MASTER NOTES: GP arbitrage and a hidden hero in the Jackie story

Talk about your climate deniers! The schedulers at major league baseball headquarters seemed to forget about the weather when they scheduled a bunch of early games this season in cities where folks are still scraping the frost off their windshields and roasting their chestnuts by the open fire.

In the first week of action, six games were postponed and a bunch played by guys who looked like they were planning on mushing teams in the Iditarod dog-sled race. I’m not sure, but I thought I saw one outfielder go into the corner wearing skates and looking for the defenseman.

Now, I’m not going to call for a scheduling system that has all the early-season games in cities with warm spring temperatures or indoor stadiums. It makes sense on the surface, but it also penalizes those cities, who would lose more valuable summer dates, especially if the logic were continued to require more warm-weather locales for September as well. Nor will I point out that the real problem is that season is too long, and that day-night doubleheaders every Saturday would cut more than three weeks out of the season and allow it to start a week later and end two weeks earlier, to get the World Series finished before, say, Halloween.

The real reason I bring up the ridiculous situation of this year’s schedule is that it has prompted me to see a possible tactical advantage: Discrepancies in games played.

Here’s what I mean. Because of off days and postponements,  through Tuesday of this week Cleveland had played only five games, and the Yankees, Tigers, Nationals and Marlins six apiece. By contrast, Texas and Oakland had both played nine games, and 10 other teams, mostly warm-weather or dome clubs, had eight.

To me, this fairly screams “arbitrage opportunity.” And it’s louder than the regular voices in my head.

If a fantasy owner could have done a deal trading two Athletics and/or Rangers position players for two Indians of roughly equal talent, he would have picked up eight extra games from now to the end of the season. That’s about 35 free plate appearances!

This got me thinking about the longer season, and whether other such opportunities exist. After half a day of Googling, I could not find a downloadable MLB schedule, so I looked at last season’s slate, and sure enough, these arbitrage opportunities popped up all year long.

For example:

  • As of May 1st, the White Sox had 142 games left, while seven teams had four fewer at 138.
  • On June 1st, the Royals had 114 games left, while three teams had five fewer at 109.
  • On July 1st, the Royals had 87 games, while two teams were down to 81, a six-game difference.
  • On August 1st, four teams had 60 games eft, while eight had only 57.
  • And on Sept. 1st, two teams had 32 games left, while six had 29.

If an owner could have made one even-talent games-played arbitrage swap on each of those dates, he would have picked up 21 extra games, which, after you do some cipherin’ is two or three extra homers, 10-11 extra RBIs and Runs, and even a bag or three. And of course seasons have been won by those margins.

The bottom line is this: When you are making deals, keep a sharp eye on that team games-played number. There’s opportunity there, I tell you.

* * * *

And now for something completely different.

Today is April 15th, which is tax day in the United States (here in Canada, we get until the end of the month). More importantly for our purposes, it is the 69th anniversary of the day Jackie Robinson broke the color line in major league baseball.

Enough has been written and said about Robinson and his role in history, but in reading the story, I learned about an hidden hero named Clyde Sukeforth, who played an important role in Robinson’s story and in other big stories in baseball’s history.

Clyde Sukeforth was a baseball-obsessed kid from Maine, and worked his way to the big leagues and a respectable 10-year career as a backup catcher with the Cincinnati Reds and Brooklyn Dodgers. When he realized his playing career was ending, he became a manager in the Dodgers organization, and quickly moved up to manage the top team in the system, the Triple-A Montreal Royals.

In 1943, Branch Rickey, just taking over the Dodgers, hired Sukeforth as a coach and scout. Rickey sent Sukeforth to approach Robinson at a Kansas City Monarchs game, and to tell him that Rickey wanted to meet with him.

At that meeting, Sukeforth joined Rickey as he offered Robinson the chance to break the color line—and warned him that he would have to ignore what would be vicious racist reaction. Sukeforth talked about that meeting in a 1996 Hall of Fame interview:

I introduced him to Mr. Rickey. Mr. Rickey said, he opened the conversation, “All my life I’ve been looking for a great colored ballplayer.” He said, “I have reason to think that you may be that man.” And he said, “I need more than a great ballplayer.” He said, “I need a man that will turn the other cheek, take the worst kind of abuse that a person can be exposed to.” He wasn’t exaggerating, ’cause he knew what was waiting. And Robinson—we’re talking Montreal contract to him now, a year in Montreal and up to Brooklyn—and Robinson said, well, “Mr. Rickey, I think I can play in Montreal, and I think I can play in Brooklyn.” But he said, “I’ll take your judgement on that. But if you want to take this gamble, I’ll promise you there’ll be no incident.”

While Robinson played for the Royals in 1946, Sukeforth coached for Dodgers’ manager Leo Durocher, did special scouting for Rickey, and launched a new team in Nashua, NH, in the Class B New England League. Sukeforth’s efforts to forge connections within the community helped ease the paths of two more African-American players, future Cy Young Award winner and MVP Don Newcombe and Hall of Famer Roy Campanella.

When Jackie reached the big leagues in 1947, Durocher had been suspended for a year by the Commissioner for involvement with gamblers. So Robinson’s manager for his historic first game would be none other than Clyde Sukeforth. Interestingly, Robinson’s first game as a major-league player was also Clyde Sukeforth’s last game as a major-league manager. He asked to be removed from the role and was replaced by Burt Shotton, who led the Brooklyn Dodgers, starring Jackie Robinson, to the National League pennant.

Sukeforth was not finished with baseball, though—and he sure wasn’t finished with baseball history. In 1951, he was coaching in the Dodgers’ bullpen when manager Chuck Dressen called for a reliever late in a pivotal game. Sukeforth had been catching both Carl Erskine and Ralph Branca, and thought Branca’s stuff was better. You can see where this is going. On Sukeforth’s call, Branca went into the game to face… the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson. And again, the rest was history.

Fired by the Dodgers after the next season, Sukeforth rejoined Branch Rickey, now the GM of the Pirates. There, serving as a coach and occasional scout, he helped the Pirates scout the Dodger organization for the 1954 Rule 5 draft. Sukeforth recommended a young Puerto Rican outfielder whose arm, he said, was as good as Carl Furillo’s, widely regarded the best arm in the league! The Pirates took Sukeforth’s recommendation, and drafted young Roberto Clemente. And again, the rest was baseball history.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.