The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Cleaning Up the Hall of Fame: Rick Ferrell vs. Thurman Munson

Picture of Thurman Munson (deceased)

Image via Wikipedia

This is the third installment of this series.  Here are the links to Part 1 and Part 2.

Briefly, the point of this series is to find a player better than someone else already in the Hall of Fame at the same position.  This is not to say that the alternate player I have chosen is definitely a Hall of Famer.  Rather, it is just to point out that better choices are often readily available.

So let’s take a look at Hall of Famer Rick Farrell, a catcher chosen by the Veteran’s Committee for induction into The Hall in 1984.  Then we’ll compare Farrell’s career with that of former Yankee catcher Thurman Munson, tragically killed in a plane crash in August of 1979.

Rick Ferrell was a very durable backstop who, when he retired in 1947, had caught more games up to that point than any A.L. catcher in history.  Highly respected by Connie Mack and others, Ferrell reputedly had a strong throwing arm and was very smooth behind the plate.

Ferrell currently ranks 28th all-time in assists and 37th in putouts by a catcher.  He also handled four knuckleball pitchers while toiling with the Senators, certainly no easy task.  So we can establish that, at least defensively, Ferrell was a very good catcher who played for a very long time (1929-47 inclusive.)  But is that enough to deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Let’s take a look at the rest of his record.

Ferrell was a seven time All-Star.  His best year offensively was 1931 when his OPS+ was 113.  His lifetime batting average was .281.  Ferrell’s best finish in MVP voting was 12th place in 1933.  He drew far more walks (931) than strikeouts (277.)  His career on-base percentage was a pretty solid .378.  He managed 1,692 hits of which 324 were doubles.

Ferrell slugged just 28 home runs and drove in 734 runs in 18 seasons, scoring just 687 more.  His career OPS is .741, while his OPS+ is just 95.  By way of comparison, Rick’s brother, Wes, a pitcher, slugged 38 home runs and produced a career OPS+ of 100.

Keep in mind as well that Ferrell generally played in a hitter’s era.  Ferrell’s career WAR of 22.9, which includes his defense, is one of the lowest in The Hall.

Rick Ferrell lasted just three years on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot, never topping 0.5 percent of the vote.  Clearly, the baseball writers didn’t think Rick Ferrell belonged in The Hall.  And frankly, neither do I.  But the Veteran’s Committee, in their collective mysterious wisdom, apparently felt otherwise.

Thurman Munson would be an appropriate alternative to Rick Ferrell.  Here’s why.

Let me begin by saying that, as a kid growing up in southern Connecticut in the ’70’s, I never liked Munson.  He always struck me as scruffy and gruff, the kind of guy I might like to punch out if he was my age.

He was dumpy looking, had no real power to speak of, and worst of all, he played for the hated Yankees.  As a Mets fan, I wasn’t exactly part of Red Sox nation.  Still, when the Red Sox and Yanks engaged in one of their periodic on-field brawls, I always rooted for the BoSox.  You know how it goes.  The enemy of my enemy is my friend.

But none of that detracts from the career Thurman Munson enjoyed with the Yankees from 1969-79.  In an era blessed with fine catchers (Bench, Fisk, Simmons, etc.), Munson was one of the best.  A seven time All-Star in his ten big league seasons, Munson finished in the top ten in batting average five times. He was voted A.L. Rookie of the Year in 1970.

Munson’s career WAR (a cumulative stat) of 43.4 nearly twice as high as Rick Ferrell’s career WAR of 22.9, and Munson played in nearly six fewer seasons than Ferrell.

Munson was a fine defensive catcher, leading the A.L. in runners caught stealing twice, and generally handling the Yankees pitching staff very effectively.  He won three Gold Glove awards for his defense.

A much better hitter than Ferrell, Munson topped a 120 OPS+ in five different seasons, including a career high 141 in 1973.  Three times, Munson finished in the top four in the A.L. in hits.  Munson also drove in at least 100 runs in three consecutive seasons.

In 1976, Munson won the A.L. MVP award for leading the Yankees to their first A.L. pennant in 12 years.  He also finished in the top ten in MVP voting in two other seasons.

Where Munson truly excelled, however, was in the post-season.  Munson played in 30 post-season games, batting .357, including a .529 mark against the Reds in the ’76 World Series. Ironically, that World Series against the Big Red Machine was the only one of six post-season series that the Yankees lost with Munson behind the plate.

The bottom line is that as a kid, I was wrong about Munson.  Sure, he looked like a fire-hydrant that needed a shave, but the man could play baseball, and he was a winner.

Thurman Munson was certainly among the dominant players in his era in a way that Rick Ferrell just never was.  And for that reason, Munson would be a suitable replacement for Rick Ferrell in the Hall of Fame.

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12 thoughts on “Cleaning Up the Hall of Fame: Rick Ferrell vs. Thurman Munson

  1. Reblogged this on cult of americana and commented:
    In advance of an upcoming article, here’s a terrific one from The On Deck Circle..

  2. Great read Bill, I really enjoyed it. I have been taking a very close look at Thurman’s career over the past several years. He was an all time great. I like where you mentioned how he finished in the top 4 in hits 3 times. That is quite a feat for a catcher in any era. Did you know that no catcher has ever led the league in hits and that in 1975 Munson fell just 5 hits short of George Brett for the title. This is the best finish in BASEBALL HISTORY for catchers. During the D.H. era, 1973-2011, Munson holds the BEST 3 finishes by a catcher for hits in a season, 1975,1976 and 1978.

    • Hi Tom, Thanks for the kind words. I did not know that Munson had the top 3 finishes for hits in a season during that era. I would have guessed Piazza or even Joe Mauer would have one or two of those seasons. Munson was a very underrated catcher, and that’s why I like to write about semi-forgotten stars like him.
      Again, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll come back for more.
      Bill

  3. Back to the topic of Munson, I agree that he is much more deserving than Ferrell. While I believe Simmons and Joe Torre deserve induction first, I’d put Munson in too. He’s a rare underrated Yankee.

    • Although I wrote the entire post on why Munson would be a better choice for The Hall than Ferrell, I have to agree that Ted Simmons is the best catcher not in The Hall. I have mixed feelings about Torre. I would probably vote for his overall accomplishments in baseball, including his time as manager. As far as voting him in solely on his playing days, I’d have to give that one more thought. Cheers, Bill

      • Charlie Reinhard on said:

        Munson is more deserving than Simmons in my view. Munson was a gold glover, hit in a tough park for righties and was the captain of two world series winners. He was also an MVP. While Simmons was a very good hitter, Munson was the first AL player since Al Rosen in the 1950s to hit 300 with 100 rbis three years in a row. And none of those three marked his best year as a hitter (1973). Munson could hit. He had more power on the road and as rough as Yankee Stadium was for right handed hitters, Munson also spent two seasons at Shea. In 1975, he and Rusty Staub became the first players ever to drive in 100 runs playing at Shea. Munson caught Sparky Lyle’s Cy Young performance in 77 and Ron Guidry’s amazing 25-3 Cy Young season in 78. Chances are, in my view, Munson would have managed in NY or Cle when his career ended. The Veteran’s Committee should put Munson in the HOF.

      • Hi Charlie, I appreciate the reply. Obviously, I agree with you in general that Munson was a very fine player; that was the point of this post. As for whether he was better than Simmons, well, I think they’re actually pretty close. Munson won some Gold Gloves, but if he’d played in the N.L. along with Simmons, neither of them would have beaten out Johnny Bench for that annual award. Being the starting catcher for a couple of Cy Young winners (one, a reliever who immediately lost his job to Gossage), is also nice, but there are plenty of catchers out there who caught Cy Young winners, but most of them don’t belong in The Hall.
        RBI’s can be a misleading stat. Mickey Mantle drove in over 100 runs just four times, while Jeff Kent did it 8 times, but I don’t think any sane person would argue that Kent was a better player than Mantle.
        Munson and Simmons had comparable career on-base percentages (.346 to .348), similar OPS+ (116 to 118), neither scored 100 runs in a season (their career highs were 85 and 84, respectively), and as for RBI, they each had three 100 RBI seasons.
        A case can be made that they both belong in The Hall. A case can also be made that neither of them belong in The Hall. They were both very fine catchers, but it’s not a slam-dunk that one was better than the other.
        Thanks very much for reading, and for leaving the comment,
        Bill

  4. That photo is actually Wes Ferrell, the Ferrell brother who actually deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. 🙂

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