Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The Top 100 Red Sox: 71-75

The list so far:
100. Keith Foulke, P
99. Hugh Bedient, P
98. Rick Ferrell, P
97. Butch Hobson, 3B
96. Lee Smith, P
95. Jesse Tannehill, P
94. Mike Timlin, P
93. Herb Pennock, P
92. Dick Stuart, 1B
91. Sammy White, C
90. Doc Cramer, OF
89. Freddy Parent, SS
88. Jerry Remy, 2B
87. Walt Dropo, 1B
86. Rich Gedman, C
85. Heinie Wagner, SS
84. Everett Scott, SS
83. Sparky Lyle, P
82. Billy Goodman, 1B/2B
81. Oil Can Boyd, P
80. Boo Ferriss, P
79. Mike Andrews, 2B
78. Troy O'Leary, OF
77. Ray Collins, P
76. Mike Boddicker, P

Let's keep going, shall we?

75. Sad Sam Jones
It's tough to assemble much more of a formidable pitching staff than the Red Sox assembled in the war-affected 1918 season. Among the stars: Carl Mays (21-13, 2.21 ERA), Joe Bush (15-15, 2.11 ERA), Babe Ruth (13-7, 2.22 ERA) and Dutch Leonard (8-6, 2.72 ERA). But none had a better won-loss record than Jones, who went 16-5 with a 2.25 ERA and five complete-game shutouts.

All five of those pitchers were in their mid-20s. Ruth, at 23, was the youngest, and Mays and Leonard were the oldest. Jones was right in the middle but by far the least experienced; he had just 10 career starts under his belt when the season began. That didn't seem to bother him, though, as he led the American League in winning percentage and ranked 10th in ERA.

He scuffled in 1919 and 1920, finishing with a sub-.500 winning record and an ERA closer to 4.00 than 3.00. (In 1919, in fact, he allowed more earned runs than any other pitcher in the league.) But he came back strong in 1921 as the ace of the rapidly fading Red Sox, winning 23 games for a team that won just 75 games all season. He had a 3.22 ERA and threw 25 complete games; he almost threw 300 innings, in fact.

That, of course, was enough to get him sold to the Yankees. Before he departed, though, he'd accumulated an ERA that still ranks him 24th in team history; his 64 career wins ranks him 32nd in team history.

(For what it's worth: Three of the other four starters on that staff are going to show up elsewhere on this list. Only Bush, who pitched just two more seasons with the Red Sox before he was sold to the Yankees, didn't make the cut. That's an impressive pitching staff.)

74. Ernie Shore
We all know the story: Babe Ruth walked the leadoff man on four pitches to open a start against Washington in June of 1917. Each pitch was somewhere near the strike zone; not one was called a strike. Ruth began to jaw at the home-plate umpire; the home-plate umpire began to jaw back.

"You get back in there and pitch or I'll run you out of the ballpark!"
"If you run me out of the ballpark, I'll take a punch at you on my way!"

(This is from a newspaper account; it's likely that Ruth's threat was a little more colorful than that.)

Ruth, of course, was tossed, and he did in fact try to throw a few punches. With no one out and a runner on first base, the Red Sox had to call on Shore to finish the outing. The 6-foot-4 righthander came out of the bullpen and retired 27 straight, including a caught-stealing to retire the hitter who had walked.

But Shore wasn't just the man who made the greatest relief appearance in history. Actually, he was a starter for his entire four-year career with the Red Sox. In 1915, he threw 17 complete games and went 19-8 with a 1.64 ERA; in 1916, he went 16-10 with a 2.63 ERA. In the 1915 and 1916 World Series, Shore went a combined 3-1 with a 1.82 ERA as the Red Sox won back-to-back titles. He tossed a complete game, surrendering just an unearned run, in the clinching game of the 1916 World Series against Brooklyn.

In 1917, he won 13 games to go along with a 2.22 ERA, including his remarkable effort in relief of Ruth. After that, though, he was pressed into military service and missed the 1918 season. When he returned, he was sold to the New York Yankees along with Duffy Lewis and Dutch Leonard -- the first of a slew of deals that would ruin the Red Sox for the next couple of decades.

73. Jimmy Piersall
Perhaps best known for his fight with mental illness and the book (and movie) "Fear Strikes Out," Piersall was an awfully good player, too. Funny thing is, he actually had his best years after his breakdown in the summer of 1952. At that point, of course, he wasn't yet 23 years old.

And when he came back, he replaced Dom DiMaggio as the Red Sox's regular center fielder and even earned two All-Star bids in the process. He hit .283 with 13 home runs in 1955, .293 with 14 home runs in 1956 and .261 with 19 home runs in 1957. And in his final season with the Red Sox, he even won his first career Gold Glove.

The breakdowns, though, provided all sorts of stories. Piersall was the future when he came up in 1952; DiMaggio was 35 and Ted Williams, who spent most of the year flying missions in Korea, was 33. Piersall, though, couldn't seem the handle the spotlight. He oinked at Satchel Paige after a bunt single; "That boy's sick," Paige said. He then threw a ball at his own pitcher and barked like a dog when the umpire ordered him to retrieve it. He later wrote that he had almost no memory, after the fact, of the first eight months of 1952, which included the birth of one of his daughters: "My mind is almost an absolute blank."

"Almost everybody except the umpires and the Red Sox thought I was a riot," he wrote in the opening pages of "Fear Strikes Out." "My wife knew I was sick, yet she was helpless to stop my mad rush towards a mental collapse. The Red Sox couldn't figure out how to handle me. I was a problem child. The umpires, whom I plagued with silly protests over routine decisions, thought I was a pain in the neck."

He was. He was also a heck of a baseball player.

72. Dennis Eckersley
For as many wins as Eckersley had in his first six and a half seasons with the Red Sox -- and he had 88 wins, tied for 18th all-time on the franchise list -- he had just as many words in his vocabulary that no one else had ever heard.

"He knew more words that weren't in the dictionary than ones that were," Bill Lee wrote in his autobiography.

Among them:
* "Yakker for your coolu" meant a fastball that was going to drill someone;
* "Cheese for your kitchen" meant a fastball up and in;
* "Getting oiled" meant going drinking.

"Dennis called me Sherwin Williams, claiming I was the greatest painter of home plate," Lee wrote. "I said, 'Well, then why don't you call me Picasso or Renoir?' But, no, Sherwin Williams was his idea of a great painter. I guess it was because Sherwin had made more money than the other two."

Eckersley went 20-8 with a 2.99 ERA in 1978. Down the stretch, when the rest of his team was falling apart, he lifted his game; he had a 2.28 ERA and 11 complete games in his last 15 starts. A year later, he won 17 games with a 2.99 ERA, the third-best ERA in the American League.

The Eck made his reputation as the most dominating short reliever in the game's history, as evidenced by his 0.61 ERA and 73-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 1990. (Seriously. Four walks. All season.) Before that, though, he was the ace starter who bridged the gap between the Red Sox of Lee and Luis Tiant and the Red Sox of Roger Clemens.

71. Ray Culp
Culp missed out on the Impossible Dream season of 1967; he was traded to Boston about a month and a half after the World Series ended. It turned out to be just the right time for him, though. Ace Jim Lonborg tore knee ligaments in a skiing accident in December, and Culp suddenly found himself the ace of the defending American League champions.

It was a tall order for a guy who had gone 8-11 with a 3.89 ERA with the Cubs the year before. No problem. Culp went 16-6 with a 2.91 ERA; he threw a career-best six complete-game shutouts, including four straight in September as part of a 39-inning scoreless streak. In that span, he blanked the Twins, Orioles, Yankees and Senators; in his start against the Yankees, he took a no-hitter into the seventh inning. Over the next three years, he won 17, 17 and 14 games and compiled a 3.47 ERA. After that, though, he faded into obscurity and was out of baseball by 1974.

It could be argued that Culp is one of the most underrated Red Sox pitchers of the post-World War II era, in large part because he didn't pitch for the 1967 or 1975 or 1986 World Series teams. Instead, he was the ace of a series of third-place teams in the years between Lonborg and Luis Tiant.

And here's one more fun story, courtesy of Bill Lee: "He once gave up a line drive to Willie Horton that caromed off Ray's head, shooting into center field where Reggie Smith made a shoestring catch on it. Culp shrugged it off, got the next batter and finished the game. When he came into the clubhouse, he said, 'Don't tell me I don't know where to play hitters.'"

Coming up: An MVP and a Rookie of the Year.

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