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Few and Chosen
Defining Giants Greatness Across the Eras
By Bobby Thomson, Phil Pepe
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2007 Bobby Thomson Phil Pepe
All rights reserved.
1. ROGER BRESNAHAN
2. WALKER COOPER
3. SHANTY HOGAN
4. ERNIE LOMBARDI
5. WES WESTRUM
To be honest, I can't tell you much about Roger Bresnahan. I have no idea how good a catcher he was. What I can tell you is that you can't be around baseball for any length of time without having heard the name Roger Bresnahan. He was the first Giants non-pitcher elected to the Hall of Fame, and, in fact, he and Ernie Lombardi arethe only Giants catchers in the Hall of Fame.
That alone is reason enough to rate Bresnahan as number one on the alltime list of Giants catchers. But there's more.
Bresnahan actually played all over the lot, in the outfield, all four infield positions, and he even pitched in nine games, but catcher was his primary position in his 17-year career.
What made Bresnahan a household name in his day — the early days of baseball, just after the turn of the 20 century — is that he was a mainstay on a Giants team that won two National League championships in his six and a half years, and he was the favorite catcher of the great Christy Mathewson. It was Bresnahan who was behind the plate when Matty pitched three shutouts against the Philadelphia Athletics in the 1905 World Series.
Roger Bresnahan is credited with inventing the catcher's shin pads, which he supposedly modeled after the equipment that was used in cricket. Photo courtesy MLB Photos via Getty Images.
To add to the Bresnahan lore, he is credited with inventing the catcher's shin guards, which he modeled after the leg pads worn by cricket players.
Bresnahan started his career in 1897 as an 18-year-old pitcher with the Washington Senators, then in the National League. When he held out for more money after winning four games and losing none, the Senators let him go and the Cubs picked him up. In 1901, Bresnahan became a free agent and was signed by John McGraw for the Baltimore Orioles, beginning a long relationship between the two men.
McGraw and Bresnahan were kindred spirits, both temperamental, pugnacious, Irish brawlers who were tough on umpires, opponents, and teammates alike.
McGraw and Bresnahan were kindred spirits, both temperamental, pugnacious, Irish brawlers who were tough on umpires, opponents, and teammates alike, and they became close friends. Bresnahan was constantly in trouble. He was frequently ejected from games, suspended, and fined, and he often engaged in confrontations with team owners; in short, he was McGraw's kind of player.
When McGraw was hired away from Baltimore to manage the Giants in 1902, he brought his pal Bresnahan with him. The Giants already had two catchers in place, so McGraw put Bresnahan in center field. Legend has it that Mathewson urged McGraw to make Bresnahan his catcher and a Hall of Fame career was launched.
After the 1908 season, the St. Louis Cardinals, hoping to add some of McGraw's fire to their perennial cellar-dwelling team, traded three of their best players to the Giants for Bresnahan and made him their player/manager.
Bresnahan showed the Cardinals fire, all right, but it was directed at the team's owner. As a manager, Bresnahan was a failure. His Cardinals finished seventh, seventh, fifth, and sixth in his four years and he was let go after the 1912 season and sold to the Cubs, where he was a back-up catcher for two seasons before taking over as their manager in 1915. He played one more season and then retired.
In later years, Bresnahan was owner-manager of the minor league Toledo Mud Hens, his hometown team, and a coach for the Giants under his pal McGraw, and of the Tigers. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945, the year after he died, and, coincidentally, the year before I joined the Giants.
Walker Cooper hit the ball harder than anybody I ever played with, and I played with Johnny Mize, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron. If you want to compare him to today's players, as far as how hard he hit the ball, the closest would be Gary Sheffield.
Coop had been an outstanding catcher for the Cardinals, teaming with his brother, Mort, to form probably the best brother battery in baseball history and helping the Cards win three consecutive pennants, from 1942 to 1944. Then he went off to the navy, and the Giants bought him while he was still in service. They paid $175,000 for him — a lot of money in those days.
The Cooper brothers were a couple of cowboys from Missouri, country boys. They'd come into New York with the Cardinals by train and they'd laughed at the hot- shot New York city slickers. They loved to play games on the train. They'd put something on the floor of the train, like a bow tie or something, that was attached to a string in their pocket and when somebody would go to pick up the bow tie, Mort or Walker would pull the string and yank it away. Silly stuff like that.
Coop told me that in the hotel lobby, he'd put a newspaper on the floor in front of where he was sitting and one of those New York city slickers would go to pick up the paper and Coop would look at the guy and say, "That's not your paper," so the guy would slink off all embarrassed.
The 1946 season was only a few days old when Cooper broke his finger and was sidelined for quite a while. When that injury healed, he suffered other ailments that left him with only 280 at-bats, eight home runs, 46 runs batted in, and a .268 average. The next year, the Giants got the Walker Cooper they thought they were getting for their $175,000. Coop had the best season of his career.
That was the year the Giants set the National League record with 221 home runs. We had four of the league's top five home-run hitters — Mize, who tied Ralph Kiner for the league lead with 51; Willard Marshall, third with 36; Cooper, fourth with 35; and I was fifth with 29. Coop was third in the league, behind Mize and Kiner, in runs batted in with 122. And Coop batted .305.
Hal Schumacher, who won 158 games for the Giants in the 1930s and 1940s, had retired after the 1946 season and went to work for the Dolgeville Bat Company, the makers of Adirondack bats. Because he was an old Giant, he provided us with bats and, as a favor to Hal, the guys used his bats, so we were the first ones to use Adirondack bats. We felt those bats had the best wood we had ever used. Whether it was true or not, I don't know, but when we set the all-time home-run record, that really helped put Adirondack on the map.
Watching Cooper hit with the Adirondack, I used to think there was iron in those bats. In fact, there was. Cooper used to hammer nails into his bats, until the other teams noticed the nails and the umpires made him stop.
But Coop didn't need nails to hit the ball hard. He wasn't a guy like Joe DiMaggio, who kept both feet planted. He'd step with his front foot and he'd tomahawk balls and he hit the hardest balls I've seen hit. He was a tough guy. He had an unusual way of hitting. He would cock the bat before he swung, dropping it so that the bat was parallel to the ground, and then he would bring it back and whip it and hit the ball hard ... boom ... boom ... boom, like Sheffield. You have to be strong to do that, and Coop, who was 6'3" and about 220 pounds, was strong. Ewell Blackwell said Cooper was the strongest man he's ever known.
Despite setting the National League record for home runs, the Giants finished in fourth place in 1947, and so when Leo Durocher took over midway in the 1948 season, he began to get rid of all those slow-footed sluggers and replaced them with younger, faster players and put more of an emphasis on speed, defense, and pitching. Cooper was one of the first to go when he was traded to Cincinnati midway through the 1949 season, and Durocher made Wes Westrum his catcher.
Durocher and Cooper never formed a mutual admiration society in the first place. I heard that when he was in St. Louis, Coop and his brother would tie a string to a watch and dangle it so that Leo could see it. That was because of the famous story that when Leo was a young player with the Yankees, he went into the players' valuables box and stole Babe Ruth's watch, a story that never was proved and that Durocher always denied.
Later Coop went on to play for the Braves, the Pirates, and the Cubs, and then he finished up his career where he started, in St. Louis. Coop always could hit. He had some good years after he left the Giants, batting over .300 in 1950, 1951, and 1954, and finishing with a career average of .285 for 18 seasons. But he never again came close to his 1947 numbers in home runs and RBIs.
Cooper was with the Giants only three and a half seasons, but he certainly made his mark in that short time and left a lasting impression on me.
Like Roger Bresnahan, Shanty (his real name was James Francis, but he was called "Shanty" because, at 6"1', and 240 pounds, he was built like a house) Hogan is someone I know little about, but who I heard about from old timers when I was a Giant.
A check of his record told me that Shanty Hogan was a career .295 hitter for 13 seasons, and that after he was traded to the Giants in 1928 by the Boston Braves in a deal for Rogers Hornsby, he batted over .300 for four straight seasons.
Hogan had the reputation of being a consistent, high average hitter and a durable and excellent defensive catcher who once played 120 consecutive errorless games behind the plate, 18 short of the National League record for catchers.
Hogan spent five years with the Giants for whom he had career highs in batting average (.339 in 1930), home runs (13 in 1930), and RBIs (77 in 1932). After his time with the Giants, Hogan returned to the Braves, and then finished out his career with the Washington Senators.
I'm putting Ernie Lombardi fourth on my list of all-time Giants catchers, even though he was a Giant for only five seasons and at the end of his career.
Lombardi came to the Giants during World War II, when so many players were in military service. He was mostly a back-up catcher by then, but he still batted over .300 twice and over .280 four times in five seasons.
I was Lombardi's teammate briefly, in 1946 and 1947. They called him "Schnozz" because of his prominent nose. He was at the end of his career, almost 40 years old, and he got in only 136 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter.
Schnozz didn't say much, he'd just sit on the bench with his catcher's mitt under his arm like a pancake, and when manager Mel Ott needed a pinch-hitter, he'd walk down the bench to where Schnozz was sitting and point to him. The first thing Lombardi would do was put down his glove and slowly tie his shoes, first one, and then the other. Thenhe'd walk over and grab a bat out of the bat rack, this big, heavy piece of lumber, and amble up to the plate, dragging his bat along the ground. He'd never take a practice swing. He'd just get in the batter's box and get ready to hit. And he could hit, even at the end of his career.
He batted .290 and .282 in his last two years and hit 16 homers in 348 at-bats.
To me, Schnozz was an old guy, and very quiet. He wouldn't say much, but he'd walk around the locker room singing "Mairzy Doats and Doezy Doats," a novelty song that was very popular at the time. Lombardi loved that song. He'd go around singing it all the time. He was quite a character.
I said earlier that Walker Cooper hit the ball harder than anybody I've seen, but I didn't see enough of Lombardi at his peak. From what I heard, he might have hit the ball as hard as Coop. The little I saw of Schnozz at the end of his career was enough to convince me how great a hitter he must have been in his prime.
Ernie Lombardi hit the ball so hard, and ran so slow, that infielders would play him on the outfield grass and still be able to throw him out.
The man could hit. He had an unusual way of hitting, with his fingers interlocked so he could get a better grip on the bat, which was the heaviest in the league. And he hit the ball hard. But he couldn't run. He hit the ball so hard, and ran so slow, that infielders would play him on the outfield grass and still be able to throw him out. One night, against the Dodgers, Lombardi figured he'd cross up the defense. He dropped down a bunt and lumbered to first base. The infield was so deep, Ernie was able to beat it out for a hit. It was such a shock that the headline in one New York newspaper the next day was: "Lombardi Beats Out Bunt."
In his prime, he was one of the best hitters in the National League and an outstanding catcher with a great arm. He was the catcher for both of Johnny Vander Meer's consecutive no-hitters in 1938 and was a mainstay on the Cincinnati team that won back-to-back pennants in 1939 and 1940.
His lifetime batting average of .306 for 17 seasons included two batting titles. In 1938, he led the league with a .342 average, only the second catcher to win a batting championship (Bubbles Hargrave, also of the Reds, had won it 12 years before) and was named National League Most Valuable Player. Four years later, Lombardi won a second batting title with a .330 average for the Braves, making him the only catcher to win two batting championships. Not bad for a guy who couldn't run.
After he retired, Lombardi became a fixture at Candlestick Park, working as a press box and press room attendant. He was a likable guy, but he never hid his disappointment at being bypassed in the Hall of Fame voting.
Lombardi finally was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977 by the Veterans Committee. Sadly, it came almost nine years after his death.
Don't be misled by Wes Westrum's career batting average of .217 for 11 major league seasons, all with the Giants. Wes had some pop in his bat. Don't throw him a curveball because he could hit it out of the park, especially in the Polo Grounds with its short left-field porch. He hit 23 homers in 1950 and 20 in 1951.
But Westrum's forte was as an exceptional defensive catcher and an excellent handler of pitchers. He could throw runners out at second and he became very adept at handling Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball. In 1950, he set a National League record with a .999 fielding percentage and led NL catchers in assists and double plays.
Westrum was a "Who me?" guy. By that I mean he'd pull some prank and when you looked at him, he'd give you that innocent "Who me?" look. But he was a good guy, and as a catcher he could keep runners off second base. He handled Hoyt Wilhelm's knuckleball as well as anybody, and that was before they started using the oversized mitt.
After his playing career was over, Wes became a coach for the Giants and then was involved in the only trade for coaches in baseball history. Cookie Lavagetto was coaching for the Mets, and Westrum was coaching for the Giants. Cookie was from northern California and he wanted to get back home, so the Mets and Giants agreed to trade coaches. Lavagetto went to the Giants and Westrum went to the Mets, which turned out to be a break for him.
When Casey Stengel broke his hip during the 1965 season, the Mets made Westrum their manager. He held that job through 1967. Unfortunately, the Mets were a bad team in those days. In three years under Westrum, they never finished higher than ninth place.
When the Mets let him go, Wes returned to the Giants and wound up being named their manager for the second half of 1974 and 1975. In San Francisco, he did a little better than he had done with the Mets, finishing in third place in 1975. But I guess it wasn't good enough, because in 1976 Westrum was replaced by another of my old New York teammates, Bill Rigney.CHAPTER 2
1. WILLIE MCCOVEY
2. BILL TERRY
3. ORLANDO CEPEDA
4. JOHNNY MIZE
5. WHITEY LOCKMAN
Some baseball players have highways named after them, or streets, or schools, or Little League fields, or even bridges. Willie McCovey is the only baseball player I know who has a body of water named after him.
"McCovey Cove" lies beyond the right-field fence at SBC Park, a portion of San Francisco Bay that used to be known as China Basin. McCovey Cove is the landing spot for many of Barry Bonds's home runs and, if he were still playing today, would be for McCovey, probably the most feared power hitter of his time. Pitchers like Tom Seaver and first basemen like Keith Hernandez actually have said that when McCovey was at bat, they felt physical fear; that's how hard Willie hit the ball.
When the Giants moved to San Francisco in 1958, they brought with them most of the players who had been their core in New York, Whitey Lockman, Danny O'Connell, Daryl Spencer, Hank Sauer, Johnny Antonelli, Stu Miller, Ruben Gomez, and, of course, the great Willie Mays.
Although he was still a great player, still in the prime of his career, Mays was not an immediate fan favorite in San Francisco, probably because the fans in the Bay Area associated him with New York and they wanted their own hero. When McCovey joined the Giants on July 30, 1959, he became an immediate favorite, helped, no doubt, by the fact that in his first game he had four hits, including two triples, against the Phillies' great Hall of Fame pitcher Robin Roberts.
McCovey batted .354 that season, hit 13 home runs, and drove in 38 and even though he played in only 52 games, he was voted National League Rookie of the Year and a Hall of Fame career was launched. In the years that followed, "Stretch" became a greater San Francisco idol than Mays. He stayed with the Giants for the next 14 seasons, leading the league in home runs three times and in RBIs twice. In 1969 he became the fifth player in major league history to lead his league in home runs and RBIs in back-to-back seasons.
Excerpted from Few and Chosen by Bobby Thomson, Phil Pepe. Copyright © 2007 Bobby Thomson Phil Pepe. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
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