Smoky Joe Wood, Mort Cooper, Dick Wakefield, and Other Random Notes on Players at the Winter Solstice

Typical 1960s-stadium scorecard chronicles all the action

Typical 1960s-stadium scorecard chronicles all the action

As 2013 comes to a finish and activity at ROTB HQ reaches a fevered pitch (poor pun intended), I (Evander) would like “to close” (not Mariano-style) the year with Random Notes on fine, even great, baseball players who are by and large, if not exclusively, not or never to be enshrined in Cooperstown, or are often less remembered…but would make anyone’s All-Star squad at various points in their respective careers: an eclectic if not oddball grouping.

Smoky Joe Wood won 34 games in 1912, losing only 5. He seemed on his way to immortality when his career was cut short at a total of 117 wins.

Spud Chandler sports the highest winning percentage (.717) of any hurler with 100 or more victories. He began late in life, had arm woes all along, and pitched his best seasons during World War II, when the biggest stars were in the armed forces.

Mort Cooper won the N.L. MVP in 1942, compiling a record of 22-7. His lifetime ERA is a microscopic 2.97. But his career was a half-season short of ten, the Cooperstown minimum. Like Chandler, Mort carved out his best during World War II; and perhaps for this reason alone, he never would be elected to the shrine in his namesake village.

Herb Score was almost undoubtedly the greatest southpaw-pitching prospect ever till his career was stymied by a line drive thro the box and to his eye, off the bat of guilt-ridden Gil McDougald. Also headed for a career as far as the eye could see, Tony Conigliaro was similarly struck, in the left eye, by a pitched ball from Jack Hamilton. Score and Conigliaro remain two at the exclusive circle center of “what-ifs” in Major League Baseball.

Bobby Shantz won the A.L. MVP in 1952 and had other good seasons. He may have been the most vertically challenged major-league great and later with the Yankees might have won the seventh game of the 1960 World Series, both with his pitching and his surprising bat.

Dean Chance lit it up the A.L., pitching-wise, in 1964: ERA 1.65, better than Sandy Koufax (who truly made the most of his potential—still the youngest man inducted into the Hall of Fame) in the other league. Dean was twenty-three-years old but did not grab his “chance” at clear immortality in any other year or collective years.

Vida Blue was a left-handed phenom. I tend to place him in a category with Chance (above) and, particularly, Gooden (below). The potential to be one of the top-five lefties ever was before him.

Dwight (“Doc”) Gooden was the most phenomenal teenaged pitcher since Bob Feller (who won 81 games by aetat. 21). At 19, Gooden swept to a record of 17-9 and struck out 276 batters. He was even better at 20: 24 wins, 4 losses, with a miserly 1.53 ERA. Drug-use drastically curtailed his career from there.

In 1938, Johnny Vander Meer pitched consecutive no-hit games and went three innings in the third before giving up a hit. Thus he is remembered. Truth is he altogether only won 119 games, losing 121.

Hotheaded Johnny Allen went 15-1 (that’s winning 94 percent of the time), with a 2.55 ERA, for the 1937 Cleveland Indians. I believe he lost the last game of that season 1-0. No wonder he was steamed. Altogether, his career winning percentage is .654 and features 142 victories.

Arky Vaughan, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee, is perhaps the second-greatest non-contemporary (1980s ff.) shortstop after Honus Wagner. But quick! How many non-experts know who Arky Vaughan is?

Joe Sewell, likewise honored by the Veterans Committee, struck out 3 times in 1932, and 114 times in 7,132-career at-bats. This is every 62.5 he came to the plate and did not walk. We will never see his like again.

Travis Jackson is yet another Veterans Committee inductee. He may be the worst World Series performer in the Hall of Fame, giving Dave Winfield stiff competition in this dubious department. In 1924, over seven games and twenty-seven at-bats, Jackson hit .074. In an earlier Series, his average was nil: OK, he only came to bat one time.

At twenty, Al Kaline, who was elected to the Hall of Fame on a regular vote, batted .340 with 200 hits on the nose for the Tigers. He never came close to this average again, though he memorably concluded his career with 399 home runs.

Dick Wakefield was the first so-called Bonus Baby, signing for the astonishing sum of $52 thousand (and a car—after all, this was another Detroit player) in 1941. He even batted .355 in half a season. But maybe things came too easily for Wakefield, as he soon enough faded from the major leagues.

Luke Appling, in the Hall of Fame and, like Vaughan, Sewell, and Jackson via the Veterans Committee, played 142 games at shortstop in 1949. What makes this a remarkable feat is his age at the time: forty two. Derek Jeter, I’m sure, has taken note.

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About rightoffthebatbook

Co-author of the book, "Right Off the Bat: Baseball, Cricket, Literature, and Life"
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