Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 28, 2013

The Colonel, The Deacon, And The Ump

It’s been more than six months since the eligible electors of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America failed to reward anyone on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot with the requisite 75% of the votes needed to gain admission to the Hall. The economic cost of that benighted decision to the little village of Cooperstown was immediately apparent to anyone tuning into the MLB Network on Sunday afternoon. With no living inductees on hand to be enshrined, the Hall’s annual ceremony took place on an outdoor stage before rows of empty seats. On a day when fans normally flock to upstate New York to honor the Hall’s newest members, there were likely church socials in neighboring towns that claimed bigger turnouts on Sunday.

With the writers failing to elect anyone on the current ballot, all three of this year’s inductees were chosen by the Veterans Committee. Since 2011 that election has been limited each year to one of three specific eras in the history of the Great Game. This year, for the first time, candidates came from the Pre-Integration Era of 1871-1946. The sixteen-member Pre-Integration Committee considered a list of ten candidates, with three of them receiving the twelve or more votes needed for induction.

Thus the only former player with a new plaque on the wall at Cooperstown is Deacon White, a catcher and third baseman who died nearly three-quarters of a century ago. White played for seven different teams over a lengthy career that ran from 1871 to 1890. A star catcher when it was done bare handed in the Great Game’s formative days, White batted .312 over the course of his career, with a supposed triple slash line of .312/.346/.393. I insert “supposed” because it is probably fair to wonder about the reliability of some of the old records. In any event, it is absolutely certain that White would have no idea what the term “triple slash line” meant. But only Cap Anson drove in more runs during those first two decades, and White also ranked fourth in career games, at bats, hits, and total bases in that period. Perhaps of greatest importance for the Hall of Fame is that as the leadoff hitter in the first game of the first fully professional league, Deacon White’s double on May 4, 1871 stands as the major league’s first base hit.

Like White, Hank O’Day was unable to attend Sunday’s ceremonies, having passed away in 1935 at the age of 75. But after an undistinguished career as a right-handed pitcher, O’Day made a Hall of Fame worthy name for himself over thirty years as an umpire. It was a career that began by accident. He was recruited from the stands at a game in Chicago in 1894 when the scheduled umpire failed to arrive because of a cancelled train. By the following year he was calling balls, strikes and outs full-time in the National League. He was behind the plate for the first modern World Series game in 1903, and eventually umpired in ten Fall Classics. His 2,710 games as home plate umpire still rank second in major league history.

In 1908 it was O’Day who made the call on Merkle’s Boner, the play that would ultimately allow the Chicago Cubs to advance to the World Series. The New York Giants appeared to score a walk-off win against the Cubs when shortstop Al Bridwell singled to center with two outs in the bottom of the 9th, sending Moose McCormick home from third for an apparent 2-1 victory. But on first base after a single that had sent McCormick to third, New York’s Fred Merkle never ran all the way to second to touch the bag. Rule 4.09 holds that “A run is not scored if the runner advances to home base during a play in which the third out is made…by any runner being forced out.” With Giants fans running onto the field, the Cubs eventually got a ball to second and appealed for the force out of Merkle. When O’Day signaled “out” a near riot ensued. The game was eventually ruled a tie, and when Chicago won the replayed game some two weeks later, they claimed the National League pennant and a spot in the Series. More than a century later, they still haven’t been back.

Unlike White and O’Day, this year’s final inductee never played a single inning of professional ball, yet his impact on the Great Game was far more profound than either of his fellow honorees; so much so that one wonders why it took the Hall so long to find room for him. Modern fans who root for any of the twenty-nine other teams love to hate the New York Yankees, and for years the late George Steinbrenner has been looked upon as an owner whose free-spending ways changed the game, for better or worse. But long before the Boss, there was the Colonel.

Jacob Ruppert got his nickname from his rank in the New York National Guard. He made a fortune by building the family brewery business and served four terms as a Democratic congressman from New York. With a lifelong interest in baseball, he tried repeatedly to buy the New York Giants, but was always rebuffed. In 1912 he had an opportunity to buy the Chicago Cubs, but declined to do so because they were too far away. Then in 1915 he joined with Tillinghast Huston to buy the lowly Yankees for $480,000, or about $11 million in current terms. The Yankees began life as the Baltimore Orioles in 1901, moved to New York and became the Highlanders in 1903, and had just changed their name again in 1913. They paid rent to the Giants to play at the Polo Grounds, had never won a pennant, and hadn’t had a winning season since 1910. By the time Ruppert died in January 1939 the Yankees had won the first ten of their forty American League titles and the first seven of their twenty-seven world championships.

Ruppert built the Yankees into a dynasty by hiring top talent to run the organization and spending freely for players. He hired manager Miller Huggins away from the Cardinals, and for his work as the Yankees’ skipper Huggins is now in the Hall of Fame. He convinced Ed Barrow to leave Boston where he was the field manager of the Red Sox to become the general manager of the Yankees. For his work building a long series of winning rosters Barrow was twice named baseball’s Executive of the Year. Like Huggins, he too preceded his boss into the Hall.

One year before raiding the Red Sox for Barrow, Ruppert made a somewhat more famous raid on Boston’s roster. With George Herman Ruth in pinstripes, the Yankees began to outdraw their landlords. When the Giants raised the rent, Ruppert looked across the Harlem River and purchased land in the south Bronx. There he built the first three-tiered ballpark and the first that carried the name “Stadium.” At the same time he bought out Huston and became sole owner in time for the glistening white Stadium’s inaugural season. It brought the team’s first World Series title, just as its successor’s across the street in 2009 brought the Yankees most recent one.

On the wall of my apartment, hanging above a pair of seats from the old Stadium, is a priceless photograph from spring training of 1928. It is the official team portrait of a squad that had won a then-record 110 games in 1927, with a lineup that earned the nickname “Murderer’s Row.” There are nine Hall of Famers in the photograph. Names no longer familiar like Lazzeri and Combs, Hoyt, Coveleski, and Pennock. Names instantly recognizable like Durocher and Dickey, Huggins and Gehrig. And there is the guy they called Babe. Nine future Hall of Famers on a single team, yet still less than half the number that would play or manage for Jacob Ruppert during the time he owned the Yankees.

Sadly, the baseball writers saw fit to elect no one to the Hall of Fame this year. Thanks to the Veterans Committee, that doesn’t mean that no one who was worthy and long overdue for recognition finally earned their space on the wall at Cooperstown.

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Responses

  1. The Veteran’s Committee has made many blunders over the years, but at least this time they saw fit to enshrine arguably deserving individuals, which is more than the BBWAA can say about its shameful performance in the last election cycle. Hopefully, the BBWAA will get around to performing its function in an honest, objective manner next time around, and we’ll get to see an actual, living ballplayer enshrined in 2014.

    • Well said Bill, I couldn’t agree more. Though I fear that there are enough BBWAA members who fancy themselves the exalted guardians of some pristine fairytale of a game that we may not see an objective vote for many years to come. However I do believe that next year we will at least see living inductees!

      Thanks as always,
      Mike


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