My Experience at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference

I must admit, I had no idea what to expect from my first SABR (Society of American Baseball Research) affiliated conference. On my way to the conference I was faced with the usual questions a high school freshman ponders before their first day of school: would I fit in, will I have anyone to talk to, do I know enough to be in a room with some of baseball’s premier researchers and writers? It did not take long before I could answer each of my questions with a resounding YES! There were no strangers at the Jerry Malloy Negro League Conference and everyone there had one common goal: To share what they knew about Black Baseball. What follows is a running diary of my experience at the Conference.

I decided to arrive at the conference early for the research workshop taking place at the Cleveland Public Library. Our research session was led by Stephanie Liscio, author of Integrating Baseball in Cleveland, and frequent contributor to ESPN’s baseball blog the Sweet Spot. Having been familiar with her writing yet unaware of her participation with the conference, the baseball nerd in me knew rather early that this conference was going to be a hit. The highlight of the research session and the envy of our group was the library’s Sports Research Center which is the only one of its kind in the country. As you can probably guess, the Research Center contains rough draft’s of speeches written by Jackie Robinson, newspaper clippings from baseball games of the 1800’s, and baseball books galore. The Sports Research Center is a truly novel concept I wouldn’t mind my local library mimicking.

Thursday night’s Meet and Greet was my first opportunity to associate with the other Negro League Conference participants. Now, I’m not a huge fan of meet and greets or conversation that feels forced. This weekend it became clear to me that when baseball is the common denominator the oddest of couples can be brought together. It did not take long before I was enthralled in a conversation with 86-year-old Ted “Lefty” Toles, who had no shortage of stories from his playing days. Mr. Toles played in the Negro Leagues for the Cleveland Buckeyes, and the Pittsburgh Crawfords. He also played a part in the integration of baseball playing for the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees minor league affiliates. Lefty told me about the time he was carried off of the field by Jackie Robinson and Larry Doby after he made three great catches in the outfield, how he called the Topps office and convinced them to include him on a baseball card in their 2007 Allen and Ginter set, and he made sure I was aware of his slugging prowess ending each of his stories with “one thing I could do was hit that ball.” Ignored for so long by Major League baseball Mr. Toles was eager to share his story and I was happy to listen. Thursday night also provided me the opportunity to pick the brain of the premier scholar on Satchel Paige, Dr. Donald Spivey. He has spent the last 12 years of his life researching the life of Satchel Paige, and writing the book, If You Were Only White. Talking with the Doctor about the lack of scholarly work on other Negro League baseball players led to his friendly challenge to research and write the things that I wanted to read about. Being at the Jerry Malloy Conference among so many published authors gave me the confidence to take Dr. Spivey up on his challenge.

Friday morning was spent listening and learning. listening to the various presenters, I couldn’t help but wonder how productive I would have been in school had the subject matter been baseball. Topics for the morning session included Cleveland Baseball Diamonds of the Past, Black Baseball in Cleveland from 1867-1900 (much more interesting than it sounds), Larry Doby and Satchel Paige. I realize that baseball is damn near a niche sport in my circle which is why it was so important for me to attend the Malloy Conference. I wanted to expand my network of baseball friends. I was pleasantly surprised that despite the racial, gender and age diversity of the presenters everyone was easily approachable and happy to share their research. In fact, shout out to Lisa Alexander who emailed me her entire presentation on Larry Doby “The Forgotten Pioneer.”

The afternoon session centered around a panel discussion with the four former Negro League baseball players in attendance. The panel included Ted Toles and Ernie Nimmons, who happened to be a teammate of Hank Aaron’s when they both played for the Indianapolis Clowns. The other two members of the panel, Mel Duncan (Kansas City Monarchs & Detroit Stars) and Gene Johnson provided the comedic relief portion of the panel as they took playful jabs at each other while recalling their days in uniform with the Detroit Stars. The funniest moment of the afternoon came about when the subject of players salaries was brought up. Each of the guys admitted that they played for the love of the game as they did not make much money playing baseball. Gene Johnson, in his raspy voice, was alert enough to apologize before discussing his salary as the former owner of the Detroit Stars and the woman responsible for his paychecks, Minnie Forbes just so happened to be in the room. What struck me about each of these men was how happy they were that someone cared enough to listen to their stories. While they obviously didn’t play for recognition it is always nice to be recognized. Remarkably, the fact that it took 50 plus years to garner some much deserved recognition for these ball players didn’t dampen their spirit one bit!

The days final event was a baseball game at Progressive Field between the Baltimore Orioles and the Cleveland Indians. Not much to get excited about here as the Orioles won this one in a route 10-2. Although I must say, it was rather refreshing going to the game and not being the only one in a 5 section radius keeping score.

I was determined not to be late for Saturday mornings presentations as Dr. Spivey got the morning started with his lecture on Satchel Paige and the women that played a major role in his life. I had my voice recorder set up and ready to record the jewels Dr. Spivey was about to drop on the room. Spivey did not disappoint, debunking the false claims of who taught Paige how to pitch as well as providing an understanding of his earlier years in a rural Alabama reform school. My only disappointment arose fifteen minutes into his presentation when I realized I had forgotten to press record. Damn. Other research topics that morning included a well researched presentation on George “Chappie” Johnson, a catcher from the early 1900’s, as well as a thorough presentation by author Chris Lamb who shed some light on the age-old mystery surrounding Branch Rickey’s motivation for signing Jackie Robinson. I was glued to my seat. Oh, and did I mention the US Postal Service stopped by to unveil the new Larry Doby stamp which was being released that day.

In the afternoon session the hits kept on coming. As I found out this weekend, when at a SABR conference the question immediately following so what’s your name is what are you researching? Being new to SABR and contemplating my contribution to the research I found the authors panel right on time. The authors, Lee Lowenfish, Thomas Aiello, Byron Motley and Terry Pluto, shared their thoughts on how they select the subject matter for their books, using a publisher versus self publishing, and how they sell their book once it is on the shelves. The authors stuck around to answer every question and encourage the next group of writers to join them on the dais at next years conference. The close out session was a candid Q&A with Minnie Forbes, former owner of the Detroit Stars. She was as sweet as your grandmother and as classy as The First Lady. She provided a behind the scenes look at what it was like to run a Negro League team in the 50’s, at time when the League was changing and MLB was raiding black baseball teams for the top talent. Ms. Forbes was not bitter nor was she sad, she was simply classy.

From the outset of the conference Larry Lester (Co-Chair of the SABR Negro League Committee) stressed that all of the conference participants were part of a family. Ordinarily I would brush such comments aside as hot air. Now that I have my first Jerry Malloy Conference under my belt I can honestly say it is one big family that has yet to meet a stranger. I look forward to talking baseball with you at next year’s family reunion!


Justin Upton and the Tigers is a Perfect Fit

Coming into the 2012 season the Detroit Tigers had two glaring needs: a corner outfielder and a second baseman.  Magglio Ordonez was on his way out, and former #1 draft pick Delmon Young has yet to put together a big league season that justifies Leyland putting him in the lineup everyday.  So what did the Tigers do to fill these two holes?  They signed another All-Star first baseman, leaving a platoon situation at second and Delmon Young in left field.  We are half-way through the season, and the holes left by Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski in the outfield continue to be of the cavernous variety.  The Tigers have the least amount of production from their right fielders in baseball (-2.9 WAR) and Delmon Young has been the worst left fielder (among qualified players) in the majors (-.5 WAR).  Young now splits time with speedster Quintin Berry, who spent the last eight years playing in the minor leagues before making his pro debut in 2012.  While Berry has done well in a rather small sample size, if the Tigers are to contend in 2012 and beyond they will need another quality corner outfielder.

Last week, as if the baseball God’s had come to cure Dombrowski’s off-season hiccup, the Arizona Central reported that the Diamondbacks are interested in trading Justin Upton, their 24-year-old right fielder.  Yes, that Justin Upton, the two-time All-Star that finished fourth in the National League MVP race in 2011.  Upton is a young player that has yet to reach his prime.  Why the Diamondback’s would consider trading such a young talent that happens to be signed through his age 27 season is a mystery, but it should not serve as a surprise.  This is the second time in his short career the Diamondback’s have shopped their best player and it appears as if the club has reached the point of no return and must trade Upton.   Outfielders typically don’t reach their peak until their age 27 season, a plus for any team contemplating trading for Upton.  That being the case, his career numbers .275/.356/.475 & 12 WAR already trump those of each corner outfielder on the Tiger’s roster.  The Tigers need to acquire Justin Upton and have the pieces to make it happen.

If you took the time to read the linked article from the Arizona Central you noticed that in return for Justin Upton the Diamondback’s are looking for a shortstop, third baseman, or star starting pitcher.  The Tigers have a red-hot third base prospect in Nick Castellanos (20) who could serve as the center piece of a deal with the D-backs.  In 2012 Castellanos is hitting .363/.406/.516 between A & AA Ball, was the MVP of the All-Star Futures game, and was recently ranked as the 15th best prospect in all of baseball by Keith Law of ESPN.  Obviously, with his recent success Castellanos has generated a tremendous buzz among Tiger fans who are eager to see the him in the Bigs.  With the recent success of Mike Trout (20) and Bryce Harper(19), I understand the source of their impatience yet realize the Tigers would be better served by moving the young third baseman now.

To the fans dismay, it’s unreasonable to expect Castellanos to play in the majors for the Tigers anytime soon.  As a third baseman Castellanos is blocked by one of the best right-handed hitters in the game in Miguel Cabrera (signed through 2015).  Moving Cabrera back to first base is out of the question as the Tigers expect Prince to be manning first base for the next eight years.  Blocked at third the Tigers organization began playing Castellanos in right field for their AA affiliate.  There are two issues with this move: 1) Castellanos loses some of his value moving from third to right field as third base is a more challenging defensive position; 2) Castellanos MAY become an All-Star right fielder or he MAY be the next Cameron Maybin.  What we do know is Nick Castellanos IS a prospect and prospects are a gamble because they have yet to prove themselves on the Major League level.  I’m sure many Tiger fans remember Maybin, our last major prospect.  There was a time when Maybin was an un-tradable prospect until we were able to trade him to the Marlins for Miguel Cabrera.  You know the rest of the story, Cabrera (the proven commodity) is one of the best players in baseball for the Tigers, and Maybin (the prospect) has since been traded from the Marlins to the Padres and has yet to reach the potential Tigers fans had come to expect.  A majority of fans tend to place a premium on prospects because they represent the unknown.  In this instance, I’ll take the two-time All-Star who has shown he can play at or near an MVP level.  Give me Justin Upton playing right field for the Detroit Tigers!


The First Half MVP of the 2012 Tigers is…

 

Quick, throw away all your E-troit* Tiger biases, forget whose your Tiger, and tell me which Tiger has had the best 2012 season at the half way point.  *(Not a typo – the D has been removed until the Tiger’s exhibit anything resembling a Major League defense).  I know, our biases are strong, we love our new Prince of Motown so let me help you out.  Here are the slash lines for the top 3 Tigers in 2012:

Player A – .324/.383/.558

Player B – .335/.411/.552

Player C – .299/.379/.497

Now that we have gotten those biases out of the way, I’m making the argument that Player B, Austin Jackson, has been the best Tiger in the first half of 2012.  While I realize slash lines can not tell the whole story I will go behind the slash line in my defense of A-Jax.

(A= Miguel Cabrera; C = Prince Fielder)

Jim Leyland and Dave Dombrowski’s plan entering 2012 was to field the best beer league softball team with two rather large (pun intended) defensive anchors at the corner infield spots.  Unfortunately, the 2012 Tigers bats have not been able to score runs at the rapid pace their defense has been able to gift wrap runs for the opposing team.  They lead the American League in unearned runs (43), and have the worst Ultimate Zone Rating (-27.2) (an advanced statistic that quantifies the amount of runs saved by a defense over the season) in the league.  In fact, each Tiger player that started Opening Day has a negative Ultimate Zone Rating at their respective position in 2012, except for Austin Jackson (5.2).  Jackson has been the sole Gold Glove candidate on a team that at times appears to be playing with gloves made of stone.  Therefore, Austin Jackson gets a boost when measured against the other Tigers for playing stellar defense in center field, a position where defense is of grave importance, all while producing eye-popping numbers at the plate.

Since Austin Jackson came to the Bigs in 2010 Tiger fans have taken issue with their free swinging lead off hitter not getting on base in front of Miguel Cabrera.  Jackson lead the league in strikeouts in 2010 and finished 3rd in 2011, which drained his value as a lead off hitter because he simply was not getting on base enough.  This year, his strikeout rate is down and his walks are up resulting in an On Base Percentage of .411, tops on the team and good enough for second in the American League.  And what does it mean to the Tigers to have their lead off hitter getting on base for the big hitters?  Without Jackson in the lineup the Tigers are 8-14 (.363), and with him they are 34-28 (.548).

One could pose the argument that Miguel Cabrera has been the best Tiger in 2012 and I would listen.  I’m a huge fan of Miguel’s but putting bias aside, my issue with the Cabrera argument is that is based on his counting stats.  For instance, Miguel Cabrera has 18HR/52R/71RBI to Austin Jackson’s 9HR/53R/38RBI.  Cabrera has produced great numbers, but only looking at a player’s counting stats to measure their effectiveness can be problematic because they are dependant on so many other factors.  Case in point the largest disparity between the two players is their RBI totals.  RBI are dependant on other players being on base when you get your hits.  This negatively effects Jackson as a lead off hitter because he starts the game with no one on base and in the middle innings his RBI total is dependant on the bottom of the order, generally the weaker hitters, getting on base in front of him.  The pro Cabrera camp would then argue that the two players have scored about the same amount of runs, a stat Jackson should lead batting first in the Tigers lineup.  This argument brings to light another issue with only using counting stats.  Miguel Cabrera has played in 22 more games than Austin Jackson and has had 92 more plate appearances ie more opportunities to hit HR’s, score runs, or collect RBI.

Many stats have been created to right the wrongs that counting stats create. One such stat is weighted runs created+ (wRC+), which seeks to quantify a players total offensive value measured by the runs they create.  Austin Jackson has the third highest wRC+ score in the American League (163) behind Mike Trout and Robinson Cano.  Miguel Cabrera’s 153 score is good enough for 5th in the League.  Not a large disparity but all things equal A-Jax has been the more productive offensive player.  Finally we will look at the amount of wins above a replacement level player (WAR) the two have added to the Tigers.  WAR is a useful tool because it takes into account a players offensive and defensive  contributions to determine a player’s overall value.  Again Austin Jackson’s 4.0 WAR is higher than that of Miguel Cabrera (3.3 WAR). By no means am I arguing that Austin Jackson is a better baseball player than Miguel Cabrera, who has played at a consistently high level for 10 straight years, but for the first half of 2012 Austin Jackson has been the best player on the Tiger’s roster.