Thursday, May 01, 2008

Leap Year And Baseball: Lena Blackburne, Your Name Is Mud by John Shiffert

While it’s true that Christmas comes but once a year, February 29 comes a lot less often, like once every four years, thanks largely to Pope Gregory XIII. No relation to 1950s American League outfielder Dave Pope, Gregory was the guy who created the Gregorian calendar, putting February 29 forever in place to soak up that extra .2425 of a day that builds up every year because the Earth’s trip around the sun refuses to settle in at exactly 365 days. So, while February 29 may not be unique, it is unusual and thus it seems appropriate to recall some of the more unusual happenings in baseball history associated with Leap Year Day.

Lena Blackburne was one. He not only died on Feb. 29, 1968 in Riverside, New Jersey, he lived by the riverside. The Delaware River, that is. Near where Rancocas Creek (pronounced “CRIK” for those of you not from the area) runs into the Delaware. You see, outside of the fact that his real name was Russell Aubrey Blackburne, and not Lena (why would a baseball player want to use a nickname like “Lena?”), Blackburne was a pretty ordinary utility infielder, primarily for the White Sox in the years around World War 1. Anyone with a career .214/.284/.268 batting line for 550 games is pretty ordinary. It was Blackburne’s post-playing career that made him interesting. Yes, the pride of Clifton Heights, Pa., managed the White Sox for a year-and-half in the late 20s, served as a coach for the Browns and Athletics in the 30s, and scouted for the latter team in the 40s and 50s, but a lot of old players have been baseball lifers. What made old Lena special is what he found down by the Delaware River after his playing days. Mud. Lots of mud. While this may not come as a surprise to anyone who has wandered along the shores of the Delaware (or any other river), this was no ordinary mud. It was “Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud.” Mud that would take the slippery sheen off of new baseballs, but leave them still a pristine white. Mud that has been rubbed onto every single major league baseball for some 50 years, an enduring legacy way past Feb. 29, 1968. Lena Blackburne, your name is mud.

A few years before Blackburne’s death, say 132 years before, a boy was born on February 29, 1836 in Brooklyn. And there’s a small tale associated with him. He must have been a small baby, because he grew up to stand just 5’ 3”, making him just about the smallest major leaguer this side of Eddie Gaedel and Cub Stricker. But, make no mistake about it, Richard J. “Dickey” Pearce was a major leaguer, and a major influence on the development of the game. He is, in fact, one of the game’s earliest players who has been sadly overlooked by the Hall of Fame. If you look at his statistics for his play in the National Association and the National League, he doesn’t stand out very much, a .252/.270/.276 batting line. But, do the math, he was 40 years old (though he’d only celebrated 10 birthdays) when the National League started in 1876. Way past his prime. Dickey Pearce’s prime started in the 1850s. In 1857, Peace was part of the first year of the National Association of Base Ball Players. Playing shortstop for the fabled Brooklyn Atlantics, he was one of the best hitters in the NABBP that first season of organized baseball play, tallying the third-most runs (28 in nine games – the Atlantics went 7-1-1) in the NABBP. But, that wasn’t why Dickey Pearce should be in the Hall of Fame. You see, Dickey Pearce wasn’t just a shortstop, he invented the modern shortstop position. Prior to Mr. Pearce, the shortstop was just that – an extra man that played halfway into the outfield (sort of like a softball shortfielder) who acted as a relay man between the outfield and the infield. The base balls of the 1850s were so light that you couldn’t throw them very far, hence, a relay man was needed to get the ball back to the infield with dispatch. Pearce apparently got the bright idea that he could play in that hole between second and third base, scooping up any ground balls that came his way, and still be able to scoot into the outfield as needed to be a relay man. If indeed fame can be defined as causing or making a paradigm shift in a sport (hello, Babe), then Dickey Pearce should rightfully be famous.

Of course, Dickey Pearce is far from the only 19th Century ballplayer neglected by the Hall of Fame. One of the more egregious oversights in this area was finally rectified on Feb. 29, 2000, when Bid McPhee was voted into the Hall, just 57 years too late for the finest second baseman of the 19th Century to enjoy the honor. A slightly-better-than-average hitter (career OPS+ of 106, led his league in triples and home runs once each), McPhee was sort of the Bill Mazeroski of his era. (Actually, he was a much better hitter than Maz, whose career OPS+ was just 84.) His forte was fielding, and he did it without a glove for most of his career. A very rare 19th Century player in that he played his entire career with one team (Cincinnati), McPhee’s 18-year major league career was marked by an incredible set of fielding numbers, in an era when good fielding was far more important (because it was so difficult to be a really good fielder) than it is today. Of his 2131 games, only five were spent at a position other than second base (an incredibly rare feat for any player), where he posted a .944 fielding percentage, a remarkable 25 points above the league average. And, when he finally decided to use a glove, in 1896, his fielding percentage at second jumped from .955 to .978 at the age of 36, setting a single season record for his position that lasted for 29 years. (Some sources claim he was the last player to take the field without wearing a glove, but this is untrue.) His range factor wasn’t bad, either, a 6.33 as compared to the league’s 5.72. So why wasn’t he elected to the Hall until 57 years after he died? He still holds the records for career and single season putouts by a second baseman. Seems McPhee made the bad career move of playing the first half of his career in the American Association… an organization almost completely ignored by the various Veterans Committees over the years. In fact, McPhee was arguably the first AA star to ever be elected to the Hall as a player.

A much better career move was made by first baseman Howie “Steeple” Schultz. A move that was recognized on February 29, 1944, when he was turned down by the military at a time when World WarII was requiring almost anyone who could walk to join up. Howie Schultz was just over six-and-a-half feet tall, which made him a good target at first base, but too tall for the military’s height restrictions at the time. As a result Schultz, an exceeding marginal major league talent (he was a better pro basketball player), ended up having a six-year major league career, largely with the Dodgers, actually lasting in the majors until 1948, when, at the age of just 26, the Phillies and Reds figured out that, just because the was a good target, the fact that he couldn’t hit sort of spoiled the effect. Schultz’ career marks of .241/.281/.349 led to an awful OPS+ of 75. Schultz didn’t even have the distinction of being the tallest draft-ineligible player to hang around the majors during the war. Pirates’ and Giants’ pitcher Johnny “Whiz” Gee was 6’ 9”.

Of course, there have been a few other notable players in addition to Dickey Pearce who were born on February 29. The Wild Hoss of the Osage, Pepper Martin, was one. So were reliever Steve Mingori (1944) and outfielder Terrence Long (1976). Still, only a dozen men born on February 29 have made the majors, and the best by far was Al Rosen. Although he only played seven full seasons (and a few games in three others) with the Indians, not becoming a regular until a couple of years after his sixth birthday and playing his last year just having passed his eighth birthday, Al Rosen could hit. His career OPS+ was 137 (96th all time) and he authored a .285/.384/.495 batting line, making him a relatively high average hitter with power (a season high of 43 home runs when he was MVP in 1953) who also got a lot of walks (587 in 3725 at bats). You extend that over a full 15 year career, and you have a sure Hall of Famer, with possibly a little extra credit for being the third best Jewish player behind Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax.

Finally, although there’s typically not much going on in baseball on February 29 outside of Spring Training games, February 29 does mark the anniversary of a record-breaking event that took place on February 29, 1972. It was 36 years ago that Henry Aaron, just two years short of setting the all-time home run mark, signed a contract with the Atlanta Braves for $200,000 a year for three years, or some $15.3 million less than Barry Bonds got last year. And if that isn’t enough to make you leap, nothing is.

John Shiffert is the author of Baseball: 1862-2003, Baseball… Then and Now, and Base Ball in Philadelphia.

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