Here Are a Few Surprising Seasons You May Have Missed
Today’s post is brought to you by … the batting and pitching leaders that would appear in your newspaper every Sunday. Oh, man, I know this dates me as a fossil from the Mesozoic Era, but few things in life gave me as much of a thrill as getting that Sunday sports section, ripping it open to the leaderboard section, and slowly, joyfully, cruising through the names and numbers.
Look at that, pulled from the Omaha World-Herald on Aug. 8, 1982. Makes my heart sing. Al Oliver leads the National League with a .318 batting average — what a hitter! But Willie McGee is not far behind. And, wow, Ray Knight’s having a good year, Kenny Landreaux too! Lonnie Smith! Johnnie Ray is a rookie in Pittsburgh! He’s going to win the Rookie of the Year!* The names rush back. What’s going on with the National League pitching?
Oh my gosh, Moon Man Minton leads the National League in ERA! It’s below 2.00! That’s crazy good. Huh, Eric Show, that kid in San Diego, is having a good year, isn’t he? He’s going to win Rookie of the Year!* Is this the year Steve Rogers will win his Cy Young (No, Steve Carlton will win again, because he always wins). Mario Soto! Who the heck is Laskey in San Francisco? I’ll call my buddy Robert and see if he knows. John Candelaria! Wow, Gene Garber’s having a good year, too!
This is how I was every single Sunday of the summer.
*Neither Ray nor Show — nor Bill Laskey, for that matter — would win Rookie of the Year. Steve Sax took the award.
It’s Aug. 9 now, 41 years later, and the only things that have changed are everything. Newspapers haven’t been running weekly leaders for decades now because … they make no sense anymore. In 1982, we didn’t have access to daily stats. We didn’t have access to late-night boxscores. Only a few local games and the Saturday game of the week were on television (also Monday Night Baseball when we were allowed to stay up).
I used to have an Al Oliver poster on my wall — seriously, I did, I loved the guy — but I don’t know that I saw Al Oliver play even five times in my entire life (and some of those were probably in his very last season when he played for the Blue Jays in the playoffs). My connection to him was the baseball cards I collected, the tidbits I could pick up in The Sporting News, the few times he was mentioned on “This Week in Baseball,” and those Sunday leaders where I watched him battle annually for the batting title.
It’s obviously a million times better now with Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs and MLB.TV and MLB Network and so on … but there is something from that time that I honestly miss: That feeling of discovery. Sure, it’s nostalgia, but I would go through the leaders and say, “Wow, Toby Harrah’s hitting .331 with 23 home runs!” or “Wow, Pete Vukovich is 12-4!” or “Sixto Lezcano’s hitting .300 for the Padres? He’s on the Padres now? That’s cool!”
I wish I could give you that feeling … but chances are that you are much better informed about the game than I was at age 15, a million years before you could hear about Kyle Tucker’s crushing grand slam off the unhittable Felix Bautista and then just go to YouTube and watch it.
So I thought today, I’d just run through baseball and randomly find a few individual seasons that maybe, just maybe, have slipped by you.
Before that, sure, a quick reminder that Barnes & Noble is having an amazing TWENTY-FIVE-PERCENT-off sale if you preorder WHY WE LOVE BASEBALL in the next few days. I’m told this deal is good for either the hardcover or the SIGNED hardcover, while supplies last. All you have to do is enter the code CATCH25.
Cody Bellinger, Chicago Cubs
Hitting: .331/.382/.557 with 18 doubles, 17 homers, 17 out of 20 stolen bases, in 83 games.
Holy cow, Cody Bellinger is having a year. Did you know he was having this good a year? Two years ago, in 95 games, he batted .165 — yeah, .165 — and looked about as lost as any hitter I’ve ever seen.
Lowest batting averages over the last 100 years with at least 300 plate appearances: