I saw an obituary in the Times yesterday for George Strickland, a player in the 1950s:
- Strickland played 10 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates (1950-52) and Cleveland Indians (1952-57, 1959-60). A defensive specialist, he led American League shortstops in double plays in 1953 and in fielding in 1955. He also shared the major league record for shortstops for double plays in a game (five) in 1952.
As the starting shortstop, he helped the Indians win a record 111 games in 1954 and advance to the World Series, which they lost in four games to the New York Giants. The next year, he led all shortstops in fielding, with a .976 percentage, and had a .284 batting average.
As I read this, a couple of questions occurred to me ...
One, how good a shortstop was Strickland, really? I mean, he seems to have been pretty good, at least. He posted some gaudy fielding stats, and I know (from elsewhere) that he wasn't much of hitter; his only decent offensive season -- when he did hit .284 and drew (as usual) a fair number of walks -- was 1953 (not '55, as suggested above).
In his Win Shares book, Bill James assigned letter grades to every player with at least 5,000 innings at a particular position (through the 2000 season). Of the 193 graded shortstops, fully 53 got grades starting with an A. Strickland's not one of them. He got a B+ for his career, but I suspect that he was, at his best, playing Gold Glove-quality defense. I also know, because I read it somewhere else, that 1960 National League MVP Dick Groat later credited Strickland for teaching him a lot about playing shortstop when both were Pirates.
Now, about the other thing ... You might have noticed that one-year gap in Strickland's service with the Indians. According to the 1960 edition of the Baseball Register, Strickland was "voluntarily retired" in 1958. According to the New York Times that January, Strickland had returned his 1958 contract to the team unsigned, asking to be voluntarily retired for reasons that were "entirely personal."
Strickland doesn't show up again in the Times for more than a year. In 1959 he returned to the lineup in style, homering on Opening Day in Cleveland. He played in 1959 and '60, third base mostly (because in his absence, the Indians had traded for center fielder Woodie Held and turned him into a shortstop). I've not been able to track down Strickland's whereabouts in 1961, but in '62 he coached with the Twins. Then in '63 ... here, I'll let the local paper from yesterday take over:
- Strickland was an Indians coach from 1963-69, usually stationed at third base. His first stint as Cleveland's interim manager began on April 2, 1964, one day after manager Birdie Tebbetts suffered a heart attack, and days before the start of the season. The Indians went 33-39 with Strickland at the helm, before Tebbetts returned on July 5.
Cleveland began the 1966 season 27-10, but had slumped to a 66-57 record when Tebbetts was dismissed as the manager on Aug. 19. Strickland took over, and Cleveland went 15-24 the rest of the way to finish 81-81. Strickland went back to his duties as the third base coach when Joe Adcock was hired as the manager.
Strickland, a New Orleans native who was a standout baseball player at S.J. Peters High School in the early 1940s and played two seasons with the New Orleans Pelicans of the Southern Association, was one of that city's more celebrated players.
Nicknamed "Bo," Strickland was one of the more provocative speakers among a group of retired athletes in the New Orleans area who met once a week for lunch and some good-old-days conversation.
Strickland often was the life of the party.
"Everybody wanted to sit near George at those things," said local baseball historian Peter Barrouquere, a former Times-Picayune reporter. "He told the most amazing stories. When (Hall of Fame pitcher) Bob Lemon passed away, he kept us going for 3 1/2 hours with Bob Lemon stories. He had us in stitches."
I skipped the beginning, but trust me: that obituary didn't mention the reason for Strickland's "voluntary retirement," either. I keep coming back to this simply because it was (and still is) so rare. The only other example I can think of between World War II and the 1980s is Jackie Jensen, who quit after the 1959 season -- he led the American League with 112 RBI that year -- supposedly because he didn't like flying. Jensen came back in 1961, struggled, and quit for good.
I've been through every book about the Indians or about the 1960s that I own, and found no mention of Strickland's early retirement. I've contacted someone who's writing an article about Strickland for SABR's Biography Project. He hasn't found anything conclusive. Maybe Strickland was so frustrated by the Indians' contract offer that he just threw up his hands and decided to work a real job for a while. Maybe Strickland wanted to spend time with the son that he and his wife were adopting around that time.
At the moment, though, I think we're stuck with "personal reasons" and I'm not sure that's a terrible thing. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that there are still a few mysteries left out there.