October 17, 2017

Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown: Time Marches On

March 4, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

March. The name of the month has a different root than the verb, but to me, they are somehow linked. March. It has a military sound. And the phrase time marches on makes us picture an army on the march, moving on to the next battle. Time also flies, sometimes (when we’re having fun, which doesn’t seem fair). And sometimes it drags or plods along, and that phrase takes me back to certain warm college classrooms with a droning voice inviting daydreaming or possibly coma.

But in March, it really does seem like time marches on. We may need to march, literally, at first, with snows still piled high, mostly in the northeast. But we press forward now, winter is not quite past, but we can push it there, if we keep moving. And we are not just escaping, we are marching forward, on thru the sands of spring training, with Opening Day on the horizon.

March is a double milestone month for Notes, and I think that adds to my sense of the way its time is experienced — not plodding, not flying, but marching. Notes was launched in March of 1993, and ten years ago, starting with issue #184, Notes went on line. Yes, there is now a decade’s worth of Notes (and more, if you check the archives — some older issues are there), and I occasionally find myself looking up stuff I wrote about long ago, using Google. What’s scary is that I find it faster that way, than by using my old indices.

In 1993, I denied that Notes was a newsletter, when it clearly had a lot of the characteristics of one — but it went only to baseball editors. Some years ago, I argued that I am not a blogger, when I clearly was doing a lot of things bloggers do — but I’m posting my research, not just giving my opinions.

Next October will mark the 20th anniversary of my baseball writing hobby … addiction … career? It has been a wild ride, one which started quietly, as I struggled to string together chapters that might one day be a book. Since then I’ve churned out hundreds of poems, dozens of short stories, a novella, a play (now a musical), countless essays and reviews, thousands of “observations from outside the lines” of MLB, and, oh yes, all the B-Sox stuff. Like baseball, this was totally unpredictable.

Time marches on.

UNBEATABLE

Baseball is surely the sport for debaters, arguers, and anyone who likes competitive conversation. Just the phrase Unbeatable Baseball Records can stir up a fight. That happened to be the subject of my calendar on February 27, and while it is hard to argue that anyone will ever top Cy Young’s 511 wins — the only record noted — it got me to thinking.

The best a pitcher can hope for these days is 300 wins, and that is simply because of opportunities. Pacing pitchers by starting them every fourth or fifth day, instead of working them like, well, horses, seems to be win-win — not in the W column, but for both the team and the pitcher, I mean. His million-dollar income career gets extended, and the team gets his proven services for more seasons. A rookie fan might be surprised that only a handful of pitchers have won 300, since the schedule was expanded from 154 games to 162, and the opposition talent diluted by the expansion from just 16 teams to almost twice that number.

But of course, it is the number of starts that matters, not the number of games scheduled. Cy Young started 40-49 games in eleven different seasons, 30-39 eight more summers. And back in the deadball days, the line between starter and reliever was not so thickly drawn, yesterday’s starter might be today’s closer and toss a few middle innings tomorrow.

Well, here’s my point. Cy Young’s 511 wins towers over the number two man, Walter Johnson (417), and just eight pitchers in history have so far exceeded 350. But this should not bother anybody, we know there’s a reason, and we take a certain pride and joy in explaining the record to newcomers. Same with the record for wins in a season, Old Hoss Radbourn’s 60, turned in when he was a colt in 1884; he had 73 starts (and two games in relief) that season, and completed them all. (Two other pitchers that same season won 47 and 46 games respectively, but no one remembers that. In the American Assn, same summer, Guy Hecker won 52 for Louisville — a lousy 52.

When Steve Carlton won 27 games for a last-place Philly team, that won just 59 games all season, he was give credit for that amazing 46% of his teams’ wins. Radbourn’s 60 wins led his team, Providence, to a first-place finish, and was 71% of his team’s total (84); his 12 losses were 43% of his team’s 28, too.

Again, my point? Only this, that no one has ever suggested, as far as I know, adding an asterisk to Cy Young’s 511 or Old Hoss’ 60. No need to, fans know, and can explain the reasons. So while there is much talk about “the Steroid Era” these days — about bracketing off certain seasons, now under suspicion, or the seasons of certain players, etc etc and so forth — there is no need. Fans know, and can explain the reasons.

And you know what? Instead of getting angry at A-Rod and all the rest and lumping them together, “the steroid boys of summer,” why not instead ask them all to submit to some real medical scrutiny. Let them be candid about what they took, how often, and what effects they experienced — so at least we can learn more about this stuff. Who knows, maybe some substances that are really good for you, also add to your strength or endurance or your ability to heal faster after an injury. Maybe there’s some medicine in the bag we are tossing away as snake oil. Stuff which might be beneficial, if properly prescribed and monitored by physicians. I’d just once like to see someone say to A-Rod, geez, man, you know you are lucky you survived that stuff? What were you thinking? Have you been checked out lately?

SHINE ON? — OR, ED’S CRED

Back in Notes #391, about two years ago, I mentioned a series of interviews conducted with some of the living members of the 1919 White Sox, by Westbrook Pegler, in 1960. While chatting with Eddie Cicotte — “Cicotte Calls Life Sentence Too Rough” was the headline — Peg asked Knuckles how to pronounce his name (See-cott, not Sy-cott), and then about his famous shine ball. Cicotte denied it ever existed — his teammates convinced the Yankees that Cicotte was throwing it, and the story spread. No paraffin, just sweaty pants.

I had not seen that before, the notion that the shine ball was a phantom pitch, an illusion, something to mess with batters’ minds, like the spitters never thrown by Gaylord Perry. But the past week, I learned that Eddie had said that same thing about his shine ball ‘way back when he was at his peak.

In 1917, Cicotte — whose previous best win total was 18, in 1913 — went 28-12 and 1.53, as the White Sox won the AL pennant. Eddie won Game One in the Series, 2-1 over Slim Sallee and the NY Giants, but lost Game Three, 2-0, to Rube Benton. In Game Five, Eddie came on in relief in the first inning and was trailing 4-2 when he left, after tossing six innings; the Sox rallied for an 8-5 win, and Red Faber tossed a 4-2 CG win in Game Six to wrap up the Series. (So Cicotte recorded 29 wins in 1917, counting the Series, and might have had 31.)

The following spring, with the war making shambles of many teams, Eddie got off to a bad start (he would finish 12-19), but was still big news when The Sporting News got to him for an interview that appeared in their May 2 issue. “Baseball critic” George S. Robbins wrote “About the smoothest thing in baseball last year was Eddie Cicotte’s shine ball … [it] may have been a myth but its psychological effect remains.”

Cicotte was called “the headiest pitcher in the game” for pitching by the tenet, “Keep the batsmen guessing.” Whether he doctored the ball was “under dispute.” TSN noted that the previous October, Cicotte “told the world the secret of his so-called shine ball.”

“It was a myth, pure and simple,” said Eddie. “It was all a scheme of Hap’s [Happy Felsch] and mine to fool the batsman, who is always hanging around to be fooled.
Happy Felsch assented to all that Eddie said about the origin of the shine ball as perfected by the alert White Sox pitcher. The whole blooming thing was cooked up on an off day at the Texas training camp, according to Hap.

TSN said that Cicotte’s mannerisms, rubbing the ball on his uniform or bringing it up to his mouth, may have just been for effect. “The shine ball may be half myth and half fact.” Batters thought Cicotte was faking in pretending to use the spitball. But Eddie stuck with his story. He admitted an improved knuckler, but insisted that the shiner was “a pure freak of the imagination.”

The 1918 TSN reference above was found in a book called to my attention by the ever-helpful staff at the Cooperstown library, the [Rob] Neyer/[Bill] James Guide to Pitchers (2004). Sure enough, they rank the Shine ball as Cicotte’s #1 selection, ahead of his fast ball, curve and knuckler. They add that he learned the pitch after he joined the Sox, from Red Faber. They quote Eddie saying he threw about 75 knucklers out of a hundred pitches (in 1917). They put some weight on Frank Shellenback’s view, that Cicotte would rub the ball in the dirt then slicken it by rubbing it on his pants, because Frank was a teammate in 1918-19. They note Cicotte’s claim, that the shiner was imaginary, but seem to not want to believe it.

Poor Eddie. If he said it just once, you might think that was his way of messing with the batters’ minds. But when he says it again, in an interview four decades after he left baseball, when it could earn him no advantage at all, I think you might want to take him more seriously.

This reminds me, of course, of something else Eddie said, that no one wanted to believe. To the grand jury in 1920, Eddie said he pitched the 1919 Series to win, except for hitting on purpose the first batter he faced. What was reported was just the opposite. When his 1920 statements were read into the record at the 1921 trial, they went virtually unnoticed, although the Boston Globe thought they were worth reporting. They surfaced again when Eddie was deposed for the 1924 Jackson trial, but again, no one seemed to notice or care. Like his shine ball, the image of Eddie Cicotte as the guy who tossed two of his three games in October 1919 was super-glued into history. Eliot Asinof and director John Sayles added some reinforced concrete in Eight Men Out. Personally, I don’t think it’s so important that we know whether or not Eddie threw a shine ball. But yes, whether he pitched the 1919 Series to win or to lose, matters. Because he got “a life sentence” and even though this is a little like doing a DNA test to determine the guilt or innocence of a prisoner who is no longer in jail, but deceased — well, he has family, and if we can learn from history, we might not repeat our mistakes.

The above is an excerpt from Issue #478 of Gene’s Notes From the Shadows of Cooperstown. To read the rest of the issue (or past issues), click here.

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