September 28 was one of the busiest days in the history of the game. I want to highlight two items that represent the worst and best of the game before we get to the batters of the day.
On the evil side of the game, today in 1920 with immunity given to their star witness, former White Sox pitcher, turned mob bag man, Sleepy Bill Burns; the Chicago District attorney gets his indictment of the White Sox players who took money to fix the 1919 World Series. With eight men out the black sox scandal is the lowest point in baseball. Since then we have Pete Rose and Steroids (aka A-roid) to continue the “dark-side of the force” that still plaques the game.
On the positive side of the game, in 1947, in the Bronx was the first modern “old-timers game.” With the Babe dying of cancer, the game was actually presented to the fans as a benefit game with the proceeds going to the Babe Ruth Foundation. With this game and subsequent old-timers games we remember the good of the game; the players as heroes, their heroic plays which won the day, and the glorious history of our favorite teams and the game. And as Yankees fans know, the Old Timers Day Game is a tradition that continues to this day and one not to be missed.
It turns out that the idea of an Old-Timers game, brings up a very interesting point. When was the first “old-timers” game? Like good script that ESPN would appreciate, it involves New York and Boston, yet if far exceeds the Yanks and Sox. A comment posted just a few weeks ago, the first “old-timers game” occurred in the Polo Grounds in New York in 1882. It was played for the benefit of a former player and the games participants were baseball’s early pre-and post-Civil War era stars from Brooklyn and New York. This post was in comment to the featured the batter of the day of September 15, 1887 Tim Murnane. The Sporting Life called this game a “old-timers game” and it was played in Boston. Old Timers games were re-introduced again in Boston by the Nationals during the first decade of the 1900’s during their eventually futile competitive efforts with the upstart Americans. In 1908, two Boston Nationals ‘old- timers’ games were staged, one in August, and another in September. The historical question of the day could be: when did , where was, and who played in the first ‘Old-Timers Game’? Was it New York, Boston, somewhere else?
The focus of the day is three of the game’s best batters each from an unique era: Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, and the late, great Tony Gwinn.
On this day in 1924, Rogers Hornsby finishes the season with a .424 batting average to lead the National League. There was little drama to his accomplishment as the runner up was nearly 50 point behind, and reaching the .400 plateau was assured. During the inflated averages of that time frame, .424, while a great number was not thought to be unattainable, just two years earlier his Sportsman’s Park neighbor George Sisler hit .420. The great Raj would end up hitting .400 three times, and just miss twice once hitting .397 and then .387. The lowest batting title by Hornsby was an incredible .360. He was the first player to hit a grand slam game winner in extra innings. Of the batters of the day, he was the only right handed batter, which means he has an extra step or two to get to first.
He’s the only guy I know who could hit .350 in the dark. — Frankie Frisch
In 1941, Ted Williams must have been channeling fellow New Englander and two-day’s ago batter of the day Jesse Burkett and not being a “blankety- blank- blank- coward.” On the morning of the 28th Williams awoke batting .399955, later that afternoon Williams removed all doubt or took advantage of rounding up benefits by playing in both games of a meaningless doubleheader (the Bosox were just a healthy17 GB of the Yankees). San Diego’s native son went 6 for 8 — earning the .400 average the old fashioned way: he hit for it. Thus he entered the dominion of the baseball gods with a .406 mark. He was a two-time war veteran and skilled pilot, demanded excellence and fame and yet detested celebrity that fame brought.
All I want out of life is that when I walk down the street folks will say, ‘There goes the greatest hitter that ever lived- Ted Williams
In 1997, another San Diego native, Tony Gwynn equaled Honus Wagner’s record by winning his eighth National League batting title when he finishes the season with a .372 batting average. Gwynn with this title matches Rogers Hornsby’s accomplishment of winning six straight titles. A great unanswerable question would be what would Gwynn have hit if he played in the 1920’s in Sportsman’s Park? It also brings up the other billion dollar question, is it possible to hit .400 in the modern era of international media with its 24/7 news cycle, advanced pitching metrics determining individual pitching matchups, and the pressure to be the first to do so since 1941? Gwynn had a career high .394 average, just a few hits short of the immortal 400 club. Tony Gwynn leaves us with many legacies: use videotape review, never stop learning, and don’t use tobacco.
“The only way to pitch to Tony is throw the ball down the middle and hope he hits it at someone.” – Al Leiter
On September 28, we remember the continuity of batting champions, an elite pantheon of Baseball’s Gods: Hornsby, Ruth who did it 9 times, to Williams, and Tony Gwynn. We remember the integrity, determination, devotion to the game and have no trouble in forgetting their quirks or behaviors in which fault can be found.
Rogers Hornsby photo: http://sports.mearsonlineauctions.com/lot-41199.aspx
Ted Williams photo: http://blogs.suntimes.com/sportsprose/2009/10/ted_williams_frozen_head used.html
Tony Gwynn photo: http://2guystalkingmetsbaseball.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/52703069.jpg
Williams & Gwynn photo: http://sportsthenandnow.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/Gwynn-Williams.jpg
Baseball Hall of Fame.org