August 3, 2007
You Could Look It Up
Ever since Mike Coolbaugh died I've been thinking a lot about Addie Joss. I was already feeling a bit guilty towards Joss because our new book, It Ain't Over, stops just short of including the 1908 American League race, which was Joss's big moment. Joss was the driving force on the Indians that year, putting up a 27-win season, and pitching a perfect game against the White Sox's Big Ed Walsh in the heat of a tight pennant race on October 2. This was a great story, but we had so many others, and Clay Davenport's rankings of the races had the 1908 AL campaign just a little too far down the list for it to make it between the covers.
So we were forced to forget Joss, a cruel thing to do to the pitcher the director of the Hall of Fame described as "baseball's forgotten man." Joss was a great pitcher, or at least a very good one-as with most Deadball Era hurlers it's difficult to separate the pitcher's true skill level from his time. Joss wasn't one of the top strikeout pitchers of the day, but he had excellent control, with the second-best walk rate of 1902-1909, just behind Cy Young. In raw terms, Joss posted the second-lowest career ERA in history. Even dinging Joss for using the dead ball doesn't keep him out of the all-time post-1900 top ten. Widely regarded as a thinking man's pitcher, Joss's approach and results find a modern analog in Greg Maddux-with an incongruous bit of Joaquin Andujar thrown in. Joss would wind up with his back to the batter; Andujar used a similar delivery at times. To see Andujar do it was to wonder how he could face second base and still get the ball over the plate, let alone not kill anyone, yet Andujar's control was usually above average. Joss's was exemplary.
Unfortunately, the reason that Joss's ERA is so low isn't only attributable to his deceptive delivery, but because he died before he could go through the decline phase of his career. Joss pitched through a tired arm in 1909, but was still good enough to post a 1.71 ERA that year (versus a league ERA of 2.54). He paid for this perseverance with a shredded elbow in 1910. As he was trying to work his arm back into shape during the spring of 1911, he was killed by tubercular meningitis. He died on April 14, two days after his 31st birthday.
What made Joss "forgotten" was the Hall of Fame's rule about a player having to put in ten seasons of work in order to be eligible. Joss barely got in nine before his unexpected, early death. Despite his 1.89 ERA and attractive 160-97, .623 record, Joss would be ineligible for a plaque in Cooperstown for the first 42 years of the Hall's existence. Finally, the Veterans Committee shrugged its shoulders in 1978, overlooked the rule, and admitted Joss. They had done something similar for Ross Youngs a few years before (the tenth of Youngs' ten "seasons" was a seven-game cup of coffee), so they figured it was okay to bend the rules for Joss. Off they went, tobogganing down a slippery slope.
Which brings me to my connecting Joss and Mike Coolbaugh. In both cases, their teams had appropriately charitable impulses when faced with an untimely death. The Tulsa Drillers gave Coolbaugh's family a bank address to which donations might be sent. Addie Joss got a game. On July 24, 1911, a team of American League All-Stars played the Indians to benefit Joss's widow. If you've ever seen any of the pictures of Ty Cobb in a Cleveland uniform you're familiar with this game; Cobb attended but somehow his uniform stayed home. Walter Johnson and Smoky Joe Wood pitched for the AL, while Cy Young toed the rubber for the Indians. Others playing included Tris Speaker, Sam Crawford, Bobby Wallace, Frank Baker, and (of all people) Hal Chase. The All-Stars beat the Indians 7-2, and the Joss family received around $13,000, equivalent to about $275,000 in today's dollars.
Baseball used to have these kinds of games all the time. Among many others, there was a game played to generate funds for Christy Mathewson's medical care, and Roy Campanella's, another for the relief of poverty during the great depression, and more still to support various causes during the war (one of which allowed the wonderful summit recorded here to take place).
It's hard to remember the last time baseball staged a benefit game. Perhaps the existence of the pension made it feel like less of a necessity, or it has been subsumed into other activities. In some cases, teams have made charitable giving part of their promotional efforts, such as the "When team A hits home run B, company C will give X dollars to Y charity" approach. This is at best a passive form of support, and probably doesn't do half the job that a post-World Series game in the old barnstorming style would do. Were the game to prioritize giving-be it to victims of chance associated with the game, like Mike Coolbaugh, or the relief of soldiers returning from the war (thanks to modern medical techniques, many soldiers are living with the damage from severe wounds that would have killed them just a few years ago), or its own RBI program the dollars would mount up faster than the sponsor-funded home run by home run approach.
A few suggestions in this regard: first, spring training is perfect for this kind of thing. If baseball can subject itself to the disruption of the World Baseball Classic, then it can probably live with whatever problems are created by an annual charity game or two. The same thing could be achieved in a warm-weather location after the World Series, with players who were not involved in the postseason. Someone should put a call in to Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez; they'll probably be looking for ways to kill time right about then.
It's a bit late to be bringing this up, but there's a game coming up on the schedule that just cries out to have its profits donated to charity. It will be one of the most noted games of the season and also the most controversial. A good way to redeem that game from a great deal of negative publicity (deserved or not), would be to simply take the money from it and give it away. We're talking, of course, about the game in which Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's record.
Finally, it's worth preemptively answering one question about the whole concept of benefit games, from the 1910 contest for the family of the late Athletics catcher, Doc Powers, to that for Don Black, who suffered a stroke while batting for the Indians in a 1948 game, to those for Roy Campanella and war relief: why should Baseball do anything charitable for anyone? It's just a company like any other, so why bother? The answer has nothing to do with Baseball's standing in the community or its place in American culture, at least not that those things obligate them in any way. The answer, simply, is that they have the opportunity, and by virtue of that standing, they can make more of an impact than any one of us can. There shouldn't need to be any more of an explanation than that-when you have the chance to help someone, you should. It's as simple as that.