LETTERS: Rating the commissioners — and dog mascots

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This article was published in Fall 2009 Baseball Research Journal

Iis there anything about baseball that the erudite numbers-crunchers cannot systematically evaluate?

At the SABR convention in Washington in 1987, Paul Adomites gave a talk on the “greatest fat pitchers of all time.” To support his list, Adomites used the mathematical formula “pounds over obese divided by ERA.” At that time I was researching the life of Garland “Gob” Buckeye, who had claimed that he was the heaviest major-league pitcher of all time. I was pleased to learn that Buckeye was in third place, behind Jim McCormick and Walter “Jumbo” Brown. As a lifelong Cleveland fan, I was happy to learn that all three heavyweights had pitched for Cleveland teams.

If baseball researchers can establish criteria for determining who were the best fat pitchers, is there anything about baseball that the erudite numbers-crunchers cannot systematically evaluate?

In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James has provided us with methods for rating baseball players. In 1997 he published The Bill James Guide to Baseball Managers: From 1870 to Today, where he set out a system for evaluating the most successful managers of all time. John McGraw, Connie Mack, and Joe McCarthy were the top three on his list.

Is it possible for a SABR member to systematically rate who was the greatest commissioner of baseball? If we can rate which players had the best fielding range, why not who was the greatest commissioner?

The summer 2009 issue of The Baseball Research Journal has articles about Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis and whether he should be blamed for baseball’s failure to sign black players before 1946. In the same issue is Ron Kaplan’s review of Andrew Zimbalist’s In the Best Interests of Baseball: The Revolutionary Reign of Bud Selig. What makes the book especially valuable is that half of it is devoted to the eight men who were Selig’s predecessors as commissioner.

It is difficult to make your selection for greatest stand up even when you have statistics to support it. For example, most baseball fans and scholars think Babe Ruth is the greatest player of all time, although there are still many who strongly disagree. Some years ago Red Barber wrote in the Christian Science Monitor that Ruth might not be the greatest baseball player in history but that there could be little doubt that anyone changed baseball more than the “Sultan of Swat” did.

And so rating commissioners will be a difficult task. Kaplan poses these questions: How, as a commissioner, can you disagree with the owners and not only keep your job but even improve the game for the fans, owners, and players alike? Concerning major decisions made by the present commissioner, would they have been made regardless of who held the commissioner’s office? So can we expect a book systematically ranking the nine commissioners of baseball?

In the meantime a few other topics for systematic research: Who is the greatest third-string catcher of all time? Moe Berg? Ralph Houk? My personal favorite is Hank Helf. Along with first-string catcher Frankie Pytlak of the Indians, Helf caught a baseball thrown by Kenny Keltner from the top of the Terminal Tower at Cleveland’s Public Square—on August 20, 1938—a distance of 680 feet. Helf and Pytlak established the height record for catching a baseball thrown from a building.

Every once in a while, fans ask who the greatest baseball-team dog mascot is. It’s a question you can answer. Larry, the bull terrier of the Cleveland Naps from 1912 to 1917, became the only dog mascot ever to be formally introduced to a president of the United States when, on June 18, 1913, he shook paw to hand with President Woodrow Wilson.

— Fred Schuld
Macedonia, Ohio