Discover more from Jim’s Substack
Backroads and Ballplayers #22
Stories of the famous and not-so-famous men and women from the days when baseball was "Arkansas' Game." Always free and always short enough to finish in one cup of coffee.
A Birthday Party, By the Numbers, and A Hummingbird in April
Going Up and Going Down
Keeping up with transactions in major league baseball is an interesting side trip into a world I certainly do not claim to understand. A month or so ago, I predicted lasting success for Dominic Fletcher (Razorbacks). He is still on the 40-man roster, but he has been back in Reno for about two months (now the DL). Gavin Stone (Lake City, UCA) former Dodgers’ minor league pitcher of the year, has flown to LA four times. Matt Reynolds (Razorbacks) seems stuck in AAA, and Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel Razorbacks) is a mystery. I will come back to all the ups and downs next week. This week had a special “UP” day.
The best story of the week for Arkansas guys was one of those feel-good baseball stories we all love. In May of 2018, Conway’s Jordan Wicks suffered what was likely his toughest high-school loss, in the finals of the Arkansas 6A State Tournament. Springdale Har-ber’s Blake Adams beat Wick’s Wampus Cats 6—0 in Wicks’ final game as a high schooler. A few days later, Adams signed with Arkansas while Wicks chose Kansas State.
The two outstanding pitchers obviously developed a relationship built on the respect that often comes from high school competition. In the summer of 2021, Wicks was taken by the Cubs in the first round of the draft and Blake Adams, who had struggled at Arkansas, transferred to Kansas State where his friendly rival had enjoyed an outstanding career. Wicks became a major leaguer on August 26. Adams was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the 2022 MLB Draft. He has recently been promoted to the Rockies high-A club in Spokane.
Last week on August 26, Jordan Wicks made his first big league start in Pittsburgh. After his first pitch was badly off target, Ke’Bryan Hayes deposited his second offering about ten rows deep just right of the left field foul pole. Left fielder Bryan Reynolds lined Wicks’ next pitch a few feet over the pitcher’s head for a base hit. Five pitches later, veteran Andrew McCutcheon walked.
In that heartbreaking 2018 high school title game, Wicks had struggled through a 24-pitch first inning that cost him the game. If he was affected by that bad memory, he showed no signs that a shell-shocked rookie was about to choke. Instead, he struck out the next three hitters and escaped the first inning after allowing only one run. The Cubs put up three runs in the third inning and five more in the fifth. Wicks was relieved in the bottom of the sixth, after 80 pitches and the Cubs holding an 8—2 lead. The rookie from Conway had not allowed a hit after the first inning and struck out nine Pirates. Any plans to send him back down to AAA were canceled.
He would get his second start in Cincinnati on September 1, which happened to be his 24th birthday. Although his second start was not a dominating performance, Wicks pitched out of trouble in several of his five shutout innings. He was relieved in the sixth inning after 90 pitches clinging to a 1—0 lead. The Cubs scored two more runs in the sixth and coasted to a 6—2 win. Happy Birthday Jordan Wicks, who after two starts, had two wins, no losses, and a 1.80 ERA.
By the way, in game two of the doubleheader on Jordan Wicks’ birthday, Drew Smyly was the pitcher of record as the Cubs entered the ninth inning up 2—1. Unfortunately, Cubs’ closer Adbert Alzolay gave up a tying homer and a walk-off single to shatter the impending sweep. Without the Reds rally, the two wins would have resulted in Arkansas-born pitchers winning both ends of a doubleheader.
Detectives: Did any two Arkansas-born pitchers, not named Dean, ever win both ends of a doubleheader (The Deans did it three times in 1934)? If it has happened, I could not find it. Comment below:
By the Numbers
I wrote in an earlier post that I think Torii Hunter has a shot at becoming the seventh Arkansas-born player to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. For a few years, he seemed to be a regular on “The Plays of the Week.” He was also a pretty darn good hitter whose stats stack up well in the new metric-driven evaluations.
I do like some of the new baseball math. Although I have no desire to do the calculations, I respect what these metrics are supposed to measure. So, just show me the numbers, and tell me what they mean.
I thought it might be interesting to see where the Arkansas-born guys rank in some of these.
OPS is popular today, perhaps because we understand the formula (On Base % + Slugging %) and maybe because it seemed to work for Brad Pitt (Billy Bean) in Moneyball. I was pretty surprised to see Eureka Springs’ Pat Burrell as high in career OPS. We forget he was born in Arkansas. He went to high school in California and later attended the University of Miami. Burrell had a good career, but never made an All-Star team.
Rick Monday is a little surprising too. He also went to high school in California, but I have found Mondays mentioned on early 20th-century town teams in his birth town of Batesville. He made two All-Star teams and played well in 19 seasons.
OPS is an offensive category, but it is somewhat interesting that Torii Hunter ranks above four of our five HOF position players. This is a good sign for Hunter who was known as one of the top glove men in the game for the first half of his career. He has 9 Gold Gloves and was an All-Star five times. I am putting him in….What do you think? Comment?
How about Lon Warneke in Career WAR? Wins Above Replacement is a perplexing mathematical mystery that claims to measure a player's value in all facets of the game by calculating how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position. Ole Lon is pretty close to Diz in Career WAR and far above most starting pitchers born in Arkansas.
I may have researched that “numbers” piece in hopes that some metric somewhere could justify Lon Warneke as a candidate for the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is not in, and he is not likely to ever be inducted, but he is an Arkansas guy, a well-respected citizen, and he was pretty good. My friend Fred Worth would say, he should be in a “Hall of Pretty Good.” By the way, Warneke has a hall-of-fame-worthy nickname. Arkansas Hummingbird would look good on his plaque. He was a rural Arkansas hero, when “country boys” ruled the game.
Although he is a long shot, considering the fluid definition of what makes a Hall of Famer, Warneke may someday be selected. Some Hall-of-Fame voters have justified selecting players who were very good for an extended period, although their yearly analytics might otherwise leave them on the outside. Conversely, there have been inductees selected who were excellent for a comparatively short career but whose cumulative accomplishments might not look hall-worthy. Sandy Koufax and Dizzy Dean, whose career victory totals are among the lowest of starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, were selected with little dissent. Who could imagine a Baseball Hall of Fame without them?
I could use the “he was better than” (insert undeserving HOF inductee). Warneke’s career WAR ranks him 139 among starting pitchers. That is better than Cooperstown residents Herb Pennock, Addie Joss, Jack Morris, Catfish Hunter, Lefty Grove, and Candy Cummings. (see my post #5).
The JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system), developed by sabermetrician Jay Jaffe as a means to measure a player's Hall of Fame worthiness, ranks Warneke at number 150 among starting pitchers. That is a location in the rankings above Hall of Famers Jack Chesbro, Lefty Gomez, Rube Marquard, and of course Catfish Hunter. Warneke ended his working days as a county judge. Assuming his reported fairness, he may have rejected my weak case.
One more thing…He was “Mr. April.” Perhaps one of the best April pitchers of all time. His career mark for his April starts was 20—9, with a 2.63 ERA. In 1934, he pitched consecutive one-hitters in his first two starts…more about that later. If he had carried his April success to the other months of his career, he would have won about 230 games with a career ERA somewhere about 2.6. And he would be in the Hall of Fame.
Now back to April.
Being the starting pitcher on the first day of the Major League Baseball season is an honor and a daunting assignment. It was a duty that Lon Warneke relished. He became the ace of the staff in 1932 and Chicago’s Opening Day starter in 1933. Warneke would be the pitcher with the ball for the Cubs on Opening Day for four consecutive years and win them all. Warneke was one of the dominant pitchers in the National League during the decade of the 1930s, but in his starting assignments in April of those seasons, his record was a remarkable 18–4. Although Warneke had many outstanding season-opening months in the big leagues, none approached his performance in April 1934.
The Cubs opened the 1934 season in Cincinnati against a retooled and optimistic Reds team that had virtually started over in an attempt to become competitive. After finishing last the previous three seasons, the Cincinnati franchise was ready for a change. New owner Powell Crosley Jr. lowered ticket prices, gave old Redland Field a new coat of colorful paint, and promised Cincinnati fans, “Better baseball at the lowest possible price.” A grateful Reds leadership reciprocated by renaming their home park, Crosley Field.
On April 17, Cincinnati fans responded to the rekindled expectations by packing the newly christened Crosley Field for an Opening Day matchup with the Chicago Cubs. Unlike the Reds, the Cubs were one of the most successful teams in the National League during the early 1930s, having won a pennant in 1932 and finishing no lower than third in the first four seasons of the decade. After speeches, a parade around the field, and a rousing rendition of Happy Days Are Here Again by a local band, Reds fans witnessed the same hapless ball club. By the sixth inning, they were cheering for the opposing pitcher.
Warneke breezed through an easy first inning and struck out the side in the bottom of the second. The Cubs got an unearned run in the third, but veteran pitcher Si Johnson kept the Reds in the game until Chicago exploded for four runs in the top of the sixth inning. When Warneke took the field for the bottom of the sixth, many of the Cincinnati faithful, realizing they might be watching a classic pitching performance, switched their allegiance to the visiting pitcher. Warneke had allowed two walks, struck out seven, and not allowed a hit.
Two fielding gems by the Cubs infield saved hits in the sixth inning, but Warneke regained his dominance in the seventh and eighth innings with four strikeouts and a couple of harmless popups. Entering the bottom of the ninth, the crowd was obviously supporting the Cubs ace in his no-hit bid. When Cincinnati left fielder, Adam Comorosky, the second hitter in the bottom of the ninth, hit a harmless-looking dribbler just passed Warneke and into center field for the Reds’ only hit, the home crowd responded with a chorus of boos.
In the expected sportswriter hyperbole of the day, Chicago Daily News reporter Ralph Cannon wrote, “Friends make way for a hero . . . Warneke struck out 13 men and seemed on the portals of the Hall of Fame.”
“Just another row of cotton to be chopped, another bunch of cows to be milked.” —Lon Warneke
Five days later, Warneke and the Cubs would face a much more formidable foe than the woefully inept Reds. In a Sunday game at St. Louis’ Sportsman’s Park, Lon Warneke opposed fellow Arkansan, Dizzy Dean. Dean had won 20 games the previous season and opened the 1934 schedule with a six-hit complete-game win over the Pirates. Warneke had also been dominant on opening day, but he was pitching against perennial loser Si Johnson and the habitually last-place Reds.
St. Louis fans, expecting a pitchers’ duel, had hardly settled into their seats when the game was essentially decided. The Cubs batted around against Dean in the first inning and scored four runs. Chicago added two more runs in the bottom of the second inning. Warneke had picked up where he left off the previous week, holding St. Louis hitless while the Cubs built a 6–0 lead.
Diz was lifted for a pinch hitter in the Cardinal third, turning the game over to his younger brother, Paul, who gave up a two-run homer in his first inning of work. After four innings, the Dean brothers had allowed 12 hits and 8 runs. Lon Warneke, as impervious as he had been on Opening Day, had yet to allow a hit.
In the home half of the fifth inning, Warneke allowed a double, a walk, and two runs (one run was unearned.) The fifth inning would be the only blemish on another outstanding performance by the Arkansas farm boy with whip-like delivery. The final line for Warneke’s second consecutive one-hitter was nine innings pitched, one hit, and one earned run allowed.
Warneke had one more April start in the Cubs’ ninth game of the season. Although not as dominating as in the two previous outings, he won his third game in April of the 1934 season, a 3—2 extra-inning complete-game win over the Cards. In one of the most remarkable pitching performances in the annals of major league baseball’s opening month, Lon Warneke pitched three complete-game wins, two consecutive one-hitters, and posted an ERA of 0.93.
Warneke’s epic month was no surprise to the baseball world of 1934. He had won 22 games in 1932 and 18 in 1933. He had been second in the MVP voting in 1932 and a National League All-Star in 1933. Although he never equaled the success he enjoyed during the first five years of his career, Warneke was one of the most successful hurlers of the 1930s.
After his playing days, Warneke became a major league umpire and later served as the County Judge of Garland County, Arkansas.
He was selected for the Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame in 1961.
More about Lon Warneke in Hard Times and Hardball, including the 1935 World Series
Go over to Montgomery County and get Ma and Pa and bring them to Chicago for the games there. Now you may have trouble getting them away from home. They have never seen a World Series, so you may have to serve a subpoena or some document on ‘em. —Lon Warneke to Prosecuting Attorney Houston Emory
Hard Times and Hardball can be found at Dog Ear Books in Russellville, Petit Jean Coffeehouse, Bookish Emporium in Heber Springs, All Things Arkansas in Hot Springs, and Wordsworth Books in Little Rock.
Information on ordering author-signed books - Backroadsballplayers website.
Be sure not to miss a post by receiving Backroads and Ballplayers in your email.
All posts from #1 to #21 can be found at this link. Jim’s Substack
Thanks for reading Jim’s Substack! Subscribe for free to receive new posts in your email