Is it possible that a player in the Baseball Hall of Fame could be considered under-appreciated? Isn’t membership in those hallowed halls evidence enough that a particular player’s legacy has been abundantly lauded?
Yet it is true in baseball, as in other walks of life, that even those honored can be quickly overshadowed by subsequent (or even prior) honorees.
For example, the actor Robert Duvall has won an Oscar, two Emmy’s, and four Golden Globe Awards. Yet his name seldom seems to roll easily off the tongues of people discussing the best actors of the past forty years. On the other hand, Duvall’s contemporary, Robert DeNiro, is ubiquitous on the vast majority of Best Actor lists. Duvall has received critical acclaim, but still seems to be generally under-appreciated.
But enough prologue. Let’s get down to business.
It needs to be stated upfront, of course, that choosing a list of under-appreciated players is in large part an exercise in the subjective. After all, your list will probably look quite different from mine. We all have our biases, and we all choose the statistics most useful to suit our needs.
Having said that, today’s post (the first of six planned posts on this topic) will focus on the first two players in this series who comprise the right side of my infield. Here, then, is the initial installment of my All-Time Hall of Fame Most Under-Appreciated Team:
First Base - Roger Connor: Born in Waterbury, CT in 1857, Connor played his entire 18-year career (but for one season in the ill-fated Player’s League) in the National League. He retired in 1897 at age 39, having amassed an incredible 233 triples (fifth most in history).
Playing primarily for the Trojans, the Giants and the Browns, Connor had more seasons of 100+ runs scored (8), than Lou Brock. He had as many 100 RBI seasons as Mickey Mantle, and his career WAR (80.6) is a bit higher than Ken Griffey, Jr.’s 79.2
Connor’s OPS+ (153) was better than Honus Wagner’s mark of 151. Connor is credited with being the first player to ever hit an out-of-the-park Grand Slam, and the first to hit a home run completely out of the Polo Grounds.
A big man, listed at 6’3″, 220 pounds, Connor both threw and hit left-handed. He could hit for average (.316 career), he could hit for power (led N.L. in home runs in 1890), he could steal a base (7 times he topped 20 steals), and he could play some defense (a solid 6.2 dWAR.)
Perhaps most impressively, Connor’s 138 career home runs remained the M.L.B. record for 23 years after his retirement, until Babe Ruth shattered the mark in 1921.
Roger Connor died in his hometown of Waterbury, CT in January 1931. A victim of the Florida real estate crash of the early 1920′s, Connor and his wife are buried side-by-side in unmarked graves in Waterbury’s St. Josephs’s Cemetery.
Second Base – Joe Gordon: Although there are at least a couple of Yankees who probably don’t deserve to be in the Hall of Fame (Herb Pennock and Phil Rizzuto come to mind), Joe Gordon has long been an under-appreciated player.
Other Yankee second basemen have been more widely known over the decades, players like Tony Lazzeri, Billy Martin, Bobby Richardson, Willie Randolph, and now, Robinson Cano. But, with the possible exception of Cano, no second baseman in Yankee history was better than Joe Gordon.
Gordon was born in Los Angeles in 1915, but his family later moved north to Oregon. Drafted by the Yankees as an amateur free agent, he immediately made an impact in New York, swatting 25 homers and driving in 96 runs for the 1938 Yankees. This incredible team also featured Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Bill Dickey.
In 1942, at the age of 27, Gordon won the A.L. MVP award.
Up through 1943, when Joe Gordon was still in his prime (28-years old), he’d already enjoyed six highly productive years with the Yanks. He had averaged 24 homers and 95 RBI per year, and had accumulated 33.3 WAR (about what Cano has generated in his first eight years.)
Then came WWII, or rather, Gordon’s call to duty in a war that was already half over. The War cost Gordon two full years (1944-’45.) In 1946, he got injured in spring training and had a terrible year. He was traded to Cleveland the next season for pitcher Allie Reynolds.
The trade worked out well for both teams. Gordon went on to lead the Tribe to a World Series victory over the Boston Braves in the ’48 World Series. His 32 homers that year remained the A.L. record for a second baseman for 53 years, until 2001.
During Gordon’s tenure with the Yankees, he played in exactly 1,000 games, and he garnered exactly 1,000 hits.
Joe Gordon’s 253 home runs remains the career record by an A.L. second baseman. That is a remarkable total, considering both of his home ball parks did not favor right-handed power hitters, also recalling that he missed a couple of his prime years to war.
Finally, Gordon’s resume is further buttressed by a stellar defensive reputation. His career 22.4 dWAR is better than that of any second baseman in history not named Bill Mazeroski. Gordon’s overall career WAR of 54.0 is better than that of Chase Utley, Jeff Kent, Nellie Fox, Tony Lazzeri and Bobby Doerr, to name but a few other highly productive second basemen.
Joe Gordon died of a heart attack in 1978, age 63. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame 30 years later, in 2009. It shouldn’t have taken that long.
In the next installment of this series, I will take a look at the left side of the infield of my All-Time Under-Appreciated team.