Sunday, June 12, 2016

History Repeats Itself, Except When It Doesn't

Photo by Mark Granieri

In a post a few weeks ago, I mentioned one of the ways that history repeats itself, at least in terms of vintage base ball compared to the original.  The issue was the importance then, and now, of who shows up for a match.  In discussing the 19th century, I used the example of how when the Eureka Base Ball Club of Newark finally defeated the Atlantic Club of Brooklyn, four of their best players didn't make it because of work commitments.  This week the Eureka feature in another example of historical repetition, in this case as the 19th century example of how some teams have opponents they just can't seem to defeat no matter how hard they try (or perhaps because of how hard they try.  For the Eureka that was the self-same Atlantics, a club, the premier New Jersey team of the 1860's managed to defeat just once suffering some especially heart breaking losses along the way.  In 1865 for example, the Eureka suffered two one run losses to the defending champion Atlantics, first when a ninth inning rally fell one run short and another where they couldn't hold a five run lead against the Brooklyn club.

Eureka Base Ball Club of Newark - Collections of the New Jersey Historical Society

The Neshanock, who no one would or should confuse with the Eureka, have more than one opponent in that category, but the Elkton Eclipse, Saturday's foe at the Howell Living History Farm near Lambertville, New Jersey, is right up at the top of the list.  This is my seventh season scoring for the Neshanock and never once has Flemington prevailed over the Maryland team, one of the country's consistently best vintage clubs.  Initially the losses were seldom close, but in recent years its gotten even more frustrating because of close games that always seem to come out the wrong way, at least from the Neshanock's point of view.  A 12 inning loss in the Philadelphia Navy Yard Classic a few years ago, after Flemington led going to the bottom of the ninth is just one example.  Hope springs eternal, of course, and the Neshanock had a strong line up for today's two games, a nine inning affair followed by a seven inning game both under 1864 rules.

Tom "Schoolboy" Duffy (left) and Scott "Snuffy" Hengst - photo by Mark Granieri

Elkton struck quickly in the top of the first, tallying twice, but the Neshanock quickly countered with three in their half and after four innings, it was a close game with Elkton up 4-3.   In the top of the fifth, however, came one of those innings that always seems to doom Flemington against Elkton, when Neshanock muffs, effectively gave the Eclipse six outs opening the door for four runs for the Maryland club and an 8-3 lead.   Flemington also did nothing to help its own cause when on two separate occasions, the Neshanock had men on second and third, but failed to score.  The Neshanock did have one rally left in them, however, scoring four times in the bottom of the eighth to trail by only one heading into the last inning.  Considering how things have gone in these games, it shouldn't have been surprising that with two out, Elkton broke the game open scoring nine times for an 18-8 victory, much closer than it looked and, therefore, no less frustrating for Flemington.  The Elkton attack was led by Steve "Smiles" Pogue and Erik "Dubs" Myers, each with three hits and as per usual the Eclipse played solid defense behind the always entertaining pitching of Tom "Schoolboy" Duffy.  Flemington was led on offense by Tom "Thumbs" Hoepfner with three hits and Rene "Mango" Marerro and Jack "Doc" Kitson with two apiece.

Photo by Mark Granieri 

After a break for "Casey at the Bat," sustenance for the inner man and other necessities, the two clubs went at it again, this time with the Neshanock first at the striker's line.  Flemington wasted no time taking charge as consecutive hits by Danny "Batman" Shaw, Dan "Sledge" Hammer, "Thumbs," and "Mango," followed by a two out hit by Joe "Mick" Murray gave the Neshanock four tallies, all the offense, the Neshanock would need.  Flemington added two more in the third on back-to-back doubles by "Batman," "Sledge" and a single by "Thumbs."  Elkton rallied for two in their half of the third, but it was the only time the Eclipse crossed the plate for the match.  Flemington broke the game open with four more in the fifth and shut Elkton out the rest of the way behind the pitching of "Batman" and Bob "Melky" Ritter who added two hits of his own.  "Batman" had a clear score for the match, with "Sledge" only a put out on the bases away from a clear score of his own.  "Thumbs" chipped in four hits while "Mick" and "Jersey" Jim Nunn added two each.  Elkton only managed eight hits in the match, three by "Smiles."  Late in the match,"Schoolboy" was struck by a hard line drive off the bat of "Mango" and everyone on the Neshanock wishes him a speedy recovery.

Photo by Mark Granieri

Why didn't history repeat itself on this occasion. On reflection, there have been common threads in the multiple frustrating losses to Elkton, patterns that were repeated in the first game, such as giving a very good team far too many outs or chances.  That changed in the second game and so did the result, perhaps there is a lesson there about how to avoid the frustrations of the past.  It's perhaps just one instance of how we can learn from history by going deeper inside the result to understand what needs to change so the result itself can be changed.  Perhaps, I'm more conscious of that at the moment, because of thinking about how returning to some better practices of the past, can lead to better results in the present.  This came to mind a few weeks ago, when the New York Mets were in the process of tying a very dubious record for baseball futility.  Over the course of 13 innings, the Mets were the beneficiary of 13 walks, yet managed to score only one run in a 2-1 loss to the White Sox.  This matched only the equally inept offense of the Brooklyn Dodgers who on May 19, 1953, could score only one run in 10 innings again with the benefit of 13 walks, of this more later.

Photo by Mark Granieri

By coincidence, Carol and I were listening to the game on the car radio when the Mets came up in the bottom of the 12th with their 2-3-4 hitters, Ashdrubal Cabrera, Michael Conforto and Neil Walker coming to the plate.  Probably to no one's surprise, Cabrera walked, bringing up Conforto, whose five fruitless appearances at the plate featured four strike outs.  Immediately the conversation between the announcers, Josh Lewin and Howie Rose turned to the possibility of Conforto bunting.  They checked and unsurprisingly found that in over 200 minor and major league games (admittedly a small sample), Conforto had never attempted a bunt even once.  Lewin then went on to speculate that it was probably unlikely that the Met outfielder had ever been asked to bunt in either high school or college.   Naturally, of course, no one was going to go against history in that situation so, equally naturally, Conforto hit into a double play and the Mets went on to lose the game in the 13th.

I was more than a little surprised to find that any Brooklyn team from the 1950's shared that dubious mark and even more so that it was the 1953 team.  Although that club gets less attention than the other three of Brooklyn's 1950's pennant winning squads, Dave Anderson, the long time New York Times writer told me in an interview for our Ebbets Field book, that the 1953 team was the best of the bunch and that the players felt the same way.  I also had a long interview with Dodger pitcher Carl Erskine and as I recall (there's that memory thing again), he said the same thing.  The 1953 team won 105 games, hit 208 home runs with a team batting average of .285, but on that May night in 1953, could manage only run in spite of the wildness of Bud Podbielan, the Reds pitcher.   Cincinnati finally won the game in the 10th inning on a Ted Kluszewski home run off of Preacher Roe.  Looking at the play-by-play I found three opportunities where a lead off walk set up a possible bunt scenario.  Only once did a Dodger try to bunt and, ironically, it turned into a double play.

Somehow Bud Podbielan walked 13 Brooklyn Dodgers, but held them to one run in 10 innings

There was, however, another situation, with far more at stake that the Dodgers took a very different approached and it's the one of the reasons, I find what happened or what wasn't tried in the Mets game so frustrating.  On October 4, 1955, the Dodgers and the Yankees played the 7th game of the World Series at Yankee Stadium and after five innings, Brooklyn was clinging to a 1-0 lead as hope built throughout the Dodger faithful that this might finally be next year.  In the top of the sixth, Pee Wee Reese singled bringing up Brooklyn' s number three hitter, Duke Snider, the same Duke Snider who in 1955 hit .309 with 42 home runs and 136 RBI's, the same Duke Snider who had already hit four home runs in the World Series.  Did Snider try to hit one over the short right field fence at Yankee Stadium?  He did not, instead he bunted and when Yankee first baseman made an error, Snider was safe and Brooklyn had first and second with no one out.  That brought up Dodger cleanup hitter, Roy Campanella who was the 1955 National League MVP with a .318, 32 and 107 in the relevant categories.  Did Campy go for the big inning?  He did not, like Snider he bunted, moving both runners up and and a few minutes later, Brooklyn got the badly needed insurance run on Gil Hodges's sacrifice fly.

October 4, 1955 - Next Year arrives in Brooklyn

Think about it, two famous players who earned their way to Cooperstown, in large measure because of their power hitting were not only directed to bunt in the biggest game of their lives, but did so successfully.  What this piece of history suggests to me is that Michael Conforto and countless other players have been ill served throughout their baseball careers by not being expected to learn how to bunt.  And that's not to excuse the players themselves, for all the time they spend playing baseball on their way to the major leagues, why can't they use some that time to develop a skill that can be the difference between winning and defeat.  Some will say that I am advocating "small ball," but frankly I hate that term because it seems to denigrate one part of baseball as being unworthy or to suggest one must choose one strategy over another.  What happened in the climatic game of the 1955 World Series, on baseball's biggest stage reminds us, I believe, that one of the many great things about baseball is the multiple paths to success.  It seems a shame, therefore, to discard one that has made the difference between failure and success before and can do so again.

No comments:

Post a Comment