Rob Neyer, the author or co-author of six books about baseball, currently works as SB Nation’s national baseball editor. He lives in Portland, Oregon.
Curly Ogden. In the annals of important World Series pitchers, Curly Ogden doesn’t usually figure real high on the list.
No wonder! In his five-season career in the Major Leagues, Ogden went 18–19. More to the point, his entire World Series career consisted of only two batters faced, one of whom he walked.
Before we get to the “meat” of this essay that you’re so eager to taste, here’s something you might not have heard before: Before Dennis Eckersley’s miraculous transmogrification into a devastatingly effective relief pitcher, he was NOT an old broken-down pitcher on the verge of forced retirement. At least not obviously.
As the Detroit Tigers entered the stretch run in 1968, Manager Mayo Smith had a small problem.
The good news was that Smith’s Tigers looked like a great bet to win their first American League pennant since World War II. They’d grabbed first place in the middle of May and never let go; by the middle of September, they had a double-digit lead in the standings and the pennant race was over.
If he’d never done anything except discover Honus Wagner, Ed Barrow would hold an important place in the National Pastime’s grand history. No, he wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame today—which of course he is—but still, an important place.
Barrow did so much more than discover Wagner, though. He’s in the Hall of Fame largely because he presided over a Yankees dynasty that won 14 American League pennants and 10 World Series in his 25 seasons as (de facto) general manager.
Most of the stories in this series have been about, or will be about, some seriously archival stuff. Now, I don’t think managers in the olden days were better or smarter than our recent legends. And I certainly could have written about Joe Torre’s willingness to use Mariano Rivera for more than an inning in October, or about Terry Francona or Joe Maddon or (dare I say it?) Ned Yost.
It would, I think, be impossible today. Practically speaking.
Can you imagine an Opening Day center fielder in the Major Leagues, just a few weeks later, giving up outfielding forever and becoming instead a pitcher? And what’s more, before long a star pitcher?
When Mel Ott was 17 years old, he batted .383.
In the Major Leagues.
Okay, so it was only 60 at-bats. Of his 23 hits, 21 were singles. He drew just one walk and drove in just four runs. Still . . . .383!
When Ott was 19 years old, he hit 18 home runs. No 19-year-old before Ott had ever hit more than four home runs in a season.
Here’s something that a lot of people probably don’t remember. Just as Mike Trout struggled as a 20-year-old rookie in 2011, Cal Ripken Jr. struggled as a 20-year-old rookie exactly 30 years earlier. Granted, we’re talking about only 40 plate appearances for Ripken (as opposed to 135 for Trout). But the future Hall of Famer (Ripken, that is) batted just .128 without a single extra-base hit in 1981.
When it happened in 1929, it was almost certainly the most unorthodox managerial move in World Series history (which stretched back to 1903).
The move might still deserve that label, nearly 90 years later.
It was so unorthodox—not only surprising, but practically indefensible without the benefit of hindsight—that we can rank it among the greatest managerial moves for just one reason: It worked so incredibly well.