Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Gus Greenlee

Editor’s note: I’m pleased to reintroduce “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” as a regular Tuesday feature here. I previously wrote the column weekly for about a year before taking a hiatus in June.


Claim to fame: Black baseball had its kingpins. First there was Rube Foster, a gifted pitcher who organized the first black professional baseball circuit in 1920. Then came Cum Posey who built the Homestead Grays into a powerhouse that won nine straight pennants in the the late ’20s and early ’30s. But Foster suffered a mental breakdown and died young, and Posey couldn’t maintain his level of success. He was unseated by Gus Greenlee, a Pittsburgh-area numbers king and nightclub owner who raided Posey’s roster for stars like Cool Papa Bell, Judy Johnson, and Satchel Paige, among others. Greenlee’s resulting Pittsburgh Crawfords are perhaps the greatest team for talent in the history of black baseball.

Aside from this, Greenlee founded black baseball’s version of the All Star Game in 1933, formed the second incarnation of Foster’s Negro National League that same year, and erected the first black-built and operated ballpark, Greenlee Field. Greenlee was also a noted philanthropist and aided Major League Baseball’s integration with his help launching a black professional circuit that gave Branch Rickey his subterfuge to scout Jackie Robinson. But Greenlee differs from Foster and Posey in at least one significant respect. While Foster and Posey have both been elected to Cooperstown in recent years, Foster in 1981 and Posey in a special election in 2006, Greenlee didn’t even make the final ballot for the latter election.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Greenlee, like his bitter rival Posey was one of 94 candidates selected by a screening committee in 2005, ahead of the 2006 special election. Posey and 38 others made the final two ballots, and in February 2006, Posey and 16 others (including fellow owners J.L. Wilkinson, Alex Pompez, and Effa Manley) were enshrined. That Greenlee rated such minimal consideration seems suspect, if not outright unjust.

Why: For better or worse, Greenlee was black baseball in the 1930s, assembling the greatest black baseball team money could buy by offering more money than Posey and doing things like paying his player’s salaries during spring training, a rare feat in black baseball. Sure, some of the means to Greenlee’s ends are questionable, and he lost his spot in baseball at the end of the ’30s in part because of rumors he fixed a game in 1936. Still, the Hall of Fame has honored some nefarious characters before who did less for the game than Greenlee.

Is Greenlee’s Cooperstown candidacy anything more than a longshot? I doubt it, at least at this point. His reign at the top was probably too short, about half a decade, and baseball in general could do a better job honoring its owners, with Charlie Finley a candidate on this year’s Veterans Committee ballot and George Steinbrenner and Jacob Ruppert among others not enshrined.  I’d venture, though, that all of those men have higher profiles than Greenlee, who died in 1952 and seems a largely forgotten man today. That’s a shame.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? will relaunch on a weekly basis the first Tuesday after the postseason ends.

Others in this series: Adrian BeltreAl OliverAlan TrammellAlbert BelleAllie ReynoldsBarry BondsBarry LarkinBert BlylevenBilly MartinBobby GrichCecil TravisChipper JonesClosersCurt FloodDan QuisenberryDarrell EvansDave ParkerDick AllenDon Mattingly,Don NewcombeGeorge SteinbrennerGeorge Van HaltrenHarold Baines, Harry DaltonJack MorrisJim EdmondsJoe CarterJoe PosnanskiJohn SmoltzJuan GonzalezKeith HernandezKen CaminitiLarry Walker,Manny RamirezMaury WillsMel HarderMoises AlouPete Browning,Phil CavarrettaRafael PalmeiroRoberto AlomarRocky Colavito,Roger MarisRon GuidryRon SantoSmoky Joe WoodSteve Garvey,Ted SimmonsThurman MunsonTim RainesTony OlivaWill Clark

Stuck in 4A

I was going through my baseball card collection the other day and stumbled upon a two -season collection of cards issued by the then Baltimore Orioles and Philadelphia Phillies Triple-A-affiliated Ottawa Lynx.

We were fortunate to have this team for 15 years, mainly as an affiliate of the Montreal Expos. The last two seasons, 2006 and 2007 I was part of the press box, covering each and every home game and doing numerous interviews with players on the home team and the visiting teams.

Shuffling through my baseball card collection I noticed one startling fact. The vast majority of the Lynx players have never and probably will never make it to the major leagues for anything more than the proverbial cup of coffee if even that. This is most likely the norm for other organizations and not the exception.

Tommy Lasorda once stated that most players who get signed are only there to play catch with the future stars.  It got me to wondering as to the reasons. These players made it to one step below the Show but couldn’t make that seemingly small leap up the ladder to the big time. What were/are the reasons? Was Lasorda correct in his rather brutal assessment?

I was privileged over the years to have been able to see close-up future stars such as Derek Jeter, Jon Lester, and B.J. Upton. For the most part, these types of players are generally promoted from Double-A. It is true that the International League has quite an impressive roster of graduates who not only played in the Major Leagues, but became noteworthy stars and Hall of Famers or at least future Hall of Famers. But International League and minor leagues seems to be, for the most part, stocked with players who will be used only for temporary injury replacements for the big club, or prospects who might flourish for a time as a utility player or long relief pitcher.

For every Jeter, there are many who didn’t make it and most likely never will. It was with a mixture of sadness and wonder that I interviewed several of these players. It was with the same mixture of wonder and sadness that I watched  fringe major league players  have long careers, players who didn’t seem to be better than those Triple A players I got to know so well. These players worked hard, as hard as any other, yet were becoming part of baseballs never to be. Other players often passed them by in the blink of an eye. With each passing season, their window to the bigs was getting smaller and smaller.

Some were stuck behind superstars. Some simply couldn’t find that extra drop of talent which would get them that final step up the ladder. I suspect many had through no fault of their own become labeled with the dreaded 4A status. A 4A status for those readers who are not familiar with the term, refers to players who are too talented for Triple A, yet not talented enough for the majors. Most have had a brief appearance in the majors but were deemed not good enough in their brief trial, or viewed only as a temporary replacement for an injured star.

Some gained the reputation as a premier minor league power hitter who would never be a power hitter in the majors. Some were first baseman, third baseman or corner outfielders who were able to produce a high batting average but not the power  in demand at those positions. They were stopped by a baseball tradition and way of thinking almost as old as the game itself. Even if successful during their trial, managers and coaches at the big league level often put this down to a flash in the pan. Sometimes it was ownership who didn’t want to pay a higher salary when they had ten more similar players who could temporarily fill the void.

I cheered and hoped for every one of these players I interviewed. They were all trying to grab the ring which I had always hoped for but was never nearly talented enough to achieve. Many are still out there trying as they know of no other life. I feel for them all despite the fact that they have never known 9-5. They are doing something, albeit at a minor league level, that I can’t even dream of doing.

In the Clutch, Few Were Better Than Gene Woodling

In 1953, Sport Magazine published an article titled “The Yankee They Take for Granted,” a reference to the great and underrated Gene Woodling.

With the World Series recently completed, few remember that Woodling was one of the most consistent clutch hitters in series history. The lefty swinger helped the New York Yankees win five straight World Series from 1949 through 1953 when he averaged .318. His 27 postseason hits included five doubles, two triples, and three home runs. Woodling was one of twelve Yankees who played on all of the five winning teams. His mates: Yogi Berra, Phil Rizzuto, Hank Bauer, Jerry Coleman, Bobby Brown, Charlie Silvera, Johnny Mize, Joe Collins, Vic Raschi, Ed Lopat, and Allie Reynolds.

Woodling credited his big league success to the time he spent in San Francisco playing for the Pacific Coast League Seals under manager Lefty O’Doul’s tutelage. In 1948, the Pittsburgh Pirates sold Wooding to the Seals even though he had led four different minor league teams in hitting including back to back years of .394 and .398 in Class C and Class D.

Despite Woodling’s lofty averages, O’Doul moved him closer to the plate, placed his feet together and changed the position of his bat. When Woodling held his bat back, he assumed the crouched stance that he became so famous for and led the PCL in batting with a .385 average.

Woodling’s Seals teammate and former New York Giants pitcher Jack Brewer explained how O’Doul improved Woodling’s plate performance:

I remember in spring training Woodling was a punch and Judy hitter. He faced the pitcher in such a way that he couldn’t much power in his bat. O’Doul tied a rope around his waist to get him in the proper stance. To keep him from lunging, he worked with Gene by the hour and pulled that rope so he wouldn’t lunge out in batting practice. Woodling got his timing right and, boy, he was knocking down the fence that season.

In the PCL, Woodling caught Oakland Oaks’ manager Casey Stegel’s eye. When Stengel took over the managerial reins for the Yankees in 1949, he persuaded ownership to purchase Woodling’s contract for $100,000.

Once in St. Petersburg, the Yankees’ spring training site, Woodling joined another rookie Hank Bauer as well as Joe DiMaggio, Charlie Keller, Tommy Heinrich, Big Johnny Lindell and strong-armed Cliff Mapes in the bid for the starting spots.

In an interview with my SABR colleague Jim Sergent, Woodling laid to rest the common opinion that Stengel platooned him with Bauer.
Said Woodling:

Casey only platooned us in about seven games a year. Nobody ever checks the records. You know what he’d do? We’d get a five-game lead, and Casey would platoon us. We’d get down to a tie or one or two games ahead, we’d play every day.

Woodling played left; Bauer, right and center, Joe Di Maggio until he gave way to Mickey Mantle.

Even during the last two years of his seventeen year career at ages 38 and 39, Woodling was still hitting. In 1961, he hit .313 for the Washington Senators and in 1962, a combined .279 for the Senators and the New York Mets.

When his buddy Bauer became manager of the Orioles, Woodling served as his first base coach between 1964 and 1967 and, in 1967, he was the Orioles’ hitting coach.

After Woodling passed away in 2001 at age 78, Ralph Houk said: “He was just such a great guy.”

Any player/Any era: Al Simmons

What he did: Going through the early days of baseball history, players like Al Simmons come up every so often. They are the men who retire innocuously shy of career milestones, the Tony Mullanes and Bobby Mathews’s with just fewer than 300 wins. In Simmons’ case, he, like Sam Rice, Sam Crawford, and Rogers Hornsby quit within range of 3,000 hits. Today, none of these men would be gone before hitting those marks.

Different stories drove these men from the majors in their day. Mullane and Mathews both pitched in the 19th century when hurlers rarely lasted beyond their mid-30s. Crawford left the majors in favor on the Pacific Coast League and proceeded to rack up nearly another 1,000 hits in the minors. Rice simply got old, playing until he was 44, but still quitting rather inexplicably at the end of 1934 with 2,987 hits. Simmons and Hornsby didn’t have the best reputations, though, and declined precipitously as players. They changed teams frequently in the latter parts of their career.

Era he might have thrived in: I wrote awhile back that I could see Hornsby thriving in baseball’s recent years, and I think the same holds true for Simmons. With a bat like his and a chance to serve as a designated hitter, he’d have torn up the American League in the late 1990s and certainly gotten his 3,000 hits.

Why: For starters, Simmons hit big a lot of the places he went: Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit. He and Jimmie Foxx gave the A’s a potent 1-2 punch in their heyday of the late 1920s, and Simmons was one of four men to drive in 100 runs for Detroit in 1936. Imagine Simmons filling in for Magglio Ordonez with the Tigers today or finding a spot with the Rangers in the recent World Series. No way Tony La Russa would’ve had so sweet an end to his career.

Simmons played in the greatest offensive era in baseball history, and it seems unlikely he’d hit north of .380 today or drive in close to 200 runs. Still, the late 1990’s might have been the closest thing to this era (though I made sure to put the century in that date, since the 1894 Phillies hit .350 as a team.) If ever there was an era to put up gaudy number’s besides the actual time Simmons played, it was about a decade ago when guys like Juan Gonzalez, Larry Walker, and Nomar Garciaparra were putting up huge stats.

I ran Simmons’ numbers through the stat converter for the 1999 Texas Rangers. There are eight different seasons from his career he’d hit .350 or better on those Rangers, including his abbreviated 1927 campaign which converts to a .399 clip with 16 home runs and 118 RBI in 111 games. More importantly, playing with these Rangers, Simmons would probably be earning seven figures or at least working towards the chance for a large free agent deal, a great juxtaposition for a player who never earned more than about $33,000 in a year. He’d also have the benefit of modern medicine and maybe steroids. That all has to be good for something.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert PujolsBabe RuthBad News Rockies,Barry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob Watson,Bobby VeachCarl MaysCharles Victory FaustChris von der Ahe,Denny McLainDom DiMaggio, Don DrysdaleEddie LopatFrank HowardFritz MaiselGavvy CravathGeorge CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro SuzukiJack ClarkJackie RobinsonJim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Matty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertPaul DerringerPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey Henderson,Roberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam Thompson,Sandy KoufaxSatchel PaigeShoeless Joe JacksonStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWill ClarkWillie Mays

Hall of Fame Ballot Goes Out Shortly; Which Unqualified Player Will Be Voted In?

Later this month, the 2012 Hall of Fame ballot will be released. For traditionalists like me who think the HOF is already overcrowded with marginal players, next year’s offerings are slim pickings and, hopefully, will not produce any new inductees.

The popular Jack Morris’ 254 wins are overshadowed by his 3.90 ERA and his 206 career wild pitches. Despite being at best a slightly above average pitcher, Morris’ support has steadily increased to 52 percent of voters last year.  Morris has been on the ballot since 2000. One of the biggest flaws in Hall voting is that so-so candidates like Morris stick around for way too long.

Relief pitcher Lee Smith has also been around forever. In 17 years (1980-1997), Smith pitched a mere 1,300 innings and never more than 75 after 1990. Smith is third on the career saves list(478) but that statistic was manufactured (by sportswriter and later MLB historian Jerome Holtzman) and hyped out of proportion by the media. If you are impressed by save totals, let me remind you that in 2007 when the Texas Rangers beat the Baltimore Orioles 30-3 reliever Wes Littleton earned a save.

Regular readers know my position on the Hall. Way too many undeserving players have been inducted. As a result, the Hall has lost credibility. And during the next few years, as steroid era players gradually gain admission, the Hall will become a joke. For readers who think that the BBWAA won’t put them in, they haven’t been listening to members Buster Olney, Peter Gammons and others who have said publicly that it’s “probable” they will vote for Barry Bonds, etc with the excuse that those players were  representative “of their era” and should be judged accordingly.

I take my cue from Rogers Hornsby who once said: “The big trouble is not really who isn’t in the Hall of Fame but who is. It was established for a select few.”

Hornsby, who also said that he felt sorry for pitchers when he was at bat, is unlikely to have voted for Morris, Smith or dozens of other previous inductees except (probably) Ted Williams.
In 1995, Williams drew up his “20 Greatest Hitters of All Time” list. Eventually, Williams expanded his original list into his Hitters Hall of Fame as part of his Florida-based Ted Williams Museum.

Williams’ inductees are what the Hall of Fame should be: a consensus among players and historians that those included are without argument the greatest ever.

Here’s Williams’ list: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, Henry Aaron, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Hank Greenberg, Tris Speaker, Al Simmons, Johnny Mize, Mel Ott, Harry Heilmann, Ralph Kiner, Frank Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and Hornsby.

Hornsby and Williams are credible voices on Hall of Fame credentials; the BBWAA isn’t.