The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I named the under-appreciated right side of my Hall of Fame infield:  First Baseman Roger Connor and Second Baseman Joe Gordon.  For an explanation of what this series is about, you can go back and read the first post here.

In today’s entry, I will divulge my choices for the most under-appreciated shortstop and third baseman in The Hall.  You may be surprised by at least one of my choices.  I’ll be curious to hear what you think.

English: 1933 Goudey baseball card of Floyd &q...

English: 1933 Goudey baseball card of Floyd “Arky” Vaughan of the Pittsburgh Pirates #229. PD-not-renewed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Shortstop – Arky Vaughan:  Outside of people who write blogs like this as a hobby, Vaughan’s HOF career has gone largely unnoticed by the average baseball fan.

Joseph Floyd Vaughan was born in Arkansas in 1912, (thus, Arky), though his family moved to California when he was very young.

Signed by the Pirates, it was hoped that Vaughan might finally be the shortstop to fill the shoes of Honus Wagner, who had retired 15 years earlier.

Vaughan broke into the Majors in 1932 at age 20, performing reasonably well.  He batted .318 and posted a 3.6 WAR.

For the next nine seasons, Vaughan was the best shortstop in either league.  He made the All-Star team in every season he was eligible, led his league in triples, walks, and on-base percentage three times each, and won a batting title, hitting .385 in 1935.

Vaughan’s .491 on-base percentage in 1935 is still the single-season record for a shortstop.

Vaughan posted a ridiculous strikeout to walk ratio in his career, drawing 937 walks while striking out just 276 times.  His career OPS+ of 136 compares favorably to HOF shortstops Ernie Banks (122) and Lou Boudreau (120).  (Derek Jeter’s is currently 118.)

Vaughan was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1942 at age 30.  Playing a new position, third base, Vaughan had a down year.  He rebounded, however, in 1943 when Pee Wee Reese went off to WWII, Vaughan gaining his old position back for that season.  He belted 39 doubles, and led the league in stolen bases and runs scored.

But 1943 was also the turning point in Vaughan’s career.  He was involved in a bitter dispute with manager Leo Durocher, at one point pulling off his uniform and telling Durocher to shove it up his ass.  Though he finished out the ’43 season, he refused to report to the Dodgers in the spring of ’44. He remained unofficially retired, living the life of a farmer, and did not return to the Dodgers until 1947.  By then, Durocher was gone, but Vaughan, now 35-years old, was not the player he had once been.

Vaughan remained a part-time player for the next couple of seasons, until retiring after the 1948 season, age 36.

About ten years ago, Vaughan was rated by baseball statistician Bill James as the second best shortstop of all-time.

Vaughan’s career on-base percentage of .406 is the highest ever by a shortstop, better than Honus Wagner, Alex Rodriguez and Luke Appling.  His career WAR of 70.5, accumulated in just a dozen full seasons, places him among the top 50 position players of all-time.  In fact it is better than what HOF’ers George Kell and Pie Traynor produced combined.

Many, many shortstops are more famous than Arky Vaughan.  More baseball fans are probably familiar with Bert Campaneris, Dave Concepcion, and Bud Harrelson (none of whom are in The Hall) than they are with Vaughan.  And that’s too bad, ’cause Vaughan deserves to be remembered and appreciated more than any of them.

Tragically, Vaughan drowned when his fishing boat capsized in 1952, just four years after he retired from baseball.  He was just 40-years old.

He was finally voted into The Hall by the Veteran’s Committee in 1985, fully 33 years after his death.

Third Base – Eddie Mathews:  You may think this is a strange choice.  Eddie Mathews, the 12-time All-Star third baseman for the Braves?  The man who hit over 500 career home runs, and who drove in over 1,400?  Perhaps the second greatest (after Mike Schmidt) third baseman to ever play the game?  The Eddie Mathews with the career WAR of 91.9, good for 22nd best among all position players in history? (33rd best, if you include pitchers.)

Circa 1963 head shot photograph of American ba...

Circa 1963 head shot photograph of American baseball player Edwin Lee Mathews wearing a Milwaukee Braves cap. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yes, that Eddie Mathews.  Here’s why.

Out of the 235 ballots cast listing the top 50 Inner Circle Hall of Famers on Graham Womack’s project back in July, Mathews received 148 votes.  That means that 87 people who cast ballots did not think that Mathews rated among the 50 best players of all time.

Still not convinced?

Back in 1999, MasterCard sponsored an All Century Team composed of the top 100 players of all-time, as voted on by the fans.

Over two million votes were cast.  Only 174,529 ballots were cast for Eddie Mathews.  Thus, only about eight percent of the fans who cast ballots believed that Mathews was one of the top 100 players ever.

By comparison, Brooks Robinson, who hit about half as many homers in his career as Mathews did, and whose career WAR was almost 18 points lower than Mathews, received 761,700 votes.

Mike Schmidt (855,654 votes) and Robinson were named as the All Century Team’s two starting third baseman.  Mathews was ignored.

How about one final example?

Eddie Mathews retired in 1968 after a 17-year career during which he slugged 512 homers, scored over 1,500 runs, drew over 1,400 walks (he ranks 24th all-time on that list) produced an OPS+ of 143 (the same as Harmon Killebrew and Mike Piazza, and better than Duke Snider or Reggie Jackson.)

Seems like a slam-dunk case for induction into the Hall of Fame, correct?

On Mathews first time on the ballot (in 1974) he received just 32% of the vote from the baseball writers.  In his second year, he received a little over 40%.  Finally, in his fifth year on the ballot in 1978, Mathews cleared the 75% percent threshold by accumulating 79% of the vote.

Here’s what baseball writer Joe Posnanski had to say about this:

Eddie Mathews’ (32.3%) Hall of Fame journey is baffling. How could a third baseman with 500 home runs not go first ballot? I guess timing plays a role — he did come on the ballot in 1974, the same year as Mickey Mantle. But nobody particularly exciting joined the ballot the next year, and Mathews’ totals only went up a few percentage points. Nobody particularly exciting joined the following year either, but again Mathews’ numbers barely climbed — after three years, he was still not at 50%. The voters finally came to their senses in 1977, jumping him into the 60s, and he was elected the following year. But I really don’t know why it took so long. The low batting career batting average (.271)? The under appreciated skills (Mathews led the league in walks four times)? Eddie Mathews was one of the greatest baseball players ever — when he went on the ballot in 1974 he was almost without question the best third baseman ever. The voters not electing him first ballot is one of the stranger decisions in the history of the Hall of Fame.

Here’s the link to the rest of the Posnanski article.

Eddie Mathews, it appears, might just be the most taken for granted superstar in baseball history.

In 2001, Bill James ranked Eddie Mathews as the 34th greatest player (including pitchers) who ever lived.  Mathews died that same year, age 69, in La Jolla, California.  Here’s an interesting read about the events that led up to Mathews death. published on Arne Christensen’s blog, Misc Baseball.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Next up in this series, my choices for the most under-appreciated catcher and left-fielder in the Hall of Fame.  Thanks for reading.


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11 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 2

  1. I think Bill James speculated somewhere that between Mathews’ stats tailing off somewhat after a superb first few years of his career, and him being overshadowed by teammate Hank Aaron, people moved him to the back of their minds a little bit as the ’60s went on. There were quite a few other N.L. superstars to overshadow him that decade, too. It seems Eddie was in some important ways similar to Mickey Mantle: big stars in their early 20s, careers that ended too soon, liked to carouse, not real complicated personalities.

  2. I think Vaughan has two problems: he played a long time ago and he plays for the Pirates-always Honus Wagner’s team.

    Mathews has three problems: although he’s a member of what might be the best team of the 1950s (the 1957-58 Milwaukee Braves) his team is overshadowed by the 3 teams in New York, debates about great third basemen have devolved into discussions of Brett and Schmidt and left everyone else behind, and he’s the best player on his team for only a short period and gets lost in the rather formidable shadows of Henry Aaron and Warren Spahn.

    Both are inspired choices. Nice series you have going here. Looking forward to the next installment.

    • Hi, Your logic, as usual, is right on the money. Glad you like the series. I haven’t yet settled on my left-fielder.
      Funny how 3rd base is sort of a semi-forgotten position in The Hall. As you say, it’s just all Brett and Schmidt all the time.
      Thanks again, Bill

  3. It does seem odd (as in Vaughn’s case) that a player with such superlative stats would be denied entry to the hall for so many years.

    At least Eddie Matthews got to be appreciated in his own lifetime. However, I read the article in the link, and that cruise ship accident was just grisly! Putting the “freak” back in freak accident!

    • As far as Mathews, I thought the same thing about that accident. Jesus, no one deserves to have that happen to them.
      As for Vaughan, the Veteran’s Committee inducting him was one of the rare events that they got something right.
      Now go back and work on your projects, man!
      And thanks for reading,

  4. I would say that Vaughan has a leg up on Davis as a player, in that Davis played in what is more of baseball’s Dark Ages. As far as Vaughan’s record goes, there just isn’t any holes in it. I think Bill James made an interesting point with Mathews–in his first few year, he looked like the guy who would break Ruth’s record, and ended up being overshadowed by the guy who did break Ruth’s record, so he was thought of as something of a disappointment.

    • Hi, I’m glad you brought up the point about what Bill James had to say about Mathews. It sounds plausible to me, though I don’t go back quite that far to be able to remember what was said about Mathews by the writers of the day. And yeah, though I’m sure some of the great 19th century players could have played in any era, I’ll take the relatively more modern player who played the game much more as it looks today.
      As always, thanks,
      (Also wanted to let you know I’ve been enjoying your poetry lately as well.)

  5. Good pick on Vaughan, though George Davis would have been a worthy choice as, well. Davis waited even longer than Vaughan, gaining induction 58 years after his death. He was worth 80.2 WAR in his career. Arky had the much better peak, however.

    My latest wWAR numbers do have Davis ahead of Vaughan, though:
    Davis: 167.1
    Vaughan: 151.8

    I’d argue that Vaughan is a bit more well known than Davis, too (unless you read Bill James’ The Politics of Glory).

    You might also be tempted to pick Bill Dahlen (144.3 wWAR) or Jack Glasscock (135.3), but (rather ridiculously) neither is in the Hall.

    Third base has a couple good candidates, but I love your pick of Mathews. wWAR has him as the 30th best player of all time, regardless of position. Mike Schmidth is 22nd. He is absolutely not treated that way.

    Another could be Frank “Home Run” Baker. His wWAR of 123.5 ranks 125th all time. People constantly defend Pie Traynor’s induction, saying that at the time he was the best third baseman ever. He wasn’t. Baker was.

    Now Baker actually settles in with a group of non-Hall of Famers, like Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Deacon White, Sal Bando, and Ken Boyer. He’s not leaps and bounds above any of them, but third base is a weird position. Half the guys in there shouldn’t be and a ton outside of the Hall should be.

    Great job on this series!

    • Hi Adam, I decided to go with Vaughan because he did have such a huge peak in his career, and because I don’t want to fill this series up with multitudes of 19th century players, so many of whom are under-appreciated. I could do an entire 19th century list at some point. Also, Vaughan’s career is interesting because he chose to sit out three full seasons. If he’d played then, especially against the watered-down MLB talent during the WWII years, he might have added another 10.0 WAR to his career total, which would have put him right there with Davis.
      I couldn’t agree more with your analysis of third base regarding the HOF. The BBWAA doesn’t seem to have a clue what to look for in a quality third baseman. “Home Run” Baker was actually my second choice after Mathews, so we’re on the same page there as well.
      It’ll be interesting to see how the voters treat Scott Rolen when he becomes eligible. My guess is that he won’t get in, or at least not for a long, long time. Yet there are only about five guys ahead of him on the dWAR list, and he has eight Gold Gloves. Also, his overall WAR of 66.5 is virtually the same as Ron Santo, as well as HOF’ers Ed Delanty and Gary Carter.
      Glad you enjoy the series. Thanks for reading,

    • I’m psyched Arky Vaughan was your pick at SS, although I kind of expected George Davis for the reasons Adam cites. But, as Bill said, there are so many under-appreciated 19th century players (pretty much everyone except Cap Anson and Cy Young, and maybe Old Hoss Radbourn and Willie Keeler, although Young and Keeler were turn-of-the-century players).

      • Hi Dan, Arky was a bit of a sentimental pick on my part. In the end, we all choose the players that we connect with, one way or another. The stats come a bit later.
        Thanks for reading, Dan.

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