March 7, 2011
The 1910s Philadelphia A's Secret to Success: OBP (and Grit)!
From 1909 to 1914, the Philadelphia Athletics were quite probably the best team in baseball. In those six seasons, the A's went to four World Series, winning three of them. Their worst finish in that run was in 1912, when their 90 wins weren't even close to the 105-win juggernaut of the World Champion Red Sox.
That summer, Philadelphia hurler Chief Bender (who would go on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1953) penned an article for Boys' Life magazine. The official Boy Scouts of America magazine had only started publishing the year before. In that August 1912 issue, Chief Bender "of the World's Champion Athletics" talks to the kids about why baseball "is the real game of the Nation" and why the sport is great for boys' body and mind.
So long as the little sons of Uncle Sam, particularly the boys, play baseball, we are going to have a healthy, clean, industrious country, for as an exercise it is the best sport known. ... it suffices to say that baseball contains all the points of running, throwing, skill of the arm and the eye, cunning on the bases, judgment as to what the foe are going to attempt.
After spending some time explaining the value of playing baseball as a child (and, considering his upbringing on the White Earth Reservation and at the Carlisle Indian School, he very likely believed every word of it), Bender goes on to tell a few "'inside' baseball" stories about his World Champion teammates. The first story may not be so surprising, especially to fans of David Eckstein:
First I am going to cite a case of grit. ... A single by [White Sox catcher Billy] Sullivan meant two runs and the loss of the game for us. [Eddie] Plank stiffened himself, took the ball on his shins, picked the ball up and relayed it to Harry Davis, who then played first base, and we had won. We carried Plank from the field hurt, but his gallant display of pluck had saved the game.
I don't think there's ever been a time where "grit" wasn't a highly praised characteristic, and we certainly aren't going to find otherwise at the turn of the century. At least Bender comes up with a pretty great example of grit here. If a future Hall of Fame pitcher made the same kind of play today, I doubt anyone would have much problem with Sportscenter highlighting the grittiness of the play.
Bender does surprise us some with his second "'inside' baseball" story. In it, he praises the high on-base skills of second-baseman Eddie Collins. Of course, he doesn't use the phrase "on-base percentage" in his description:
Eddie Collins, of the Athletics, is one of the best base runners the game has ever known. ... Collins hits about .380 on the average, and being small, he "walks" about every fifth time that he comes to the bat. That means that over half of the time he comes to the bat he is on the first base ahead of that demon batsman, John Franklin Baker, who broke up two world's series games with his home run drives.
Collins was never actually a .380 hitter. By 1912, when this article was written, Collins' career high in average was .365. That was the season before, when Collins also had his (up-to-then) career high in OBP at .451. The point, though, is that, even in 1912, Chief Bender could see the value of a player like Collins being on-base all the time. Hitting well and "walking", even if it is merely because Collins was a small man, is a good combination. Bender's reasons for this may not be as sound as we'd like...
Collins being on the base, gives every pretence of going to second base, of stealing that bag. ... The pitcher will then throw one over the plate, for no pitcher can hope to give Baker "three balls" and then strike him out. ... The pitcher throws his pitch; it comes, as Baker expected, right over the plate, and Baker hits it, and the fans see little Collins flying about the bags like a greyhound and Baker hurrying towards first, both safe. But the fans in the stand do not know that it was the work of Collins that enabled Baker to get a ball thrown to him that was right over the heart of the plate.
…but the recognition is valuable. When you're on base, things happen. It was the case in 1912 and it's the case still in 2011.
Obviously, Chief Bender had a lot more to say to the youth of 1912 America when he helped write this Boys' Life article than praising Eddie Collins' on-base skills, but the article is noteworthy today for recognizing that fact. It's nice to look back on it now, nearly 100 years later, and see that things weren't all that different then than they are now. And if that means we have to glorify "grittiness" just a bit more, I can accept that.