Archive for July 2013

Sell, Sell, Sell

July 30, 2013

To any rational person, it’s time for the Giants to realize that 2013 isn’t going to be their year.  After three or four seasons of playing for the pennant (with extraordinary success) and making the necessary trade-deadline trades, the Giants’ farm system, at least as far as the high minors are concerned, has gotten pretty thin.  The Giants need to trade off a few veterans for some prospects.

The main thing standing in the way of the Giants taking the most rational course of action is that the team won the World Series last year and will reasonably sell out AT&T Park as long as they pretend they still have a chance to win this year.  Since baseball is ultimately a business, that’s a pretty darn good reason not to admit defeat and  start building for the future now.

Still, it now seems clear the Giants aren’t going to the post-season this year.  They just aren’t a good team.  More important than the fact that they are in fifth place in the NL West and ten games out of first place, they have allowed 62 runs more than they’ve scored.  The only teams in the Senior Circuit worse are the worst-in-the-league-by-far Marlins and the definitely-over-the-hill Phillies.

When the Giants’ bullpen was the best in baseball last year, they could win enough close games to over-perform relative to their runs-scored-runs-allowed ratio.  No one who has watched the team this year would argue the bullpen is anywhere near good enough to win more than half of the close ones.  Losing all three low-scoring, one-run games in a three-game series at home against the what-remains-of-the-sold-off-not-good-to-begin-with Cubs pretty much settles the issue.

The main three bargaining chips the Giants have are Hunter Pence, Tim Lincecum and Javier Lopez.  Word on the street has it that the Giants plan to give Pence and Lincecum $14 million qualifying offers this post-season and hope to re-sign Pence to a multi-year deal. rumors that the 36 year old Lopez hopes to sign for a team closer to his Virginia home.

While Pence is the kind of player who doesn’t inspire my confidence (he doesn’t walk much, he strikes out a lot, and he just looks terrible against any right-handed pitcher with a sharp, tight slider who knows how set up the strikeout pitch), his duly-weighted statistics suggest he’s probably worth a three-year $50 million offer this off-season.

In other words, even if the Giants don’t sign him, they will get a post-first round draft pick for him just by making him a qualifying offer.  That’s worth something, even if the Giants haven’t proven recently they can produce productive major leaguers with players picked between 31 and 100 in their draft class.  [Let me know if I’ve forgotten someone.]  Any team offering for two months of Pence has to pony up more value than that draft pick.

Lincecum will probably accept a one-year $14 million qualifying offer for the obvious reason that despite his recent no-hitter and his fine outing yesterday in a losing effort, he’s still got a 4.61 ERA 104 games into the Giants’ 2013 season, following his 5.18 ERA last year.  I’ll be very surprised if Timmy doesn’t accept a $14 million one-year offer if the Giants make it, with the hope that he’ll regain his lost touch and set himself up for a career payday during the 2014-15 off-season.

Javier Lopez, though, is worth something.  Since the Giants acquired him around the trade deadline in 2010, Lopez has likely been the most effective and consistent left-handed short man in MLB, with a 2.23 ERA (and 2.85 run average) in 133.1 innings pitched and 212 appearances over that three-plus seasons (great ratios too).  A team acquiring him now could get roughly 25 appearances from him in the regular season in which he’s reasonably likely to continue flummoxing most of the best left-handed hitters in baseball, plus the post-season hopefully.

That’s worth something, although it’s not exactly easy to quantify.  I would hope for one really good, near major-league ready prospect, although that may be wishful thinking.

At any rate, Javier Lopez seems to be the most likely player the Giants might trade before the deadline.

P.S. The San Francisco Examiner’s Glenn Dickey recently wrote that the Giants’ would be “best served” trading Pablo Sandoval.  Dickey has always been an over-the-top sportswriter, which may explain why he’s now writing for a free newspaper late in his career — the problem with trading Sandoval now is obvious: never ever trade a player with this kind of talent when his trade value is way down.

The time to trade Pablo was last off-season when he was coming off a world championship and a three-home-run World Series game matched by only Babe Ruth, Reggie Jackson and Albert Pujols.  This year, he’s a fat soon-to-be-27-year-old with a .728 OPS.

As another sportswriter recently said (sorry, can’t remember whom), Pablo is coming up on his free agent year after the 2014 season, which likely means his agent will be up on the treadmill with him this off-season trying to get him into the best shape of his life going into his contract year.  Hey, even 5% of $100 million is a lot of money.

Pablo gets $8.25 million next year, which is extremely reasonable for the potential.  If Pablo gets himself in shape this coming off-season and has a great 2014 campaign, he gets paid.  If not, the Giants can let him go or make a one-year $14.8 million (?) qualifying offer so they get something no matter what.  In short, I can’t see the Giants trading him now for relatively small potatoes.

Dontrelle Willis Sighting

July 27, 2013

Those of you who have read my blog for some time know that I’m a big fan of Dontrelle Willis.  As you probably also know, he’s pitching in the independent-A Atlantic League this year, the go-to league for American players who have washed out of organized baseball (that is, the organizations controlled by MLB) but still think they have some good baseball left in them.

I’m pleased to report that well into the second half of the season, the D-Train is leading the Atlantic League with a 2.57 ERA.

Unfortunately, I don’t think this means we’ll see Dontrelle back in the Show anytime soon, because his other numbers aren’t nearly so good.  In 87.2 innings pitched, he’s allowed 78 hits and 43 walks while striking out only 52.  The last two numbers aren’t impressive, especially at this relatively low level of competition.

A couple of times a season, I scan the leaders page on the Atlantic League’s website and look for hitters who are in the top five or seven in both batting and home runs and for pitchers leading in ERA and strikeouts, because in my mind these are the most likely candidates to be brought back into organized baseball, at least if the player is still under age 30.  I strongly suspect that major league teams do pretty much the same thing, although they may also look at ratios and send a scout to check out the player for a couple of games before signing him. For example, the Angels recently signed Cyle Hankerd, a 28 year old outfielder, who is currently first in the Atlantic League with 22 HRs and sixth in hitting at .322.

Right now, Dwayne Pollok is 4th in the Atlantic League with a 3.33 ERA and third with 87 Ks.  Unfortunately, he’s also 32 years old and wasn’t signed last year when he pitched even better in the Atlantic League. 29 year old Chris Cody might be a better bet to get signed back into organized baseball — he leads the Atlantic League with 98 Ks and his 3.63 ERA is 9th best in the league.

At any rate, Dontrelle is going to have to more fully dominate Atlantic League hitters before he’s going to be signed and sent back to AAA.

On another note, when Dontrelle’s team, the Long Island Ducks, had a couple of players hurt early in the season, they used Dontrelle as a designated hitter in a game.  Dontrelle went 1-for-2 with two sacrifice flies and three RBIs.  He hasn’t had a plate appearance since.

Dontrelle is one of the best hitting pitchers of the last decade (I ranked him second in all of baseball behind only Micah Owings, now a AAA outfielder, going into the 2013 season) with a career major league batting average of .244 and OPS of .665 in 447 career plate appearances.  Yet, the Ducks haven’t given him any more opportunities to hit.

The decision not to bat may well be Dontrelle’s, who could reasonably see his only return to the majors coming as a pitcher and any time spent hitting as a distraction.  I know this much: if I were the Duck’s general manager, I’d be writing Dontrelle’s name into the line-up at DH or 1B as a often as I could.  Aside from the fact that Dontrelle is probably a better pure hitter than 80% of the position players in the Atlantic League, it would be great at the box office.

Dontrelle is a former major league star, and there aren’t really that many players with his marquee value in the Atlantic League.  Most Atlantic League players are (1) AA and AAA players who washed out with a few marginal major leaguers thrown in and (2) “rookies” to professional baseball who make a lot less a month than the $3,000 that former major leaguers like Dontrelle get.  To say the least, there sure aren’t many players who once won 20 in a season in the majors.

Also, a pitcher going back to the minors who does some hitting and plays the field on occasion is great copy.  I don’t see how pinch-hitting and playing DH (or for that matter 1B) on occasion could possibly interfere with Dontrelle’s pitching.

It’s worth noting that the Ducks have a middle infielder named Dan Lyons, who is currently hitting .216 with no power and few walks, yet he’s fourth on the team in at-bats with 245 at-bats this year.  You can’t tell me that the Ducks haven’t had plenty of pinch-hitting opportunities for which Dontrelle would have been suited.

Baseball at this level is all about finding ways to entertain the fans since the level of baseball on the field isn’t nearly as good as what they could see watching the major league teams on TV.  I’d certainly pay $10 or $15 bucks a head to see Dontrelle Willis playing 1B for an Independent-A team.  I bet a lot of other baseball fans would too.

Tick Tick Tick

July 25, 2013

The rumors concerning Alex Rodriguez are flying fast and furious now that Ryan Braun has accepted a 65 game suspension.  Unnamed sources say that MLB will seek a 150 game suspension if no deal with ARod is worked out, others say MLB might even seek a permanent ban.  As I’ve written before, I still don’t think it’s reasonably likely that MLB can make a suspension of more than 50 games stick with a neutral arbitrator.  That Ryan Braun may have agreed to a 65-game suspension shouldn’t be relevant from a legal perspective.

What I think is really going on here is that MLB is letting leak information that they will seek some enormous suspension in order to get leverage in the negotiations that are almost certainly going on with Rodriguez’s representatives right now.  MLB has nothing to lose by asking for an extremely long or permanent suspension — whether they ask an arbitrator to uphold a 65 game suspension or a life-time ban isn’t going to change the legal issues and arguments before the arbitrator much.

On the other hand, arbitrators (or, for that matter, judges) don’t always make rational or fair decisions, and labor arbitration decisions are difficult to overturn.  That MLB might ask for a 150-game or permanent suspension has to give ARod and his legal representatives pause, if only because an arbitrator might “split the baby” and uphold a longer suspension than if MLB asked for a 100-game suspension.

At the same time, ARod appears to be firing his own shots back across MLB’s brow.  Unnamed sources say Rodriguez has no intention to settle MLB’s claims against him and intends to appeal any suspension that MLB tries to impose.  He has apparently hired the attorney, David Cornwell, who helped Ryan Braun beat MLB in arbitration over Braun’s late 2011 positive drug test.  Cornwell is described as a “bulldog” who prefers litigation to settlement.

Needless to say, the fact that Braun roled over so quickly and accepted a 65 game suspension doesn’t look good for ARod on the evidence front, because everyone is pretty well sure that if MLB had that much evidence against Braun, MLB has got even more evidence against ARod.  In light of this strong assumption, more unnamed sources have been cited for the proposition that ARod only hires and retains people that tell him what he wants to hear, i.e., that he’s out of touch with the reality of the situation.

Again, all of this may simply be posturing to let MLB know that it will be difficult and expensive to impose a suspension if a deal on terms acceptable to ARod isn’t reached.  Rodriguez certainly has the funds at his disposal litigate, litigate and litigate some more if no deal is cut.  In any event, no suspension is going to become effective at least until an arbitration decision issues and any appeals of the arbitration decision to the courts have run their course.

In the meantime, there is yet more drama regarding whether the Yankees are preventing Rodriguez from returning to the major league roster.  The story, as I currently understand it, is that the Yankees promoted Rodriguez to AAA Scranton/Wilkes-Barre to continue his rehabilitation assignment on July 18.  Rodriguez played three AAA games and then complained of tightness in his quadriceps muscle, which has prevented him from playing any further games for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.

Rodriguez went to see the Yankees’ doctor at New York Presbyterian hospital, an MRI was taken and the doctor said the Rodriguez had a grade-1 quad strain, an injury which, according to the Yankees, typically takes ten days to two weeks to heal.  Now, a few days later, Rodriguez says he’s ready to play and has apparently had another doctor review the MRI and say that it does not show a quad strain.

More unnamed sources say that Rodriguez and his representatives think the Yankees are trying to keep him off the major league roster, and Brian Cashman has now accused ARod of violating the collective bargaining agreement by consulting with a second doctor without first advising the Yankees he intended to do so.  It all sounds a little crazy.

One thing now seems certain, though: when and if MLB suspends ARod and makes it stick, or if MLB and ARod reach agreement on a suspension of, let’s say, 75 or 80 games, the Yankees are going to try to find a way to cancel the rest of ARod’s contract.  While it seems highly unlikely that a court will rule in favor of such an attempt by the Yankees, the team doesn’t appear to have a lot to lose, except attorneys’ fees, by giving it a try.

Also, while the Yankees’ best possible scenario would be having ARod decide he can’t physically play any more so that the Yankees’ insurance policy on ARod’s contract would kick in, ARod’s made it pretty clear that he plans to play in the majors again.

Ryan Braun Suspended for 65 Games

July 22, 2013

Milwaukee Brewers’ slugger Ryan Braun was suspended today by MLB for the remainder of the 2013 season, which is effectively a 65 game suspension, since that is how many games the Brewers have left to play.  This suspension is all but certainly a negotiated settlement between MLB, Braun and the Players’ Union, given that Braun will not be contesting the suspension and that none of the many other players named in the Biogenesis American investigation, most notably Alex Rodriguez, has yet had a suspension announced.

To the extent that this suspension can constitute a win for anyone, it is a win for everyone.  MLB gets a suspension longer than the 50 games set forth in the collective bargaining agreement for a first-time steroid suspension, which allows MLB to claim that it is serious about getting performance enhancing drugs (“PEDs”) out of baseball.  Braun had been facing a possible 100 game suspension, which whether or not so long a suspension would have been upheld in post-season arbitration, would have been hanging over his head as he tried to play out the remainder of the 2013 season until an arbitration decision eventually issued.

Finally, the Players’ Union gets a negotiated settlement which, I suspect, will look a lot like the penalty for a first-time steroids suspension when the parties next re-negotiate the issue of PED suspensions.  Such a renegotiation is likely to happen fairly soon, since the number of players who have tested positive for PEDs has been pretty high since the 50-game first offense penalty went into effect.

My guess is that MLB will request an 80 to 100 game suspension for a first offense, and at least 150 games for a second offense up to a permanent ban.  My guess is that the Players’ Union, which on the one hand has a membership the majority of whom probably want to get PEDs out of the game (if players are getting away with PED use, it puts pressure on all the clean players to use PEDs too, because PEDs improve performance; many players don’t want to be put in that position because PED use has proven long-term detrimental health effects) but on the other hand is opposed to letting MLB crack down too hard on players who do the wrong thing one time at some point in their careers, will agree to 60 to 75 games for a first offense and 125 to 150 games for a second offense.

The downside for everyone is, of course, the fact that one of the biggest stars in baseball, a former MVP, has been shown to be a cheat and a lying sack of s@#$.  While that may sound harsh, Braun deserves no sympathy at all.  It’s bad enough he tested positive for PEDs last year but got off on a technicality because MLB had not followed its own testing procedure.

Even worse, Braun and his representatives strongly suggested that the test-taker, some average joe who makes a tiny fraction of what Braun makes, had somehow tampered with the samples in order to frame Braun.  Let’s hope a lawsuit soon follows by the test-taker against Braun and his representatives for slandering his good name.

Braun made a big confession/apology today, but it’s too-little-too-late, in my opinion.  I’m certainly not the only one who feels this way — on ESPN today, Curt Schilling said that Braun’s two years of denials and blaming others descends into Lance Armstrong territory.

Braun’s only hope now is that he’s thick-enough-skinned to put up with all the well-deserved abuse he’s going to get from fans throughout baseball next year and goes back to hitting among the National League’s best.  If he hits like a fool for two or three seasons, people may forget what a louse he is.

As for Alex Rodriguez, I don’t think the Braun suspension exactly creates a precedent for him, mainly because Rodriguez is currently hurt again, this time with a grade-1 quadriceps strain.  It seems clear that a 65-game suspension is out there if ARod is willing to accept it, but that no final agreement will be concluded or suspension begun until ARod is healthy enough to have played three or four games for the Yankees.  This necessarily means ARod will be suspended for at least some portion of 2014.

As for the other players involved with Biogenesis America, if MLB has the quality of evidence it had against Ryan Braun and appears to have against ARod, 65 game suspensions seem in order for those agreeing not to challenge their suspensions.

P.S. Braun will be none too popular with fellow players once he comes back.  Aside from the Diamondbacks, who the Brewers knocked out of the play-offs in 2011 in no small part due to Braun’s enhanced hitting, and Matt Kemp, who lost an MVP award that same year, no player is ever going to get the benefit of the doubt again when he dies allegations that he used steroids, given the stridency of Braun’s past untruthful denials.

The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part III

July 19, 2013

This is the last part of my series on the Pacific Coast League’s first black stars in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s.  You can find the first two parts of this series and a related article on John Ritchey here, here and here.

Once the Oakland Oaks had found success with Artie Wilson in 1949, the Oaks were as quick to add more black players as the San Diego Padres had been only months earlier.  Later in the 1949 season, the Oaks brought in the already 37 year old Parnell Woods.  While Woods only played 40 games for the Oaks, he hit a respectable .275 with a .751 OPS, solid numbers indeed for a 3Bman in his late 30’s.

In 1950, the Oaks brought in 31 year old Afro-Cuban catcher Ray Noble (his real first name was Rafael).  He hit .316 with power for the Oaks and was purchased by the New York Giants in the trade that also sent Artie Wilson (briefly) to the majors.

Noble hit .234 with a .648 OPS for the National League champion Giants and even got two at-bats in the 1951 World Series (he didn’t get a hit).  While his numbers were acceptable for a back-up catcher, the Giants wanted stars in the roster spots they willing to give to black players, and the team didn’t see a future for a player Noble’s age.  He went back to the Oaks in 1952 and had another good season.  However, he was apparently on a one-year assignment from the Giants (the Oaks were still an independent club), because Noble played for the Giants’ top farm club, the Minneapolis Millers, in 1953.

Half way through the 1951 season, the Oaks brought in Piper Davis, yet another over-30 former Negro League star.  Although Davis was already 33 years old when he joined the Oaks and wasn’t quite a hitter of the caliber of Artie Wilson or Ray Noble, Davis was an extremely useful jack-of-all-trades player who could fill in at just about every position on the diamond.  As such, he was able to play successfully for the Oaks for all or part of five seasons.  He effectively finished his professional career with the Los Angeles Angels in the years immediately preceding the Dodgers’ move to the West Coast.

In 1949, the Los Angeles Angels signed former Kansas City Monarchs and Mexican League ace, Booker McDaniels, who was already 35 years old.  McDaniels went 8-9 with a 4.21 ERA for the ’49 team.  The Angels brought him back in 1950, but he went 3-4 with an ugly 6.49 ERA mostly in relief and that ended his organized baseball career.

In mid-1950, the Los Angeles Angels, a team owned by Phil Wrigley, the owner of the Chicago Cubs, were assigned Gene Baker, a 25 year old 2Bman who had gotten off to a good start that year at the Cubs’ Western League affiliate in Des Moines.  Baker was a rangy 2Bman who hit well for the position, but he made a lot of errors, and the Cubs’ management wasn’t quite ready to bring a black player to Chicago unless he was a can’t-miss player.

As a result, Baker spent parts of four seasons in L.A. until the Cubs called him up to room with fellow rookie Ernie Banks in September 1953.  Baker was the Cubs starting 2Bman for the next three seasons playing along side Banks at SS.  Banks, of course, played 19 seasons for the Cubs and became “Mr. Cub.”

Two more Coast League teams, the Sacramento Solons and the San Francisco Seals, introduced black players at the start of or early in the 1951 season.  The Solons brought in Bob Boyd, another veteran Negro Leaguer, who was known as “the Rope” (or “El Roppo” in Latin America where he played winter ball) because of his exceptional ability to hit “frozen rope” line drives.

Boyd was quite possibly a pure hitter of the caliber of Rod Carew, Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Ichiro Suzuki, or at the very least of the caliber of his contemporary Ferris Fain, a two-time major league batting champion.  Although Boyd was already past age 30 when he began his career in organized (white) baseball, he hit .321 in nearly 3,500 minor league at-bats, almost all of it in the high minors, and .293 in more than 1,900 major league at-bats, mostly after the age of 35.  He’d have spent more time in the majors during the 1950’s except for the facts that he was a old 1B/LF with no power — line drive singles and the occasional gapper were Bob Boyd’s game.

Signing initially with the Chicago White Sox and assigned to Sacramento, Boyd hit .342 in 1951 and led the Coast League with 41 stolen bases.  After a very short trial with the White Sox late in the year in which he went 3-for-18 in 12 games, the White Sox, who were no longer affiliated with the Solons, assigned Boyd to the Seattle Rainiers, where he joined Artie Wilson as the team’s first black players at the start of the 1952 season.  Boyd hit .320 that year and stole 33 bases, second only to the Hollywood Stars’ Carlos Bernier, who is discussed below.

Also in 1951, the San Francisco Seals obtained Bob Thurman, a big, strong left-handed hitting LF/1B probably bigger than his listed 6’1″ and 205 lbs, who had originally been signed by the New York Yankees in July 1949.  Thurman was 32 years old then, but he told the Yankees he was only 26, much as Luke Easter had done with the Indians around the same time.

Despite a promising half-season at Newark in 1949, the Yankees moved Thurman to the Cubs.  Thurman didn’t have as good a season at the International League’s Springfield (Mass.) team in 1950, and the Cubs assigned him to the Seals in the PCL in 1951.

Thurman batted .274 and .280 in his two seasons in San Francisco, but he didn’t hit with nearly as much power as everyone had been hoping for.  He then dropped out of organized baseball entirely, instead spending two years playing in a new summer league in the Dominican Republic.  Thurman then returned to the U.S. and spent four successful seasons as a platoon player and pinch-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds from 1955 through 1958.

The Seattle Rainiers and the Hollywood Stars in 1952 became the last two PCL teams to integrate.  The Stars’ first “black” player was Puerto Rican center fielder Carlos Bernier, whose complexion was only slightly lighter than the more famous Puerto Rican ballplayer Roberto Clemente.

Bernier began his organized baseball career in 1948 at age 21, originally as a St. Louis Browns’ farm-hand.  The Pittsburgh Pirates obtained him the next year, and Bernier gradually worked his way up through the Bucs’ system.

In 1952, he was assigned to the Stars, which had become a Pirates’ affiliate that year.  Bernier immediately became a star, batting .301 with a league-leading 65 stolen bases and scoring 105 runs in 171 games played.

The Pirates promoted Bernier to the parent club in 1953 and made him their regular center fielder.  Bernier responded with a horrible year in which he batted only .213.  While he stole 15 bases that year, good for sixth in the Senior Circuit, but he was caught stealing 14 times which tied with fellow rookie Junior Gilliam for the league lead.

Bernier’s .332 on-base percentage was actually fairly good for a center fielder, but OBP wasn’t a statistic anyone was paying attention to in 1953.  The ’53 Bucs went 50-104 with the 26 year old Bernier in center, and that was the only season he played even one game in the majors.

Bernier was sent back to Hollywood in 1954, and he became a great minor league star, ultimately playing all or most of eleven PCL seasons, the first five with the Stars, and after the Dodgers moved to L.A., playing for Salt Lake City and Honolulu.

While Bernier continued to be a fine top-of-the-batting-order player in the Coast League, an on-field incident in 1954 contributed to his failure ever to be recalled to the majors. In August of that year, he punched an umpire in the face after arguing a strike call and was suspended for much, if not all, of the rest of the 1954 season.  Major league teams of the 1950’s had little interest in an aging black player with a reputation as a trouble-maker.

At the time, Bernier was reportedly happy to remain playing in Hollywood.  As a true star on the Stars, then one of the Coast League’s top-drawing teams, he made as much money playing there as he had in Pittsburgh.  (Groucho Marx, one of the Stars’ many celebrity fans, famously joked that going from the first-place 1952 Stars to the last-place 1953 Pirates constituted an undeserved demotion.)  Further, the summer weather was better in California than in the Midwest, and Bernier perceived less racism playing on the West Coast than he had playing in the major leagues.

However, the long-term consequences were less sanguine.  Because Bernier played only one season in the majors, he wasn’t entitled to a major league pension after he retired.  Players who last played in the major leagues before the 1980 season needed four full years of major league service to get a pension, at least until a couple of years ago when MLB and the players’ union renegotiated pension benefits for pre-1980 retirees; even then, the changes applied mostly to those players who played in the majors after the union was formed in 1966.

By then, however, it was too late for Bernier.  Back home in Puerto Rico, he committed suicide in 1989 at age 62, in part (but only in part) due to financial problems he was having.

A few final notes — Hall of Fame 3Bman Ray Dandridge played briefly in the Coast League in 1953 at age 39 — a total of 87 games split between the Oakland Oaks and the Sacramento Solons.  He batted .268 but didn’t hit for power or draw many walks.  He retired from organized baseball after that season.

Also, almost all of the early black players in the PCL seem to have been position players.  The next black pitcher to have pitched in the Pacific Coast League after Booker McDaniels pitched for the L.A. Angels in 1949 and 1950 (at least that I have found so far) was Brooks Lawrence, who went 5-1 with a 2.37 ERA for the Oakland Oaks late in 1955, the last season of the Oaks’ existence.  Lawrence then returned to the major leagues with the Cincinnati Reds, where he won 19 games against ten losses in 1956.

Finally, the fact that the PCL integrated so much more quickly than the major leagues or the eastern minor leagues meant that West Coast baseball fans got to see a caliber of baseball that was nearly major league level and certainly better than what any other fans who didn’t live close to a major league team got to see.  At the same time, however, the PCL quickly signing up many of the top Negro League players who were too old to interest major league teams drained the Negro Leagues of many of its marquee players.

The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part II

July 18, 2013

The last of the new black ballplayers to play for the 1949 San Diego Padres was Cuban star Minnie Minoso.  Minoso was still a relatively young 23 years old when he started the 1949 season with the Cleveland Indians.  He got off to a slow start, going 3-for-16 in only nine games before being assigned to San Diego in May.  Minoso hit .297 with 22 HRs in 137 Pacific Coast League games that year and hit even better in 1950, batting .339 with 70 extra base hits in 169 Coast League games.

The Indians could no longer keep Minnie in the minors, and he began the 1951 season in Cleveland.  However, after only eight games, the Tribe sent Minoso to the Chicago White Sox in a complicated three-team trade in which the Indians got precious little in return, at least compared to what the ChiSox and the Philadelphia A’s received.  Minoso almost immediately established himself as a big league star with the Pale Hose and went on to a long and successful major league career.

In 1950, the Padres added two more fine young black players Al Smith and Harry Simpson. Simpson had a huge year in San Diego, batting .323 with 33 home runs and 93 extra-base hits, earning him a promotion to Cleveland in 1951.  Smith played two full seasons with the Friars before eventually becoming a major league star with the Indians and White Sox starting in 1953.

The Portland Beavers were the next PCL team to sign black players, adding veteran but still reasonably young stars Art “Superman” Pennington, Puerto Rican Luis Marquez and Panamanian shortstop Frankie Austin in 1949.   Pennington, a slugging outfielder who had starred the three previous seasons in the Mexican (summer) League after starting his career in the Negro Leagues, got off to a horrible start in Portland, batting only .208 with no power in 20 games and was shipped out to Salem, Oregon in the Class B Western International League.

Pennington later said that he faced a lot racism in Oregon that year, leading him to quit halfway through the season and return to the Negro Leagues.  On the other hand, Marquez, also an outfielder, had a successful season at Portland, batting .294.  He returned to Portland in 1950 and had a terrific year, batting .311, compiling 241 hits, 136 runs scored and 69 extra base hits (mostly doubles and triples) and leading the Coast League with 38 stolen bases.

After the 1950 season, the Boston Braves drafted Marquez from the Beavers.  He didn’t prove to be the next Sam Jethroe, however, batting only .197 in 68 games for the 1951 Braves and was sent back to the minor leagues, this time to the Midwest.

Frankie Austin, meanwhile, was the Beavers’ starting shortstop for seven consecutive seasons starting at the age of 32.  He finished his PCL career in Vancouver in 1956 at the age of 39.  Baseball Reference has a brief biography here.

On the subject of racism, the first generation of black ballplayer in the PCL certainly faced prejudice in the early years of integration.  According to one anecdote, veteran Portland Beavers’ pitcher Ad Liska threw at slugger Luke Easter multiple times in one at bat with two pitches sailing behind Easter before Easter in his next at-bat hit a line drive home run to center field that nearly took Liska’s head off as it flew through the infield.  While this story appears to be greatly exaggerated (SABR’s biography on Easter claims that Liska threw at Easter eight times in a single at-bat, which is basically impossible given that four balls make a walk), it is almost certain that Easter was thrown at a great deal in 1949, given the way he was wearing out Coast League pitching and given the long-held myth/prejudice that black players didn’t have the heart to dig in and take their best cuts after being thrown at.

Artie Wilson‘s story in Oakland is more positive.  The story goes that young Oaks’ 2Bman and local boy Billy Martin offered to room with Wilson on the road shortly after Wilson joined the team.  Further, Martin allegedly let it be known that opposing players who abused or tried to injure Wilson would have to face Martin’s famous fists.  Still, according to Wilson’s own words, Coast League fans called him “every name in the book” when he first came into the league.

It’s also worth noting that Wilson’s experience with the City of Portland was different than Art Pennington’s.  Artie Wilson and his family moved to Portland, Oregon in 1955, and he spent more than 30 years working for a Portland Lincoln/Mercury dealership after his baseball career ended.

In the last part of this series, I’ll mention a few more players who helped integrate the Pacific Coast League.  You can find Part I of this series here.

The Pacific Coast League’s First Black Stars, Part I

July 18, 2013

After local boy John Ritchey joined the San Diego Padres in 1948, played well and didn’t cause any major riots or scandals, the Pacific Coast League (“PCL”) began adding black players quickly.  San Diego again led the way, but by the end of the 1949 season, the Oakland Oaks and the Portland Beavers had also signed and fielded black players.

Before the 1949 season, the San Diego Padres became affiliated with the Cleveland Indians, who under owner Bill Veeck had quickly followed Branch Rickey’s Brooklyn Dodgers and began stocking his organization’s rosters with African American and Afro-Caribbean ballplayers. I assume that the Indians-Padres affiliation came about in part because the Padres had been the first team to integrate the PCL and Veeck wanted another top-tier minor league team at which to play former Negro League stars before bringing them up to the Indians.

Bear in mind that for most of the first decade of organized baseball’s integration process, major league teams, as they integrated, were initially unwilling to have more than two or three black players on their major league rosters at any given time, and the same considerations (fear of alienating their existing white fan bases by playing too many black players at the same time) likely applied to a major league organization’s minor league teams as well.

The Padres, however, had four different black players play for them for at least some time during the 1949 season.  Aside from Ritchie, these players were Luke Easter, Artie Wilson and Minnie Minoso, all of whom had played in the Negro Leagues the year before.

The biggest star at the time of these signings was Luke Easter, a famed Negro League slugger. Easter was already 33 years old in 1949, although he had told Bill Veeck he was six years younger.  In any event, Veeck signed Easter in February 1949 and assigned him to play for the San Diego Padres, either because Easter injured his knee in Spring Training or because the Indians already had two proven black players on their major league roster, Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. [By the end of the 1949, five African American and Latin ballplayers had played for the Indians for at least some part of that season, not counting light-skinned Chicano Mike Garcia, who had started in organized baseball in 1942.]

Easter’s prowess as a slugger of long home runs preceded him, and from the start of the 1949 season, he was possibly the biggest draw in PCL history.  Teams sold out their stadiums to fans coming to see Easter hit, with some teams adding standing-room-only tickets in roped off sections of the outfield.  In one three-game series in Los Angeles, Easter hit six home runs, and fights broke out at the gates as fans tried to get into the sold-out stadium to see Easter hit. [Wrigley Field, where the Los Angeles Angels played, seated about 22,000, while Gilmore Field, where the Hollywood Stars played only seated about 13,000 — I don’t know at which of the two parks the episode occurred.]

Easter was probably one of the strongest men in the professional baseball of his day.  His listed measurements of 6’4″ and 240 lbs would make him a big player even by today’s standards, when players as a group are much, much larger than they were in 1949.

West Coast baseball fans, particularly in Southern California, were highly knowledgeable about the abilities of Negro League stars, because the warm-weather region was a favored location for post-season barnstorming tours and also because black players played in the California Winter League soon after the death of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a strong opponent of integration in baseball, in 1944.

Despite his knee injury, Luke Easter batted .363 and slugged 25 HRs in only 80 PCL games, as the small ballparks of the Coast League couldn’t contain his long drives, before being called up to the Cleveland Indians in early August.

Another black player who almost instantly became one of the PCL’s best players was 28 year old middle infielder Artie Wilson.  Like Easter, Wilson had been a Negro League star for years before 1949.

In late 1948, the New York Yankees began acquiring their first black players.  The Bombers purchased Wilson’s contract from the Birmingham Black Barons and assigned Wilson to one of their top farm teams, the Newark Bears in the International League.  However, when Wilson learned that he would be paid less to play for Newark than he had been making in the Negro Leagues, he jumped ship and instead signed a contract either directly with the San Diego Padres or with the Cleveland Indians with the understanding he’d be assigned to play for San Diego.

Some background is appropriate here.  One of the reasons why the integration history of the Pacific Coast League in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s has any significance at all today is that between 1946 and 1955, the PCL still retained an element of independence not enjoyed by the other top minor leagues, the International League (“IL”) and the American Association (“AA”).  By 1946 every single team of the IL and the AA was a farm team for a major league club.

For the decade between 1946 and 1955, a majority of PCL teams remained unaffiliated with major league clubs.  While PCL teams were still required to sell off their best young players after two or three seasons to avoid major league teams from drafting these players at a small, fixed price under the national agreement that governed the major and minor leagues (PCL teams could, in turn, draft players from lower minor leagues), most Coast League teams could at least prevent the major league teams from taking away their players the moment the parent club wanted them on the major league roster.  As a result, the Coast League pennant races still had real meaning for West Coast baseball fans.

Further, the Coast League played in major league caliber cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle, and all of its teams were nearly 2,000 miles away from the nearest major league franchise.  The Coast League thus drew more fans to its games than any other minor league of the era by a wide margin.  The West Coast’s milder climate also allowed for playing seasons of between 188 and 200 games.  These factors meant that PCL teams could pay much higher salaries than any other minor league teams could, and many players could make more money as stars in the Coast League than they could make as bench players in the majors.

Wilson only played 31 games for San Diego at the start of the 1949 season before Baseball’s Commissioner Happy Chandler voided his contract on May 12th and awarded Wilson back to the Yankees.  However, because it was clear that Wilson didn’t intend to play for a Yankee farm club that wouldn’t pay him a reasonable salary, the Yankees sold Wilson to the Oakland Oaks only five days later.

Wilson and the Oaks were a great fit.  The San Francisco Bay Area had seen a huge influx of African Americans during the Second World War when large numbers of black southerners mostly from Louisiana and East Texas were recruited to work in the ship yards of San Francisco, Oakland, Richmond and Sausalito.

Wilson was a solid defensive shortstop for the Oaks, and while he had no power, he hit for average, got on base and stole a lot of bases, a skill that had been lost in organized baseball until black players brought it back.  In 1949, Wilson batted .348, leading the PCL among players who played in at least half of the league’s 188 game schedule that year.  He also led the PCL with 47 stolen bases, and he scored 129 runs.

Wilson was only just getting warmed up.  In 1950, although his batting average fell to .311, he played in 196 of the 200 games the Oaks played that season and accumulated an astounding 264 hits.  Wilson’s 31 stolen bases was only good enough for second in the league behind black Puerto Rican Luis Marquez, an outfielder for the Portland Beavers, but Wilson’s 168 runs scored led the PCL by a wide margin.

Wilson’s 1950 hit total was the highest in the PCL in fifteen years and his runs total was the highest in more than ten. Including walks and hit-by-pitches, Wilson reached base 358 times that season, which explains why he was able to score so many runs even though he hit only one homer that year.

On the eve of the end of the 1950 PCL season, the Oaks sold/traded Wilson and two other players to the New York Giants for four players and $125,000.  Although Wilson started the 1951 season with the major league Giants, he was already 30 years old and wasn’t given much of an opportunity to prove himself.  Wilson was used mostly as a pinch-hitter, going 4-for-22 with a couple of walks in 19 games before being sent down to Minneapolis in late May.  His major league roster spot was taken by a 20 year old outfielder named Willie Mays.

The Giants sold Wilson back to the Coast League, this time to the Seattle Rainiers, where he picked up pretty much where he left off.  He hit .316, .332 and .336 in three seasons while playing all four infield positions for the Rainiers, as needed.  He was then traded to the Portland Beavers, where he hit .307 in 1955, his last year as an every day player.  However, he continued to play in the Coast League with the Beavers, the Rainiers and the Sacramento Solons in 1956 and 1957.

Read Part II of this series here, and Part III here.