Saturday, September 25, 2004

The Great Debuts of 2004 by John Shiffert

All right class, please pay attention. It’s time for a pop baseball quiz. No, Dickie Stuart, you don’t have to actually catch the pop, just take the following quiz…

What do Hank Aaron, Danny Murphy and Bruno Haas have in common?

Well, let’s see…they’re all members of the species Homo Sapiens. They were all major league

baseball players (though if you blinked back in 1915, you missed Haas). And they were all better fielders than little Dickie Stuart, although, for that matter, my five-year-old Jared is already a better fielder than Dr. Strangeglove. All correct answers…but not what we’re looking for today. Let’s try another question, very closely related to the first, and see if that helps…

What do David Aardsma, Kaz Matsui and Casey Daigle have in common? That’s right, they’re all currently professional baseball players in the good old U.S. of A. But, what in the name of Bombo Rivera do they have to do with Aaron, Murphy and Haas?

It just so happens that Aardsma, Matsui and Daigle all made their major league debuts in 2004. And quite notable debuts they were, though for different reasons. And, it just so happens that Aardsma’s, Matsui’s and Daigle’s debuts harked back to those of Aaron, Murphy and Haas (in that order). Still confused? Read on…

It was 50 years ago that the future home run king, who started his professional career as a teenaged infielder in the Negro Leagues with the Indianapolis Clowns, made his major league debut in a game at Crosley Field against the Redlegs (you didn’t dare call them “Reds” in the McCarthy Era), thanks in part to a spring training broken leg on the part of Bobby Thomson (who also had a little fame for hitting home runs). The Braves, then still in Boston, had paid the Clowns the typical pittance—$7500—for Aaron in May 1952. At least that was $7500 more than Branch Rickey and the Dodgers paid the Kansas City Monarchs for Jackie Robinson in 1945. After a year-and-a-half in the minors, Aaron desegregated the Braves (bet he was glad they didn’t move to Atlanta until 1966, because this was just five years after the Klan threatened to shoot Robinson and/or Roy Campanella if they played in an exhibition game at Ponce de Leon Park) in their 1954 opener. For the record, Cincy won the game, 9-8, with Bob Buhl getting the loss and Joe Nuxhall picking up the win in relief of…Bud Podbielan? That’s right, the old Dodgers pitcher was a starter for Cincinnati in 1953 and 1954…although why he was starting the 1954 opener is a little hard to explain, since he’d gone 6-16 with a 4.73 ERA in 1953. Maybe because the rest of the Redlegs starters were Art Fowler, Corky Valentine and Fred Baczewski.

While the 20-year old Hammer didn’t hit any of his 755 home runs in his debut—he only hit 13 all year in 468 at bats—he did set one notable standard that lasted for almost 50 years. In fact, a mark that will, in all likelihood, prove to be longer lasting than his career home run mark, which figures to expire in its mid-30s in a few years. When Hank Aaron took the field in Cincinnati on April 13, 1954, he became the all-time major league leader in the alphabetical roster, supplanting Ed Abbaticchio, a Phillies, Braves and Pirates infielder from 1897 to 1910. (Before Abbaticchio, it was Bert Abbey, an 1890s National League pitcher.) “Batty,” as he was known, was a mostly forgettable second baseman/shortstop, creating slightly more than the league average in runs created per 27 outs (4.12 to 3.95) and posting range factors slightly above (shortstop - 5.58 to 5.54) and below (second - 5.08 to 5.27) the league figures.

And while Aaron’s home run mark is still intact at this writing, his alphabetical record fell on April 6, 2004, when pitcher David Aardsma, the Giants’ 2003 first-round draft choice (22nd overall), picked up a win in his first major league game. Debuting with two scoreless, though shaky, innings against the Astros in the Juiced Park, Aardsma got the win when the Giants welcomed Andy Pettite to the National League and real baseball, shelling he of the career 9.54 hits per nine innings and $11.5 million salary for 11 hits and six runs in 5 1/3 innings. Aardsma, who got the game ball and the lineup card, was pitching for his hometown Rice University less than a year before his major league debut. Not surprisingly, he left dozens of passes at the “Will Call” window, including some for his former teammates, who were conveniently rained out of a game against the University of Houston.

Aardsma, in relief of a badly-battered Brett Tomko (seven hits and three runs in four innings…he didn’t last long enough to get the win), managed to escape from his two innings (the sixth and the seventh) without being scored upon, despite giving up three hits and a walk without striking out anyone and throwing just 32 of 52 pitches for strikes. However, no matter what Aardsma does or doesn’t do from here on in, he’s now number one in all the encyclopedias. And, he can always say he took a record away from Hank Aaron.

Then there was Danny Murphy, who made his American League debut on July 8, 1902 with the Philadelphia Athletics against Boston Somersets. If you thought Kaz Matsui broke in with a bang… Certainly, Matsui’s first American major league game at Turner Field was worth noting. A home run on the first pitch he saw, plus two doubles and two walks. Five times up against the Braves, and five times on base. That’s 3-1-3-3 if you’re scoring at home.

Unprecedented? Not quite. There's a fairly close historical precedent to Matsui's big opening fact, an even bigger first game, albeit in the American League and not the American major leagues. Back in April 1902, the Philadelphia Athletics lost superstar Napoleon Lajoie (his 1901 Triple Crown season was .426-14-125) to a Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling, once again proving the difficulties involved in dealing with Philadelphia lawyers. Seems as if the Court felt that King Larry was a unique commodity, and was thence still the property of the Philadelphia Phillies, despite his one-sided contract that, in effect, tied him to the Phillies in perpetuity (i.e., the Reserve Clause). Connie Mack then spent the next three months casting around for someone, anyone, to play second base. Primarily, this meant Jud Castro, one of the first Latin Americans (born in Medellin, Colombia) to play major league baseball. However, Jud was a dud…playing about like someone who had been sampling Medellin's most famous export. His range factor and fielding percentage were way below the league averages (Rng - 4.54 to 5.44; FPct - .918 to .948) and his OPS was right at the Ordonez Line (.601 to be exact) as he hit .245 with only four walks.

Finally, Mack remembered a good Philadelphian (he loved to use local players) who had played 27 games for the Giants in 1900 and 1901, going 24-for-94 with exactly one extra base hit. Undeterred, Mack called for Danny Murphy, who didn’t arrive in Boston on the afternoon of July 8th until the game against the Somersets was already in the second inning. Without any kind of warmup or batting practice, Mack promptly stuck him out at second base in what ended up being one of the wildest games of the year. Murphy proceeded, in his American League debut, to go six-for-six with a grand slam (his only home run all year) off Cy Young in a 22-9 A’s rout. Actually, it took until the sixth inning for Murphy and his new teammates to really warm to the task at hand. By then they were facing Doc Adkins, and the Mackmen scored 12 runs on 12 hits with five players; Murphy, Topsy Hartsel, Harry Davis (Why aren’t you in the Hall of Fame?), Lave Cross and Socks Seybold all getting two hits apiece. (This sound anything like the 18-10 game the day AFTER Matsui had his five-for-five?) Davis would also hit a grand slam in this monumental blow-out (which tied the ML record for GS in a game), and even winning pitcher Rube Waddell (who only faced three batters in relief) singled in the big inning, which also helped set an AL record for hits—45 in all, 27 by Philadelphia. In the field, Murphy also proved an upgrade from Castro, handling 12 chances without an error. At this point, Mack didn’t think he’d found a replacement for Lajoie, he probably thought he’d found another Lajoie. And, while that wasn’t the case—Murphy would go on to hit .313 with a .767 OPS for the rest of the 1902 season and accumulate almost 1500 hits for Mack in the next 12 years—there’s no doubt that the A’s took off after Murphy joined the team. Of course, it didn’t hurt that Waddell had joined the pitching staff (coming from the Los Angeles Loo-Loos…honest) a couple of weeks before Murphy arrived. Standing at 30-29 on the morning of July 8, the Athletics would proceed to go 30-12 over the next 42 games, ending up at 83-53, five games ahead of the St. Louis Browns for Mack’s first pennant.

Of course, not every youngster Connie Mack picked up worked out as well as Danny Murphy. Even given that codicil, Bruno Haas’ June 23, 1915 debut in the second game of a doubleheader against the New York Yankees was a dilly. Seems as if Mack’s son Roy (of whom it was later said, Connie Mack’s sons became senile before he did) was attending Worcester Academy in Massachusetts while his dad was busy dumping salary before and during the 1915 season. With the A’s pitching staff taking the biggest hit, the elder Mack was throwing every warm body he could find out on the mound. (Indeed, the starter in the first game of the June 23 doubleheader was another youngster making his pro baseball debut—Minot “Cap” Crowell, recently of Brown University. He gave up three singles, and lost 3-2 in 10 innings on a throwing error by one of Home Run Baker’s stand-ins at third.) So, when Mack junior told him about the ace of the Worcester Academy staff, a rather funny-looking, stocky, barrel-chested lefty with Walter Johnson arms, Mack senior signed Bruno Haas to a contract, and brought him to Shibe Park to oppose Jack Warhop and the rest of the visiting New Yorkers. He would have been better off staying in prep school (although he was 24 at the time…maybe he was a ringer at Worcester).

Since Mack didn’t necessarily believe in relieving a pitcher’s suffering, and since the Athletics were already 21-35 on the season, he left Haas out there for the duration of a 15-7 loss. And what a pitching line he rang up—a complete game 11-hitter with 16 walks and three wild pitches. Plus an error, just for good measure. Those 16 walks in one game to this day remain the American League record, much to the relief of Boardwalk Brown, who was sitting in the Yankee bullpen in Shibe Park that day…just 70 miles from his old high school in Atlantic City, N.J. (hence his nickname, Boardwalk). Two years earlier, while pitching for the Athletics, Brown had set the previous record for walks in a game with 15. Although he walked more than he struck out (291/251) in his 133 game, 731 inning career, Brown did go 17-11 in 1913 and was 38-40 in five major league seasons.

Which is better than Bruno Haas made out…at least in the majors. Despite what he saw on June 23, Mack was desperate enough for pitching—27 would-be hurlers saw mound time for the A’s in 1915, including five who only appeared in one game, and four (one of whom was the one-and-only “Squiz” Pillion) who had just two appearances—that he actually threw Bruno back out there five more times, including another start on June 30 against the Red Sox (a 10-5 loss this time, although Bruno didn’t get the decision.) And, since Haas did have an excellent arm (even if he wasn’t sure where the ball was going), Mack also used him in the outfield for three games. His final major league totals? 0-1 in 14-and-third innings in six games. Twenty three hits, 27 runs (only 19 earned—the A’s fielding was also terrible that year), 28 walks and seven strikeouts. That’s an 11.93 ERA. He was also 1-18 at the plate, with a walk. However, Bruno did do far better than you or I would have done in the major leagues, and he did go on to have a successful minor league career… playing until he was 55 years old. As Tony Salin notes in his Baseball’s Forgotten Heroes, Haas’ 12-game major league career was followed by 2246 games in the minors—mostly with St. Paul of the American Association as a .300-hitting outfielder with good doubles power and, in his younger years, 20 or so steals per season. He also went 8-8 as a minor league pitcher, getting his last win for Fargo-Moorhead in the Northern League in 1946…31 years after he first took the mound in Shibe Park.

Somehow, it seems unlikely that Casey Daigle will have a similarly lengthy minor league career…if only because the career minor leaguer has basically become an extinct species. As to how Daigle will do in the rest of his major league career, well, he’s lucky he’s not extinct after his major league debut on April 9 against the Cardinals. He’s even luckier he doesn’t have a severe case of whiplash after the Cards pounded five home runs off him through the still air of Bank One Ballpark (the roof was closed) in what may be the worst debut since Bruno Haas. Daigle’s line in the 13-6 (almost as bad as 15-7) pounding…


2 2/3 10 8 8 0 0 5

Ouch! That’s a Game Score of 6. At least he didn’t walk anybody. Of course, maybe part of the problem may have been that 35 of his 49 pitches were strikes, strikes that tended to end up traveling long distances (he also gave up a couple of doubles to the 16 batters he faced). In case you missed it, here’s what happened to the 23-year old right-hander…

First inning: Albert Pujols hits a solo homer to put the Cards up 1-0. Well, that could happen to anyone. He hit 43 last year, and should have been the National League MVP.

Second inning: After the D’Backs stake Daigle to a 3-1 lead in the bottom of the first, Reggie Sanders comes off the DL (well, that’s where he usually hangs out) and hits a two-run homer as part of a three-run inning that puts St. Louis back in the lead, 4-3. Third inning: Ray Lankford, who has hit exactly six major league home runs since the end of the 2001 season, hits a solo home run. Three batters later, Scott Rolen hits a two-run home run. Two batters after that, Sanders comes up again and hits another solo homer, making the score 8-3 and, since Bob Brenly is more humane, though not a better manager, than Connie Mack, ending Daigle’s first major league appearance…and maybe taking Bruno Haas off the hook.

John Shiffert is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and a sportswriter of some 35 years experience. His first book, Baseball: 1862 to 2003 will be published by Publish America later this year. He writes a baseball e-zine, 19 to 21, that compares historical baseball events with the events of the current season. 19 to 21 is available by e-mail (, or through his website He is also in the process of compiling stories from other authors for a baseball anthology entitled Fathers and Sons and Baseball. Submissions may be made by e-mail.

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