Stephens arrived.

  2. There is nothing in the statistics to suggest he was a bad fielder. I don’t much trust analytical defensive stats in the past at all, but if he was that bad you’d think we’d see SOMETHING, but his numbers look okay. He made a lot of errors by today’s standards but his fielding percentages were fine by the standards of that era.

  3. Stephens made it to the big leagues at 20, which would be odd for a player who was incompetent at his only assigned position.

  4. Boston acquired Stephens despite already having a perfectly good shortstop, Johnny Pesky. They moved Pesky to third base to make room for Stephens. If Stephens was the inferior fielder, that makes no sense; Pesky would have remained at short, and Stephens would have moved to third. Stephens had a good arm by all accounts, so he wouldn’t have been any worse off at third.

  5. People seemed to think he was good at the time. I don’t think Stephens would have won any Gold Gloves; certainly Phil Rizzuto was a superior fielder. No one back then thought Stephens was an inept fielder, though.

It’s very easy to see what you want to see when evaluating a player’s defense.

Is a shortstop who has a lot of ground balls bounce off his glove inept, or is he a scrappy athlete who is diving and making contact with balls that a lesser fielder would have just let sail into the outfield untouched? The answer depends a lot on how popular that shortstop is with his teammates and the media, even more so in an era before you could overlay 200 videos to show how different players respond to balls hit in the same location. And that popularity is influenced by both irrelevant off-the-field personal factors and by things like how good the player is as a hitter, or whether there is any viable candidate in the pipeline to replace him.

While true, I’m not sure what that has to do with David Halberstam, who probably didn’t see much of Vern Stephens. He was 15 years old in 1949 and never lived in a city Vern Stephens played for, and of course they didn’t have baseball on TV then.

For players in the past we do, to some extent, have to rely on eyewitness accounts. The key is not to trust one or two observers, because that doesn’t mean shit. It’s to look at the totality of the evidence and to see if the actions of teams are consistent with what opinions have survived. If Stephens was a shitty fielder, that fact has COMPLETELY eluded contemporaneous accounts. He was universally regarded as a good fielder and his teams acted in a manner consistent with that. It’s still possible he was, in fact, a bad shortstop, but there isn’t any evidence for that.

I mean, we also don’t have much objective evidence for the fielding skills of Tris Speaker, Biz Mackey, or Joe Tinker, but I am confident those men were outstanding fielders because it wasn’t ONE person saying they were, it was EVERYONE. It was one of the first things you said about those guys. We don’t know if Speaker was 19% worse than Willie Mays or 58% better than Lloyd Moseby or worth 1.8 WAR/162 with his glove instead of 1.5, but we know he was really, really good; similarly, I am very confident Babe Herman was a bad fielder because he was a career .324 hitter who hit for the cycle three times and has the 69th best OPS+ of all time, but for almost a century is still most famous for the amusing manner in which he “fielded” his position.

Herman himself acknowledged he wasn’t a, um, top-notch fielder in a nice autobiographical sketch in The Glory Of Their Times.

In what is probably most indicative of the limited value of the fielding percentage stat, Herman’s career number was .961, while the league average for that period was roughly .968.

From a 1979 profile in the N.Y. Times by Red Smith:

“He is an institution like the bridge itself and legends have grown around him like ivy. Some are true (he did hit .381 one year and .393 the next without ever winning a batting championship; he did put a lighted cigar in his pocket). Some are spurious (he did not triple into a triple play; he did not get hit on the head by fly balls but only on the shoulder and he himself has said, “shoulder don’t count”). Some ought to be true (woman meeting Babe wearing white linen suit: “Oh, Mr. Herman, you look so cool.” Babe, gallantly: “You don’t look so hot yourself, ma’am.”)”

Babe Herman did double into a double play, though. He hit a double with the bases loaded, and when he tried to stretch it into a triple the Dodgers ended up with three runners on third. Dazzy Vance, who had been on second, got caught in a rundown between third and home, and retreated to third base. Chick Fewster, who had been on first, also ended up on third base. Herman, who wasn’t paying attention to what was happening ahead of him, tried to stretch the double into a triple. The third baseman tagged all three runners, and Fewster and Herman were called out (Vance was safe because, as the lead runner, he was entitled to the base). Herman was credited with a double because he had made it safely to second (he had advanced to third, but wasn’t safe there).

It takes a special team to have three runners all on the same base.

Bennett Cerf wrote about manager Wilbert “Robbie” Robinson being a kind of proto-Mets-era Casey Stengel: a player with an illustrious past managing a bunch of goofballs.

He claimed that Robinson’s sarcastic reaction to Herman, Fewster and Vance all ending up on third base was, “Don’t feel bad guys. That’s the first time you’ve gotten together all season”.

Cerf also said that Robinson once attempted a stunt where he was to catch a baseball dropped from an aircraft, but someone pranked him by substituting a ripe grapefruit. On impact, Robinson yelled, “Help! I’m bleeding to death!”

Incidentally, I just realized that since this thread started, I was given a copy of the Burns documentary, and have been repeatedly watching it. That and this thread have all sort of flowed together.

Cerf’s story quoted a manager who advised a high-strung player, “You should be more like Babe Herman—easygoing, carefree, happy”.

The player sneered, “That bum Herman isn’t happy. He just thinks he is”.

He probably wasn’t a good baserunner, either, considering he ended the 1926 World Series getting thrown out at 2nd.

Solid pitcher. Great slugger. But questionable fielder and baserunner. That’s why some will say that either Hammerin Hank or Willie Mays might be the best baseball players, and not Ruth.

“Uncle” Robbie himself seems to have been something of a goofball.*

There’s a story (told by Babe Herman, oddly enough) about Robbie hurriedly making a lineup change, because he couldn’t figure out how to spell the player’s name on the lineup card.

*not as much so as Hughie “Ee-Yah” Jennings, a HOF manager who liked to operate from the third-base coaching box.

“Jennings constantly picked blades of grass and chewed on them until the area around the coaching box was bare. His signs were just simple words like “bunt” or “steal” mixed into his chatter. With his constant motion, characteristic poses and grass plucking, the opposition never caught on. He also perfected a shrill whistle by putting his two middle fingers in his mouth, which annoyed opposing teams throughout the league.”

It’s sort of a wonder that Jennings functioned as well as he did, seeing that he suffered three serious head injuries over the years, only one of which was baseball-related (he dove into a darkened indoor swimming pool, not realizing it had been drained for the winter). He was hit by pitches 287 times over his playing career.

@asahi you’re thinking of Babe Ruth. @RickJay is referring to Babe Herman.

Regarding Ruth’s seemingly suicidal attempt to steal second which ended the 1926 World Series: Bob O’Farrell (the Cardinals catcher who threw Ruth out) related in The Glory of Their Times that he’d later asked one of the Yankees about it. He was told that as sharp as Alexander was pitching, they assumed they could never get two hits in a row off him, so they wanted someone in scoring position. The fact that Alex was on to Ruth, and threw low and outside so that O’Farrell had a clear throw to second indicates this assumption was reasonable. Ruth’s attempt wasn’t suicidal, as much as Hail Mary (no real surprise for a St. Mary’s alumnus :wink: ).

As has bene pointed out I was talking about Babe Herman.

Ruth was actually probably a pretty good outfielder. For most of his career he was more mobile than he looked, and of course he had an excellent arm. He was, however, certainly an incredibly aggressive baserunner, to a fault.

That was Yogi Berra, wasn’t it?

The Royal’s Billy Butler stole second in the 2014 ALDS - and I’m faster then Billy and am 62 years old (and wasn’t fast when I was young). It’s all in the situation.

The Burns documentary attributes it to Berra, and claims that the woman was the NYC mayor’s wife.

I just have trouble picturing Berra in a white linen suit.