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Remembering Bill Terry and Elmer Flick

The Hall of Fame has three new members today. On this day in history, two other members of the Hall of Fame passed away, Bill Terry in 1989 and Elmer Flick in 1971. So much has been written in recent days about the best players not in the Hall of Fame and the worst players in the Hall of Fame that it’s worth remembering two men who were neither.

Terry and Flick finished with 56-57 WAR in a little more than a decade of play. Judging by today’s standards, that seemed like fine work, if hardly extraordinary. The writers of their day mostly agreed. They finally allowed Bill Terry to enter the hall in 1954, in his 14th year on the ballot. The Veterans Committee finally decided in 1963 in order to induct Flick, whose last season was 1910, 26 years before the first Hall of Fame class.

Terry and Flick represent a number of things mostly missing from our annual Hall of Fame debate. First, the fact that hope springs eternal: no matter how long a player has waited, the Hall may call. It’s undoubtedly true that recent Veterans Committees have shown very little interest in electing players, unlike Veterans Committees of the past, but trends in Veterans Committees tend to run in cycles.

Second, putting borderline players into the Hall doesn’t harm the Hall. It doesn’t particularly lower standards, it doesn’t poison the well, and it doesn’t hurt anybody either outside or inside.

Anyway, you’ve probably heard of Bill Terry: he’s the last National Leaguer to hit over .400, having done so in 1930, and he’s one of 11 players whose numbers have been retired by the Giants (not including Jackie Robinson). You may not have heard of Flick, who played for the Phillies around the turn of the century, then went to Nap Lajoie’s Cleveland Naps, retiring five years before they changed their name to the “Indians.”*

* Traditionally, the Indians have claimed that they renamed themselves in honor of Louis Sockalexis, an American Indian who played for the team in the late 1890’s. Many others, including Joe Posnanski, have suggested that story is “complete bullcrap,” and that the Indians were merely trying on a name that sounded like that of the 1914 Miracle Braves, who were themselves named after the mascot of New York’s Tammany Hall political machine, which was itself named after a chief named Tamanend.

Terry was a career New York Giant, playing for the team from 1923 to 1936 and managing them from 1932 to 1941. He took over first base from High Pockets Kelly and took over managing from John McGraw, both Hall of Famers. Winning a World Series in 1933 and losing four more in 1923-24 and 1936-37, Terry was part of the last Giants dynasty until Buster Posey joined the team, and both he and Kelly were elected in the rosy afterglow of the memory of the superb Giants teams helmed by McGraw, the Little Napoleon, and by Terry himself. (Kelly was elected by the 1973 Veterans Committee and is assuredly one of the worst players in the Hall of Fame, but I promised I wouldn’t wade into that discussion.)

Flick never played in a World Series, though he played with stars like Big Ed Delahanty and Lajoie. Instead, his career was partly overshadowed by the massive interleague battles that took place between the National League and the just-established American League. As retells, Connie Mack’s Philadelphia Athletics raided the Phillies by ignoring the reserve clause and signing away Flick and a teammate, just a year after the A’s had signed away Lajoie from the same team.

The Phillies sought relief in the Pennsylvania courts, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with them, ordering the players back to the Phillies. So the American League itself intervened, keeping the players in their new league by shifting them to a new team outside the state of Philadelphia Pennsylvania: Cleveland, whose team was formerly called the Bronchos and would become known as the Naps after their new stars.

Despite losing these players, Mack’s 1902 A’s finished first, an achievement none of Flick’s teams ever matched. (Flick only played 11 games for the 1902 A’s.) But due to the all-out war between leagues, there was no official postseason that year. Only in 1903, after “the NL legally cried uncle and sued the AL for peace,” would the first official World Series take place.

Elmer Flick was a speedy outfielder who led his league in triples three times and steals twice. His career was only ten full seasons long. As SABR writes, his last three seasons were plagued by gastrointestinal illness so bad that “he lost weight, his power and speed declined, and the pain was so severe there were times when he thought that he would die.”

But it’s probably better to remember him as something like an early version of Shin-Soo Choo, an all-around outfielder who took walks, had pretty good power, and was a fine baserunner. Or, to quote the beginning of his SABR bio, “as the player who Cleveland would not trade for the young Ty Cobb or as the man who won the American League batting title with the lowest average prior to 1968.”

Terry was equally valuable but in a very different way: less speed, less defense, more batting average, more power. He was a first baseman who had a career batting average of .341 with a lot of doubles and a few more homers. And of course he was a player-manager who won a World Series, which holds weight with voters even though it isn’t reflected in WAR. Flick played before the All-Star Game and MVP, but Terry went to three All-Star games and finished top-three in the MVP three times, and it’s likely that Flick would have done the same.

Terry and Flick were two pretty good players from the first half-century of the modern era. They were great in their time, and though by modern standards they wouldn’t be considered all-time greats, they are well worth remembering. Thankfully, their enshrinement will forever provide a chance to do so.

Casey McGehee and Others Who Have Returned From Japan

Casey McGehee just signed a contract to play for the Marlins in 2014, after spending the season with the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles, where he was teammates with Andruw Jones, Kaz Matsui, Brandon Duckworth, and Takashi Saito. McGehee had a good year: .292/.376/.515 slash line, with 28 homers and 93 RBIs. (He and Jones were easily the team’s two best hitters; he was two homers ahead of Jones and one RBI behind him.) Now 31, he will try to reestablish himself in the majors.

McGehee is far from the only player to cross the Pacific in the other direction. I spent several hours making an unscientific study of baseball-reference, Lexis-Nexis, and Wikipedia, and came up with a list of 167 players from the Americas who spent time in Japan and then returned to play in the major leagues. (There may be errors both of omission and commission in the list; I do not claim to have found everybody, and it is possible that some people wound up in the list who should not have. Please make corrections in the comments and I will update the doc.)

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Jerry Jr. and The Amazing Hairstons

Jerry Hairston tweeted his retirement Wednesday; almost immediately, he was announced as a new announcer for the Dodgers. It was fitting: Hairston rarely started, but he was always needed. The longtime utilityman picked up a World Series ring with the 2009 Yankees, logging time in the Fall Classic at every position but first base, catcher, and pitcher.
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Shoeless Joe Jackson Died 62 Years Ago Today

Joe Jackson was born July 16, 1887, in Pickens County, South Carolina. He died sixty-four years later, on December 5, 1951, exactly sixty-two years ago. He is remembered for two things: his nickname, “Shoeless Joe,” and his lifetime ban for participating in the 1919 Chicago “Black Sox” conspiracy to throw the World Series. He is permanently ineligible for the Hall of Fame, but if anything, that has only added to his legend: the apocryphal phrase “Say it ain’t so, Joe” is more famous than all but a handful of Hall of Famers. The 1988 movie Eight Men Out and the 1989 movie Field of Dreams tried to rehabilitate his memory.

It is time for baseball to lay to rest the ghost of Joe Jackson.
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Appreciating Ted Lilly

Ted Lilly retired the day before Thanksgiving, ending an abortive attempt to come back from a series of injuries to his neck and shoulder. The pain was mysterious, wrote the Los Angeles Times: “One day his neck is feeling fine, then it stiffens up and he can hardly turn his head, let alone pitch.” In order to try to manage the pain, he underwent a procedure where “doctors used a large needle to burn the nerve endings on Lilly’s neck.” Over the offseason, he went to Venezuela to pitch. But he didn’t feel capable of pitching effectively, and hung up his spikes.

Theodore Roosevelt Lilly III (yes, his son’s name is Theodore Roosevelt Lilly IV) had a better career than you remember.
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Mark DeRosa Retires

Mark DeRosa announced his retirement Wednesday, after a 16-year career in which he played for eight teams, played six positions, hit exactly 100 home runs, and made approximately $29 million.

DeRosa was not a great player — he was worth 10.5 WAR in 16 years, basically all of it between 2006 and 2009 — but he was good enough to hang around for long enough to surprise Carson Cistulli, and one of the greatest Ivy Leaguers ever. He’s the kind of player who rarely gets written up when he retires. So I’m writing about him.
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Today in 1857, The Only Nolan Was Born

Baseball has always had its share of eccentrics. Mark Fidrych talked to the ball. Moises Alou urinated on his hands to get a better grip on his bat. Then there was Turk Wendell, about whom the Chicago Tribune wrote:

Consider this a partial list:

He doesn’t wear socks on the field. He waves at the center-fielder before each inning. He brushes his teeth between innings. He makes three crosses with a finger in the mound dirt before he pitches. When the inning is done, he sprints from the mound, leaps sideways over the foul line and spits out what appears to be four pounds of black licorice.

And he eats the same dinner at the same restaurant chain the night before every start: French onion soup. Peel-and-eat shrimp. Broccoli bites. Salad. Garlic sticks. Four-cheese lasagna. And something called `Death by Chocolate’ for dessert.

“I eat it all in about 15 minutes,” he said. “I say, `Bring it out all at once.’ “

The Only Nolan may have topped them all.
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The First Four Red Sox Championships in Boston

Last night, as you may have heard, the Boston Red Sox won the World Series. As many noted, it was the first time that a Boston team clinched the World Series in its home town since the Sox won in 1918.

It was the sixth World Championship that Hub fans have ever had a chance to witness: the Red Sox won at home in 1903, 1912, 1916, and 1918, and the Boston Braves won at home in 1914. Since it’s almost certain that none of the fans at Fenway tonight were in attendance at any of the others, I thought I’d take a quick look at what happened a century ago.
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San Diego Padres Shortstops: Positional Case Study

This is my third article in an occasional series in which I look at the way that a franchise has filled a single position over the course of time: stars and stopgaps, free agents and trades, hot prospects and positional conversions. My previous columns covered Atlanta Braves center fielders and New York Mets second basemen. This week, I’ll look at another up-the-middle position from another National League team, as I take a look at the way the San Diego Padres have filled shortstop.

While the Braves’ center field featured two superstars and a motley assortment of players obtained in trade, and the Mets’ keystone featured a few high-profile busts and a number of other players who played second while moving across the diamond, the Padres’ shortstop has been a revolving door, haunted by one of the most unfortunate trades in team history. The Padres have never really gotten over trading away Ozzie Smith 30 years ago.
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Is Jim Leyland a Future Hall of Famer?

Jim Leyland is an elder statesman of the game, usually recognized as one of the best managers in baseball, and his Tigers just won their third straight division title. The three best managers of the last generation, Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa, and Joe Torre, have all retired. So, is Leyland a future Hall of Famer?
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