19 to 21
Baseball 2015

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  John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available. 

Contact John at jas2baseball@gmail.com

19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History
Volume 13, #24, November 5, 2015

Noah's Ark Sinks

  The World Series has not typically been a venue for overly-rough play. Perhaps that’s why Noah Syndergaard’s fortunately unsuccessful attempt to separate Alcides Escobar’s head from his body on the very first pitch of game three was so shocking.

  Or maybe it was shocking because it was totally bush.

  Sure, bean balls, or attempted bean balls, have been around baseball forever. One of the great pitchers of the past 20 plus years, Greg Maddux, was a notorious headhunter when he wanted to hunt heads. Another Hall of Famer, Early Wynn, was quoted as saying he’d knock his grandmother down at the plate, and, in fact, he did knock his son down once in BP after the kid had the temerity to hit a line drive off the fence off of dear old dad. And Lefty Grove threw at his own teammates if they hit him too hard in practice.

  Wynn and Grove were famous throughout their long careers for being surly on the mound. Sort of like another member of the Hall, Bob Gibson. Syndergaard, however, is a young punk, a 23-year-old rookie with exactly 150 regular season innings to his record, a record that now includes trying to decapitate an opposing batter on the first pitch of a World Series game… for no good reason other than the fact that his team had lost the first two games of the Series.

  That doesn’t justify Syndergaard’s pitch which, ironically enough, didn’t have much immediate effect on the field. While the Royals did lose the game 9-3, that was mostly due to the failures of pitchers Yordano Ventura and Franklin Morales, and the Royals did score three runs off Syndergaard in the first two innings of game three. The next two batters after Escobar had base hits, followed by a four-hit second inning (including an Escobar single – he must have been real intimidated) that saw the Royals come from behind to take a 3-2 lead.

  Well, the point of all this is more so one of history. Actions extreme as Syndergaard’s are relatively rare in the World Series. Probably the most noted instance was in 1911, the World Series that gave Athletics third baseman J. Franklin Baker the nickname that would last through the ages. By hitting home runs off of Rube Marquard and Christy Mathewson at key points in games two and three, Frank Baker became Home Run Baker, a moniker he would eventually ride into the Hall of Fame.

  What you may not know is that the Giants’ Fred Snodgrass tried to get Baker out of the Series shortly after the second home run. And while Syndergaard was at least honest about his actions, Snodgrass denied his intent through his life, including during his interview with Larry Ritter for “The Glory of Their Times.” Here’s what happened…

  Baker’s home run off of Matty had tied game three at 1-1 in the top of the ninth inning. In the bottom of the tenth, Snodgrass walked to lead off the inning and went to second on a sacrifice bunt. With Fred Merkle at bat, Athletics catcher Jack Lapp, one of the best on the business, let a Jack Coombs pitch roll a few feet away, whereupon Snodgrass took off for third on what has always been called a very short passed ball. Lapp threw him out from here to there – Baker had the ball at third long before Snodgrass got there. On his part, Snodgrass tried to remove Baker’s legs from his torso, opening a huge rip in his knickers and a smaller one in Baker himself. Coincidence? Unlikely.

  On his part, Baker stayed in the game and singled as part of the Athletics’ two run 11th inning, scoring the eventual winning run in what became a 3-2 win for Philadelphia that gave them a 2-1 lead in the Series. Crime doesn’t pay, Fred (and Noah.)

  A similar action that was equally inexcusable as Syndergaard’s took place in the top of the sixth inning of the seventh game of the 1934 Series. At that point, the Cardinals were up 7-0 with Dizzy Dean on the mound, which is to say the game was OVER. Joe Medwick tripled to score Pepper Martin to make it 8-0, and, in the process, tried to pull a Snodgrass on Tiger third baseman Marv Owen as he slid in to the base. Why? Apparently because, as Robert Creamer explained in “Summer of ’41,” Medwick was something of a jerk.

  The end result of this was, after Medwick scored the Cards’ ninth run in the sixth, he was removed from the game in the bottom of the inning by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, because the Tiger fans were rioting, and throwing everything they could get their hands on at Medwick, who was stationed in left field. Of course, none of this made much difference in the game, since the Cards won 11-0 and took the Series, so Medwick’s slide has always been sort of winked at historically. Still, it was inexcusable.

  Hard slides into second caused contretemps in the 1941 and 1963 Series. In the former, Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen slid harder into the Yankees Phil Rizzuto than the lordly New Yorkers thought was necessary. Although Owen did no damage, the Yankees expressed much pleasure when he became the goat of the Series a couple of games later, missing Hugh Casey’s spitter on what would have been the final out of a Dodger win in game four, one of the most famous faux pas in Series history.

  Twenty-two years later, the Yankees were similarly upset that Maury Wills dared to put a hard slide on Bobby Richardson (Jim Bouton mentions this in “Ball Four”), since opponents were apparently not allowed to play rough with the Yankees.

  Returning to the subject of bean balls and the Royals, although no one seems to recall this, KC’s first appearance in the Series featured an incident very similar to that of game three in the 2015 Series. It was on Oct. 18, 1980 in Royals Stadium. The home team, trailing 2-1 in games to the Phillies, had jumped all over Larry Christenson for four runs in the bottom of the first of game four. This brought hard-throwing hotheaded reliever Dickie Noles into the game.

  After giving up a home run to Willie Mays Aikens and a double to Hal McRae in the second, and after both of them did a little more posturing than Noles deemed absolutely necessary, the pitcher took it out on the Royals one legitimate superstar, George Brett. In the bottom of the fourth, on an 0-2 count, Noles threw a 90 MPH fast ball at Brett’s head. Like Syndergaard, he didn’t hit him, and like Escobar, Brett then struck out.

  Unlike the 2015 Royals, the 1980 squad went on to win that game 5-3, but lost the Series in six games, mainly because the Phillies had Mike Schmidt and Steve Carlton (quality the 2015 Mets sorely lacked), who were a lot more important to the outcome of the Series than Noles’ bean ball. And that’s the way it should happen.