Thursday, February 25, 2010

#27 Willie Kamm

Willie Kamm was born in San Francisco in 1900, the son of German immigrants. He grew up playing the game in the streets, a game that his parents never truly understood, even as Kamm became a major league player. A skinny kid with a good glove, Kamm signed with Sacramento in the PCL in 1918, but was released after a mere four games. He signed on with the San Francisco club the following year, but could not get his average out of the .230's in two seasons.
In 1920, following the removal of his tonsils, Kamm put on weight, and began to hit the ball with more authority. Hitting better, and now the best third baseman defensively in the PCL, he was sold to the Chicago White Sox in May of 1922 for a then-unheard of sum of $100,000 ($1.3 million in 2010). Kamm joined the Sox in April of 1923, and over the next seven seasons was the best fielding third baseman in the league, if not the best overall. He batted a solid .281 over that stretch, including a career best .308 in 1928.
After a sub-par 1930. Kamm was traded to the Indians for the 1929 batting champ, Lew Fonseca. The trade, initially disliked by Kamm, was a boost to his career. He batted .291 in 1931, and followed that with two more seasons in the .280's.
By spring of 1935, Kamm, now 35 years of age, had slowed considerably, and by May was released by the Indians. In his 14 years, he batted a very commendable .281 with over 1600 hits. He was also retired with the best fielding percentage by a third baseman at the time (.967), a number since passed.
Kamm returned to California after his playing days, managing in the PCL for a few seasons. He enjoyed the boost in fame he received from Lawrence Ritter's book "The Glory of Their Times," published in 1966. He died in 1988 at the age of 88.
Kamm was a sure and steady player, a model of consistency. One of the players who are forgotten once their playing days ended, it is only through Ritter's book that his name is even slightly remembered today. Had there been All-Star games during his playing days, he would have been on the AL squad year-after-year. When I think of Willie Kamm and try to contemporize his fame, the first two names I come up with are Doug Decinces and Roy Smalley. Smalley and Decinces had nice long careers at shortstop and third base, respectively. Most teams in the AL would have considered their addition to be a marked upgrade to what they currently had there. But the second their careers ended..... well, you don't hear many people talking about Roy Smalley and Doug Decinces these days, do you?

Just out of interest on Kamm's defense, here are the career fielding percentage and chances per game between Kamm and Brooks Robinson. Robinson is generally regarded as the best defensive third basemen ever. Although it is hard to really gage defensive ability through statistics, Kamm had more chances per game, and his fielding percentage vs the league (.948 league avg) is the same 19-point difference as Robinson (.952). I am not saying Kamm was better; I've never even seen film of Kamm (if it exists). I am just saying it is an interesting comparison. I'll even throw Graig Nettles into the mix.

Robinson .971 (.952) 3.20
Kamm .967 (.948) 3.28
Nettles .961 (.952) 2.98

Being from Detroit, I hear a lot about how current Tiger third baseman Brandon Inge is great defensively. Yes, he makes some great plays, and most of his errors are throwing errors. But his career numbers don't come anywhere near Kamm or Robinson. Neither does 2009 AL Gold Glove winner Evan Longoria (with his '09 stats only shown)

Inge .958 (.957) 2.88
Longoria .970 (.956) 2.74

I'll let you Jamesian guys interpret that all you want. I realize that other things affect fielding stats (height of infield grass, bunts vs. smashes down the line, equipment, and so on.) I just think it shows that Kamm may have been better than advertised.

The Autograph: Kamm was a great guy to get autographs from through the mail. He loved being remembered, even if it was only from people who read "Glory" and not from people who saw him play.

In the picture below, from the 1931 Tour of Japan, Kamm can be seen in the top row, third from the right.
Top Row, L-R: Rabbit Maranville, Beans Reardon (maybe), Ralph Shinners, George Kelly, Al Simmons, Tom Oliver, Willie Kamm, Doc Knolls (the trainer), Lou Gehrig.
Bottom Row, L-R: Larry French, Lefty Grove, Muddy Ruel (nice socks), Fred Lieb (the writer), Sotaro Suzuki, Lefty O'Doul, Bruce Cunningham, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane. Herb Hunter is the dude standing over Al Simmons.
1931 Tour of Japan

Monday, February 22, 2010

#26 Bill Terry

"Memphis" Bill Terry was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1898. The product of a broken home, his parents separated when Terry was in his early teens. He was tough and independent, and landed a job in a railyard at age 15. In 1915, Terry signed with the Atlanta Crackers as a pitcher. He moved around the minor leagues over the next few years, pitching and playing first base to keep his powerful bat in the lineup. He even pitched a no-hitter for Newnan in the Ga-Ala League. In 1918, with World War 1 brewing, and his young bride expecting, Terry quit baseball and took a job with a storage battery company in Memphis, where his wife and in-laws lived. Terry took a job with Standard Oil in 1920, and played on the company semi-pro team. It was there that Terry was spotted by Kid Elberfield, who contacted John McGraw. McGraw was passing through Memphis in April of 1922 as the major league teams headed north after spring training. Terry signed with McGraw and the Giants, and was assigned to Toledo.

He joined the New York Giants in 1923, and quickly became one of the league's deadliest hitters as well as one of its smartest players. He batted .319 in 1925, his first full season as the Giants' first baseman. He batted .372 in 1929, but that was just a taste of what was coming. In 1930, he enjoyed his finest season, rapping out a NL-record 254 hits and batting .401, the last player in the senior circuit to bat that high in a season. He followed that season with a .349 and .350 season. After falling to .322, he rebounded to hit .354 in 1934 and .341 in 1935.
Aside from being the last NL player to hit .400, Terry is also known as the man who replaced John McGraw as the manager of the Giants. McGraw stepped down in 1932 (on the same day Lou Gehrig homered four times, thus stealing Gehrig's headlines) and was dead within a year. Terry lead the Giants to a pennant in 1933 and 1936, his last season as a player. He batted .341 lifetime and both scored and knocked in over 1000 runs.
Terry lead the Giants to another pennant in 1937, and remained manager for the Giants through 1941. In retirement, Terry was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1954. A very successful speculator and business man, e moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where opened up a successful car dealership. This allowed him to purchase the Jacksonville AA club, as well as many other business interests. He stayed in Jacksonville for the remainder of his life, dying in 1989 at 90 years of age.

The Autograph: Despite his big stature in his time, Terry always had time for his fans. I like the way he writes his name out: "Wm. H (Bill) Terry". Very offical and proper, with the "Wm." but adds the "Bill" so you know it isn't an autograph of Willy Terry. (PLEASE don't google "Willy Terry"... you will regret it. I know I do.)

#25 Lou Boudreau

Lou Boudreau was born in Harvey, Illinois in 1917. His mother was Jewish, his father was of French descent. A natural athlete as well as scholar, Boudreau attended the University of Illinois and chose to persue athletics as a career. He played professional basketball for a few years in the National Basketball League, but signed with the Cleveland Indians in 1937 and debuted a year later.
A fine hitter and fielder, Boudreau quickly assumed the shortstop role, and became the leader of the Indians on the field. It wasn't long before he became the leader in the dugout, too. In 1942, at the mere age of 24, Boudreau was named manager of the Tribe after Roger Peckinpaugh was promoted to General Manager.
Classified as 4-F by the US Draft Board due to arthritic ankles, Boudreau remained stateside during World War 2 and was one of the American League's premier players. He won the batting title in 1944 with a .327 average and finished 6th in the MVP voting. He did not have a drop-off after the war, and in 1948, had one of the best seasons a man has ever had in the history of the game. Aside from managing Cleveland to their second (and as I write this, last) World Series title, he batted .355 with 18 home runs and was voted the AL Most Valuable Player. By 1950, his problems with his legs took their toll, and depsite a 92-62 record he was both fired as manager and released as a player by Cleveland. He signed the Red Sox in 1951, and played sparingly. He was named manager in 1952 but only played in 4 games, the final ones of his career. He stayed on as manager of the Red Sox until 1954, and then moved to three unsuccessful years at the healm of the Kansas City Athletics. He became the Cubs radio announcer in 1958, but swapped gigs with the Cubs manager Charlie Grimm in 1960. He returned to the radio booth in 1961, where he remained a fixture until 1987.
Boudreau was elected into Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1970. His daughter Sharyn married Denny McLain, who would win two Cy Young Awards for the Detroit Tigers in the 60's. Boudreau wrote an autobiography in the mid-90's, and in August of 2001, he died of complications of an infection and diabetes.

The Autograph: Boudreau's autograph is one of the most common Hall of Fame autographs around. He was always a great signer.

Lou and his wife before a game in 1948

Lou at an old-timers game

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

#24 Bill Dickey

Bill Dickey was born in 1907 in Bastrop, Louisiana. His father John had played semipro ball, as had his older brother Gus. Bill followed suit with them into the world of baseball, with much more success. His younger brother Skeets would follow Bill to the majors, playing six years himself.
Dickey played on the hometown team as a teen, also starring on the high school team. After high school, he went to Little Rock college where he played football as well as baseball. Dickey signed with the Southern League's Little Rock team, which was unofficially affiliated with the Chicago White Sox. He was moved to the team in Jackson (Mississippi) in 1927 where he continued to produce. However, Jackson waived their rights to Dickey, and he wound up signing with the Yankees. Dickey's time in the Yankees' organization was short lived; he joined the Bronx Bombers in late 1928 at 21 years of age.
By spring of 1929, the Yankees had what they never had: a catcher. In 28 years of existence, the sporadically had catchers that were at best adequate, but for the most part expendable. Dickey started the tradition of great Yankee backstops that would include Yogi Berra, Elston Howard, Thurman Munson and Jorge Posada. He batted .324 in his rookie year of 1929, and would bat over .300 for the next 6 seasons. After a subpar 1935, he rebounded in 1936 to one of the best seasons a catcher on the junior circuit would ever have. He hit .362 with 22 home runs and knocked over 100 runs for the first of four straight seasons. He continued to be the Yankees every-day catcher until 1939. From 1929-1939, he batted .320 and slugged .510.
Dickey, now 33, accepted part-time duties in 1940, and shared catching duties through 1943. He then joined the military for World War 2. He returned to the Yankees in 1946 and played in 54 games, but also was named manager when Joe McCarthy resigned. He finished out the season as manager before.
After spending the 1947 season as a manager in the Southern League, he rejoined the Yankees as a coach, and was instrumental in developing Berra and Howard into the great players they were. He stayed on until 1958, when he left coaching and returned to Little Rock. He remained a scout for the Yankees and also worked at Stephens Inc. brokerage house as a securities representative. He finally retired for good in 1977. He was elected to Baseball's Hall of Fame in 1954, and had his number 8 retired by the Yankees, also worn by Yogi Berra. He was a regular at Yankee Old-Timers Day (You can see Bill at 0:36 and 0:47). He died in 1993 at 86.

For a while there, Dickey was the greatest catcher to ever play the game. Maybe that claim was buoyed by his uniform, but his shear dominance at that position through the 30's put him ahead of Hartnett, Lombardi, Bresnahan and even Cochrane. Since that time, we have had Berra, Bench, Fisk, Rodriguez.... and Dickey's name and feats begin to lose their relevance. Baseball sometimes has a fickle memory.

The Autograph: I was very surprised to get Dickey's autograph. Something I learned about autograph collecting as a kid: When it came to baseball players and their signing habits, Yankees were trickier than non-Yankees. I don't know if that is arrogance, or circumstance. But that is how my teen-aged mind profiled. Dickey signed my cards for me, and I was excited. I knew he had a reputation for not always accomodating requests, but he did for me each time I wrote.

Dickey and pals after a hunting trip in Mississippi

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

#23 Johnny Mize

Johnny Mize was born in 1913 in Demorest, Georgia. As a child, his natural athleticism allowed him to excel in many sports, most notably tennis, but he chose baseball to be what he would dedicate his life to. At age 17, he signed with the St Louis Cardinals and was assigned to Greensboro in the Piedmont League. In 1933, he was batting .360 with Greensboro when he was sent to Rochester in the International League. His 1934 and 1935 were shortened by injury, but the Big Cat could not be kept out of the Natinal League forever. He finally joined the Cardinals in 1936, and the first baseman had immediate impact. He won the batting title in 1939 with a .349 average, as well as topping the league in home runs as well, with 28. In 1940, he belted 43 homers and finished second in the MVP voting for a second straight season.

After the 1941 season, Mize was dealt to the New York Giants, and after a 1942 season that saw him hit .305 with 110 RBI, he joined the military and spent the next three years helping with the war effort. He returned to the Giants in 1946, and 1947, he had career highs in home runs (51) and RBI (138). He added another 40 home runs in 1948 at age 35, and in mid 1949, was sent to the Yankees. He stayed with the Yankees for 5 years, until finally retiring at age 40 in 1953.

After his career ended, with 359 home runs and a .312 lifetime average, Mize had to wait until 1981 to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. He had bypass surgery in 1982, and spent his remaining years back in Demorest. He frequently appeared at Old-Timer games, and spent a lot of his time visiting children's hosptials to sign autographs and tell stories to kids. He died in his sleep in 1993 at the age of 80.

Mize is one of those players whose candidacy for the Hall of Fame seemed so obvious. He missed three prime years due to World War 2, so he would have easily approached 450 lifetime home runs and 2500 hits. An incredible slugger, and a great contact hitter (in the year he hit 51 home runs, he only struck out 42 times). In fact, he only fanned fifty times in a season one (57 in 1937). He attributed his hitting skill to practing hitting a tennis ball with a broomstick for hours as a kid.

My dad took me to the Baseball Hall of Fame for the first time in 1981. We went for induction weekend, to watch Mize, Bob Gibson and Rube Foster get inducted. It was a thrill for me, at age ten, to see this event. I remember hearing the legenday speech by Ernie Harwell as he was inducted into Broadcaster's wing of the Hall. Foster had died 51 years earlier, but his widow (!) accepted the award for him. She reminded me a lot of Mother Jefferson. Mize's speech was a good and heart-warming one, so good that around 20 years later, I lifted part of it for a toast at my friend George's wedding. Mize said, "Years ago, writers told me I'd make the Hall of Fame, so I kinda prepared a speech. But somewhere in the 25 years it got lost." I took that quote and twisted it around a little to mock George's lengthy engagement at their wedding reception.

The Autograph: Mize was always a willing signer, although by the time I got to writing to him, he was asking for 5 dollars each to go to a children's hospital near his home.

Mize at 19, playing in Elmira, NY