Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Happy Birthday, Bill White
By David Schoenfield
It's been a weak stretch of birthdays -- we should do a little study, but it wouldn't surprise me if January is the weakest month for birthdays. This could be related to the birthday effect that Malcolm Gladwell outlined in his book "Outliers" -- that being born at a certain time of year is an advantage. In hockey, for example, there is a disproportionate number of players born in the first half of the year. In Canada, the cutoff date for determining ages for youth hockey leagues is Jan. 1, so those kids born in January are "older" than kids born in December, creating an advantage that starts in youth leagues.
In baseball, the Little League cutoff dates was July 31 for a long time. Sure enough, here's a study that shows more major leaguers were born in August than any other month, with the months at the end of the year producing a higher percentage of major leaguers than months earlier in the year.
Anyway, the best players from some previous days:
Jan. 27 -- John Lowenstein has played the most games of anybody on this date. Julio Teheran could end up being the first Jan. 27 All-Star.
Jan. 26 -- Nobody born on Jan. 26 has made an All-Star Game.
Jan. 25 -- The only All-Star: Derrick Turnbow, who had a 4.30 career ERA.
Jan. 24 -- At least we get four All-Stars: Scott Kazmir, Rob Dibble, Dick Stigman and Atlee Hammaker. Stigman made both All-Star Games back in 1960 (there were two for a few years) even though he was a rookie with the Indians and finished 5-11 with a 4.51 ERA. He was 4-4, 3.80 in the first half, but had only started eight games (and saved six others). He didn't pitch in either game.
OK, Jan. 28. We get some more interesting guys today.
George Wright: Born 1847
Wright was one of the stars of early baseball, a shortstop who played in the National Association, the forerunner to the National League, and then in the first few seasons of the National League (he was the first batter in National League history in 1876). When his older brother Harry helped form the first professional team in 1869 for the Cincinnati Base Ball Club, he brought his younger brother over from New York. At $1400, George was the highest-paid player on the team. (The Red Stockings would tour the country in 1869 and go undefeated.)
George would go on to star for the Boston teams in the National Association and National League that won six pennants in eight years. Harry was the manager. After the initial group of Hall of Famers (Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson) were elected in 1936, Wright was elected in 1937 by the Centennial Committee, the only player among earlier pioneers so selected. Brother Harry would get elected in 1953.
After leaving baseball in 1882, Wright returned to cricket, the sport the brothers had been raised on (their father owned a cricket club) and focused on his sporting goods business in Boston. That company -- Wright & Ditson -- became one of the leading purveyors of tennis, golf, hockey and baseball equipment and apparel and still exists today, selling vintage-style clothes.
Bill White: Born 1934
Remembered today perhaps more for his tenure as National League president from 1989 to 1994, White was a five-time All-Star first baseman and seven-time Gold Glover for the Cardinals in the late '50s and early '60s and with a little better luck could have been a Hall of Famer. He reached the majors with the New York Giants in 1956 at age 22 and hit 22 home runs. Good start. Except he got drafted into the Army and missed all of 1957 and nearly all of 1958. By 1959, the Giants had come up with Orlando Cepeda and Willie McCovey, so there wasn't room for three first basemen. The Cardinals acquired White right before the season and he hit .302 with 12 home runs, splitting time between left field and first base.
During his peak from 1962 to 1966, White hit .300/.364/.476 and averaged 23 home runs and 98 RBIs, good numbers for the '60s. He averaged 5.3 WAR over that span and finished third in the MVP voting in 1964 when the Cardinals won the pennant. The Cardinals traded White to the Phillies after the 1965 season, apparently believing a guy named George Kernek was ready for first base. He wasn't; in early, the team acquired Cepeda from the Giants. White had one good year in Philadelphia but then fell off in 1967 as he hit just eight home runs, apparently bothered by a foot injury. He hung one for one more season and made a cameo for the Cardinals in 1969. OK, maybe not a Hall of Famer, but give him those two years he missed and a couple more years at the end of his career and he would have had a good case.
After his playing days, White became a long-time broadcaster for the Yankees, becoming the first black play-by-play announcer (he's the one calling Bucky Dent's famous home run in 1978) and then the first black president of a major sports league. After retiring as NL president, White basically went off the grid, refusing to watch baseball on television or attend games. His 2011 autobiography "Uppity: My Untold Story About the Games People Play" tells the story of enduring life in the minor leagues in the Jim Crow South of the 1950s (where he once raised his middle finger to a crowd of hecklers in North Carolina and had to carry a bat when getting on the bus after the game) and presents a candid, honest view of the sport and the people who ran it.
White is 80 now. He's lived an amazing baseball life.
Magglio Ordonez: Born 1974
Ordonez shares a birthday with Jermaine Dye, two long-time right fielders. Both are 40 so conceivably could still be active, but Dye last played in 2009 and Ordonez in 2011. Who was the better player? It was Ordonez and not really all that close. Dye hit more home runs (325 to 294) but Ordonez was better in pretty much every other facet of the game. Ordonez hit .309/.369/.502 compared to Dye's .274/.338/.488. Ordonez was OK in the outfield, and while Dye had a strong arm, he was a slow, plodding fielder without much range. In terms of WAR, Ordonez is the easy winner, 38.5 to 20.2.
Ordonez had some monster seasons -- from 1999 to 2003 with the White Sox he hit .300-plus with at 29 or more home runs each season. But those numbers were par for the course back then. He ranked sixth in the American League in OPS in 2002 and ninth in 2003. His best season actually came in 2007. He had missed two-thirds of 2004 and half of 2005 with a knee injury suffered after colliding with Willie Harris. He had his best season in 2007 with the Tigers, when he hit .363 to lead the league and knocked in 139 runs to finish second in the MVP vote to Alex Rodriguez. He fractured his ankle in 2010 and then hurt it again in the 2011 postseason, ending his career.
What if Ordonez hadn't hurt his knee? Those two missing years in his prime loom large considering he was a lifetime .309 hitter with over 1,200 RBIs. Still, he probably wouldn't have been a Hall of Famer. Add 10 WAR to his lifetime total and he's up 48.5, still below the 60 WAR that usually makes a guy a borderline candidate. Ordonez also would have had the steroid cloud hanging over him, as Jose Canseco claimed he injected Ordonez when they were teammates in 2001.