Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Curious Case for Lead Off

TRIVIA QUESTION:  Who was the manager Bill Virdon replaced when he took over the reigns of the Pittsburgh Pirates the first time?  

ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION IN THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: While we don't see MLB double headers anymore, it's been a long times since we saw a Triple Header. The first one was played in 1890 between the Brooklyn Bridegrooms and the Pittsburgh Alleghenys. Brooklyn won all three, 10-9, 3-2 and 8-4.  


If ever there was a more curious case for a lead off man in the big leagues there were few more curious than the 1960's lead off hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Bill Virdon came to Pittsburgh after being Rookie of the Year in St. Louis and in 1956 had his best season, batting .334. However, what happened when the 1960's rolled around remains a big question mark.

Virdon was a key player in the Pirates World Series victory in 1960. He was an outstanding center fielder on a team where he was flanked by the even more outstanding Roberto Clemente on one side, and the average Bob Skinner on the other. His defense kept him in the line up because as a hitter, and certainly as a lead off hitter, he was sub par.
 (Pirates announcer Bob Prince interviews Pirate players including Virdon)
In the Series he made a game saving catch in Game 4 and other outstanding plays during the series on defense. On offense it was his sharp ground ball which hit Tony Kubek in the throat and opened a big inning for the Bucs.
Until 1965 he never hit over .269 and never had an On-Base Percentage higher than .313. He didn't hit for extra bases, averaging 20 doubles, five triples and six homers from 1961-1965. As a lead off  hitter he was 16-30 in base stealing, actually leading the league with 13 caught steals in 1962.

He eclipsed 80 Runs Scored only twice and was under 60 Runs the other three years. His best hitting year as far as average (a key benchmark in the 1960s) since his breakout 1956, was his last year 1965 (it took him 10 years to achieve achieve better than .269 to finish at .279).

At 34 he came to the end of the road in 1965. It's when the Pirates made perhaps the biggest trade in franchise history sending lefty reliever Joe Gibbon to the Giants for outfield Matty Alou. Alou assumed Virdon's lead off position and his position as the new center fielder.  He quickly established himself as the key to solving the Bucs inconsistent hitting.
Alou led the league in 1966 (his first year with Pittsburgh) with a .342 average, and a .373 OBP. In his first four years in Pittsburgh he would hit .342, .338, .332, and .331 getting edged out by Pete Rose for a second batting title by .003 points. In 1969 he led the NL with 231 hits. 

Virdon came back in 1968 to play in six games going 1-for-3 at the plate, but he did excel as a manager with both Pittsburgh and New York, with stops in Houston and Montreal along the way.  He twice won more than 90 games on his way to 995 wins and .519 winning percentage. Twice he led his teams to first place in their divisions.
 

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Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!! Please pick up a copy of my book "Tales of My Baseball Youth; A Child of the 60's" at www.bobbrillbooks.com, or on Amazon.     



Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Mid May 50 Years Ago

TRIVIA QUESTION: While it's still rare for double headers in MLB, there were three Triple Headers in MLB history. Who played in the first one? Hint: it was1890.   

ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION IN THE PREVIOUS COLUMN:   Six active players died during the 1960's. In addition to the players named in last week's column, the others were Nestor Chavez (plane crash), Ken Hubbs (plane crash) and the Angel's Dick Wantz (inoperable brain tumor).

May 18th, 1969 marked a very unusual day in the annals of baseball in the 1960s. First, it was a day which had something we don't see anymore in MLB and we may never see again; the Double Header. Even more so, two Double Headers in one day.

It was a Sunday which is when most double dips were played. Teams got in those two games before one of them had to leave town. Monday was usually a travel day so playing two was not a real drawback.
The interesting thing about these two twin bills however, was that the winning teams scored a combined total of 10 runs! Four games, 10 runs total for the winners; The Yankees and the Senators. The Senators took two from the White Sox by the same scores of 3-2. New York swept the California Angels 3-1 and 1-0. It was all about Joe Pepitone that day. None of the four teams involved at the time were over .500 with the White Sox at the 50-50 mark.

In the first game, the Angels' Andy Messersmith was off to one of the worst starts of his career. The loss dropped him to 0-3 and the only runs the New Yorkers got was a three run blast in the 7th by Pepitone. It backed the eight-hit pitching of Mel Stottlemyre who went the distance to run his record to 6-3. 

In the night cap hard luck George Brunet failed to yield a run in six innings and gave way to Hoyt Wilhelm. Hurling for the Yankees was Bill Burbach who gave up only two hits in six innings before calling it a night. Steve Hamilton took over. With no score going into the bottom of the ninth, Wilhelm faced lead off hitter Pepitone, who promptly blasted his 11th homer of the young season and second of the day. And 18,000 people, or what was left of them, went home happy from Yankee Stadium.
New York swept the two games with all four runs driven in by two swings from Pepitone. Pepitone would end the season with 27 homers and 70 RBI in his final year with New York. He was sent to Houston for the 1970 season.

In the other Double Header,  an error by normally sure handed shortstop Luis Aparicio spoiled a magnificent pitching performance by Joel Horlen. With score tied at two, the Senators Hank Allen opened the 10th with a grounder which Aparicio muffed. Del Unser sacrificed him to second, an infield hit by Ed Stroud put runners at the corners before Mike Epstien drove home the winning run with a single to right. Horlen went nine innings plus giving up seven hits and took the loss.
In the nightcap it was all over pretty early. With the score tied 1-1 in the third, the Senators Allen led off with a walk. Gary Peters gave up a single to Frank Howard and after striking out Ken McMullen, Brent Alyea singled to drive in Allen. Tim Cullen singled to load the bases and then Peters did what pitchers hate; he walked the light hitting Unser to score Howard with the go ahead run. It proved to be the winning run as the Sens took the second game by the same score as the first, 3-2. Most of the 6274 fans at Comiskey Park that day, went home sad.

Unser, a career .258 hitter was the key to the twin bill wins. It was only his second season in the bigs and he finished a respectable .286. The speedy outfielder led the AL in triples with eight. 

 

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Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column.

Also: Please check out our new Western Short Film. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/iron-gun-western-feature-film/#/

 
Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!! Please pick up a copy of my book "Tales of My Baseball Youth; A Child of the 60's" at www.bobbrillbooks.com, or on Amazon.     



Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Death on the Diamond - Houston

TRIVIA QUESTION: Aside from the players named in this column, three other players died while active players in the 1960's. Who were they? 

ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION IN THE PREVIOUS COLUMN:  Pitcher Jack Fisher, who lost 24 games for the Mets in 1965 and who had only one winning season in the big leagues (1960 when he was 12-11) gave up two very significant home runs in his career. He gave up a dinger every 10 innings in his career and in 400 games allowed 193 of them. On September 28, 1960 in the bottom of the 8th, he gave up a home to Ted Williams. It was Teddy Baseball's last at bat ever. In traditional fashion, Fisher took the loss. Almost a year to the day later (Sept. 26), Fisher faced Roger Maris. In the third he gave up a homer to Maris, no. 60 which tied Babe Ruth for the most homers in a season and to then the only other player to reach 60 in a season .

Sad as it seems, the Houston Colt .45's seemed to be snake bit when it came to players who took to the field for the club in the 1960's and died while still active. Walt Bond, Jim Umbricht and Jay Dahl all left the diamond too soon, and all were active at the time of their death.
Bond was just 29 and had been released by Houston. He died as a Minnesota Twin from Leukemia, Umbricht was still pitching for the Astro's when cancer took his life at 33, while the 19 year old Dahl was killed in a car crash, trying to return to the big leagues with Houston.

Bond's career showed signs of brilliance but the blood disease took its toll. A rookie for the Cleveland Indians in 1960 his debut was less than spectacular. He batted .221 in 40 games, was used much less the following season but in 1962 was called up at the tail end of the year. He hit six home runs in just 54 AB and batted .380. 

1963 saw him in the US Army where he was diagnosed with the disease. His contract was sold to the Colt .45's as it seemed the disease was actually in remission. It was in 1964 he had his best season. His 20 homers and .254 BA with 85 RBI seemed to set him on his way. The following year his average improved to .263 but his power fell off to just seven dingers. It prompted teammates to wonder if the disease was back. 

He continued to slump in 1966 and was sent to the minors where he starred again. Aware of his ailment the Astros and Twins made a deal. His contract was sold to Minnesota and after only 10 games and a .310 BA he was released. He caught on with a minor league club but soon was in the hospital again and he died in September in Houston.

Umbricht came to the Pirates in 1959 and pitched only 50 non-de script innings before being selected by Houston in the 1961 expansion draft with the 35th pick. He had his best season (1962) right off the bat as a reliever with a 4-0 record and 2.01 ERA in 34 games. He Saved two.  
(Umbricht's 1964 Topps card was updated to mention his death.)
In the off season he was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in his right leg. His comeback in 1963 after surgery was the stuff dreams were made of. At age 32, often pitching in excruciating pain,  he was 4-3 in 76 innings with a 2.61 ERA. His health went down hill soon and he died in a Houston hospital in April, 1964. His ashes were spread over the construction site of the Houston Astrodome. His number 32 was retired by the club and the team wore black armbands during the 1964 season.
Dahl's case was even more tragic if that can be said of anyone's death. He was just 19. Drafted right out of high school, Dahl dominated in a quick minor league stint with a 5-1 record. His only loss was a one-hitter. Perhaps for publicity and to draw in the fans, perhaps because he was such an outstanding prospect, the Colt .45's brought up the 17 year old right away and gave him his first and only big league start. It was against the Mets on September 27, 1963. 
Dahl was part of an all-rookie line up for Houston that night. It was the first time, after the very first season of major league baseball, this was done. The starting line-up consisted of Sonny Jackson, Joe Morgan, Jim Wynn, Rusty Staub, Aaron Pointer, Brock Davis, Glenn Vaughan, Jerry Grote and Dahl. Vaughan by the way was the only player in the starting line-up aside from Dahl, who only played this one major league season, playing in just eight other games.

The young pitcher never made it out of the third inning. After a scoreless first, he gave up three runs in the second and four more in the third before being removed with two out. In all, his entire major league career was that game in which he went 2.2 innings, gave up seven runs (five earned), seven hits and a wild pitch. 

Back problems caused him to sit out the 1964 season but he was back pitching for Salisbury in 1965. He was 5-0 and seemingly back on his way to the big leagues. He had just pitched his team into first place. Later that night, June 20, 1965 he was celebrating with two friends after seeing a movie. Teammate Gary Allen Marshall was driving his GTO with Dahl and a 20-year old female companion apparently at a high rate of speed. The car hit some sand on the roadway and skidded out of control, hitting a tree.

Dahl and the woman were both killed, Marshall survived but was blinded. He would go into the ministry later in his life and died at age 62. In his only minor league season he was 3-4 in 52 innings.


"SPECIAL OFFER"
You can get a signed paper back copy of the above book
"Tales of My Baseball Youth - a child of the sixties"
for $15 Shipping Included 
Use PayPal to brillpro@prodigy.net or contact us at the same email for other payment. 


Thank you to those of you who purchased my book after reading this column.

Also: Please check out our new Western Short Film. https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/iron-gun-western-feature-film/#/

 
Please share this blog with your friends and colleagues and leave a comment at the bottom of the blog if you have one. Thank YOU VERY MUCH!! Please pick up a copy of my book "Tales of My Baseball Youth; A Child of the 60's" at www.bobbrillbooks.com, or on Amazon.