Friday, July 22, 2011

Great Names in Baseball Has Moved!

It has found its own home on the Interwebz! Follow the link to the right or go here!

All GNIB posts from this blog can be found there.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Great Names in Baseball: Barney "The Yiddish Curver" Pelty

[Editor's note: This is a guest post written by good friend, fellow baseball enthusiast, and ambiguously names Steve Davis. Thanks for contributing Steve!]

Greetings, faithful reader. My name is Steve - unless you're hispanic, then my name is Esteban. Despite an irreconcilable disagreement in regard to how one is intended to spend time at a bowling alley1, Eric and I have a mutual appreciation for projectiles that are dispatched skyward from ground level and the people that make this possible.

You may be asking yourself, "why is this man2 who is not Eric writing things to me on Eric's blog?" This is a valid question; let me assure you that your concerns are important to me and will be addressed in the order which they were received. It's quite simple, really - I'm here to tell you about Barney "The Yiddish Curver" Pelty, who hailed from Farmington, Missouri. While I'm not from Farmington or even Missouri at all, chances are I'm more from Farmington than you are3, and that gives me a decided advantage in the knowing of things about people from there.

In the days before baseball was racially integrated, any number of other factions were targeted and ridiculed. Among many people of the day (and, sadly, also in the current day), the Jewish were unwelcome. This caused many Jewish baseball pros to conceal their beliefs and even change their names in an attempt to make a peaceful living. Barney Pelty was not one of these pros.

Born and raised in the aforementioned Farmington, Pelty played college ball at the Carlton Institute in said town. After a transfer that saw him briefly play at Blees Military Academy, he began his professional career in 1902 by signing on with the minor league Nashville Vols. An arm injury saw him bounce back to semipro ball before resurfacing the next year with the Cedar Rapids Rabbits4. However, the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Browns quickly took an interest in the young man with a large nose5. The Browns purchased his services for $850, making him among the first Jewish players in the American League. Unlike other players, he was proud of this fact and openly touted the nickname “Yiddish Curver.”

Over the course of the next 10 seasons in St. Louis6, Pelty proved to be a very solid pitcher on a generally terrible team. He experienced what was certainly his greatest success during the 1906 season7, going 16-11 with a 1.59 ERA over 260.2 innings and allowing a WHIP of only 0.951. This gave him the second lowest ERA in the American League that season, and it is telling that he still barely managed to eclipse a .500 win-loss record behind that performance. As it turns out, that season’s 1.59 ERA still ranks as the lowest mark in the history of the St. Louis Browns/Baltimore Orioles franchise.

Pelty retired at the end of 1912 with a tidy 2.63 ERA for his career, which still stands as the best mark ever recorded by a Jewish pitcher. It should be noted, though, that he put these numbers up in the deadball era and was only moderately better than the average pitcher over the course of his career – in this context, he falls well below more notable Jewish hurler Sandy Koufax by a wide margin. Despite his useful pitching, Pelty finished his career with an unremarkable record of 92-117.

During the offseason and after his retirement, Pelty kept himself busy running a bookstore, managing semipro teams, working as an inspector for the Missouri State Food and Drug Department, and participating in local politics back in his hometown of Farmington. He did resurface in 1937 to face off against the great Grover Cleveland Alexander in an exhibition game which, in keeping with his career norms, he lost. Pelty would die two years later in his hometown at the age of 58.

1 Eric’s idea vs. Steve’s idea

2 Not actually me. Googling my name is not fruitful.

3 May not be true. I don’t know where you are from.

4 I long for the days when a major professional sports franchise would exist in a place like Cedar Rapids. Bless you, Green Bay Packers.

5 I wanted this not to be true. Unfortunately, it was.

6 Much like the Yiddish Curver, I also work in St. Louis. Even more reason for me to know things.

7 Interestingly, Pelty spent the 1906 season with the historic Branch Rickey as his catcher.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Great Names in Baseball: Wish Egan

The great halls of baseball's history are filled with people who made little impact as players but who found a niche in the baseball world elsewhere. This includes big names like Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, front-office types like Moneyballer GM Bily Beane, or tell-all author Jim Bouton. Many retired players find jobs as managers or coaches of minor-league or independent-league teams. And more than a few become scouts for big-league clubs. Aloysius Jerome "Wish" Egan was one such player.

Google doesn't seem to have an answer to the origins of Egan's nicknames, but Egan may have simply wished he'd been better on the mound. Egan, a native of Evart, Michigan, began his big-league career with the nearby Detroit Tigers in 1902. Though he only pitched in three starts and lost two of them, he posted an above-average 2.86 ERA in those starts. However, the Tigers didn't feel confident in Wish's ability, and he found himself pitching for the Louisville Colonels of the American Association for the next two years, racking up 44 wins.

The St. Louis Cardinals took a chance on him after that, and Egan put up below-average numbers for the Cards in 1905, though the rest of St. Louis team wasn't much to write home about. Wish made 16 appearances for the Cardinals in 1906, but his poor performance spelled the end of his major-league baseball career.

Like so many players before and since, Wish toiled in lower leagues for a few more years. He yielded so-so results for the Kansas City Blues in 1907 and 1908. In 1909, Egan found himself in the California League as a member of the San Jose Prune Pickers, for whom he won 18 games in 33 starts. Egan made his final professional baseball appearances in 1910 with the Newark Indians of the Eastern League.

But in 1910, Egan got his big break. The Detroit Tigers hired him as a scout. He would hold the position until his death in 1951. In the 41 years in between, the list of great Tigers ballplayers Wish found is impressive.

Egan's best find was a 15-year-old southpaw from Detroit who was found playing sandlot baseball in 1936. Wish taught the kid how to throw a curve ball and, three years later, Hal Newhouser would make his debut with the Tigers. Newhouser became an unstoppable force for the Tigers from 1944-1948, earning back-to-back MVP awards in 1944 and 1945. He would also make three starts against the Chicago Cubs in the 1945 World Series. He lost the series opener before redeeming himself with a victory in Game 5 and another win in the final game of the series. Dizzy Trout, another of Wish's great finds, picked up the Tigers' win in fourth game of the series.

Like many other Great Names in Baseball players, Wish Egan wasn't the best of his generation. Nor was he even in the top 75%. But as many mediocre players have done since, he found his calling in the game after falling short on the field.

Read one obit here. And another here.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Great Names in Baseball: Malachi Jeddidah Kittridge

Like any real 'merican, I enjoy a solid Biblical name. And also like any real 'merican, I love baseball. So I really enjoy it when baseball players have solid Biblical names. From throwbacks like Hall-of-Famers Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown1 and Zachariah "Zack" Wheat to mid-century mediocre pitchers Saul Rogovin and Zebulon "Red" Eaton2 to modern-day trainwrecks like Hiram "Kyle" Davies and Elijah "All-Around Great Guy" Dukes.

But those names all pale in comparison to the majestic moniker of 16-year veteran Malachi Jeddidah Kittridge3. Like many of the other Great Names in baseball, Kittridge fell short of being a superstar. And like Boileryard Clarke, "Jedediah" Kittridge was a backup catcher. He straddled the Liveball Era of the late 1800s and and the Deadball Era of the early 1900s, though his batting numbers lean toward the Deadball type: His career slash line is .219/.277/.274, but his career spanned from 1890 to 1906.

His defense was average for the standards of a turn-of-the-century catcher, throwing out 39% of baserunners4. So what gives? Why keep him around for so long if he was average defensively and terrible at the plate?

Backup catchers hold a lot of value in the big leagues. They tend to be smart players who understand what goes into a game and how to get the most out of pitchers. In a sense, they become secondary managers, and many of them go on to become actual managers5. This includes Kittridge, who was briefly named manager of the 1904 Washington Senators. Unfortunately, his tenure as player-manager lasted only 17 games, of which the Senators won only 1.

Kittridge spent his early career with the Chicago Colts6 before playing stints with the Louisville Colonels, Washington Senators (the National League team), Boston Beaneaters, and the Washington Senators (the American League team). He was traded to the Cleveland Naps in 1906, where he only played 5 games before heading into the obscurity of the minor and independent leagues of the early 1900s. Kittridge played seasons or partial seasons with increasingly oddly named teams. They were, in chronological order: Montreal Royals, Dayton Veterans, Scranton Miners, Elgin (IL) Kittens (where he was apparently the only player), and, finally, the Saginaw Krazy Kats. He played his final baseball game at the age of 41.

With a history of mediocre-to-bad baseball and terrible managing, Kittridge suffered the ultimate indignity of dying in Gary, Indiana7, in 1923 at the age of 52. But, unless your name is Zebulon Gethsemane Ichabod, his gravestone probably looks a lot cooler than yours will.

1 How did "Three Finger" Brown get his nickname?
2 With a first name like "Zebulon," you'd think his teammates could have come up with a better nickname than "Red." But I guess he wasn't around the majors long enough to earn a nickname like Zebulon, God of Curve Balls. Oh, well.
3 Early baseball players are frequently found to have spelled their names a lot of different ways. . The player in question has also had his last name spelled "Kittredge" and "Kittridge" and has had his middle name spelled "Jedediah" and "Jeddidah."
4 39% of runners thrown out is actually excellent for a modern catcher. But baseball strategy has greatly changed. Without going into great detail, teams around 1900 tried to steal a lot more bases with just about anybody on the team, which led to lower stolen base percentages.
5 Many of MLB's current managers fit this bill: Ned Yost, Joe Girardi, Eric Wedge, Bob Melvin, Bruce Bochy, Clint Hurdle, and Mike Scioscia, though he was mostly a starting catcher.
6 Again, the Colts predated the Chicago Orphans, who became the Cubs.
7 Gary was probably a decent-enough industrial town in the first quarter of the 20th century. While it's not stated anywhere, it seems likely that Kittridge moved to Gary, where work was plentiful, to find a job after his playing career finally ended in 1911.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Great Names in Baseball: Cupid Childs

Baseball fans loves fat guys. Maybe fans identify better with them because heavier players look more like common American slobs than the sculpted superstars whose strength is not shrouded by extra heft. Clarence "Cupid" Childs was one such player. But unlike modern heavyweights such as pitcher Ray King or first baseman Prince Fielder, Childs played a more physically demanding position: second base.

He was agile enough to stay at the position for his entire career and round enough as a kid to be called "Cupid." He played mostly in the 1890s and made an appearance in the first couple years of the new century. At 5'8" and 185 lbs., Childs was among the heavier players of the era. While this is about average for a modern ballplayer, the turn of the century saw players who were typically toothpick-thin. That Childs was fleet enough to steal 269 bases in his career is a testament to his athleticism.

Childs' never hit with the power of the biggest big man of all, Babe Ruth. Rather, at his peak with the Cleveland Spiders1 in the 1890s, Childs was a patient hitter who averaged nearly a walk per game while batting in the low-to-mid .300s. His career .416 on-base percentage ranks 24th all-time, but Childs' decline in his final four years brought that number down. In his prime seasons of 1892-1894, he drew 344 walks while striking out only 43 times.

Childs was moved to the St. Louis Perfectos in 1899, as both St. Louis and the Spiders were owned by the Robison Brothers, who saw ownership of both clubs as a way to slide good players to one team to be competitive. And while the Perfectos went 84-67 that season, they finished a disappointing fifth in a competitive league2. And Childs missed part of the season with malaria. Yes, Cupid got malaria3.

Childs found himself with the Chicago Orphans in 1900, but he was never the same player again. After a disappointing season-and-a-half, the Orphans orphaned Cupid. Cupid played for a bevy of minor-league clubs until 1904. He went to work as a coal driver in Baltimore after that, but Cupid died bankrupt in 1912 of Bright's Disease. He was only 45.

His career was overlooked by the Hall of Fame. They only like fatties who were media darlings, apparently.

1 Cleveland Spiders is probably a better mascot than their current one, which is probably the most offensive mascot in all of sports. They've only gotten away with it because they play in Cleveland, which no one cares about.
2 It may be noted that the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were terrible, winning only 20 games all year. The Spiders folded at season's end.
3 Someone please make a Photoshop of this sentence. If you don't, I may have to make an MS Paint mashup3A.
3A By the way, a Google image search of "cupid malaria" brings up photos of Cupid Childs. So I guess he's famous for something, even if it isn't Hall of Fame worthy.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Great Names in Baseball: Dad Clarkson

Professional baseball has always had its share of related players. From Hall of Fame brother duos like Paul and Lloyd Waner1 to father-son pairings like The Griffeys to multi-generational sets like the Boones, families have contributed to the game's rich history.

The late 1800s and early 1900s saw a trio of Clarkson boys, all of whom pitched in the majors with very different results. The oldest, John Clarkson, was an 1880s superstud for the Chicago White Stockings2 and the Boston Beaneaters, winning as many as 53 games in a season. The youngest, Walter Clarkson, threw for the New York Highlanders and for the Cleveland Naps3 in the 1900s, but he never found lasting success in the big leagues.

In between them came Arthur Clark(e)son, more famously known as Dad Clarkson. The moniker strikes one as odd, since he wasn't even the oldest of the pitching brothers. Because I can't find any results regarding his nickname on the first two pages of the Google search I did, I think it's only fair to start the rumor that he had more than 75 illegitimate children in each of the many cities of the National League4. When Dad's ol' team rolled into town, he'd spend his meager per diem on a section of bleachers for the children. Dad stopped by the section before his starts to promise to bean the hometown team's superstar if one of them would be a darling runt and fetch him a fifth of "Pitcher's Tonic" and the finest toothache drops the closest pharmacy offered. The only time the children were ever happy was when good ol' Dad planted one off Hugh Duffy's forehead. And when Duffy came to, he never once thought of fisticuffs, for although Dad Clarkson was a scrawny chap, men and [Dad's] children alike understand the rule that a serious mustache is not to be trifled with5.

The end.

Oh wait, I didn't even talk about Dad's actual career. In six seasons, Clarkson pitched for four different teams, finishing his major league career with 39 wins and 39 losses. While never an ace, he pitched respectably as a fourth starter on the 1893 St. Louis Browns and on the pennant-winning 1895 Baltimore Orioles, where he likely pitched to Boileryard Clarke at least once. His big-league career ended in 1896, though he reappeared in 1900 as a member of something called the Anaconda Serpents6 in the obscure and likely dangerous Montana State League7.

Dad Clarkson lived in the shadow cast by his Hall of Fame brother John Clarkson, although Dad outlived him by a year. And while John's legacy of masterful pitching is enshrined in Cooperstown, Dad Clarkson's millions of living descendents still cry a tear of joy anytime a hitter is beaned in anger.

1 It's worth noting that the Waners had pretty awesome nicknames, too: Big Poison (Paul) and Little Poison (Lloyd).
2 Oddly enough, the White Stockings eventually became the Cubs. And then the Chicago White Sox were born when the American League was formed in 1901.
3 And what an exciting team the Naps were! They were actually named for their superstar player/manager Napoleon 'Nap' Lajoie.
4 Makes you wonder why Wilt Chamberlain was never nicknamed "Dad." At least, he was never nicknamed that in public; inevitably, some people somewhere called him that.
5 Please note the inclusion of the word "serious." Ironic mustaches deserve to be trifled with plenty. Any encounter between Dad Clarkson and one of his hipster-mustache-wearing descendants bypasses the word "fight" and goes directly to "flogging"5A.
5A Does that make what I'm doing "blogging about flogging?"
6 Anaconda is a city in Montana, although "city" is a loosely used word. According to the Keeper Of All Things, Anaconda has fewer residents now than it did when Dad Clarkson pitched there in 1900. Also, the baseball club owner apparently enjoyed redundant names.
7 The Montana State League is certainly an interesting place for someone from Cambridge, Massachusetts, to end up. The league featured only four teams: the Serpents, the Great Falls Indians, the Helena Senators, and the Butte Smoke Eaters7A.
7A No matter how hard I try, I will always want this to have been the Smokey Butte Eaters7B.
7B Yes, I know it's pronounced "beaut," but it's much funnier to read it as "butt." I will not apologize to the residents of that Butte. Wakka wakka wakka!