When Johnny Damon saw the writing on the Cleveland Indians’ wall, he didn’t kid himself. If the Indians hit the skids, Damon mused, he’d be the first one to go. Just past the All-Star break, Damon went, designated for assignment and released.
Damon’s manager, Manny Acta, said to have opposed Damon’s signing in the first place, doesn’t necessarily oppose Damon’s rhetorical style. After the Indians dropped yet another Wednesday, 3-1 to the Seattle Mariners, Acta took a cue from Damon when speaking of his beleaguered troops afterward: “They do need to relax. There have never been 25 guys released [at once] in the history of the game. They should relax. If one guy is going to go, it’s going to be me, not them. So relax and play the game.”
He’s right about the Indians needing to relax, even if these Indians aren’t exactly a team about whom anyone can relax. ” Not only is he willing to play sacrificial lamb in front of his players,” writes Big League Stew‘s Kevin Kaduk, “but he’s starting to publicly question the flawed makeup of this Indians team. It’s hard to think that any member of Cleveland’s front office wants to have a spotlight shined on their failures by a member of their own organization.”
Acta’s also right, though he shouldn’t be, about him being the one to go rather than the team. He has a contract taking him through the end of 2013, and there are few more intelligent or player-empathetic managers in the business. Except that he isn’t likely to be going anytime soon, barring an unforeseen calamity enough to make the Indians past the All-Star break resemble the Comeback Kids.
“Give Acta credit for using any capital he might have in forcing a change for 2013,” Kaduk continues. “Although given the Dolan family’s penchant for doing things on the cheap, there’s a good chance no big changes will be made before next season—and yes, that frugality probably also includes an aversion to firing Acta and paying him to do nothing next season. If I were a betting man, I’d say Acta returns for one more year. Whether anyone likes it or not.”
Well, now. The Indians may be many things, but caught in the pincers of a toxic clubhouse atmosphere doesn’t seem to be one of them. Unless, of course, the Tribe simply doesn’t have, say, the Boston Red Sox penchant for cleaning up chemical spills with blowtorches.
There’ve never been 25 guys released at once in baseball history, but if Acta’s trying concurrently to say nobody’s thought of it, either, he’s dead wrong. I can think of two occasions on which it happened, on one of which the roster itself did it, sort of. As a matter of fact, it happened a century ago, and the instigator was Ty Cobb.
Cobb may not exactly have been the most beloved man in his clubhouse. Yes, this is something like saying the James Gang weren’t exactly the most popular figures in the banking industry. But it didn’t stop Cobb’s fellow Detroit Tigers from standing by their man when he was suspended for brawling with a heckling fan. The Tigers players sent American League president Ban Johnson, who ordered the suspension, an ultimatum: reinstate Cobb, or they’d walk. Three days later, when an umpire removed Cobb from the field before a game in Philadelphia, the Tigers did just that.
Owner Frank Navin wasn’t exactly unprepared. He had a team of replacement players, skimmed from the semi-pros, the colleges, and the sandlots around the Philadelphia area, not to mention two willing Tiger scouts, ready to suit up just in case. Let’s put it this way: The replacement Tigers got their jocks, and anything else the Athletics could reached, knocked into the middle of the following month. Cobb finally convinced his mates to call off the strike, honoured what proved a ten-game suspension, and the Tigers rolled along merrily enough.
If you want to say Navin was the first owner ever to think about firing his team based on the tiny technicality of a roster strike over a suspended teammate, feel free. At best, Navin thought about it in an indirect manner. For the owner or executive who actually thought directly about firing his team, without a roster strike’s impetus, you may have to turn to Larry MacPhail, after his Brooklyn Dodgers lost the 1941 World Series.
It happened after Dodger relief pitcher Hugh Casey, pitching to Tommy Henrich, with the Dodgers up 4-3 in the top of the ninth, having a chance to extend the Series and thwart a Yankee sweep, threw a spitter (so the legend has it) on which Henrich swung and missed for the third strike and the game . . . except that his catcher Mickey Owen couldn’t catch the pitch. Hall of Famer Pee Wee Reese would swear it broke too sharply to the right for Owens to get a glove on it.
Reprieved, Henrich gunned it to first and made it safely. Somewhat rattled, Casey probably began to rush it. Joe DiMaggio singled and, sending home Henrich and DiMaggio, Charlie (King Kong) Keller doubled them home, Bill Dickey took a walk, and Joe Gordon doubled him home. And the Yankees had the Series.
(Those who raved about the Yankee power certainly knew their onions. It was the most powerful strikeout of all time.—Red Smith.)
Dodger outfielder Pete Reiser would swear, for years, that Larry MacPhail, despondent over the Series loss, drowned his depression in drink after drink until he “was so mad at us that he made a deal with the St. Louis Browns to trade the entire Dodger team to St. Louis for $3-4 million and all the Browns players.” Reiser lived in St. Louis during the offseason (fair disclosure: he was originally a St. Louis Cardinals prospect) and may have been in position to know whether the impetuous MacPhail was even close to kidding:
I kept hearing rumours that the owner of the Browns, Don Barnes, was running around St. Louis trying to raise the three million dollars. The banks wanted to know what he wanted the money for. He told them, “I”m buying the Dodger ballclub for St. Louis.” They all thought he was out of his mind.
I don’t know if MacPhail really would have gone through with it, but can you imagine what would have happened in Brooklyn if the St. Louis Browns players all had turned up there one day wearing Dodger uniforms?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t have to imagine it.
The Browns had actually finished sixth in the American League for 1941, but their team .360 on-base percentage belied the fact that they often didn’t know what to do about getting those men home once they got them on base. The pitching staff had a walks/hits-per-inning-pitched rate of 1.52; the team’s ERA was several points higher than the league average.
The 1941 Dodgers didn’t reach base quite as often but they sure knew better how to get them home once they got them on base. The pitching staff had a pair of 20-game winners (Kirby Higbe and Whitlow Wyatt, with 22 each), a 1.22 WHIP, and a 3.14 team ERA, almost fifty points below the league average.
And MacPhail may have wanted to swap the Dodgers for the Browns? Whose owner would (should!) have been only too happy to make such a deal if, indeed, MacPhail wasn’t kidding?
Even the Dodger Sym-Phony Band would have been hard pressed to find a song suitable for that. Though “Nearer, My God, To Thee” comes to mind at once.