Jason Turbow is the author of The Baseball Codes. His next book, Dynastic, Bombastic, Fantastic, about the championship A’s teams of the early 1970s, will be published in spring 2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Ted Williams, popular theory holds, would have threatened Babe Ruth’s home run record had he not missed nearly five full seasons over two stints’ worth of military service during the prime of his career. It’s the lead topic in an endless game of What if?, wherein one estimates the numbers a player would have put up had his Major League attendance never been compromised.
When an arbitrator ruled that A’s owner Charlie Finley had defaulted on payments for Catfish Hunter’s 1974 contract, it resulted—above Finley’s vociferous objection—in free agency for the player. The occasion was momentous, but hardly groundbreaking. Hunter set the table for the arrival of widespread free agency a year later, but his forebear in contract default preceded him by nearly four decades.
On May 6, 1941, Hank Greenberg was feted at Tiger Stadium, his services to the Detroit baseball club honored with a gold watch inscribed with the names of his teammates. He’d won the previous season’s American League MVP Award and led the Tigers to the pennant, but this was not about that. The guy was only 30 years old and already ticketed for Cooperstown, but this was not about that either—not directly, anyway.
In 1931, Giants Manager John McGraw was so smitten by reports over a budding second baseman with the Louisville Colonels of the American Association that he left his team in Cincinnati and traveled 100 miles to scout him in person. It turned out to be a wash; McGraw declared the kid to be of insufficient build to withstand the rigors of National League baseball. “However,” he proclaimed upon his return, “my trip was not in vain. I saw a great outfielder with the Indianapolis club. His name is Len Koenecke.
The Homer in the Gloaming is among the most storied moments in baseball history, as clutch a hit as was ever seen when it happened on September 28, 1938. With less than a week left in the season, the sun was rapidly setting across Chicago in both metaphor and fact—the Cubs were desperately chasing Pittsburgh for the National League pennant, even as darkness threatened to cancel one of their two remaining games against the Pirates if it did not end quickly.
One batter, one decision, one moment upon which everything rode. Choose right, take a big step toward winning the World Series. Choose wrong, risk the label of also-ran.
In 1935, Lena Blackburne—one-time-phenom-shortstop-turned-utility-infielder-turned-coach-turned-manager-turned-coach again—was described by The Sporting News, 16 years after his playing career ended, in the only terms that mattered to the historical record. Never mind that he was “intelligent,” “industrious” and “a fighter,” all of which the newspaper took care to note.
During the summer of 1959, there was no mistaking the lack of baseball in Upper Manhattan and Brooklyn. The Giants and Dodgers were playing in new homes in California and their departure left an echo ringing through New York City.
Mayor Robert Wagner was consumed by it. Determined to return a National League team to the city, he tapped a Brooklyn-based attorney named William Shea to spearhead the effort. Early results were not encouraging.
When the Pirates acquired outfielder Sid Gordon prior to the 1954 season, he was an 11-year veteran and a two-time All-Star, and so was surprised upon being presented at his introductory press conference with a batting helmet that he was expected to don before a picture could be taken. Eying the equipment warily, he looked toward General Manager Branch Rickey with disbelief. “Is this necessary?” he moaned.