First question: Once upon a time (753 B.C. to 476 A.D.) and in a land far away (the Roman Empire), the word trivia meant something different than it does today. For one point of pride, what did trivia mean?
Answer: The word trivia, as an etymological antecedent to the definitional detours that would follow, referred to a road that forked into two roads and thus became three roads.
This is the road – tri for three, via for way – upon which we now embark.
On The Origin Of The Species
– Number of big leaguers born in Russia: восемь. Last of the eight? Victor Cole, in 1968.
– Alaska and West Germany have produced the same number of big leaguers: 11.
Big league players share a destination, one with the dimensions of a big diamond, but their origins are scattered across time and space in small clusters and discrete points. As of today, big leaguers have claimed as birthplaces all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia and 55 countries or territories, from Afghanistan and American Samoa to Wales and West Germany. In addition, the birthplaces of 33 big leaguers – including Unknown Smith and Unknown Jones – remain (you guessed it!) unknown. As of today, too, big leaguers have entered life in each decade from the 1830s to the 1990s, the first being Harry Wright, on Jan. 10, 1835, in Sheffield, England, and the latest Roberto Osuna, on Feb. 7, 1995, in Sinaloa, Mexico.
Imagination is a cool tool when we consider the accents and pronunciations that must have distinguished those 19th-century ballparks, each a reflection of Ellis Island itself, just as the tools of TV and the Internet are our material points of entry to today’s multilingual locker rooms. The geographic details are different – no more Irish and English accents, but far more Latino and Asian – but the narrative is mostly the same: Give us your tired and your poor, sure, but while you’re at it, give us your slick-fielding shortstops and flame-throwing lefties.
In the time since Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson toppled a barrier, baseball has become the best of what a capitalist free market can be, a meritocracy whose criteria ignore origins while embracing what constitutes performance. You can arrive on Earth at any time, in any place and to anyone, and if you have the skills, baseball has the positions.
What’s In A Name?
– The nickname of Maurice Archdeacon wasn’t Preacher or Reverend. It was Flash. Teammates had a chance to rectify the error but also nicknamed him Comet.
– What do Red Bird, Red Barbary, Red Bluhm, Red Bowser, Red Gunkel, Red Hill, Red Long, Red Lutz, Red Smith and Red Waller have in common? (Well, besides the obvious.) Each played in one – and only one – major league game.
– Flame Delhi? It’s not the name of a spicy Indian dish. It’s the name of another one-and-done big leaguer, the first Arizona-born player to appear in the major leagues.
– Zip Zabel had a cool name – his given name, George Washington.
It often seems as if big league ballplayers were named specifically for our amusement, as if their parents and teammates had reached an agreement to render their birth certificates and baseball cards the sources of unfailingly fun speculation. From The Only Nolan to Three Fingers Brown, from Butts Wagner to Dizzy Nutter, and from Ulysses S. Grant “Lil” Stoner to Moses J. “Chief” Yellowhorse, ballplayers have long held the gift of entertainment not just in the numbers they post in their stat lines but in the letters they place in their autographs.
Some, like Bristol Robotham Lord and Odrisamer Despaigne, are born into nominal awesomeness. Others, like Mysterious Walker and Razor Shines, merely inherit the wealth of sobriquets, thanks to friends or teammates who, at one time or another, find a moment’s opening and push through it a permanent reminder. Still others, like Johnny “Ugly” Dickshot, bear the dual burden of lineage and chops busting, and what results is a name as unfortunate for the victim as it is hilarious for the grateful audience.
Perhaps what the phenomenon emphasizes, if we are prone to interpretation, is that baseball has always been a kids’ game, a fun game, a game and not sublimated combat among oversized brutes, a game and not a duel waged for the benefit of tennis dads and their designs on a line of leisure wear, a game, indeed, that features a stick and a ball and between their deployments a whole lot of time to coin names like Ugly and Butts.
Old photos still announce the joy of camaraderie – a pair of future Hall of Famers, say, but still just a couple of kids. We can imagine, if barely, the names they must have called each other, names never destined for outside ears. And though our knowledge needs no reinforcement, we can still read the names that the writers gave them, names, like the Iron Horse and Yankee Clipper, that teammates surely rejected in favor of more private handles.
We know, too, that one Hall of Famer arrived as Giuseppe Paolo DiMaggio and went out as Joltin’ Joe. And yet we imagine, because baseball is as much about imagination as it is tangible results, that in the space between a birth certificate and an obituary, DiMaggio trafficked in the terms of endearment that have distinguished baseball from the days of Pretzels Getzien to the positions of Mookie Betts.
We are lucky, indeed, that baseball cards come with two sides of a player’s story.
Name and number? We want them both.
By The Numbers
– Well, what is in a name? In his lone season in the big leagues (1997), Pete Rose Jr. struck out nine times in 14 at-bats. In 1978, his dad struck out 30 times in 655 at-bats.
– Sure, Jack Morris pitched to the score, but he also pitched to the wall behind home plate. He holds the American League record for wild pitches in a career, with 206.
– Fourteen? That’s the number of American League players who hit a home run on the first pitch they saw. It’s also the number of National League players – including five pitchers, the latest being Tommy Milone, in 2011 – to achieve the same feat.
– Who wore No. 13 the longest? Omar Vizquel, for 21 years.
– In 1952, three of Tigers right-hander Virgil Trucks’ five wins (against 19 defeats) came by a score of 1-0. Two were no-hitters. The other was a one-hitter.
– Willie Mays registered a .425 on-base percentage in 1971 – at age 40.
Baseball without numbers would be like football without barstool opinions, soccer without sectarian antipathies and golf without overwrought oratory about honorable American figures whose disdain for elaborate celebratory dance is proof of their cultural supremacy.
Numbers, issued liberally by a magnanimous Pastime and secured by an acquisitive community, are a precious form of internal currency, like Monopoly money or Schrute Bucks, that consumers can save as aesthetic capital – wow, just look at Gehrig’s line! – or spend in disputatious transactions with other consumers, who, with comparative analysis, might argue that two Gehringers are worth more than one Gehrig.
As much as anything – more valuable than anything – numbers conform to baseball’s allowance for summary valuation, summary explanation and (dare we a terrible pun?) summery conversation about any number – hi-yo! – of Pastime topics: this team’s shot at a title, that team’s rank among the all-time greats, this guy’s contributions to the win streak, that guy’s oeuvre as it compares to Ty Cobb’s and Turkey Tyson’s. As if the slots in our curiosity and the shapes in our debates were modeled after Arabic numerals, numbers correspond with uncanny accuracy to the basic units of simplification and description.
We might claim that Ty Cobb is history’s greatest hitter, but without numbers to inform our words, the argument suffers the weakness of faith against fact. We might also claim that Turkey Tyson is among baseball’s most pathetic figures, and without knowing that his one big league at-bat compared pretty unfavorably to Cobb’s 4,184 hits, we can’t reasonably make the claim. And yet, even armed with numerical evidence, we can’t be sure that the argument is the right one. We have to look at other numbers – not statistics so much as the numerals that define a time – to get a clearer picture of a story we didn’t inhabit ourselves, that of a lifetime minor leaguer who in 1944, at age 29, got his one at-bat in The Show.
What do these numbers tell us? They tell us what we know – that Turkey Tyson got one at-bat in wartime, when hundreds of big leaguers had joined the war effort and left their positions on the diamond unmanned – and hint at what we don’t. We don’t know, and in the absence of séance, can’t know how Turkey really felt about an isolated experience that stands now as a symbolically laden glyph. Did he feel robbed, by an ancestry devoid of Cobb DNA, of the chance to turn that one at-bat into something more than a tease, a bait-and-switch, a reference point for all the what-ifs that might trail him through the numbers of old age?
Or did he feel lucky? – lucky that his only lifetime had provided his only stat?
The numbers tell us that thousands of men, now anonymous but for their player pages, stretched as far as talent and fortune would allow but could never quite reach “the one.” A single at-bat in the major leagues, where thousands of other players would post the stats that trivia would come to collect, would remain an unreachable number.
– Sets of twins to play in the majors: nine. One third were teammates.
– Boston Braves second baseman Joe Shannon played the final game of his five-game career on the last day of the 1915 season. In the same game, against the Giants, his twin brother, Red , made his big league debut. In the 15-8 loss, each twin replaced a future Hall of Famer, with Joe replacing Johnny Evers and Red replacing Rabbit Maranville.
– In June 1973, Ken Brett became the only big league pitcher to homer in four straight games. The following season, he batted .310 in 87 at-bats. His brother, future Hall of Famer George, hit .288 that season, with the same number of homers (two).
About .5 percent of high-school baseball players, or one in every 200, will be selected in the major league draft. Among those who sign a contract, about 17 percent, or one in six, will reach the major leagues – even if only for a cup of room-temperature coffee.
Chances are, if you played high-school baseball, you calculated these odds yourself and decided that you needed to work a bit harder, grow a bit taller or trade your DNA for that of a teammate blessed with hands and eyes as coordinated as a GQ ensemble and with sinew as quickly twitching as a prison snitch. Acknowledging the sort of inevitability that invites itself to a grim Russian novel, you finally realized that as your senior-year batting average hovered around .290 and your ERA around 3.85, the Yankees were not going to call.
A bummer, for sure – or whatever term your generation fancied.
So how is it, you ask, that one family can place two, three or, in the case of the Delahanty clan, five brothers in the big leagues when you’re left to read about it in an online post by an equally aggrieved confrere? DNA, indeed, favors those who take for granted their luck.
Blind to its dispensations, it runs in venous streams until it collects – if rarely, and against the odds – in the arms and legs of boys who share a surname and a good old-fashioned dream. Even then, it often distributes itself as unfairly as when it neglected your family and mine, offloading the best of its freight into Honus Wagner and leaving the scraps for Butts, or delivering the finest tools to Dick Allen and ignoring Hank and Ron.
Life will always have its mysteries, and one is who wins and loses at birth.
Picks of the Litter
– Being the No. 1 pick in the major league draft is no guarantee of success. The five men selected No. 1 between Jeff Burroughs in 1969 and Floyd Bannister in 1976 – catcher Danny Goodwin was twice selected No. 1, in 1971 and in 1975 – would put up a cumulative 11.4 lifetime WAR, or, .6 more than No. 25 pick Mike Trout would register in his rookie year.
– Selected No. 2, behind bust Steve Chilcott, in the 1966 draft: Reggie Jackson.
– Say, speaking of No. 2 picks, the years 1987 to 1996 would produce a slew of stinkers, with only Tony Clark (12.5) putting up a lifetime WAR in double digits. One player, 1987 No. 2 pick Mark Merchant, would spend 12 years in the minors and never reach the majors.
– Selected in the 1971 baseball draft: future NFL quarterbacks Archie Manning, Joe Theismann and Steve Bartkowski. Also selected in the 1971 draft, fourth overall, was high school shortstop Condredge Holloway, who would turn down a Montreal Expos offer in favor of playing quarterback at Tennessee. He’d go on to star for a dozen years in the Canadian Football League, guiding the Rough Riders and Argonauts to Grey Cups.
Roughly 73 percent of first-round draft picks and half of second-round picks will reach the major leagues. And about one third of those selected in rounds three through five will get that juicy big league per diem and a chance to pose for Topps, and not just in the uniform of the Hartford Yard Goats. In fact, according to a Baseball America study, the success rate of draft picks is about what you’d expect: a steadily descending percentage of triumphant before-and-after photos from round one, where studs like Jim Rice and Robin Yount have validated expectations, through rounds 21 and lower, where late-bloomers like Mike Piazza and John Smoltz have highlighted the seven percent of odds-beating outliers.
What the simple math demonstrates is a simple truth: Scouts and other talent evaluators mostly get it right – though we shouldn’t overlook the possibility that higher picks get longer rope – but just as importantly, they occasionally get it wrong.
Not only do top picks fizzle for reasons that range from injury to the grind of professional baseball vis-à-vis the ease of high-school glory days, but lower picks can blossom in ways that the Danny Goodwins and Mark Merchants of the world can only envy. A fast and powerful outfielder selected directly behind No. 1 pick Ken Griffey Jr. in the 1987 draft, Merchant would begin his career 1.7 years younger than the Rookie League average and finish it 2.5 years older than the Independent League average, compiling a decent but hardly promotion-worthy slash line of .263/.356/.397 in the dozen years in between.
Meanwhile, pitcher Mike Mussina would emerge from the 11th round of the same draft to become a Hall of Fame candidate, and catcher Brad Ausmus from the 48th round to register a solid 18-year career and ultimately become the manager of the Detroit Tigers.
Expectations are only the beginning of every story. They rise from the realm of potential and wait for performance to defy or uphold them. In sadness or joy, the ending of each man’s tale is folded into one remorseless narrative: Not everyone can make it.
Life will always have its mysteries, and one is who wins and loses after the draft.