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This Week in Baseball History: April 12-18

A week filled with some one-of-a-kind moments in baseball history.

April 13, 1984 – Pete Rose’s 4,000th Hit

 

There are 1,346 players with 1,000 hits. 288 players with 2,000 hits. 32 players with 3,000 hits. How many players have 4,000 hits?

Just two.

The 4,000 hit club is arguably the most exclusive club in baseball. Well, besides that of pitchers with back-to-back no-hitters.

Ty Cobb reached 4K in his penultimate season at 40 years old. That year, Cobb lowered his MLB-best career batting average (.366) by hitting just a puny .357. Pete Rose, on the other hand, ended his age-40 season in 1981 with 3,697 hits. That would be the last time Rose above .300.

In ’82 and ’83, Rose began showing serious signs of a decline as batted .260/.332/.315 with -3.2 bWAR over 1,275 PAs. Even though Rose’s power completely vanished, he still racked up singles and began the ’84 season just 10 hits away from No. 4,000.

But Rose wouldn’t reach that milestone with his longtime Reds. Nor would he accomplish that feat with the Phillies, who released him following a poor season in ’83. Rather, the Montreal Expos signed Rose hoping that there was still something left in the tank.

Over the first eight games of the ’84 season, Rose hit decently well, recording nine hits and going .273/.368/.364 over 38 PAs. Rose entered his April 13 matchup against the Phillies hoping to pull off the historic 4K milestone against the team that had just let him go.

 

As the Expos leadoff hitter, Rose was aggressive on the very first pitch he saw, slapping a groundout to second.

Rose batted again in the next inning, and this time he found himself quickly down 0-2 before using his patience and experience to tilt the count back to 2-2. On the fifth pitch, Rose tapped a check swing dribbler back to the pitcher Jerry Koosman, whose throw in the dirt allowed Rose to reach on an error.

 

Rose had his third opportunity to make history in the fourth inning. He feigned a bunt on the first pitch for strike one. He then took an inside breaking ball from Koosman for ball one. Finally, on the third pitch, Koosman threw a fastball high and outside, and Rose slapped it down the RF foul line for No. 4,000.

 

57 years after Cobb founded the 4,000 hit club, he finally had company. What would it take for someone else to join that group?

The active hits leader is Albert Pujols with 3,239. In his last five full seasons (excluding 2020), Pujols has averaged 137 hits a year. At that rate, he would need to play another five and a half seasons until age 46 to reach the exclusive 4K mark.

 

April 13, 2008 – David Ortiz’s Jersey is Unearthed

 

For 86 years, Red Sox fans suffered the “Curse of the Bambino.” This was their attempt to get revenge.

The Old Yankee Stadium was home to countless highlights for New York, and many a painful lowlight in Boston lore, from Aaron Boone’s 2003 ALCS walk-off to Dave Righetti’s 1983 no-hitter to Joe DiMaggio and his 56-game hitting streak earning the 1941 MVP over Ted Williams and his .406 batting average. Yes, the Red Sox did triumphantly win a World Series in 2004, and in historic fashion with their ALCS comeback against the Yankees.

Gino Castignoli wasn’t satisfied. Castignoli was a construction worker and proud Red Sox fan hired to work on the New Yankee Stadium (NYS). He was hesitant at first, telling the Boston Herald that he wouldn’t go near the NYS, “not for all the hot dogs in the world.”

But then he had an epiphany… an idea to hex the Yankees with generations of misfortune. His plan: Bury a David Ortiz jersey.

 

Castignoli spent exactly one day working construction on-site, and during that time he hid the jersey underneath two feet of concrete by the third base line. It seemed like the perfect plan, who could ever foil it?

See, his fellow, New York-based construction workers were just a bit opposed to the idea of a hex on their hometown team. They tipped off the Yankees organization, who went to work like a treasure hunter looking for Blackbeard’s gold. On April 13, after five hours on digging, they found it.

Ultimately, Castignoli’s curse clearly was ineffective as the Yankees won the 2009 World Series. But if Ortiz’s jersey had found its forever home underneath Alex Rodriguez’s cleats at third base, maybe history would’ve played out a bit differently …

 

April 15, 1947 – Jackie Robinson’s MLB Debut

 

Jackie Robinson excelled at any sport he played. His brothers, Frank and Mack (the latter finished second to Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics), recognized and pushed Jackie’s athletic horizons. When Robinson went to UCLA in 1939, he became the first athlete in school history with varsity letters in four sports: baseball, basketball, football and track. Throughout his upbringing and brief service with the military, Robinson developed a proud reputation for standing up to the racial injustice that African-Americans regularly experienced in a segregated America.

The famed Dodgers executive Branch Rickey, a strong advocate for integration in baseball, scouted Robinson during his 1945 season in the Negro Leagues and believed that Robinson’s background made him the perfect role model to become the major’s first Black player since Moses Fleetwood Walker in 1884. Rickey knew that Robinson would encounter numerous obstacles in the majors, something that they discussed during their famous meeting in 1945.

“I want a ballplayer with guts enough not to fight back,” Rickey told Robinson. Though there is no original footage of that meeting, Robinson later reenacted that scene himself in the 1950 biographical film “The Jackie Robinson Story.”

 

Robinson spent 1946 in the minors, where he was named the MVP of the International League after hitting .349/.468/.462 over 553 PAs with 113 R, 3 HR, 66 RBI, 40 SB, 15 CS and 92 BB to 27 K.

The Dodgers signed Robinson to a major league contract just days before the 1947 season began. This set the stage for Opening Day on April 15 to become a monumental moment in not just baseball history, but for that of American history as well.

26,623 fans in Ebbets Field watched the Dodgers host the Boston Braves. Robinson was the No. 2 hitter and played 1B. There isn’t much footage from his debut, but Cut4 by MLB.com found some in its archives.

Robinson officially etched his name into the baseball stat books when the Braves hit an ordinary 5-3 groundout on the very first play of the game. But overall, Robinson didn’t make much of an impact at the plate in his first game as he went hitless. However, in the bottom of the seventh with the Dodgers down 3-2 and a runner on first, Robinson laid down a sacrifice bunt. With his blazing speed, Robinson beat out an errant throw from the first baseman and found his way to second.

 

Two runners in scoring position, no out. The Dodgers No. 3 hitter, Pete Reiser, smacked a double to RF, driving in both of them. Robinson scored the winning run in this 5-3 contest.

The rest of Robinson’s career is well documented history: a ROY in 1947, an MVP in 1949 and a WS title in 1955. Baseball’s longtime color barrier had been broken. But everything began on that date: April 15, 1947.

 

April 15, 1974 – Herb Washington’s First Steal

 

The 2020 season enshrined a new term into baseball’s lexicon: designated runner. However, it wasn’t the first time that happened.

To witness the birth of the designated runner, we must travel back to 1974. What was life like back then?

Happy Days made its debut on ABC. The Watergate Scandal erupts throughout America. And Ten Cent Beer Night causes calamity in Cleveland as a drunken riot forces the Indians to forfeit their game against the Rangers.

And on the West Coast, the Oakland Athletics experimented with a radical idea: Signing Herb Washington, a world-class sprinter with no professional baseball experience. As a member of the Michigan State Spartans, Washington had set indoor world records in the 50 and 60 yard dashes, at 5.0 and 5.8 seconds, respectively.

https://twitter.com/BigHairPlasGras/status/666359366610718720

The Athletics were already a World Series-caliber team, with back-to-back championships in ’72 and ’73. Athletics owner Charlie Finley thought the team already had enough talent to use one roster spot to experiment with the first designated runner in MLB history.

Washington debuted on April 4, but didn’t really make an impact on the basepaths until he got picked off on April 7.

In the Athletics game against the White Sox on April 15, Washington finally attempted his first steal. The Athletics began the bottom of the eighth down 3-2 and worked back-to-back leadoff singles off of the aging Hall of Famer Rich “Goose” Gossage to put runners on the corners.

Washington subbed in at first base for Sal Bando, and everyone knew what to expect. The White Sox first baseman, Dick Allen, tried taunting Washington as reported by Leonard Koppett with The New York Times.

“This guy, [Mickey] Rivers, on the Angels… You know what he did?” Allen said. “The pitcher threw over here and he took off for second, and I couldn’t throw him out. Can you do that?”

“I think maybe I can,” Washington replied.

That exact sequence happened. The pitcher threw over, and Washington took off for second, beating out Allen’s throw for his first career stolen base.

Unfortunately for the Athletics, this achievement wasn’t the start of a great, historic career that ended with Washington’s plaque in Cooperstown. Rather, Washington’s speed simply couldn’t overcome his lack of baseball experience.

 

Washington played in just two seasons, with stats that are truly one-of-a-kind: 105 games, 0 PAs, 33 R, 31 SB and 17 CS.

 

April 16, 1946 – Mel Ott’s Final Home Run

 

Up through the 1950s, four men clearly belonged on the Mount Rushmore of home runs: Babe RuthJimmie FoxxLou Gehrig, and Mel Ott.

Ott is an oft-forgotten star of baseball’s past. He was an exceptionally beloved player during his era: a 1944 nationwide vote by war bond buyers named Ott the most popular athlete ever — ahead of icons like Ruth, Jack Dempsey and Joe Louis. But for the 21st century fan who learns about baseball history through websites like Baseball-Reference.com, Ott’s stat page isn’t as flashy as that of his contemporaries. He currently has the 25th-most career HRs, he never received an MVP and his team, the New York Giants, won just one World Series (in 1933). While there isn’t much footage of Ott, here is one video of his ’33 World Series-clinching home run:

 

At just 5’9″ and 170 pounds, and with a swing that brought the barrel of his bat down to his knees, Ott did not look like a prototypical slugger. But his dominance from a young age is almost unmatched by anyone in history. Let’s look at how he compares to other phenomenal young stars.

Here are the career leaders in home runs through their age-23 season:

And who are the only players at that age to record at least 100 HRs, with a BB% above 10% and a K% below 10%?

Just two: Ott and Ted Williams.

Ott’s career is also similar to Hank Aaron in the sense that neither had a single-season HR total as high as that of their contemporaries (Ott hit more than 40 HRs just once). And like Aaron, Ott was a consistent, above-average hitter for almost 20 years.

This meant that over time, Ott gradually climbed his way up the career HR leaderboard. On Aug. 1, 1945, Ott became just the third player ever in the 500 HR Club.

He finished that season, at 36 years old, hitting as well as he did at 19 years young. With a .308/.411/.499 line over 135 games, Ott looked like he could play at least another five years.

On April 16, 1946, the Giants hosted the Philadelphia Phillies for Opening Day. 33,693 fans filled the Polo Grounds, a legendary stadium whose iconic dimensions with extremely close foul poles helped Ott wreak havoc on baseballs for two decades. Ott batted third, and stepped up for his first plate appearance of the year with a runner on first. And like he had done 510 times before, Ott crushed a ball over the fences for No. 511.

Nobody in attendance expected this to be the final highlight of such a phenomenal career. The very next day, Ott hurt his knee while diving for a fly ball. That injury completely destroyed him as a hitter. Ott played sparingly and ineffectively for the rest of the season. Following Opening Day, Ott hit just .063/.155/.078 over 73 PAs. He officially retired following four hitless at-bats in 1947.

 

April 17, 1945 – Pete Gray’s Debut

 

During World War II, American society adapted. The U.S. home front made many sacrifices to support the war effort, especially among the country’s sports industries. 428 major league players took a leave of absence to fight for their country. Superstars like Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller made these multi-year long sacrifices in the prime of their careers. This meant that teams across the league had a lot of available roster spots, and they filled these openings with anyone who had at least one arm to swing a bat and throw a ball.

You literally didn’t need two arms, just one. See: Pete Gray.

Many baseball fans are familiar with the pitcher Jim Abbott, who managed a 10-season long career (and a no-hitter) despite being born with no right hand. But you only need one hand to throw a baseball. One would think that you need two hands to swing a bat with two. Well, unless you’re Pete.

Gray was born in the suburbs of Scranton, Pa., to parents who worked in the coal mines. Gray lost his right arm at the age of 6 after he fell off a truck and his arm got mangled in the wheels. Since he was born a righty, Gray had to relearn everything as a lefty.

Despite this accident, Gray never gave up his lifelong dream of playing baseball in Yankee Stadium. In an interview with William C. Kashatus, author of One-Armed Wonder: Pete Gray, Wartime Baseball, and the American Dream, Gray said his biggest inspiration was witnessing Babe Ruth’s called shot in the 1932 World Series. Before that moment, Gray thought a one-armed player like himself could never make it in the majors. But after watching Ruth display the insane confidence to predict his own home run, Gray understood that “the whole trick is confidence in yourself. If you are sure you can do it, you will do it.”

Gray’s exceptionally strong arm, speed and plate discipline helped him stand out on the diamond despite his disability. His baseball career began in 1934 with his local semi-pro team the Hanover Lits. Gray endeared himself with the crowds wherever he went as he hoped around various teams with the hope of getting noticed by a big league club. That opportunity finally came after the 1944 season, when the St. Louis Browns acquired his contract for $20,000.

The Browns were suffering financially, even though they had just won the ’44 AL Pennant. His manager, Luke Sewell, later said that Gray “knew he was being exploited … They were trying to get a gate attraction in St. Louis.”

But throughout Gray’s life, he never asked to be treated differently and he strived to exceed what others expected of him.

On April 17, he made his debut in Sportman’s Park III against the Tigers and their star pitcher Hal Newhouser, the reigning AL MVP. Gray struggled against Newhouser, going hitless in his first 3 PAs. But once Newhouser was removed from the game, Gray recorded his first career hit on a single to second base.

Over the course of the season, players learned Gray’s weaknesses. For example, while Gray was an excellent fastball hitter, pitchers realized he couldn’t adapt to off-speed pitches. In his only major league season, Gray had 253 PAs in 77 games, hitting .218/.259/.261 (47 OPS+) with 26 R, 0 HR, 13 RBIs, 5 SB, 6 CS and 13 BB to 11 K.

As WW2 ended shortly after Gray’s debut, players soon flooded back in the league and Gray found himself without a roster spot. But in his brief season, Gray managed to fulfill his lifelong dream.

On Sept. 15, Gray led off for the Browns as they played in Yankee Stadium. In front of 13,033 fans, Gray went 3-for-5 with one run and one RBI.

Featured image designed by James Peterson (@jhp_design714 on Instagram and Twitter)

Alex Kleinman

Journalist who loves the Yankees and the Bears. One gives me strength, the other leads me to existential dread. When I'm not obsessing over baseball, you can find me at a concert, hiking in a National Park or chasing my dog, Frankie, who has probably stolen one of my socks.

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