Wednesday, February 02, 2011

The Earl of Snohomish

In the late '70s, my next-door neighbor (and childhood best friend) and I discovered Strat-O-Matic, first football and then baseball. The football game, while somewhat strategically deficient, did have the element of trying to out-think your opponent that the baseball game was lacking. It provided hundreds of hours of entertainment for us—including our annual Thanksgiving day matchup between the '58 Colts and '58 Giants—but, ultimately, we decided the baseball game was better.

I'm not really sure why. As I already inferred, Strat-O-Matic Baseball was more about luck than was Strat-O-Matic Football. Case in point: Brian was the quarterback of our high school football team and simply had a knack for figuring out what I was thinking, to the point he probably won about 55% of the football games. This despite the fact you didn't have to have any in-depth knowledge of football strategy to understand the game. Now, when we played more complex football strategy games, he flat out kicked my butt.

So, the reason we liked Strat-O-Matic Baseball better was probably because Strat-O-Matic Football didn't satisfy Brian's desire for real football strategy, and because I was tired of him coaching inferior teams to victories over mine. Baseball was a much more level playing field. I was a little more knowledgeable, but it really didn't matter.

When the college years came along, Brian and I invented a drinking game associated with Strat-O-Matic Baseball that we played with the Hall of Famer set of cards. As evidenced by the fact he became my first home brewing partner around the same time, suffice it to say our interest in re-creating sports contests wasn't the only thing Brian and I had in common.

I'm not going to go into detail regarding the rules of the game, but I will say high scoring games resulted in inebriated managers. The game worked well with the Hall of Famer set because, when the odds are 50-50 the hitter's card will determine the outcome of an at bat, there is no such thing as strong pitching beating strong hitting.

Although Brian and I invented the game, my college buddy, Stein, and I perfected it during what we dubbed the Busch Drinking Series (BDS). The BDS was so named for the 16 oz. cans of the brand of beer we consumed while playing. OK, before you give me a hard time for drinking Budweiser's inferior—if that's even possible—cousin...yes, I had discovered home brewing, and had a bit of taste for what would later come to be known as craft beer, but I was still a college student, after all.

The Busch Drinking Series consisted of an entire 162-game series played between the same two teams, the 1956 Detroit Tigers and Cincinnati Reds.

Why did we choose these two teams, you ask? Well, first of all, Strat-O-Matic had just begun to release entire sets of teams from past years, and 1956 was one of the first. I think my interest in purchasing one of these sets, which consisted of many players I wasn't at all familiar with, was just that. If I wanted to try to use these players unrealistically, it meant a lot less to me if a player I didn't know a lot about performed beyond his capabilities.

The reason we chose the Tigers and the Reds, in particular, was these two teams had potent offenses and not necessarily good pitching. The Reds led the National League in runs, home runs, and slugging percentage, and were second in batting average and on-base percentage (OBP). Their pitching staff was not terrible, but definitely below average, finishing fifth—out of eight teams—in team ERA and WHIP (base-runners allowed per inning), and second-to-last in strikeouts.

The Tigers led the American League in batting average, and finished second in runs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and third in home runs. On the pitching side, they were fourth in team ERA, and sixth in WHIP and home runs allowed.

The idea was a success, at least in terms of the incredible offensive displays put on by both teams. We kept statistics, of course, but when I came across them several years ago, they were incomplete. I did, however, find the mid-season statistics I had compiled for the Tigers, the team I managed. Through 80 games, five players had 50 or more RBI (Ray Boone, Bob Wilson, Al Kaline, Charlie Maxwell, Harvey Kuenn) and six had 50 or more runs scored (Earl Torgeson, Kuenn, Maxwell, Kaline, Wilson, Boone). At that point, my team had 95 home runs, 522 runs scored and a composite batting average of .307.

I'm pretty certain we didn't quite maintain that pace for the entire season, as we actually lost the series 86-76. I am pretty sure, though, only a few of the aforementioned players fell short in their bids for 100 runs and/or 100 RBI, so it was a potentially record-setting performance. As you can imagine, my opposition's numbers were equally as impressive, although you'd be somewhat surprised to hear we actually outscored them over the course of the 162 games. I guess that's at least a partial indictment of my ability as a manager.

Perhaps my favorite player on the 1956 Tigers was Earl Torgeson, my leadoff hitter and on-base machine. Torgeson's success reflects the fact my thinking was way ahead of my time, as I fell in love with players who didn't necessarily hit for a high average, but who walked a lot and had a little bit of power. In 1956, Torgeson batted .264 with 78 walks—for a .406 OBP—and 12 home runs in just 318 at bats. For his career, he was a .265 hitter with a .385 OBP.

At the time, I likened Torgeson to Mike Hargrove, who actually was a little better hitter for average (.290) with a little less power (.391 career slugging percentage to Torgeson's .417), but who also played first base and had a similar penchant for drawing walks (.396 career OBP).

Torgeson was born and raised in Snohomish, Washington, and is one of two former major league players from that town with the name of Earl, the other being Hall of Famer Earl Averill. Probably not coincidentally, both were nicknamed "The Earl of Snohomish."

Averill played from 1929 to 1941, and Torgeson from 1947 to 1961, so it's likely Torgeson was given the nickname in honor of Averill. Regardless, this post is a tribute to my favorite Earl of Snohomish, Clifford Earl Torgeson.

I got the chance to visit his home town over this past holiday season—my brother-in-law's family lives there—and it was everything I imagined it would be.

No comments:

Post a Comment