I still remember the first curveball ever thrown at me. I was about 13 years old and trying to make a local hardball team. As a right-handed batter, I was facing a right-hander on the mound. Upon releasing his curve, the pitcher’s ball appeared to be coming right at me. So, I stepped back from the plate, thinking I was about to get hit in the chest, when the ball curved down and away, catching the plate for a called third strike. I was embarrassed and in awe of the pitcher’s prowess.
Born in 1890 into a well-off family in Cass City, Michigan, Leland Stanford “Larry” MacPhail was a flashy dresser, a playboy, a hot-tempered loudmouth, and a heavy drinker. He was also a shrewd judge of talent and a no-holes-barred, go-getting innovator. Some called him a spendthrift. To that, his answer was simple: You have to spend money to make money.
When husky 41-year-old right-hander Burleigh Grimes retired in 1934, he was the last of the “legal” spitballers—his standard identification, per se. But he was much more than a pitcher who threw wet ones. His arsenal also encompassed a great fastball, curve, and changeup, besides a spitball that broke eight inches. One of the premier hurlers in his day, Grimes could have won 300 games, according to his own admission, had he received a certain piece of advice early in his career.
Breaking into the Majors during the Deadball Era as a skinny, 19-year-old shortstop/third baseman with the St. Louis Cardinals, Rogers Hornsby’s first five seasons from 1915 to 1919 progressed from average to medium-average. Signed originally for his defense, he had long limbs, sure hands, and a strong throwing arm. His so-so hitting improved once he packed on several pounds working as a farmhand after his first season with the Cards, and by bringing his feet closer together before taking a deep stride into each pitch.
At best, Don Newcombe is one of those “what if” players who borders on Hall of Fame material. Born July 14, 1926, in Madison, New Jersey, “Newk” grew up in nearby Elizabeth, where he attended Jefferson High School and played amateur baseball. Dropping out in his junior year in 1944, the black right-hander who batted left turned pro at 17 with the Newark Eagles of the Negro National League, a strong, 6-foot-4, 220-pound pitcher with a long reach and blazing fastball.
First basemen are usually tall, well-built, and may even throw and/or bat left. Following World War II, four excellent ballplayers not in today’s Hall of Fame stood out at that position: Ted Kluszewski, Gil Hodges, Bill Skowron, and Joe Collins.
Baseball historians have called the 1949 Major League Baseball season the “Year of the Walk.” But it was much more. That year saw two very exciting pennant races, the beginning of a dynasty initiated by a retread manager once thought to be a clown, and a superstar’s career revived overnight just by his stepping out of bed the next morning.
Ballplayers come and go. Four in particular during a 10-year span had enormous potential. But for some reason, we didn’t get a chance to see what they really could do because, unfortunately, something happened to them on their way to the Hall of Fame. The players in question are Karl Spooner, Harry Agannis, Herb Score, and Ken Hubbs.