Revisiting the golden era of right-field cannons
Today's Throwback Thursday goes back to what I like to think of as the golden era of right-field arms. Everybody thinks the baseball played when they were kids was the golden era of something or other. Well, from 1977-87 -- which by pure coincidence happens to be between ages 10 and 20 for me -- there were a handful of right fielders with crazy, mind-blowing, super arms.
In those days, my favorite thing in the world was that part of "This Week in Baseball" where they showed defensive gems. The show is still going -- now known, somewhat bizarrely, as "TWIB" -- making it the longest running sports anthology in television history. But "This Week in Baseball" in the 1970s and '80s represented something more. It was before we had unlimited access to highlights. It was the only time we could see these players we only knew from the box scores in the paper. It was the only time we could see those wonderful outfielders throw.
I hear that "This Week in Baseball" music even now -- "Gathering Crowds," by John Scott -- and I get excited.
I think that I'll get to see Ellis Valentine unload just one more throw.
The thrill of watching outfielders make mind-boggling throws goes back to the earliest days of the game. One of the first great arms in baseball history belonged to Louis Sockalexis. That name might sound familiar; Sockalexis was the first prominent Native American to play in the Major Leagues. He played sporadically for the Cleveland Spiders from 1897-99, and he played some role -- how much of a role has been debated for more than 100 years now -- in the naming of the Cleveland Indians.
In any case, Sockalexis' arm was a marvel. It was said that he threw a ball across the Penobscot River; that would have required a throw of more than 600 feet. As unlikely as that sounds, it is known that while he was at Holy Cross he threw a baseball 393 feet, 8 inches to break some sort of amateur baseball record. In a game against Harvard, he threw a ball that an awed professor later measured at more than 400 feet. Sockalexis had a bazooka.
In time, most of the best outfield arms were put in right field because of that long throw to third base. Through the years, numerous right fielders became known for their arm. Long Bob Meusel, a member of the great Murderers' Row Yankees of the 1920s, probably had the greatest outfield arm of his generation (including the arm of his teammate Babe Ruth). Meusel's right arm almost singlehandedly won Game 5 of the 1921 World Series. In the second inning, he threw out future Hall of Famer Dave Bancroft at first when Bancroft took too wide a turn. In the eighth, he threw out another future Hall of Famer, High Pockets Kelly, who was trying to stretch a single into a double. The Yankees won the game, 3-1.
There were numerous right fielders with fantastic arms through the years -- Chuck Klein, Mel Ott, Carl Furillo, Rocky Colavito, Al Kaline and so on -- and in time, the rainbow led to the incomparable Roberto Clemente. Nobody threw like him. It wasn't just the power of his throws or the speed of his release ... there was a certain grace Clemente had that made him unforgettable to watch. He made right field seem like the most glamorous place a player could play.
And in his wake, the golden era of right-field arms began.
No. 1: Jesse Barfield (1981-92)
For pure arm strength, I don't think any outfielder in baseball history could throw like Barfield. Part of this was that Barfield so clearly loved to throw. Several other players -- including one or two on this list -- had incredible arms but they tended to unleash them only on occasion, when absolutely necessary, in case of emergency. Not Barfield. Every game, it seemed, he would make at least one jaw-dropping throw to the catcher or third baseman on the fly ... and why not? If I could throw like him, I'd stay after games just to put on a fireworks throwing demonstration.
Barfield grew up in Joliet, Ill., where basketball was his first love. He did not begin playing baseball until he was 12, and when he was drafted in the ninth round by Toronto, he was very young (17) and as raw as could be. He hit .206/.258/.261 his first full season in the Minor Leagues. But his tools were mesmerizing.
He turned himself into a great player in 1985. "I wasn't a bad person," he said of the years before. "But I liked to have a good time. I wasn't taking the game seriously." That year, he hit 27 homers, stole 22 bases and had 22 outfield assists.
In 1986, he was even better. He smashed 40 homers, made his only All-Star team, and won his first Gold Glove after throwing out 20 baserunners still foolish enough to try to run on hm. He would never have another season like that.
But the arm -- that was always extraordinary even as he spent his final years with the Yankees. As part of Baseball-Reference's defensive WAR for outfielders, it has a component you might call "Runs Above Average for Outfield Arms" (though RAAOA isn't much of an abbreviation). From 1985-91, Barfield saved 53 runs with the arm. No other outfielder on record, not even Clemente, threw like that.
No. 2: Ellis Valentine (1975-85)
Valentine is an icon of the 1970s, like Mark Fidrych and Fonzie and the guy who used to say, "You can call me Ray." Nobody seemed as limitless. I have a huge chest in my office, and inside it I keep thousands of baseball cards in no order -- I just like to dig into it and pull out a stack and look through them. The other day, an Ellis Valentine card from 1978 came up. I looked at it for a very long time. He teased the imagination.
He started as a pitcher. Well, that's not exactly right. He started as a rock thrower. Many of the game's great pitchers -- Pete Alexander and Satchel Paige just as starters -- began with a fascination of throwing rocks. The legend is that Valentine broke so many windows just throwing rocks without any malice, that when he was 7, the community pooled some funds and got him into the local Little League.
His baseball talent was obvious from the start. He hit .542 as a junior in high school. But hitting wasn't his thing. He idolized Bob Gibson and threw about as hard; he probably would have been a high first-round draftee as a pitcher, maybe even the overall No. 1 pick. Then he broke a leg the summer before his senior year. It was such a nasty break that they had to put a long rod in the leg. "I couldn't come down on my left leg," Valentine said.
This meant, as a senior, he stopped pitching and moved to first base.
He was still taken in the second round by Montreal. That's how good he was.
He was in the big leagues by age 20 and an All-Star at 22. That year he hit .293, slugged .504, and made throws that so blew people's minds that, as his manager Dick Williams said, "they don't take chances against him."
"The word is out around the league," teammate Ted Simmons said.
Still, every now and again somebody would test that arm. And what followed was sheer awesomeness. Valentine probably did not throw quite as hard as Barfield, but he made it look so much easier. The ball acted differently when Valentine threw; it was as if the ball was attached to a string and had been yanked out of his hand.
He was mesmerizing. How mesmerizing? He appeared on "Fantasy Island" during the offseason. I have tried to explain Fantasy Island to my daughters ... there's really no way to do it. It, too, is a 1970s icon. Valentine was on the Island (along with Steve Garvey and George Brett) to help Gary Burghoff fulfill his fantasy of pitching against Major League players. In any case, that's how big Ellis Valentine was after his first full big league season: He was on Fantasy Island.
Valentine had a remarkably similar season the next year. He hit .293 with 25 homers and 76 RBIs in '77. He hit .289 with 25 homers and 76 RBIs in '78, when he won his first (and only) Gold Glove and had 25 outfield assists.
But it soon became clear that Valentine's life was spiraling out of control. He forgot the number of outs in a game. He stood at home plate to admire a long fly ball and then had to hustle just to get to second as it bounced off the wall. He bumped an umpire. He gained a lot of weight. His unpredictable behavior was the public sign of a private life of addiction to drugs and alcohol.
Then in 1980, he was hit in the face with a Roy Thomas fastball and though he returned after more than a month and hit well for the rest of the season, Valentine would say that he never again felt right at the plate. Valentine became shorthand for squandered potential. But the memories of him throwing still launch all sorts of nostalgia.
"People say I don't have great tools," Pete Rose once said. "They say that I can't throw like Ellis Valentine or run like Tim Raines or hit with power like Mike Schmidt. Who can?"
No. 3: Dwight Evans (1972-91)
Every single thing Dwight Evans did was understated. This, I believe, is why he is not at this very moment in the Hall of Fame even though his career value was similar to the Hall of Famers of his time, like Andre Dawson, Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn and Jim Rice.
Dewey just did it all so quietly. He did not hit for high averages, but he walked a lot. He had his best year in 1981, when the season was wrecked by the strike. He could throw about as well as anyone ever, but even that he did in his typical understated way. While Barfield's and Valentine's throws were notable for their magnificence -- they were often breathtaking high throws that reached the catcher on the fly -- Evans' were marvels of efficiency. A Dwight Evans throw always bounced. And not only that, it bounced about 15 feet in front of the fielder so that it would have time to bounce up and be easy to catch and tag in one motion.
Evans loved to make the perfect throw even when the runner was not trying to advance. He figured that every one of those throws would prevent some runner down the road from getting too adventurous. It is just like Dewey to want invisible assists.
No. 4: Dave Parker (1973-91)
In the parentheses, I list off the years of the player's career, but in Parker's case we're really only talking about one year: 1977. That season, Parker's right arm was something to behold. He always had so much pressure on him, being the right fielder to follow Clemente in Pittsburgh. But Parker also had otherworldly talent, enough to astonish even those raised on Clemente.
In 1977, Parker had 26 assists. His 12 runs above average were more than Clemente or any other right fielder on record up to that point. The Cobra would just let loose his throws that season, and it was something else.
He never had another outfield season like that. To be honest, he never came close to having another season like that. Parker had his MVP season in 1978, when he won his second straight batting title, led the NL in slugging and total bases, and won his second straight Gold Glove. He threw out 12 would-be baserunners, but most had stopped running on him. By 1980, his arm strength had greatly diminished as he dealt with numerous demons.
No. 5: Andre Dawson (1976-96)
This is cheating a little bit, because Dawson's right arm was at its best when he was playing center field in the late '70s and early '80s. By the time he moved to right field in 1984, his body -- particularly his knees -- had broken down considerably and he was no longer the electrifying player he had been in earlier years.
Still, Dawson could always throw. He had this big and wonderful motion -- his left arm would go high in the air and he leaned back ,and he would basically catapult his whole body forward -- nobody put more of himself into a throw than the Hawk.
No. 6: Dave Winfield (1973-95)
He grew up playing hockey. His college basketball coach, Bill Musselman -- who also coached in the NBA, ABA, CBA and WBA -- called Winfield the best rebounder he ever saw. Winfield was drafted in both the NBA and ABA. He was also drafted by the Minnesota Vikings, even though he never played a down of high school or college football. Oh, and as a college baseball player he led Minnesota to third place in the College World Series ... as a pitcher. He was named College World Series MVP.
So we're taking about a pretty decent athlete.
And, boy, could he throw when he first got to the big leagues. From 1976-80, he saved 27 runs with his right arm. He wasn't quite the same thrower after he got to the Yankees, but the vision of Winfield unwinding his 6-foot-6 frame and throwing 95-mph throws through the infield stays with me still.
Bonus: Cory Snyder (1986-94)
The numbers don't support my memories -- Snyder's arm never saved more than six runs in any season and it only saved 15 runs in his career. But I recall it being magnificent. And I'm not the only one. If you were a baseball card collector in the mid-1980s, I suspect that somewhere in your house you had pages and pages of Cory Snyder rookie cards. That arm was a big reason.
Snyder was born to be a phenom. In his first game at Brigham Young, he saw three pitches and hit three home runs. He played shortstop there ... and he was the shortstop for the first USA Olympic baseball team in 1984 (the team lost to Japan in the final). In fact, Snyder's first baseball card was as parts of Topps' special "United States Baseball Team" set.
As an aside for baseball card collectors from that time: Remember those Olympic cards? Just hearing the names from that set -- Flavio Alfaro, John Hoover, Oddibe McDowell, Pat Pacillo -- takes me back to that time.
Back to Snyder. He couldn't stay at shortstop. He was too big and he lacked the mobility to play the position consistently in the big leagues. So, Cleveland moved him to right field. And boy could he throw. He wasn't as natural a thrower as Barfield or Valentine, and he didn't unfurl his throws with the grace of Winfield. The ball could look a little bit awkward coming out of Snyder's hand.
But his throws were wondrous in their own way. He got rid of the ball quickly, a leftover from his infield days. The ball sailed through the air much faster than you expected. In Cleveland, old-time baseball fans would tell us all the time about the amazing arm of Colavito (and when Colavito was a coach for Cleveland, he would sometimes stand at home plate and throw the ball over the outfield wall). So we were thrilled to have Snyder, even if he didn't quite turn out the way we hoped.