Golden Era Part 5: Round Up
With the Golden Era Veterans committee Hall Of Fame election just a few days away here's some details on a few candidates that I haven't covered previously plus who I'd like to see get elected - and when. (Just a reminder to readers: While not elected, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Gil Hodges and Tony Oliva received the most votes in the last Golden Era election in December 2011. Luis
Tiant and Ken Boyer are also returnees from that election, but their exact vote totals were never revealed and were listed by the Hall Of Fame as receiving 3 votes or less out of 16. Players Dick Allen, Maury Wills, and Billy Pierce as well as executive Bob Howsam were not on the Ballot three years ago.)
While most HOF voters don't give any special weight to career longevity as a factor that may help a candidate get elected, they may have to make an exception in Kaat's case. The 25-year major league veteran (1959-1983) was a three-time 20 game winner and with 283 career wins, didn't miss the coveted 300 wins plateau by much. He anchored the Minnesota Twins rotation (along with some help from curveballer, Camilo Pascual and others, for a team that contended for the pennant throughout the 1960s, and went to the 1965 World Series. Kaat won 18 games that year and 25 the next, his peak years with the Twins. He won 20 twice with the Chicago White Sox at ages 35 and 36 remaining a starter until his late 30s. Then he extended his career another five years by working out of the bullpen with the Yankees and especially the Cardinals, where he won his only World Series ring in 1982.
While doing all this he set new standards for fielding the pitching position, winning 16 Gold Gloves. Once in 1980 a rash of injuries in the Cardinals starting pitching rotation temporarily forced Kaat back into a starter's role. The 41 year old responded by pitching four complete games and one shutout.
In retirement Kaat was a Yankees broadcaster for a few years, but gained greater prominence telecasting games nationally for ESPN and MLB network. He's highly respected, popular, and his continued presence on national broadcasts increases his visibility and can only help his HOF chances.
Oliva burst upon the major league scene with an impact that few players in baseball history can match. He took the American league batting titles in 1964 and 1965, his first two complete seasons in the majors and added a third batting title in 1971. With his high average hitting, speed and extra base hit power Oliva was an extremely exciting player in his early years. Once in a nationally broadcast Saturday Game Of The week when he hit one in the gap and then ran through a stop sign to stretch a triple into a round-tripper he got long time broadcaster Dizzy Dean so worked up that he fumbled the call with Dean declaring "He slides, and Oliva is safe at the plate for an inside the run home park." Oliva was a solid .300 hitter, but hand and wrist injuries limited him to just over 1,900 base hits and diminished his HOF chances from a certainty to just a maybe.
As a Cardinals executive Howsam experienced both sides of a situation that GMs are subject to. He lucked into a situation in 1964 where he was Bing Devine's mid-season replacement at GM. That team then got red hot and went on to win that year's World Series. He was the beneficiary of good timing (right time, right place).
Conversely, Howsam helped sign, trade for and develop players who would be cornerstones on the 1967 and 1968 NL pennant winners, although Howsam wasn't around to get the credit. After the 1966 season he left St. Louis to take the Cincinnati Reds' GM job.
You can't dispute that during his 12 year tenure he at Cincy built a wonderful team, "The Big Red Machine" won four NL pennants in seven years and won consecutive World Series in 1975 and 1976. I won't even offer a prediction in Howsam's case, because it is so difficult to predict the HOF chances of non-players, except for managers.
One thing I have noticed about executives on Veterans Committee Hall Of Fame ballots is that most of them are "One and done" one way or the other. If Howsam doesn't get elected this year it may be his final chance or at least his last chance for election in decades.
My Phillies loyalty aside, it's going to be difficult to elect someone who many people thought had attitude problems and never reached his full potential. I think that because he wasn't even on the ballot three years ago, the best he and his supporters can hope for is that he gets a decent vote total that will allow him to remain on the ballot in 2017 and then perhaps his candidacy will build some steam towards eventual election.
See my separate story where I examine Hodges' case in detail. I think he's a deserving candidate. One tidbit that I forgot to include in Hodges story was that with 370 home runs, Hodges ranked 10th in career home runs in baseball history at the time he retired in 1963. He played at a time where home runs were more difficult to come by than today. In Hodges day the average park was much bigger than today's parks and some were enormous by today's standards. His 370 home runs was a big deal in Hodges' time.
Much underrated, but statistical analysis proves that he was very close to the most complete hitter in 1950s American League play. You might even say he was the best, aside from some superhuman feats accomplished by Mickey Mantle. His career's debut in the majors was delayed by the racial barrier and I'd really like to have seen what he could have done and what superior career numbers he would have posted if there was no Jim Crowism in the 1940s and he could have reached the majors at age 20. Minoso also was no slouch with the glove, winning three late career Gold Gloves for outfielding excellence in three of the first four years after the award was given. He was an all-star at every level: in Cuba, the Negro Leagues the Major Leagues and even in his 40s in Mexico.
His greatest contribution was opening the door for future generations of Latinos of Color. Hopefully Hall of Fame voters this year will elect him recognizing him at last as a racial and ethnic trailblazer...as well as being one Hell of a ballplayer.
As discussed in a previous column (Bob Howsam photo and lead) Tiant's final career numbers were very similar to those of Jim 'Catfish' Hunter. While Hunter won 20 games five times, Tiant did it four times. Their career winning percentages and earned run averages were within a handful of points of each other. Hunter was voted into Cooperstown in just his third year of eligibility while Tiant, 74, used up all 15 years of eligibility on the writers' ballots and a few ballots on the Veterans Committee without gaining election. Bill James in a book published two decades ago suggested that Hunter, with his North Carolina, "Good Old Boy" personality was a good interview, who dished out some memorable quotes Southern Country Boy Style.
This may have made a favorable impression with the writers and helped Hunter's quest for the Hall a few years down the road. Meanwhile, Tiant who didn't come from Cuba to the US until age 20, when he started his career in the minors, always struggled with communicating in English. It's not the whole answer, but you have to factor this in to their dissimilar HOF fates. With otherwise similar records, you can't totally disregard James' theory. Tiant had one of the lowest vote totals in 2011 of any candidate who was retained on the 2014 ballot. If he is to be elected eventually then it's imperative that he make a stronger showing this year.
With barely enough votes in 2011 to be retained on the ballot this year Boyer is in the same boat as Tiant. He needs an improved showing this month just to stay on the ballot three years from now. Twenty years ago Bill James rated Boyer and Joe Torre as the best third basemen who were not in the Hall Of Fame. Torre was elected this year as a manger and that leaves Boyer. Will he gain election this year or in the near future or will he continue to fall just short of the dividing line?
Boyer was a seven-time all-star (six years in succession from 1959 to 1964). He was the 1964 National League's MVP and its RBI leader. He averaged 24 home runs per year for his first ten years in the majors, actually hitting 24 home runs four years in a row (now that's consistent) with a career high of 32 HR in 1960. He was also the National League's best fielding third baseman for a decade and second best 3B in the majors, behind only the incomparable Brooks Robinson.
Boyer won numerous Gold Gloves. His debut in the majors was delayed until 1955, at age 24 due to his call up to military service during the Korean War. Boyer had almost made it to the top of the Cardinals farm system when the military beckoned. He missed the 1952 and 1953 seasons to the service, needed another year to reorient himself in the high minors and finally made his debut in the 1955 season opener. He was a consistent performer for the Cardinals and Mets at the plate for a dozen years through about 1966, but then declined sharply.
Overall he had over 2,100 hits in just over 2,000 MLB games. He hit over 280 home runs and hit nearly .290 for his career. Maybe Boyer was too consistent on an everyday basis for his own good and might have attracted more attention if he'd played with a bit more flair. To this point he hasn't captured the attention, imagination of votes of the Hall Of Fame electorate either. He may continue to fall just short of the mark.
A Note on Veterans Committee voting procedures:
As silly as it may seem that an 87-year-old Billy Pierce or an 82 year-old Maury Wills might have to wait another three years for their HOF candidacy to build some momentum, nevertheless It's True. Neither Pierce or Wills was on the Golden Era ballot three years ago nor was 72-year-old Dick Allen. For HOF voters, it's simply a matter of "out of sight, out of mind". The odds of going from off the ballot to being elected next time out are formidable, if not impossible.
These three however could secure decent totals so that they are almost automatically nominated three years from now and from there candidacy could snowball towards eventual election.
This Los Angeles Dodgers and later Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop re-invented the running game along with some help from American leaguer, Luis Aparicio. In the power era of Post-World War Two Major Leagues Baseball the running game had been so deemphasized in favor of "swinging from the heels" power game that nabbing 25 to 30 steals was often enough to lead the league in SB.
When Aparicio reached the majors in 1956 those totals began to pick up. By 1960 he was reaching over 50 steals year in and year out. Wills, however took that trend much, much further. He had a break out season of 104 steals in 1962 and followed with a 94 stolen base season in 1965 - unheard of totals in the modern era. With 535 steals logged from 1960 to 1969 Wills became the first player to have 500 steals in a decade since the "Dead Ball Era". He had a long apprenticeship in the minors, not debuting in the majors in 1959 with the Dodgers until he was almost 27.
Wills was an old-time leadoff man that relied on contact hitting and speed. He averaged only 1.5 home runs per season in a 14 year career. Wills had to focus on things he could do well: fielding the shortstop position as well as he could, getting bloop hits, getting infield hits, perfecting his bunting skills always looking to take the extra base and of course - base stealing. In the end he was truly a revolutionary player, who made a great impact on how the game has been played from his day to the present. A final candidate for the first time in a number of years he may not be able to gain election this year, but his time may be coming soon!
Like Wills, Pierce is a finalist for the first time under the Golden Era election set-up. While he might seem like a borderline guy, I wouldn't rule him out for election particularly if you apply some of the newer statistics to analyze his performance. He won 186 games in 13 years (1949-1961) with the Chicago White Sox and won 211 games overall. He missed he 2,000 strikeouts plateau by a single strikeout and was held in extremely high esteem by his contemporaries, making seven American league all-star teams and he was bestowed with the honor of being the A.L.'s starting pitcher three times.
Now with a lifetime record of 211-169, on the surface 42 games over .500 may not seem like the record of a Hall Of Fame-type superior pitcher. You have to understand, however, that the White Sox were one of the poorest hitting, good teams that you could find. You might say they were offensively challenged.
Throughout Pierce's long stay in Chicago, his White Sox teams always had some serious holes in their lineup. Once you got past Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, and over the second half of Pierce's time with the Pale Hose, Luis Aparicio, White Sox managers Paul Richards and Al Lopez struggled to piece together the rest of the lineup. From time to time the White sox had other pluses in their lineup such as Gus Zernial, Eddie Robinson and Chico Carrasquel in the early '50s, Dave Philley in the mid-50s and Al Smith and power hitting, but low average hitting catcher, Sherm Lollar at the end of the '50s and into the early '60s.
That still left gaps in the lineup. A couple of outfield positions and the third base position were never properly filled by some one who could make a major contribution at the plate .So Pierce won nearly 200 games with White Sox teams that gave him mediocre to poor run support. The White Sox somehow won the 1959 American League pennant and they were a consistent second or third place team for a decade. Without Pierce working his magic every fourth day, however, they would have been an under .500, second division team annually. Pierce was dealt to the San Francisco Giants before the 1962 season and it was there that the little lefty (5'10, 160 lbs.) proved that he wasn't done and that his career would have a heroic second act. Pierce notched his 200th career win that year and went 16-6, while his Giants came storming back from a large deficit in the standings to catch the Los Angeles Dodgers on the last day of the season. The resulting tie forced a Best of 3 game playoff series. With the Giants' season on the line Pierce pitched a three-hit shutout in Game One of the playoffs defeating Sandy Koufax. After the Dodgers won the next game to even the series the Giants held a 6-4 lead after eight innings of Game Three. Manager Al Dark called on the one man he knew the Dodgers had trouble facing to nail down the victory in the ninth, Pierce. He retired all three hitters he faced to get the save and the Giants took home the pennant, Quite a clutch performance, but one that is often forgotten today. Pierce managed to have two 20-win seasons and he won at least 14 games ten times with the usually light-hitting White Sox. Had Pierce been with a team that afforded him better run support (say the Yankees and can you imagine the fits the Yanks would have given opponents throwing top of the line lefties Ford and Pierce at them in the same series.
Pierce's Hall Of Fame-worthiness might have been much more of a certainty. He'll have to have a fair showing this year and then perhaps his support for Hall of Fame election will pick up steam next time around. Pierce's candidacy may grow on voters over the next few years.
It's a strong field and I can't say that there is a really bad nominee that sticks out like a sore thumb among the lot. If I had the vote I'd vote for Minoso, Hodges and Kaat this year. That would result in Wills, Tiant, and Oliva being the strongest remaining candidates and they would be my choices three years from now. Since this is a strong field and I can't say "How in the world did he ever get nominated" about any of the remaining candidates I wouldn't rule out any of them gaining election at some future time.