The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Hall of Fame of the Heart

What does reason know?  Reason only knows what it has succeeded in learning. -Dostoevsky

If you could build your own Baseball Hall of Fame, what kind of place would it be?

It’s likely that the actual Hall of Fame includes several  players you admired while growing up.  It’s also likely that some of the players you admired the most then, and still do today, were never deemed Hall worthy.

You may not even have any real problem with that.  Intellectually, you probably understand the statistical reasoning that has served to exclude some of your favorite players.

But suppose we were to construct a Hall of the Heart, that is, a place (or, more accurately, an idea), where those players who captured our imagination all those years ago would be enshrined?  In fact, when we use the term “Hall of Fame,” it begs the question, famous to whom?

If fame is the fleeting, fickle standard by which we are to choose our immortals, it is by definition an extremely subjective standard.  Just because the evolution of The Hall has coincided with a revolution in statistical analysis doesn’t necessarily mean that the membership of the former should be almost entirely dependent upon the mathematical equations of the latter.

Or, as the 19th century Russian writer, Dostoevsky, stated in Notes From Underground:

[Man] is fond of striving toward achievement, but not so very fond of the achievement itself, and this is, naturally, terribly funny. In short, man is constructed comically; there is evidently some joke in all of this. But two times two makes four is still an altogether insufferable thing. Two times two makes four–why, in my view, it is sheer impertinence. Two times two makes four is a brazen fop who bars your way with arms akimbo, spitting.

Now, don’t get me wrong here.  This is not a diatribe in favor of the so-called “traditionalist” view of baseball.  Nor am I suggesting that the statistical work that has been done by the modern, progressive wing of the baseball universe has been accomplished by “brazen fops.”   The fact is that the “traditionalists” use stats just as readily to make their particular cases just as often and with as much gusto as those of the sabermetric persuasion.  They just choose to use a different set of (generally older) stats.

What I’m advocating here is a return to the idea of baseball as fun, as entertainment, and as the fount of the dreams of youth.  For that, we have to look inward, into our irrational, passionate selves.     We never cheer a 1.040 WHIP, but we do cheer the unlikely triple hit by the chubby kid that scores the go-ahead run in the home-half of the eighth inning.

What follows, then, is (perhaps inevitably) a list of the players who inspired my imagination as a child, and on into my teens and early twenties.  They are the by-product of time and place, and are of a distant genetic lineage to the gods and immortals of old:  Hercules, Odysseus, Achilles, Agamemnon, Heracles, Theseus, etc.

I will strive for brevity in my comments about each one of my heroes.  My list, after all, is not intended to convince you of anything at all, except of my own vulnerable humanity.

It is also not in any particular order.  Let the imagination do its work, uninterrupted:

1)  Tom Seaver:  My very own Odysseus.  Conquering hero, fated to spend several years away from home ( Queens / Ithaca) eventually to return again, triumphant, however briefly.

2)  Freddy Lynn:  Inspiration in the summer of ’75 for so many backyard dives and catches.  To play so fearlessly, even for one season in the sun, is what it’s all about.

3)  Steve Garvey:  Though it’s not a Steve Garvey model, I bought a first-base mitt to be like him.  I still have it today.  Handsome, dependable, heroic and a star, in the mid-1970’s, he was everything I could ever hope to be.

4)  Rusty Staub:  There was always something mysterious about him.  Rusty sometimes wore a black glove while batting, he came from foreign lands (Montreal, by way of Houston), and he was also a practicing chef.  He was like a secret agent masquerading as a baseball player, and he had a certain swagger about him.  He was like Robert Vaughn in The Man From U.N.C.L.E.  crossed with Robert Vaughn in The Magnificent Seven.

5)  The Boys of Summer:  This was the first grownup book I ever read.  I was around ten or eleven years old, and while reading it, I wanted the entire Brooklyn Dodgers team to be my friends and family.  Roger Kahn also made me want to be a writer, if I couldn’t be a ballplayer.

Giants manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy...

Giants manager John McGraw and pitcher Christy Mathewson during the 1911 World Series. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Christy Mathewson:  Although he played long before my time, I was struck by his story, his boyish good looks, and his integrity.  Mathewson was college educated.  His manager, John McGraw, was an old-school tough without much formal education.  Yet McGraw loved Mathewson like a son.  It was the sort of relationship I coveted with my father.

Mathewson was gassed in a training accident in 1918 during the First World War.  He would die young, at age 45 in 1925, of tuberculosis.

Like Achilles, he would shine brightly all too briefly.  He was both literally and figuratively a warrior, and the war would contribute to his early demise.

7)  Keith Hernandez:  Keith was, without doubt, the greatest fielding first baseman I’ve ever seen.  He took charge of the infield in a way I’ve never seen a first baseman do either before or since.  Always fearless and accurate when throwing across the diamond, he cut down more base-runners in a week, than I’ve seen some do in a year.

Keith was also a great clutch hitter.  Never a big power threat, Keith would spray line-drives all over the place, usually when they mattered most.

He also had a smoking habit, and, although it never inspired me to start smoking myself, it did make him seem more accessible and human.  He wasn’t some body-building athlete intent on perfecting his physique.  He was a baseball player with the God-given ability, the natural instincts and the competitive drive to succeed in a very difficult sport.

8)  Will “The Thrill” Clark:  An intense southern boy from the bayous of Louisiana, Will Clark was  nothing if not a competitor.  The eye-black he wore made him look like a special forces sniper.  Another first baseman, he helped get me back into collecting baseball cards in the late 1980’s.  I wanted to collect every card that featured him, and I wanted to copy his smooth, left-handed swing.  I was always happy when the Giants came to town so I could watch him play.

If the character, Swan, from the movie, “The Warriors” was a pro baseball player, he’d be Will Clark (and wouldn’t the Baseball Furies just love that?)  Swan is the very first Warrior you see in this clip. The movie is loosely based on Homer’s, The Odyssey.

Eric Davis hit for the cycle in 1989.

Eric Davis hit for the cycle in 1989. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)9)

 9)  Eric Davis:  Eric the Red.  A contemporary of Will Clark, he played with a slash and burn style reminiscent of the Norseman of myth and legend.

I absolutely loved the way Eric Davis, in his prime, made the game of baseball look so easy that he might soon grow bored with it and find another hobby.

He could steal bases, hit homers, range around the outfield, score runs, and he played with just enough of the toughness of the streets of L.A. where he grew up.

Later, in 1998, Davis also made a heroic comeback from colon cancer to play remarkably well for the Baltimore Orioles.

Eric Davis and I also share a birthday, May 29th.  He was born exactly one year before me.

10)  Jeff Bagwell:  Bagwell grew up in my home state of Connecticut and is just a few years younger than I.  Throughout the ’90’s, Bagwell was my favorite player.  He was powerful, he could really run the bases, which was most unusual for a first baseman, and I loved his wide-open stance.  An aggressive player, Bagwell basically had no weaknesses in his game.  If the god Apollo could play baseball, he would be Jeff Bagwell.

These are certainly not the only ten players in my Hall of the Heart.  A random sampling of many others would include Roger Maris, Dwight Gooden, Larry Walker, Bernie Carbo, Jerry Grote, Lou Gehrig, Bill Lee, Jim Bouton, Dave Kingman, Sid Fernandez, Rube Waddell, Jerry Koosman, Mookie Wilson, Jon Matlack, Jimmy Wynn, Bobby Murcer, Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, Kirby Puckett, Ken Griffey, Jr., Ted Williams, Cal Ripkin, Jr., Gary Carter, David Cone, Mike Vail, Lenny Randle, Mark Fidrych, Ron LeFlore, Sandy Koufax, Smoky Joe Wood, Ron Guidry, Dizzy Dean,  Arky Vaughan, Paul Konerko, Brian Giles, Nomar Garciaparra, Rusty Greer, “Toe” Nash, Sidd Finch, Moonlight Graham, Robin Ventura, Addie Joss, and yes, even Shoeless Joe Jackson.

Oh, and some guy who used to pitch for the Red Sox named Babe Ruth.

Now that’s a Hall of Fame for which I would happily pay the price of admission.

Who would you include in your irrational, sentimental Hall of the Heart?

I’d like to know.

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26 thoughts on “Hall of Fame of the Heart

  1. For me it was Richie Allen, or as he later was referred to, Dick Allen.
    Man, the homeruns that guy hit! Moonshots over the Coca Cola sign
    at Connie Mack Stadium back in the 1960’s. He was a rebel too, way ahead of his time. He had a profound effect on me as a kid, and as an adult.

    • Hi David,
      Dick Allen is a great choice. Much-maligned in his day (and even afterward by some sportswriters), Allen was his own man, which rubbed lots of people the wrong way. Immensely talented, in my opinion he has a legitimate case for HOF status.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts,
      Bill

  2. Goddamn, I forgot! I saw a few games played in Queens, and once played on in Ithaca , NY. So I guess that gives Odysseus, Tom Terrific, and myself something in common?

    • Well, Hello there, W.K. Good to hear from you. Somehow, I don’t think anyone would confuse Queens with Mt. Olympus, but then again, I’ve never been to Mt. Olympus. I wonder if they have planes flying overhead all the time as well up on that damned mountain?
      Good to hear from you,
      Bill

  3. eric davis. he stood at the plate with amazing ease almost like he was mocking the pitcher. it was impossible to not impersonate his stance while playing wall ball.
    i wonder if today’s kid baseball cranks allow their heroes to suffer low ob%?
    kids are freaking smart today. they blow my mind and turn the entire master-disciple dynamic on its head. there was maybe one kid on the playground i can recall who knew ob% secrets he worshiped george brett.

    i was monogamous in my hero worship. it was all harold baines. i was too young to know he was the worst interview in baseball and quietest player ozzy guillen had ever met, but heroes are heroes. i’ll never forget seeing baines in spring training sarasota holding court with an omish family from what i gathered was his home town of st.michael’s maryland.
    the memory and the amazing range of baseball fans stays with me.

  4. Reblogged this on New American Gospel! and commented:
    — J.W.

  5. This is pretty good. I think we always go back, as fans, to the players we loved when we were about 9-12 years old. If they catch your imagination, you never let go of liking them, despite what you might learn as an adult. I still have a big soft spot for Canseco and Clark and some of the other Giants and A’s of the late ’80s.

    • Hi Arne, That’s exactly what I’m talking about. There was a time when it was fine to idolize Canseco. Who gets to say that this is not longer O.K.? Nothing wrong with us wanting to hold onto our memories, and also nothing wrong with us remembering that all of these guys are just human, as well.
      Thanks,
      Bill

  6. I love this! I love that you included Clark and Christy Mathewson (Of course, being a huge Giants fan) I recently received a home replica Mays jersey for Christmas =D

  7. Glen Russell slater on said:

    Bill, your writing has gone to a higher plane since the All-Star Break (A.K.A. Christmas, Chanukah, and New Years), as has V’s. I kind of got burned out of reading baseball stuff multitudes of years ago, but you and V are bringing new stuff to it. (I hadn’t read all of your stuff from prior years. But I had read the one about you and the sandlot and that slice-of-life thing with the washing machine. As I said at the time, reminiscent of Jean Sheppard, and W.K. Kortas agreed with me on that, as you probably recall.

    Very entertaining stuff.

    Keep up the good work. And if you don’t try to get this stuff published, it’s just a plain sad waste. You really should.

    Glen

    PS As you can see, I have made a return to normalcy (as President Harding used to say), and it’s good to be back among the sane.

    By the way: One more thing about Will Clark. He always reminded me of the hulking characters in that one-panel comic strip “Herman”, by Jim Unger (which ran in the New York Daily News, among several hundred other papers). Clark had kind of a strange, upside-down smile on his face (not a pout, but an upside-down smile—— very strange) that I had only previously seen in that comic strip.

    • Glen, Thanks so much for saying so. Glad to have you back. And thanks for the kind words. Maybe someday I’ll try to get this stuff published, but right now I’m just having fun.
      You know, I think you’re right about Will Clark’s smile. I’d never noticed it before, but in retrospect, that sounds right to me. I guess smiling just wasn’t his thing.
      Take care, and thanks again,
      Bill

  8. I remember seeing Eric Davis against the Bucs at Three Rivers back in the ’80’s–he went yard once and absolutely dented the fence a couple other times. I found after the game he was playing with a flak jacket because his ribs were so bad. Man had a bit of natural talent?

    My HOFTH? Dick Stuart–my father had a “Don’t Boo Stu” bumper sticker: Andy Kosco, who once said “A major league pitcher needs three things–a good fastball, a good curve, and a good lawyer”: Orlando Pena, who signed for my older brother while fretting about how he shouldn’t that close to game time: Paul Ratliff, just for being him: Chris Speier, because I spent my little league career hitting with a Speier bat I bought in Cooperstown: Richie Hebner–Rich, all is forgiven.

  9. Great list. I was never a great fan of Eric Davis. That changed when he made his comeback after cancer. I remember thinking, “What are you doing? Give it up, dude and enjoy your life.” A lot of times I hate to be proven wrong, but I didn’t mind so much this time.

    Some of my “Heart HOF” players would be Jamie Moyer, Ron Cey, David Cone, Mike Piazza, Jay Buhner and a few others whose names escape me at the moment, but who probably wouldn’t even warrant a second glance from the actual HOF.

    • Jay Buhner, yeah, you gotta love Jay Buhner. Ever see the Seinfeld episode where George Steinbrenner goes over to George Castanza’s parents’ house to tell them that their son is dead? His dad rips into Steinbrenner about the Jay Buhner for Ken Phelps trade. Just go to Youtube and type in “Seinfeld Jay Buhner.” It’s pretty damn funny.
      I also forgot to mention Al “The Mad Hungarian” Hrobasky on my list. That dude was nuts.
      Thanks for stopping by,
      Bill

  10. Interesting idea.
    Being older than you and most of your readers, my list of misty memories goes back into the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were the three great Dodgers heroes that I adored: Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, and Sandy Koufax. I was small and a singles hitter in Little League so I worshipped Richie Ashburn and Vada Pinson. And in the same way that a big guy is called “tiny” I loved big Frank Howard because he was the kind of hitter I knew Icould never become, but secretly desired to be. I would be more than willing to visit a Hall of Fame that included Billy Pierce and Frank Lary, both pitchers who caught my fancy. My very first baseball card was a 1957 Don Kaiser. He was a bust, but I loved him. I don’t recall being particularly aware of old time baseball so Cobb and Ruth were simply names that meant nothing, but my Grandfather sung the praises of Terry Moore (center field Cardinals 1940s) so I always wanted to see him play (and never did). I found a short kids baseball bio of him and wore the thing out reading it. And of course in my family it was required to worship Stan Musial. I did.
    Thanks for bringing up so wonderful old memories and old names.
    v

    • I have to admit, I’ve never even heard of Don Kaiser, and I’m not so sure about Frank Lary, either. That’s exactly what I mean, though, about a Hall of the Heart. It doesn’t matter how great the players actually were. For some reason, they still connected with us, and we smile when we think about them even today, all these years later.
      Thanks, as always, for the kind words.
      Bill

  11. Bill,

    As you would probably guess my Hall of the Heart would start with Bobby Murcer. He is the reason I became a baseball fan.

    I remember watching Fred Lynn during his rookie year, and despite being a Red Sox player, I couldn’t help but let him into my personal Hall of Fame.

    Years later while attending a game at Yankee Stadium, Bobby Murcer crushed a line drive into right center field, a sure double, possibly a triple. Fred Lynn made a remarkable diving catch to rob Murcer of extra bases. Lynn was immediately removed from my Hall of The Heart, never to be allowed back in.
    The heart is a fickle mistress, not to be messed with.

    Kevin G.

    • That’s a great story, Kevin. I hadn’t thought of what would happen when two of my heroes clashed on the battlefield. Whom would I root for? Yes, the heart is a fickle mistress indeed.
      Thanks for reading,
      Bill

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