When last we reviewed the inductees into the baseball Hall of Fame, we observed that during the decade of the 1980′s, Hall of Fame voters did a reasonably nice job with their choices. Certainly, compared to the 1970′s and to some other previous decades we’ve looked at before, the 1980′s was something approaching a Golden Age for the Hall of Fame.
And a Golden Age for the HOF is what we’ve been looking for all along. Has the baseball Hall of Fame, as some writers and fans seem to believe, ever enjoyed an era when only the best of the best were inducted?
In Parts 1-5 in this series, what we have found is that in virtually every decade outside of the 1930′s, the voters have made some highly questionable –in some cases just plain terrible– choices for the Hall of Fame.
Yet the decade of the 1980′s, in which only a couple of really poor choices were made, offers reason for hope that HOF voting is finally on its way to reaching that much spoken of, yet mysteriously elusive, Golden Age.
So let’s now turn to the 1990′s and see if the voters continued to build on this momentum, or if, instead, they reverted to form. And once again, BBWAA is the Baseball Writers Association of America, while the V.C. is the Veteran’s Committee, a motley assortment of scruffy little elves who live in the bowels of the Hall of Fame.
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1990: BBWAA – Joe Morgan, Jim Palmer
Despite the fact that former 10 time All-Star and two-time N.L. MVP second baseman Joe Morgan often embarrasses himself every time he opens his mouth as an announcer, he was one of top three greatest second baseman of all time. Ironically, despite his own egregious examples of ignorance regarding modern baseball statistics, it is precisely sabermetrics that holds Morgan’s career in highest regard.
Morgan’s career WAR of 103.5 is 20th best all-time among position players. His career OPS+ of 132 rates him as high as Tony Gwynn and Al Simmons. Otherwise, Morgan was just a career .271 hitter who never reached 200 hits, 40 doubles, or 300 total bases in a season.
So you see, Joe, sabermetrics are your best friend, if you would just stop talking long enough to allow the oxygen to enter your brain.
Jim Palmer was the ace of the Orioles pitching staffs once upon a time, but I remember him better, perhaps unfairly so, as the man who modeled underwear in magazines. My own favorite pitcher of the era, Tom Seaver, modeled three-piece suits while pretending to throw fastballs (tacky, I admit, but at least he kept his pants on.)
1991: BBWAA – Rod Carew, Ferguson Jenkins, Gaylord Perry V.C. Tony Lazzeri
Busy year for The Hall. Carew, Jenkins and Perry are all laudable choices. Carew was one of the finest natural hitters of all-time. He was voted onto every All-Star team from 1967-1984. Carew won seven batting titles. Strangely, despite all the times he reached base, only once did he top 100 runs scored in a season.
Jenkins, perhaps the greatest Canadian-born player in Major League history, reached 20 wins in a season seven times. His career WAR of 81.3 is 20th best all-time among pitchers.
Perry topped 300 wins while leading the league in wins three times with three different teams. He won two Cy Young awards (one in each league), and is 10th on the career WAR list for pitchers at 96.3. One of the last of the spit-ball pitchers, it is interesting to me that MLB picks the rules it chooses to either ignore or enforce, apparently based on no particular guidelines other than will this be bad for P.R.?
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Tony Lazzeri was a slugging second baseman for the Yankees in the 1920′s and ’30′s. His huge RBI totals have led many to believe that he is one of the all-time greats at his position. Between 1926-36, he topped 100 RBI seven times, and reached a .300 batting average five times.
His overall game, however, was simply good, but not great. His career OPS+ of 120, and career WAR of 48.3 reveal a player who was, and remains generally overrated, though certainly not merely average. A flawed, if somewhat defensible choice for The Hall.
1992: BBWAA – Rollie Fingers, Tom Seaver V.A. Hal Newhouser
Are you old enough to remember when the Rolaids Relief Pitcher of the Year was a new award? Do you remember when closers were called “fireman?” Do you remember when these “fireman” used to regularly pitch over 100 innings per season?
Enter Rollie Fingers. The Rolaids Relief award was created in 1976, and Fingers then went on to win the award four times, as well as a Cy Young and A.L. MVP award in 1981 for the Brewers. He topped 100 innings in a season eleven times, and made five All-Star games. He was most famous, of course, for his handlebar mustache while pitching for the great A’s teams of the 1970′s.
Some have argued that Fingers was a bit overrated, and that his reputation far exceeded his statistical excellence. My response to that is, I’d like to care, but these are closers we are talking about, a position that just doesn’t interest me. The “Save” stat is one of the most bogus of any major sport. Therefore, if we have to put relief pitchers in The Hall, I’ll take the one with the best mustache.
Tom Seaver: A reasonable argument can be made that Tom Seaver was the greatest pitcher of all time.
Hal Newhouser won consecutive MVP awards while pitching for the Detroit Tigers in 1944-45. Incredibly, he also finished second in MVP voting in 1946. Over a five-year period, 1944-48, he led the league in wins four times, averaging 25 wins per season during those four years. His WAR of 56.3 (better than Whitey Ford) and his career ERA+ of 130 are HOF worthy.
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1993: BBWAA – Reggie Jackson
Mr. October was one of the most conceited, brash, exciting and controversial baseball players ever. In a way few other athletes have ever been able to do (Muhammad Ali comes to mind), Reggie Jackson could regularly back up his words with his performance. Sure, he struck out a ton, but first in Oakland, then especially in New York City, Reggie defined the meaning of the word Super-Star.
If Reggie Jackson is not a Hall of Famer, then no one is.
1994: BBWAA – Steve Carlton, V.C. Phil Rizzuto
Steve Carlton had a running feud with the press. Phil Rizzuto became a member of the press after he retired from baseball. Carlton got into The Hall despite his poor relationship with the media. Rizzuto got into The Hall primarily because he worked in the media. Carlton was a great pitcher who belongs in The Hall. Phil Rizzuto was a decent shortstop who had one great year but who clearly does not belong in the HOF. The BBWAA got it right, the V.C. got it wrong.
1995: BBWAA – Mike Schmidt V.C. Richie Ashburn, Vic Willis
Eight-time Home Run champ, three-time N.L. MVP, ten time Gold Glove winner Mike Schmidt was the greatest third baseman in MLB history. What I’ve never understood is how Pie Traynor of the old 1920′s and ’30′s Pirates was widely considered the best third baseman in history until Schmidt came along. Anyone ever hear of a guy named Eddie Mathews?
Richie Ashburn played center field for the Phillies in the late ’40′s and into the ’50′s before finishing his career with the Cubs and the ’62 Mets. Although he hit with very little power, he was an on-base machine, played hard, and was a Gold Glove caliber outfielder. He knew what his job was, and he always did it well. Solid choice for the HOF.
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Vic Willis played in the National League the last two years of the 19th century, then 11 more in the 20th century. He topped 20 wins eight times in 13 years, but he never led the league in wins. He did, however, lead the league in losses twice, reaching a high of 29 losses for the terrible Boston Beaneaters in 1905. His 249-205 record does not scream Hall of Famer, nor does his ERA+ of 118. Still, he is at least a half-way defensible choice, if not an obvious one.
But what the hell was he doing wearing a catcher’s mask in this picture? Looks a little creepy, doesn’t he?
1996: V.C. Jim Bunning
As a U.S. Senator from Kentucky, Jim Bunning was not one of my favorite people. As a pitcher, though, Jim Bunning probably does belong in the HOF.
Career record: 224-184, ERA 3.27, ERA+ 114, WAR: 60.1.
1997: BBWAA – Phil Niekro V.C. Nellie Fox
The knuckleball is one goofy pitch, but if you are the best knuckleballer of all time (96.3 WAR), you gotta belong in The Hall. Niekro topped 300 wins over the course of a quarter century of baseball. He led the league in complete games and innings pitched four times each, and in wins twice. Pitching for some horrific Braves teams, he also led the league in losses for four straight years, 1977-80.
For whatever reason, there were a lot of pitchers who came up in the late 1960′s and pitched well into the ’80′s, tossing an enormous amount of innings along the way: Seaver, Carlton, Blyleven, Perry, Niekro, John, Kaat, Sutton, Ryan, etc.
I’m not sure why that is, but I have a hunch that, as the Great Depression and World War II wound down, the average caloric intake and overall nutritional improvement (more protein, for example), in the diet of the youth of that era played an underrated role in the size, strength and stamina of these future Major League pitchers. Knuckleballs and spitballs aside, this was one durable generation.
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Nellie Fox had a girl’s name (sounds like a leading lady from the silent film era), but he played one helluva second base. Fox just missed election by the BBWAA (74.7 percent) in his last year on the ballot in 1985, so give credit to the V.C. for correcting that oversight.
Fox led his league in assists six times, and, beginning in 1952, he led the league in putouts ten consecutive years. His career d WAR: 10.0, is among the top ten all-time among second basemen, and he won three Gold Gloves. Made every All-Star team from 1951-63. Despite over 10,000 plate appearances, he never struck out as many as 20 times in one season. Won A.L. MVP honors in 1959 for the Go-Go White Sox. There’s enough there for induction into the HOF.
1998: BBWAA – Don Sutton V.C. George Davis
Don Sutton snuck up on us. In his first decade as a Dodgers pitcher, he was recognized as one of the most consistently good pitchers in the N.L., but few people would have guessed that one day, he would make the Hall of Fame.
In his 23-year career, Sutton never led the league in wins, win-loss percentage, or strikeouts. He led the league in ERA just once. He never won a Cy Young award (although five times he finished in the top five.) But only Cy Young and Nolan Ryan started more games than Sutton, only six pitchers in history threw more innings, and Sutton stands at #7 on the all-time strikeout list with 3,574, two places ahead of Walter Johnson.
Sutton compiled a 324-256 record, despite enjoying just one 20-win season. Sutton was never the best pitcher in the league, but, cumulatively, he was one of the best starting pitchers who ever lived.
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George Davis broke in as a 19-year old outfielder with a terrible Cleveland Spiders team (44-88) in 1890. Eventually, he shifted to third base, then shortstop (the reverse of the usual pattern) and got traded to the Giants, where he wound down the 19th century. He finished out his career in the early aught’s of the 20th century with the White Sox.
Along the way, he amassed 2,665 hits, 1,545 runs scored, 619 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 121. His career WAR was an outstanding 90.7. He was the best player in the A.L. in 1905.
He also might just be the finest baseball player in history that almost no one has ever heard of.
1999: BBWAA – George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount V.C. Orlando Cepeda
Are you kidding me? This group has to go down as one of the finest in the history of the Hall of Fame.
The first thing that comes to mind about George Brett is how, when Yankees manager Billy Martin protested that Brett’s bat had too much pine tar on it in a game at Yankee Stadium on July 24, 1983, the umpire ruled that the home run Brett just hit in the top of the ninth to put the Royals ahead was null and void. Brett came storming out of the dugout like a wild man.
The umpire’s decision was later overruled by the A.L. President, the game was resumed, and the Royals later won the game three weeks later.
Brett also made an improbable run at becoming the first hitter to bat .400 since Ted Williams in 1941 when he finished with a .390 average in 1980. Brett hit at least .300 eleven times, winning three batting titles along the way (his last in 1990 when he was already 37-years old.) Brett ranks 6th on the career doubles list with an astounding total of 665, and he lashed 3,154 hits in his career. An obvious HOF’er.
How great was Nolan Ryan? His 5,714 strikeouts are a record that I can’t ever see being broken. He surpassed the great Walter Johnson’s once hallowed career strikeout total by over 2,000 strikeouts! Ryan led his league in strikeouts a ridiculous eleven times, threw a record seven no-hitters and is tied with Bob Feller for the most one-hitters with 12.
Ryan’s 6.6 hits / 9 innings is the lowest (therefore, the best) rate in baseball history. No one, including Sandy Koufax, was harder to hit. Ryan also won 324 games in his career. His 61 shutouts are tied with Tom Seaver for seventh place in baseball history.
Yet Ryan never won a Cy Young award. He also never led the league in wins, but he did once lead the league in losses. His career walk total, 2,795, is 50% higher than any other starting pitcher in baseball history. In fact, he walked more batters in his career than Walter Johnson and Cy Young combined.
Ryan’s 292 career losses are the third most ever, and his .526 won-loss percentage is rather low by HOF standards. His career ERA+ of 112 is the same as Derek Lowe, Juan Guzman and the immortal Ice Box Chamberlain. Ryan’s career WAR of 84.8, is 16th best among pitchers.
Although it is somewhat difficult to gauge exactly where Ryan rates among the game’s greatest pitchers because he is so unique, I think it is safe to say he does not belong in the top ten. Placing him in the middle or lower half of the top 20 sounds about right.
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Robin Yount is the greatest player in Milwaukee Brewers team history. Just an 18-year old kid when he came up in 1974, he played his entire 20-year career with the Brewers. He was their starting shortstop through 1984, then at age 29 he moved into the outfield.
Yount is the Brewer’s all-time leader in at bats (11,008), hits (3,142), runs scored (1,632), doubles (583), triples (126), home runs (yes, home runs, 251), RBI (1,406), total bases (4,730), and WAR (76.9). He also won two A.L. MVP awards. He obviously belongs in the HOF.
Orlando (Baby Bull) Cepeda, the V.C.’s HOF offering for 1999, had one of the greatest starts to his career of any ballplayer in history. Beginning at age 20 in 1958, Cepeda drove in at least 96 runs in each of his first seven years for the S.F. Giants, averaging nearly 32 homers per year while regularly batting over .300. Yet he enjoyed only a couple of excellent years after that run, and he was essentially done as a ballplayer by age 33.
Cepeda was voted Rookie of the Year in 1958, and he won the 1967 N.L. MVP award. His career WAR, 46.8, is a bit on the low side. But during his peak years in his 20′s, he was one of the best players in the National League. While his induction into the HOF can be viewed as questionable, it was not wholly undeserved.
The 1990′s, then, were the best overall decade for the HOF since the 1930′s. Fully 83% of the players elected during this decade were very solid choices, and only one, Phil Rizzuto, was obviously a poor choice.
If, then, you are looking for the Golden Age of the Hall of Fame, the recent 1990′s might be your era.
Next time, in Part 7 of this series, we’ll look at HOF elections during the first decade of the 21st century. Then we’ll see if we can draw any conclusions as we sift through the final overall numbers of Hall membership.
See the links below if you want to take a look at any of the first five installments of this series.