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Spring training for pitchers and catchers began at ten o'clock A.M. on March 1 at the Tiger complex in Lakeland, Florida. Red Rolfe's first speech was what one would expect from a taciturn person-brief. He told his players to be on the field in uniform at ten o'clock A.M. each day and in the hotel by midnight. And he emphasized the importance of avoiding sore arms and told them not to lie in the sun lest it interfere with their ability to practice. His notes following his first day with a portion of the team illustrate his attention to detail and the kind of exacting person he was: "Notify secretary to leave calls for players at eight o clock in the morning. Next season have players report a trifle earlier to get their uniforms. There was some delay the first day."
After the full squad arrived, everyone knew the new manager's regimen and his expectations. "I'm sure of one thing," declared Rolfe to the press, "we'll be the best conditioned club to leave Florida a month hence." After his pitchers had been gradually worked into shape, jogging progressed to serious running. A review of his daily training schedules shows heavy emphasis on fundamentals of every kind,with particular stress on learning how to bunt, a strategy Rolfe would frequently employ in game situations. He removed the protective netting in front of the pitcher's mound, stating: "I want the pitchers to be working under game conditions. How is a pitcher going to learn to field his position if he has a net in front of him?"
As Rolfe prepared his team for the upcoming season, he set his sights on getting just a little more from everyone: "If we are going hard all the time, hustling and trying our level best, we can finish much better than fifth place." This was precisely what the Sporting News predicted. "Our aim is improvement. If we had won as much as one game a week more than we did [in 1948], we would have been right up there. We're out to win that extra game a week and sound fundamentals-fielding, throwing, batting, bunting, running, sliding-will help us win them."
"I'm down here in Florida to work-hard. And I expect the players to work just as hard. It's their business as much as mine. If we're working we'll be hustling. And if we're hustling we'll win more of those close ones. That's what the Tigers will stand for while I'm here."
Although not a naturally enthusiastic kind of person, Rolfe surely began with a high degree of optimism, particularly given his inexperience. Disappointments came quickly: an overweight Virgil Trucks, Dick Wakefield down with a tender back injured in a water skiing mishap, and Neil Berry nursing a sore arm. An unsympathetic manager issued a blunt challenge to each. Clearly irritated with Berry's lack of readiness, Rolfe said: "Berry knew he had a chance to be our regular second baseman. Why didn't he get his arm in shape during the winter? There is absolutely no excuse for any player, especially an infielder, to come up with a sore arm in spring training."
The talk all spring, whenever the press probed Rolfe about the strength of his probable lineup, centered on three perceived deficiencies-first base, second base, and left field. To date, the only significant player acquisition had been the trade to acquire catcher Aaron Robinson in exchange for Billy Pierce, a young left-handed pitcher. Lots of other potential transactions were floating, but clearly the Tigers coveted the St. Louis Browns' second baseman Jerry Priddy most of all. Barring another trade, Rolfe would rely on an assortment of candidates to fill the other infield positions.
The assumed regulars were going to receive some competition from a fairly strong crop of youngsters developing in the team's farm system. Rolfe had already handed the starting center-field position to potential star Johnny Groth, coming up from a spectacular year at Buffalo, where he hit .340 and led the league in hits and runs scored. Starting pitching prospect Lou Kretlow would be closely watched following his fine season, winning twenty-one games at Williamsport and then notching two more for the big club in September. Other young hurlers to watch included Ernie Funk, winner of nineteen games at Thompsonville; Saul Rogovin, 13-7 at Buffalo; and Marlin Stuart, 15-10 at Little Rock. Two other rookie position players would also get a look: catcher Myron "Joe" Ginsberg, who had finished second in hitting in the Eastern League with a .326 batting average; and Bob Mavis, a .300 hitter who had been selected as the All-Star second baseman in the Southern Association for the last four years. Bonus baby and highly regarded prospect catcher Frank House, who had signed for seventy-five thousand dollars, also drew considerable attention in camp.
Yet among the young pitching prospects, no one in the organization ranked higher in potential than Art Houtteman. The young right-hander had floundered for unexplained reasons in 1948, winning only two games while losing sixteen. "There isn't a club in baseball that wouldn't like to have him," said Rolfe. "Houtteman has everything but confidence and we'll work on that. For a young fellow who suffered all those defeats last summer, he still has a remarkable lot of poise."
Some players appear to be jinxed, and Art Houtteman's career seemed to have been sidetracked by an excessive number of bad breaks, misfortunes, and serious distractions. Early in March, the automobile he was driving collided with a five-ton fruit truck, leaving the young pitcher seriously injured with a head concussion. For several days, he remained in critical condition. Remarkably, he recovered in seemingly record time, working his first game on May 21 as the starting pitcher.
But the most heralded prospect was twenty-two-year-old flyhawk Johnny Groth. Rolfe must have been concerned with the mountainous buildup Groth was getting. In an obvious effort to inject some reality, Groth's skipper at Buffalo in 1948 spoke of the young outfielder's talents and limitations. Paul Richards said: "He will throw to the wrong bases and he'll tighten up in the clutch when he's batting. He has a lot to learn. I say that anyone who thinks he will step right into the Tiger lineup and knock the cover off the ball is daffy. He is definitely a potential star. But few fans want to realize he has had only two seasons of professional baseball in his system. He gets frustrated and rattled." Richards went on to express his admiration for Groth's determination to improve. He cited times when Groth had failed to bunt successfully or slide properly and had asked Richards to spend time with him working on these weaknesses. "All I hope is that they won't expect him to perform miracles this first year. He may perform some just the same. But for a while I predict he will do his best hitting when the Tigers are three runs ahead in the eighth inning and there is no pressure on him."
Potential insures that a young player receives lots of attention and multiple chances to develop. Potential is also a curse. Every franchise has a short list of great prospects that never quite lived up to their billing and anticipated potential. Gifted Dick Wakefield is among that elite cast of great Tiger prospects who never reached the star-performer status expected of them. Though new manager Rolfe announced that Wakefield would have to prove himself, he must have privately felt he could motivate Wakefield to perform at a higher level. It didn't take long for Rolfe to realize that this was a bigger project than he anticipated. After several weeks of Wakefield's mediocre performance in spring training, Rolfe affirmed his expectation: "He'll have to play a lot better than he has so far. He'll have to hit at least .300 to play for me." As with other projects, Rolfe relied on sharp-tongued coach Dick Bartell to ignite a fire under Wakefield. A merciless Bartell hounded Wakefield about his conditioning, carefree attitude, and lack of hustle. "Okay, Wakefield, the picnic is over," yelled Bartell. While hitting fungoes to the outfielders, Bartell challenged Wakefield with a critical taunt: "Get your lard after this one and see if it hurts you to run." On another occasion after listening to Bartell's criticism, the rebellious and independent outfielder retorted: "Lay off me or maybe I'll buy up your contract and send you back to Kansas City."
No one endorsed Wakefield's potential more or remained more dedicated to his development than former minor and major league skipper Steve O'Neill. Being credited for developing a new star player and reaping the attendant benefits are tremendous motivating factors for any manager. However, even O'Neill's unflagging patience and dedication to Wakefield's future had waned over time. Wakefield found it difficult to keep his mind on the game, and O'Neill related a particularly frustrating experience when he managed the young outfielder at Beaumont, Texas. "I warned him he was taking too big a lead, but he said he wasn't." Shortly, a quick throw to first picked off Wakefield. "A couple of innings later he got another hit and was on first again. This time I told him to stay close. He said he wasn't too far off, and pointed to his feet, and the distance between him and the bag. While he was pointing, the same pitcher picked him off again. He was my biggest headache in Beaumont."
When spring training games began on March 15, Rolfe had an opportunity to assess his players in game situations, and his daily accounts read like a scouting report. The following are excerpts from his journal, providing his personal evaluative comments about his players, his team, and the opposition.
As with all teams, most of Rolfe's position players and front-line pitchers were known when the club opened its spring camp. Newhouser, Trucks, Hutchinson, Gray, and Houtteman were expected to make up the starting rotation; Evers and rookie Groth were slated for two of the outfield positions; newly acquired Robinson would handle most of the catching duties; Kell was a fixture at third; and Lipon had emerged as the starting shortstop. Although all players would be watched, the primary focus centered on the positions that were up for grabs. These were the holes that Rolfe would fill with the best players he had available. Other than Groth, there were no rookies in contention.
Rolfe's journal provides a report card on these hopefuls and some of the veterans. His journal entries also record scouting reports, coaching observations, and strategy notes that he would later consult. He also notes a recurring theme that would haunt him throughout his tenure as the field boss of the Tigers-his team's repeated failure to drive in a runner in scoring position.
1. Lou Kretlow
"looked the best [but] needs more deception with his let-up ball. Batters seem to know that it is coming."
"was unsteady at times."
"had good stuff but had trouble getting the ball over the plate. We kept after him all the time."
"did a good all around job of pitching although we got a couple of breaks to help him out. Wildness is still his trouble."
"was unsteady early in the game but managed to pull out of several holes caused by his wildness."
2. Marlin Stuart
"pitched a fairly good five innings although he was hit harder than in his previous starts."
"was not impressive today. I doubt very much if he can ever pitch high to anyone. His screw ball is his best pitch and it must be kept low."
"must be taught to hold runners on the bases better. He gave one runner a terrific lead."
3. Saul Rogovin
"needs work badly."
"has failed to impress to date. His delivery is too slow. He did show a good curve ball."
4. Dick Marlowe
"This kid looks good and should help us in one or two years."
1. George Vico
"is unimpressive at bat."
"left nine runners on the bases during the game."
"Ever since Vico was benched he has been looking better at the bat. In practice he drove several balls over the right field fence, and in the game he homered and nearly broke the pitcher's leg with a drive off his shinbone. I intend to give him a lot of practice hitting the curve ball. This is his biggest weakness."
2. Tony Lupien
"figured in both rallies with basehits. He has a tendency to hit and run too often."
"He seems to help us at bat, although I still do not really like him."
"had a bad day and I have about made up my mind to go with Vico. He looked bad against left handers."
3. Paul Campbell
"pulled the ball well with a change in stance."
4. "We also worked [Don] Lund around first base."
5. "I am still not satisfied with the first base situation."
1. Neil Berry
"looked good at second base and hit the ball hard."
"continues to hit the ball good and he is improving around second base."
"pivoted on a beautiful double play on a ball to deep short. He looks better in the field every day."
2. Eddie Lake
"made our club look steadier."
1. Dick Wakefield
"The club looked better defensively without Wakefield."
"The club hustled hard all during the game and there seemed to be a better spirit on the club without Wakefield."
"continued to impress with a line double and single to right field. He is pulling the ball well to right field."
2. Hoot Evers
"looked a bit better at the plate."
"continued to look bad at the plate. He is guessing and making the wrong guess. He can't seem to pull the trigger."
"looked much better at the bat today. He is showing signs of coming out of his slump. He is now trying to hit to right field and is timing the ball better."
3. Pat Mullin
"looked better at the plate ever since he moved closer."
"looked better in left field than he has to date. His throwing, however, leaves a lot to be desired."
4. Johnny Groth
"looks bad on slow curves and let up balls. He is continually lunging at the ball. Pitchers are getting ahead of him with a fast ball, then pulling the string or giving him a slow curve which he falls for and goes out easily. I let him hit two balls and no strikes leading off the ninth and he got a fast ball and powered it ... but it was caught in right center."
5. Vic Wertz
"We are also hitting bad balls with men on the sacks-particularly Wertz."
6. "I had Evers, Robinson and Wakefield and Swift out for a special batting drill in the afternoon. Robinson is swinging better although he failed to hit safely in the game."
7. "In pre-game practice I hit fungoes to Wakefield, Mullin, Lund and Evers with emphasis on getting them to go back for fly balls. They need the work although they did show improvement. Wakefield looked good in the game going back for one hard hit ball. He may yet do the ball club some good."
1. "[Casey] Stengel used a bunt and run play with [Phil] Rizzuto and the pitcher. Phil took off as the first baseman broke toward the plate. We may be able to break this up by having the first baseman break about four steps, the pitcher hold the ball, the first baseman return to first base and the pitcher back off the rubber for a possible play. This must be practiced."
2. "[Eddie] Lopat likes to show you his fast ball but make you hit let-up stuff. He sometimes starts you off with a fast ball to get ahead of you, then gives you the soft stuff. Or occasionally with two strikes he will throw you the fast ball. He doesn't throw to the bases too well, nor does he handle bunts too well."
3. "The Yankees are getting a running lead from third base. Perhaps we can pitch out and pick them off occasionally."
4. "[The Washington Senators'] power is left handed. A good southpaw should give this club trouble."
1. "Our club looks bad against pitchers who threw slow curves and let up balls. Men are swinging at bad balls against this type of pitcher."
2. "[Gray] hasn't pitched much batting practice and needs about twenty minutes of steady throwing. My plan is to lay him off one day, pitch him in batting practice, then give him two more days rest before starting him."
3. "My boys are using bad judgment at the plate with runners in scoring position. They are impatient and are hitting at bad balls."
A common concern
1. "We still look terrible at bat when men are in scoring position."
2. "Our club looks pitiful with men in scoring position."
Excerpted from THE VIEW FROM THE DUGOUT Copyright © 2006 by University of Michigan . Excerpted by permission.
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