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Sal "The Barber" Maglie Finished Just a Little off the Top in 1956

Ninth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Sal Maglie’s 1956 season combines the “Elston Howard factor” of collecting more MVP votes than worthier candidates largely because his team inched out theirs at the finish line with the “‘Indian Bob’ Johnson factor” of a hot stretch drive that stayed fresh in the memory of writers come ballot time.

Maglie enjoyed the double-whammy of earning lots of votes this way in two award races: the National League MVP and the very first Cy Young honor.

Not to paint a picture that Maglie reaped undue reward for a marginal season. On the contrary, he was a key starter who contributed mightily to a pennant winner—but in my opinion, his runner-up finishes for the MVP and Cy Young Award came at the expense of more-deserving candidates.

Sal Maglie’s story is well known: Struggling for several pre-war years in the mid-minors, he went home to work in a defense plant as America mobilized, until finally making his debut with the New York Giants just as the war drew to an end. Three of his five wins came by shutout, including one against the World Series–bound Chicago Cubs.

But nearing his 29th birthday as Opening Day of 1946 approached, Maglie, along with Max Lanier, Mickey Owen, Giants teammate Danny Gardella and more than a dozen other major leaguers, jumped to the Pasquale Brothers’ outlaw Mexican League, nearly aborting his career before it started.

Maglie pitched in Mexico for two seasons under the tutelage of hotheaded Cuban fireballer Dolf Luque, who had enjoyed a successful 20-year NL career, including a 27-win season in 1923.

Luque taught Maglie to be a more aggressive pitcher, soon transforming Maglie into one of the most feared moundsmen in the National League for his eagerness to throw high and inside, resulting in his sobriquet, “The Barber.” (Despite his nasty reputation, however, Maglie hit only 44 batters in his 10-year major league career.)

Temporarily banned from the majors for his outlaw days, Maglie pitched in Canada before returning to the Giants in 1950. Now a well-traveled 33-year-old, he unleashed his talent and temper on National League batters to the tune of an 18-4 record, pacing the NL in ERA, shutouts and winning percentage.

In the Giants’ legendary 1951 campaign, Maglie reached his apex, tying with teammate Larry Jansen for the major league lead in victories, with 23.

His 2.93 ERA claimed second best, and he finished third in strikeouts. In the Shot Heard ‘Round the World game, Maglie surrendered four runs in eight innings but took a no-decision when Ralph Branca spared him the goat’s horns.

Maglie followed 1951 with several more strong seasons, helping New York to a World Series championship in 1954 and remaining one of the hated nemeses of the Brooklyn Dodgers—and their fans—during his tenure in the Polo Grounds. While donning a Giants jersey, Maglie tortured the powerful Bums by taking 23 of 34 decisions.

In 1955, despite ringing up nine victories through July, the defending champs put Maglie on waivers. Quickly claimed by the Cleveland Indians, he hurled a mere 25.2 innings the rest of the season and looked to be near the end of the line.

Five innings into the 1956 campaign, the borough of Brooklyn did a collective double take as their defending champions, slow out of the gate, purchased the reviled Maglie from the Tribe.

During his first two months in Dodger blue, Maglie, used as both a spot starter and a reliever, did little to help Brooklyn’s fortunes, going 2-3 and carrying an ERA above 4.00.

Then, on July 28, The Barber found his groove. (He won his start previous to July 28 but did not pitch well and claimed victory thanks to Brooklyn’s 10-run assault.) Through the end of August, Maglie won four of five decisions, pitched three no-decisions in which he surrendered a total of two earned runs and dropped his ERA from 4.20 to 3.34

As Brooklyn slowly cut into the Milwaukee Braves’ summer-long lead—simultaneously rumbling with the revived Cincinnati Redlegs—Maglie maintained his magic.

On September 11, he went the distance to beat Milwaukee, 4-2, bringing Brooklyn into a tie for first. And in his next start, Maglie gutted out a narrow victory at Crosley Field to raise the Dodgers into the lead for the first time since April.

As Brooklyn, Milwaukee and Cincinnati played tug-of-war for the pennant, Maglie no-hit the Philadelphia Phillies on September 25. Although Milwaukee’s easy victory in Cincinnati that day kept Brooklyn from gaining ground, Maglie’s headline-making feat so close to the end of the season surely carried a lot of weight come awards time.

Four days later, his complete-game victory in the opener of a double-header against the Pittsburgh Pirates put Brooklyn one game in the lead for good. (After winning the back end of the double-header, Brooklyn clinched the pennant with a series sweep of Pittsburgh the next afternoon, despite Milwaukee also winning its final game.)

At season’s end, Maglie stood at 13-5, with a 2.87 ERA for Brooklyn—a fantastic ERA while hurling two-thirds of his innings in a home park among the toughest in which to pitch.

There is no doubt that Brooklyn—which edged Milwaukee by a single game and Cincinnati by two—won the pennant largely on the arm of Sal Maglie. From late July onward, Maglie was money—especially during the three-team race of September, when he went 6-1, with a 1.77 ERA.

For his heroics, Maglie finished second to teammate Don Newcombe in both the MVP race and the brand-new Cy Young Award, as Newcombe authored one of the monster seasons of the post-war era: 27-7, 3.06 ERA and a 0.989 WHIP—by far, baseball’s best.

Not to minimize in any way Maglie’s huge contribution to a pennant winner, but of the 11 NL pitchers who received MVP votes, only reliever Clem Labine collected fewer wins. Maglie also pitched the fewest innings of any vote-getting starter.

Especially considering that Don Newcombe and his 27 victories were the true anchor of Brooklyn’s staff—and rightfully rewarded as such—a Dodger who played every day deserved more recognition than Maglie for keeping the Bums churning through a daily dogfight.

How Duke Snider finished a distant tenth in the MVP is a real head-scratcher. Garnering a single first-place vote, the Duke’s vote share lagged well behind not only Maglie, but teammates Jim Gilliam and Pee Wee Reese—a part-time keystone combo having an excellent fielding season, with Gilliam cracking an even .300 and drawing 95 walks.

But Duke carried the biggest stick on an aging team suddenly replaced by Cincinnati as the most potent offense in the league.

Snider paced the Senior Circuit in home runs, walks and OPS, tying with Junior Gilliam for the lead in on-base percentage, all while chasing down fly balls to center field at his usual reliable rate. He also crossed the plate 112 times, second most in the league.

And as Newcombe struggled to clinch the pennant on the schedule’s final day—surrendering six earned runs on 11 Pirates’ hits—it was the Duke who saved Brooklyn’s season, slamming a pair of home runs and driving in four RBI.

Sandy Amoros also clubbed two homers, but Duke’s three-run blast in the bottom of the first set the tone and put Pittsburgh in a hole from which it could not fully emerge before Don Bessent relieved the fatigued Newcome and sealed the pennant.

Of course, no one knew from WAR at the time, but the Duke tied Willie Mays for the NL lead at 7.6. Having topped 130 RBI in the previous two seasons yet driving home “only” 101 in 1956, perhaps voters turned their pens elsewhere based on Duke’s “drop-off” in that coveted stat.

Already a potent lineup, the long-lost Redlegs—who hadn’t seen .500 since 1944—slugged their way from 75 to 91 wins largely on the addition of Frank Robinson.

Enjoying one of the greatest freshman campaigns ever—and copping a unanimous Rookie of the Year honor for it—the gritty Robinson smashed 38 home runs, a record that would stand for 31 seasons.

In doing so, Robinson also helped Cincinnati clout a record-tying 221 home runs. Exhibiting impressive bat discipline for a 20-year-old slugger, Robinson drew 64 walks to go with his solid .290 batting average, which, combined with a league-high 20 hit-by-pitches for the rookie who defiantly dug in against veteran hurlers, led to an NL-best 122 runs scored.

Robinson also tied teammate Ed Bailey for second in OPS, with .936. Considering Cincinnati’s dearth of starting pitching—only Brooks Lawrence chalked up more than 13 victories, and only Joe Nuxhall logged an ERA better than league average—Robinson, in my opinion, had more to do with Cincinnati’s sudden resurgence than any other Redleg.

One can argue that a seventh-place finish on the MVP ballot was amply complemented by the Rookie of the Year honor, but Robinson, a natural-born leader and the highest-scoring player on the highest-scoring team, should have finished higher in the vote.

Interestingly, both Snider and Robinson batted their best against each other as Brooklyn and Cincinnati jockeyed all summer for the inside track. Duke lit up Redlegs hurlers for an even .400 and slugged a monstrous .787, while driving in 18 runs and scoring 23 times in 22 contests.

Nearly matching Duke’s mastery of Cincinnati pitching, the rookie Robinson still bruised Brooklyn for nine homers and .716 slugging, resulting in 13 RBI and 20 runs scored in the same 22 games.

Neither fared well against Milwaukee’s deep and stingy rotation.

Warren Spahn also probably should have ranked higher than Maglie. Arguably the best pitcher on what was, far and away, the best pitching staff in the NL (team ERA of 3.11nearly half a run better than runner-up Brooklyn), Spahn enjoyed a typical Warren Spahn season: 20-11, 2.78 ERA. He led the league in nothing but hurled 90 more innings than Maglie.

Over the course of an entire season, during which Spahn’s Braves spent 83 percent of its schedule within two games, either way, of first place, 90 high-quality innings is a huge difference to overlook.

Milwaukee’s strength on the mound may have actually worked against Spahn at voting time. Lew Burdette spun a season very similar to Spahn statistically (19-10, 2.70 ERA, in 256.1 innings), yet although voters barely took notice of Burdette or 18-game winner Bob Buhl at awards time, Spahn’s 20 wins might have lost some impact among his big-winning teammates.

Of course, had Milwaukee finished a game ahead of Brooklyn, Spahn likely would have received many of the votes that instead went to Maglie.

Unfortunately for Spahn, who went 7-1 and saved one game in September (including a 12-inning complete-game victory on September 13), he took a truly hard-luck loss in Milwaukee’s penultimate game of the season, which dropped the Braves a game behind Brooklyn and allowed the Dodgers to claim the pennant the following afternoon despite Burdette’s 4-2 win in St. Louis.

Tied with Brooklyn with two games to play, Spahn spun a masterful 11 innings, yielding only three hits and one earned run. But Cardinal Herm Wehmeier, an oft-wild thrower with a career mark of 80-100 going into the game, matched Spahn inning for inning.

With the score tied 1-1 in the bottom of the 12th, Spahn yielded a double to Stan Musial. Intentionally walking Ken Boyer to get to Rip Repulski, Repulski ripped a double to left, scoring Musial and giving Brooklyn—busy winning the second game of a double-header against Pittsburgh after Maglie won the opener—a one-game edge going into the season’s final day.

As for the Cy Young Award—which, in 1956, was issued to a single pitcher selected from both leagues—Maglie again placed second to Newcombe. The same argument for Spahn (and Burdette) in the MVP race becomes stronger for this vote. With Newcombe deservedly running away with the inaugural award, Maglie earned four of the remaining six votes, outpacing both Spahn and Whitey Ford.

The ace of the eventual world-champion New York Yankees, Ford went 19-6, with a Major League–topping 2.47 ERA. But the Bronx Bombers peeled away from the rest of the AL in July and coasted to the pennant, so Ford enjoyed none of the hero-making drama of a close race, as did Maglie.

Yet a pitcher superior that season both to Spahn and Ford, let alone Maglie, was completely ignored. Herb Score, coming off a Rookie of the Year effort in 1955, took another step toward the superstardom he’d sadly never reach (see his entry, No. 2, in my series for a fuller explanation).

Flame throwing his way to a 20-9 season, garnished with an AL-high five shutouts and 263 strikeouts—best in the Majors and 71 more than anyone else—Score unfairly went missing at ballot time thanks to an 88-win Cleveland Indians squad made irrelevant by the machine-like Yankees.

As good as was Maglie down Brooklyn’s stretch drive, Score, with his adjusted ERA of 166, pitched at the highest caliber virtually all season.

Pitching in his third—and final—World Series, in 1956, Maglie went the distance in the opener, whiffing 10 Yankees in a 6-3 victory at Ebbets Field. In Game 5, he had the misfortune of pitching against history, as his gutsy eight innings were no match for Don Larsen’s perfection. (Along with the Shot Heard ‘Round the World game, this made Maglie a starting pitcher in perhaps the two most famous contests in baseball annals.)

New York, of course, went on to reclaim the crown Brooklyn had usurped the previous year.

Maglie pitched one more season in Brooklyn, but now 40 years old, the Barber’s days were numbered. He bounced to the Yankees—becoming one of only 14 players who made the stop at all three New York boroughs—before concluding his short but eventful career with the St. Louis Cardinals, in 1958.

Etching a most impressive 119-62 record, with a career ERA 27 percent better than league average, Sal Maglie enjoyed one helluva ride for a guy who didn’t stick in the Majors until age 33.

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Thurman Munson’s 22 Errors Deserved a Fool’s-Gold Glove

Seventh in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

You could probably find at least one undeserved Gold Glove awarded every season. The vast majority of Gold Glove recipients are repeat winners, sort of making the award like a concussion—once a player gets one, it becomes progressively easier to get more.

To be sure, most repeat winners are among the very best defenders in the league and deserve the honor, but as we saw with Jim Kaat, precedent eventually plays a big role.

As well, a Gold Glove sometimes becomes a “throw-in” for players who have had strong seasons with the bat (or on the mound). Perhaps it’s unfair to spotlight Thurman Munson for this, but I do so more for who didn’t receive the Gold Glove than who did.

Munson had already won a Gold Glove the previous year and had come into his own as one of the best backstops in the American League. In truth, no AL catcher enjoyed a truly standout season behind the plate in 1973 (unless you count Detroit’s Bill Freehan, who played only 98 games), but Munson, with a league-high 80 assists and a 48 percent caught-stealing rate, was a good choice.

Smashing a career-best 20 home runs and batting .301 didn’t hurt his cause, either, and though it shouldn’t have had any bearing on the Gold Glove vote, Thurman’s lively bat likely helped him beat out Oakland’s light-hitting Ray Fosse, who enjoyed an equally strong season with the mitt.

However, the defending AL Gold Glove winner did not follow up his 1973 campaign so well. In fact, despite making the All-Star team, Munson suffered a setback in 1974. His offense dropped across the board, finishing with a lackluster .697 OPS. Yet thanks to the virtual absence of an injury-plagued Carlton Fisk, Munson had no real competition at the plate, making his off-season with the bat look good enough at season’s end.

Even so, Munson’s “default” slugging and defending Gold Glove earned him an encore in 1974—an honor that should have gone to Ellie Rodriguez, the unsung journeyman backstopping his first season for the California Angels. (Ironically, Rodriguez had begun his Major League career with the Yankees in 1968 after toiling in their farm system for four years. But New York’s selection of Munson in the first round of the 1968 amateur draft made Rodriguez expendable; left unprotected in the 1969 expansion draft, he was snatched up by the Kansas City Royals.)

Of course, when evaluating catchers’ performances, chances and putouts—being almost exclusively the result of receiving strikeoutsare poor statistics to utilize, especially when one’s battery mates include strikeout machines Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana (ergo, Rodriguez led the league in both categories in 1974). More tellingly, Rodriguez tied Munson for the AL lead in assists with 75.

However, Munson committed, by far, a league-worst 22 errors, including a horrendous 11-game stretch in early August during which he booted seven plays (ignominiously crowned by a three-error meltdown on August 13). Yet in essentially the same amount of innings, Rodriguez miscued only seven times, giving him a glittering .992 fielding average to Munson’s subpar .974 (league average: .983).

Eighteen of Munson’s errors came on throws—that’s a lot of extra bases gifted to existing baserunners. In fact, 11 of those throwing errors led directly to unearned runs, either on the throws themselves or allowing baserunners to get into scoring position, after which they were driven home. More amazingly, five of those runs scored on errant pickoff attempts to third base—this does not scream Gold Glove.

Advanced sabermetrics were unknown in 1974, of course—and I don’t believe in getting too far into them both because many of the highly specialized sabermetrics border on the arcane and because it’s unfair to criticize in hindsight using evaluations that were unavailable at the time. However, for the sake of argument, Rodriguez’s total zone runs dwarfs Munson’s in every category, according to Baseball-Reference. Furthermore, Rodriguez’s range factor per nine innings not only far surpassed Munson’s but also outdid every other full-time catcher in the AL.

Apart from the huge disparity in errors, though, what should have tipped the scale heavily in favor of Rodriguez was his effectiveness at stopping baserunners. Ellie’s powerful arm nailed would-be thieves at a 48 percent clip—resulting in an AL-topping 56 caught-stealings, far and away the best performance in the American League. Munson’s 35 percent caught-stealing rate was next-to-last among regulars in the Junior Circuit. (Of course, the pitcher shares fault in a stolen base, but that’s still a big deficit.)

True, Rodriguez allowed 20 passed balls to Munson’s eight, which partially washes out the difference in errors—passed balls being the only key statistic that favored Thurman—but Rodriguez should be cut a little slack for backstopping the most inaccurate staff in the AL. California issued the most walks in the league—and more than 100 more than Munson’s Yankees.

With Angels hurlers missing the strike zone so often, some pitches that could have been scored wild might well have instead been rung up as passed balls. (Incidentally, Rodriguez’s 20 passed balls were a fluke; he never before or again yielded more than eight in a season.)

Despite Rodriguez’s defensive superiority in 1974, being a light-hitting catcher on a last-place team surely camouflaged him come awards time. Again, not that hitting is supposed to play a role in Gold Glove voting—even though it clearly does—but Rodriguez’s home run and RBI totals pale even to Munson’s off-year. There was no way that seven home runs, 36 RBI and a .253 batting average on only 100 hits were going to accrue votes for Rodriguez.

As an aside, Rodriguez—who claimed to be a better stickball player in his youth than Willie Mays—actually clubbed more doubles than Munson in 122 fewer at-bats. More significantly, his 69 walks yielded a very respectable .373 on-base percentage—far better than Munson’s awful .316.

Similarly, being a light-hitting rookie catcher likely buried Jim Sundberg, even on a Texas Rangers team that had risen from last place in 1973 to second in 1974. Stepping right into a starting role, Sundberg fielded .990 on just eight errors, rang up the third-most assists, led all catchers in double plays and surrendered only nine passed balls. He, too, was more deserving of the Gold Glove than Munson, but even the most precocious freshmen hardly ever receive recognition for their defense.

Thurman Munson claimed a third Gold Glove in 1975. That award, too, is highly debatable considering an AL-topping 23 errors—the most ever by a Gold Glove–winning catcher, breaking his own dubious record of the previous year. Sundberg caught a slightly superior season with the mitt, but I’m certain voters were deterred by his horrid .199 batting average and meager run production. Sundberg’s day would come, though, as he owned the Gold Glove for the following six seasons.

Whereas Munson was ascending to stardom in 1975, Ellie Rodriguez, one of the better defensive catchers of his time, saw his wandering career wind down. He played only 90 games for the Halos that season, albeit well. Traded to the nearby Los Angeles Dodgers just before Opening Day of 1976, Ellie put in 36 games in Dodger Blue before his Major League sojourn ended.

Across a nine-year career that took him to five cities, Ellie Rodriguez always fielded well—even making two All-Star squads—yet never was officially recognized for his defensive prowess. In 737 games, he committed the same amount of errors as did Thurman Munson just in 1974 and 1975 combined.

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Joe Judge’s Third-Place MVP Finish Produced Disorder in the Sport

Sixth in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Never a superstar, Joe Judge spent 20 years as a solid, dependable first baseman. Still in the Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins top 10 of most batting categories more than eight decades after last playing in the nation’s capital, he has remained in the shadows not only of Hall of Fame teammates Goose Goslin and Sam Rice but of the heavy-hitting behemoths who shared the same position—George Sisler, Lou Gehrig and, later, Jimmie Foxx.

Even away from cavernous Griffith Stadium, the smallish Judge was not a prototypical first baseman (to this day, he holds the franchise mark for sacrifice bunts—a tactic virtually unthinkable for a first sacker since the live-ball era); Judge belted only 57 home runs in more than 1,000 road games.

Yet, like many Senators players, he took advantage of his home park’s deep alleys, legging out 157 triples. And Judge was swift enough to swipe 213 bases during his career.

A lifetime .298 hitter, Judge exercised excellent bat control, drawing twice as many bases on balls as he struck out, giving him a healthy on-base percentage of .378. Judge helped his perennially also-ran Senators to consecutive pennants, spearheading Washington to its lone championship, in 1924, with a .385 average in the World Series—where, as usual, he was overshadowed, this time by the great Walter Johnson.

After 18 years in the nation’s capital, the Brooklyn native went home and put in 42 ineffective games with the Dodgers before being released. Quickly signing with the Boston Red Sox, he eked out another 45 games over two seasons, ending his career with 2,352 hits, 1,184 runs scored and 1,034 RBI.

Despite ranking, upon retirement, seventh all-time in putouts, fourth in assists and holding the highest fielding percentage for a first baseman in baseball history, Judge may be best remembered as the man who hastened the end of Walter Johnson’s career, when he smashed a line drive off The Big Train’s ankle in spring training of 1927.

This is an unfair label for Judge, as the 40-year-old Johnson recovered from the fracture to pitch 107.2 innings, although he was no longer effective—which one would expect of even a healthy 40-year-old.

Judge’s worth was recognized in his own time, collecting MVP votes in four seasons. Yet the fourth of those seasons rings peculiarly. In 1928, Judge tied for third with Tony Lazzeri in the AL MVP vote—well ahead of some big-name players.

That Lazzeri placed third is, in itself, a surprise—although a key member of Murderers’ Row, injuries limited him to 116 games. Why writers shunned George Pipgras (a league-high 24 wins and 300.2 innings) is a mystery.

Perhaps they figured Pinstripes pitching coasted on New York’s battering-ram offense. (It didn’t—New York owned the second-best team ERA in addition to the AL’s best offense.)

Judge came in far ahead of the only two other Yankees to garner MVP votes: Earle Combs (118 runs scored, an AL-high 21 triples) and Waite Hoyt (23-7, 3.36 ERA). (At the time, any American League player who had already won the MVP since its inception in 1922 was not eligible for future MVP awards. This eliminated Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, who, between them would have carted off the lion’s share of MVPs during the decade.)

One wonders what voters were thinking in 1928—the 98-win Philadelphia Athletics saw only two of their players make the ballot. And although the A’s Mickey Cochrane took home the MVP (just edging out Heinie Manush and his 241 hits), Lefty Grove and his Pipgras-tying 24 wins did not earn a single vote. (Incredibly, neither did Grove in 1930, when he won the pitching triple crown.)

With the Senators finishing a remote fourth—Washington was out of the pennant race before summer began—it’s hard to comprehend how a player from a team with a 75-79 record outpolled so many players from the contenders. (For the 1928 vote, only Ruth and Gehrig, among the Yankees and Athletics, were ineligible.)

Yes, Judge finished in the top 10 in walks, RBI, on-base percentage and stolen bases—yet he didn’t come close to leading in any of them.

And although he enjoyed another sterling year in the field, Judge hit a relatively pedestrian .306, with only 44 extra-base hits and 78 runs scored (trailing even such renowned table setters as Earle Combs and Joe Sewell in slugging percentage).

Judge did put together a strong second half, batting .336 and racking up an OPS of .896, but Washington fell 20 games off the lead before July. If anyone from the mediocre Senators deserved to scale the MVP vote so high, it was Goose Goslin, who snared the batting crown with a .379 average and slugged a mighty .614.

With the possible exception of Manush, Goslin was the most dangerous AL hitter after the MVP-ineligible Ruth and Gehrig (he led all vote-getters in WAR). Yet, enigmatically, Goose collected fewer than half the votes as did Judge.

Likewise, it’s outright baffling that no St. Louis Brown besides Manush made an appearance on the ballot. St. Louis improved by 23 victories over the previous season, yet voters completely ignored General Crowder, whose 21-5 record on a club that played only .532 ball should have put him right in the thick of the award race with Cochrane and Manush. 

Freshly traded from the ascendant Athletics, first-year Brownie Sam Gray, who fashioned a 20-12 record and a fine 3.19 ERA, also should have gotten votes. Didn’t any of those writers pay attention?

For all I know, Joe may have been thoroughly popular throughout the league with beat writers looking for quotes—which could have served him well come voting time. Yet considering that, in 1924, Judge received nary a vote despite hitting .324 while helping Washington to its first pennant (nor did Goslin, despite an AL-high 129 RBI—go figure), finishing third in the MVP race during a lost season is more than a little hard to fathom.

Ironically, Judge may well have been earmarked for a trade that season. The previous December, Washington owner Clark Griffith had bought George Sisler, St. Louis’ slowly fading superstar of a first baseman, for a pricey $25,000.

No longer the batting wizard he had been before losing a full season to sinusitis in the early part of the decade, Sisler was still a productive hitter—and a better one than Judge. Coming off a 200-hit campaign, his acquisition could only have meant that Griffith was looking to move the longtime Senator.

Calls for action about the logjam at first base became an open matter as early as two weeks into the season, even though Sisler had barely left the bench. Yet, strangely, Sisler never got a chance in Washington, pinch-hitting sporadically for a month before Griffith sold him to the Boston Braves at a $17,500 loss, while Judge went on to play all but one of Washington’s games that season.

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Rusty Staub Played Like Stainless Steel for the 1969 Montreal Expos

Third in an 11-part series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

Just as performing marginally on a pennant winner still can earn accolades in the MVP vote (see my Elston Howard article), a team’s last-place finish can make a valiant individual performance nigh unto invisible. Rusty Staub had just such a season in the Montreal Expos’ inaugural year of 1969.

Led by the most generous pitching staff in the Senior Circuit (4.33 team ERA), Montreal tied fellow National League newbies, the San Diego Padres, in bringing up the rear in their respective divisions, with identical 52-110 records.

But Expos hurlers hardly shouldered the blame by themselves. Like most expansion clubs, Montreal was deficient in all areas of the game. It led the league in errors and fielding percentage, and the only reason Montreal managed to turn the most double plays was because it allowed so many baserunners (Expos pitchers issued nearly 100 more walks than the next-highest team).

At the plate, only San Diego kept the Expos from scoring the fewest runs and registering the lowest on-base percentage. When Expos were fortunate enough to reach base, Montreal batters proved more adept than any other NL team in killing rallies, leading the league in double plays grounded into.

Little wonder Montreal fell into the National League basement by April 29 and never emerged.

But Montreal had itself a genuine star in Rusty Staub—and Rusty had a season in 1969 that was lost in the painful glare of 110 losses and a team more Canadian curiosity than contender.  

Montreal acquired Staub from the Houston Astros 11 weeks before Opening Day. The fledgling franchise had plucked Donn Clendenon from the Pittsburgh Pirates and Jesus Alou from the San Francisco Giants during the previous October’s expansion draft and then shrewdly swapped them to Houston for Staub.

Already a two-time All Star who had hit .333 and led the NL in doubles in 1967, Rusty not only brought cachet to Parc Jarry but endeared himself to Montrealers by learning French and becoming a member of the Quebecois community.

In his trade to Montreal, Le Grand Orange, as hometown fans anointed the personable redhead, indirectly figured in the king-making of several World Series champions.

Clendenon refused to report to Houston, so along with Alou, Montreal sent two pitchers and $100,000. Now persona non grata to Montreal management, Clendenon played 38 ineffectual games for the Expos before being swapped to the New York Mets in mid-June. Clendenon helped the soon-to-be Amazins into the playoffs and then exploded in the Fall Classic, slamming three home runs and winning the World Series MVP.

One of the pitchers packed off to Houston in Clendenon’s stead was Jack Billingham, himself snared from the Los Angeles Dodgers in the expansion draft but never to pitch for the Expos. Two-and-a-half years later, Billingham was part of the blockbuster deal that also sent Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke and Ed Armbrister to the Cincinnati Reds.

Billingham became the ace of the new-and-improved Big Red Machine and led it to two consecutive championships and a third pennant, logging an all-time Series best 0.36 ERA in 25.1 innings.

Back in Montreal, batting third in front of powerful left fielder Mack Jones, Rusty hit .302, including 29 home runs—as many as bona fide sluggers Willie Stargell and Ron Santo. Staub should have collected more than 79 RBIs, but Montreal’s leadoff and No. 2 hitters did a poor job all season of getting on base for the heart of the order. 

Perhaps most impressively, Rusty fashioned a .426 on-base percentage, fourth-best in the league and a hair less than batting champion Pete Rose, who had outhit Staub by 46 points. Rusty’s 110 walks, tied for third with ex-teammate Joe Morgan, combined with robust .526 slugging to notch an OPS of .952, also fourth-best in the NL. Staub also ranked 10th in total bases.

This all added up to a WAR of 6.2, tied for seventh-best among position players in the National League and surpassing, among others, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Stargell and Santo—the latter of whom finished fifth in MVP voting.

Staub’s are not numbers to sneeze at—but they were sneezed at because he played on a 110-loss expansion club that voters likely thought couldn’t have gotten much worse. Yet without Staub, Montreal might have approached the 1962 New York Mets’ legendary futility. Had Rusty worn a Mets or Atlanta Braves uniform that season, he would have garnered serious MVP consideration.

As it was, Rusty earned a single 10th-place vote, tied for last place in the MVP race (he was the only member of either NL expansion squad to appear on any ballot, not counting Tony González, whose MVP votes were unquestionably earned after his June 13 trade from dead-in-the-water San Diego to first-place Atlanta).

I’m not going to make the Andre Dawson argument that, despite playing for a last-place squad, Staub should have finished at or near the top of the voting. I don’t believe Andre Dawson should have gotten anywhere near the 1987 NL MVP—the bottom half of the top 10 would have sufficed.

Which is where Rusty Staub should have finished.       

Perhaps a particular game early in the 1969 schedule epitomized Staub’s intrepid season: On April 17, Rusty was a one-man wrecking crew against the Philadelphia Phillies, smashing three doubles, homering and driving in three runs in a 7-0 whitewashing of the Expos’ NL East rivals.

As fate would have it, Rusty’s awesome performance was rendered an afterthought by teammate Bill Stoneman, who—in just the ninth game of the Expos’ existence and the fifth start of his career—twirled a no-hitter (the hard-throwing, hard-luck Stoneman pitched a second 7-0 no-hitter in 1972 before arm trouble short-circuited his career).

It was just an under-the-radar kind of season for Rusty.

Staub had two more excellent campaigns in Montreal before saying au revoir for greener pastures in New York and Detroit. And perhaps Rusty enjoyed some karma in 1978 when he finished fifth in the AL MVP vote by driving in 121 runs, bettered only by Jim Rice. Appearing as the designated hitter in every one of the Tigers’ games, Staub became the first player ever to appear solely as a DH and finish in the top 10 in MVP voting.

Stats courtesy of unless otherwise noted.

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Al Bumbry Got a Bum Deal in the 1973 MVP Vote

First in an 11-part series about the vagaries of awards voting.

Al Bumbry rightfully earned American League Rookie of the Year honors in 1973. However, as arguably a division champion’s best hitter, he received not a single vote for Most Valuable Player.

Naysayers might counter that Bumbry played only 110 games; however, dozens of position players who have played as few games have received MVP consideration over the years.

In fact, in that same season, Bud Harrelson, who collected votes in the NL MVP race, played in only 106 games, and Dick Allen received a vote after suiting up for a mere 72 games before suffering a leg fracture.

(In a strange coincidence—and a display of Baltimore’s bottomless depth in those days—Rich Coggins, often platooning alongside Bumbry, also played in 110 contests and, enjoying a season statistically similar to Bumbry, earned a first-place vote for Rookie of the Year.) 

Loaded, as usual, with pitching and defense, the Baltimore Orioles easily outpaced a hard-hitting Boston Red Sox club and won the AL East by nine games.

Lacking a booming bat, Baltimore placed eighth in the AL in home runs thanks in large part to Boog Powell’s injury-plagued season. However, the Birds still barely missed outscoring the rest of the Junior Circuit by playing smart, Earl Weaver baseball: taking pitches and swiping bases.

Baltimore led the AL in walks, on-base percentage and stolen bases. And although Orioles batters were not a constant threat to hit the long ball in 1973, they hit the ball often and all over the field enough (Baltimore also led the AL in triples) to log the third-highest OPS in the league.

Jim Palmer’s first Cy Young Award–winning season and a pitching staff that boasted the lowest ERA (including the fewest hits allowed and the second-fewest walks issued) combined with the stifling Orioles defense (four Gold Gloves, with a nearly impregnable infield of Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich and a speedy outfield captained by Paul Blair) to strangled opponents.

Baltimore surrendered, by far, the fewest runs in the AL.

So exceptional were the Orioles in every facet of the game that it’s a wonder they didn’t tally more than 97 victories.

Used sparingly as a pinch runner throughout the beginning of the 1973 season, 26-year-old Al Bumbry soon found a spot as a corner outfielder—primarily in left field. (His trek to the Majors had been delayed by a year in Vietnam, during which time he received a Bronze Star while serving as a platoon leader.)

Like Bumbry, the Orioles started slowly out of the gate. A .500 club as late as June 13, Baltimore battled a four-team logjam led by the surprising New York Yankeesalthough Al warmed with the change of season, going 11-for-26 to close out June.

Playing decently but yet to fire on all cylinders, Baltimore remained in a four-team race throughout the summer, finally pushing past the sputtering Yankees on August 3. But the Detroit Tigers wrested first place from Baltimore just three days later.

Until the Birds finally turned on the jets.

Earl Weaver’s crew ran off 14 consecutive wins beginning in mid-August, quickly reclaimed top spot in the AL East and never looked back.

(The Red Sox, trailing all three of these squads, rushed past Detroit in late August and chased Baltimore into autumnbut despite playing .607 ball over the last month, Boston could never get closer than four games out.)

Bumbry heated up long before Baltimore—amassing an eye-popping OPS of 1.015 in June—and stayed hot for the rest of the season. And as the pesky Sox remained within striking distance in early September, Al shifted into overdrive, hitting .409 and slugging .570 over the season’s final month. 

Bumbry was Baltimore’s catalyst in 1973. When leading off an inning, he registered an on-base percentage of .437 (not to mention hitting five of his seven home runs).

When Baltimore trailed, Bumbry slugged a near-Ruthian .654 (in 107 at-bats—not merely a handful). And in the eighth and ninth innings, Al hit .509 and slugged .649.

Perhaps even more tellingly, against Detroit and Boston—Baltimore’s summer-long rivals for the division crown—Bumbry hit a combined .410 and slugged a hefty .639.

At season’s end, the rookie had hit .337 and with only seven home runs had managed to slug .500—largely on the strength of a league-best 11 triples (remember, in only 110 games). In fact, excluding Dick Allen and his less than half a season, Bumbry’s OPS of .898 stood second only to Reggie Jackson, who won the MVP vote unanimously.

Al also stole 23 bases, and his 73 runs tied for second on Baltimore with Paul Blair, who played 36 more games.   

Voters rewarded Bumbry with a richly deserved Rookie of the Year Award but utterly ignored him in the MVP vote. One might be inclined to think that voters considered the MVP off-limits to a first-year player amply honored with the Rookie of the Year, but Fred Lynn took home both awards only two seasons later.

As division winners, Baltimore saw five of its players make the ballot. Jim Palmer and his AL-topping 2.40 ERA rightly earned the lion’s share of MVP votes going to Orioles. However, Tommy Davis, who enjoyed a fine comeback after playing only 41 games in 1972 due to injuries, received enough votes to tie with Catfish Hunter for 10th place—despite delivering little punch as a designated hitter.

Davis did hit .306 and drove in 89 runs, yet he slugged only .391 and scored fewer runs than Mark Belanger—whom he outhit by 80 points. Certainly a good season for the 34-year-old Davis, but nowhere near as productive as Bumbry.

And both Bobby Grich and Paul Blair, though providing Gold Glove defense, put up numbers in 162 and 146 games, respectively, that weren’t any more valuable than Bumbry’s 110-game totals. (Grich drew 107 walks yet outscored Bumbry by only nine runs.)

It is inconceivable that Deron Johnson, the Oakland A’s designated hitter, was more valuable to his team than the mercurial Bumbry. Johnson managed to collect eight vote points despite hitting an anemic .218 and a mere seven home runs after the All-Star break.

Among American Leaguers who suited up for at least 100 games in 1973, Al tied for second in runs created per game—even topping unanimous MVP Reggie Jackson.

That Al Bumbry could be a division winner’s offensive spark plug yet not make it onto any of 1973’s 24 MVP ballots represents a sizable oversight by the voters.

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Gates Brown, Bill Buckner and a Closer Look at Hall of Fame Balloting

The Baseball Hall of Fame—holy ground for America’s national pastime. Within Cooperstown’s pantheon are honored 296 of the diamond’s royalty. Some are gods; some many have never heard of. A few don’t truly belong; others, having received the sport’s ultimate reward, remain under-appreciated.

Each of them was immortalized by vote, a process vulnerable to an array of human foibles. Whereas most Hall of Famers fully deserve their honor, more than a few waited for enshrinement long after their achievements warranted such recognition (sometimes for decades), or, occasionally in the case of the Veterans Committee, wormed their way in via cronyism, inflated reputation or voter incompetence.

Because (since 1958) the ballot permits—but does not require—voting to the 10th place, some very mediocre players garner votes. Often, this safeguard prohibits too many candidates from making the cut—lest the Hall grow even more overpopulated than it already is— although it occasionally detracts votes from worthy players who should make it in but wait many unnecessary years, or never make it at all.

Why the electorate felt compelled to cast votes for the pedestrian likes of Mike Jorgensen, Terry Puhl, and Eddie Miksis is a wonder. Maybe those responsible also pulled the lever for Harold Stassen…

In 1981, Gates Brown received a vote. A talented batsman who, at his retirement, stood third all-time in pinch hits, Gates enjoyed a superlative year as a sub during the Detroit Tigers championship season of 1968.

Coming off the bench and delivering key hits time and again, Brown contributed mightily to Detroit’s pennant run. A career total of 582 hits, however, stands as far from the stuff of legend as the 119-loss Tigers of 2003 did from first place. Yet Brown shared 27th spot in the voting with five other nondescript players.

This means that some voter penciled Brown as a 10th-place selection over 17 far more Hall-worthy players. If the top nine vote-getters are excluded, which any sane person—including, presumably, the voter in question—would when making Gates his final pick on the ballot, then Brown received a vote instead of later inductees Luis Aparicio, Bill Mazeroski, Orlando Cepeda and Richie Ashburn, as well as Roger Maris and Maury Wills.

Remember, electors are chosen for their expert knowledge of the game.

Poor Bill Buckner. Never mind that he won a batting crown, seven times hit .300, and came within a season and a half of the elite 3,000-hit club—his outstanding career is forever lost in the glare of a single gaffe that didn’t send the Boston Red Sox to another cursed World Series defeat (it merely enabled the hard-luck Bosox to drop the Series the next evening).

Buckner isn’t Hall of Fame material, but his numbers—including, ironically, a solid fielding record (and the penultimate mark for assists in a season by a first baseman)—exceed that of many Hall of Famers. Yet he qualified for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) ballot only once, earning a paltry 10 votes, which permanently dropped him from eligibility.

Considering the ballot’s hangers-on who collect comparable numbers over multiple elections, it’s obvious that voters ignored Buckner’s 22 seasons because of one unfortunate occurrence.

Case-in-point: one-trick pony Don Larsen. Yes, that lone trick, a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, amounted to one of the most fantastic feats in baseball history. But the Hall isn’t permitted to enshrine players for a single event.

Yet Larsen received no fewer than 22 votes for 15 consecutive years. Not big numbers, but far more generous than his career totals: an 81-91 record (including a 3-21 season), a solitary 100-strikeout year, and an ERA often topping 4.00.

Even so, Larsen’s relatively hefty vote totals—entirely attributable to a spectacular moment in a lackluster 14-year career—left in the dust such terrific, if not Hall-caliber, hurlers as Jim Perry, Billy Pierce and Dave McNally.

A voter shows himself more misguided to reward a player for one triumphant effort than to punish a player for one catastrophic incident.

Such specious voting extends to Johnny Vander Meer, who was just as liable to walk a batter as strike him out. Vandy’s wildness culminated in a meer 119-121 career record—yet, thanks to his consecutive no-hitters, he polled twice as many votes in 1966 as Arky Vaughan, one of the best shortstops ever (not to mention further outdistancing Ernie Lombardi, Hal Newhouser, Billy Herman and Bob Lemon—each eminently more deserving than he).

In fact, Vander Meer, who consistently finished higher than at least half a dozen future Hall of Famers during his years of eligibility, outpaced Newhouser all eight years that they appeared together on the ballot.

Whether or not one views Newhouser as a bona fide Hall of Famer, he did win back-to-back MVPs—and nearly a third—whereas Vander Meer never finished higher than 18th in MVP polling (incidentally, the very season he tossed his no-nos—so how could writers rank Vander Meer so highly for his career when they didn’t even rank him highly for his season of glory?).

Averaging 72 votes a year, Vander Meer’s claim to fame was taken too literally by some writers.

Whether the BBWAA has always known what’s it’s doing when it comes to casting Hall of Fame ballots is debatable (it’s done a largely admirable job in recent decades). However, one can peruse the vote totals of virtually any year and drop a jaw at who scored higher than whom.

As in 1949, for example, when Pepper Martin—a scrappy hitter and, for the time, terror on the base paths—parlayed a pair of heroic World Series performances that made him a legend of the Depressed Midwest into more votes than 25 future Hall of Famers. And even though quite a few of those eventual entrants likely didn’t merit enshrinement, they undoubtedly enjoyed more laudable careers than Pepper. (Certainly Goose Goslin, Sam Rice and Zack Wheat—absolutely deserving—should have scored higher than Martin.)

But that’s the human element of the Hall of Fame, and it’s still preferable to some statistically based program like the college BCS—heaven forbid, some egghead ever devises something similar for Cooperstown…

The 2012 election likely will usher into Cooperstown several great players from among 27 candidates. And if Barry Larkin and Jack Morris, the two favorites, ascend to Baseball Heaven—or even Tim Raines and several borderline candidates—then the BBWAA surely will have done its job.

But I’ll be scanning the bottom of the ballot to see how many wayward votes went to Terry Mulholland, Brad Radke and Tony Womack

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