April 29, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Miracles and Management Miscues
With the Baltimore Orioles continuing to hold a share of first place in the AL East and the time of the season rapidly approaching the point where their record would be statistically significant (see Rany Jazayerli on hot starts here, here, and here), it's worth asking if a bad team can suddenly become good. The answer to that question is obvious: sure, it happens. Not all the time, of course, but frequently enough that baseball history is littered with a good selection of "miracle" teams, from the original miracle 1914 Boston Braves (from 69-82 to 94-59 and the championship in one offseason) to the 1991 Braves. The more useful question is, can a franchise that seemed dead, dead, dead, dead due to some chronic obtuseness in its off-field management component (be it ownership, the front office, or both) come back without making radical changes? If there was evidence for this kind of life after death scenario, it would have special significance for the O's, owners of a ten-season streak of consecutive losing seasons.
There is some precedence for that kind of revival. In fact, a franchise that seemed doomed to life in last place has revived despite having an owner, manager, and general manager who had literally become senile. Of course, all three were the same man, the octogenarian head of the Philadelphia Athletics, Connie Mack. By the late 1940s, Mack, born during the Civil War, had started to drift mentally, and increasingly relied on coaches like the former A's star Al Simmons to cover for him. As Bob Considine wrote in a 1948 profile of the man once known as the Tall Tactician:
When he signals for an obviously wrong move these days, Al Simmons turns his back a bit sadly on the old man, as if he did not detect the signal, and calls for the right move. But this never fools Mick Mack. When Al comes back to the bench at the end of the inning, Mr. Mack usually speaks up. "You used better judgment than I did, Al," he will say quietly, and then go about his timeless task of wagging his scorecard at the fielders.
In that same profile, Mack, then 85, insisted that he would not retire, "As long as my mind is clear. When I reach the stage when I don't know my business, or trade a .300 hitter for a .200 hitter, then you'll know I'm unfit." In Mack's case, fitness was better judged by his record than his trades, which in his long career he made relatively few of, most of them very bad (often to offload characters he couldn't work with, like the 1910 deal that sent Shoeless Joe Jackson to Cleveland for the immortal Bris Lord). That record had been extremely poor for more than a decade. Since Mack tore down his last great team, the 1929-1931 AL pennant winners and two-time champions, he had been unable to revive the team. From 1934 to 1946, the A's had risen as high as seventh place just twice, losing 100 or more games four times and 90 or more five times. Their overall record for the period was 736-1245, a .372 winning percentage.
Mack's problems were legion, making it nearly impossible for him to achieve another resurrection. He was cheap. He had never developed a farm system, preferring to rely on the old system of scouting and signing players one by one. Integration wasn't on his radar. And, of course, there was his increasingly senescent mind. In 1946, the A's went 49-105 (.318), and there was no reason to think they would ever compete again so long as Mack still breathed.
And yet, they did. The old Mack, who was perceptive about players, reasserted himself-that or, more likely, some combination of his coaches and his sons made the calls for him. During and after the 1946 season, the A's remade themselves with an emphasis on on-base percentage, defense, and young pitching. He picked up 26-year-old first baseman Ferris Fain, a future batting title winner with excellent plate judgment and a good glove, from the San Francisco Seals in the Rule 5 draft. For the opposite corner he purchased 30-year-old third baseman Hank Majeski, a failed prospect with the pre-war Braves who was then rotting in the Yankees' system. Majeski was a strong fielder with an average bat.
To finish off his new infield, Mack pushed his shortstop, Pete Suder, back to his natural position at second base, and rescued another failed prospect to replace him at short. Eddie Joost had first reached the bigs at the age of 20 with the 1936 Cincinnati Reds, but it would be years until his bat would mature. Through 1943, his batting rates were .223/.301/.311, with defense to match. He celebrated his age-27 season that year by hitting .185/.299/.252 for the Braves, and it was back to the minors. Joost emerged a changed man when Mack bought him out of the Cardinals' system for $10,000 in the fall of 1946. Now 31, he had 20-homer power, but more significantly, he had developed some of the best plate judgment in the business. While he never was able to hit for average, the A's version of Joost was an annual top 10 finisher in on-base percentage because he averaged nearly 120 walks a year.
In the outfield, Mack made a move that led to a short-term gain but was a long-term misstep, acquiring left fielder Barney McCosky from the Tigers. McCosky was a high-average singles hitter with a reasonable willingness to take a walk, and would finish his career having hit .312/.386/.414. The only problem was that the move cost him 23-year-old future Hall of Fame third baseman George Kell. Still, McCosky, combined with scrappy, Czechoslovakian-born right fielder Elmer Valo, a similar kind of hitter, and power-hitting center fielder Sam Chapman, made for a potent pasture trio.These pieces, along with veteran catcher Buddy Rosar (one of the few players retained from the old scheme) were all in place by the 1947 season. The pitching staff was subject to a slower evolution, but with their new lineup, the A's defensive efficiency improved, and the influx of additional walks and power gave Mack more of a margin for error with the hurlers. The A's went 78-76 in 1947, their best season in 15 years, and in 1948, the team improved to 84-70, a record and finish (fourth), which disguises the fact that the A's were actually in the pennant race through the first 100 games of the season, with a piece of first place on August 12 with a 65-43 (.602) record. A 19-27 record the rest of the way put an end to that, particularly five straight losses to the Indians, the eventual pennant winners, but the season was still a triumph given where the A's had been just two years before.
The good times continued into 1949, though with a crucial difference: whatever benevolent force had suspended the handicaps under which the A's operated returned in full force-which is to say that the A's paid a fatal price for having an obsolete owner-operator. The team made a vague showing at contending without ever getting really close; their 44-30 (.595) record of July 5 put them in second place, four games behind the front-running Yankees, but they quickly faded from there, finishing at 81-73. What made the 1949 team at once so interesting and so tragic was that it seemed that after successfully reshaping the offense and defense (although McCoskey was lost for the season with an injury), Mack had finally found a pitching staff.
The 1949 hurlers for the Athletics were uniformly young, with an average age of 25. The only moundsman over 30 was the team's aging and injured Phil Marchildon, who was able to make just six starts. The rotation featured five twentysomethings: Joe Coleman (26); World War II combat veteran Lou Brissie (25), whose shell-damaged left leg required him to wear a plastic guard while pitching; Canadian Dick Fowler (28), one of two pitchers on the staff with a no-hitter to his credit; curveballer Alex Kellner (24); and Carl Scheib, a 22-year-old work in progress. Standing a short distance behind these pitchers was a 23-year-old lefty rookie, Bobby Shantz, who made seven starts and spent the rest of the season in the bullpen.
This promising group was quite wild, striking out too few and walking too many. Still, Coleman and Brissie were top ten finishers in strikeouts, Kellner won 20 with a good ERA, and the rotation as a whole was solid, with only Scheib's 5.12 ERA dragging the group down. The future looked bright, but the reality was actually rather dim. In a season in which the pennant-winning Yankees, with a veteran rotation headed up by Vic Raschi, Allie Reynolds, and Eddie Lopat, pitched only 59 complete games while getting 36 saves out of the bullpen, Mack's Deadball Era-thinking showed through: the A's pitched a league-leading 85 complete games.
While the individual innings pitched totals for the A's youngsters crested at Kellner's 245, given the sheer number of walks and strikeouts issued by the staff the pitch counts must have been onerous. Four of the five pitchers declined or was injured in 1950. Coleman dropped from 30 starts to five. Scheib's ERA rose to 7.22 and he was dropped from the rotation. Fowler went from 28 starts to nine, with an accompanying 6.48 ERA. Kellner stayed in the rotation but saw his ERA climb from an above-average 3.75 to a well below-average 5.47; his won-lost record swung from 20-12 to 8-20. Only Brissie was somewhat better, posting an improved ERA. His strikeout rate slipped though, and he was soon traded to the Indians and moved to the bullpen.
With the pitching staff imploding, the 1950 A's went 52-102, singularly bad timing as the long-dormant Phillies won a surprise pennant. Attendance of Athletics games, which long been slipping, died, as they drew just 310,000, while the Phillies drew a league-leading 1.22 million. The crisis was enough to finally force Mack's retirement, and would soon trigger the team's sale and relocation to Kansas City.
For the Orioles, the moral of the story is this: a failed leadership doesn't reform. Regardless of whether or not the Orioles hang on to contend this season or quickly fade, the qualities that caused them to collapse and stay down in the first place persist. They can go into temporary remission, but in the end, they're very likely to reassert themselves at the worst possible moment.