The best baseball player not in the Hall of Fame

I was combing the list of all-time best career batting averages on Baseball Reference when I noticed an unfamiliar name: Riggs Stephenson.  I had come upon a few unknowns already and saw they were men who’d played mostly before the modern era, a time I don’t take too seriously in baseball’s history.  However, a glance at Stephenson’s page revealed that he played from 1921 to 1934 with the Cleveland Indians and Chicago Cubs.  The sponsor ad on his page proclaimed, “The greatest baseball player who is NOT in the Hall of Fame!”

I don’t know if I would go that far.  If we are talking every single player in baseball history, the best man not in the Hall of Fame is Pete Rose.  The second best is Joe Jackson.  However, the equation changes if we consider that Rose and Jackson were both banished from the game for sports betting and cannot be inducted into the Hall of Fame.  Among eligible players not yet in Cooperstown, Stephenson might well be the best.  He’s definitely the best player I had never heard of.  (This is why he’s not among “The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame.”)

Stephenson’s credentials include a .336 lifetime batting average, 22nd all-time, better than Al Simmons, Honus Wagner or Stan Musial.  Not an everyday player until after he was traded to the Cubs in 1926 at age 28, Stephenson hit his prime thereafter, averaging .346 from 1926 to 1930.  His best year came in 1929, when he hit .362 with 17 homers and 110 runs batted in, helping the Cubs to the World Series, which they lost 4-1 to the Philadelphia Athletics.

The big knock against Stephenson could be the shortness of his career.  He played at least parts of fourteen seasons but only had four years with at least 500 plate appearances (though he had nine years with at least 300.)  Overall, he had just 1,515 hits in 4,508 at bats.  Stephenson also played in the greatest age for hitters in baseball history, aside perhaps from the Steroid Era.  I could have hit .300 in 1930.

Still, it’s a little surprising that Stephenson never got more than 1.5% of the Hall of Fame vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America, dropping off the ballot after his fourth try in 1962.  He certainly appears better, on paper, than a lot of the players in Cooperstown now.  As he died in 1985, at 87, he wouldn’t make a bad posthumous pick for the Veterans Committee.

9 thoughts on “The best baseball player not in the Hall of Fame

  1. I came across him back in November when I was doing a search of highest OBP’s of non-HOFers. I think I’d vote Charlie Keller as the best eligible player who ain’t in… .286/.410/.518 ..his career was shortened by some war time & a back injury. If not for the back injury, I think he would’ve gone into Cooperstown with ease

  2. I don’t know about Keller. He only lost a year and a half to World War II and still managed just over 1000 hits for his career. The .410 on-base percentage is great, but the .286 batting average is fairly pedestrian, especially when it’s considered that he obtained it mostly with the Yankees.

  3. I still think it has to be Roger Maris. Four time All Star. Three rings with two different clubs. Twice MVP. Gold Glove. Oh yeah, 61 LEGITIMATE home runs in 1961. Keeping him out is a travesty.

  4. Maris hit .260 lifetime, had 1,325 hits in just 5,101 at bats and did his best work in a short burst of a few seasons. If he’s a Hall of Famer, then so is Denny McLain. I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if Maris is inducted, due to regrets voters must have over the Steroid Era, but he’s not quite Cooperstown-worthy in my book.

  5. Riggs Stephenson couldn’t throw at all, College football injury to his shoulder. So putting him at either 2b or in LF, you had to live w/ that. No arm. He could hit bullets ala say Bill Madlock, but really-is this a HOF career? he was about half the way there at most. And I’m a Cubs fan, been one for ages, known about Old Hoss since I was a kid. He shouldn’t be in there.

  6. I came across this thread just now. Another player you may consider is Lefty O’Doul. He began as a promising pitcher, but hurt his arm and was nearly out of baseball. But he went back to the Pacific Coast League as an OF, and after a few outstanding seasons, got back to the majors at age 31. He proceeded to hit .349 for his career, won 2 batting titles, and established the single season record of 257 hits until Ichiro broke it. His MLB career was short, but after his playing days ended, he returned to the PCL where he had a spectacular managerial career, including mentoring a young Joe DiMaggio, as well as other future stars. And lastly, before and after World War 2, he spent considerable time in Japan helping that country establish their own major league. I think O’Doul’s contribution to baseball goes well beyond his playing career, and deserves to be honored in Cooperstown.

  7. Hi Gary, thanks for commenting. I think O’Doul belongs in the Hall of Fame as an ambassador of the game for what he did promoting baseball in Japan. I’m not as sold on having him in Cooperstown as a player because his career was short, and he benefited tremendously from playing in good hitters’ parks in one of the greatest hitting eras in baseball history.

    Speaking of O’Doul, you might like this freelance piece I did that came out today and features O’Doul prominently.

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