Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What If?

In this first of two entries on this topic I am going to discuss some might have beens, how would things have been different if only ...

What if they had used brand new baseballs throughout a game in the old days? Ray Chapman, a shortstop his whole career planned to retire after the 1920 season. He didn't make it that far. Yankee pitcher Carl Mays had a reputation for throwing inside to hitters. A couple of seasons earlier Chapman had set a record that still stands - 67 sacrifice bunts in one season. Mays figured he would bunt when he came to bat late in the afternoon on August 16, 1920.

Mays threw a fastball toward Chapman's head that he never saw in the afternoon gloom. When it hit him, the sound resembled that of a ball being struck by a bat. Mays fielded it and threw to first and the infielders threw the dirty grey ball around the infield. Chapman dropped to the ground and died twelve hours later.

If it had not rained the day before in Cleveland Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak might have been even longer - a lot longer. Most fans know that Ken Keltner, the best defensive third baseman in the league in 1941, robbed the Yankee Clipper of two sure doubles and ended his streak by playing deep and diving to snag shots off Dimaggio's bat. Each time Joe D almost beat out Keltner's throws to first. He claimed the base paths were soggy though and slowed him down. What's the interesting thing about this? Dimaggio went on to get hits in his next 16 straight games! By the way, to this day, no one has ever hit in 72 out of 73 games.

What if, ten years later, Dimaggio had not been resentful and jealous of Mickey Mantle's talent? Joe had painful bone spurs in his legs and he knew he was close to the end of the line. He wanted to retire as a Yankee legend and the young phenom was stealing the spotlight from him. In the second game of the 1951 World Series Mantle, the fastest runner in baseball, should clearly have been playing center in the cavernous Yankee Stadium outfield. But the proud Dimaggio was in center and Mick was in left.

A flyball was hit between them that Mantle was able to reach easily. He called Dimaggio off, but he stubbornly kept coming and called for it himself. Mantle tried to jam on the brakes. But when he did, he caught one of his spikes in a sprinkler cover. His Series was over. He underwent surgery on his knee and never again ran like he had before Dimaggio hogged that flyball. We will never know how much better Mick would have been.

What if Gil McDougald had laid off that low, outside pitch? It's May 7, 1957 and we're at Cleveland's Municipal Stadium. The count is 2-2 on McDougald, Yankee's second batter and a former Rookie of the Year. On the mound is the man who'd won the award just two years earlier. On his twelfth pitch of the game Cleveland ace Herb Score lets go one of the fastballs that had helped him amass 508 strikeouts in his first two seasons. McDougald lines the pitch up the middle.

"I was in my follow-through," Score said later. "All I ever saw as my head came up was a white blur. I snapped my glove but the blur blasted through the fingertips and into my right eye. I clutched at my face and thought, 'My God, the eye has popped right of of my head!'" The career of baseball's best young pitcher, the fireballing Herb Score was over. He'd gone 36-19 for the Indians and was destined for Cooperstown.

Afterwards Score, who went on to become a much-loved Indians' broadcaster, joked to a teammate, "They say I didn't keep my eye on that one." A sympathetic reporter told him he would see him at the hospital later and Score said, "I hope I can see you."

“I came back in ’58 throwing as hard as ever. I had 48 strikeouts in 41 innings. I was never better. Then we had about a week of rainouts, and I was pitching in Washington on a cold, rainy night. I felt a pain in my elbow and then one of my pitches didn't make it to the plate. The next one didn't either. My pitches were never the same, I had no snap. It's possible the cortisone I had to take for 10 months to reduce the swelling on the side of my head might have altered my muscle tone and affected my windup somehow." Herb Score would win just 19 games in the remaining six seasons of his career.

What if Dizzy Dean hadn't ignored an injury he suffered in a somewhat similar fashion? After Babe Ruth's retirement, Cardinal ace Dizzy Dean was easily the most colorful figure in baseball and its biggest drawing card. He claimed to have developed his strong arm knocking squirrels out of trees.

An infield out ended the bottom of the third inning in the 1937 All-Star Game. It was a spectacular play and it marked the beginning of the end of Dizzy Dean's spectacular career. With two out, Earl Averill cracked a low line drive that hit Dean on the foot. Averill was thrown out at first and Dean headed for the clubhouse, his three-inning stint over. In the clubhouse, it was discovered that Dean's toe was broken.

It was considered a minor injury and Dean and the Cardinals management decided he would return to the mound before the toe was fully healed. The injury affected his delivery though, which eventually wrecked his arm and ended Dizzy's glory days at the age of twenty-six.

I'll try to conclude this blog about sad events in baseball that might have been avoided on a light note. After his retirement Dean became a popular Cardinal broadcaster. (He later did NBC's Saturday afternoon games.) His backwoods grammar was pretty bad. After a close play at third Dean would say that the feller slud into the bag. Horrified St. Louis schoolteachers complained to the radio station that Dizzy was a bad influence on children. When asked for a comment a bewildered Dean answered, "What am I saposed to say? He slidded into third?"

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