The Hall of Merit (Cont.)
LEFT FIELD: Charlie "King Kong" Keller, Sherry Magee, Minnie Minoso, Tim Raines
Keller had a very short career -- only 1,170 games -- because of injury and because he had almost two full years taken away by World War II. But his 152 OPS+ is overpowering, as is his career .410 on-base percentage. Only Dick Allen, Mark McGwire and Joe Jackson among non-Hall of Famers have better career OPS+ (1,000 games). He was on the ballot for 11 years but never got more than 6% of the vote.
Magee, well, I have to be honest: I kind of thought he was in the Hall of Fame. I don't know why I thought that, but I did. Magee played during the Deadball Era and led the league in RBIs four times. Bill James writes that he was indirectly responsible for the sacrifice fly rule -- he hit so many run-scoring fly balls that his manager said there should be a rule for it. For most of Magee's career, sac flies and sac hits were collected under the same umbrella, which is why Magee had more than 260 sacrifices in his career, though he rarely bunted.
Minoso's age has been argued about for years now. For a long time it was thought that he was born in 1922. Later the official age was changed so that he was born in 1925 -- one of the few age changes in baseball history where a player got younger. This has made a difference -- originally it was thought that Minoso, because of the color line, did not make it to the big leagues until he was 28 years old.
Then, for the next 11 years, he hit .305/.395/.471 with a 134 OPS+. He won three Gold Gloves -- including the first year of Gold Gloves -- and led the league in hits, doubles, triples (three times), stolen bases (three times), total bases, hit by pitch (10 times) and sacrifice flies (twice). For a player denied his chance until he was 28, that seems a Hall of Fame slam dunk. There are only a handful of players who have been that good at an advanced age.
But then, when he got three years younger, suddenly he was 25 when he got to the big leagues and his career tailed off badly when he turned 36 (instead of 39). And it all seemed just slightly less impressive. Of course, it shouldn't make any difference. Minoso was a Negro Leagues star who was buried in the minor leagues for a couple of years before becoming the first black player to play in Chicago. He was a huge star for 10 years. And he was an iconic player. I often think that when you take everything into account, Minnie Minoso is the biggest void in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Raines -- well, we've written on this topic before and will have plenty more to say about Raines later.
CENTER FIELD: Andre Dawson, Jimmy Wynn
Dawson played more right field than center -- he played center for about six full seasons. Dawson's case has been hammered around for a while. He is one of only three players to hit 400 homers and steal 300 bases -- Dawson, Bonds, Mays. He won a bunch of Gold Gloves. He was the Hawk. The question has always been whether that overrode his excessively low .323 on-base percentage -- if those remarkable counting stats and honors made up for the fact that Andre Dawson wasn't very good at getting on base. The Merit people said yes. I think before too long the Hall of Fame voters will say yes, too.
Wynn is like Evans and Grich -- a low average player who walked a ton and hit for power. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot for one year and, unless I'm mistaken, he got exactly zero votes. Zero. Come on. That's just wrong. I'm not saying Jimmy Wynn belongs in the Hall of Fame, but zero votes? Stinking Tommy Helms got a vote that year. Dave Giusti got a vote. Felix Millan got a vote. But no votes for Jimmy Wynn, who punched up a lifetime 128 OPS+ (not that they knew what OPS+ was in 1983).* Ridiculous.
*My favorite Wynn year is probably 1965. That year Wynn hit .275/.371/.470 in the hitting absurdity of the Astrodome. To give you an idea, he hit .305/.394/.540 away from the Dome, with 15 homers. But what I love most about that year was that Wynn stole 43 bases in 47 attempts. It was to that point, perhaps, the most successful stolen base season ever. And do you know how many other people in baseball history, up to that point, had hit 20 homers and stolen 40 bases? One. Willie Mays in '56. It was a remarkable season. And it was at that point that Wynn more or less stopped trying to steal bases. Oh, he would steal 15 or 20 every year, just on pure speed, but he decided that he had proven his point with the stolen bases thing and that even though he was 5-foot-9 and 170 or so, he would hit home runs. He would hit 37 two years later -- even while playing in the cavernous Astrodome. And they called him the Toy Cannon.
RIGHT FIELD: Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith
I've often written about the mystery of Jim Rice's ever-growing support -- leading to his Hall of Fame induction -- while his teammate Dwight Evans, who I think was the better player, managed to cling to the ballot for only three measly years. Rice hit with slightly more power (though for a career, Evans hit 100 more doubles and three more home runs), but Dewey got on base more and was a superior defensive player. In the end, I guess I'm just surprised that all those Rice fans who fueled his Hall of Fame campaign did not get behind Evans.
Smith is an interesting choice. A career 137 OPS+ in about 2,000 games, he was a savage line drive hitter who got on base, banged a lot of doubles and was never appreciated enough in his time. He got only three votes in his one year on the Hall ballot -- and that same year Manny Mota got 16 votes. That tells you something right there. It is also intriguing that of the four great Red Sox outfielders of the 1970s -- Rice, Dewey, Fred Lynn and Smith -- that Rice is the only Hall of Famer.
PITCHERS: Bert Blyleven, Wes Ferrell, Billy Pierce, Bret Saberhagen, Dave Stieb
Well, this is probably the biggest difference in philosophy between the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit. We'll leave Blyleven alone for now; I'm sure people are sick of hearing my thoughts on Blyleven. The other choices were all very good for short periods of time.
Ferrell was very good for eight years -- he went 161-94 with a 128 ERA+ from 1929 through 1936 (though he had exactly the same number of walks as strikeouts -- and he was probably the best hitting pitcher post-Ruth. In 1935 he pitched 322 innings with a 134 ERA+, won 25 games and hit .347/.427/.533 in 179 plate appearances. Those eight years, though, make up pretty much his whole career, and he got very little Hall of Fame support.
Pierce was very good for nine years -- he went 141-106 with a 131 ERA+ from 1950 through '58. He was especially dazzling in 1955, when he had a 1.97 ERA; nobody was even close. He only went 15-10, but that's what happens when you lose four games giving up just one run. Pierce was a slightly better than average pitcher for the next five or six years, and ended up with 211 victories -- he never got 2% of the vote.
Saberhagen was very good for six years or so -- with some sporadic brilliance after that. From 1984 through '89 he went 92-61 with a 128 ERA+. He won two Cy Young Awards and led the league in just about everything in 1989 (wins, win percentage, ERA, complete games, innings, WHIP, strikeout-to-walk ratio...). It was an injury-plagued career, though, and in the end he made only 371 starts, the same number as Danny Darwin but fewer than Bill Lee. He got 1.3% of the vote in his one year on the ballot.
Stieb was very good -- mostly -- for an 11-year period from 1980 through 1990. He went 158-115 with a 128 ERA+. He led the league in ERA once, in complete games once, in innings twice, in ERA+ twice and in hits per nine twice. He never came particularly close to winning a Cy Young -- in his best year he finished tied for seventh because, despite leading the league in ERA, he finished only 14-13 for a good Blue Jays team that scored three runs or less for him 16 times. He got 1.4% of the vote in 2004, his only year on the Hall of Fame ballot.
The point is -- all of these pitchers were dazzling for relatively short periods of time. This was good enough to get them into the Hall of Merit. And yet, Dizzy Dean -- who was 140-76 with a 133 ERA+ in his six- or seven-year peak -- is not in the Merit. Addie Joss, who was 160-97 with a 142 ERA+ in his nine-year career, is not in the Hall of Merit. Lefty Gomez, who was 151-76 with a 134 ERA+ in his eight-year peak, is not in the Hall of Merit.
And this brings me back to my point. I think the Hall of Merit is absolutely terrific, the best collection of great players available, but I don't agree with everything in it. I CANNOT agree with everything in it because I have my own idea about what constitutes the Hall of Fame. We all do. Take the very name of the place -- the Hall of Fame. About 50 or 100 times a year, someone will send me an email reminding me (as if I may have forgotten) that the place is called the Hall of FAME, not the Hall of Statistical Excellence or whatever, and that Bert Blyleven or Tim Raines or Ron Santo or Dan Quisenberry or whoever else I was pitching was not FAMOUS or not FAMOUS ENOUGH.
Of course, I don't see it that way at all. I feel quite certain that the place is called the Hall of Fame because it BESTOWS fame on its inductees, and not because it's around to simply collect players who were once famous. Why would I care at all about a place for people who were once famous? I wouldn't go to a museum that featured Foster Brooks, Twiggy, Tiny Tim, Coco Chanel, Molly Brown, Fabio, Fabian, Maharishi Mahesh, Leon Czolgoz and Lottie Collins because they were once famous. Who cares?
But again -- that doesn't matter. If someone else thinks that a qualification for the Hall of Fame is fame, then that is what they think. If someone else thinks that a Hall of Famer comes with a gut feeling, or that longevity matters, or that peak value matters, or that it should be a really big Hall of Fame, or that it should be a really small Hall of Fame -- well, none of that is wrong. The Baseball Hall of Fame matters to so many of us because it isn't about right or wrong. It's about how we view the game.
My father's favorite baseball player was probably Frank Howard. He doesn't know if Frank Howard is in the Hall of Fame (he is not) and he would not be especially interested in the arguments for him (career 142 OPS+, hit more homers than anyone from 1967 through '71 despite playing in awful hitting RFK Stadium) or against him (relatively short career, famously subpar defensively). All he knows is that Frank Howard was a bigger-than-life character who crushed comically long home runs. Frank Howard would be in HIS Hall of Fame.
That's the beauty of it. We all can have our own Baseball Hall of Fame. And when one of our players gets into the real Hall, we can cheer. When one of the players not in our own Hall gets into the real Hall, we can boo. That's the fun of it.
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