Dodgers Take to the Skies

FEBRUARY 8, 1957 | LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA  There was a time when baseball teams, and other professional teams, traveled with the rest of us – first by train, then by air. A new age was ushered in on this day in baseball history. The Los Angeles Dodgers announced that the team brought a 44-passenger twin-engine airplane for $800,000, becoming the first major league baseball team to own their own plane.

Teams began flying in 1934, but not for every trip. Expansion to the west coast made air travel a necessity.

Travel has always been a major consideration for professional sports. Early on it restricted major league baseball to a relatively small section of the country. Before the late 1950’s major league baseball was entirely in the northeastern part of the country. When the National League was established in 1876 that’s where most of the population was.

These maps show the locations of major league franchises at various times. National League teams are in red. American Association (after 1901, American League) teams in blue.

1882
1955
1962
2005

It took too long to travel outside that area in the late 1800s. It took 20 hours to travel from New York to Chicago by rail. Smart scheduling kept teams from having to do that, but even New York to Buffalo was a 7-hour train ride, making travel days necessary.

Contributing Sources:

“How the automobile ruined ballpark design,” by Alex  Reisner, March 22, 2006 (also published in The Baseball Research Journal of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR)

Tony Conigliaro: Heartbreak Kid

FEBRUARY 7, 1945 | REVERE, MASSACHUSETTSTony Conigilaro was born on this date in 1945 outside Boston, Massachusetts. He would grow up to realize the dream of many Boston area kids – to play for the Red Sox.

He debuted with his hometown team at age 19. He was the youngest American League player to reach the 100-home run mark. The dream, along with his cheekbone, was shattered the night of August 18, 1967 when he was hit in the face by a fastball from Jack Hamilton of the California Angels. Teammate and friend Rico Petrocelli was in the on-deck circle when Tony C got drilled and later wrote in his book, Tales from the Impossible Dream Red Sox:

“I always believed there was a spot where Tony couldn’t see the inside pitch. If you threw it to the right spot, he’d hit that ball nine miles. But then there was this blind spot, a little more inside. Sometimes he moved too late to get out of the way, and sometimes he never moved at all.”

Conigliaro was knocked unconscious. He had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. His cheekbone was broken and his left eye severely damaged. For a time it was feared he might not survive. The cheekbone healed but he had a hole in his retina. He missed the entire 1968 season.

His vision miraculously cleared up and he played again in 1969. He hit 20 home runs and drove in 82, and was named comeback player of the year. He had the best year of his career in 1970 when he hit 36 home runs and drove in 116. He was traded that off-season to, ironically the California Angels.

Tony C’s eyesight deteriorated again in 1971. He hit just .222 with 4 home runs and 15 RBI. He was increasingly difficult to deal with. According to the Associated Press (AP) his manager, Lefty Phillips, told reporters after a loss that Conigliaro “was ready for the insane asylum.

Conigliaro sadly announced his retirement from baseball July 10, 1971, “I have lost my sight and on the edge-of-losing my mind.”

Conigliaro died of kidney failure on February 24, 1990. He was 45.

Contributing Sources:
Associated Press (AP)
, July 11, 1971, Oakland, California
Seeing it Through, by Tony Conigliaro
Tales from the Impossible Dream Red Sox, by Rico Petrocelli

Improving With Age

FEBRUARY 6, 1958 | BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS • It doesn’t seem like a whole lot today, but 39-year old Ted Williams signed a one year contract with the Boston Red Sox on this date in 1958 for a reported $125,000. It made him the highest paid player in history. Red Sox General Manager Joe Cronin said the raise was much “deserved.” Williams didn’t seem to slow down a bit in ’57. He hit .388.

According to Joe Kelley of the Associated Press (AP) Williams was in such a good mood he sat down for more than an hour and chatted with reporters he’d clashed with many times before. The left fielder said, “I feel wonderful and feel I can do anything I could do five years ago.”

He was asked about doing what many aging players had done defensively, “I don’t know about first base, it wouldn’t look good in left field,” Williams deadpanned. Seriously, he didn’t think it would be that easy to switch from outfield to first base as he approaches his 40’s.

Williams played three more seasons and probably could have played more. He played 113 games in his final season, 1960, and finished with 29 home runs, 72 runs batted in and a .316 batting average.

And, oh what might have been. Williams, like many players of that era, missed three full seasons during World War II when he was in his 20’s. He missed parts of two more seasons during the Korean War. He finished with 521 home runs. If he had played those seasons it’s quite certain he would have hit well over 600 home runs. Theodore Samuel Williams was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1966.

Contributing sources:
Joe Kelley, Associated Press (AP), Boston, Massachusetts, February 7, 1958

A King is Born

FEBRUARY 5, 1934 | MOBILE, ALABAMA – A home run king that is. Henry Aaron was born on this date in 1934 in Mobile, Alabama. He would go on to become major league baseball’s all-time home run king in 1974 when he eclipsed Babe Ruth‘s record of 714.

Aaron finished his career with 755 home runs. Barry Bonds broke Aaron’s record in 2007, tainted, however, by allegations of steroid use.

Henry Aaron, not unlike his unassuming demeanor, quietly set many major league records and is among the leaders of many more. Here are some as compiled by the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR):

Most seasons with at least 20 HRs               20(1st)
Most career RBI                                           2,297(1st)
Most career extra base hits                      1,477(1st)
Most career total bases                             6,856(1st)
Most seasons at least 100 runs scored        15(1st)
Most career home runs                                755(2nd)
Most career hits 3,771                                        (3rd)
Most career runs                                   2,174(4th tied)
Most career at-bats                                12,364(2nd)
Most seasons at least 100 RBI              11(4th tied)
Most career games                                   3,298 (3rd)

It’s also remarkable, considering he was the all-time HR king for almost 40 years, the lists Aaron is not on:
Most seasons with at least 60 HRs                         0
Most seasons with at least 50 HRs                         0

Henry Louis Aaron was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1982.

Contributing sources:
MLB batting leaderboards, Baseball-Reference
More on Hank Aaron

The Dawn of Free-agency

FEBRUARY 4, 1976 | KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI – Do you think Alex Rodriguez knows who Dave McNally and Andy Messersmith are? He and every other ballplayer of today should tip their hats to the two pitchers who haven’t played in decades. On this date in 1976 a federal judge in Kansas City upheld a decision allowing McNally and Messersmith to hawk their wares to the highest bitter. They could bargain with which ever team they chose. They were free-agents.

With rare exceptions, players hadn’t been free agents since pretty much the beginning of the modern era in the late 1800s. When owners started raking in dough they realized that if players could sell their talents to the highest bidder salaries would skyrocket. So they instituted a reserve clause in contracts; even when a contract ended, and just about all of them were for one year only, a player’s fate remained with that team. The only recourse a dissatisfied player had was to hold out, not play. The only way he played for a different team is if he got traded.

Dave McNally of the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) and Andy Messersmith of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Players’ Union President Marvin Miller directing, decided to challenge the reserve clause. They played the 1975 season, their option years, without contracts, the thinking being when the option year lapsed the reserve clause ceased to exist. The owners’ position was that the reserve clause just kept renewing itself. The parties went to arbitration and arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled in favor of the players. Major League Baseball appealed, thus today’s ruling. We’ve had free-agency ever since and salaries have… skyrocketed.

Contributing sources:
Associated Press (AP), February 5, 1976, Kansas City, Missouri
More on the reserve clause

Not So Fast, Boudreau

FEBRUARY 3, 1938 | CHAMPAIGN, ILLINOIS – Future Baseball Hall of Famer, manager and broadcaster Lou Boudreau was a two-sport star at the University of Illinois. But on this day in 1938 he got suspended from the Illinois basketball and baseball teams for the rest of the year.

The 20-year old forward and captain of the basketball team was disciplined for taking money from a professional baseball team. The Cleveland Indians was sending his mother monthly checks in exchange for the Harvey, Illinois native’s word that he would give the Indians the right of first refusal when he graduated.

Boudreau missed six basketball games that season. The team won two and lost four and finished with an uninspired 9-9 record in the Big Ten.

Boudreau ended up not returning to the University of Illinois in the fall for his Senior year because he signed a contract with Cleveland and started his professional baseball career. He played 13 seasons for the Indians, mostly at shortstop, including nine as player-manager. He started managing at the age of 24. He guided the team to a World Series Championship in 1948, and was he league’s Most Valuable Player (MVP).

Boudreau finished his playing career with the Boston Red Sox in 1952. He also managed the Red Sox, Kansas City A’s (today’s Oakland A’s) and Chicago Cubs. Boudreau began broadcasting Cubs games in 1958, and except for managing the Cubs for one season (1960) he remained in the booth until 1987.

Louis Boudreau was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1970.

Contributing sources:
Boudreau as manager
Associated Press (AP), February 4, 1938

National League is Born

FEBRUARY 2, 1876 | NEW YORK, NEW YORK – Major league baseball came about not only because the game and the players were exciting enough to get people to pay to watch, but also because it created a market for sporting goods. I know that sounds cynical but it’s true.

The National League of Baseball Clubs was formed on this date in 1876. One of the chief architects of the National League, as it soon became known, was Albert G. Spalding of Rockford, Illinois. He was thinking of the sale of baseball equipment as much balls and strikes.

As Leonard Koppett wrote in Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, Spalding thought he had a better way to run a professional baseball organization than the loosely held National Association founded in 1871. He didn’t have much faith that the east coast dominated Association would survive, and he wanted desperately for professional baseball to survive so teams and their fans would buy baseball equipment from him.

He and William Hulbert of Chicago began to put together a plan. The problem was Spalding and Hulbert were part of the National Association; Spalding played for Boston, and Hulbert was in the front office of the Chicago White Stockings.

The two needed a solid plan before the start of the next season to attract select east coast National Association teams. They got commitments from Midwest teams in Cincinnati, Louisville and St. Louis to join Chicago. That’s where the February 2, 1876 meeting came in. The gathering was held at the Central Hotel in New York with representatives from Philadelphia, New York, Boston and Hartford. They all agreed, and the National League was born. Play began that spring with those eight teams. As Koppett wrote, “It established a pattern that became the model for all commercialized spectator team sports from then on.”

Contributing Sources:
Leonard Koppett, Koppett’s Concise History of Major League Baseball, 1998
Baseball-Reference

Never know unless you try

FEBRUARY 1, 1999 | NEW YORK, NEW YORK – The New York Yankees traded a young prospect named Mike Lowell to the Florida Marlins on this date in 1999. They got three minor league pitchers in return; Mark Johnson, Eddie Yarnall and Todd Noel.

With Mike Lowell, and several other quality players, the Marlins won their second World Series in 2003 – beating the Yankees.

Lowell became a 4-time all-star with tw.o World Series rings, one as Most Valuable Player (2007 for the Boston Red Sox). Eddie Yarnall appeared in just seven games for the Yankees and was out of baseball by 2001. Mark Johnson was picked up by the Detroit Tigers after never making it out of the Yankees farm system. He appeared in handful of games for the Tigers in 2000, but he too was also out of baseball by 2001. Todd Noel never made it to the major leagues and is no where to be found.

With Mike Lowell, and several other quality players, the Marlins won their second World Series in 2003 – beating the Yankees. Lowell was traded to the Boston Red Sox after the 2005 season and helped them win the World Series in ’07. They made the playoffs in ’08 winning the American League Division Series but losing to the Tampa Bay Rays in the AL Championship Series.

If the goal of any move a team makes is to get to the post-season, the Yankees succeeded, more often than Lowell’s teams. The Yankees have been to the playoffs nine of the last ten years, appearing in four World Series, winning two of them, but they didn’t accomplish any of that with players from the Lowell trade. The odds are Yankee fans probably do not think the Lowell trade in 1999 was a good one.

Contributing Sources:
Yankees post season
Marlins post season
Red Sox post season