Of Pie Traynor, Howard Ehmke and Milton Bradley

“All these were honored in their generation and were the glory of their times.”
Ecclesiasticus 44:7

Was re-reading The Glory of Their Times this morning while waiting for a phone call; Lawrence Ritter’s seminal book on baseball history that first came out in 1966. Not sure anybody reads these kind of books anymore, think everybody is on STATS Inc., baseball-reference.com or Twitter.

Anyway, Paul Waner, who was from Oklahoma, played for the Pirates from 1926-40 and is now in the Hall of Fame, was talking to Ritter about Pie Traynor.

“Pie was a great ballplayer, I think the greatest third baseman who ever lived,” Waner said.

Now if you grew up in the 1960’s and 70’s and read the kind of baseball books that Talmadge Boston and Paul Rogers write, you would have heard of Pie Traynor. He played for the Pirates about the same time Waner did and by the time the 1960’s and 70’s rolled around, he and Brooks Robinson were considered the two best third basemen in baseball history.

Thumbnail image for 11_paul-waner.jpgWhy? Because people like Paul Waner said so in books like The Glory of Their Times.

Then came Bill James. He didn’t think Traynor was the greatest third baseman in baseball history. Far from it. In his Historical Baseball Abstract, which came out in 2001, James made that clear. By this time we had Mike Schmidt, George Brett and Wade Boggs to consider but James – who is considered the Isaac Newton of all baseball statistical research – ranked Traynor only the 15th best third baseman of all-time

Not only behind Schmidt, Brett and Boggs, but also Robinson, Eddie Matthews and Home Run Baker, as well as Ron Santo, Darrell Evans, Sal Bando and Graig Nettles.

James is able to crunch an incredible array of numbers to support all of his player rankings and that goes with Traynor as well. But, to me, numbers are not why James is so great at what he does.

If you read his books and get through the numbers, you find one fascinating anecdote after another. James may be superb with numbers but to me he is the best anecdotal baseball historian extant.

So anyway, he unearths this quote about Traynor from another teammate, shortstop Dick Bartell, “He had some deficiencies that you weren’t aware of unless you played next to him. When making a throw to second base he would lob the ball like a shot put instead of throwing it.”

So Waner loved him and Bartell wasn’t so keen on the greatest third baseman who ever lived.

By the way. Gil Hodges, the great Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman? He hated catching pop-ups. So he would pay second baseman Jackie Robinson $5 or so for every pop-up he caught in Hodge’s territory. One time the two were caught arguing in the World Series. When asked about it, they explained that since it was the World Series, Robinson wanted more for catching Hodges’ pop-ups.

Wonder if Ian Kinsler charged Mitch Moreland in the playoffs.

Not sure where I read that story but it’s somewhere here in a book at the Elysian Fields library, somewhere between Pitching in a Pitch by Christy Mathewson and Ball Four by Jim Bouton. We do have an impressive library here on baseball, World War II, NASA and the space program, and the mafia. Plus a bunch of paperback mystery/crime/thrillers that can be read between DFW and SFO.

No Cheering in the Press Box has the story of why Howard Ehmke pitched Game 1 of the 1929 World Series for the Athletics but since there was no chance of Rich Harden pitching Game 1 of the Giants then what’s the use of telling that story.

Although looking back, maybe somebody – just one person – with the Rangers should have researched Howard Ehmke. Of course Harden instead of Cliff Lee would have gotten somebody fired but Connie Mack didn’t have to worry about pitching Ehmke over Lefty Grove because he owned the team.

So anyway, Felix Hernandez is the American League Cy Young Award winner even though he won just 13 games this season. C.C. Sabathia won 21 games but finished third. Twenty years ago it would have been unthinkable for Hernandez to be even considered for the award – Sabathia might have won unanimously – but now that’s not the case.

milton-bradley.jpgNow the writers – long blasted every which way by the statistical analysts – are finally being praised for understanding the importance of a vast array of statistical numbers available rather than just going on wins and ERA. Hernandez had the superior numbers if wins are disregarded and his 13 victories was more of a reflection of his terrible run support.

Milton Bradley didn’t have a particularly good season in Seattle. But then, neither did Ken Griffey Jr. The numbers pretty much tell that story but explaining Milton Bradley is something that always defied numbers although his numbers actually play out well with the statistical analysts.

Draws walks and gets on base.

Just wish there could be mutual respect between reporter and analyst. The boys at the Baseball Think Factory are fabulous – http://www.baseballthinkfactory.org – but way too hard on one of the greatest baseball reporters ever. Anybody who devotes countless hours researching baseball – whether reporter in press box or analyst at the computer – is deserving of great respect. Instead there is mutual scorn.

But if one were to try to explain why Catfish Hunter was the greatest pitcher of his generation – an observation based on his win totals and watching him pitch – or why RBI is far and away the most important baseball statistic, it would invite only scorn and ridicule. May try it one day but not today.

But perhaps 40 years from now somebody else will write a book similar to The Glory of Their Times and explain Milton Bradley. Maybe they will talk to Bradley, which would make it extremely worth reading. But another Historical Baseball Abstract might do just the same thing with numbers.

We have those books as well. Alan Schwarz’s The Numbers Game sits right next to Pam Postema’s You’ve Got to have B*lls to Make it in This League.

Now there is a great baseball book.

7 Comments

TR….If you “try it” I will read it…as I suspect others will too!

There’s more to Baseball that cold statistical drivel For the past couple of years people have been trying to bury Michael Young because he can’t get to the ball accoring to Bill James stats. Nonsense…the guy is the heart and soul of the team…measure that!

I think there has to be a way to find a middle ground between the stat heads and the observers – but I don’t know what that is right now. CC is a terrific pitcher – but he was also backed by one of the best offenses in MLB. Having seen quite a bit of King Felix pitch – he’s also extremely good and having seen quite a bit of the Mariner offense – I amazed King Felix won 13 games.

By the way – I think someone else mentioned “The Glory Of Their Times” in a response on this blog: http://trsullivan.mlblogs.com/archives/2007/01/monday_morning__1.html#comments

I love debates like this and, ok, maybe I?m overly obsessed with stats, but I have to ask, from one baseball fan who never saw him play to others who probably didn?t either, what exactly did Pie Traynor do to be considered the best third baseman of all time (or second best)? He led the league in triples one season. That?s nice. His .320 career batting average ranks him tied for 54th all-time, but it loses some luster when you put it in the context of him never having finished higher than 5th in the league in batting. He did drive in a lot of runs, at 111th all-time, just ahead of Tino Martinez. Extra base power? He hit a career high 12 home runs in 1923, again putting that in the context of his era, that was the only time he ever reached the top 10. He was a triples machine, regularly among the league leaders and 30th all time and he finished in the top 10 in doubles a hand full of times. He was in the top 5 in stolen bases as many times (once) as he was in the top 5 in times caught stealing. On-base% wasn?t an official stat in Traynor?s lifetime and that?s probably a good thing for him, being that he never finished in the top 10. I?m not even getting more advanced stats like OPS+, instead, just looking at simple numbers relative to era, so I hope that wasn?t too stat geek-y.
I have immense respect for the Waner brothers, two great Oklahomans, but not only did Paul not see Boggs, Schmidt or Brett play, he never saw Bando, Nettles or Evans play a big league game and he passed early in Santo?s career, not that he would?ve admitted that any of them were better than his former teammate and manager.

As far as the Cy Young, I don?t even see it as a sabermetrics vs. old school debate as much as a philosophical difference in what the award is supposed to represent. Is it the best pitcher, which Hernandez clearly was, or the best pitcher who won a lot of games? In the modern era of bullpen specialization and with the complete game being increasingly rare, it?s no wonder that less statistical importance is placed Won/Loss record as a statistic. A pitcher?s fate in that department is out of his hands all too often.

Fred, EMC, Hefe

I want to personally thank all three of you. You have been most loyal in commenting on my blog. Thank you for taking the time.

You guys have been great and I appreciate it very much

TR

Thank you, TR. Keep up the good work.

My smart *** rmark was “it’s about baseball” as if that would explain why we visit your blog….I suppose it could be eually “It’s about the Rangers” but no that;s not all of iit,,,,I lke nice crisp writing about= my team znd the sport …nice to read someone who can use Der Stengel’s pic on his Ranger blogg & ala Grantland Rice or Stan Isle style writing (sorry my ambien got in the way of this a little bit) Write it TR and I’ll read it and hefee, and Eleanor and old Morgan from Australia…just write it!

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