Four players propelled baseballs over the left field roof at old Tiger Stadium. Frank Howard, Harmon Killebrew and Mark McGwire did so in visiting uniforms. Cecil Fielder was the lone Detroit Tiger to achieve the feat.
Mammoth power was required to reach that rarefied air. The left field fence was 340 feet from home plate, and the roof above the second deck was 94 feet high. Those dimensions were in effect from 1938-1999, a time period that encompassed nearly 10,000 games.
Fielder donned the Olde English D from 1990-1996, and he loved home cooking. The jumbo-sized slugger averaged 35 dingers in his time as a Tiger, and he was especially productive at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull. In 514 career games at Tiger Stadium, he had a .514 slugging percentage (how’s that for symmetry?).
“It was my place,” Fielder told me recently. “Great backdrop, great fan base. That ballpark was tailor made for me.”
Tiger Stadium was a relatively cozy 325 feet to right field, but it was no bandbox for right-handed hitters. Along with being 340 to left, it was a hefty 440 to straightaway center. That didn’t matter to Fielder, who could clear fences at Yellowstone, and in any direction.
“The year I hit 51 home runs (1990), I hit 23 of them from center to right,” said Fielder. “I loved center field, even though it was big,” said Fielder. “I reached the upper deck in center at Tiger Stadium.”
He also drove in runs. Fielder had at least 117 RBI five times in a seven-year stretch, and he led the American League in 1990, 1991 and 1992. He’s known for his bombs, but he saw run production as his bread and butter.
“I prided myself as an RBI guy,” explained Fielder. “That was my main focus. The home runs – hey, they were great, but getting guys across the plate is what I was interested in.”
Fielder credits Sparky Anderson for giving him the opportunity to become an RBI machine. When he arrived in Motown, he was 26 years old and returning from a season in Japan. He was unproven at the big league level, but Anderson put him in the lineup and kept him there.
“Without a manager like Sparky, I might not have had the career I did in Detroit,” said Fielder. “He became like my second father. I attribute a lot of my success to him, because he gave me carte blanche to go out and do what I wanted to do. At the end of the day, he let me play.
“I was a guy coming back from Japan, and what Sparky did was tell me I’d be in there, no matter how I did. Usually, when guys don’t get off to a good start, they end up out of the lineup and everything starts going downhill. Sparky told me, ‘We lost 100-and-change games last year, so you’re going to play.’”
Fielder wasn’t able to turn the Tigers into a winner – they finished above .500 just twice in his tenure – but he certainly made them more entertaining. The possibility that he’d hit a moon shot made his at bats much-watch, and even if he didn’t go deep in the game, there was always batting practice. The roof was unreachable for mere mortals, but for Fielder it was a target.
“I used to hit them up there all the time in BP,” Fielder told me. “Once I got loose, I let ’em have it.”
On August 25, 1990, he let Dave Stewart have it.
“I hit one off of Mike Mussina that bounced on the roof but didn’t go completely over,” said Fielder. “I also got a couple of guys from Texas. But the one I hit that went over the roof was against Dave Stewart. I hit that one pretty good.”
I asked him if he’s ever reminded Stewart of the titanic blast.
“No, he already knows what time it is,” said a smiling Fielder. “I don’t have to remind him. He knows I went over the roof.”
Dave Stewart was in the process of winning 20-or-more games for the fourth straight season when he gave up Fielder’s roof-clearing shot. Twenty-five years later, he’s the general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, a team whose pitching staff finished middle of the pack in strikeouts, and tops in Defensive Runs Saved.
Stewart was somewhat ambivalent – and waxed a tad philosophical –when I asked him about the importance of Ks.
“If you can strike a guy out, you want to strike a guy out,” said Stewart. “If you can get 27 weak outs, I’ll take those as well. On a given day, you’re going to get a lot of weak outs and a lot of swings and misses. Of course, there are also days where you’re going to give up line drives and balls that go over the fence. That’s just the way the game works.”
Indians GM Mike Chernoff offered a similar, albeit less Taoist, take on the subject. His club led all teams in strikeouts, and ranked sixth in Defensive Runs Saved.
“We’re looking for guys who can get outs,” Chernoff told me at the GM meetings. “We’re fortunate with our current staff in that we have a group of guys that gets a lot of strikeouts, but I don’t think we’re deliberately building our staff for strikeouts.
“Our defense was pretty good over the course of the year, and it was really good in the second half. That helped our pitching staff, but we’re not looking at it as a balance, where if our defense isn’t good, we have to strike more guys out.”
Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Hoyt Wilhelm are in the Hall of Fame. It’s a given that Mariano Rivera will be enshrined once he’s eligible. Trevor Hoffman is likely to reach Cooperstown as well.
Billy Wagner is expected to remain on the outside looking in. That’s wholly unfair, as no list of the greatest relievers of all time is complete without his name. Few lefties have thrown harder, and his numbers are eye-popping.
Wagner was as overpowering as anyone. He allowed just 6.0 hits per nine innings over his 16 seasons, and his K/9 was 11.9. His 422 saves rank him fifth on the historical leader board, and his ERA was 2.31.
Why does Wagner face steep odds for enshrinement? Skeptics will point to his low innings (903) and WAR (24.2) totals, but given his role, both should be taken with a grain of salt. WAR has never favored relievers, and Wagner’s workload is indicative of bullpen usage in his era.
On an inning-by-inning basis, Wagner is arguably the best reliever ever with the exception of Rivera. That makes him worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Long before the term “closer” was coined – and well before the role existed – there was Firpo Marberry. The Washington Senators fireman led the American League in saves six times between 1924-1932. His high water mark for saves was was 22, in 1926.
Per his SABR Bio Project entry, written by Mark Armour, Fred Marberry acquired his nickname because of his size and facial resemblance to boxer Luis Firpo. Known as “The Wild Bull of the Pampas,” the Argentinian heavyweight was knocked out by Jack Dempsey in a 1923 title bout.
Which brings us to Hugh Casey.
Another of the earlier-era fireman notables, Casey, pitching for the Brooklyn Dodgers, led the National League in saves in 1942 and 1947. Sandwiched in between were three seasons missed due to World War II.
Per his Bio Project entry, written by Russell Wolinsky, Casey once had a drunken boxing match with Ernest Hemingway. The impromptu fisticuffs came in 1942, when Brooklyn held their spring training in Havana, Cuba. The previous October, Casey threw the pitch that infamously eluded Mickey Owen and cost the Dodgers a World Series win.
One other note from the bio: According to legendary Dodgers broadcaster Red Barber, Casey’s “bedtime routine included cigars, comic books, and a bottle of whiskey.”
Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present merits an appreciatory nod for my look at Casey and Marberry. His Twitter mention of the latter prompted the above segment. Casey and Johnny Murphy were also cited in the thread that ensued, which included feedback from Armour.
As many of you know, Armour is both a renowned baseball historian and the man behind SABR’s Bio Project. Mark was gracious enough to provide a snapshot look at older day firemen for this column:
Armour: “True relief aces were pretty unusual before World War II, and almost always someone who had first failed as a big league starter. Fred Marberry was a rarity in that he was a very good starter and his use depended mainly on his manager. It was considered gutsy to make him a reliever, but once he got a reputation for being a game-changing weapon – useable from the first inning onward – it was considered gutsy to make him a starter again.
“Yankee manager Joe McCarthy considered Johnny Murphy (1932-1947) a one-pitch (curveball) pitcher, and best suited for relief work. You would think that his success would lead to imitators, but he was still considered a luxury — other teams had enough trouble finding enough starters, and did not have pitchers like Murphy lying around once the starters were identified.
“The larger, more role-defined bullpens of later years came about because teams had deeper staffs. They no longer needed to bring in their only good reliever in the fifth inning.”
Jumping back to the Hall of Fame for a moment, I’m of the opinion that David Ortiz deserves to go in some day. For much the same reason, I’m starting to come around on Mark McGwire, whom I haven’t been particularly bullish on. This isn’t about PEDs, which is an issue I haven’t fully come to terms with. Nor is about the DH penalty. It’s about Fame, which just so happens to be one of three words in the honor’s title.
Should fame carry the same weight as numbers? Absolutely not. But you don’t attain the pantheon of notoriety reached by players like McGwire and Ortiz without great accomplishments. Their heroics are legendary, and the Hall of Fame is all about celebrating legends.
That said, this is a numbers game in respect to the regulatory process as well. Voters are limited to 10 selections annually, and McGwire wouldn’t make the cut if I had a ballot this year. As for Ortiz, his name will go on the ballot shortly after I gain voting privileges (I’m a five-year member of the BBWAA). Whether or not I check off his name will be contingent on where he ranks among those eligible.
And because you’re probably wondering, I consider Edgar Martinez – despite his comparable lack of fame – more Hall-worthy than Ortiz.
Joe “Ducky” Medwick followed an interesting route to the Hall of Fame. Despite not being eligible, he received one vote in 1948, a year in which he appeared in 20 games for the Cardinals. Staying active in the minors through 1952, he presumably would have returned to the ballot in 1954, as the waiting period at the time was just one year. For reasons unknown, he didn’t become eligible until 1955, at which point he garnered 31 votes (16.1%). Thirteen years later, he was elected to the Hall.
Of note, Medwick and Crash Davis were teammates on the 1951 Raleigh Capitals of the class B Carolina League. Medwick, 39 years old and three years removed from his final big league game, was a player-manager.
Mike Hessman has been called “The Real life Crash Davis,” which is an odd moniker given that the movie character was loosely based on the aforementioned Crash Davis. Regardless, Hessman has announced his retirement after 20 seasons. He hit 454 home runs, all but 14 of them in the minor leagues.
Prior to World Series Game 3, Royals hitting coach Dale Sveum was asked about his team facing Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard in consecutive games. The subject was broached by Andy McCollough – stellar scribe for the Kansas City Star – and I was third-man-in for the conversation.
“I think anyone would tell you that it’s to their advantage when you’re basically seeing three of the same people pitch back-to-back days,” said Sveum. “Pretty much right around the same velocity, the same breaking balls, they all throw their secondary for strikes.”
Sveum, a big-league infielder from 1986-1999, went on to say, “It’s like if I faced Roger Clemens three days in a row. The third day should be easier. It’s not going to be that easy, but it’s going to be easier.”
As the batting banter advanced, I asked Sveum who typically has the edge when the pitcher and hitters aren’t familiar with each other.
“I think the hitters have an advantage in those situations,” opined Sveum. “The pitchers don’t know their weaknesses, even though the video shows that. They really don’t buy into it unless they’ve witnessed it and made those pitches themselves.”
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
Brewers batters hit the highest percentage of pitches to the opposite field (29.3%). Yankees batters hit the lowest (22.3%).
Rockies pitchers threw the most balls (15,533) and had the highest BABiP (.318).
In 1926, Bubbles Hargrave of the Cincinnati Reds won the National League batting title with a .353 average. His brother, Pinky Hargrave, hit .281 for the St. Louis Browns that year. Bubbles and Pinky were both catchers.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.