Monday, February 27, 2006

News and notes

Spring training has begun in earnest, and here are the biggest stories so far . . .

A special Hall of Fame committee devoted to studying the Negro Leagues has announced the induction of no less than 17 new members. Along with Bruce Sutter, this makes the HOF Class of 2006 the biggest ever. While I'm hesitant to throw any 17 people into the Hall at one time, but I'm of the opinion that ignorance of the Negro Leagues is a problem facing baseball history at large. There are many great players and executives enshrined who truly deserve the honor, and I have to admit that I'm happy to see them selected.

The first woman ever inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame is Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles Negro League team. Manley was not just a pioneering executive in the Negro Leagues, but an activisit for racial justice and harmony. Manley was, according to Larry Lester, a white woman married to a black man who was able to pass as white. Some of the initiatives sponsored by Manley were an Anti-Lynching Day at the ballpark to support the passage of anti-lynching legislation in an era when it was sorely needed.
Alex Pompez was a Cuban-born promoter and executive involved in the development of Latin American baseball. Places such as Cuba and other Caribbean countries were fertile bases for baseball talent, and Pompez was instrumental in bringing them first to the Negro Leagues, and then to the majors as a scout with the New York Giants, scouting 4 Hall-of-Famers and other major stars.
Cum Posey was the mind behind the ever-powerful Homestead Grays. Posey was an aggressive and sometimes ruthless operator, but he was a vigorous hand behind the Negro Leagues, not just with his team (and its biggest slugger, Josh Gibson) but behind the scenes as well.
J.L. Wilkinson was a white man who owned the Kansas City Monarchs. The thought of a white man running a Negro League team may not sound quite right, but Wilkinson was famous not just for forming one of the greatest baseball teams of all time in the Monarchs, but was well-regarded for his fairness and even-handed dealings with his players. He was also an innovator, spending his money on a portable lighting system to give Negro League fans night games.
Sol White operated in the days before the organized Negro Leagues, but was a multi-talented man who made his presence felt in many ways. After a successful playing career, White authored Sol White's History of Colored Baseball in 1907, a wealth of information and a landmark book. White was also a manager and later in his career became a writer with black newspapers in several cities.

Mule Suttles is a name I'd often heard mentioned as the best Negro League ballplayer not yet in the Hall. This first baseman/outfielder was a slugger nearly as potent as Josh Gibson, although he didn't hit for as high an average as Big Josh.
Cristobal Torriente was a versatile outfielder famous for his sharply-hit line drives to all fields. He had a strong, accurate arm and often stepped in as a pitcher. According to Robert Peterson in Only the Ball was White, Torriente was scouted by a major league team, who felt his skin was light enough to pass in the majors, as several light-skinned Cubans had already done. But Torriente apparently had "kinky" hair, which apparently kept him out of the majors.
Louis Santop was a pre-organized Negro Leagues star, a slugger who was one of the most famous black ballplayers of his day. Santop was a well-travelled catcher, earning a reported $500 a month at his peak, a fortune for a black man in the early 20th century.
Biz Mackey is regarded as the best defensive catcher in Negro League history. Information about his hitting is dicey, although his Hall-of-Fame webpage gives him credit for some good batting averages. Mackey was the primary tutor for Roy Campanella when the youngster came up with the Baltimore Elite Giants.
Frank Grant was considered the best black player of the 19th century. Primarily a second baseman, statistics are relatively sketchy (as they tend to be for all 19th-century baseball), but they seem to bear out the reputation.
Pete Hill's reputation is based mainly on favorable testimony from his contemporaries. His more enduring contribution may have been as Rube Foster's field lieutenant on many of the great early black teams, such as the Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants.
Jose Mendez was a truly dominant pitcher at the turn of the century, as is evidenced by his performance against white superstars such as Eddie Plank and Christy Mathewson. Peterson claims that John McGraw out a $50,000 value on Mendez if he were white.
Other players inducted are Ray Brown, Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Jud Wilson, and Ben Taylor.

The election of these players is another step towards rectifying the injustices of the color line in baseball. Baseball, more than any other sport, thrives on its history. That history is what drives the game, be it through film and TV, books and statistics, or simply nostalgic memories. Many of the players listed above were deprived of that history based on the color of their skin. It's naive to think that we can right past wrongs with these inductions; but it can only make the Hall of Fame a better place to have these people inside.

Other quick observations:

  • Barry Bonds has made some statements suggesting that this may be his final season in the majors. He has refused to give a definite answer on that yet. We may have to watch his reality TV show on ESPN to find out. And no, I'm not kidding, ESPN is planning a show centered around Bonds' quest to break Hank Aaron's home run record. Since most of the baseball world a) doesn't like Bonds and b) doesn't want him to break the record, I can't see a lot of positive energy following him around this year.
  • Frank Thomas, since his departure from the Chicago White Sox, has made a number of comments knocking his former team for the way they handled his departure. Not only that, but he made negative comments about the contracts given to his replacement, Paul Konerko, and the trade made for Jim Thome. I wasn't aware that the Thomas affair was such a big deal until I read about White Sox GM Kenny Williams' explosive tirade against Thomas. Williams, usually a level-headed and diplomatic fellow, lashed out in the most direct and profane way I've ever seen from a GM. He called Thomas an "idiot," claimed that he was "selfish" and said that the White Sox "don't miss him. We don't miss his attitude, we don't miss the whining, we don't miss it. Good riddance."
    It's a wee bit unusual to see a GM talk this way, but all that I know about Kenny Williams is that he' s a genuine fellow not given to violent outbursts. Thomas' statements aren't really excusable, and if an otherwise docile person like Williams was driven to such outrage, it makes Thomas look like a real pain in the ass. Not a good impression to make there Frank, and I hope you handle things in Oakland much better.
  • More stars continue to depart the World Baseball Classic. It's getting thinner and thinner, at least in terms of the secondary players and supporting cast (Melvin Mora, Aramis Ramirez), although there are still enough superstars to go around. It simply isn't any kind of good news, with the Winter Olympics -- the f'n Winter Olympics -- getting far more coverage than the WBC. Baseball needs to hope that the other countries are a lot more excited about this than America is. Wait till March Madness begins -- the WBC will fall completely off of the American sports radar.
  • Roger Clemens is in camp with the Astros, although he can't sign with them until May 1. It looks more and more likely that Clemens will return to Houston after May 1.
  • Injuries are plaguing the Yankees in camp. They're a good team, but boy are they old and fragile.
  • Early returns on new Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell are positive, according to Jerry Crasnick.

Not a whole lot else going on in the world of baseball. Spring training is in full swing, and George Steinbrenner still wants the WBC to go away. Back with more later.

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