Archive for the ‘Washington Senators’ category

The Ten Best Panamanian Players in MLB History

December 28, 2017

Continuing on to Panama, a country between Colombia and Nicaragua which also has a long baseball tradition.  At least 58 Panamanian-born players have played in the majors league.

The first was Humberto Robinson, when he pitched a third of an inning for the Milwaukee Braves on April 20, 1955.  Hector Lopez started his successful 12 year major league career on May 12, 1955, and Webbo Clarke, who pitched for many years in the Negro Leagues, made all seven of his major league appearances for the Washington Senators in September 1955, following a 16-12 record in the Class A Sally League that year, the same league in which Robinson had won a record-setting 23 games the year before.

Both pitchers were long and lean, and Robinson went 8-13 with three saves and a career 3.25 ERA over parts of five major league seasons.  It’s likely that both pitched in the Panamanian Professional Baseball League, which played continuously between 1946 and 1972, after their U.S. careers were over.

Robinson died in Brooklyn in 2009 at the age of 79, while Clarke died at the relatively young age of 42 back in Panama.  Robinson also notably reported a bribe offered in the amount of $1,500 to throw a baseball game in 1959.

The relative success of the PPBL is surely one of the reasons so many Panamanians have played in MLB, despite a population of only 3.75 million currently. The current version of the PPBL, Probeis, has been playing continuously since 2011.

1. Rod Carew (1967-1985)(HOF).  Carew was one of the great pure-hitters of all time, a terrific base runner who stole home plate seven times in 1969, tying Pete Reiser‘s 1946 Post-World War II record.  Ty Cobb stole home eight times in 1912 and 50 times for his career.  During their mostly lively-ball era careers, Lou Gehrig stole home 15 times and Babe Ruth did it 10 times.

Carew moved to New York City after two years of high school in Panama.  He did not immediately begin playing high school baseball, because he was spending all of his time studying, working and learning English.  In 1964, he began to play with an organized team, and he reaches the majors three years later.  He worked as a hitting instructor and coach for many years after his playing career.

Carew married Marilyn Levy, a woman of Jewish ancestry, in 1970, as a result of which Carew received death threats.  They had three daughters, but divorced after 26 years, shortly after the death of their 18 year old daughter Michelle to leukemia when doctors were unable to find a matching bone marrow donor due to her unusual ancestry.  Carew subsequently performed extensive charity work to increase the number of bone marrow donors.

Carew chewed tobacco for 28 years before developing mouth cancer in 1992.  In late 2016, Carew had heart transplant surgery, but he’s still alive as of this writing.

2.  Mariano Rivera (1995-2013).  With an all-time best 652 saves, Rivera will make the Hall of Fame shortly.  He played recently enough and burned brightly enough, that no one reading this needs anything further from me to remember Rivera.

3.  Carlos Lee (1999-2012).  He bounced around a bit, but he had five seasons with 30 home runs, six with 100 or more runs batted in, and four seasons with at least 100 runs scored.  A left fielder with an exceptionally effective throwing arm, Lee is now a wealthy rancher in Texas and Panama.

4.  Ben Oglivie (1971-1986).  Oglivie took a long time to develop, but he became a fearsome slugger for Harvey’s Wallbangers during the American League Milwaukee Brewers’ great period of success from 1978 to 1983.  He led the Junior Circuit with 41 home runs in 1980 in a tie with Reggie Jackson, becoming the first player born outside the United States to lead the AL in HRs. He hit 34 regular season long flies and two more in the post-season for the Wallbangers’ team that lost the World Series to the Cardinals in seven games.

After MLB, Oglivie had two successful seasons in Japan’s NPB at the ages of 38 and 39.  He finished his playing career with two games in the Texas League at the age of 40.

Oglivie also moved to the United States (Bronx, NY) when he was in high school.  Bill Lee described Oglivie as the”brightest guy on the club” when they played together on the Red Sox, and he attended college in Boston and Milwaukee while he played.  He’s worked for years as a hitting coach since his playing days ended.

5.  Manny Sanguillen (1967-1980).  One of the batting heroes, along with Roberto Clemente and Bob Robertson, of the 1971 Pirates who came back from two games down to win the World Series against the Orioles.  Sanguillen made the National League All-Star three times and received MVP votes in four seasons.  Sanguillen didn’t have much power, and, a notorious bad ball hitter, he didn’t walk much either, but he had a .296 career batting average and threw out 39% of the 820 men who tried to steal bases against him.

Sanguillen played in the post-season six times for the Pirates, including driving in a run for the Pirates’ last victorious World Series team in 1979, when he was 35 and nearing the end of his career.  Sanguillen married a Pennsylvania woman, Kathy Swanger, had two kids, and still lives in the Pittsburgh area, hosting Manny’s BBQ behind center field at PNC Park.  Sanguillen says his greatest baseball accomplishment was catching Bob Moose‘s no-hitter on September 20, 1969.

6 (Tie).  Roberto Kelly (1987-2000) & Hector Lopez (1955-1966).  Kelley was a center fielder who played well for the Yankees between 1989 to 1992.  Lopez was a jack-of-all-trades guy who played at least 175 games in each of LF, RF, 3B and 2B, playing most often in left field and at third base. Lopez’s best seasons were for the Kansas City A’s and the Yankees between 1955 and 1960 and he played on five consecutive World Series teams for the Yankees from 1960 through 1964.

Lopez also sported the nicknames “The Panama Clipper” and “Hector the Hit Collector.”  Playing for Kansas City, Lopez roomed with former Negro League star, Harry “Suitcase” Simpson, who got the nickname because he wore size 13 shoes, which a sportswriter wrote looked like suitcases.  After his playing career was over, Lopez became the first black, let alone Panamanian, manager of a AAA team, when he managed the International League’s Buffalo Bisons to a 7th place finish.

Roberto Kelly coached and managed for the San Francisco Giants organization for nine years until 2016, after his playing career ended.

8.  Omar Moreno (1975-1986). Today, Omar Moreno is primarily remembered as a light-hitting stolen base threat, and he was known as the Antelope, but he was also a really good player for the 1979 World Champion Pirates, leading the Senior Circuit with 77 stolen bases (in 98 attempts) and in putouts by an outfielder (489, 64 more than Gold Glove winner Garry Maddox of the 4th place Phillies) and also scoring 110 runs.  Moreno finished 15th in the NL MVP vote that year and was almost certainly more valuable than that.

In 1980, Moreno stole 96 bases (in 129 attempts) being edged out of the league lead by Ron LeFlore with 97, and again led NL outfielders in putouts, but he didn’t bat as well and only scored 87 times while making more than 500 outs on offense, even more than he prevented on defense.   Moreno stole 487 bases on his major league career at a 73% success rate.

After his playing career, Moreno and his family returned to Panama, where he started a foundation to help poor kids to play baseball.  In 2009, he became Panama’s Secretary of Sport where he represented Panama internationally and oversaw the country’s athletic programs.  After he left office, he returned to working with under-privileged children.

9. Bruce Chen (1998-2015).  Chen is a Panamanian of Chinese descent who amounts to the best starting pitcher Panama has produced.  Another bright guy, Chen studied civil engineering at Georgia Tech during his playing career.

Chen won 13 games for the Orioles in 2005, and won 12 back to back for the Royals in 2010-2011.  He was a consistently affordable bottom of the rotation starter who ate up a lot of innings by today’s standards and pitched well enough to hold onto that role for an astounding 17 seasons.

He finished his career with an 82-81 record, tying him with Mariano Rivera for most wins by a Panamanian-born pitcher, and a 4.62 ERA.  Chen came out of retirement to pitch for Team China in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

10.  Juan Berenguer (1978-1992).  Berenguer went 11-10 with a 3.42 ERA as the World Champion Detroit Tigers‘ fourth starter in 1984, but didn’t pitch in the post-season, when Jack Morris, Dan Petry and Milt Wilcox got all the starts.  He then became an effective reliever  (32 career saves) for the Giants, Twins and Braves, ending his major league career at the age of 37.

Known as “Senor Smoke,” “El Gasolino” and the “Panama Express” because of his high-90’s fastball, Berenguer went 8-1 as a reliever and spot starter for the underwhelming Twins team that went on to win the 1987 World Series.  After his playing career, he returned to and still lives in Minnesota.

Berenguer retired with a 67-62 career record and 3.90 ERA.  He was the all-time Panamanian wins leader until Mariano Rivera passed him in 2008.

Honorable MentionsRamiro Mendoza, Rennie Stennett, Carlos Ruiz and Randall Delgado.  Panama has produced enough major league players that some pretty good ones don’t make the top ten.  The 1970’s Pirates, during their best run of the post-WW II period, had three Panamanians in Sanguillen, Stennett and Moreno who were key starters on winning teams.  I remember Stennett as being one of the worst free agent signings in SF Giants’ history, although five years for $3 million sounds like peanuts today.

Carlos Ruiz deserves to be in the top ten for the six seasons he had for the Phillies from 2009 through 2014, and he was the starting catcher for the World Champion 2008 Phillies, the last period when the Phillies were consistent winners.  Randall Delgado is entering his age 28 season in 2018, so he’s certainly got a chance to break into the top 10 one day, although he missed most of the second half of the 2017 season to an elbow injury, for which he received platelet rich injections in his elbow as recently as late September.

A majority of Pananian born baseball players are Afro-Panamanian with many coming from in and around the heavily Afro-Caribbean city of Colon.  However, my personal observation spending 16 days in Panama around January 1, 1999 was that a large percentage of the population in greater Panama City appeared to my surely untrained eyes to be some admixture of European, African and Indigenous Panamanian ancestries.

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Austin Bibens-Dirkx Shuts Down New York Yankees

June 25, 2017

32 year old rookie pitcher Austin Bibens-Dirkx frustrated the Yankees in Yankee Stadium to improve his record to 3-0.  What a great name and what a tremendous story!

Bibens-Dirkx used the Independent-A Leagues twice to keep his professional career going.  In 2009 after washing out of the Mariners’ system, he pitched in the now defunct Golden Baseball League and earned another shot in the Cubs’ system.  He started last year in the Atlantic League before being picked up by the Rangers.  Bibens-Dirkx  has also pitched in the Latin American winter leagues for years as another way to hone his game and catch the attention of major league organizations.

The only chink in Bibens-Dirkx’s armor yesterday was a long home run to Aaron Judge, which thankfully for the Rangers came with the bases empty.  [For what it’s worth, the player Aaron Judge reminds me most of is Frank Howard, another enormous right-handed slugger who could launch baseballs a country mile.  The main difference between them is that there are lot more players of this size now than there were in Howard’s day.]

The reality is that there is a very good chance that last night’s game will be the pinnacle of Bibens-Dirkx’ professional career.  He only made it to MLB at age 32 for a reason.  While he can obviously pitch, his numbers so far suggest that his stuff is well below major league average, and that once MLB’s hitters become more familiar with him, he’ll be a marginal major leaguer at best.  He’s going to have to keep his walks totals low and have good defense behind him to succeed.

Still, nothing can take away from his accomplishment last night or the fact that eleven years struggling through the minors has finally paid off, both financially and emotionally.  Guys like a Bibens-Dirkx give everyone in baseball and those who follow baseball hope that the luck will finally turn for you if you just keep at it and trust that your efforts will one day be rewarded.

Remember Rotator Cuff Injuries?

March 17, 2017

Today, the injury every pitcher dreads is the torn ulnar collateral ligament.  When I was young, it was the torn rotator cuff.

A couple days ago I wrote about Ed Hobaugh, a pitcher who basically had one real year in the Show and then quickly faded off into oblivion.  Probably my favorite player fitting this description is Bill Dailey.  His career progression was almost identical to Hobaugh, except that Dailey’s one full season was truly a tremendous year.

Dailey was the closer for the Minnesota Twins in 1963.  The Twins finished 3rd in 1963 (91-71) in a ten-team league, in large part due to Dailey’s one out-sized season.  Dailey went 6-3 with 21 saves and 1.99 ERA while throwing 108.2 innings.  His save total was 3rd best in the league, tied with  Hoyt Wilhelm, but behind Stu Miller (27) and Dick Radatz (23).  The Monster was the Junior Circuit’s best closer that year, but Dailey was an impressive second.

Dailey was 28 in 1963.  I’d guess he mastered command of a sharp curveball shortly before that season.  He only stuck out 72 batters in 1963, but he still had a K/BB ratio of 3.8 and a WHIP well under 1.0.

In 1964 Dailey tore his rotator cuff, and his professional career was over at age 29.  That made him the Mark Fidrych of his day, only without the Bird’s youthful promise.  Wayne Garland is another pitcher from Fidrych’s era with the same basic story.

San Francisco Giants’ broadcaster Mike Krukow had a riff about how when he entered professional baseball, teams’ pitching coaches would ask youngsters whether they wanted their shoulders to hurt or their elbows to hurt.  If the former, the pitcher was taught to throw the curveball, and if the latter the slider.

The curveball was a much more popular pitch in the 1960’s and 1970’s than it is now when the slider is the dominant off-speed pitch.  That may in part be due to the fact that pitchers as a group come back better from Tommy John surgery than from rotator cuff surgery, which is now often referred to as the labrum.  Shoulder injuries more often involve cartilage than tendons, which is probably why they are harder to come back from than elbow injuries.

For pitcher after his age of 30 season, shoulder injuries pretty much spell the ends of their careers.  A 30+ year old with a strong enough arm can still come back from an elbow tear, at least so long as the doctors can find a good elbow tendon transplant.

Ed Hobaugh — Here’s to You!

March 15, 2017

This weekend I saw one of my oldest friends for the first time since January.  While he is not a baseball fan like me, he’s the kind of guy who still goes to the occasional comic book/baseball card convention, and he had gone to one at Stonestown recently.

He bought some sports cards, all but one baseball (49er receiver Gene Washington).  He offered to give me one, and looking through them, mostly early 1970’s cards, there was a good chance I had most of them in my childhood collection, now buried away in a closet somewhere.

One card I’m sure I didn’t have was a 1962 topps Ed Hobaugh card.  I don’t think I’d ever heard of him before, but he went 7-9 with a 4.42 ERA for the expansion 1961 Washington Senators and pitched 126 innings that year.

I love players (and baseball cards) like this.  1961 was Hobaugh’s one great MLB hurrah.  He pitched pretty well in 26 games, mostly in relief, for the Senators in 1962, pitched ineffectively in nine MLB games in 1963, and that was the end of his major league career, although he continued to pitch in AAA until the 1969 season.

Hobauch was a college pitcher at Michigan State who didn’t pitch professionally until his age 22 season after finishing school and being signed by the White Sox organization.  He went 11-4 in the Three-I League in 1956 and threw a no-hitter, but he missed all of the 1957 and 1958 seasons, most likely because of military service.

Hobaugh was a good, but by no means great, AAA pitcher in the American Association in 1959 and the Pacific Coast League in 1960, going a combined 24-18.  Hobaugh appears to have been a pitcher without major league stuff who knew how to pitch, maybe comparable to some  of the pitchers who find success in the East Asian leagues after failing to make it in MLB today.  Pat Misch springs to mind.

At the time of the 1960 American League expansion draft, Hobaugh was still reasonably young, had pitched reasonably well in AAA and hadn’t been protected by the team that originally signed him.  But for expansion, Hobaugh probably would have received one or two major league cups of coffee at most.  However, the new Senators needed players, and Hobaugh turned out to be probably the team’s fifth best pitcher in their expansion year.

Hobaugh is pretty typical of the players who fill expansion team rosters and who prevent said expansion team from losing 120 games their first season in the Show, but who aren’t good enough to prevent the team from losing 100.  For every Jeff Conine that an expansion team finds among the available 27+ year olds, there are probably ten Ed Hobaughs who got their one real chance to be a major leaguer in that first expansion year and then quickly receded as the expansion teams tried to develop younger, potentially more talented players.

At the end of the day, Hobaugh proved he was a real major league, even if was only for a couple of seasons with an expansion team.  Ed Hobaugh — here’s to you!

Home Run Derby

June 30, 2015

Thanks to the rise of digital television and the explosion of new digital channels looking for cheap content to broadcast, I got to see my first episode of the classic syndicated TV show Home Run Derby which originally aired in 1960.  The episode I watched had the San Francisco Giants’ Willie Mays beating out the Washington Senators’ Bobby Allison, before the franchise’s move to Minnesota.

It’s well known that this TV show was the inspiration for the Home Run Derby that plays a part of the All-Star Break.  However, the original show had slightly different rules.  Any batting practice pitch thrown for a strike that was not hit out of the ballpark was counted as an out, and the hitters took turns hitting with three “outs” constituting a half inning.

19 of the era’s best sluggers appeared on the show, nine of them future Hall of Famers (you can find a listing in the wikipedia article I link to above).  The most successful participants, not surprisingly, were Hank Aaron (6-1), Mickey Mantle (4-1) and Willie Mays (3-2).

The players were paid for their appearances with winners receiving $2,000 an episode and losers getting a $1,000.  Players also got $500 bonuses for their third home run in a row and for their fourth home run and received $1,000 for their fifth consecutive home run and for each consecutive home run after that.  Since Ted Williams, who was finishing up his career in 1959-1960, never appeared on the show, it’s safe to say that none of the participants was then earning more than $90,000 a year, if that, so the money was a very nice supplement to their regular salaries.

Jackie Jensen was the only player in the show’s history to hit five consecutive home runs, so even though he lost the series’ final episode 13-10 to Mickie Mantle, he actually made more money for that episode ($3,000 to $2,500 for Mantle, who hit three in a row during the episode.)  Hank Aaron earned the most money on the show ($13,500) with Mantle the only other player to earn a cool $10,000.

The show was filmed at Wrigley Park in Los Angeles, the former home of the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League, who moved out of L.A. when the Dodgers came to town in 1958, and the soon-to-be home (1961) of the Los Angeles Angels of the American League.  Special rules were adopted to make the home run dimensions roughly equal for right-handed and left-handed hitters.

The wikipedia article linked to above is not clear on just how popular the show was, although I would expect that it was popular, given the brisk pace of the show, and what was then the novel opportunity to see the games great sluggers compete head-to-head to see who could hit the most batting practice fastballs out of the yard.  However, the show lasted only 26 episodes over approximately early January to early July 1960, because the show’s host Mark Scott died of a heart attack a week after the the last episode of the first season aired, and the producers decided to discontinue the show, rather than find a new announcer.

Legendary Giant Stu Miller Passes

January 6, 2015

Former San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Stu Miller just died at age 87.  Here’s the article from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Henry Schulman.

Stu Miller was sort of the Trevor Hoffman of his day, only in the days before teams had full-time closers.  Miller had a terrific change-up on which he was particularly good at varying speeds and movement.

Even after the Giants had begun to realize his real value was in relief, they continued to use him his a spot starter, which allowed him to lead the National League in ERA in 1958, the Giants’ first year in San Francisco.  The story goes that Miller would have led the Senior Circuit in ERA again in 1959, but that the League went back late in the season and changed a hit to an error which in turn changed an earned run to an unearned run for teammate Toothpick Sam Jones, who ended up beating out Miller 2.83 to 2.84.  According to legend, the reason for the revision was that as a “junkballing” reliever who only just barely threw enough innings to qualify, the NL’s men-in-charge thought it would be bad for business to have the “wimpy” Stu Miller win a second consecutive ERA title.

Sam Jones was indeed a more impressive winner.  He made 35 starts that year and he was big, hard thrower who threw just over 270 innings and struck out over 200 that year.  It is worth noting, however, that along with his 35 starts, Jones also made 15 relief appearances and was retroactively credited with four saves.  It’s also worth noting that while 50 of Miller’s 59 appearances were in relief in 1959, he was credited with only eight saves, since the closer role didn’t then exist, and the Giants brought Miller into the game anytime they thought he could help them, which included at five times when they brought him in to pitch in relief as early as the first three innings of the game.

By the end of July 1959, the Giants seem to have realized that Miller’s most effective role was in the bullpen full time.  He made no starts after July 25th that season, and while he made three starts in 1960, those were the last three starts of his career.

Even after becoming a full-time relief ace, Miller still regularly pitched more than 100 innings a season, which caused him some inconsistency year to year, and is probably one of the reasons why he isn’t better remembered today, sort of a later version of Firpo Marberry, a terrific pitcher in the 1920’s who almost no one now remembers.

This was sort of the story of relief pitching in the 1960’s: at the beginning of the decade teams were just beginning to see the value of full-time relief aces, while by the end of the decade every team had a designated closer at least so long as they had someone up to the job.  The problem was that top relievers routinely threw more than 100 innings per year and had a tendency to be inconsistent or get hurt after a few great seasons.

This trial and error process is a big part of the reason why top relief pitchers only throw 60 to 75 innings per year now.  If nothing else, they are lot more consistent year to year than they once were.

Connie Marerro Passes

April 23, 2014

Former Cuban ace and Washington Senator pitcher Connie Marerro died today, two days before his 103rd birthday.  He pitched for the Senators for five years, starting his major league career a few days before his 39th birthday in 1950.  He won 39 major league games and was one of the few bright spots on some Senators’ teams that were usually going nowhere, even making the American League All-Star team in 1951.

Marrero was a tiny right-hander (he’s listed as 5’6″) who didn’t start pitching until age 27, after starting his amateur career in Cuba as an infielder.  He had a strange and deceptive pitching motion (and probably well more than one) which Felipe Alou described as looking like “a cross between a windmill gone berserk and a mallard duck trying to fly backwards.”  He threw breaking pitches — sliders, curves and a knuckler — which bedeviled opposing batters.

Marrero was extremely gregarious and was famed for his quotes in broken English, his always present cigars and his good humor, all of which made him the most popular Senator of his era.  Here is SABR’s biography of Marerro, if you want to read more about him.