Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forget The Revisionist History; Remember The Expos

With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony scheduled for Sunday in Cooperstown, N.Y., and a carload of former Atlanta Braves — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, manager Bobby Cox — scheduled for induction, brace yourselves. We’re about to be inundated in coming days with news articles and TV features about the great Braves Dynasty of the 1990s and 2000s.

And in fairness, those Braves teams were extraordinary, especially their starting pitching. Maddux and Glavine were deserving first-ballot Hall-of-Famers. Maddux, in particular, was absolutely incredible, one of the three greatest pitchers of his generation, along with Pedro Martinez and Roger Clemens, and on the short list of the greatest pitchers of all time. Cox was a great manager for those teams, and it’s fitting that he is going into the Hall of Fame along with fellow skippers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. They helped define their era in the sport.

Let’s not forget that Torre played for and managed the Braves. So the Braves connection this weekend is a strong one. A third member of that great Atlanta rotation, John Smoltz, also deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, and hopefully he’ll join the others in 2015.

With that out of the way, let’s put to rest one bit of revisionist history right here and now.

Fact: The Atlanta Braves did NOT win 14 consecutive division championships. USA Today wrote that in its sports pages on Friday, and we’re going to see and hear that bit of misinformation passed along many times in coming days as those teams are rightly celebrated. The fact is, however, that the Braves won 14 division championships in 15 years. And that’s a huge difference.

The Braves did not win the National League East in 1994. Yes, officially there were no champions that year because of the strike, which wiped out the end of the season and forced the cancellation of the World Series. That doesn’t change the fact that the Braves did not win the division, though, and it doesn’t change the fact that they wouldn’t have won the division had there been no strike. Most likely they wouldn’t have come close.

Lest we all forget, at the time of the strike, with six weeks remaining on the schedule, the Montreal Expos were in first place in the NL East, six games ahead of the Braves, and were pulling away. The Expos had the best record in baseball at the time and were hot as a pistol, having won 20 of their last 23 games at the time play was halted.

The Expos roster featured such stars at Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Moises Alou, Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez, Ken Hill and John Wetteland. When baseball finally resumed a year later, Expos manager Felipe Alou was named manager of the National League team for the 1995 All-Star Game, not the Braves’ Bobby Cox. That doesn’t make Montreal the official winners of anything in 1994, but what does it say about Atlanta? It doesn’t say “division champions,” that’s for sure.

The strike of 1994 cost baseball a World Series, and history will always remember it that way. The strike also cost Montreal a chance at a World Series, with one of history’s great overlooked clubs, a team never heard from again. And that’s truly a shame. That team deserved its chance at history. Instead, the strike intervened and then the economics of baseball, which will always favor the large markets, forced Expos ownership to break up that club starting in ’95.

The strike of 1994 also enabled the revisionists from Atlanta to pretend that the ’94 season never happened and to claim instead that the Braves won 14 division championships in a row. But they didn’t. As great as the Atlanta dynasty was, and as unlikely as it is to ever happen again, the fact remains that the Braves won 14 division championships in 15 years. End of discussion.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Book Review: The Bilko Athletic Club

Many American men of a certain age — I'm talking about early Baby Boomers — received as much or more of their early education from reading comic books, record album liner notes, and the backs of baseball cards as they did from any textbook or classroom.

Superheroes, musicians and baseball players will always be more interesting than historical figures, no matter their contribution to society. Who wants to read about Christopher Columbus, Patrick Henry, Thomas Edison or Clara Barton when you can read about Spiderman, Bob Dylan or Ernie Banks instead?

Baseball cards were a storehouse of all kinds of useful information, especially when the card manufacturers put the players' complete major and minor league statistics on the back of the card. Minor league stats were especially revelatory. We all knew, for instance, that Babe Ruth held the major league record of 60 home runs in a single season, set in 1927 and broken by Roger Maris in 1961. The Maris-and-Mantle home run chase played out in the national media. Everyone knew about that.

What we didn’t know, but learned from the back of baseball cards, was that someone named Joe Bauman hit 72 homers for Roswell in the Longhorn League (the Longhorn League?) in 1954. And that Dick Stuart, the infamous Dr. Strangeglove of the 1962 Mets, hit 66 homers for the Lincoln Chiefs of the Western League in 1956.

Until expansion in 1961, there were only 16 major league teams and 400 major league players, and we knew them all. And in part because we collected their baseball cards, we knew a fair amount about each player. We knew, for instance, that Steve Bilko, a slugging first baseman who never quite stuck in the big leagues despite stops with the Cubs, Reds, Dodgers, Cardinals, Tigers and Angels, tore up the Pacific Coast League, batting .330 with 75 doubles, 148 home runs and 428 RBIs in 488 games in three years with the Los Angeles Angels from 1955-57. Those stats, included on several of his baseball cards, jumped out at us.

Baseball cards were not perfect, however. Limited to about 12 or 13 square inches, they could tell us Bilko's stats, but virtually nothing of the Pacific Coast League. Those of us living along the Eastern Seaboard, for instance, had no idea that for fans on the West Coast, with the nearest MLB team 2,000 miles away, the Coast League WAS baseball. We had no idea that the PCL was different from other minor leagues, that beginning in 1952 the league was given an "open" classification by the National Association. That meant the league officially was better than Triple-A but not quite major-league caliber.

Many really good players enjoyed outstanding careers in the Coast League, and PCL players often requested and were granted clauses in their contracts making them ineligible from being drafted by Major League Baseball. The money in the PCL was good, the cities were first-rate (five of them now have major league teams), and the living was easy. Why sit on a major league bench in Pittsburgh, Cleveland or Detroit when you could be a starter and make better money in San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Seattle? Why, indeed, and many PCL players asked themselves that very question. Many got promotions to the big leagues but often welcomed the return trip to the PCL as anything but a demotion.

Gaylon White's new book — The Bilko Athletic Club, The Story Of The 1956 Los Angeles Angels — goes a long way towards filling in many of the remaining blanks we may have had about the Angels and the old PCL. Based loosely on the same format as Roger Kahn's classic The Boys Of Summer, The Bilko Athletic Club focuses on the 1956 Angels, known in LA at the time as The Bilko Athletic Club because of Bilko's on-field exploits, but also gives excellent anecdotal background on the rest of the Angels roster and the Coast League of the mid-1950s.

Numerous stars and Hall of Famers passed through the PCL on the way to the big leagues, including Joe and Dominic DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Bobby Doerr, Ferris Fain, Frank Crosetti, and Mudcat Grant. Many others were journeymen, like Bilko, who enjoyed tremendous success and stardom on the coast but just couldn’t quite make it work in the majors. For a brief time, Bilko was the PCL's Mickey Mantle. In 1956, he won league MVP honors after leading the league with a .360 average, 163 runs scored, 215 hits, 55 home runs and 164 RBIs. The ’56 Angels cruised to the PCL pennant with a 107-61 record, 16 games ahead of second-place Seattle.

White, who grew up in LA in the 1950s rooting for the Angels, contends early on that the '56 Angels were one of the greatest minor league teams ever, and were the last great PCL club. His first assertion is subject to debate. He presents a pretty convincing case for his belief, while also devoting considerable copy to dissenting opinions. As for his second point, he's no doubt correct. With the major leagues already making overtures to West Coast cities, the Pacific Coast League was in a period of noticeable decline by 1956. Two years later, the Dodgers and Giants arrived from New York, forcing the PCL out of LA and San Francisco, its two largest markets. Three years after that, an American League expansion team moved into LA and even took the name Los Angeles Angels, giving LA two MLB teams and the West Coast three. As for the PCL, well, its time as the only show on the coast was over. The league morphed into just another minor league after that. Until the big leagues invaded, however, the PCL was special, a colorful circuit with a fascinating history and a captive audience thousands of miles from the nearest MLB market. The 1956 Angels were the PCL's last mighty roar.

The Bilko Athletic Club at times reads like an oral history. Relying heavily on a multitude of interviews conducted with dozens of former players over several decades, White weaves a narrative brimming with great baseball stories, many of them built around the kind of hyperbole and exaggeration you tend to get when old ballplayers get together to relive their glory days. White focuses on Bilko, for obvious reasons, but he devotes lengthy passages and chapters to many of the players and coaches who populated the Angels' mid-1950s rosters. Of particular interest is the number of future major league managers, coaches and front-office execs who played for the '56 Angels, including Gene Mauch, Jim Fanning, Eddie Haas, Johnny Goryl and Red Adams. Not all of them get their own chapter, but White still brings them all to life.

The Bilko Athletic Club makes excellent reading. The narrative kind of jumps around at times, but this is never a problem since wherever White takes the reader, entertainment is certain to follow. The storytelling may be non-linear at times, but just enjoy the ride. This book should be must-reading for any fan of minor league baseball and its history.

You can purchase copies of The Bilko Athletic Club at White's website,