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Player Profile: Al Simmons

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It is not often, it seems, that truly great players are underrated, and almost forgotten in the pages of baseball’s storied history. Al Simmons can be counted among those men.

Born Aloisius Szymanski on this date in 1902, the Hall of Fame outfielder helped lead the Philadelphia Athletics to back-to-back World Series titles in 1929 and 1930.

Simmons’ 1,828 RBIs puts him 20th on the all-time list, while his .334 average ranks 23rd. He was a solid power hitter, knocking 307 for his career and slugging .535 over the course of 20-year career.

Simmons and fearsome Hall of Fame first baseman Jimmie Foxx proved to be a dynamic duo during the Athletics’ run to three straight World Series. During that period, Simmons averaged 150 RBIs and more than 30 home runs per year to compliment his torrid .378 batting average.

However fine a ballplayer Simmons was, his story is truly just one piece of the A’s mini-dynasty that history has seemed to sweep under its rug. The only thing blocking their path to becoming a true dynasty was a loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1931 World Series.

Besides Simmons and Foxx, who ended the more legendary of the two with 534 homers, the A’s lineup also featured Hall of Fame catcher Mickey “Black Mike” Cochrane, who was known for his volatile temper and competitive spirit (Mickey Mantle would later be named for Cochrane).

Philadelphia was managed by the sharp-dressing Connie Mack, who was known for sporting a suit and tie in the dugout. Hall of Famer Lefty Grove anchored the pitching staff, a 300-game winner who posted a 79-15 record over the period to go with a 2.46 ERA.

Despite the number of star players on the Athletics, Mack was asked who the most valuable player he’d seen was. The answer was Simmons. “If only I could have nine players named Al Simmons,” Mack said.

After the 1931 season, Simmons played 12 more years in the majors with the A’s, White Sox, Tigers, Senators, Braves, Reds and Red Sox. Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor scores him at 226 (likely Hall of Famers score 100).

New York Giants skipper John McGraw called Simmons the greatest ballplayer at that time. In reality, experts would likely not agree. But are those near-dynasty A’s teams, Led by Foxx, Grove and Simmons, some of the greatest squads ever? That seems a much easier debate.

Links

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/s/simmoal01.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1929.shtml

http://www.baseball-reference.com/teams/PHA/1930.shtml

*Stats and info provided by Baseball Reference, Baseball Fever and the Society for American Baseball research.

 

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Sandy Koufax – A late bloomer to greatness

 

This week in 1954, the Brooklyn Dodgers signed Sandy Koufax for $6,000 and a $14,000 signing bonus. The Dodgers expected greatness right off the bat from Koufax- scout Al Campanis claimed that witnessing a Koufax fastball marked the second time the hair on his arms stood up. The first was seeing the Sistine Chapel.

Koufax showed potential but stumbled through his first six years in the majors, going 36-40 with a 4.10 ERA. He even considered stepping away from the game. He had, however, shown flashes of dominance, posting 173 strikeouts in 1959 and 197 in 1960, and decided try another season.

Koufax came into the 1961 season in better shape than he’d ever been. That season, he won 18 games and struck out a then-National League record 269 batters, previously held by the great Christy Matthewson. He posted another great performance in 1962, leading the league in ERA and striking out 216. He would lead the league in ERA in every season for the remainder of his career.

Koufax pitched his first no-hitter on June 30 against the expansion New York Mets at Dodger Stadium. It would be the first of four no-hitters for him.

In 1963, Koufax led the league in wins (25), ERA (1.88) and strikeouts (306), earning the pitcher’s Triple Crown and  shattering his own previous strikeout record. On May 11, he delivered another no-hitter against the rival Giants and was on his way to winning the season’s National League Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards. Koufax pitched two brilliant ballgames to help the Dodgers sweep the Yankees in the World Series, setting a Series record in game one with 15 strikeouts.

Injury soon plagued Koufax, however. On April 22, 1964, he hurt his arm. He returned to later toss his third no-hitter, this time against the Philadelphia Phillies, but jammed his arm in August and was diagnosed with traumatic arthritis. He still managed to finish the year with a 19-5 record and a 1.74 ERA, but play in pain for the next two seasons.

Before the 1965 season began, Koufax discovered that his arm had gone black and blue from hemorrhaging. Despite this, he led the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts once again. He also pitched his fourth no-hitter with a perfect game against the Cubs on Sept. 9 at Dodger Stadium. He helped pitch the Dodgers to pennant and the World Series. He refused to pitch in game one in order to observe Yom Kippur (Koufax was Jewish), but clinched the Series with a three-hit shutout of a Twins lineup that included Tony Oliva and 1965 American League MVP winner Zoilo Versalles. Koufax was awarded the Cy Young Award again and lost the MVP vote to Willie Mays. His 382 strikeouts stood as a major league record until Nolan Ryan broke it in 1973.

In his final season in 1966, Koufax won the pitching Triple Crown and Cy Young once more, but lost to Roberto Clemente in the MVP vote. Despite his dominance, Koufax announced on Nov. 18, 1966, that he was retiring from the game at age 30.

Sandy Koufax rose to stardom, and just as quickly whisked away from the game, a golden boy whose left-handed dominance in a brief period has perhaps never been seen before or since. Many believe the once wild lefty honed his control to become the greatest pitcher there ever was. At 36, he was the youngest player inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.  But just imagine if had, in fact, decided not to come back to baseball in 1961…

“Trying to hit him was like trying to drink coffee with a fork.” – Willie Stargell, member of the Baseball Hall of Fame

 

Jackie Bradley Jr. and the pursuit of “56”

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The hitting streak has become a mythical benchmark statistic in baseball. Not only has no player broken Joe DiMaggio’s record of a 56-game streak, no one has even come close.

The second-place hitter in the record books is “Wee” Willie Keeler, who hit safely in 45 straight for the Baltimore Orioles from 1896-97. DiMaggio even claims a lead on all-time hits leader Pete Rose (44 games in 1978) and Ty Cobb (40 games in 1911).

That Jackie Bradley Jr. is even halfway to DiMaaggio’s mark is a statistic that would’ve been considered unthinkable to many baseball fans. In his only real full season in the majors, Bradley hit at a .249 clip, a number that doesn’t exactly jump off the page.

This season, though, he is part of a torrid Red Sox juggernaut that leads baseball in several offensive categories. Bradley is raking, hitting .346.

The Red Sox are in first place (a half-game up on Baltimore as this is written) and enjoying the spoils of featuring one of the game’s hottest hitters. But let us remind ourselves that Bradley is still only halfway there. 

The fact that Bradley hasn’t even really carved into the record is astonishing; “56” is the one number in sports that fans and historians alike can’t seem to wrap their head around.

However, such a legendary streak, as is always the case, had humble beginnings.

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When DiMaggio got a hit off Eddie Smith of the White Sox on May 15, 1941, he began his mythical run. No one knew it, but by the end of that season, he would be a legend.

At the time, DiMaggio was still trying to measure up to the ghosts of Yankee Stadium. He wasn’t a particularly popular player, as he’d held out for more money before the 1938 season. Ironically, Yankees fans would someday hold DiMaggio up as the standard for greatness when Mickey Mantle came to New York.

DiMaggio completed the 56-game streak with the media bearing down on him. He had a shy personality, and the stress led to ulcers for the star. He beat out Red Sox left fielder Ted Williams, who hit .406 for the American League MVP Award.

DiMaggio overcame the media and the ghosts of baseball’s past to shatter the previous record by 11 games. Even if Bradley doesn’t outhit Joltin’ Joe, this could still be the season in which he quiets critics from the difficult sports city of Boston.

**Photo credits to USA Today and JoeDiMaggio.com

**Statistics from baseballreference.com and baseball-almanac.com

April 14

Well, I suppose I could might make myself look like a fool, but with Don Newcombe on the mound, I can’t pick against Brooklyn.  Besides, how can I pick the Giants against my Dodgers any day?  Fughetaboutit.

Renting a place here in Flatbush is great…I mean I’ve lived here forever, why not stay?  I’ll stay as long as the Dodgers do.

The game started at 3:30, and neither pitcher had it today at the Polo Grounds.

The Giants broke a scoreless tie in the bottom of the second when right fielder Don Mueller lined a single to right field, scoring Bobby Thompson.

Roy Campanella responded with a three- run smash to left-center off Maglie in the fourth, and Don Newcombe followed with a homer of his own, a line shot that got out in a hurry.  Atta boys!

Second  baseman Davey Williams singled home Mueller to cut the lead to two in the bottom of the inning.  Five innings would prove to be plenty of time to score in this contest.

A bases loaded walk by reliever Hoyt Wilhelm in the top of the fifth made it a three run game and gave Campy another RBI.

The pesky Giants fought back again in the fifth when Hank Thompson slapped a single to right, plating Mays.

Scoring would not resume until the top of the seventh, when Carl Furillo hit a three-run homer and Newcombe went deep for a two-run shot just two batters later.  Over the radio, you can hear the Grounds get quiet after Don’s second of the game.

New York hit a couple more homers, but the seesaw battle ended in a 10-8 victory for Brooklyn.

I’ll tell ya what, that’s a relief.  I’m interested to see how Billy Loes fares tomorrow in the bandbox of a ballpark.

NOTE: The recaps of this historic season are based on real games from the 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers season.  All of the games are recapped using a boxscore, thanks to Baseball-Reference.com, and some other details were clarified using online sources.  The character desciribing the games is fictional.

Havin’ a Feeling in 1955

April 13

Call me crazy, but I got a feeling about this years Bums.  Brooklyn finished second last year, but even with a first place finish from our Dodgers, I know what you’re thinking: they’ll blow it in the Series.  Right now I’m writing for a local paper- you have no idea how bad I wanna cover the Dodgers, but they say I gotta write some general boring crap first.  Whatever.

Anyway, back to business.  Of course, Gil Hodges is gonna drive in his runs.  Name me a better infield than Hodges, Giliam, Pee Wee, and Robinson.  Alright maybe you could, I dunno.  But I got this feeling.

The game started today at around 2:40.  Red Barber told us that the paid attendance is just under 7,000.  How’s there no more than that?

Carl Erskine was the starter for the Dodgers today. Gil Hodges backed him up with the first RBI on the Brooklyn season, scoring Snider on a single to center in the sixth, and Carl  didn’t allow a run to score til the seventh.

Our boys came up big in the fifth, scoring five times.  The inning was capped off by Carl Furillo’s three-run shot to left-center.

Brooklyn took this season’s opener on a 6-1 final.

I mean, we handled a team that won only 53 games last year.  I can’t get too excited yet.  Or at least I shouldn’t.

The Yankees pounded Washington 19-1 today.  I hate those guys.  At least the New York Giants lost to Philadelphia.  I can’t even get started on their high-class selves, it’ll kill me.  Willie versus the Duke, I’m taking Duke every time.

Aside

Simple happiness

Each year, our church would hold a service day for parishioners to help people in the town.  It counted for the service hours I had to fill out at school, and so I rode with my parents to houses in Naperville.  Personally, I did nothing to help.  Or so I thought.

I’ll never forget one stop in particular.  It was at an elderly lady’s house where my dad was asked to help fix a light in the kitchen.  My ten-year old self knew nothing of fixing a light, so when the old woman was told how much I loved the Cubs, she became overjoyed and turned the game on for me.

As I read my book and witnessed the Cubs’ trouncing of Pittsburgh, the woman checked the score and made sure I made myself at home in her family room.

Years later, I discussed the seemingly purposeless memory with my dad.  He pointed out that I had in fact done service that day without meaning to- I had made the woman’s day by showing my youthful passion for baseball and the Cubs, and also by just keeping her company as she was helped.

This event shows that you can make someone by even simply existing.

If I knew him…

My dad’s side was never too into baseball.  He loves it, but really because his kids started playing it.  Everyone else in his family was more into football, which is a reflection of present-day America. 

There was one man on my dad’s side who was quite fond of baseball.  He was my dad’s uncle Harvey.

Harvey ran a gas station in the small town of Lake Park, Iowa, where my dad’s family lived when he was growing up.  At the time, the Cubs and Braves were both nationally televised, and Harvey chose to become a Braves fan. 

I somehow became interested in the Atlanta Braves in the summer after eighth grade, and, for whatever reason, I found myself engrossed in their history, mascots, and venues.  Part of the reason was my random stumbling upon them one day.  The other was my dad’s mentioning of Harvey.

Yes, my dad talked about him one night when I mentioned the Braves.  We were taking our dog on the nightly stroll.  I became fascinated with Harvey, though even today I don’t know too much about him. 

I suppose to say that I never met him would be a lie, because I was too little and I don’t remember him at all.  From what my dad has told me, he spoke when spoken to, a quiet man.

I believe to this day that part of the reason I was so interested in this seemingly lost family member was because he was so enigmatic to me: I felt as though I’d have been good friends with him had I actually known him (especially if I knew him in his younger days when he ran the gas station) , but that I still knew very little about him.  

One thing I did know about him, though, was that he enjoyed baseball.  Somehow, that’s enough to ignite my imagination.  That one simple interest in that one simple game was enough to make me ask my dad more and more about someone who I’d hardly ever thought of before.