Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #45

This is the forty-fifth in a series of examinations of baseball-related urban legends and whether they are true or false. This week, marvel at the Hall of Fame pitcher who came out retirement (and the broadcast booth) to prove a point to the team that he was calling games for, discover whether the Yankees signed a pitcher just based on his stats without ever actually seeing him pitch in person and learn about the player who was once traded for…a pair of treadmills?!

Click here to view an archive of all the previous baseball urban legends.

Let’s begin!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A team’s radio announcer came in to pitch the final game of the team’s season.

STATUS: True

Criticism of professional athletes by announcers put an interesting spin on a traditional retort that people being criticized often use, which is the classic “could you do any better?” In the case of sports announcers, though, the one doing the criticism often was once a professional athlete, and often legitimately could have done better when they were younger! Therefore, quite often the playing career of the media member is put on trial when they criticize current players. In October 2010, when Brandon Marshall of the Miami Dolphins was criticized by NFL Network analysts Sterling Sharpe, Mike Mayock and Solomon Wilcots (all former NFL players) over his conditioning, Marshall retorted, “But again, those guys never coached, and I don’t honestly think that those guys were elite players, including Sterling Sharpe. I know he’s done some good things, but from my understanding, he’s not a Hall of Fame player.” When Sharpe was Marshall’s age, he actually had a better resume (by 26, they were both named to two Pro Bowls, but Sharpe also was a first team All-Pro while Marshall was “just” a second teamer), but imagine if the 45-year-old Sharpe could actually back up his criticisms of the 26-year-old Marshall on the field? That’s just what St. Louis Cardinal legend Dizzy Dean did on the last day of the 1947 season when he came out of retirement for one last game just to prove a point.

Jay Hanna “Dizzy” Dean pitched just six seasons for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1932-1937 (plus a single game in 1930), and those were the only six seasons that the pitcher pitched in more than 20 games in a season. An injury suffered in the 1937 All-Star Game effectively ruined his career. He was dealt to the Chicago Cubs in 1938 and managed to eke out three more seasons in the Majors before retiring at age 31 after pitching a single inning for the Cubs in 1941. Those six seasons were so good that Dean was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1953.

His most famous season was 1934, when he went 30-7 on his way to the National League Most Valuable Player Award and a championship for the Cardinals’ “Gashouse Gang” (Dean won the clinching Game 7 of the World Series). So when Dean retired, he went straight to broadcasting Cardinals games.

There was an interesting radio situation in St. Louis in the 1940s. The Cardinals and the American League team in St. Louis, the Browns, each had two sets of announcers calling their games. Harry Caray and Gabby Street called games on WTMV and WEW while Dean and play-by-play man Johnny O’Hara called the games on WIL. The duos were able to call both teams because of an unusual arrangement between the Cardinals and the Browns where only the home games of each team would be broadcast on the radio. This was done so that the home games of the one team would not be competing against radio coverage of the other team. As you would figure, such an arrangement was bound to end eventually, and 1947 was the year it came to an end, as the Cardinals decided to broadcast all of their games on the radio. They took this opportunity to choose an exclusive announcing team, as well. Despite Dean’s presence as a legendary member of the Cardinals, Cardinals owner Sam Breadon decided to go with Caray and Street over Dean and O’Hara.

Dean was angry at being passed over, and he and O’Hara were effectively forced into becoming the announcing team for the lowly Browns (coming off a 66-88 record in 1946). The 1947 Browns season was even worse, with the team finishing the year 59-95 (they did have some positive historic moments that season, as they became the first Major League team to employ two African-American players – and when they played the Cleveland Indians, they were part of the first Major League baseball game that had two teams that each had an African-American player). All season long, Dean criticized the Browns, specifically the pitching staff, which ended the season with a league-worst team ERA of 4.33. Dean would often note that he could pitch better than these guys, specifically saying, “”Doggone it, I can pitch better than nine out of the ten guys on this staff!” On the last day of the 1947 season, Browns General Manager Bill DeWitt decided to call Dean on his bluff.

You see, while attendance for bad baseball teams nowadays can get pretty rough, especially at the end of the season, it was particularly bad back in the first half of the 20th Century. The Browns had failed to draw 5,000 fans in any home game from August 27th on (in 2011, the Houston Astros averaged over 20,000 fans a game on their final seven-game homestand in a season where they lost 106 games!), with the final game of their penultimate home series being particularly brutal, as just 315 fans watched the Browns defeat the Indians on September 25th. So DeWitt figured he had to do something to help the box office gate, and he was not above using a St. Louis legend’s bragging to his benefit. Dean was signed to a $1 contract and scheduled to pitch on September 28th, the final game of the season, against the Chicago White Sox (led by first baseman Rudy Yotk) and their top starting pitcher, Eddie Lopat. The Browns manager, Muddy Ruel, was so angry over the stunt that he refused to manage the game and actually started his offseason one day early.

Dean was not a popular man on “his” team that day, but the fans ate it up. A crowd of 15,910 attended Sportsman’s Park that day to see the 37-year-old Dean face off against the White Sox. That would be the second-highest attendance the Browns would have all season (the first being a June game against the eventual World Champion New York Yankees).

Dean pitched through three innings without allowing a run, scattering three hits and walking one batter. In bottom of the third, Dean also hit a single! However, he pulled a muscle on the hit and left after pitching the fourth inning. In typical Browns fashion, reliever Glen Moulder (who took over from Dean and pitched the rest of the game) gave up five runs in the ninth, including a three-run home run with the score tied at 2. The Browns lost the game 5-2. Dean, however, had proven his point. He would return to the broadcast booth, where he went on to have a stellar career as an announcer, especially a few years later when he became the voice of ABC’s “Game of the Week,” a national telecast of MLB games. The National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association inducted Dean into its Hall of Fame in 1976.

Dean once said, “it ain’t bragging if you can do it,” and on that September 1947 day, Dean was no braggart.

Thanks to Ben Volin of the Palm Beach Post for the Brandon Marshall quote.

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Yankees signed a player sight unseen based solely on his statistics in an independent league.

STATUS: False

One of the main (if not the main) conflicts in Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball and the recent film of the same name is between “traditional” scouting (people who judge players by watching them play in person) versus statistical scouting (making decisions about players based on their statistical achievements). In the film, traditional scouting is portrayed as almost an archaic way of doing business but in reality, there is not a single Major League Baseball team today that does not place a great deal of emphasis on traditional scouting, including the Oakland Athletics. The differences between the various teams is how much emphasis they each give to statistical scouting in augmenting traditional scouting, not replacing it. While nowadays there is a general acceptance that the two modes of thinking are complimentary and not adversarial, it admittedly seemed pretty darn adversarial during those first few years after Moneyball came out. And in 2007, a 26-year-old relief pitcher became a symbol of the divide between traditional scouting and statistical scouting when the story came out that the Yankees signed Edwar Ramírez without seeing him in person.

But was that actually what happened?

Edwar Ramírez was originally signed as an amateur free agent by the Anaheim Angels in 2001. He played for the Angels’ Class A club in 2002 and 2003 before being released in 2003. He did not play baseball professionally in 2004. The Angels re-signed him in 2005 but released him again after just one game for their Triple A team. He signed on with the Pensacola Pelicans of the Independent League. While out of baseball in 2004, Ramírez taught himself a change-up. His change-up soon became a dominating pitch in the Independent League. In 2005 and 2006, pitching for the Pelicans and then the Edinburg Coyotes, Ramírez put up very impressive numbers. In 43 games with the Pelicans, Ramírez had a 1.45 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 15 walks. In 25 games with the Coyotes, Ramírez had a 1.07 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 10 walks.

Mid-way through the 2006 season, the New York Yankees were looking for a reliever to fill out their Single A club in Tampa. Billy Eppler, the team’s director of professional scouting began looking through a list of players who had recently been released by other clubs. Meanwhile, Troy Caradonna, the assistant director of baseball operations in the Yankees’ Tampa office (along with intern Kiley McDaniel), began looking at statistics of players in the Independent Leagues and he was wowed by the numbers Ramírez was putting up for the Coyotes. In July 2007, after Ramírez shocked everyone in the Yankees organization by going from organizational fodder to becoming a legitimate prospect by blowing through all levels of the Yankees minors in 2006 and 2007 and making the Yankees Major League roster, Ed Price of the Newark Star-Ledger looked back on the day that Caradonna and Eppler first looked into Ramírez. After Caradonna saw Ramírez’s strong numbers, he brought him to the attention of Eppler, who later recalled, “We didn’t send anybody in to look. I looked at a few old reports, didn’t see anything [negative], and made a couple of phone calls checking on [mental] makeup.” After checking with the Angels organization and not hearing anything bad about him, the Yankees purchased Ramírez’s rights from the Edinburg Coyotes for under $3,000. Thus, Ramírez was a player who was signed just on his stats. As Eppler himself stated, “statistics found him.” Granted, we are talking about a player originally signed just for organizational depth, but still, the soundbite was significant and got a lot of play around the internet, especially when Ramírez made his Major League debut by striking out the side against the Minnesota Twins (including reigning American League Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau).

However, while that was the story, it was not exactly true.

Just three days after his original story, Price wrote a correction (and as is typically the case, people remember the original story and not so much the correction). Here’s Price:

Mark Batchko, one of the Yankees’ top area scouts, last Independence Day weekend drove across Texas to see Ramirez pitch an inning for his independent-league team. Ramirez had first come to the Yankees’ attention because of his statistics — based on work by John Coppolella (who was then the Yankees’ assistant director of pro scouting and now works for the Atlanta Braves) and Kiley McDaniel.

Batchko reported that Ramirez had a 90-92 mph fastball and a devastating changeup. That report turned out to be accurate, and Ramirez used those pitches to move from Class A to the majors in less than a year after the Yankees signed him based on the statistical analysis and Batchko’s evaluation.

So, as it turns out, rather than being a sign of one model being better than another, Ramírez’s signing was actually a perfect example of how both models work to compliment each other, with the Yankees ending up with a decent reliever for a few years.

Thanks to Ed Price for the information!

BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: A player was once acquired for two treadmills and cash.

STATUS: True

I write “true,” because the story is true, but it is a bit misleading.

Everyone knows that baseball teams trade players. That is a common occurrence that everyone is used to. However, very often, baseball players are not traded for other players, instead, their contracts are sold to another team. “You give us $100,000, we’ll give you the rights to Player X.”

For example, earlier this year the Cleveland Indians purchased the rights to slugging first baseman/outfielder Russ Canzler from the Tampa Bay Rays.

So it happens all of the time. Now the question is, “What do these teams do with the money they get for these players?” That money goes into the maintenance of the team usually. Or into allowing the team to spend money on another player. There is a famous scene in Moneyball where Billy Beane wheels and deals to find enough money via trades to give himself room in the budge to trade for a certain pitcher.

So if that money goes into the maintenance of the team, is it all that odd if a team finds other ways of maintaining the team? For instance, what if another team would rather give you supplies for your team rather than cash. If you would spend the money you were bringing in on those supplies anyways, why not just take the supplies directly, especially if you might be able to get them cheaper this way than if you purchases them yourself.

This brings us to an odd 1997 trade between the San Diego Padres and the Cleveland Indians.

Sean Mulligan was a 1991 draft pick for the Padres who had settled in as mostly organization depth, although he had seen a stint in the big leagues at the end of the 1996 season when the rosters expanded.

During the offseason, the Padres General Manager Kevin Towers was trying to find a way to improve the Padres’ exercise facilities and ownership was not giving him much room to work with. So Towers traded Mulligan to Cleveland in exchange for two treadmills and $75,000.

As Towers later recalled, “Sometimes you have to be a little creative. Just get the job done.”

So while it is true, it almost seems like it has a negative connotation for Mulligan, but I don’t think that’s fair, as if he were traded for $100,000 and Towers used that extra $25,000 to buy two treadmills (I have no idea how much fancy treadmills cost – would it be more than $25,000? Less?) then no one would ever think twice about it, right?

It is more a credit to Towers’ ingenuity than a knock to Mulligan’s reputation.

Thanks to Nick Piecoro for the Towers’ quote.

Okay, that’s it for this week!

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is bcronin@legendsrevealed.com

-Brian Cronin

4 Responses to “Baseball Urban Legends Revealed #45”

  1. Why did you have to bring up how horrible the Astros were last year (and will continue to be this year) in the middle of an otherwise unrelated story? Now I’m sad again.

  2. Ha! Hey, it applied! It showed that even the worst teams today still draw a heck of a lot more fans than teams did back in the old days.

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