Backroads and Ballplayers #5
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.
Candy Cummings, Dizzy Stories, and Shooting Your Age
While I was working on pitcher/position player stories I started seeing baseball writers use Shohei Ohtani and the Baseball Hall of Fame in the same sentence. Ohtani has played four full seasons, a Covid-shortened season, and about 30 games in 2023, and are we discussing his chances for the Baseball Hall of Fame?
The Hall of Fame chatter intensifies every time Ohtani does some sort of benchmark thing, which is every game! In his start last week, he became the only player in baseball history with 500 strikeouts pitching and 100 home runs as a hitter, since, of course, Babe Ruth.
Baseball fans love to discuss (debate) honors that are selections rather than statistical, perhaps none more than induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. To make things even more debatable is the myriad of scholarly attempts to quantify what it takes to be a “qualified” Hall of Fame selection.
A work of baffling math called The Hall of Fame Monitor is updated live at Baseball Reference.com and attempts to statistically rank players for Hall of Fame worthiness. The author, Bill James, is an authority on such things. Using the Hall of Fame Monitor, Ohtani has a score of 28 as a position player. That score places him 736th among right fielders in baseball history. An average Hall of Famer has a 100 score.
As a pitcher, his score on the Hall of Fame Monitor has recently risen to seven. Once again, the average pitcher in the hall has a 100 score. Ohtani ranks 1,313 among prospective Hall of Fame honorees who were starting pitchers. So, maybe it is a little early for Hall of Fame talk. He is, obviously, a different kind of player, one who excels as a middle-of-the-lineup power hitter and is also an All-Star pitcher. In baseball’s ultimate shrine, there are notable exceptions. If you have about four days to spare, google (verb) something like, does (insert name) deserve to be selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame?
People, not computers, vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame, and those voters are allowed to cast their vote based on any criteria they choose. That leads to some odd selections. I am going to call this the “Candy Cummings Correction” (not a real thing). The CCC arises when voters simply want to vote for someone whose career credentials are not “hall worthy.”
In 1939, these voters apparently felt a 5’9”, 120 lb. pitcher who pitched mostly underhanded before there was a National League, deserved to join men like Ruth, Cobb, and Cy Young in Cooperstown. They elected William Arthur Cummings to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Baseball Reference.com generously lists his record as 145—94, but that includes some wins in the National Association. After joining the National League “Candy” Cummings was 21—22 in 372 innings. He may have invented the curve ball by adapting what he learned by throwing clam shells at the beach. That accomplishment is somewhat shaky, but it is a good story, and baseball loves a good story.
The elaborate fabrication that purposes that a guy named Abner Doubleday invented baseball in a cow pasture in Cooperstown, New York, is so compelling that the Baseball Hall of Fame is located there. So, let’s give Candy the curve ball and about 145 pitching wins, and vote him into baseball’s most prestigious company.
In Arkansas, many of our favorite stories involve another anomaly to statistical qualifications as an indication of Hall of Fame worthiness. With the exception of Candy Cummings, Jay Hanna Dean has the fewest wins among American and National League starting pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame. (150) A lefty of some notoriety named Sandy Koufax with 165 pitching wins, would receive the Cummings Correction in 1972. I cannot imagine a Hall of Fame without Dizzy Dean and Sandy Koufax. Neither could the voters.
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1953: Dizzy joins Game of the Week and the Baseball Hall of Fame
In 1953, Dizzy Dean was chosen for the broadcast team on ABC TV’s Game of the Week. He was a curious choice given his creative manipulation of the English language, but he had a way about him that endeared Diz to the generation watching their first major league game on TV.
Similarly, by 1953 he had appeared on nine ballots for the Baseball Hall of Fame without being selected, but sportswriters loved him. In the Baseball Writers Association of America HOF selection vote of 1953, Diz led the field. He received 79% of the vote and was joined by Philadelphia A’s star Al Simmons as the BBWAA’s selections for induction. Later a newly formed Veterans Committee would add six more inductees, who would be officially welcomed in the summer of 1954.
“It ain't bragging if you can do it.” Dizzy Dean
When I published my first book in 2018, I found out quickly that the Deans remain the unofficial First Family of Arkansas Baseball History. I made presentations or book signings at about 40 locations and at almost every stop, someone shared a Dean story. “My dad played with Dizzy when he was growing up.” “My grandpa pitched against Dizzy and Paul in Yell County.” “I think my grandma may have dated Dizzy Dean.”
Jay Hanna Dean was born in Lucas, Arkansas, in 1910 and lived in Logan County until his mother, Alma, died of tuberculosis when Dizzy was about seven years old. After Alma’s death, the Deans moved to Yell County near Chickalah Mountain and sharecropped there until a 1925 move to Oklahoma. When the family made the Oklahoma move, Dizzy was about 16, and younger brother Paul was ten.
At age 20, he became famous enough and good enough to sign with the St. Louis Cardinals, blow through their minor league system, landing in the big leagues to stay in 1932. For the next 5 ½ years he was the best pitcher in baseball. Despite a career that was tragically short, the name Dizzy Dean remains among the most recognizable in baseball history.
He blew into St. Louis like a tornado in the early thirties, won a World Series with the Gas House Gang in 1934, and suffered a career-ending injury in the 1937 All-Star Game. The best pitcher in the major leagues by age 24, he averaged 22 wins a year over his first 6 full seasons. Dizzy had 133 pitching victories before breaking his toe in the All-Star game, but only 17 in the remaining years of his career.
On April 21, 1941, with arm problems exacerbated by modifying his delivery to compensate for the toe injury, Dizzy Dean’s pitching career ended in a one-inning season with the Chicago Cubs. Two weeks later Dean voluntarily retired. “It would be a miracle now if my arm came back, and there ain’t any miracles anymore.” Dizzy Dean, May 14, 1941.
Dizzy’s Last Game
About two months after his retirement and a short stint as a coach, Dizzy Dean was offered a spot in the St. Louis radio booth. Although his “Arkanization” of the English language made him an unusual choice as a broadcaster, fans loved him.
He worked on the radio for both Cardinals and St. Louis Browns games until the 1946 season when the Cards replaced him with a local guy named Harry Carey. Diz was left with the unenviable task of broadcasting only the historically inept St. Louis Browns. Candid to a fault, Diz was not always able to find anything good to say.
In between lectures on fried chicken, country music, and fellers back home, he was often critical of the Browns. "What's the matter with that guy? Why don't he throw that fast one? Dawg gone, I don't know what this game's acomin' to. I swear I could beat 9 out of 10 of the guys that call themselves pitchers nowadays."
There probably were not a lot of listeners, but the player’s wives took exception. They began calling general manager Bill DeWitt. "If that big lug thinks he can do any better than my husband, why doesn't he get out there and try?" one wife asked DeWitt. Well, there is an idea for a club that often drew less than 500 for home games. DeWitt signed his broadcaster to a one-game contract.
Much to the chagrin of Commissioner Happy Chandler, Dizzy Dean took the mound on September 28, 1947, six years after proving unequivocally that he was no longer a major-league pitcher. Many writers predicted Dean would be a complete failure while others did not think the stunt was humorous at all, but Dizzy’s bluff had been called. He had backed himself into a corner with his mouth and his worn right arm would have to answer the call. After drawing a dismal 315 fans for a game the week before, nearly 16,000 fans were on hand that Sunday for the Browns’ last game of 1947 against the Chicago White Sox. Most were there to see Dizzy Dean.
The White Sox leadoff hitter greeted Dizzy with a sharp single to left. Thousands must have thought, “Here we go!” Fortunately, the next batter hit a hard ground ball to the shortstop who started a double play. The third-place hitter went down harmlessly and somehow Diz had survived a major league inning without giving up a run.
Of course, the Browns failed to score in the first, and in the White Sox’ second, Diz found trouble quickly. After one out, a single and a walk put two runners on base. With White Sox on first and second, fate once again provided Diz with a pitcher’s best friend, a ground ball to shortstop, and another inning-ending double play.
After the Browns again failed to score in the bottom of the second, Dean who had escaped disaster in both the first two innings, returned to the mound. He isolated a harmless single between three routine outs and set down the White Sox in a scoreless third.
Dizzy was due up first for the Browns in the third inning and to add more fun to a day that was unquestionably his day, Dean somehow singled between first and second.
Diz was ready to pitch and perhaps even ready to bat, but totally unprepared to run the bases and proved it by sliding awkwardly into second when the next Browns’ hitter grounded out. He got up limping and hobbled back to the dugout with what was later diagnosed as a pulled muscle.
The Browns managed not to score, and after Dizzy’s apparent injury, he was not expected to pitch in the top of the fourth inning. Once again, this was Dizzy Dean’s day in the sun. He asked for it, he got it, and he was in the spotlight one last time. Somehow he limped to the mound in the fourth inning and sent the White Sox down in order, his easiest inning of the game. It would be his last inning. After pitching an amazing four scoreless innings, the incomparable Dizzy Dean was replaced by a reliever. The relief pitcher promptly gave up five runs to provide the Browns their accustomed loss. Six years after “retiring,” Diz finally pitched his last game.
Dizzy and Golf
Dizzy retired again and got serious about his golf game, something he had taken up while on the “faculty” of the Doan Baseball School in Hot Springs. He was actually a pretty good golfer. He would verify that statement personally every time someone enquired about his golf game. Then, in typical Dizzy Dean fashion, he would prove it.
In 1950, he qualified for something called the Baseball Players National Golf Championship. He finished second. One respected biographer wrote: There was no doubt in my mind Dizzy could have been a professional golfer if he hadn't played baseball because he was just a natural athlete.
A Golfing Ballplayer from Catholic Point
Dizzy Dean passed away at age 64. Given his golf skills, he was nearing a time in an accomplished golfer’s life when he could hope to “shoot his age.” Shooting your age (posting an 18-hole score equal to, or lower, than the golfer’s age) is a big deal to older golfers. Usually, they frame the scorecard with the date and hang it somewhere everyone can see and offer a comment.
Thinking about Diz and shooting your age made me think of another professional baseball player from Arkansas who just might have been the most honored baseball/golfer in our state’s history. I know I should be careful saying any athlete is “the best” at something, but Larry Paladino is certainly a candidate for that title.
Lawrence Paladino was born in 1929 at Catholic Point, Arkansas, a community settled by Italian immigrants in the late 1800s. There were plenty of young people around to play with in Larry’s childhood. He had 13 siblings, and he was surrounded by an extended family that loved sports and competition.
Paladino was outstanding at every sport offered at Subiaco Academy, where he attended high school in the late 1940s. He was the quarterback in football, a pitcher in baseball, and a boxer. In the summer he pitched for the men’s semi-pro teams around Conway County.
Later at Arkansas State Teachers College, (University of Central Arkansas) he excelled as a football player, but at 5’11” and 160+, his best college sport was baseball. He was All-AIC in both 1950 and 1951 and led the Bears to the conference title in his final year in Conway.
The New York Giants signed Paladino immediately after college and sent him to Muskogee in the Western Association. In 1952, his second year with the Class D Muskogee Giants, Paladino became the ace of the staff. He led the Giants in pitching victories (16), ERA (3.43), and innings pitched (197). Larry Paladino seemed destined for a promotion to the big-league Giants, but a freak accident halted his progress. A minor league trainer, working on Paladino’s sore arm, permanently popped his pitching shoulder out of place. He would never be the same.
Paladino was promoted to Class B in 1953, but by 1956 it was obvious that the arm problems had taken their toll. In his last three seasons, Paladino pitched just over 100 innings and had a won/lost record of 4—10. Although his expected journey to major league baseball was over, he was about to embark on another phase of his athletic career that would result in recognition in a sport he never tried in his youth at Catholic Point, Arkansas.
At age 30, three years after he thought his athletic career was over, Paladino bought a set of golf clubs from a friend who was moving to another location. The rest of the Larry Paladino athletic saga is remarkable.
Over the next 50 years, Paladino would become one of the most successful senior amateur golfers in history. He won the Senior Tour (today known as the Champions Tour) Pro-Am Tournament in 1983 and 1984. Paladino won 25 golf club championships in New York, New Jersey, and Florida and 16 at the famous Island Country Club on Marco Island, Florida from 1988 to 2010.
Larry Paladino shot his age for the first time at age 63 when he shot a 61 at Red River Country Club in Clinton, Arkansas. Larry Paladino passed away in 2014, the year he shot his age for the 1,640th time.
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Loved the article! When I was just a pup, I listened to Dizzy and Pee Wee Reese call games on those lazy summer afternoons.
Loved the article!