Sundays in Brooklynby Chris Jaffe
May 04, 2009
In last week's column I investigated the veracity of a "tracer" on Dazzy Vance. (By "tracer" I mean an old anecdote about him.) In general, I was really happy with this piece—it was fun to research and had a clear result. In the days following, two different things emerged from that column. First, several sharp readers noted problems with some of my reasoning and assumptions in that article. I owe it to them to correct that in public view. Second, what I studied last week can be taken a bit further this week.
Greetings from the Department of Oops!
First, about my boo-boo.
To summarize last week's article: a story in Ken Burns' baseball miniseries by former NL hitter Rube Bressler (and apparently the story first came from The Glory of Their Times) claimed Dazzy Vance was impossible to hit on Mondays because he modified his sleeve to turn it into camouflage with the apartment laundry that served as background in old Ebbetts Field.
Based on my roamings over at Retrosheet, I determined that Vance was not that difficult to hit on Monday, but was especially hard to hit on Sunday. I figured Bressler got his days confused and meant to say Sunday. Besides, it struck me as odd that people would be doing their washing on Monday, and I offered some warmed over thoughts to explain why I thought Monday washdays sounded odd.
It's that last point that got me in trouble. This is the sort of subject I know enough about to sound like I know what I'm talking about (provided the listener doesn't know any better), but not enough to actually know what I'm talking about.
In short, my assumption that Sunday was more likely to be washday was just plain crazy talk. I figured it would be on a weekend because it would be such a large-scale activity (and in that I was right), that required a lot of time (still correct) so it would be done on a weekend when time was at hand (er, hold on).
Problem: first, Sunday wasn't available for a really time-intensive job because of church service in the morning and Sunday dinner at night. Most women could do it during the weekdays because they didn't work outside the home. It was called Blue Monday.
Huh. Retracing my steps, I can see the errors in my thought process. First, from what little I know on this subject, in my forays through early 20th century microfilm, I've come across preachers decrying drooping church attendance from the working class. My hazily lazy thinking was to just assume that was true and more problematically conflate slumping attendance with complete non-existent blue-collar interest in the church. (After all, laundry wouldn't be a problem unless a whole heck of a lot of people were at home.)
Second, I was aware that women were far less likely to work outside the home in the pre-feminist world, but I rationalized that away because sometimes women would work outside the home when their families needed extra income. (Think seamstresses, for instance.) The modern change allows women to work by choice rather than by necessity (and gives them a greater array of fields and positions in which it is socially acceptable to work).
So I just shrugged and assumed many women worked outside the home around there. If you think about it, I made some rather interesting assumptions about the overall economic status of the area. However, even if some did work on weekdays, I'm still overdoing it to assume so a large percentage did to move laundry day to Sundays.
These assumptions are based on a little bit of social history knowledge and a lot of nothing else. Actually, there was one other thing: it was the only way I could explain Vance's performance patterns. He rocked the world on Sunday, but not Monday. Bressler gave a detailed story explaining why that was the case that made sense. So I just looked for reasons to explain away the Monday/Sunday distinction while still allowing for the meat of Bressler's story to be verified.
Of course, this correction puts us back to square one: Vance supposedly blended in his arm with the Monday background to make himself unhittable that day, but he was quite hittable that day and virtually unbeatable on Sundays. The paradox that led to me half-assed laundry analysis isn't explained and remains a mystery.
Well, it would be a mystery except for one especially informative reader named Bill Rubinstein. He knew a few things about the area, as his grandparents used to live in the apartments in that region. Interesting fact about many of the apartment dwellers just beyond Ebbetts Field: they were largely Jewish. The Christian holy day is on Sunday, but for Jews it's Saturday. Thus a lot of them would have had free time to do laundry on Sunday when the Gentiles were busy at church.
One final added bonus comes from this tidbit: this perfectly explains Bressler's confusion. He knew Vance being impossible to hit one day a week because of the wash, and remembered wash day was normally on Monday. In this case it wasn't because the Lord's Day shifted.
One other fun fact that came from readers, that (mercifully) has nothing to do with me goofing up. I noted that occasionally—laundry be damned—Vance got lit up on Sundays anyway. I pontificated that these were rain-threatened days (or it could have drizzled). In those circumstances the game would go on but the backdrop would not appear.
A reader at Baseball Think Factory named McCoy decided to check this theory with The New York Times archives. The results were uncanny. He checked four Sundays in which Vance got tagged in Brooklyn and found rain forecast, overcast weather, or some actual showers occurred every time. I was surprised by how consistent the findings were. Perhaps I shouldn't have been, but things rarely ever work out that perfectly. The laundry apparently helped Vance earn a spot in Cooperstown.
But what about the other Dodger pitchers?
The apparent success Vance had using the Sunday backdrop to disguise the ball led me to another question: if it worked so darn well for him, did any of his teammates adopt his Sunday system of using the apartment laundry to make it impossible for hitters to see the ball coming?
In fact, was it possible Vance adopted someone else's system? Please realize Wilbert Robinson's Dodgers were usually pretty good at striking out opponents even before Vance appeared. They were first or second in the league in pitcher strikeouts four straight seasons before Vance joined the squad. Though Vance was the greatest fireballer of his era, he was not Brooklyn's only threat to blow batters away.
Let's go step by step. First, the backdrop would've been an issue from Ebbetts Field's opening in 1913 through the 1931 season. Beginning in 1932, an addition to the stadium removed Vance's laundry brigade (as one might guess, that fact was supplied by some of my readers). In that time period, Brooklyn struck out 10,316 hitters; more than any other NL club. Only the Cubs topped 9,000 whiffs. Like I said, it wasn't just Vance.
However, Brooklyn didn't always play on Sundays at home. They only began that in 1919. That leaves a 13-year window to look at: from 1919 to 1931. Brooklyn went 157-114 (.579) with two ties in Sunday home games in those years. On the other six days, the Dodgers played .538 ball. A considerable gap exists.
However, that includes Vance himself, and last week I noted that he was sensational on this day, with the team winning 32 of his 45 Sunday starts. Take Vance out of the equation, and Brooklyn went .553 on Sundays (125-101) and .528 otherwise. A .025 difference seems big, but that really only amounts to six extra games. That doesn't bode well for anyone doing it Dazzy-style. Vance by himself won four more games on Sundays than one would expect based on his other performances. (Or, to be more precise, the Dodgers won four more games when he started.)
So it likely wasn't a team policy, but were there any individuals who might have done it? For now I'll stick with win-loss records by the team in a pitcher's starts. It's a blunt tool, but if someone really was using the Vance-advantage, something should show. (Besides, as noted last column, I've taken enough info from Retrosheet to make this easy to check.)
From 1919 to 1933, eight men started at least 10 Sunday home games for Brooklyn: Vance (45 starts), Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes (37), Watty Clark (18), Dutch Ruether (17), Leon Cadore (16), Jesse Petty (16), Doug McWeeny (13), and Dolf Luque (11).
I'm amazed that Luque makes the list since he only started 39 games total for Brooklyn, meaning over one-fourth came at home on Sunday. There used to be a tradition of a veteran starting half the weekly Sunday doubleheader, and Luque fits that mold. Aside from my amazement at Luque's Sunday starting, I also find amusement in the Dodgers having a pitcher named McWeeny. Heh. McWeeny.
Let's start with the earlier ones. Of the pitchers listed above, only Cadore, Grimes, and Ruether predated Vance in Brooklyn. Cadore had 16 Sunday starts in Ebbetts Field, and the Dodgers went 6-10 in them. In his non-Sunday starts at home for the Dodgers from 1919-31, his team went 28-16. Well, that is certainly a striking difference, but a far cry from Vance's Sunday performance.
Grimes arrived in Brooklyn a year before Vance and the Dodgers went 18-19 when the game's last legal spitballer performed before the Brooklyn clotheslines. The rest of the week, the Dodgers were 57-37 behind Grimes at home. Again, it's the opposite of Vance—strikingly so.
Ruether was 8-9 on Sundays, and 21-21-1 the rest of the time in Ebbetts. Well, at least he didn't get worse. Apparently, Vance invented the practice of using the Sunday wash to his advantage rather than adapting it from someone else.
Petty arrived in 1925. In the next several years the team went 10-5-1 when he started in Ebbetts Sundays and 27-21 the rest of the time. That's a moderate improvement, but nothing really substantial. The Dodgers would be expected to win 8.4 of 15 decisions on Sunday based on how he did otherwise. He's worth looking into, but I'm skeptical of finding anything impressive.
McWeeny led the Dodgers to a 7-6 Sunday record but a rather pathetic 13-21 otherwise. Finally, with Luque Brooklyn was 9-2 on Sundays but 8-6 the rest of the week. That was an impressive achievement.
The pitcher I'd most like to check the boxscores for, Luque, is the one I can't. Retrosheet has that info from 1922 to 1929 but Luque pitched in Brooklyn in 1930-31. Some info is available, though. The Dodgers allowed 39 runs in Luque's 11 Sunday starts, 3.55/game. The rest the week opponents scored 127 times in 25 games, 5.08/contest.
I can't prove Luque adopted any sort of Vance-ian system. Another variable might explain it, such as sample size (it's only 11 starts, after all), or regular rest (if he was their Sunday starter, and he apparently was, that might have been the game for which he most prepared). Actually, he's the last pitcher I'd expect to try a Vance-ian pitching approach. Vance was the great strikeout artist, while Luque was anything but. In 1931, Luque fanned 25 batters in 102 innings. Even back then, that wasn't very good.
I can check McWeeny's boxscores, though, as he pitched for the Dodgers from 1926 to 1929. Besides, it gives me extra opportunities to type the name "McWeeny." And in public. And in mixed company! McWeeny. Hee! McWeeny. I'm three years old.
In his years in Brooklyn, McWeeny apparently didn't have any special edge, a la Dazzy Vance. Though the team was more likely to win with McWeeny on Sunday, he had little to do with it. In 19 Sunday appearances in Brooklyn (which includes a half-dozen relief appearances) his ERA was 3.97. The rest of the week, his ERA was 3.37 at home. More importantly, the original story claimed that Vance was unhittable on laundry day. Well, McWeeney allowed 100 hits in 102 innings on Sunday and 259 hits in 259.3 IP the rest of the time at home. He was his typical hittable self.
Petty is the only remaining pitcher worth checking. On Sundays, he was damn impressive at Ebbetts Field, posting a 1.82 ERA in 23 appearances (16 starts, seven in relief). Admittedly, he allowed an undue number of unearned runs, but overall teams still only scored 2.86 runs per nine innings when he pitched on Sundays.
The rest of the week, Petty's home ERA doubled to 3.66 and his RA/9IP became 4.28. If anything, that change is even more impressive that what Vance underwent.
Petty was fifth in the league in strikeouts in both 1926 and 1927. Like Vance, he could blow it by hitters. He fanned a hitter every three innings on Sunday (50 strikeouts in 148 innings), but strangely, he was better at it the rest of the week (145 in 389 innings). His control was superior on Sundays—one walk every fifth inning compared to one every four the rest of the time.
The main difference, and perfectly in keeping with Bressler's story of Vance: Petty was harder to hit on Sunday. Opponents averaged 9.39 hits per nine innings against him the rest of the week in Ebbetts, but only 7.78 on Sunday.
It looks like Petty was more willing to throw the ball in the strike zone that day because he was confident the opponents wouldn't make good contact with it. As a result, he was less interested in strikeouts. I don't know if Petty was altering his sleeve like Vance, but it certainly looks like he made the clotheslines work for him. My hunch is Luque did too, though I can't be sure about him.
References and Resources
The story came from Ken Burns' Baseball documentary.
The concept of "tracers" came from the old Bill James Baseball Books of 1990-92, and of course Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Legends.
As noted in the article, Retrosheet was vital in this research.
Lastly but certinaly least, I'd like to thank everyone who e-mailed me over the last week with info about laundry. There's a sentence I never expected to type.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.