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June 2, 2004

You Could Look It Up

Gamesmanship, Dammit

by Steven Goldman

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In this week's Pinstriped Bible (one of the other columns in the Steve Goldman media empire, the entirety of which can be yours for a song), a reader takes your host to task for suggesting that an incident that took place last week involving Gabe White should be a hint to managers to pay attention to the rule book for bonus competitive advantages. Around here we take any excuse to delve further into a worthy thesis, in this case, that gamesmanship is, or should be, a major component of the manager's job.

The White situation was very simple. The Yankees lefty entered the team's May 26 game at Baltimore in the sixth inning with the Yankees leading 7-6. The game was momentarily delayed when the umpire asked White to remove a gold chain. With the chain removed, White gave up consecutive hits, allowing another run to score and setting up a blown save for future Hall of Famer Tanyon Sturtze. After the game, White claimed that he had pitched badly because he'd been unnerved by the umpire's request.

In forcing White to divest himself of shiny accoutrements, the umpire was enforcing rule 1.11. Here are some highlights:

1.11
(a) (1) All players on a team shall wear uniforms identical in color, trim and style... (3) No player whose uniform does not conform to that of his teammates shall be permitted to participate in a game... (2) No player shall wear ragged, frayed or slit sleeves. (d) No player shall attach to his uniform tape or other material of a different color from his uniform. (e) No part of the uniform shall include a pattern that imitates or suggests the shape of a baseball. (f) Glass buttons and polished metal shall not be used on a uniform... (h) No part of the uniform shall include patches or designs relating to commercial advertisements.

Section h isn't really relevant, but I left it in as a reminder of the egregious "RICOH" patches the Yankees wore during their fan-unfriendly visit to Japan back at the beginning of the season. As for the rest, players are pretty much unaware of the rule's existence, and tend to get offended if they're called on it, as several relatively recent incidents suggest, including Arthur Rhodes blowing a fuse over being told that he had nothing to lose but his chains, David Wells being asked to remove Babe Ruth's cap from his unworthy head, and White's reaction last week. You can also throw in rulebook matters that have nothing to do with the uniform, such as Carl Everett's inability to cope with the batter's box and even the infamous Pine Tar game of 1983, in which George Brett did an incredible impression of a Norse warrior experiencing berserker rage while under the influence of rapturous Odin-love and hallucinogenic mushrooms.

All of this stuff falls under the heading of, "You should have known better." However, the fact is that they don't, and the end result is that the player is often run from the game or plays with reduced effectiveness due to emotional duress. Because of this opposing teams can gain an advantage in a given game not due to good pitching or timely hitting, but simply because they encouraged an umpire to enforce the rules.

The yanking of White's chain was motivated by the umpire. He acted on his own, apparently without impetus from Baltimore manager Lee Mazzilli. This is unusual. The umpire is a bit like the rhinoceros, a lumbering creature with poor eyesight which is happy to quietly do his job (which entails grazing, grazing some more, and quietly humming Hank Williams tunes to itself) until someone runs up and bothers it. An umpire may be aware that a minor uniform code violation is talking place, but until a manager complains, the umpire is going to remain benignly indifferent because he knows that any action he takes is going to lead to two ejections: the affected player and the affected player's manager. The rhino/ump does not want the headache.

This means that every manager must know the rulebook, so that if a rare chance to win one from the bench comes along, he can recognize it. Last season the Orioles batted out of turn in a game against the Yankees and both Joe Torre and his valuable bench coach Don Zimmer slept through it, passing up the chance for a free out. Hall of Fame manager Leo Durocher once said: "As long as I've got a chance to beat you I'm going to take it." That was a chance, and they didn't take it.

The best example of what can be gained from knowledge of the rules should have been the pine tar game, but baseball dropped the ball on that one (yes, it was a stupid rule, but it was a rule nonetheless. If you want to drop the rule, you do it after the fact, not retroactively). Instead, the best example is the one that inspired section 2 of rule 1.11 above, the case of Johnny Allen and the frayed shirt sleeves.

Righty pitcher Allen (1932-1944) was one of baseball's more unique characters, an incredible hothead, a bad loser who was frequently injured and yet always effective. A typical 1935 Allen start was perfectly encapsulated by John Drebringer in the New York Times: "Johnny Allen, his prominent jaw squared off at a very pugnacious angle, fought with all three umpires impartially as he hung up a five-hit shutout to record his seventh victory of the campaign." In his autobiography, Durocher, who managed Allen in the 1940s, described what happened on May 27, 1943, when third base umpire George Barr called a balk on Allen, allowing a run to score. Allen went berserk. Durocher recalled:

"Before I could get to him, he had a headlock on Barr and he was pounding on top of his bald head with the ball... Barr is flat on his back and Johnny has him by his necktie... I give you my word of honor that his tongue was hanging out and he was turning purple. He was choking him. Choking him! ...It took half the team to pull him away."

Contemporary newspaper reports hint that Durocher's version contains its fair share of hyperbole, but overall it was a typical day with Johnny Allen.

Allen broke into the majors with the Yankees. That the New Yorkers had him at all was the result of pure good luck. Allen began his career in obscurity, living in North Carolina while perfecting a pitch that had little currency in the majors at the time, the slider. In 1927, top Yankees scout Paul Krichell, the man who had discovered Lou Gehrig and many other pinstriped stars, checked into a Sanford, N.C. hotel on a scouting mission. The bellboy, a young man of 22, off-handedly mentioned that he pitched a little. Krichell undoubtedly heard this line from every bellboy, porter and steward he ran into, but this time the clerk showed off a wicked breaking pitch. The next day Johnny Allen was property of the New York Yankees.

For the first seven seasons of his major league career--until the slider ruined his arm--Allen won a greater percentage of his decisions than any other pitcher in the majors. Contemporaries Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Dizzy Dean and Red Ruffing all took a back seat to him in this department. Left to his own devices, Allen did not lose games.

Unfortunately for Allen, once the league figured out that he was so easily riled, he was rarely left to his own devices. In 1936 the Yankees dealt Allen to the Indians after manager Joe McCarthy decided that between injuries and temper tantrums, Allen was both unreliable and annoying. McCarthy didn't like southerners, didn't like players that argued with the umpires, didn't like pitchers with bad arms, and Allen generally answered to at least two out of three.

His first year with the Indians, Allen "struggled" to a 20-10 record, the victim of his own reputation. "Knowing that his patience was limited," wrote Franklin Lewis in The Cleveland Indians, "other clubs spread the word that Allen 'couldn't take it.'" Allen was pursued around the junior circuit by accusations of scuffing, and other more extreme forms of heckling. When Indians general manager Cy Slapnicka wrote a letter to the league office accusing the competition of "poor sportsmanship" where Allen was concerned, the epithet "crybaby" was added to that of "cheat." By June 4, Allen was only 4-5.

That night Allen tried to channel his frustration in a productive direction by trashing his hotel room. He also attempted to assault a waiter with a fire extinguisher. Somehow escaping incarceration, Allen returned to the mound and went 16-5 over the rest of the season.

June 7, 1938 saw the incident that would put Allen's underwear in the Hall of Fame. That day, the first-place Indians took on the fourth-place Red Sox at Fenway Park. Allen pitched against rookie Jim Bagby. Allen took the mound wearing a sweatshirt with "three gaping holes in each sleeve, just below the elbow." Allen claimed he had cut the holes to give the shirt some ventilation and that he had been using it since 1937. Red Sox manager Joe Cronin didn't see it that way and complained to umpire Bill McGowan that the garment was a distraction to the hitters.

McGowan asked Allen to go to the clubhouse and put on another shirt. Allen stalked off the mound. It was thought that he would swap shirts and be right back. Minutes ticked by. Indians manager Oscar Vitt sent a batboy in to see what was keeping Allen. He quickly reported that Allen refused to come back unless he was allowed to wear the shirt. Vitt ran into the clubhouse and explained to Allen, probably none too calmly, that it was his job to decide when a pitcher came out of the game. Allen refused to change his shirt. Vitt fined him $250 and went back to the game. Left alone in the clubhouse, Allen repented, but by that time another pitcher was on the mound.

Later, Allen said he would wear the same shirt the next time he pitched and that he would again quit if ordered to change it. Allen did pitch again, but the shirt never played again. Allen sold it to a Cleveland department store owned by his general manager for $500, where it was put on display. Eventually the Hall of Fame claimed the shirt and it vanished, as Jay Jaffe explained in his recent account of our trip to Cooperstown, into the holdings of a museum that currently has nothing on display.

Considering the shirtsleeves game, Stuart Bell of the Cleveland Press wrote: "There may be no hard-and-fast rule governing the cut, width, length, size and general consistency of undershirts, but Johnny Allen didn't do himself any good by wearing a shirt that the law ruled against. John thinks that he is being ganged...but the ganging is pretty much John's own fault. He has a bad temper, players know it and they do everything they can to excite it... It is not a very favorable commentary on the managers and players of the American League that they goad any pitcher on such gossamer digressions, but it also is a very unfavorable commentary on Allen that he falls for the guff and gets mad."

Bell had it right, because Allen was nearly impossible to beat. In 1937 Allen had come as close to a perfect season as any in the history of the game. Kept to a shortened schedule by a holdout and a bout with appendicitis, he was nonetheless perfect whenever he took the mound. After going 4-0 prior to the medical emergency, he returned to action on Aug. 15 and won 11 straight games to post a 15-0 record.

Allen took the mound on the last day of the season looking to tie Walter Johnson's record for consecutive wins. It was not to be; the Indians had a third baseman named "Bad News" Hale, and he lived up to his rep, allowing a Hank Greenberg grounder to go through his legs for an RBI. Allen lost 1-0, finishing the season at 15-1. His .938 winning percentage remained the major league record until Elroy Face of the Pittsburgh Pirates went 18-1 in 1959. It's still the American League record to this day.

Allen was gracious in defeat. "I ought to kill him," Allen said of Hale. "Any bush-league third baseman would have made that play." Only intervention by his manager and teammates saved Hale from bodily harm.

Despite frequent arm problems, through 1938 Allen's career record was 99-38 (.723) with an ERA of 3.61, vs. a league ERA of 4.63. Some of Allen's magic was attributable to strong run support from strong Yankees and Indians clubs. The combination of Allen's bulldog attitude, his slider, and good hitting made for a combination that was very hard to beat. The only sure way to defeat him was to get him to self-destruct.

If, like Allen, a player is willing to fall apart in a key spot because of an over-attachment to a garment, a piece of jewelry or a place in the batter's box, why wouldn't you take advantage of that?

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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