September 22, 2017

California Leads the Way in Producing Stars, Nicknames and Trailblazers

January 6, 2016 by · Leave a Comment 

Frontier prospectors discovered “there’s gold in them thar hills,” but today’s prospectors are more interested in mining for five-tool baseball players. Baseball’s Gold Rush has been ongoing in the Golden State for several decades, as California has produced more major league players than any other state (2,150 through the 2015 season, about 748 more than runner-up Pennsylvania), which made it one of the most challenging states to select an all-time team in my book, Baseball State by State. After all, the 13th best California-born third baseman, Eric Chavez, is not too shabby.

Baseball’s roots in California predate the arrival of the Giants in San Francisco and the Dodgers in Los Angeles in 1958, although those moves did create a seismic shift in major league baseball’s power structure and fan base. No longer did the center of the baseball universe begin and end in New York City.

Alexander Cartwright journeyed out to California in search of gold in 1849—one year before California became the 31st state—bringing with him a passion for the new sport he helped organize in New York, if his journals are to be believed. Cartwright found illness and not gold in the Golden State, so he moved on to Hawaii and spread the gospel of baseball in that tropical paradise. It’s a wonder that tales of Cartwright’s pioneering efforts cannot be traced to each of the 50 states along with credit for developing the designated hitter rule and Fantasy Baseball.

One of baseball’s enduring legacies can be traced back to the state. Ernest Thayer’s famous poem “Casey at the Bat” was first published by William Randolph Hearst in his newspaper, The San Francisco Examiner, in June 1888. The California city of Stockton claims to be the inspiration for Mudville (since that used to be the town’s name for a short time), as does a town in Massachusetts, but Thayer denied the poem was based on any specific location.

Baseball was growing in popularity at the dawn of the 20th century, but major league baseball was largely confined to the Northeast and industrial Midwest. The Pacific Coast League (PCL), founded in 1903, quickly established itself as one of the top regional leagues in the country and helped popularize the game on the West Coast. Since California’s mild weather meant baseball could be played nearly year-round, the PCL teams routinely played 170-180 games a year, including a record 230 games played by the San Francisco Seals in 1905. In the first half of the 20th century, the best baseball in the West was being played in the Pacific Coast League.

Joe DiMaggio hit .340 with 259 hits in 187 games for the Seals in 1933 and then did even better in 1935—270 hits in 172 games and a .398 average. DiMaggio and his brothers Dom and Vince learned to play the game at North Beach Playground in the Italian district of San Francisco, despite their father’s belief they should follow in his footsteps as a fisherman.

Ted Williams, the last player to bat .400 in a season, refined his hitting stroke while growing up in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. After starring at Hoover High School in San Diego, Williams was able to play his first two years of professional ball for the San Diego Padres in the Pacific Coast League in 1936—his manager was Frank Shellenback, who is the PCL’s all-time leader in pitching wins with 295.

Jackie Robinson was born in Georgia, but he grew up in Pasadena and attended Pasadena City College before lettering in four sports at UCLA. Baseball was actually his worst sport—he batted .097 during his one season on the team at UCLA. Branch Rickey was more impressed with Robinson’s background growing up in an integrated school system than in his ability as a baseball player, which is why he brought Jackie to the majors before more experienced African-American players like Roy Campanella and Don Newcombe.

Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson were Texans by birth but both future Hall of Famers played their high school ball in Oakland. Willie Stargell was a native Oklahoman who played his ball in Alameda, just outside Oakland. Bert Blyleven was born in the Netherlands and spent four years in Canada, but he spent the rest of his youth in California, which is where he learned to play baseball.

Walter “The Big Train” Johnson was born in Kansas, but moved with his family to Orange County when he was 14. In high school he spent as much time in the oil fields of Olinda as he did the baseball diamond, although he managed to strike out 27 batters in a game pitching for Fullerton High School.

Another star at Fullerton High School was Willard Hershberger, who had battled depression after his father committed suicide in 1928. Hershberger, a career backup who was uncomfortable being thrust into the spotlight after the Reds’ starting catcher, Ernie Lombardi, went down with an injury in 1940, slashed his throat in his room at the team hotel. The 30-year-old remains the only player to commit suicide during the season.

Another player of historical note is John “Chief” Meyers, who was born in Riverside as a member of the Cahuilla tribe of Indians. Meyers was one of the best offensive catchers of the Deadball Era, batting .291 lifetime with a 117 OPS+. He spent seven seasons catching Christy Mathewson on John McGraw’s Giants, batting over .300 each year from 1911-13 as the Giants won the pennant all three seasons. Meyers finished third in the Chalmers Award (MVP) voting in 1912 after batting .358 (2nd in the NL) and leading the league with a .441 OBP. He also finished third in the league in batting in 1911 with a .332 average. Meyers’ rise to baseball prominence helped popularize the game on Indian reservations throughout Southern California.

Meyers’ teammate on those Giants teams, Ventura native Fred Snodgrass, gained notoriety for dropping a fly ball in the 10th inning of the last game of the 1912 Series—it became known as “Snodgrass’s Muff.”  Snodgrass finished fourth in the league in batting in 1910 and third in stolen bases in 1911-12, yet he joins players such as Fred Merkle in being remembered for one negative play. Ironically, the Giants had gone ahead in the top of the 10th  in the 1912 Series when Merkle singled in a runner from second.

Only 37 players from California started their careers in the 19th century, but 212 players from the state were active during the 2015 season. That gives us plenty of options for coming up with an All-California All-Star team comprised of active players, mimicking the approach I took in my book in coming up with an all-time team of California players through the years.

C-Jason Castro, Stephen Vogt, John Jaso, Gerald Laird, Travis D’Arnaud

1b-Adrian Gonzalez, Freddie Freeman, Mark Trumbo, Adam LaRoche, Lucas Duda

2b-Dustin Pedroia, Chase Utley, Aaron Hill, DJ LeMahieu, Danny Espinosa

3b-Nolan Arenado, Evan Longoria, Mike Moustakas, Trevor Plouffe, Justin Turner, Casey McGehee

SS-Troy Tulowitzki, Jimmy Rollins, Brandon Crawford, Brendan Ryan

OF-Ryan Braun, Adam Jones, Giancarco Stanton, Coco Crisp, Reed Johnson, Jonny Gomes, Will Venable, Christian Yelich, Joc Pederson, Skip Schumaker

DH-Prince Fielder, Chris Carter

LHP-Cole Hamels, CC Sabathia, C.J. Wilson, Randy Wolf, Jason Vargas

RHP-Gerrit Cole, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, Ian Kennedy, James Shields, Matt Garza, Mike Leake, Tyson Ross, Trevor Cahill, Phil Hughes, Stephen Strasburg, Colby Lewis, Kyle Lohse, Doug Fister, Brandon McCarthy, Ricky Nolasco, Aaron Harang, Chris Tillman

RP- Zach Britton, Sergio Romo, Chad Qualls, Addison Reed, Casey Janssen, Ryan Madson, Brad Boxberger, Sergio Santos, Jake McGee, J.P. Howell

Mgr-Ned Yost, Bob Melvin, Matt Williams, Robin Ventura

Looking at the full roster of player names from California, there is a Gross, a Klutts and a Hack, but also a Ferrari and a Pate. San Francisco native Alan Mitchell Edward George Patrick Henry Gallagher is tied with Bruno Betzel (or as his mother used to yell at him, Christian Frederick Albert John Henry David Betzel) for the most names in baseball history. Either Gallagher’s parents couldn’t agree on a middle name or they wanted to make it difficult for him to fill out official forms. The third baseman was known as “Dirty Al” during his uneventful four-year career.

The nicknames of California players range from the demented—The Mad Hungarian, Dr. Strangeglove, Cuckoo and Wild Thing—to the super heroes: Captain America, Flash Gordon and The Incredible Hulk. Eric Byrnes leads the state in nicknames, since in addition to Captain America he is also known as Flipper, Crash Test Dummy and Pigpen. Ted Williams also had four nicknames: Splendid Splinter, Teddy Ballgame, Thumper and The Kid.

Animals and creatures of nature are well-represented by the nicknames of California-born players, with enough to start up a zoo. The infield would consist of Nelson “Chicken” Hawks at first, Bill “The Cricket” Rigney at second, Frankie “Crow” Crosetti moving to third and Rick “Rooster” Burleson at short. Tim “Kingfish” Salmon, Bob “Beetle” Bailey and John “Spider” Jorgensen are available to man the outfield, while Mike “Big Bear” Garcia and Charley “Sea Lion” Hall are the pitchers. At catcher we have Harry “The Horse” Danning. Not a bad lineup.

Oakland native Jim “Abba Dabba” Tobin was a fair pitcher who won 105 games and pitched two no-hitters in 1944 (one lasted just five innings). He also is the only pitcher to smack three consecutive home runs in a game, which he did on May 3, 1942, while playing for Casey Stengel’s Boston Braves. In fact, he’s the only pitcher to hit three home runs in a game during the 20th century. Although Tobin got the complete game win that day, he went on to lead the league with 21 losses that season. He was used often as a pinch hitter, ending up with 17 career home runs.

Los Angeles native Ralph Schwamb picked up the nickname “Blackie” during his youth, because he identified with the bad guys and liked to dress all in black. He grew up to be a bad guy in real life, drinking heavily and graduating from petty theft to armed robbery. He was working as a mob enforcer when his baseball talents were discovered. A meteoric rise to the majors in 1948 was followed by an even quicker fall from grace.

Blackie self-destructed with an 8.53 ERA in 12 appearances, his pitching talent overshadowed by drinking and volatile outbursts. Things got worse from there, as he was sentenced to life in prison for beating a man to death in 1949. Away from the distractions of civilian life, Blackie gained notoriety as the unhittable pitching star of the San Quentin prison team, even pitching a no-hitter while facing a team primarily comprised of major league players.

San Francisco native Walter Christensen was a California original. He liked to do somersaults in the outfield before making catches and on occasion could be found reading the newspaper while in the field. Not surprisingly, he was nicknamed “Cuckoo” and his major league career lasted just two seasons despite leading the National League with a .426 OBP his rookie year of 1926.

Chris Jensen, who grew up outside Cooperstown, N.Y., is the author of Baseball State by State: Major League and Negro League Players, Ballparks, Museums and Historical Sites.” You can reach him on Twitter at @yankfan81.

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