Monday, January 21, 2008

Here a Goose, There a Goose...

On January 8, Goose Gossage was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in his ninth year of eligibility. The fireballing fireman was one of the premier closers of the late 1970s and early 1980s, thrice leading the American League in saves, en route to a lifetime total of 310—fourth on the all-time list upon his retirement. Regardless of your personal feeling on whether (or how many) relief pitchers deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown, one fact is indisputable: the hallowed walls of baseball’s Hall now boast a pair of Geese: Goose Gossage and 1920s slugger, Goose Goslin.

No sooner does Gossage emerge from the decade-long battle amongst Baseball Writers’ Association of America voters over the Hall-worthiness of relief pitchers than he finds himself immersed in an even stickier debate: Just who is the Hall of Fame’s greatest Goose?

It’s futile to debate the statistical virtues of a slugging left-fielder versus a flame-throwing reliever. Clearly, both were among baseball’s best during their heyday, and each vaulted his team into multiple World Series. So what remains to settle the issue?

Why, prominent facial features, of course.

Goose Goslin was renowned for his colossal proboscis, which took up much of Griffith Stadium’s outfield and may well have been the source of his nickname. Born in Salem, New Jersey, some say Goslin’s nose grew to enormous proportion as a direct result of the nuclear power plants located in his hometown. But as many pundits fail to realize, Goslin’s nose had reached its generous size more than half a century before the first Salem nuclear plant commenced operation.

Goose Gossage, as many will recall, sported in his prime an intimidating horseshoe moustache, which, when combined with his surly on-field attitude and blazing fastball, lent him something of a demonic aura. I once saw him throw a fastball behind a batter, leaving the hitter shaken and contemplating a career change to geology. Gossage’s horseshoe moustache irrefutably contributed to his greatest success, for his career stats demonstrate that his glory years in New York and San Diego coincided with donning his overgrown facial hair, whereas he had largely struggled while clean-shaven with the White Sox. Such mustachioed success was recognized by opponents, culminating infamously in 1979, when Carlton Fisk of the arch-rival Red Sox charged the mound with a Gillette Atra.

Goose Goslin, too, used his facial attributes to his advantage. Although one of the most feared sluggers of his day, Goslin was hit by a pitch 55 times, almost all of them on his nose—including a key 1931 contest in which his bases-loaded hit-by-pitch in the 9th inning enabled the fifth-place St. Louis Browns to cut the mighty Philadelphia Athletics' lead to 17-3. (After the game, a bandaged and bruised Goslin called his effort, "My gweatest day in basebawl.") His nose also played a vital role in the 1935 World Series by providing shade for a laboring Alvin Crowder late in Game 4. Crowder credited Goslin's nasal shade with conserving enough of his strength to shut out the Cubs over the final three innings and preserve victory for the Tigers.

Clearly, each Goose's unique facial feature contributed mightily to his success. Enough to make each Goose a Hall of Famer? It's difficult to assess...although the majority of animal-nicknamed players go on to Hall of Fame careers—Ducky Medwick, Rabbit Maranville, Catfish Hunter, Chick Hafey, Turkey Stearnes, Mule Suttles. (Frankly, Cooperstown is as much zoo as it is museum...)

Bill James, one of baseball's preeminent sabermetricians, awarded the following total of career "win shares"—his measure of an individual player's contribution to his team's performance—to each Goose:

Goose Goslin: 355
Goose Gossage: 223

Such a large discrepancy is, of course, a result of comparing a relief pitcher against a position player, who, obviously, plays far more often—and thus has far more impact—on his team's fortunes. Even so, such figures swing well in favor of Goslin as the greater Goose.

However, the win-shares system doesn't take into account that Gossage, who pitched for six years in the all-night party of the Big Apple, probably got laid a helluva lot more.

Yup, boners are more important than homers. I've gotta go with Goose Gossage as the Baseball Hall of Fame's greatest Goose.

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