Sunday, February 28, 2010

Solving the Case of George Strickland?

Last week, on the Sweetspot, Rob Neyer recounted the career of George “Bo” Strickland, a slick-fielding SS for the Indians in the 1950s who recently passed away. If you’ve read the column, you know by now that Strickland walked away from baseball for a year and that Neyer’s not sure why. All the New York Times wrote in 1958 was that Strickland was leaving for “personal reasons.” Rob writes,

“Maybe Strickland was so frustrated by the Indians' contract offer that he just threw up his hands and decided to work a real job for a while. Maybe Strickland wanted to spend time with the son that he and his wife were adopting around that time. At the moment, though, I think we're stuck with ‘personal reasons’ and I'm not sure that's a terrible thing. Sometimes it's nice to be reminded that there are still a few mysteries left out there.”

Sorry, Rob, The Common Man can’t resist a good mystery, and really likes digging through baseball’s history, looking for connections between players and the eras in which they play and how relatively obscure players might help us understand baseball and its history better. So The Common Man began digging into Strickland’s mysterious retirement. While TCM didn’t find any first-hand account for Strickland’s decision, there are some breadcrumbs.

First, the weirdness: As Norris Anderson of the Miami News noted that year, the decision is strange particularly because Strickland was just two years shy of his full ten-year MLB pension. The MLB pension was started in 1947 by Happy Chandler out of the contracts baseball was getting for radio and TV rights to the World Series and All Star Games. By 1950, the pension fund was up around $11 million, and Strickland would have been entitled to a full share of that if he stuck it out for two more seasons. It would have taken a significant motivating factor to get Strickland off the diamond at that point.

But by the time he left the club, Strickland couldn’t have been having a lot of fun. He had lost a great deal of playing time, becoming the Indians’ utility man after the club acquired Chico Carrasquel in 1956. Carrasquel was a much better hitter than Strickland and would perform well in two seasons for the Tribe. Strickland wasn’t going to push 2B Bobby Avila for playing time, nor was he likely to get much action backing up Al Rosen or Al Smith at 3B. Two seasons later, when he walked away, Strickland was down to just a couple hundred plate appearances. Coupled with being away from his native New Orleans, where he died a few days ago, it’s likely that Strickland decided that either the playing time or the money wasn’t worth the trip North in 1958.

And what could have kept behind? The next year, Don Wolfe, the sports editor of the Toledo Blade, suggests that Strickland may have had significant plans for his new career that didn’t pan out. He writes, “Strickland has been the tremendous surprise of the Indians. Absent all last year, in a premature retirement, he hadn’t hit, fielded or thrown a ball. He gave up retirement plans, apparently because a political-type job didn’t materialize in his home city of New Orleans, and decided to try it again.” What job Strickland may have been courted for and what his qualifications might have been is not mentioned. Given the nature of New Orleans and Louisiana politics at that time, it’s entirely possible that the position in question was not on the up and up. Nevertheless, the opportunity dried up just as another was opening up for his old club.

During the ’58 season, however, things fell apart in the Cleveland infield. Slowing down at 34, Avila was shuttled to 3B to start the year while the Tribe expected young Billy Moran to take over at the keystone. While Avila plugged along, Moran struggled greatly, hitting .188/.218/.255 through the first half of the year. Moran lost his job by the middle of May, and Avila shifted back (though Moran would get 14 straight miserable starts in June when Avila went down with an injury). When Avila shifted, Chico Carrasquel (who was playing about at his career level) shifted to 3B. This led the Indians to put minor league veteran Billy Harrell at SS, where he tanked (.218/.271/.328).

Panicking, in mid-June the Indians made two separate deals with the Kansas City A’s that would further complicate their infield. First, Carrasquel was shipped out straight up for Billy Hunter. Hunter was a slick enough defensive SS to get over 2000 PAs despite a .219/.264/.294 career line (53 OPS+). As a rookie in 1953, Hunter made the AL All Star team despite the fact that his slash rates were abysmal (.219/.253/259) and his OPS+ for the season was 37. Since then, he had bounced between the Orioles, Yankees and A’s. Hunter, then 30 years old (and “hitting” .155/.222/.310), would get into 76 games for the Indians, hitting just .195/.263/.268. Three days later, the Tribe sent a young Roger Maris and two other players to the A’s for Vic Power and a struggling Woodie Held. Power was a rising star and a gold glove 1B already, but Cleveland made the strange decision to make him their everyday 3B (which, believe it or not, kind of worked). Power would hit .317/.336/.504 the rest of the way and play passable defense at the hot corner. 1958 worked itself out in the end, and the Indians finished just above .500 and in 4^th place in the AL.

The offseason, however, may have prompted the Indians to improve their offer regarding Bo Strickland and give him more incentive to come north with the club. Billy Hunter had lost his job by the end of the ’58 season and would spend all of 1959 at AAA before retiring. 40-year old 1B Mickey Vernon finally retired, allowing Power to transition to his natural position (where he immediately stopped hitting). Avila was traded to Baltimore and veteran Billy Martin was brought in. He was replaced by minor league veteran Mike Baxes, who performed adequately before he was replaced by (again) Vic Power. Held was installed at 3B, and Strickland was handed his old SS position. About 35 games in, the two would flip. Held would become the starting SS, where he would put up a .252/.342/.445 (116 OPS+) line and good defense for the club until being dealt in 1965. Strickland hit at around his career levels for the season. Cleveland excelled and won 89 games.

Fig. 1 Strickland on Opening Day, 1959

Strickland played sparingly in 1960, starting just 10 games all year. He may have been some kind of a player-coach hybrid at this point, as the club gave him the opportunity to meet reach the service time level necessary to get his pension.

Rob points out that we may never know exactly why Strickland retired in 1958, and he’s right. With the possibility that there were some backroom agreements made and broken, it’s not surprising that details are unavailable. But I think if we look at the dynamics of the Cleveland infield in the late 1950s, we can get a pretty good idea of what may have happened. With the club middling around .500, his playing time and (presumably) his salary waning, a frustrated Strickland walked away for a year for a chance to be a big wig in his hometown, where he presumably was well-known. When that fell through and his club realized just how much it needed him, it was able to entice him back, presumably with a higher salary and more playing time as an incentive, as well as an explicit or implied promise that he would be able to reach his full pension.

Without more evidence, of course, this is just a theory, and ultimately Rob can take comfort that it will remain somewhat of a mystery. But The Common Man thinks this is a good theory, and probably pretty close to the truth.

Update: Two more relevant quotes from 1959. Strickland got off to a great start in his comeback. Time magazine reports that, "Shortstop George Strickland, 33, who actually retired in disgust a year ago and returned only at the urging of Cleveland top brass, was hitting a whopping .360 in stark contrast to his lifetime average of .223. Says Strickland: "I don't want to analyze what I'm doing right. I'm just happy I'm doing it." Meanwhile, from the Toledo Blade article quoted above, Strickland was asked about his hot start: "Asked if he thought the year's layoff might have had some beneficial effect...Strickland observed, 'I wouldn't recommend it, especially for anyone who'd like a World Series share.'"

1 comment:

Ron Rollins said...

Been busy and haven't had much time to read lately.

Great work on this. Maybe a new direction for you.

Sort of a CSI of baseball history?