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st. louis and the negro leagues

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willie wells was one of the greatest shortstops of all time and vies with john henry lloyd for the best shortstop in negro league history.
via willie wells was one of the greatest shortstops of all time and vies with john henry lloyd for the best shortstop in negro league history.

before we get into the main article, i want to say a couple words about the most recent move by the cards. i don't have much to add to lboros's fine explanation for why lopez makes much more sense for the cards than any position player on the market, nor to danup's rundown of lopez's virtues and vices.

i will say i like the timing of the move a lot. for someone who has to mind the bottom line (and who has been accused of overpaying by moving too soon in the past), mo must have been tempted to let lopez wait as long as possible to drive the price down. the recent khalil greene scare should have demonstrated why an indefinite wait period was undesirable; as spring training started, those who were "in the best shape of their lives" in january will become rehabbers in march. it only would have taken one other team suddenly in need of help at second or third to drive lopez's price back up.

moreover, for someone whose defense is the weak link in his skillset and, particularly, for someone who may be called on to guard the big gap between skip schumaker and david freese while brendan ryan is out of commission, spending as much time as possible with jose oquendo seems like a good idea. hopefully, lopez gets a chance to really drill his defense with someone who is among the best (if not the best) at training infield defenders. 

while it would be foolish to assume lopez's 2009 success will carry over, it has to be the case that he has a higher ceiling than whoever else on our squad would have filled his role. i've been happy to put an optimistic face on ruben gotay, but lopez is a far better player. a switch-hitter who plays at least two key defensive positions (ones at which we have deficits) respectably is a fine thing for $1.75m plus incentives. 

i have not liked the idea of lugo on this squad for some time. he projects to be about replacement value. his bat is likely to regress. i really think there's no room for him anymore. the only real downside to trading him or even releasing him is the small possibility that he gets over his knee injury and returns to his form of several seasons ago. anything he brings to the table, lopez brings and more. 

i like tyler greene on the squad much better than lugo. for one, he is the best defensive shortstop on the team after boog. for another, he has a future with the team - potentially. he has a ceiling to explore which could benefit us going forward. giving him a chance this year to face major league pitching and refine his approach presents real reward possibilities for the club. i can see mcgwire having a positive influence on tyler and his patience at the plate. i doubt that greene has much more to learn at AAA and can't see any purpose in leaving him there.

if boog starts the season on the DL, there's room to carry all three infielders until boog returns. spring training and any DL time give the front office a chance to find a team whose infield depth gets stretched by injury. dealing lugo to a team suddenly desperate for infield help could bring some limited trade value. lugo is not likely to be worth more in trade than he is now and will likely not provide substantial value to the team on the field. trading him seems like a no-brainer.

we had a request last week for more info specific to the st. louis stars. i wanted to give a rundown of some of the great players to play for the stars team. 

willie wells broke onto the scene in the negro leagues with the st. louis stars in 1924 and became one of the most exceptional shortstops in the negro leagues. most accounts call john henry lloyd the best shortstop, though buck o'neil called him the better of the two. o'neil compared wells' defense favorably with ozzie smith, and noted wells was a lifetime .364 hitter with a .410 average against major league competition. as always with negro league records, declaring any statistics is a matter of subjective reasoning, rather than precision. figuring out which games "counted" or even which of two newspaper boxscores conveys the real result of one game is just not a rigorous process. wells is credited alternately with a lifetime .358 average or a .319 lifetime average. or maybe .328.  another frustrating factor in trying to use statistics to evaluate negro league players is that batting average is often as sophisticated as metrics go. even finding a slugging percentage is tough. you will almost certainly have to calculate a negro league player's on base percentage yourself, since i have yet to see it cited for negro leaguers.

wells on the ballfield was a remarkable player. his defense widely gets the praise buck o'neil affords it. a few tales are commonly told of him. one of the most frequent is that he was the first player to wear a batting helmet. after getting beaned while playing for the newark eagles, he returned to the plate later wearing a construction helmet. beanballs in the negro leagues, like many practices frowned on today like sandpapering a ball, were commonplace, acceptable events. 

he capped his career in the 40's and 50's by becoming a player-manager, memorably teaching jackie robinson how to make a double play pivot at second. like many players of the era, his post-game career was ignominious, working 13 years in a deli in new york city. 

wells really was a tremendous player. in the 1930 playoff among the western teams, wells almost single-handedly delivered the series into the stars' hands. he collected an RBI in game one against the detroit stars and two hits each in game 2 and game 3. in game 5, he hit a home run - this was during a road game in detroit. hitting a home run in st. louis was less of a feat, as the left field fence was less than 300 feet away, to accommodate a street trolley shed. members of the stars regularly led the league in homers. detroit seems to have had a similarly hitter-friendly field, since turkey stearnes and other detroit players regularly made up the remaining spots on the home run leader list. 

in game 6, wells hit two RBI singles, then an inside-the-park home run. in game 7, wells hit a double and two singles. st. louis won both games and the series. willie wells won the mvp of the playoff series.

the stars would finish in third place in their league in 1931 and then disband in the face of the economic upheaval of the depression. few teams were capable of surviving in the harsh aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. a much diminished st. louis team would make attempts to reform in 1937 and 1939, without making any kind of a splash either year. some teams like the kansas city monarchs would survive by traveling almost exclusively as a barnstorming club rather than a regular league member. 

as the flush years of the twenties became the dusty, parched years of the thirties, just traveling as a ballplayer in the negro leagues became a challenge. buck o'neil tells stories of hardscrabble seasons on low-profile teams "hoboing" to games by jumping freight cars.

another team traveled from game to game in two seven-passenger cars. one car broke down and the team was reduced to cramming each seat of the car as full of men as possible, then leaving two more players riding on the running boards, holding hands across the top of the car to keep from falling off. 

the difficulties of traveling the country in a time of abject poverty were compounded by the jim crow laws which frequently prevented the players from staying in ordinary hotels or eating in most restaurants. o'neil states that every player kept a "little black book" of names of rooming houses or back porch cafes throughout the south where the players could sleep or eat. still, players sometimes resorted to sleeping train stations or even pitching tents on the playing field to find a place to sleep. 

willie wells would rebel against the jim crow laws and spend more time than most players in mexico and the caribbean, stating that he was treated like a hero in mexico, paid better, and experienced no discrimination on the basis of his skin color.

 Here in Mexico, I am a man. I can go as far in baseball as I am capable of going. I can live where I please and will encounter no restrictions of any kind because of my race.

mule suttles was another of the most famous of the st. louis stars. suttles made the most of the hitter-friendly park on laclede. he regularly appeared on the leaderboards for home runs. one account has suttles slugging 1.000 in 1926, though another has him "merely" slugging .773. whether he made 1.000 or not, the following year he pushed the same envelope with a .987 slugging percentage in a beanball shortened season. he hit for a .341 batting average in exhibition games against white major league teams over 170 AB, knocking in 10 HR in that sample size. in the california league, facing white major league teams, he hit .444 and slugged .968 in 124 AB. 

although some accounts call him the leading home run hitter of the negro leagues with 237 HR, other accounts have josh gibson smashing as many as 800 home runs. these disputes will likely never be full resolved, because of the paucity of the contemporary reports and the difficulty of determining which teams "counted" as opponents. 

talking about the statistical difficulties brings me around to one of my primary aims in developing this series. most of the accounts of negro league baseball credit the players of the negro league with playing baseball at least as well as their white major league contemporaries. proponents - who are rarely unbiased - state that negro league teams won more games than they lost in exhibitions against white major leaguers. 

it strikes me that maybe the modern statistical analysts can do better than this in demonstrating the relative level of competition in the major leagues as compared to the negro leagues during the same era. the rosetta stone for "translating" the relative difficulty of each league for hitters and pitchers could be stats from interracial games and from players who played in both leagues. some negro leaguers from before1947 and would go on to play in the majors. some hispanic players actually played in both leagues before 1947. trying to put together some relative metrics, like ERA+ or OPS+ for individual players in the negro leagues could, if used in a sufficient sample size, provide some rough translation of the relative difficulty of the majors and the negro leagues in the years from 1920 to 1950. e.g., if 20 hispanic players who all played in both the negro and major leagues in the early 30's all had, say, an average OPS+ of 95 in the negro leagues but an average OPS+ of, say 105 in the major leagues, that would suggest (in a sufficient sample size) that hitting in the negro leagues was actually harder. 

share your ideas in the comments.  

[EDIT: bibliography

O'Neil, Buck et al., I Was Right on Time

Posnanski, Joe, The Soul of Baseball: A Road Trip Through Buck O'Neil's America

Holway, John, The Complete Book of Baseball's Negro Leagues: The Other Half of Baseball History

Brashler, WIlliam, Josh Gibson: A Life in the Negro Leagues

White, Sol, History of Colored Baseball

Snyder, Brad, Beyond the Shadows of the Senators: The Untold Story of the Homestead Grays and the Integration of Baseball

Bruce, Janet, The Kansas City Monarchs: Champions of Black Baseball

Tye, Larry, Satchel: The Life and Times of an American Legend]