The Greatest Game Never Played – 3rd Inning

This is the third part of my nine-part “Greatest Game Never Played”, if you have not read any of the prior installments, it would behoove you to do so o to better understand the premise of this writing.  I would appreciate any feedback you can give on either note (love it, hate it, where you agree, where you disagree, etc.)   As always an asterisk next to a player’s name denotes them as a current Major League player.  Happy Reading!

"You see, you spend a good piece of your life gripping a baseball, and in the end it turns out that it was the other way around the whole time."~ Jim Bouton, Ball Four (1970)

When I was young, I played catcher.  I wore the mask and I had the glove and I spent the entire game behind homeplate.   But let’s be honest – the catcher in T-ball doesn’t really do anything.  As a fan, I have always been amazed by the athletes who play catcher.  The stamina they have to crouch behind homeplate for nine innings day in and day out; the knowledge they have of every batter and their pitchers to know what pitches to call; and of course the chance they get to make a play at the plate.  As a T-ball catcher, I didn’t do any of those things.  I didn’t wear the knee savers because I just stood there.  I didn’t call pitches because the ball sat on a tee.  And I didn’t ever get to make a play at the plate – but there was that one time I came close.

I was about six or seven and we were playing a game against the Conception Junction T-Ball team.   I don’t remember the score for the life of me but I do recall that we were winning by 2 or 3 runs.  It was the bottom of the second to last inning (I believe we played 6) and the bases were loaded with no outs.   The batter came up and hit the ball all the way to the outfield grass (which was far by our standards).

The base runners started advancing and behind me I heard my Dad yelling, “Cover home Devan! Cover home!”.  Now I loved baseball but being a young kid I really did not understand a lot of the terminology that pertained to the sport.

My dad continued to yell for me to “cover home” and I was not going to disobey an order like that so I got down on all fours and physically covered the plate with my body – leaving the slew of baserunners waiting in line to score confused.   My dad had yelled for me to cover home, how was I supposed to know?

As I continue my bid for a perfect game, I will choose my starting catchers, reserve catchers, and first basemen for my American League and National League All-Star teams.

THE CATCHERS

"No baseball pitcher would be worth a damn without a catcher who could handle the hot fastball." ~ Casey Stengel, Hall of Fame Manager

AMERICAN LEAGUE –

Starting Catcher:  Lawrence “Yogi” Berra (1946-1965)

Nickname(s):  Yogi

Team(s):  New York Yankees (1946 – 1963)

Hall of Fame:  1972 (second ballot)

Honors:  18 x All-Star, 3 x AL MVP, New York Yankees #8 retired, Major League Baseball All-Century Team

Rings: 13 – 1947, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1952, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1961, 1962, 1969, 1977, 1978

Career Batting Avg:  .285

Career HR:  358

Career RBI:  1,430

Signature Moment:  In Game 3 of the 1947 World Series against the Brooklyn Dodgers, Berra hit the first pinch-hit home run in World Series history off Ralph Branca.

Fun Fact:  He picked up his nickname from a friend who thought he resembled a Hindu holy man (a Yogi) they had seen in a movie.

Widely regarded as one of the greatest catchers in history, Berra holds the World Series records for most games, at-bats, hits, doubles, singles, games caught, and putouts.  He won 10 championships as a player and famously caught Don Larsen’s perfect game in the 1956 World Series (the first no-hitter in postseason history).   What made Berra’s style of play unique was his incredible bat control.   He was able to swing low and away for the homer but also swing at higher pitches for line drives.  Five times, Yogi had more home runs in a season than strikeouts.  On defense, he led the league in double plays six times (an MLB record).  Off the field, Yogi Berra is best known for his Yogi-isms (“It ain’t over till it’s over”) and being the inspiration for the Hanna-Barbera character Yogi Bear.

Reserve Catcher: Mickey Cochrane (1925- 1937)

Nickname(s): “Black Mike”

Team(s):  Philadelphia A’s (Present-Day Oakland Athletics) (1925-1933) 

Hall of Fame: 1947 (Fifth ballot) 

Honors: 2 x All-Star, 2 x AL MVP

Rings: 3 – 1929, 1930, 1935 

Career Batting Avg:  .320

Career HR: 119 

Career RBI: 832 

Signature Moment:  On August 2, 1933, Cochrane hit the second cycle of his career. 

Fun Fact:  New York Yankees Hall of Famer Mickey Mantle was named after Mickey Cochrane. 

Mickey Cochrane is relatively unknown to most today but he is one of the greatest catchers to ever play the game. The reason that I had to choose Mickey Cochrane is because he was great at two things – getting on base (his .419 career on base percentage is among the greatest all-time and second among catchers only to Joe Mauer) and making plays at the plate.  In today’s game, the ability to make a play at the plate is almost a lost art but Cochrane had an uncanny ability not only to do this but also to pick off baserunners.  As a batter, he was a great line drive hitter and his .320 lifetime batting average is the highest among catchers with at least 5000 at-bats.  His hitting was great, his defense was exceptional, and his leadership was irreplaceable.  It was his leadership that took the Detroit Tigers (traded from the A’s in 1934) from being a fifth place team to winning the 1934 American League pennant and the 1935 World Series over the Chicago Cubs.  In 1947, Cochrane was the first catcher ever elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Others Considered:

1. Carlton Fisk, Chicago White Sox/Boston Red Sox (1969 – 1993) 

2. Joe Mauer*, Minnesota Twins (2004 – Present)

3. Bill Dickey, New York Yankees (1928 – 1946)

4. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez*, Texas Rangers (1991 – Present)

NATIONAL LEAGUE –

Starting Catcher: Josh Gibson (1930 – 1946)

Nickname(s):  “Black Babe Ruth” 

Team(s):  Homestead Grays/Pittsburgh Crawfords (1930 – 1936, 1937 – 1939, 1942 – 1946) 

Hall of Fame:  1972 

Honors: 10 x Negro League All-Star, 9 x Negro League Home Run Champion, 4 Negro League Batting Titles

Rings:  2 (Negro League World Series) – 1943, 1944 

Career Batting Avg: .359 to .384 (depending on the source)

Career HR:  Approximately 800 (according to the Baseball Hall of Fame) 

Career Slugging %:  .648 

Signature Moment:  According to Jack Marshall, in 1934 Gibson hit one over the third deck of the left field of Yankee Stadium for the only fair ball ever hit out of Yankee Stadium. 

Fun Fact:  Gibson played professionally in the U.S., Mexico, Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico.

Unfortunately many people today know nothing of the greatest homerun hitter of all time.  Though a ridiculous “gentlemen’s agreement” kept him out of the majors due to the color of his skin, Gibson could flat out hit and was great defensively behind the plate.  Kansas City Monarchs manager Buck O’Neil often talked about how there was no sound sweeter than the crack of a bat and that he only heard that sound from three batters in all his years around baseball:  Babe Ruth, Bo Jackson, and Josh Gibson.  The legend of Josh Gibson grew so much that people used to tell stories like this one.

“In the last of the ninth at Pittsburgh, down a run, with a runner on base and two outs, Gibson hits one high and deep, so far into the twilight sky that it disappears from sight, apparently winning the game. The next day, the same two teams are playing again, now in Washington. Just as the teams have positioned themselves on the field, a ball comes falling out of the sky and a Washington outfielder grabs it. The umpire yells to Gibson, “You’re out! In Pittsburgh, yesterday!”

Unfortunately for baseball, Gibson died at age 35 in 1947 just four months before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier.  Gibson would without a doubt be my National League catcher because I don’t think there is any hitter I would rather watch in all of history than Gibson.

"You don't compare anybody to Johnny Bench. You don't want to embarass anybody." ~ Sparky Anderson

Reserve Catcher:  Johnny Bench (1967 – 1983) 

Nickname(s):  “Hands”, “Little General”

Team(s): Cincinnati Reds (1967 – 1983)

Hall of Fame: 1989 (1st ballot) 

Honors: 14 x All-Star, 10 x Gold Glove Winner, 2 x NL MVP, 1968 Rookie of the Year, 1976 World Series MVP, #5 retired by the Cincinnati Reds 

Rings:  2 – 1975, 1976

Career Batting Avg: .267 

Career HR:  389 

Career RBIs: 1,376 

Signature Moment:  In 1983, Bench retired as the leader in home runs among all catchers.  He has since been passed by Mike Piazza and Carlton Fisk.

Fun Fact:  In 1967, Bench’s rookie year, Ted Williams signed a ball for Bench inscribing on it that Bench would be a “Hall of Famer for sure!”

Considered by ESPN to be the greatest catcher of all time, Johnny Bench only played the position because his father thought it would be the quickest route to the Majors.  He ended his career with a remarkable .991 fielding percentage.  He was a great hitter with 2048 career hits and 389 home runs and was a key component of the “Big Red Machine”.  Even more remarkable was his ability to play defense.  He is still remembered for his ability to field the ball and his strong arm that allowed him to lead the league put-outs and runners caught stealing.  Johnny Bench may very well be the greatest all-around catcher to ever play the game.

Others Considered:

1.  Mike Piazza, Los Angeles Dodgers/New York Mets (1992 – 2007)

2.  Gabby Hartnett, Chicago Cubs (1922 – 1941)

3. Gary Carter, Montreal Expos (1974 – 1992)

4. Roy Campanella, Brooklyn Dodgers (1948 – 1957)

FIRST BASEMEN –

Costello: Look, you gotta first baseman? Abbott: Certainly. Costello: Who's playing first? Abbott: That's right. ~ Abbot & Costello, Who's on First?

I grew up thinking that first basemen were the best players on every team.  I remember that Wally Joyner was my favorite Royal and he played first.  And I remember that in Little Big League, Lou Collins, the Twins’ best player, was also at first.  I remember the home run race back in 1998 and everyone in Missouri was pulling for Mark McGwire – a first baseman.

In today’s MLB, we live in a golden age of first basemen with players like Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, Prince Fielder, Justin Morneau, Joey Votto, and Adrian Gonzalez all residing 90 feet from the plate.  This has not always been the case.  There have been many great first baseman but never so many at one time which actually made first base one of the easiest positions to choose for this game.

AMERICAN LEAGUE –

1B:  Lou Gehrig (1923 – 1939)

Nickname(s):  “The Iron Horse”

Team(s):  New York Yankees (1923 – 1939)

Hall of Fame:  1939 (Unanimous) 

Honors:  7 x All-Star, 2 x AL MVP, Yankees Team Captain (1935 – 1939), Yankees #4 retired, MLB All-Century Team 

Rings:  6 – 1927, 1928, 1932, 1936, 1937, 1938)

Career Batting Avg: .340

Career HR:  493

Career RBI:  1,995

Career Hits: 2,721

Signature Moment:  On June 3, 1932 in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics (Oakland A’s), Lou Gehrig hit 4 home runs in one game which is a Major League record.  His fifth hit of the day was a leaping catch made by Al Simmons at the center field wall – otherwise he would have had 5 and sat alone as the record holder. 

Fun Fact:  Lou Gehrig was the first athlete to ever appear on a Wheaties Box.

You remember how I mentioned in Part I that this was not particularly meant to be a position by position ranking?  Well throw that out the window here because Lou Gehrig was, without a doubt, the best first baseman to ever play the game.  This was as obvious of a choice for me as spinach for Popeye or lasagna for Garfield.  If I could build an all-time team around one player – no doubt in my mind that that player would be the Iron Horse.   This is a guy who showed up every day and played the game because he loved it.  He started and played in 2,130 straight games (a record until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995), he has 23 career grand slams, scored the winning run in 8 World Series games, has the most extra base hits of a first baseman, had a .765 slugging percentage in 1927, and was so good that the Hall of Fame waived the waiting period rule so they could vote him in a few months after he retired.   Had Gehrig not come down with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), he would have likely finished his career with around 3,700 hits and 650 homeruns.

More than that, he was a great all around person and his famed “Luckiest Man” speech, in my opinion, is the single most moving moment in the history of sport.

Others Considered:

1.  Jimmie Foxx, Philadelphia A’s/Boston Red Sox (1925 – 1942, 1944 – 1945)

2.  Jim Thome*, Cleveland Indians (1991 – Present)

3.   Mark McGwire, Oakland A’s (1986 – 2001)

4.  Eddie Murray, Baltimore Orioles (1977 – 1997)

5.  Frank Thomas, Chicago White Sox (1990 – 2008) 

 

NATIONAL LEAGUE –

1B:  Albert Pujols* (2001 – Present)

Nickname(s):  “Prince Albert”, “El Hombre”, “The Machine”

Team(s):  St. Louis Cardinals (2001 – Present)

Hall of Fame:   

Honors:  9 x All-Star, 3 x NL MVP, 2 x Hank Aaron Award, 6 x Silver Slugger, 2 x Gold Glove Award, 2001 NL Rookie of the Year, 2004 NLCS MVP, 2008 Roberto Clemente Award, 2003 NL Batting Champion, 2 x NL Home Run Champion, 2010 NL RBI Champion 

Rings: 1 – 2006

Career Batting Avg:  .331

Career HR:  409

Career RBI: 1,234

Signature Moment: On August 15, 2010, Pujols hit his 30th home run of the season extending his MLB record of 10 straight 30 + home run seasons.

Fun Fact:  In his first ever college baseball game at Maple Woods Community College in Kansas City, Pujols turned an unassisted triple play and hit a grand slam.

Well Joe Mauer and Jim Thome both came close but it’s Albert Pujols who is my first current Major Leaguer to make the cut.  While this was a tough decision, the truth is that Albert Pujols is the best player in the game today and there is a reason why ESPN named him the best player of the last decade.  At his current pace, he should hit close to 800 home runs in his career.  He currently holds (or will soon hold) every significant record in the history of the St. Louis Cardinals franchise.  When you’re talking about a franchise that has boasted great names like Brock, Medwick, and Musial and that has the 2nd most World Series trophies of any franchise – that’s a significant distinction.

My main reason for picking Pujols though is because I have now seen him play on three occassions and it is nothing short of remarkable to watch.  I remember my first trip to Busch Stadium in July of 2008.  My friend Doug and I had gotten tickets to see the Cardinals play the Padres.  I was excited to watch Pujols play only to show up at the stadium and see that LaRussa was resting Albert.  The Padres started off the game strong and in the 7th inning were up 5 – 1.  The Red birds faithful were slowly leaving the stadium but then something happened – LaRussa decided to pinch hit Albert.  Slowly the seats began to fill up, there was a new energy at Busch, and the whole team had a new lease on the game.  The Cardinals ended up winning that game 9 – 5 on a walk-off grand slam.  As many numbers as I could use to describe The Machine, what makes him great are the intangibles.

Others Considered:

1. Buck Leonard, Homestead Grays (1934 – 1950)

2. Pete Rose, Cincinnati Reds (1963 – 1986)

3. Willie McCovey, San Francisco Giants (1959 – 1980)

4. Jeff Bagwell, Houston Astros (1991 – 2005)

Well there you have it, heading into the 4th inning I have selected my starting and reserve catcher for each team and at first base I have the greatest first baseman of all time for the American League and a guy who could one day be in that conversation for the National League.  Yes sir (or ma’am), this game is shaping up to be truly perfect.

I can see myself grabbing a seat on the first base line and sitting there an hour before the game with two Chicago Style hot dogs on my lap and a large frozen lemonade from the “lee-mo-nade, lee-mo-nade, LEEE-MO-NAAADE!” guy.  Gibson and Bench are playing catch near the dugout as Gehrig steps up to the plate for some B.P. and begins absolutely crushing balls.  Yup, so far this really is a perfect game.

In the 4th inning, I will select my 2nd base, 3rd base, shortstop, and utility players.

Questions? Comments? Snide Remarks? Let me hear ’em!!

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