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.
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.)
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.
- The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 1 (ondeckcircle.wordpress.com)