Author Archive

The Many Journeys of Billy Hulen

Not far from Igerna, California, the home of the once-missing B.R. Logan, is the city of Yreka. Yreka, now the seat of Siskiyou County, is a place that holds onto its history as part of the Wild West — you can take a walking tour of historic buildings through the city, and municipal websites still tell the tale Mark Twain himself wrote about the town’s naming. With a population of 7,765, it’s a quiet place, held by the low noise of the nearby Shasta River.

Back at the turn of the century, though, Yreka was a gold rush boomtown. The city was founded as a mining settlement in 1851, and it didn’t take long for the bustle to begin. Its streets were full of people; there was a steady stream of immigration, with Chinese communities establishing themselves not long after the town was incorporated. The Yreka Flats, as they came to be known, ended up being a prodigious source of gold, sustaining the town for decades after it was first discovered there.

And that’s where our story begins — just a few years after the greatest game of baseball ever played in Southern Oregon. Our hero, as it turns out, was a resident of Ashland, Oregon, the antagonists in that contest; one imagines him reading the Ashland paper, shaking his head at the violence and treachery of that undefeated Grants Pass team. His name was Billy Hulen, and by the time we meet him in 1906, his titles were already plentiful: “The Kid,” Phillie and Senator, the best left-handed shortstop you’d ever seen, survivor of spring-training malaria, Northwestern League champion, member of the Order of Elks and the Knights of Pythia, and — most importantly — one of the most beloved baseball players up and down the Pacific coast.

He was in Yreka that February tending to his gold claim. One day, he headed north to Seattle on some non-specific business. A month later, no one had heard from him. None of his many friends had seen him — not since he had passed through Ashland without even telling his wife he was going to be in town. And so, on March 20, the call was put out for friends of Billy Hulen — in Vancouver and Everett, Ashland and San Francisco, all the way to St. Louis, where he was under contract for the next season — to begin searching for him. Billy Hulen simply had to be found. Read the rest of this entry »


Snowstorms, Lies, and the Best Game of Baseball Ever Played

On November 28, 1902, a young man from Igerna, California, headed north with two friends on a hunting trip into the wilderness of southern Oregon. It was an area he would have known fairly well: He often traveled this way on his way to face the baseball nines of various small towns. The young man’s name was B.R. Logan, and he was a baseball player.

On December 1, Logan, outside the cabin where he and his companions were staying, thought he saw a deer. He bade his friends farewell and headed off in pursuit. A day passed. Then another. Then another. His friends began to worry. After two weeks, they began to despair. It was the winter, in the middle of the forest, and there was no sign of their friend.

On December 13, the Associated Press published an item about Logan’s disappearance. “MISSING BASEBALL PLAYER,” it read. By this point, the search party wasn’t looking for Logan. They were looking for his body.


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A Face, a Name, and the Void Between

The frequency of North American baseball players randomly disappearing from their teams reached a peak in the early 20th century. Baseball was a big enough deal that a player going missing was newsworthy, which allowed me to read about their disappearances a century later. At the same time, baseball was not yet a big enough deal that choosing to skip out on your team meant missing a multi-million dollar payday, or the prospect of multi-million dollar legal action brought against you. The phenomenon seemed so common in the early 1900s that the stories of players going missing were often preceded with “another” or followed by “again,” and the tales were plentiful enough to allow for quite a bit of variety in their conclusions.

While the tale of the bridegroom who never came arrived from the late 19th century, the stories that will follow over the next few entries hail from a time when both the American and National Leagues existed alongside a veritable wilderness of competitive minor league teams, constantly moving, changing names, collapsing, scheming, and springing up again. It was the perfect time for baseball players to get lost in intrigue and confusion — and a time in which it was easy for players to be obscured by history. We begin with a story of the latter.

***

This is the very brief tale of Everett L. Sweetser, a 27-year-old semiprofessional baseball player and resident of North Yarmouth, Maine. By all accounts, Sweetser wasn’t a particularly notable player. In fact, I can find no public connection between his name and the word “baseball” until August 6, 1912: the day that his missing notice was published in the Boston Globe.

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The Bridegroom Who Never Came

Back in January, before all of this happened, I found myself wondering about baseball players who had simply disappeared. Players often fade from our memory, but thanks to the archival work of organizations like SABR and the Hall of Fame, and websites like Baseball-Reference and Retrosheet, rarely are they ever lost entirely. Baseball is comfortingly recurrent, comfortably concrete — to have a player go missing, their status unknown, struck me as likely to be a uniquely destabilizing and impactful event.

Of course, a lot of things have changed since January. We now find ourselves in a situation wherein Major League Baseball itself is suspended in a state of uncertainty, and many minor league teams are unsure whether they’ll continue to exist next year at all. I abandoned my search for the missing of baseball history in the face of the Astros cheating scandal, which at that point seemed much more pressing; now, when baseball is missing and we are missing baseball, it seems like the right time to pick it back up. 

Many of the stories that I found were comedies; some were tragedies. Some were political, some were trivial, and some were, ostensibly, romantic. All of them, I think, are worth exploring. Without baseball games to attend, now seems as good a time as any to reflect on our relationship with the sport, its stories, and the people who play it.

The story that follows is the earliest that I found, coming from late 1892 in St. Joseph, Missouri, the town that was once the jumping-off point for the Wild West, and that has hosted professional baseball since 1886. Read the rest of this entry »


COVID-19 Roundup: Baseball in July?

This is the latest installment of a series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

MLB Floats More Plans For Opening the Season

Another day, another new idea for restructuring the 2020 season surfaces. On April 28, Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported a new variation on some of the plans we’ve already heard, this one set to take effect no later than July 2:

MLB is considering a three-division, 10-team plan in which teams play only within their division – a concept gaining support among owners and executives. It would abolish the traditional American and National Leagues, and realign the divisions based on geography.

The plan, pending approval of medical experts and providing that COVID-19 testing is available to the public, would eliminate the need for players to be in isolation and allow them to still play at their home ballparks while severely reducing travel.

The report goes on to suggest that some at MLB even envision having “several thousand fans” in attendance when playoff season rolls around — a playoff season that would be extended, given the divisional reorganization.

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The Last Time We Saw That Guy: Ken Griffey Jr.

It happens so fast, sometimes. A moment ago, two runs behind, the game seemed almost over, the stadium lethargic; too much of the same thing has already happened this season. The Mariners have trailed almost the entire game after the Twins got to Doug Fister early. Only two months in, and they’ve already seen eight walk-off losses, 14 losses that came down to the game’s final plate appearance. They’ve had an eight-game losing streak. And who’s up this inning? No one to inspire. Jose Lopez, Josh Wilson, Rob Johnson. Edge-of-your-seat kinds of baseball guys.

But Jose Lopez hits a double into the right field corner, and Josh Wilson slaps a single up the middle, and all of a sudden, there is hope. It’s 5-4, nobody out, and the go-ahead run is coming to the plate.

***

Today is Monday. On Saturday, the Mariners played the Angels in Anaheim; Félix Hernández pitched eight innings, allowing only a single run, but the Mariners batters failed to back him up with anything more than a single run of their own. After walking Hideki Matsui, the first batter of the Angels ninth, Hernández gave way to Brandon League — who, after a scoreless ninth and top of the 10th, ended the game by allowing a grand slam to Kendrys Morales. On Sunday, still playing the Angels, the Mariners led 7-2 in the fifth. But a gradual crumble led to a final death-blow — a three-run homer in the bottom of the ninth. Another walk-off loss for Seattle. They returned home defeated and demoralized. Here, now, the tables are turned. One win can’t erase the memory of all the losses. But it can, for a moment, give everyone something to celebrate — give everyone something meaningful to hold on to. Read the rest of this entry »


Does Cheating Matter?

“It’s hard for me not to look at my own numbers against them and be pissed,” a retired major league pitcher said. “Everyone involved deserves to be seriously punished because it’s wrong.”

– a retired major league pitcher on the Astros, quoted in ESPN, January 2020

Cheating is serious business. We know this, almost instinctively, from earliest childhood — the righteous anger one feels when you catch someone sneaking a peek at your cards, dropping a rock only after seeing you put down scissors, sticking out a suspiciously well-placed foot preventing your escape in a game of tag. That’s not fair — cheater! You appeal to others around you, trying to get them to see, to mete out justice. Something has been disrupted here; something is wrong that can only be righted with punishment. You entered into a contest with agreed-upon rules, and those rules were broken in favor of cheap victory. It is self-evidently outrageous, self-evidently cruel, and even if justice is not done — even if the false victory is upheld through deception, lack of witnesses, or negligence of investigation — the hurt is indelible. You will never play rock-paper-scissors with that particular kid again. You will tell all your friends, too, not to engage in contests with them. A cheater is a cheater is a cheater.

And yet we know, too, an instinct coming from a similarly primal place, that cheating, when executed for one’s own benefit, and especially when executed without detection, can be valuable, if a little guilt-inducing. When the value of the prize claimed outweighs the guilt, it can even feel better than a straightforward win. After all, the other party, if they were smart enough, would have cheated, too, or at least cheated better than they did; and really, when you think about it, isn’t outsmarting the opposition part of the competition? Haven’t you, in the successful execution of your subterfuge, put in more effort than the loser now sulking about your victory? Isn’t this all just part of the game — a part of the game that you happened to be better at? You are not a cheater, no; that word doesn’t apply to what you’ve done. To call the means of your success cheating would be to demean the skill involved in said success, you think. One might almost consider the loser who is accusing you of cheating to be the real cheater — trying to steal away, through non-competitive, extrajudicial means, the victory you earned through your own ingenuity. Cheating is bad. And you, what you have done, isn’t bad. Read the rest of this entry »


The Last Time We Saw That Guy: Mark Buehrle

“That’s why I haven’t said anything. I haven’t talked to anybody. I just kind of let it go. Hopefully one day it just kind of got forgotten, and five years down the road (people said), ‘Where’s that Buehrle guy? Is he still around?'”

Mark Buehrle on his retirement, 2017

It’s the final Sunday of the season, and the Toronto Blue Jays are playing meaningful baseball. That battle, at least, is already won. They clinched the division a few days ago, a postseason berth just before that — an August and September that, homer by homer, hammered two decades of futility into the dirt. With a win today and a loss from the Kansas City Royals, they could guarantee home-field advantage through a hypothetical ALCS. That is not why this game is important. The camera keeps panning to a nervous group of people, sitting in the stands under shadow, waiting out the top of the first, as the Blue Jays go silent — waiting for Mark Buehrle, who steps onto the Tropicana Field mound to face the Rays for the second time in three days. They can count out the numbers they are hoping for on their hands. Six outs. Six outs to get to 600, to 200 innings — to 3000 innings, spread with shocking consistency over 15 consecutive seasons. 

John Gibbons was questioned about this decision, of course. That the Jays are in the postseason at all seems a tenuous enough position to maintain. He knows, and everyone knows, that they should reach for every advantage they can get. And yet everyone knows, at the same time, that there can be multiple important things happening on a baseball field — that personal milestones, arbitrary as they are, are meaningful; that what is meaningful to one player can be almost as meaningful to the entire team. Six outs.

***

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The Last Time We Saw That Guy: An Introduction

When was the last time you went to a major league baseball game? For me, it was Angels at Mariners, July 21 of last year: my younger brother and I got up at 5:30, took the train down from Vancouver, went in the stadium as soon as the gates opened. It happened to be Hall of Fame Weekend. We got big placards with all of Edgar Martinez’s hits plotted on them, and we carried them as we did laps around the stadium, trying to decide what to eat, trying to stay out of the sun, pausing behind pillars and watching as Brandi Halladay wept on the big screen. When Edgar showed up, the few thousand already in the stadium with us burst into cheers.

Our seats were out in the bleachers in right-center; for about an hour after the game started, they were fine, sheltered from the sun and central enough to give us a good view of Mike Trout’s back. It wasn’t long before the light moved and we began to roast. I’d meant to keep score, as I usually do, but I’d forgotten my pen, so the wandering began again — at first attentive wandering in a scoreless game, and then less attentive as the Angels piled runs on Yusei Kikuchi.

At 5-0, we looked out over the railway tracks and watched the trains pass through on their way to California, their rattlings and rumblings crashing down on our heads off the huge beams of the stadium roof; watched the ferries on their way to Bainbridge and Bremerton and maybe even all the way back to Canada; watched the people on the streets down below, busy streets, the busy waterfront piers — it was so hot and sunny, a beautiful summer day.

At 8-0, at the stretch, we leaned out over the landing on the right-field view deck and tossed “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” down to the people below us. Some guy standing beside me said something to me about Ohtani, and I said something back, and when the Mariners finally scored a dignity run in the bottom of the seventh, we raised our hands and yelled and high-fived and pounded on the drink counter as if it was the only run we’d seen that day — the only run we’d seen that year, which, in a way, it was. Read the rest of this entry »


COVID-19 Roundup: Will We Want to Watch Sports in Person Again?

This is the latest installment of a daily series in which the FanGraphs staff rounds up the latest developments regarding the COVID-19 virus’ effect on baseball.

Good morning, and thank you for visiting FanGraphs! We here at the site hope that you and yours stay safe this weekend. Here’s the latest news on COVID-19 as it relates to the game:

Will Americans Return to Live Sports after COVID-19?

If there’s been any consistent messaging from major sports institutions like MLB over the course of this crisis, it’s the assurance that live sporting events will eventually return. But a new poll from Seton Hall University is raising some questions about the nature of that assumed return — will anyone show up? Per the poll, 72% of respondents wouldn’t attend games before the development of a COVID-19 vaccine, and only 13% would feel as safe attending as they had before the pandemic; 74% believed that live sporting events would remain canceled through the end of 2020.

A study published in the medical journal The Lancet, using modeling based on the outbreak in China, suggested that social distancing measures will need to continue until a vaccine is developed in order to avoid a second wave of cases. An unwillingness to attend sporting events with thousands of other people in the absence of one thus seems entirely reasonable. That doesn’t exactly track with some of MLB’s more ambitious contingency plans for getting the Show back on the road this year, and seems likely to have repercussions well beyond 2020. This pandemic has been a life-altering crisis for so many people; it’s no wonder that it might cause people to re-evaluate their relationship to sports and sporting events. Read the rest of this entry »