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Baseball history unpacked, March 19

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Happy birthday David Ross, the pivotal era of baseball, and the sad and sordid tale of Denny McLain, plus the one and only Skyrocket Smith

Happy birthday, Grandpa
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Previously, baseball history unpacked looked at the history of the Chicago White Stockings, Babe Ruth and Jacob Ruppert, the ever-popular Bill Veeck, Sr., Sammy Sosa, and the question of whether Hall of Fame players make good managers.

Today we cast our azure gaze upon Grandpa, Skyrocket Smith, Denny McLain, Ford Frick, and Happy Chandler, raking the muck for any news of their past doings for your infotainment pleasure.

Today in baseball history:

  • 1951 - “In an interview with the Detroit Free Press, Fred Hutchinson, the American League player representative, says the players should have input in the selection of the new commissioner replacing A. B. ‘Happy’ Chandler, who was recently ousted by the owners. The Tigers right-hander suggests that the major-leaguers, if not given input, would be inclined to hire and pay their own commissioner, with Chandler being their first choice.”

Chandler went on to the U.S. Senate and the governorship of Kentucky instead. J. Edgar Hoover was also a consideration, apparently. His baseball-smashed nose wasn’t the only connection he had with the game.

Phil Wrigley was one of the movers and shakers at that time, and was in on those meetings. Jim Gallagher, the Cubs’ GM, said that Chandler didn’t “...have a chance.” Clark Griffith, the Senators’ owner, was pro-Chandler as were some notable others. And there was reason for them to be positive — Chandler had recently brought in a great influx of money, selling the national television rights (the linked section is awesome) to the World Series and the All-Star Games to Gillette, with quite a few teams signing lucrative deals of their own.

“By 1951 the World Series was a television staple, and by 1955 all teams sold at least some of their games to local television.” - The Economic History of Baseball

Here’s a section of the book Baseball’s Pivotal Era that talks about the election itself. It’s far too long to reproduce here, nor would a summary be of benefit. Let’s just say that Ford Frick, a man who had begun his career in sports as a writer, and the present President of the National League, ended up winning the position, and Warren Giles (who deserves an article of his own) became NL president. “Frick was a sportswriter and high school English teacher in Colorado Springs when he was invited to join the staff of the New York American in 1922,” says the Baseball Hall of Fame article embedded in his name. He ended up founding the Hall (or the National Baseball Museum, as it was first called), which opened June 12, 1939, and was also instrumental in preventing the Continental League from getting any traction.

Frick was often accused of favoring the Senior Circuit and had a lot of detractors. He also wrote the Ten Commandments for Umpires.

Quotable:

“If you do this, you are through, and I don’t care if it wrecks the league for 10 years. You cannot do this because this is America.” Ford Frick, warning players not to strike over Jackie Robinson’s historic 1947 major league debut.

“Ford Frick isn’t the worst commissioner in baseball history, but he’s in the photo. He couldn’t get up in the last few strides with Happy Chandler, but I don’t think anybody can catch Happy Chandler at the wire.” - Sportswriter Jim Murray

  • 1984 - Denny McLain, the last major league pitcher to achieve a 30-win season, is indicted on various charges of racketeering, loan-sharking, extortion, and cocaine possession.

McLain was convicted of those charges and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He maintained his innocence throughout the trial, but later recanted. He was released in 1988.

“I’ve learned my lesson. I may be thickheaded, but I’m not stupid. You’ll never find me anywhere close to a criminal situation again.” — Denny McClain

And there’s a Chicago connection — Lou Boudreau was McLain’s father-in-law (McLain married Boudreau’s daughter). After going to jail, McLain said, “I hope and pray I’ve embarrassed him [Boudreau] for the last time.”

Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times wrote a famous takedown, in which he said that “McLain drove around Detroit with a handgun under his car seat, kept company with common hoods who transported drugs, then eventually ended up in a Florida cell, where it scarcely mattered that his belt was taken from him, McLain said, because “I was too fat to hang myself.””

Yikes.

MLB: NLCS-Los Angeles Dodgers at Chicago Cubs
Bro hug
Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

More about the wonderfully-monickered Skyrocket Smith:

Samuel “Skyrocket” Smith

“Samuel J. “Skyrocket” Smith (March 19, 1868 – April 26, 1916) was a Major League Baseball first baseman. He played for the Louisville Colonels of the American Association during the first half of the 1888 season (April 18-July 8). The 20-year-old rookie stood 6 ft 2 in (1.88 m) and weighed 170 lbs.

“Smith was in only 58 of the team’s 139 games, but it was enough to lead the team in appearances at first base. Three other players also had at least 23 games at the position that year.

“As the regular first baseman for 58 games, Smith hit .239 (49-for-206), but 24 bases on balls and 11 hit by pitches (#9 in the league) pushed his on-base percentage up to .349. He hit 1 home run, had 31 runs batted in, scored 27 runs, and had five stolen bases. He was average defensively for his era, with a fielding percentage of .970. The Colonels had a record of 21–40 (.344) at the time of Smith’s departure, and were 27–47 (.365) afterwards. Smith also played in various minor leagues from 1884 to 1895.

After his baseball career was over, Smith became a firefighter for the city of St. Louis, Missouri. He died of uremia at the age of 48.” — wiki

“Smith hit well in his one season in the majors, by virtue of his ability to draw walks and hit for some power. He was the regular first baseman for the 1888 Louisville Colonels, hitting .238/.349/.335 in 58 games for the team at age 20. The league that year hit .238 but with lower OBP and SLG than Smith had.” — BBRef

“Sam Smith, our much-heralded first baseman, is also in town. . . In appearance Smith is all that has been promised. He is more than six feet high, is powerfully built, and looks as if he ought to hit the ball almost, if not quite, as well as Pete Browning does. — Sporting Life’s Louisville correspondent, in the March 28, 1888 issue

Sources not linked to in the text: National Pastime, Today in Baseball History, Wikipedia, BBRef, Baseball Almanac, LA Times.

As always, thanks for reading.