The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 4

Welcome to Part 4 of this series.  So far, our roster of the Hall of Fame’s most under-appreciated players looks like this:

1B – Roger Connor

2B – Joe Gordon

SS – Arky Vaughan

3B – Eddie Mathews

C  – Gary Carter

LF – Jesse Burkett

Not a bad team.  Let’s flesh it out now with a center fielder and a right fielder, shall we?

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder ....

English: Philadelphia Phillies centerfielder . Levels and saturation adjusted. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Center Field – Richie Ashburn:  Why Richie Ashburn, and not someone like Max Carey, Hugh Duffy or Billy Hamilton?

For one thing, Ashburn had a higher career WAR (60.2) than either Duffy or Carey, and about the same as Hamilton.  Also, Ashburn, as far as dWAR is concerned, was a better defensive center fielder than any of them.

Ashburn’s range in center field was excellent. He led the N.L. in Range Factor ten times in his career.  Ashburn also led all outfielders in his league in putouts nine times, and assists four times.

In his rookie year in 1948, the 21-year old Ashburn batted .333 and topped the N.L. with 32 stolen bases.

In just his third season in the Majors, at age 23, Ashburn was a key member of the Phillies “Whiz Kids” team that won the N.L. Pennant by two games over the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Ashburn led the league that year in triples with 14 while batting over .300 and playing solid defense in center field.

As a hitter, Ashburn didn’t generate much power (just 29 career homers), but he was an on-base machine.  He finished first in the N.L. in walks four times, and in hits three times.  In six seasons (including his first and last) he topped a .400 on-base percentage.

On the other side of the ledger, Ashburn was very difficult to strike out.  During his twelve prime years with the Phillies (1948-59), Ashburn never struck out as many as 50 times in a season.

Ashburn was also very difficult to double-up.  In eight of his seasons, he grounded into fewer than five double plays.  In three additional seasons, he grounded into fewer than ten.

For eight straight seasons, (1951-58), Ashburn scored at least 90 runs in every season.  He also led the league in hits three times, topping 200 hits in each of those three years.

Playing the final season of his 15-year Major League career with the hapless ’62 Mets, 35-year old Ashburn posted a .306 batting average and an outstanding .424 on-base percentage, still the third highest single season on-base percentage in Mets history.

Ashburn retired after the ’62 season at age 35 having netted 2,574 hits to go along with nearly 1,200 walks, a .308 career batting average, and an even more impressive .396 career on-base percentage. He scored 1,322 runs, slashed 109 triples and stole 234 bases.

Despite those numbers, and the reputation of being one of the greatest lead-off hitters, and excellent defensive center fielders of his generation, Ashburn never received much more than 40% of the vote of the BBWAA.  After his name fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 1982, it wasn’t until 13-years later in 1995 that the Veteran’s Committee finally inducted Ashburn into the HOF.

Richie Ashburn died a couple of years later, in 1997, at age 70.  He is still among the Phillies’  all-time leaders in several offensive categories such as base hits, runs scored, walks and on-base percentage.

Right Field – Harry Heilmann:  Harry Heilmann was, along with Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Al Kaline, one of the greatest outfielders in Detroit Tigers history.

Heilmann was one of the few baseball players born on the west coast before the turn of the twentieth century.  Born in San Francisco on August 3, 1894, Heilmann debuted with the Tigers in 1914 at age 19.  Given his German heritage (on his father’s side), one has to wonder if this young German Catholic teenager didn’t experience at least some bigotry around America as the First World War settled like a steel cloud over Europe that summer.

Heilmann didn’t stick with the big club immediately, and spent the summer of 1915 in the minors.  But by 1916, he had become a permanent resident of the Detroit outfield, playing alongside Ty Cobb.    Through 1920, Heilmann was a very good player, though not yet a great one.  Heilmann’s breakout season was 1921, when he turned 26-years old.

In 1926, Heilmann won the A.L. batting title with a .394 batting average, besting teammate Ty Cobb by five points.  He also led the league in hits with 237.  He slugged 42 doubles, 14 triples and 19 home runs.  He finished second in the league in OPS+ (167), WAR (6.5), RBI (139), Slugging Percentage (.606) and Total Bases (365.)

Heilmann went on to win a total of four batting titles, in alternating years, from 1921 to 1927.  His batting averages in those four years were .394, .403, .393, and .398.  He also topped .300 in eight additional seasons in his 17-year career.

Heilmann’s .342 career batting average ranks 12th on the all-time list, just a couple of points shy of Ted Williams.

In fact, Heilmann was the last A.L. player to hit .400 (.403 in 1923) until Ted Williams accomplished that feat by hitting .406 in 1941.

Heilmann’s On Base Plus Slugging Percentage of .930 ranks ahead of Hank Aaron, Tris Speaker and Frank Robinson, among others.  His career OPS+ (148) ranks 40th all-time, ahead of Willie McCovey, Mike Schmidt and Willie Stargell.

Heilmann finished in the top five in MVP voting in his league four times, and he was the best player in the A.L. in 1925, posting a WAR of 6.5.  His career WAR of 67.3 is better than HOF players Ed Delahanty, Tony Gwynn, Al Simmons, Eddie Murray and Duke Snider.

After spending the first 15 years of his career with the Tigers, Heilmann caught on with the Reds for a season and a half.  In his last full season as a player in 1930, Heilmann hit .333 and drove in 91 runs.  He retired in 1932 at age 37.

Heilmann finished his career with 183 homers, 1,539 RBI, 542 doubles and 151 triples.

Despite all of these accomplishments, Heilmann was not elected into the Hall of Fame until his 13th year on the ballot in 1952.  Unfortunately, Heilmann had already died of cancer in 1951.  While on his deathbed, however, his former teammate and sometimes nemesis Ty Cobb came to visit him.  Cobb, in a rare act of empathy, told Heilmann that he had been voted into the Hall of Fame that summer so that Heilmann could die a happy man.

Which just goes to show, sometimes good lurks in the hearts of even the coldest men.

NEXT UP:  The Pitchers

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18 thoughts on “The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 4

  1. Hey Bill, just catching up on this series. 🙂

    Asburn is exactly who I would have picked. Thought I might have actually given a little consideration to Larry Doby. He had a very nice peak and I think his contribution does get a bit overshadowed by Jackie Robinson. I mean, Jackie gets all the publicity he deserves. I just think the players who came a few months after him are improperly remembered.

    Heilmann’s a great choice, too. I might have actually gone as far as picking Mel Ott. He doesn’t seem to be revered on the level he deserves. The same could possibly be said for Frank Robinson.

  2. A very fascinating series. It’s hard to imagine any Hall-of-Famer could be underrated; but everything is relative. There is certainly a wide spread from top to bottom in the amount of recognition these guys receive.

  3. Mike Cornelius on said:

    My brother-in-law grew up in Philly. He certainly appreciates your choice of Richie Ashburn!

    • Hi Mike, That’s why I’m trying to mix it up between the old-timers like Ashburn and the real old-timers from the 19th century. It’s nice when someone actually remembers any of these guys from their childhoods.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

  4. footinthebucket on said:

    Bill, I enjoyed reading that. Extremely well-written.

    I will enjoy your writing even more once I figure out the significance of “OPS” and “WAR” and “WAR+”.

    I do agree with you you, though, that Ashburn is one of the underrated hall-of-famers.

    Glen Russell Slater

    • Hey Glen, Thanks for stopping by. I appreciate the kind words. Also, I certainly don’t consider myself an expert with sabermetric stats. I generally know what they mean, but I have no idea how to compute them.
      Cheers, Bill

  5. Heilmann is an excellent choice; I know he played in a high-octane environment, but his career numbers are just plain impressive. As an aside, Crawford is one of the subjects in Lawrence Ritter’s The Glory of Their Times (I’m guessing you’ve read it; if not, go do so NOW–it may be the best baseball book ever written.) He might be the most interesting character in a most interesting group of characters.

    • Hey W.K., “The Glory of Their Times” is my all-time favorite baseball book. I remember reading about Crawford many years ago. I’ll have to go back and re-read it. And, of course, thanks for reading this post.
      Bill

  6. Richie Ashburn’s an interesting one.

    When the Veteran’s Committee elected him in 1995, I recall him kind of being considered in the category of Hall of Fame stretches, like Phil Rizzuto the year before him. His offensive numbers, by previous standards, didn’t really stand out (didn’t get to 3000 hits, .308 batting average is nice but not great, no power, not a ton of stolen bases). A big part of his HOF case was his defense, which people who didn’t see him play were likely skeptical of.

    Then, advanced metrics come along and his lifetime .396 OBP (as a leadoff hitter) becomes greater appreciated, and we’re now able to quantify his defense (to the extent that we trust dWAR, even though, in his case, it doesn’t seem to exaggerate his ability), and he looks more and more like a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

    I agree with Alex that Sam Crawford and Harry Heilmann are virtually interchangeable for this distinction and for the third greatest Tigers outfielder moniker. I favor Heilmann too, but they’re oh so close. In fact, by the baseball-reference ELO rater, Heilmann is #46 and Crawford #47 (among batters, of course).

    • Hi Dan, On a different day, I might have chosen Crawford over Heilmann. As you say, they’re really close in terms of overall career value. As for Ashburn, I was too young to have ever seen him play, and I can understand how, using the traditional stats like homers, RBI, and batting average, he might not have appeared once upon a time ago to belong in the HOF. For that reason among others, I felt he was truly under-appreciated.
      As always, thanks for the kind words.
      Cheers, Bill

  7. Alex Putterman on said:

    Hey Bill, I’m enjoying this series thoroughly and finding very little to quibble with, so let me pose one nit-picky question:

    Isn’t it a disservice to Sam Crawford, who himself probably deserves consideration for the right field spot on this team, to say with certainty that Heilmann is one of the three best Tigers outfielders ever?

    Regardless, keep up the good work. I look forward to reading more of these.

    • Alex, Thanks so much for reading, and I’m glad you are enjoying the series.
      There’s no question that Sam Crawford was a great player, and certainly, as the all time leader in triples with 309 and with nearly 3,000 career hits, an argument can be made that he belongs among the top three Tigers outfielders. Personally, though, I would still pick Heilmann. My reasons are that although their respective career WAR’s are close (only a couple of points apart), Heilmann had more career doubles, homers, RBI, a higher batting average, a higher on-base percentage, and a higher OPS+.
      But I think in most regards, they stack up pretty evenly. You couldn’t go wrong with rating either one of them after Cobb and Kaline, and I probably should have at least mentioned Crawford in this group. I guess, in the end, I chose Heilmann because (not that Crawford is exactly a household name these days) Heilmann is such an obvious example of an under-appreciated Hall of Famer. In other words, it was just an arbitrary, personal choice.
      Thanks for holding me accountable, and for reading,
      Bill

  8. Always Good Stuff, Mr. Bill, Fo SHO!

  9. I totally agree with Richie Ashburn. In my book he’s in the top 3 for defensive center fielders. And a top 5 all-time lead off hitter. He deserves more props, that’s for sure.

    Kevin

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