Who’s the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame?

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Rube Marquard is the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame. I was going to say “probably the worst” or “arguably the worst” but let’s be honest: It’s a lot more than probable. And while “arguably” casts a wide net — anything, arguably, is arguable — there are not many good arguments that another pitcher is the worst in the Hall. I suppose you could argue one of the relievers — Bruce Sutter or Rollie Fingers — were less valuable because of their roles, and I guess you could try to fight for Jesse Haines or Catfish Hunter as being slightly worse than Marquard. But they all seem like losing arguments to me.

Rube Marquard is the worst pitcher in the Hall of Fame.

And this leads to the question: How did Rube Marquard get into the Hall of Fame? How did Marquard get elected when Larry French didn’t, when Wilbur Cooper didn’t, when Larry Jackson didn’t, when Dolf Luque didn’t, when Claude Osteen and Milt Pappas and Curt Simmons and Charlie Root and Dutch Leonard and Jim Perry didn’t (these, incidentally, are the 10 players listed as most similar to Rube Marquard, and every one of them has more Wins Above Replacement than Marquard). None of those players came CLOSE to get elected.

The answer, I think, comes down to one of those topics that fascinate us here: Narrative.

The answer, I think, comes down to the simple fact that Rube Marquard could tell one helluva story.

 

* * *

Here’s one of those Marquard stories, one that he told often in his long life. Richard Marquard may have been born Richard LeMarquis — like with almost every Marquard story there seem to be different opinions — but it is certain that his father, Fred, was the chief engineer for the city of Cleveland in the late 1800s. Back then, Cleveland was one of the biggest and most important cities in America, the birthplace of Standard Oil. The city was was growing so fast than it went from being the 11th largest city in the 1880 census to fifth in 1920, behind only New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Detroit.

Which is to say that Fred Marquard was an important man doing important work, and he had no time and no use for pointless activities like baseball. But, much to his fury, baseball was the only thing that seemed to interest his son Richard. The young Marquard was unnaturally tall and gangly (everyone in his family was tall; his sister would grow to 6-foot-2), and it seems that from a young age he could throw a baseball hard. Richard would recall fierce arguments with his father.

This exchange, from Lawrence Ritter’s classic and joyous, “The Glory of Their Times,” is representative of how Rube Marquard remembered these arguments:

“How can you make a living as a ballplayer? I don’t understand why a grown man would wear those funny-looking suits in the first place.”

“Well,” I’d answer. “you see policemen with uniforms on, and other people like that. They change after they’re through working. It’s the same way with ballplayers.”

“Ha! Do ballplayers get paid!”

“Yes they get paid.”

“I don’t believe it!”

You will notice the rhythmic pitter-patter of the father-son argument in Marquard’s retelling — it almost sounds like a vaudeville routine, doesn’t it? Well, yes, it does, and it makes perfect sense because Marquard was a Vaudeville performer. He was actually quite famous for a time because of his work on the stage — he had a popular Broadway show (and a scandalous affair) with the theatrical star Blossom Seeley — more on that in a little bit.

Marquard wanted to be a big league baseball player with a white-hot ambition that embarrassed his father. When Marquard was 19 years old, he sneaked out of the house and rode the trains like a hobo to a baseball tryout in Iowa. In his retelling, he rode the trains for five days, he was just 16 or 17, he endured an Oliver Twist like existence and was alternately saved and cheated by various Dickensian characters. Marquard’s memory of his first baseball tryout, which is included in Glory of Their Times and various other places, is delightful and almost entirely untrue.

Then, what you find again and again as you look back at the way sports (and news) were covered and consumed in those days — truth was never the point. Entertainment was the point. Escape was the point. You have heard the line from the movie “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance:”

“You’re not going to use the story?” the U.S. Senator, Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart) asked.

“No sir,” said the newspaperman Maxwell Scott said. “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The games people played swirled around legend in those days, and nobody embraced that any more than Richard Marquard. In 1907, he left home to play ball. He was 20 years old And as he remembered, the final argument with father escalated into something more. Fred Marquard told his son that he never wanted to see him again.

“You don’t mean that Dad,” Richard said.

“Yes I do.”

“Well, I’m going,” the son said. “And someday you’ll be proud of me.”

* * *

Marquard was a brilliant minor league pitcher — winning 23 games in Canton in 1907 and then 28 for Indianapolis the next year. He threw hard and at some point people started calling him “Rube” not because he was one — he was not in the least — because his hot pitching and lefty form resembled Rube Waddell, one of the great pitchers of the day.

In 1908 season, major league teams started showing interest. In the middle of that year, John McGraw’s New York Giants paid the team an unprecedented $11,000 for him. The price was so gaudy and staggering that it was basically included in every story about Marquard for the next five years. After the signing, minor league promoters in Indianapolis and around the country began hawking him as the $11,000 Beauty and the $11,000 Peach. Here are a few bits of hype included in the Indianapolis Sun before he pitched:

“Rube Marquard has a greater curveball than Christie Mathewson.”

“Marquard has a faster fast ball than Amos Rusie, when he was at his best.”

“Rube Marquard is a bigger Rube than Rube Waddell or Rube Vickers.”

Rube Vickers was a tall righty from Canada, appeared on the scene in 1908 for Philadelphia and then more or less disappeared. Just in case you are curious.

We talk about living in an age of hype NOW but, realistically, we don’t have hype. We have repetition. We don’t do hype like they did in the early part of the 20th Century. Promoters would just make up anything that came to mind in order to get people to come to the ballpark or the boxing match or the theater. Gentile comics became Jewish, Jewish athletes became Irish, Irish athletes became Italians, remarkable tales of players’ backgrounds emerged just before they came to town. The whole sports and entertainment world was a lot like pro wrestling or reality television. Rube Marquard was particularly adept at telling a story.

He was a good pitcher. After making national news in his Giants’ debut (he got hit, prompting newspapers to call him the “$11,000 Lemon” for a while) and plodding along unhappily for a couple of years, Marquard emerged in 1911, going 24-7 with a league-leading 237 strikeouts.

The next year, he had what might be his best season — he won 26 games including a record 19 in a row. And in 1913, he won 23 games and was fourth in the league in strikeouts. Over those three years, Marquard really was good. He was probably one of the seven or eight best pitchers in baseball. He wasn’t Walter Johnson or Ed Walsh or Christy Mathewson or Grover Cleveland Alexander, but he was in the next group. If he had maintained that level for even a few more years, his Hall of Fame case would have been interesting. But, in truth, he did not. He had a few highlights the next three years (he threw his only no-hitter) but generally collapsed as a pitcher. He was busy doing other things.

He reinvigorated his career after being traded to Brooklyn — Marquard, in entertaining style, would tell of how he engineered his own trade by calling Brooklyn management himself — and he was very good in a more limited role in 1916. After that, though, he went 83-93 with a 98 ERA+.

But these are what he did on the field. Nothing Marquard did on the field — save perhaps his 19-game winning streak of 1913 — sparks images of the Hall of Fame.

Off the field, though, Marquard was hugely famous. It’s hard to come up with a modern equivalent — it was like he had a little bit of Charles Barkley, a little bit of Peyton Manning, a little bit of Tiger Woods, a little bit of Bob Uecker. He wrote a nationally syndicated newspaper column. He endorsed products. He was one of the most popular interviews on the subject of baseball.

And, perhaps most of all, he danced and sang on Broadway. Many athletes did — John McGraw and Christy Mathewson had their own dalliance with the theater — but it was something more with Marquard. And the big reason was Blossom Seeley. The details are in the fun book Ragtime Romance by Noel Hynd.

It seems the order of event went something like this:

– Marquard had his first good season, cashing in on some of the expectations that had hounded him since he was purchased for $11,000.

– Marquard appeared in the theater like many athletes did at the time. He got OK reviews.

– Vaudevillian Joe Kane began looking for an athlete to pair in a show with his talented wife, Blossom Seeley, who was sometimes called “The Queen of Syncopation” (thus proving even in the Golden Age of nicknames, they missed a few).

– Marquard appeared in a short silent film subtly called, “Rube Marquard Wins” where Marquard punches out a gambler who dares suggest he throw a game then gets kidnapped by said gamblers, then is saved by his best girl (who alerts the building super) and wins the game!*

*This is a better plot than Trouble with the Curve.

– Joe Kane decides that Marquard is just the guy to star with his wife in a vaudeville show. This was a decision he would regret immediately and for the rest of his life. Marquard may have been called “Rube” but all indications are that he was quite the man about town. According to Hynd, he would not take his eyes off Seeley during their first meeting. Kane apparently didn’t quite catch this at first and put together the “King of the Diamond” with the “Queen of Ragtime” (or Syncopation).

– Seeley began that show by singing the “Marquard Glide” which included the following couplet:

He’s king of the pitcher’s box./Stood up through all the knocks.

Poetry. Then Marquard would sing a song called “Baseball.” Then the two danced — she in a white gown, he in top hat and tails. “Rube brought down the house!” roared Billboard.

Kane, it turns out, didn’t take too long to grow suspicious and violent. Seeley would say that almost immediately after he put the two together, he suspected that they were cheating on him. She would allege that he beat her repeatedly, threatened to kill her and then he showed up in public with a pistol and ranted Marquard had stolen his wife. Seeley soon got a restraining order and hired a new manager — a guy named Rube Marquard. Of course, Kane’s actions are indefensible. But he was right. They were cheating on him. And it was in all the papers.

Hynd says the only story that got as much ink in 1912 was when president William Howard Taft got stuck in a bathtub.

* * *

There were numerous entertaining developments in the Kane-Seeley-Marquard drama that would play well in the movie version — including one scene where he caught them in a hotel room. Marquard and Seeley fled down the fire escape stairs. Warrants were sworn out for their arrests (for illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes).

In time, Kane sued for divorce, Marquard threatened to quit baseball so they could perform together full-time (it turns out he was bluffing for a better contract), the two got married, they had a son six months later, it was all a very big deal. And it was all fleeting. Marquard and Seeley were soon divorced and went on with their own lives.

Here is how Marquard summed up the whole thing in “Glory of Their Times.”

I was in vaudeville for three years, Blossom Seeley and I. That’s when she was my wife. It didn’t work out, though. I asked her to quit the stage. I told her I could give her everything she wanted.

“No,” she said, “show business is show business.”

“Well,” I said, “baseball is mine.” So we separated.

So, yes, it seems Marquard could be concise when the situation called for it.

As a pitcher, Marquard won 201 games, lost 177, had a career 103 ERA+ — a fine career. But nobody sees that as a Hall of Fame career now, and in truth nobody seemed to think it was a Hall of Fame career then either. He got 28 total votes in four Hall of Fame elections before World War II, back when his fame still resonated, and then he lingered on the ballot until 1955 when he got 13.9% of the vote in his final year, seemingly the final tribute to a fascinating baseball life.

And then, two things happened.

The first has been mentioned throughout this piece — Larry Ritter wrote the wonderful and transformative bestseller “The Glory of their Times.” The book was a sensation. And Rube Marquard was the star. His was the first interview in the book, and it was in many ways the most entertaining. Ritter let the athletes tell their own stories (unencumbered by things like facts) and Marquard was a genius at telling his. The Marquard/Ritter essay is an absolute classic — funny, surprising and moving. The story about Rube Marquard’s father I told at the beginning is spread throughout the essay, and it concludes with a touching reunion of father and son.

“Are you proud of your son?” they asked him (they being the reporters)

“I certainly am,” Dad said. “Why shouldn’t I be? He’s a great baseball player, isn’t he?”

Perfect. Absolutely perfect. True? Not sure about that. But perfect. It is impossible to read that Marquard essay and not love the guy. It’s impossible to read that Marquard essay and not ask yourself, ‘Hey, shouldn’t this guy be in the Hall of Fame?”

After all, what is a Hall of Fame? People argue about it all the time. Is it for the very best players as calculated with the best means available? Is it for the most famous players who, in their own way, tell the story of baseball? Is it for the characters who endure in memory? Is it for the brilliant players whose gifts and performances were too subtle to be appreciated in their own time? Is it for the players who made people fall in love with the game? Is it for the players who changed the game for the better? Is it for the players who, through some combination of skill and luck, found themselves creating the game’s biggest moments?

Is it all these things? Is it none of them?

The second thing that happened is that the Hall of Fame veteran’s committee in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, led by Frankie Frisch, was very much open for business. The Frisch committee was able to get 21 people into the Hall of Fame in just six years, and many of them — including Marquard — had only moderate careers that happened to overlap with Frisch’s. Well, Frankie Frisch never did hide his belief that the best baseball was played in his time.

Fittingly, it was Lawrence Ritter himself who sent word of the Hall of Fame election to Marquard — he was on a cruse at the time. Larry Mansch in his book “Rube Marquard: The Life and Times of a Baseball Hall of Famer” included a letter from Marquard to Ritter. A section:

Yesterday evening, a few hours after you called, everybody was dancing and having a good time and suddenly the Captain of the ship stopped the music and said he wanted to make an important announcement. He said they had a very prominent man on board who had just been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. His name is Rube Marquard and he is right here dancing with his wife.

Well, all hell broke loose, people yelling and clapping, and the band played “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.” I was so happy …

The perfect ending. Well, of course it is.

Future sports lawyers battle in baseball arbitration competition

Craig Calcaterra
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How much money should Jake Lamb make in 2018? Is Michael Wacha fully recovered from that shoulder stuff he’s been dealing with for years, or has it forever changed him as a pitcher, his good FIP notwithstanding? Should Ken Giles be paid more because he helped get his team to the World Series or should he be paid less because he, you know, kinda stunk up the joint in the World Series?

These are all questions that fans who skew a bit more intense than others may have asked themselves from time to time, but I doubt they’ve put hours into answering them. That’s the province of those players’ agents and the front offices for the Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Astros.

It was also, however, the province of several dozen law students who did battle in New Orleans as part of Tulane University Law School’s 11th annual International Baseball Arbitration Competition, which I attended last week. It was one of the most entertaining and enlightening baseball and legal experiences I’ve had in some time.

The setup: students from law schools around the country compete in 2-3 person teams, taking on the role of either the player’s attorneys or a baseball’s team’s attorneys in mock arbitration hearings. Each team competed multiple times, representing Lamb, Wacha, Giles or the clubs for which they play. Preliminary rounds were held on Thursday, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals were on Friday. As in a real arbitration, the sorts of which will be held next month, they argue why the player should or should not be paid the salary proposed by the player’s agent or proposed by the club, marshaling the player’s statistics and the general arc of their career, as well as arbitration awards or arbitration settlements achieved by comparable players in recent years as evidence.

I was lucky enough to be one of the 14 guest arbitrators judging the cases. I was selected because I’m a lawyer who knows a bit about baseball, but I was easily the least qualified of the judges there. These law students had to face a murderer’s row of experts in the baseball arbitration process, including attorneys, agents and team, league and union employees who spend all or most of their time working on actual arbitration cases. The panel:

  • Dave Prouty, Counsel, and former General Counsel, for the MLBPA, who has forgotten more about arbitration than any of us will ever know;
  • Greg Dreyfuss, Staff Counsel for the union, who (a) won this competition when he was a student a few years ago; and (b) works on basically every arbitration case there is;
  • Vanish Grover, MLB counsel;
  • Alex Winsberg and Jen Tedmori, Director of Legal Affairs and attorney, respectively, for the Los Angeles Angels;
  • Mike Parnell, Assistant, Pro Scouting, for the Texas Rangers; and
  • Player agents and/or arbitration experts and/or attorneys Scott Barber, Jon Fetterolf, Rex Gary, Marc Kligman, Scott Pearson, and Jay Reisinger.

Almost all of these people can tell you every little detail of scores of arbitration cases they’ve been a part of for longer than some of you have been alive. The ones who haven’t argued arbitration cases know more about the players than anyone who either (a) doesn’t directly employ them; or (b) isn’t a blood relative. To say that I was happy to be on the judges’ side of the table rather than the competitors’ side is an understatement.

Indeed, because of the expertise of the panel, this was probably tougher for these students than real arbitrations are for actual lawyers. In real arbitrations, most of the arbitrators are not baseball experts. They’re arbitration experts who, yes, have probably handled baseball cases before, but nowhere near to the extent the competition judges have. This is why — much to the chagrin of many people in and around Major League Baseball — real arbitrations tend to focus on “back of the baseball card” stats like home runs, pitcher wins, saves and the like, even if those are not the best metrics to judge a player. WAR is used in almost all arbitrations now, but maybe not FIP or wRC+ or leverage index. In the Tulane competition, however, things got deep. Yes, blown saves were addressed, but the competitors got into advanced stats as well, deftly weaving the explanation of complex baseball metrics in to their overall argument. Or at least trying to. No matter how successful they were, it was not an easy task.

Another thing making this harder for the competitors: unlike in real arbitrations, where advocates generally make their arguments uninterrupted, we judges had fun interrupting them and asking questions. When WAR was mentioned, some of us would ask whether it was bWAR or fWAR, to see if they knew which of those slightly different stats they were citing and to see if they were trying to stack the deck by using one over the other. When someone made an offhand comment about Citizens Bank Park being a “bandbox,” inflating Giles’ Phillies numbers, I asked “do you have evidence for that, or are you just saying that because people have long said it?” Once, when someone was trying to explain away Giles’ postseason struggles by saying that Clayton Kershaw and Randy Johnson once struggled in the postseason before getting better, a judge asked — seemingly innocently, as if they’d never heard of those men — “Is Clayton Kershaw a closer? Was Randy Johnson? Are you telling me, counselor, that Ken Giles is better than them?” Sometimes these questions tripped up the competitors. Sometimes they were handled with aplomb.

All of that may seem overly harsh, but it’s good training for these future lawyers, most of whom won’t be arguing baseball arbitrations for a living. Rather, they’ll be in trials over contract disputes or commercial arbitrations or arguing appeals in civil rights cases or something. In all of those situations, they’ll be peppered with questions by skeptical judges.

Advocacy is advocacy, though, be it about ballplayers or business clients, and the same skills come to bear. Can you make a compelling case? Can you cite evidence supporting it? Can you persuade that skeptical judge? Can do you it while appearing calm, cool and collected? The baseball stuff made this WAY more fun than all of that, but at bottom, 60% of the teams’ score was based on how well they advocated and only 40% of it was based on their actual baseball case.

The baseball stuff was what made it fun, though. And while sitting through seven arguments, I learned, or was reminded about, a lot of neat and weird aspects of the baseball arbitration process fans don’t often consider. Some highlights:

  • An arbitrator cannot split the difference. He or she must award either the number asked for by the player or the number asked for by the team. The critical inquiry involves the midpoint between those numbers. Under the rules, if the arbitrator believes the player is worth $1 less than the midpoint between the figures, the team wins. If he believes the player is worth $1 more, the player wins. As such, so much of where an arbitration comes out depends on the numbers each side asks for beforehand. Remember this when real arbitrations get going in February and you wonder why someone asked for $4.925 million instead of a round $5 million. It’s part science — lawyers have all the data on all of this stuff going back years — and part psychology. Think of it like pricing something at $9.99. Or, like Wal-Mart, pricing something at $9.47. The appearance of cheapness or precision makes a difference.
  • You may or may not know that comps are the name of the game in an arbitration. Which players who have previously had this service time and production are most similar. The player side argues high, arguing the ones who made more money before them are more comparable, the team argues that the ones who made less money were. The thing is, judges are not supposed to consider what the comp did AFTER their arbitration award. That makes it super weird when the comp cited has had a post-arbitration spike in performance or if they suddenly cratered. Some of the competitors used Chris Carter as a Jake Lamb comp, for example. As a judge, you have to try to forget that Carter, you know, stinks now. That’s no easy trick.
  • Sometimes comps can create something of a landmine. Competitors representing teams wanted to bring up Josh Donaldson as a comp for Lamb, because Donaldson lost his first arbitration case. In one hearing, the players’ side argued that, while Donaldson may have lost, it was because “his arbitration demand was SUPER aggressive and unreasonable.” No one told them that one of the judges — Washington D.C. attorney Jon Fetterolf — was the guy who represented Donaldson in that arbitration in real life. Awwwwk-waaard.
  • Sometimes — and this definitely applies in general legal cases — the data is less important than the story being told. One can make a case, based on the numbers, that Ken Giles is one of the games’ elite closers. Once can also make a case that he’s been unreliable, having lost his closer job at various times to guys like Luke Gregerson and Will Harris and even to starters like Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton. Both things are true, but one side may be argued more compellingly if you have the skills. Again: arbitrators are not always baseball experts. They can be convinced of things, and at various times on Thursday and Friday, I saw both sides argued quite well.
  • As lawyers make a case in arbitration, they gotta be careful about the politics of it all. If you represent the Cardinals and talk about Michael Wacha like he’s washed up due to shoulder problems, and then you have to see Wacha in the clubhouse the next day, well, that can create some super bad feelings. Likewise, if Ken Giles’ attorneys say in arbitration that the Astros have jerked him around and used crappier pitchers than him when they shouldn’t have, that might create some anger too. Everyone in an arbitration knows what the game is, but there is a human element to it all which can impact working relationships and hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes the law students in the competition remembered that and were diplomatic. Sometimes they forgot that and we’d tell them, with appropriate chuckles, “congratulations, you just ruined the clubhouse chemistry of the reigning World Series champions.”
  • Lastly, and this applies to baseball advocacy and non-baseball advocacy, legal speaking and any other sort of public speaking: if you ever have to speak in public, get away from your notes as much as possible. Commit your prepared materials to memory as much as possible and just talk. That may seem scary, but it’s amazing how much more confident a speaker is when they’re talking rather than reading and how disengaged and sorta non-human they sound when they are reading from a page.

I could go on forever about this kind of stuff. Suffice it to say, though, that for me the competition was fun and fascinating and served to scrape the rust off of my legal advocacy gears. For the competitors, it subjected them to some real world — and tougher than real world — legal conditions which will no doubt serve them well in their careers, whether those careers involve sports law or not. They had to create a strong presentation imbued with an overarching theme, supported by data and visual aides, all of which could be delivered in a 15 minute case-in-chief and a 7.5 minute rebuttal, all while being peppered with questions, not all of which had answers. It may have been fun at times, but I imagine it was super stressful as well.

That stress was compounded by the fact that almost everyone (judges included) had to contend with flight cancellations and delays and, until late Thursday, a lack of water all over the city due to a freak cold snap. We judges moaned and whined about restaurants being closed and not having showers on Thursday morning. The competitors — and the competition’s organizers, all of whom are themselves students — took it in stride. People complain about these kids today, but based on what I’ve seen, these kids today are tougher than most of us Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. We’re spoiled as hell. Soft too.

In keeping with that theme, allow me to note that, no, there were no mere participation trophies for the assembled law students. There was a winning team: Katherine Whisenhunt and Luke Zaro from the University of Virginia Law School:

In the final round, they argued in favor of Ken Giles, getting him his $4.9 million and defeating the club’s request for $4.15 million. I had the privilege of seeing them argue in preliminary rounds as well as the finals and can say that their victory was well-earned. Some opposing attorneys are going to have their hands full with these two one day. Full with all of the competitors, really, as I didn’t see one team that could not, but for the lack of some gray hair at the temples, pass for practicing lawyers, right now. They were all well-prepared and effective. I’ve said some bad stuff about lawyers since I became a lapsed one, but these kids give me hope for the future of the profession.

As for the Giles case: while the Houston Astros may be the best team in game and while they may employ the best analysts in the game, sometimes it helps to have a trusty lawyer by your side. If you’re struggling, guys, give Katherine and Luke a call. They can probably help you out.