Baseball’s connection to the War Between the States has long been recognized. Soldiers played ball as a way to occupy free time, of which there was a great deal in between the occasional battle or skirmish or for those in prison camps, and officers saw it as a way to keep men active during down time.
However, baseball relics from 150 years ago are exceedingly rare, partly because the generally scarcity of luxury items such as sporting goods during the war, partly because of the transiency that is the nature of army life and partly because of time itself.
Which makes the above item all the more fascinating: Slate magazine published the image earlier this week of a ball found and retrieved in 1862 in Shiloh, Tenn., amid the detritus of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles. The battle of Shiloh took place on April 6-7, 1862, and resulted in nearly 24,000 dead, wounded and missing.
The ball is inscribed: “Picked Up on the Battle Field at Shiloh by G.F. Hellum.” Hellum was an orderly for the Union Army at Shiloh. He later enlisted as a soldier in Co. B of the 69th Colored Infantry.
(The National Park Service’s Soldiers and Sailors System, which details many of the men who fought in the war, spells Hellum’s last name as “Hellem.”)
The artifact is what is known as a “lemon peel ball,” looser and softer than today’s baseballs, and is hand-stitched in a figure-eight pattern with thick twine, according to Slate’s Frank Ceresi.
One hundred years ago today Johnny “Big Cat” Mize, was born in Demorest, Ga. Mize, above, played 15 seasons in the majors between 1936 and 1953, winning five World Series titles and being elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Mize, a 10-time All-Star, was a keen hitter and a smooth fielding first baseman who cracked 359 home runs, registered an overall .312 batting average and knocked in 1,337 runs during his career.
But perhaps his most astounding feat came in the 1947 season, when he hit 51 homers for the then-New York Giants while striking out just 42 times. Compare this with, say, Cecil Fielder, who hit 50 home runs for the Detroit Tigers in 1990 but struck out more than 180 times.
Fact is, free-swinging sluggers are part and parcel of major league baseball today. Mize had 524 career strikeouts in 15 seasons. By comparison, Sammy Sosa broke that figure in a little more than three seasons with the Chicago Cubs between 1998 and 2002.
Managers back 75 or even 50 years ago would have had a hard time tolerating a player who struck out 150 times a season. And players wouldn’t have let it happen, either.
Back then, a batter would often shorten his swing in order to make contact once a pitcher got two strikes on him; today they just let ‘er rip. The end result is a few more home runs and a lot more strikeouts.
As an example, look at what Babe Ruth accomplished: In the seasons in which Ruth hit 50 or more homers he never came close to striking out even 100 times. He demonstrated remarkable control, hitting for power and average, and also accumulating a sizeable number of bases on balls.
Former Detroit Tigers pitcher Les Mueller, who died earlier this week at age 93, had an unremarkable Major League career.
He posted a 6-8 record during his two seasons with the Tigers (1941, 1945), started 18 games and had a career earned-run average of 3.78. Yet, there’s no questioning that on at least one day he was nothing short of spectacular.
On July 21, 1945, Mueller started against the then-Philadelphia Athletics and pitched the first 19-2/3 innings, giving up just a single run.
That’s the equivalent of more than two complete games, impressive when one considers that Justin Verlander of Detroit led the entire Major Leagues in complete games this past season with six.
The Tigers and Athletics ended up playing to a 1-1 tie in 24 innings on that special day in 1945. Mueller gave up 13 hits and five walks during his ironman effort, and Tigers’ standout Dizzy Trout came in for the final 4-1/3 innings.
When Tigers manager Steve O’Neill took Mueller out of the game, the pitcher said, ”Gee, Steve, the game isn’t over, is it?” according to the book Baseball’s Unforgettable Games, by Joe Reichler and Ben Olan.
There’s a great deal of talk about the “home-field advantage” in sports, but much less so about the home-field disadvantage.
Eddie Yost, the former Major League third basemen who died Tuesday at age 86, was well acquainted with the latter.
While playing for the Washington Senators between 1944 and 1953, Yost hit 55 home runs; however, just three of those round-trippers came at his home park, Griffith Stadium.
That’s because Griffith was anything but hitter-friendly. The dimensions for the Senators’ park included a left field line that was 424 feet from home plate, and nearly as far to center.
In addition, while the right field line was much closer at 326 feet, it featured a 30-foot fence which served to block the view from surrounding buildings.
Furman Bisher, the only writer to ever land an interview with baseball great Shoeless Joe Jackson after his suspension from Major League baseball for his alleged involvement in the 1919 Black Sox scandal, died Sunday at 93.
Bisher secured an interview with Jackson for Sport magazine in 1949, 30 years after the infamous World Series in which the Greenville native and seven other Chicago White Sox players were said to have fixed the World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The interview appeared in the October 1949 issue of Sport, barely two years before Jackson died in Greenville at age 64.
The following year, Bisher joined the Atlanta Constitution and spent the next 59 years writing for it, its sister publication the afternoon Atlanta Journal, and their combined successor, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
His final column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was published in the October 11, 2009, Sunday paper, 60 years after his interview with Jackson.
The Sport interview was done in “as-told-to” style, as though Jackson wrote it. Given that Jackson was illiterate, Bisher likely wrote or recorded Jackson’s words, then transcribed them.
By the time Johnny Leonard Roosevelt Martin had celebrated his sixth birthday, the Oklahoma native had not only made it to the Major Leagues but hit for a .300 average, led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Championship and turned in one of the greatest postseason performances in baseball history.
Of course, Martin, who went by the nickname “Pepper,” was only six years old in the sense that he was born on a Leap Day, Feb. 29, 1904. That meant that by the time he helped the Cardinals defeat the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1931 World Series, his “true” birthday had occurred just six times.
In reality, Pepper Martin was a 27-year-old standout that year, at the start of a prolific career with the Redbirds that would include two world titles and four All-Star appearances.
Called the Wild Horse of the Osage for his aggressive style of play, Martin attacked the game with a style similar to Ty Cobb and Pete Rose, though injuries prevented him from enjoying the lengthier career of either of the latter two players, both Hall of Famers.
A key member of the Cardinals’ Gashouse Gang that included such standouts as Frankie Frisch, Dizzy Dean, Joe Medwick and Leo Durocher, Martin posted a career .298 batting average and a .443 slugging percentage.
Perhaps his greatest season was his first full campaign in the big leagues, 1931.
Despite beginning the season on the bench, Martin took over as a starter midway through the year and ended with a .300 batting average, seven home runs and 75 runs batted in to help the Cardinals clinch the 1931 National League pennant by 13 games over the New York Giants.
The Georgia Peach made his pro debut as an 18-year old with the Augusta Tourists of the South Atlantic League on April 26, 1904, in a game against the Columbia (SC) Skyscrapers.
What’s conveniently forgotten is that Cobb’s first go-round with the Tourists lasted just two days, as the future Major League Hall of Famer was quickly cut.
He then signed with the Anniston (Ala.) Steelers for $50 a game and spent three months in the Tennessee-Alabama League before being recalled to Augusta in July by new owner and manager Harry Wingard.
Cobb’s first season with Augusta was less than auspicious, as he finished with a .237 batting average in 35 games.
The next year was a different story: by mid-summer Cobb was leading the Sally League in hitting and the Tourists sold him to the Detroit Tigers for $750.
No one disputes that newspapers are in serious decline: The question that remains unanswered is how far they will fall.
A recent conversation with a local attorney offered evidence of the industry’s decline. His is a family of six: two college-educated parents and four kids who all attend private school and will almost certainly go on to college themselves.
Yet, the family no longer receives a daily newspaper.
Such would have been almost unimaginable just a decade ago. Up until as late as 2000, at least, college-educated families, and many blue-collar families, took the daily paper as the best means to keep up with what was going on both locally and statewide.
No more, as the Internet and cable television have helped fragment the media market beyond anything imaginable even into the late 1990s.
Pondering the state of newspapers – where I spent a good bit of my career – brought me back to my formative years, when the medium essentially helped shape my life.
It did so by serving as the all-important conduit between me, beginning at age 9, and the first sports team I started following religiously, the Detroit Tigers.
It’s been a tried and true media strategy for years now: publications looking to stagger through the holidays while employees inconveniently take vacation get to the end of the year by slapping together a list or two.
Whether it’s ranking the Top 10 Ugliest Dictators, the 15 Countries Most Likely to Harvest Your Organs when You Pass Out Drunk, or the 25 Most Powerful Monster Trucks Ever Built, lists not only demonstrate that Americans love short, easily digestible pieces that are basically devoid of information, but they fill white space quickly with little effort.
So, in the spirit of general laziness, this blog has decided to join the fray.
Unfortunately, though, there aren’t a whole lot of things I keep track of with enough detail or diligence to put into a list. My few options include:
- Top 10 Most Embarrassing Actions Taken by Our Current Governor (narrowing it down to 10 would be like trying to count the grains of sand on a beach);
- Top 10 Run-ins with Gum-Smacking Rude Women in Wal-Mart whose Bratty Kids will Soon be Regulars in the Department of Juvenile Justice System (enticing, but the only names I got were from tattoos on their upper bodies, and they’d probably track me down and beat me with sticks); and
- Top 10 largest fish I caught in 2011 (this, sadly, would largely be a wish list).
A list, however, that I can manage is one that details my favorite books of 2011, along with a look at a few that weren’t quite so endearing.
With word of former Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo’s selection to the Baseball Hall of Fame came an outcry from fans saddened that the nine-time All-Star didn’t live long enough to enjoy the honor.
Santo, who hit 342 homers and won five Gold Gloves during a 15-year career, died last year of bladder cancer at age 70.
He was chosen by the Veterans Committee Sunday, almost a year to the day after his death, getting 15 votes from the 16-member panel.
Santo’s case reminds one of another infielder who was elected to the Hall of Fame shortly after dying, an individual who has largely slipped into obscurity over the decades.
Rabbit Maranville was an outstanding defensive infielder who spent 23 years in the Majors and, even though more than 75 years have passed since he retired, still holds the record for the most career putouts by a shortstop.
Maranville’s election to the Hall in mid-1954 prompted questions.