Willie Kirkland

I watched my first high school game of the season tonight.  (It was the home opener, which I know sounds odd to out-of-staters, but Iowa high schools are unique in that their baseball season starts at the end of May.)  The home team, the Dowling Maroons, took the loss by a 3-0 score.  Having cut back on my work as a substitute teacher this past school year, to an unusual degree I relied on a program to identify the players.  It will get easier in the weeks ahead.  

High school baseball is great for all kinds of reasons.  That it teleports me back in time to when I played is a big part of it, but as a teacher it is also rewarding to watch some of the kids that I have grown to know a bit.  For instance, the two pitchers in the game tonight, Sam and Jake, are seniors that I first got to know when they were freshmen in an advanced bio class that I taught for a couple of months when the regular teacher was on maternity leave.  It made me regret perching next to the dugout, where there is some shade, rather than closer to the plate, where I would have a better view of the pitches being thrown.  To me, that’s the real fun as a spectator, seeing the pitcher change his arm slot, his spots, and his speeds.

Even though I am now a month into the 1961 IBC season, a program is still needed to identify some of the players.  It’s not terrible — I am pretty good at knowing which guys are catchers and which are outfielders — but these old-timers are still a pretty faceless lot.  One thing that is helping is that I have set up the game to display a jpeg of the hitter and pitcher during each matchup.  Seeing a crewcut or afro, glasses or freckles, breathes some life into the simulation.  It’s not as close a bond as you get from having a kid in your class, or remembering a player you watched on tv in the old days, but I’m starting to move past my initial impression of a cast consisting of Maris & Mantle and a few hundred extras.

The Sioux City Crusaders are a mix of Indians and Reds, neither being a favorite, exactly, but if push comes to shove I’d pick Cleveland nine times out of ten.  I think this is due to an historical accident: in one of my early Strat-O-Matic years, the 1972 Indians were one of the four clubs that I ran.  Those dewy-eyed feelings made me root pretty hard for the 1968 Crusaders, who were kind of middling with 83 wins, but ranked higher in my heart.  Partly this was due to the presence of Alex Johnson, the left-fielder on both the ’72 Indians and the ’68 Crusaders.  KirklandJohnson represents a type of player that I have developed a fondness for, a type that flourished in the 1960s and 1970s.  When I look at the 1961 Crusaders, I see the archetype for this player in its hall-of-fame star, Frank Robinson (.323/37/124 with 64 walks and 22 SB), but much more typical is the lesser-known Willie Kirkland (.259/27/95), who had a nice run for a few years but was washed up and playing in Japan by the time the Year of the Pitcher rolled around.  In 1961, Kirkland had just hit his prime playing RF for the Indians.  Mostly DHing is another solid hitter, Tito Francona (.301/16/85 and 56 walks).  Add to this mix a couple of ‘1’ gloves in CF — 22-yo Vada Pinson (.343/14/87 with 23 SB) and Jim Piersall (.322/6/40) — and you’ve got yourself one helluva outfield.  The Crusaders also have pair of slugging leftfielders who combine for under 500 ABs but have stellar numbers: Jerry Lynch (.315/13/50) and Wally Post (.294/20/57).  This outfield situation is an annoying aspect of the IBC structure, which sometimes produces such a glut of talent that even with a DH slot good hitters can rot on the bench.

The infield features a fairly unique player for this period, Woodie Held (.267/23/78 and 69 walks), since power in the middle infield was rare.  He does strike out a lot, so clearly is a harbinger of things to come.  The backup, 22-yo Leo Cardenas (.308/5/24), is just a part-timer but is another strong hitter for the position.  Bats also come first at the corners, with Gordy Coleman (.287/26/87) and Gene Freese (.277/26/87) flashing good power and mediocre gloves.  Depth seems to be this team’s strong suit, and finding playing time for 33-yo Bubba Phillips (.264/18/72 and a ‘2’ at 3B) and 33-yo Vic Power (.268/5/63 and a ‘1’ at 1B) will not be easy.  Sort of an outlier on the Crusaders is its pair at second: 33-yo Johnny Temple (.276/3/30 and 61 walks) and Ken Aspromonte (.224/2/19) are both weak hitters (and neither has a great glove).

The Crusaders have another intriguing player behind the plate in John Romano (.299/21/80 and 61 walks), who retired in 1967, the year prior to my starting to really follow baseball.  1961 was his best season, so as with Woodie Held I am perhaps getting an exaggerated sense of his value — but I’m enjoying his “modern” approach as a hitter (taking walks and hitting homers).  The backup, Jerry Zimmerman (.206/0/10), is of the timeless ‘stinky' variety.

CA (2): 713 ABs, 2L balance, and WAR of 3.4
1B (2): 1083 ABs, 3R balance, and WAR of 4.5
2B (2): 826 ABs, 2L balance, and WAR of 1.5
3B (2): 1121 ABs, 7L balance, and WAR of 4.4
SS (2): 707 ABs, 3L balance, and WAR of 5.6
LF (3): 1055 ABs, 3L balance, and WAR of 6.0
CF (2): 1091 ABs, 2R balance, and WAR of 12.9
RF (2): 1070 ABs, 5R balance, and WAR of 12.5

The historical park factors, as you can see below, really depressed batting average for the Indian contingent, so guys like Kirkland, Piersall, Held, and Romano should enjoy an unptick in the neutral IBC setting.  We’ll have to see how it plays out, but this should be a potent lineup from top to bottom.

Ballpark Effect     Cleveland   Cincinnati
Lefty Singles          1           10  
Righty Singles         3           14
Lefty Homers          15            7
Righty Homers          9            7

Pitchers, generally speaking, have shorter careers than hitters.  So the shift in time back to 1961 is especially problematic when it comes to knowing the hurlers.  The Crusaders are a case in point.  They have a nice left-right tandem at the top of the rotation in 24-yo Jim O’Toole (19-9, 3.10, 253 IP) and Joey Jay (21-10, 3.53, 247 IP), and while both had a nice run of seasons in the early 1960s they were both finished at age 30 (and before 1968).  Four righties fill out the rotation, and include a familiar name in Mudcat Grant (15-9, 3.86, 245 IP), who pitched into the early 70s.  Also producing a faint echo of memory is Gary Bell (12-16, 4.10, 228 IP), but the other two — Bob Purkey (16-12, 3.73, 246 IP) and 22-yo Ken Hunt (9-10, 3.96, 136 IP) — are just as unfamilar to me as generic 3rd starters from the Ty Cobb era would be.  A fun fact here is that this is there is a second “Ken Hunt” active, playing outfield for the Maroons.

With only one starter with an ERA under 3.50, it’s a given that this team will need to score a lot of runs.  As noted earlier, that shouldn’t be a problem.  It will also be crucial that the bullpen can come in and hold a lead, and fortunately this should be another team strength.  The closers are lefty 34-yo Bill Henry (2.19, 53 IP, and 16 saves) and righty Jim Brosnan (3.04, 80 IP, and 16 saves), and note that the latter fellow wrote a couple of good memoirs about his 1959 and 1961 seasons.  Long men are Ken Johnson (3.25, 83 IP), Wynn Hawkins (7-9, 4.06, 133 IP), and young 21-yo Jim Maloney (4.37, 95 IP).  The lone lefty in the pen is 23-yo Bob Allen (3.75, 82 IP).  


The staff’s thirteenth man, Frank Funk (3.31, 92 IP, and 11 saves) gets his own paragraph because I used to work as a part-time janitor with his namesake, Dick Funk, when I was in school.  Funk had a nice little 4-year career that saw him go 20-11 over 248 innings with a 3.33 ERA.  His best season by far was in 1961, where he chalked up an 11-11 record (which suggests he tended to be used in close games).  Later he would be a pitching coach for a few major league clubs, and he also managed the Cedar Rapids Reds back in 1991, where I like to think he and Dick got together and compared family trees.  I do know that I’ll be thinking of Dick and my co-workers at Regina every time Frankie comes in to clean up after a starter gets into trouble.

RELIEF (4): 307 IPs, 15L balance, and WAR of 4.4
RELIEF/STARTER (4): 447 IPs, 16R balance, and WAR of 5.7
STARTER (5): 1219 IPs, 5R balance, and WAR of 21.8

Below is a link to the Strat-O-Matic league file after four weeks, followed by the current standings.  Sioux City has been hot, going 8-2 recently to jump north of .500.  The cold club has been Waterloo, 3-7 recently.  


5/7/61 Iowa Baseball Confederacy        Won   Lost    Pct     GB
Cedar Rapids Saints (Twins-Dodgers)      15      9    .625     —  
Davenport Knights (Tigers-Cards)         14     11    .560    1.5 
Council Bluffs Falcons (A’s-Giants)      12     10    .545    2.0 
West Metro Maroons (Angels)              13     11    .542    2.0 
Sioux City Crusaders (Indians-Reds)      13     11    .542    2.0 
Des Moines Scarlets (Yankees-Cubs)       14     13    .519    2.5 
Waterloo Sailors (White Sox-Braves)      12     13    .480    3.5 
Ames Little Cyclones (Orioles-Pirates)   12     14    .462    4.0 
Dubuque Golden Eagles (Senators)         10     16    .385    6.0 
Iowa City Regals (Red Sox-Phillies)       8     15    .348    6.5 

That’s all for this week. 

© John Kisner 2019