The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the category “Hall of Fame”

Ten Facts About Cooperstown, New York

Virtually every baseball fan knows that the Baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, New York.  But what do we know about Cooperstown, N.Y.?  I’ve been to Cooperstown a couple of times, though it’s been nearly twenty years since I’ve had the opportunity to visit the Hall of Fame.  I thought I might take a few minutes to see what kind of information I could uncover about Cooperstown.  Here are some facts I’ve decided to share with you:

Cooperstown, New York

Cooperstown, New York (Photo credit: Dougtone)

1)  Cooperstown is not named for the writer, James Fenimore Cooper (although the author did live and pen some of his stories, such as “The Last of the Mohicans,” in Cooperstown.  It is actually named for his father, William Cooper, who founded this town in the late 1780’s (though it first became officially incorporated in 1812.)

2)  Cooperstown Dreams Park was established in 1996, and the Youth Baseball League it serves features up to 1,350 teams competing per season.  The season lasts from the end of May until the end of August.

3)  The population of Cooperstown is 1,833, down nearly ten percent since the year 2000.  The population of Cooperstown is 91% white.  There are six black families and one resident of full-blooded Native-American ancestry. Females outnumber males 55% to 45%.  There is one registered sex offender in town limits.

4)  About one-quarter of the people of Cooperstown walk to work.  That’s very cool, except in the winter.

5)  Approximately 35% of the population are affiliated with a religious congregation.  Nationally, about 51% of Americans are affiliated with a particular religious congregation.  A plurality in Cooperstown are Catholics (43%.)

6)  The most common first name among deceased individuals in Cooperstown is Mary.  The most common last name among deceased individuals is Smith.  I would suggest that if your name is Mary Smith, you might want to avoid Cooperstown.  On the other hand, you would have a life expectancy of 81.5 years old.

7)  The first speeding ticket issued in Cooperstown was given out in 1906.

8)  No one born in Cooperstown has ever played Major League baseball.

9)  Company G of the 176th Infantry Regiment of New York was recruited from Otsego County (in which Cooperstown is located), as well as a few of the other surrounding counties.  They saw action in Virginia, North Carolina and Louisiana.  The majority of casualties this regiment suffered occurred at the Battle of Cedar Creek in Virginia in 1864.

10)  The last public hanging in Cooperstown took place in December 1827.  The man condemned to death was a first cousin of James Fenimore Cooper named Levi Kelley, convicted of killing his tenant, Abraham Spafard.  While the hangman was putting the noose around Kelley’s neck, the grandstand collapsed under the weight of the crowd of onlookers, killing one person and mortally wounding another.  The execution, however, went on as scheduled.

 

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Pitchers Who Lost the Most Games in the 1980’s

As you know if you’ve been following the Hall of Fame discussions recently, a certain starting pitcher has been touted as a deserving Hall of Fame player because he won more games in “his decade” than any other pitcher in the Major Leagues. Setting aside the obvious arbitrariness of how one decides the parameters of a particular decade (isn’t 1978-87, inclusive, also a decade?), how seriously should we take this argument?

Suppose, for example, that this allegedly Hall of Fame-worthy candidate also led his decade in a much less impressive statistic?  Would that take some of the sheen off the glow of a vaguely flickering candidacy?

First, let’s define the decade of the 1980’s, which, of course, is the decade that fans of Jack Morris claim he dominated because he won the most games.  It’s common to find that people will define the decade as 1980-1989 because, well, each of those numbers have an 8 in them.  It just sounds correct.  Except that it isn’t.

A true decade (if we must refer to decades at all) begins with a 1 and ends with a number divisible by ten.  Thus, my oldest son turned ten last July, meaning he completed his tenth year of life on his tenth birthday.  You don’t end a decade with a 9 (as in 1989), you end it with a ten (as in 1990.)  Therefore, the decade of the 1980’s mathematically occurred from 1981 to 1990.  These are the years which we will analyze in this post.

Specifically, which I’m sure you’ve gathered from the title of this post,  we will be taking a look at which pitchers lost the most games during the 1980’s (as I’ve defined that decade.)

Question:  If you are the “best” pitcher if you win the most games (Morris won 161 games from 1981-90) in an arbitrary ten-year time-frame, can you simultaneously be the worst pitcher if you have also accumulated the most losses over that same period of time?

Most Losses in Major League Baseball, 1981-1990:  (Minimum – 90 Losses)

Kevin Gross – 90

Tommy John – 90

Bob Welch – 90

Dennis Martinez – 91

Neal Heaton – 92

Bruce Hurst – 93

Mark Langston – 93

Shane Rawley – 93

Mike Boddicker – 94

Dennis Martinez – 94

Bill Gullickson – 95

Rick Rhoden – 95

Floyd Bannister – 96

Jose Deleon – 96

Bert Blyleven – 97

Dave Stieb – 100

Walt Terrell – 100

Richard Dotson – 103

Nolan Ryan – 103

Mike Scott – 104

Bob Knepper – 105

Frank Viola – 110

Mike Witt – 113

Fernando Valenzuela – 116

Jim Clancy – 118

Frank Tanana – 118

Charlie Hough – 121

Mike Moore -122

Jack Morris – 122

It should be pointed out that Mike Moore generally pitched for teams far inferior to the teams for which Jack Morris toiled.

So, if being the leading winner of the decade is one of the primary arguments for Jack Morris’s Hall of Fame candidacy, then shouldn’t his decade-leading loss total perhaps negate some (if not all) of that line of reasoning?

I’ll leave it to you, oh gentle reader, to decide for yourself.

Who Is the Average Hall of Fame Player?

Virtually every conversation about the Baseball Hall of Fame includes some version of the following argument:

“We shouldn’t water down the Hall of Fame.  It should only be reserved for the best of the best.”

The implication being, of course, that every pitcher on the ballot needs to compare favorably to Tom Seaver, Walter Johnson, and Sandy Koufax.  The same, of course, is true of every position player on the ballot.  Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams are the immortals that some fans believe our most recent ballot hopefuls need to measure up to in order to merit serious consideration for being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But how realistic and accurate is that assessment?  What is a “real” Hall of Fame-caliber player?  When we’re discussing the careers of Biggio, Bagwell, Thomas, Piazza, Walker, etc., (among the position players on the ballot), what is a fair and honest standard to hold them to in order to reward them with a plaque in Cooperstown?

Fortunately, Baseball-Reference has a page that actually sheds some light on these questions.  Here are the statistics for a typical, average position player already in the Hall of Fame:

Games:  2,134, Plate Appearances:  8,996, At Bats:  7,917, Hits:  2,397, Doubles:  409, Triples:  110

Home Runs:  209, Runs Scored:  1,321, RBI:  1,212, Stolen Bases:  228, Walks:  889, Strikeouts:  728

Triple Slash Line:  .303 / .376 / .462,  OPS:  .837  WAR:  69

I did a little research to see if I could find one player in baseball history who came closest to approximating those stats over the course of his career.  While there was no one player that matched perfectly, of course, there were a few who came relatively close.  For example, here’s Player A:

Games:  2,076, Plate Appearances:  9,053, At Bats:  7,869, Hits:  2,336, Doubles:  449, Triples:  55

Home Runs:  287, Runs Scored:  1,366, RBI:  1,257, Stolen Bases:  147, Walks:  1,069, Strikeouts:  1,212

Triple Slash Line:  .297 / .381 / .477,   OPS:  .858  WAR:  49.5 (But Offensive WAR:  62.7).

As you can see, Player A had a little more power, and a little less speed than your “average” HOF player.  But overall, this player is a pretty good comp.  Let’s try another.  Here’s Player B:

Games:  1,976, Plate Appearances:  8,283, At Bats:  7,173, Hits:  2,176, Doubles:  440, Triples:  47

Home Runs:  284, Runs Scored:  1,186, RBI:  1,205, Stolen Bases:  67, Walks:  937, Strikeouts:  1,190

Triple Slash Line:  .303 / .384 / .497,  OPS:  .880  WAR:  56.2

Player B’s batting average is right on the money, and his on-base percentage is close.  Again, a little more power and less speed than the average HOF’er.   One last comp:  Player C 

Games:  2,380, Plate Appearances:  9,086, At Bats:  7,946, Hits:  2,383, Doubles:  413, Triples:  148

Home Runs:  169, Runs Scored:  1,247, RBI:  1,304, Stolen Bases:  71, Walks:  1,018, Strikeouts:  538

Triple Slash Line:  .300 / .382 / .453,  OPS:  .834  WAR:  55.1

Player C’s Triple Slash Line is very close to the average HOF’er, as are his hits, doubles and triples.  The WAR is a little low, but the rest of the profile matches up pretty well with our hypothetically average Hall of Famer.

Which of the three do you like best?

O.K., I wasn’t being completely fair.  Of the three players I analyzed, only Player C is actually in the Hall of Fame. Player C is Enos Slaughter, inducted into The Hall in 1985.

Working backward, Player B is Will Clark, and Player A is Bernie Williams.  In other words, a typical Hall of Fame-caliber player isn’t necessarily even in the Hall of Fame.

As you can see, then, although many baseball fans feel protective of the Hall of Fame, and don’t want it to be “watered down” by inducting “unworthy” players, the truth is, the Hall of Fame doesn’t require protection from any of us.

There is little danger that any of the players on the current ballot who might conceivably be inducted would, in any objective way, lower the standards of the Hall of Fame as it actually exists.  If anything, the majority of the players on this year’s Hall of Fame ballot are, by historical standards, overqualified.*

Simply put, this is not just Hank Aaron’s Hall of Fame.  It is Enos Slaughter’s Hall of Fame as well.**

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

*You will find that this is true, even if you decide to break the list down position by position.

**It may also some day be Carlos Beltran’s Hall of Fame.  Though his stats are also pretty close to the historical averages, I didn’t include him because he is still currently active.

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This Year’s Hall of Fame Arguments

I’ve been reading a sampling of the vast body of opinion regarding the 2014 baseball Hall of Fame ballot, which includes many of the most famous (and infamous) names in baseball history:  Bonds, Maddux, Clemens, Sosa, Bagwell, Biggio, Piazza, Schilling, Glavine, Mussina, Morris, Raines, etc.  Predictably, there is not only little consensus on which players belong in The HOF (with the probable exception of Greg Maddux), but there also seems to be a great deal of disagreement about what standards we should even use to judge these players.

What follows is a random sampling of the often contradictory (occasionally hallucinatory) opinions that fans and writers have expressed online regarding the players, and the Hall of Fame voting procedure itself.  The player being commented upon appears in parentheses.

1)  “He was a compiler.  He needs to get used to the fact that he was a good, but not a great player, and only got to 3,000 hits because he hung around for a long time.”  (Craig Biggio)

2)  “He didn’t play long enough.  His career was too short.  He never got anywhere near 3,000 hits.”  (Larry Walker)

3)  “He didn’t hit 500 homers, which is the gold standard for first basemen.  Also, he just looks like a ‘roid user.”  (Jeff Bagwell)

4)  “Although he hit over 500 home runs, and was mostly a first baseman, he was just too much of a one-dimensional player.  He probably didn’t use steroids, but that’s not enough of a reason to vote for him.”  (Frank Thomas)

5)  “If he’s not in the Hall of Fame because of the mistakes he made, which he’s paid for long enough, then no one should be.  Betting on baseball is not any worse than steroid use.  In fact, steroids are far worse.”  (Pete Rose)

6)  “He should be in the Hall of Fame because he was one of the greatest players who ever lived.  Period.  It’s not like he bet on baseball, which is much more serious.”  (Barry Bonds)

7)  “Mostly, he got to 300 wins because he played for great teams.  Put him on a more average team, and we wouldn’t even be having this conversation today.”  (Tom Glavine)

8)  “I can’t see him getting elected to the Hall of Fame because he didn’t reach 300 wins, which would have made him an automatic Hall of Famer.”  (Mike Mussina)

9)  “If he and the other ‘roid users get in, then the Hall of Fame will have lost all respectability.”  (Roger Clemens)

10) “If the BBWAA doesn’t vote him into the Hall, then the Hall will no longer have any credibility.” (Roger Clemens)

11) “That’s what I hate about stats.  You can make an argument for lots of guys.”  (Tim Raines)

12) “He wasn’t any better than Ray Durham.  He just ended up with more numbers.”  (Craig Biggio)

13)  “He wasn’t any better than Lew (sic) Whitaker.  So why should be get in?”  (Craig Biggio)

14)  “A loudmouth phony and a shameless self-promoter.  Had a couple of great seasons, but so did a lot of other guys.”  (Curt Schilling)

15)  “This shouldn’t be a popularity contest.  There are lots of scumbags in the Hall of Fame.”  (Barry Bonds)

16)  “The Hall has been so watered down over the past few years, he’d just water it down further.”  (Argument against Jack Morris)

17)  “Winningest pitcher of the ’80’s, and always pitched to the score.  That’s why his ERA shouldn’t matter.”  (Argument in favor of Jack Morris.)

18)  “They all used steroids, so if everyone is cheating, then no one is cheating.”  (Clemens, Bonds, etc.)

19)  “All the steroid users should be in jail.”  (Clemens, Bonds, etc.)

20)  “I know stats wise he is better, but he also quit while he was ahead.  So people saying Glavine is just getting in over him due to 300 wins also need to look at the downturn that getting to 300 caused to the rest of his stats.”  (Argument apparently favoring (?) Tom Glavine over Mike Mussina.)

21)  “Not denying {he} was a pretty good pitcher, but he could throw the ball anywhere near the plate and the umps would call it a strike.”  (Greg Maddux)

22)  “No one ever had better command and control.”  (Greg Maddux)

23)  “Bloody sock, my ass.  One great World Series moment does not a career make.”  (Curt Schilling)

24)  “His Game 7, 10-inning shutout in the World Series was one of the greatest moments in baseball history.  That’s why he should be in the Hall.”  (Jack Morris)

25)  “Greatest right-handed pitcher ever.”  (Roger Clemens)

26)  “Greatest right-handed pitcher of all time.”  (Greg Maddux)

27)  “The Hall of Fame is just a museum of baseball, so you have to take the good with the bad.”  (Regarding the alleged steroid users.)

28)  “It’s a special honor to be inducted into the Hall of Fame.   It would send a terrible message if we put {them} in.”  (Regarding the steroid users.)

29) “Mantle’s stats were great… now think how better they’d have been if he hadn’t tried to paint every town red across the country. Heck, Babe Ruth’s off-the-field escapades were legendary. In the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, how many players were on the field after a night of uppers or downers? Few people speak ill of those guys.  Which affects a MLB game more? A home run that IS hit or a home run that IS NOT hit? A base hit or a strike out due to a hangover? (So, therefore, Mantle and Ruth should be EVEN MORE in the Hall of Fame?)

30)  “As long as he’s not in the Hall, it’s all a complete joke.”  (Argument for Shoeless Joe Jackson)

31)  “No one who played before Jackie Robinson came along and broke the color line should be considered as great as today’s players.”  (Argument against Shoeless Joe Jackson)

32)  “He shouldn’t be in there if Gil Hodges isn’t.”  (Jeff Bagwell)

33)  “To argue that he should be in the Hall when Tommy John and Jim Kaat are not is ridiculous.”   (Mike Mussina)

34)  “He was a good hitter, but as a day-to-day catcher, I’d take Brian McCann over him.”  (Mike Piazza)

35)  “Saves are a junk stat.”  (Lee Smith)

36)  “One of the two or three best closers of all time.”  (Lee Smith)

37)  “Largely a product of his home ballpark.”  (Larry Walker)

38)  “New how to use the short porch in right-field at Yankee Stadium to his advantage.”  (Roger Maris)

39) “All those who broke the rules should all be banned from baseball forever!”

40) Otter’s Defense of the rule-breakers:  (Animal House)

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Is This a Hall of Fame Pitcher?

How many outstanding seasons must a pitcher accumulate to become a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate?  This question is more important than ever because, now that the 300-game winner is likely to become all but extinct, it will become  increasingly necessary over the next several years to develop a set of objective criteria which might enable a  broad consensus to form regarding what exactly constitutes a Hall of Fame pitching career.

When we look back over the history of baseball regarding what it has meant to be a Hall of Fame-worthy pitcher, the 300-win threshold was not always considered a prerequisite to HOF induction.  Certainly, plenty of exceptions to this relatively modern de facto standard have been  made over the years to recognize the excellence of pitchers such as Dizzy Dean (150 wins), Jack Chesbro (198 wins), Rube Waddell (193 wins), Ed Walsh (195 wins), Addie Joss (160 wins), Dazzy Vance (197 wins), and, of course, Sandy Koufax (165 wins.)

In none of their respective cases did winning fewer than 200 games, let alone 300,  prevent their eventual enshrinement.  Fans and sportswriters alike were apparently of the opinion that greatness did not necessarily equal longevity, or that “only” a few outstanding seasons simply weren’t enough to merit Hall induction.

Yet by the 1970’s — certainly by the 1980’s — it had become de rigour for fans and pundits alike to trumpet the 300-win standard (or something damned close to it) for a pitcher to obtain even a passing glance at Hall immortality.  The irony is that at precisely about the time Hall voters had appeared to come to expect this arbitrary standard of would-be HOF pitchers, the game itself was evolving in ways (increased reliance on team’s bullpens, for example) that would make it less likely that modern pitchers would ever likely become 300-game winners.

There is always a lag time between what is true and what we believe to be true.  That is called learning from experience.  The history of America is the history of what we once believed to be true (slavery was justifiable, women could not compete in the workplace with men, etc.) versus where we are (however imperfectly realized) today.  HOF voters and fans are no different, and represent, perhaps, an even more conservative subculture of the general population.  Once an idea takes root, it is nearly impossible to shake.  Thus the continual, disproportionate attention paid to statistics such as batting average (for hitters) and wins (for pitchers.)

So, keeping in mind actual Hall of Fame history, please allow me to provide you with a series of statistics, and you tell me, (keeping in mind that only about one-third of Hall of Fame pitchers have actually won over 300 games) did this particular pitcher enjoy a HOF-worthy career or not?

Let’s begin with this pitcher’s three best consecutive peak seasons:

58 wins, 19 losses, completed 35 of 99 starts, 13 shutouts, 745 innings, 744 strikeouts, 1.04 WHIP, .187 batting average against, 2.28 ERA, 22.0 WAR, won a Cy Young award, and finished 2nd and 7th in the voting the other two years.  Incidentally, this is not a 19th-century, or early 20th-century dead-ball era pitcher.

At this point, would you agree or disagree that those are Hall of Fame-caliber numbers?

Lest you might think that those three seasons represent the entirety of this pitcher’s productive career, here are his statistics for his seven best consecutive years (he missed about half of one of these seasons):

119 wins, 46 losses, a .721 win-loss percentage, 209 starts, 55 complete games, 20 shutouts, 1,522 innings, 1,391 strikeouts, 1.14 WHIP (the same as Greg Maddux’s career WHIP), .207 batting average against, a 2.83 ERA, and 36 WAR (which includes his very respectable contributions with the bat.)

There was another 4th place as well as a 5th place finish in Cy Young voting during those additional four seasons.  In four of those seven years, he struck out over 200 batters, and he never lost more than nine games in any one of those campaigns.  That 36 WAR, by the way, is about the same as or higher than a few starting pitchers in the Hall of Fame, and we’re not quite done with this pitcher yet.

So, how about now?  Does this seven-year run of success merit HOF attention?  Does he at least belong in the conversation?  Are his numbers, at least at this point, not on a par with the other pitchers I mentioned in an earlier paragraph who won fewer than 200 games, but are in the Hall anyway?

To be eligible to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, a ballplayer needs to have accumulated at least ten seasons of service time at the Major League level.  So let’s look at this pitcher’s best ten-year period, and we’ll evaluate his HOF-worthiness:

154 wins-81 losses, .655 win-loss percentage, 296 starts, 67 complete games, 23 shutouts, 2,128 innings, 1,852 hits, 1,835 strikeouts, 3.03 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, .212 batting average against (he batted .200 over those ten seasons), and 47.0 WAR.

Admittedly, those are just about the only productive seasons he enjoyed during his career, but they certainly were a productive ten years.  The 154 wins are not that different from the number Koufax, Vance, Dean, and the others won during their entire careers.  And this pitcher’s final career WAR, 53.2, is higher than Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Burleigh Grimes, Sam Rice, Mickey Cochrane, Bobby Doerr, Kirby Puckett, Orlando Cepeda, Tony Lazzeri, Chief Bender, Bob Lemon, Nellie Fox…and Sandy Koufax.

Mind you, no one’s arguing that this pitcher was necessarily better than any of those players.  But if his career WAR is at least on a  par with those Hall of Famers, would it be ridiculous to ask if he should at least be in the conversation regarding the Hall of Fame?

His final career totals:

194-112, .634 win-loss percentage, 2,800 innings, 2,564 hits, 2,293 strikeouts, a .226 career batting average against, 1.25 WHIP, 3.51 ERA (though just 3.11 over his 12 years in the N.L.) a no-hitter, the aforementioned Cy Young award, a Rookie of the Year award, four trips to the All Star game, a Silver Slugger, and a World Championship ring.

So what’s your final decision as far as the Hall of Fame is concerned?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Either way, you’ve just taken a long, hard look at the career of Dwight Gooden.

Gooden spent just one year on the HOF ballot, drew just 3% of the vote, and that was the end of that.

It may very well be that every single member of the BBWAA took the time to seriously consider Gooden’s record before they cast their ballot, but I doubt it.  Players are preceded, smothered and sometimes buried by the narrative that has attached itself to their names, like barnacles under an old ship.  Gooden’s narrative is complex and tragic.

Now, I realize Gooden is far from the only potentially deserving HOF candidate to have been virtually ignored by HOF voters.  But I chose him precisely because so few fans and writers have ever appeared to take his overall career as seriously as his accomplishments suggest that they should.

Not every pitcher who finds success in the Majors is going to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  I get that.  But the current process does beg the question, short of 300 victories, just what exactly is it that voters want?

Author’s note:  I had written this post in its entirety before learning of the retirement of the great Roy Halladay late yesterday afternoon.  I could just as easily have made my key point about Halladay as about Gooden.  Will Halladay, with just 203 career wins, end up one and done on the Hall ballot like Gooden, or will the BBWAA recall all the great years Halladay enjoyed in his career, and reward him accordingly?  Most importantly, by what objective criteria will they decide?

My Hall of Fame Ballot, and a Cautionary Tale

Are you familiar with the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, located on the campus of Bronx Community College in New York City?  Not many people are.  It was formally dedicated in May, 1901, as place to honor prominent Americans who had a significant impact on U.S. history and culture.  Modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, its 630 foot open-air colonnade was conceived as a place where marble busts of America’s most significant writers, presidents, inventors, and the like would be commemorated for all time.  A very serious blue ribbon panel of 100 men was cobbled together to make initial nominations, and for several decades, the landmark was taken quite seriously.

As you have probably guessed by now, the existence of this Hall of Fame put the seed of an idea into the head of Ford Frick, who passed this idea along to Stephen Clark (of the Cooperstown Clarks), whose very wealthy local family connections paved the way for this unlikely caper to come to fruition.  Stephen saw this as an idea to bring business to Cooperstown, suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression, and nearly overnight, this quaint little village was  dedicated as hallowed ground where the Abner Doubleday legend also conveniently took root.  That there was no easy way to transport people to Cooperstown to visit the proposed new shrine doesn’t seem to have fazed Clark.

Meanwhile, while the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was just getting off the ground, the more established, high-brow Hall down in the Bronx (on what was then the campus of New York University) was in its heyday.  The New York Bar Association went so far as advocating for certain of its members, and newspapers breathlessly covered the annual inductions.

In a fantastic little article I recently discovered, Baltimore Sun columnist Joe Mathews (August 1, 1997), wrote, in a sentence that could serve as a cautionary tale for the institution up in Cooperstown, “The 97-year old monument is a shrine not only to [them], but to an ideal of fame that, like the hall itself, is dusty and decaying.”

Apropos to nothing, my favorite sentence in the article is, “The first hall of fame was the brainchild of a Presbyterian minister who was influenced by his concern for prostitution, democracy, and the Roman Empire.”  (emphasis added.) Mets brass, take note.  Want to put asses in the seats at Citi Field next season?  Why not go with  “Prostitution, Democracy and the Roman Empire” as next season’s slogan?  It’s certainly much more compelling than “Show up at Shea” (1998), or “Experience It” (2003).

Now, back to our story.

Hardly anyone ever visits The Hall of Fame for Great Americans these days anymore, even though it sits on an easily accessible college campus.  Its committee of electors made its final official inductions in 1976.  Among the four final inductees were a horticulturist and a judge.  None of the final four have yet had a bronze bust built in their honor.  Its Board of Trustees formally dissolved in 1979.  Since then, the colonnade has been far more popular with pigeons than with people.  You may still visit the 98 bronze busts in existence.  Self-guided tours are available daily from 10:00-5:00, with a suggested donation of $2.00 per person.

Attendance to the Baseball Hall of Fame has steadily declined over the past twenty years, from a high of over 400,000 in the early 1990’s to around 260,000 last year.  Although the Hall of Fame is a non-profit institution, and is, in effect, a ward of the State of New York, it appears that its operating budget was over two million dollars in the red in its last fiscal year.  Over the past decade, the HOF has more often than not lost money.

Outwardly, the Baseball Hall of Fame appears to be a healthy, thriving entity.  It has a modern website, a Board of Directors featuring such luminaries as Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan, and disproportionate influence on how the game itself is remembered from one generation to the next.  Its solid brick exterior and its pastoral location connote classical American values such as fortitude, temperance and diligence.  And it contains part of the original facade of Ebbet’s Field.  What can go wrong?

By all means, consider the official Hall of Fame ballot a sacred totem of a mystical shrine, if you will, but consider this:  Will our choices result in a stronger institution, more relevant to modern American sensibilities of entertainment and utility, or will they further contribute to the atrophy that apparently is slowly setting in?

Having said that, and while chafing at the ten-player limit arbitrarily imposed on actual BBWAA voters, here are my choices, in no particular order,  for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame:

1)  Greg Maddux

2)  Mike Piazza

3)  Craig Biggio

4)  Jeff Bagwell

5)  Tim Raines

6)  Tom Glavine

7)  Mike Mussina

8)  Alan Trammell

9)  Frank Thomas

10)  Don Mattingly

I’m sure the most controversial pick on this list will be Don Mattingly.  Fine.  Up until I set about typing this post, I would not have included him among this group, either.  But in light of all the previous paragraphs I’ve written about The Hall in this article, the relevant question is, would the enshrinement of Donnie Baseball be a good thing for the future viability of The Hall, or would it somehow be a “bad” thing.

Three questions:

1)  Was Don Mattingly ever the best player in the game during his career?

2)  Did Don Mattingly represent the game, his team, and himself with nothing but respect both on the field and off?

3)  Did he meet the 10-year minimum length career criteria for Hall eligibility?

The answer to each of these questions is yes.  From 1984-87, there was no better player in the American League than Don Mattingly.  He was always nothing but professional.  He played for 14 seasons.  At various times in his career, he led his league in hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases.  From 1984-89, he averaged 330 total bases per season.  Perhaps most impressively, however, he never struck out more than 43 times in any single full season in his career.

In his only playoff appearance, in 1995, vs. Seattle, he batted .417 in 25 plate appearances.  He was a six time All Star, won three Silver Sluggers, nine Gold Gloves, and his .996 Fielding Percentage is among the ten best all-time at his position.  He won an MVP award, and finished runner-up once as well.  If he picked up a bat today, at age 52, he would probably still outhit Ike Davis.

Perhaps more to the point, Mattingly has legions of loyal fans who might just possibly trek all the way up to Cooperstown to see their hero enshrined, and to listen to his acceptance speech.  Years from now, dads might still be taking their kids to see Mattingly’s plaque at The Hall.  How many parents do you think bring their kids all the way up to Cooperstown each year to stand in awe of the plaques of HOF “immortals” such as Herb Pennock, Rick Ferrell, Lloyd Waner, or Dave Bancroft?

Explain to me, then, how inducting Don Mattingly into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be bad for baseball, or for The Hall itself?

In the final analysis, the Hall of Fame is an idea as much as it is a place.  All baseball fans, in their heart of hearts, have their own idea as to what constitutes fame in this context.  When the chasm between what fans believe in their hearts is legitimate fame relative to the actual composition of the institution itself  grows too wide, then the fans, faced with an untenable choice, will always follow one and ignore the other.   Should that happen, The Baseball Hall of Fame may one day bear an uncanny resemblance to that other unfortunately failed Hall of Fame further downstate on a bluff overlooking the indifferent Harlem River.

Baseball Trivia Contest: Hall of Fame Names

Now that we find ourselves here in the dog days of August, let’s have some fun.

On the left-hand column below, I created a list of Hall of Fame baseball players by their surnames only.  On the right-hand side, you will notice a list of the real first names of each of these HOF players.   Your challenge is to match the first name on the right with the HOF player it belongs to on the left.  Each first name will be used just once.

See how many you can match up before you check the answer key at the bottom of the page,  then let me know how you did.  It might help to print out this page so you can do it by hand.

1)  Seaver                                                     A)  Rik

2)  Dean                                                       B)  Adrian

3)  Bender                                                   C)  Leon

4)  Ford                                                        D)  Gordon

5)  Grove                                                     E)  William

6)  Anson                                                     F)  George

7)  Berra                                                       G)  John

8)  Koufax                                                     H)  Edward

9)  Traynor                                                   I)  Jay

10)  Wilson (Hack)                                       J)  Charles

11)  Ewing                                                     K)  Lawrence

12)  Goslin                                                     L)  Robert

13)  Paige (Satchel)                                      M)  Lewis

14)  Fox (Nellie)                                             N)  Jacob

15)  Kelly (King)                                              O)  Harold

16)  Blyleven                                                   P)  Vernon

17) Brouthers (Dan)                                       Q)  Leroy

18)  Gomez (Lefty)                                          R)  Sanford

19)  Cochrane                                                  S)  Michael

20)  Chesbro                                                     T)  Dennis

Answer Key:

1)  F

2)  I

3)  J

4)  H

5)  L

6)  B

7)  K

8)  R

9)  O

10) M

11) E

12) C

13) Q

14) N

15) S

16) A

17) T

18) P

19) D

20) G

Players With At Least 50 Doubles Through Their Age-21 Seasons

Angels outfielder Mike Trout recently reached the 50 career doubles plateau.  As of this writing, he has 53 doubles.  He is, of course, now about half-way through his age 21 season.  That got me to wondering how many other players in baseball history managed to accumulate at least 50 doubles through age 21.  While I can’t say for sure that I’ve managed to list every single player in history who reached that number, I doubt I missed very many.  As you’ll notice, it is quite an impressive list.  A bit more than half the players on this list (57%) are already in the Baseball Hall of Fame.  At least a couple of others are likely to make it in as well.

In general, it is rare for a player on this list, who has been retired for more than ten years, to NOT be in the HOF.  In fact, I count only four names on this list who fit that description.  That would seem to bode well for Mike Trout’s future as a potential Hall of Famer.

Here is the list, beginning with the most doubles accumulated through a player’s age-21 season:

1)  Mel Ott – 106

2)  Cesar Cedeno – 100

3)  Alex Rodriguez – 100

4)  Robin Yount – 95

5)  Ken Griffey, Jr. – 93

6)  Vada Pinson – 91

7)  Ted Williams – 87

8)  Ty Cobb – 85

9)  George Davis – 84

10) Sherry Magee – 75

11) Al Kaline – 74

12) Orlando Cepeda – 73

13) Mickey Mantle – 72

14) Adrian Beltre – 66

15) Hank Aaron – 64

16) Jimmie Foxx – 61

17) Ivan Rodriguez – 60

18) Andruw Jones – 58

19) Jimmy Sheckard – 57

19) Justin Upton – 57

21) Frank Robinson – 56

21) Ron Santo – 56

23) Eddie Mathews – 54

24) Roberto Clemente – 53

24) Mike Trout – 53

26) Miguel Cabrera – 52

26) Joe Medwick – 52

28) Roberto Alomar – 51

If you want to exclude George Davis, who played half his career in the 19th century, and Jimmy Sheckard, whose age 21 season occurred in 1900, you are down to 26 players.

Sherry Magee’s appearance on this list is no fluke.  He was a very fine player for the first two decades of the 20th century for whom a legitimate Hall of Fame case can be made.

Ken Griffey, Jr. is a lock to be elected into The Hall, and Ivan Rodriguez should be as well.  Adrian Beltre’s glove, as well as his bat, already place him among the top ten third basemen in baseball history.

Alex Rodriguez might spend the rest of his natural days in a kind of baseball limbo.  Does he even really care?

Every team that passed on Justin Upton this off-season (I’m talking to you, New York Mets) should be kicking themselves that they didn’t sign him to a long-term contract when they had the chance.  It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Braves are in first place in their division.

By the end of the 2014 season, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper will also have completed their age-21 seasons.  Machado leads the A.L. with an amazing 27 doubles already this year, and has 35 for his career.  For Bryce Harper, whatever he doesn’t hit over the wall he’ll probably just hit through the wall.  At any rate, he has 33 career doubles and is also likely to surpass 50 career doubles by the end of next season, if not sooner.

Although they are extremely young, and at a very early stage in their respective careers, it may not be unreasonable to assess the likelihood of Trout, Harper and Machado someday making it into The Hall at somewhere around 50-60 percent each.

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.

Lesson’s Learned: Sleep With One Eye Open

Honestly, I was not going to comment on yesterday’s Hall of Fame voting results.

Too many keyboards have suffered enough over that topic the past couple of days.  But I read a comment by a member of the BBWAA today that I have to admit irked me a great deal  (I won’t name him; there’s no reason to give him greater exposure.)

This writer said (and I’m paraphrasing) that he was very glad that no one was elected in this year’s HOF voting because it teaches our children a lesson that cheaters and cheating will not be tolerated.  Otherwise, he claimed, our children would come away with the opposite lesson, that cheating can and will be rewarded.

Fine, but here are some other lessons our children can take away from yesterday’s HOF voting:

1)  In our culture, you are now guilty until proven innocent.  Moreover, the court of public opinion (where Bonds and Clemens were convicted) is more important than a court of law (where neither of them were convicted of using steroids.)

2)  Guilt by association is not only to be tolerated, but encouraged.  Were you successful at the same time or place that some alleged cheaters were also successful?  By extension, then, perhaps you were guilty as well, even if no credible witness has ever come forward to accuse you of wrong-doing.

3)  The innocent may be punished as well as the guilty.  Call this the Rule of Collateral Damage.  Yes, it’s true that Craig Biggio was apparently as clean as a player can be, but he was on the wrong ballot at the wrong time.  Yes, we presume he is innocent, (so the argument may go), but don’t you see that a greater good was served here today by excluding every player, even if for just one year?

4)  Future generations are to be held to a higher standard of ethics and behavior than previous ones.  If you cheat, lie, or otherwise finesse the rules in the future, you can bet that your punishment will be swift, severe, and final, unlike past generations of scoundrels who we have arbitrarily declared off-limits to meaningful moral judgment.  Too much of our sepia-toned childhood nostalgia rests in the mythology we have created for ourselves regarding the so-called Golden Age of baseball.  To objectively re-analyze all of that risks fatally puncturing the baseball dreams dancing around in our collective psyches.  Screw that!

Thus, HOF’er Goose Gossage declared today that if Jeff Bagwell or Mike Piazza do make it into The Hall in the next couple of years, and if they did actually use steroids, and should that info come out after they’ve been inducted, then it would be justifiable to remove their plaques from Cooperstown.  He suggested that if they know in their hearts that they are guilty, they should sleep with one eye open.

Yet at no time has anyone ever suggested before that someone who is already in The Hall of Fame should perhaps have their plaque removed if it is found that they cheated their way into The Hall.  And, yes, we know of previous cheaters, some of whom I’m sure even Goose Gossage has heard of.

5)  Compassion and forgiveness are dead.  Christian believers though some of these writers may claim to be (at least in private), they appear to have forgotten Christ’s #1 message: Judge not lest ye be judged.  There is to be no forgiveness, no compassion, no humble awareness of our own fallibility. As long as we have fingers to point at someone else, we will keep those fingers busy.

6)  When the system is done with you, it will chew you up and spit you out.  For many years, team owners, managers, trainers, journalists and fans looked the other way while happily cheering the heroes they made for themselves.  Fame, fortune, and everything else that comes with celebrity in our culture was there for the taking.  The athletes were encouraged to partake as much of and for as long as possible.  Meanwhile, the baseball machine hummed along, making record profits.  The machine was fat and happy, and life went on.  But once the machine was threatened, it jettisoned any and all the human ballast it could as fast and as ruthlessly as it could.  Because the machine was never about the players; it was always about the profit, and nothing else.

These are six more lessons that we should be sure to teach our children as a result of yesterday’s Hall of Fame voting, if we are being honest with ourselves.

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