Time for baseball to call an amnesty on Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe

This site has been in existence for a little under a year now, and my most popular post by far remains a list I published last May, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. It gets the most visitors, the most comments, and the one time so far that I’ve received any money from this site, it was because an online casino wanted to advertise on that page. The irony, I suppose, is that the ad was a text link to a betting site in the paragraph I wrote about Pete Rose, who’s No. 1 on my list.

The Hall of Fame, I’ve learned, gets people talking, and one of the things that’s stirred some controversy among my readers is that I included banned players Rose, Joe Jackson and Hal Chase unlike other people who’ve written on this topic, such as Tom Verducci. My take is: If we’re talking about making a list of all the best players not in the Hall of Fame, the list should be just that. Cooperstown’s rules for admission shouldn’t apply, at least in my view, if all we’re doing is debating the 10 best players not enshrined. It’s not like I’m offering a list of the 10 best people not in the Hall of Fame.

With that said, I think the standards for Cooperstown eligibility should change. I think it’s time baseball call an amnesty and elect Rose and Jackson and strongly consider the merits of Chase, a great defensive first baseman from the Deadball Era. Let bygones be bygones. On talent alone, Rose and Jackson are both immortals and earned their plaques long ago. Jackson has the third highest batting average all-time, .356, and Babe Ruth is said to have modeled his swing after him. Rose meanwhile has the all-time hits mark and probably also rates as one of the 10 most competitive players in baseball history. Without either player, the Hall of Fame doesn’t seem complete, at least to me.

Granted, what either man did to qualify for banishment is morally reprehensible, with Jackson helping gamblers fix the 1919 World Series and Rose betting on games his teams played in (though he has since said he played to win.) But baseball has long been a sport of questionable characters and unabashed degenerates. Cooperstown has honored cheats like Mike “King” Kelly who used to cut from first to third on the base paths when the umpire wasn’t looking and given plaques to Rogers Hornsby, Gabby Hartnett and Tris Speaker who were in the Ku Klux Klan. Regardless of if Jackson or Rose ever gets forgiven, baseball will still be the same sport that didn’t let black players in the majors until 1947, didn’t feature a black manager until 1975 and let the Dodgers leave Brooklyn in the interim.

I understand KKK membership was once considered socially acceptable and that gambling is a huge no-no, the ultimate sin in baseball. I think the game has long since made its point with the draconian bans meted out to Jackson and Rose. After the decades-long waking nightmare that both players received for betting on the game, I’d be astonished if any player wanted to risk a similar fate. It’s been like the baseball equivalent of Scared Straight!

Baseball could do well to forgive, but definitely not forget. Imagine what an occasion such an induction ceremony would be, what Rose’s speech might sound like. I think honoring Rose and Jackson would be amazing publicity for the game. I think baseball has suffered a lot in the last 20 years, between the Steroid Era and the still-lingering effects of the 1994 strike, and that’s just the obvious stuff. Baseball has gone a long way from being America’s Pastime to a sport of petty gripes and selfishness. Forgiving a couple of sick men who were also incredible players would be a show of the sort of altruism the game should welcome.

Jackson died in 1951, and Rose turns 69 in a couple of weeks. This opportunity isn’t going to exist forever.

Alternate history: If Barry Bonds hadn't used steroids

Think of all the possibilities for Barry Bonds if he had never chosen to take steroids following the 1998 season.

I assume, of course, Game of Shadows correctly reported that Bonds began juicing following Mark McGwire’s record-setting 70-home-run year.  Bonds was a lock for the Hall of Fame beforehand, his generation’s version of Willie Mays.  Clean, Bonds was perhaps among the ten best offensive players of all-time.  After Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Ty Cobb, Mays, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio, there aren’t too many hitters I’d take before Bonds circa 1993.

Had Bonds stayed clean, we’d be preparing for his Hall of Fame induction in a not-too-distant summer, instead of wondering if he’ll ever get enough votes from the writers.  Bonds might not have set the home run record, but he likely would have gotten 3,000 hits, instead of stalling out at 2,935 when no one would sign him after 2007 because he was a steroid-addled clubhouse cancer.  Bonds might also have finished with a dozen Gold Gloves, instead of seven, since he stopped winning defensive awards when he started juicing.  Clean, Bonds would have solidified himself as the greatest left fielder ever.  Additionally, he may have been the first player with 600 home runs and 600 stolen bases.  That might have been harder to top than 756 home runs.

In some parallel universe, I like to think Bonds stayed clean.  After all, steroids weren’t his only option for changing himself.  Perhaps the following could have happened:

October 1998: Bonds finishes with 37 home runs, 122 runs batted in and a .303 batting average. It’s one of his best years, though it goes unnoticed as McGwire surpasses Roger Maris with 70 home runs.  Shortly after the season, childhood acquaintance Greg Anderson offers to put Bonds on a steroid regimen.  He unilaterally refuses.  Instead, he tries meditation.

1999: While Bonds in our universe struggles with steroid-related injuries and plays just 102 games, clean Barry plays 157 games, wins his eighth Gold Glove and begins to mend fences with teammates, notably Jeff Kent.  “I’ve been doing some work on myself, and I’m starting to realize I’ve been a selfish asshole most of my life,” Bonds tells Kent.  “What can I do to make things right?”  Kent tells Bonds to kiss his own ass.

2000: People have begun to note the unusual changes in Bonds.  “You don’t meet many players who’ve undergone such a profound spiritual transformation late in their career as Barry Bonds, it just doesn’t happen normally,” Dusty Baker tells Sports Illustrated, after the magazine names Bonds its Sportsman of the Year. “It’s one reason I decided to name my son after him instead of Darren Lewis.  Also, I didn’t want a kid named for a .250 hitter.”

2001: All the spiritual retreats and yoga pay off as calmer, happier Barry hits .340 with 42 home runs, 138 runs batted in and 36 stolen bases, winning his fourth Most Valuable Player award and carrying the Giants to their first World Series title since 1954.  Overjoyed, he appears on Oprah and jumps on her couch, beating Tom Cruise to this by nearly four years.  Interestingly, Bonds has also begun dating Katie Holmes by this time.

2002: Bonds saves little Barry Baker from being run over at home plate during the World Series, which the Giants win again.

2003-2004: Bonds starts to decline, approaching his 40th birthday.  He accepts it as part of aging and has his final full season and All Star appearance in 2004.  He also wins the Roberto Clemente Award, though he’s initially uncertain what this is.  After learning it is for the player who “best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team,” Bonds laughs for a full three minutes before conceding that, yes, maybe that kind of accolade is realistic now.

2005-2006: Bonds assumes a bench role with the Giants, sticking around for his 3,000th hit and to serve as elder statesman.  He retires in 2006, and the Giants promptly offer him a coaching job and begin planning a statue of him outside AT&T Park, near the one of Mays.

So, let’s recap.  In my version, Bonds wins the World Series twice, has his own statue and gets to sleep with Katie Holmes.  In real life, he’s under federal indictment and alienated from the baseball world, all alone.  When I stop and think about it, I don’t know which version is crazier.

P.S. Also in my version, Bonds retires with a head of wavy hair and gets to keep the Mr. Belvedere mustache.

10 baseball players who didn't do steroids

1. Ken Griffey Jr: The best clean player of the Steroid Era, Griffey’s only performance enhancer was playing in the Kingdome.

2. Derek Jeter: Jose Canseco, of all people, said he was sure Jeter never used steroids.  That’s good enough in my book. In an era of gaudy numbers, Jeter was, like Griffey, a throwback.

3-4. Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine: If it ever emerges these guys took steroids, I think I’m done with baseball.  That means, basically, everybody used, even groundskeepers.  Then again, that seems unlikely, especially with Maddux and Glavine, two finesse pitchers with excellent longevity.

5. Albert Belle: A Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter recently asked Belle if he’d ever used steroids, as ‘roid rage could have explained his frequent emotional outbursts during his career.  Belle replied, “I was just an angry black man.”  Milton Bradley is going to get the chance to say the same thing in about ten years.

6. Ichiro Suzuki: Suzuki seems like another guy who belongs to another era, say 1910 (imagine how many more triples Suzuki would have got in the Deadball Era, when massive ballparks were standard.)  At it stands, he’s perhaps the best hitter of this era, steroids or not.  If I could have anyone from the last twenty years in my lineup, I might take Suzuki.

7. Omar Vizquel: I did a Google search on “Omar Vizquel steroids” to see if anything would come up.  There were of course a few blogs speculating he had used, including one in Cleveland that said Vizquel “needs to go back on his 2002 steroid regimen,” a possible explanation for why he hit a career-high 14 home runs that year.  That kind of sounds like sour grapes to me regarding Vizquel, an ex-Indian.  But the top search result, a 2006 Yahoo! Sports article said Vizquel “quietly embodies everything the Steroid Era does not.”  That sounds more apt.

8. Ben Grieve: I wish there were more stories out there like what follows about Grieve.  A book I recently read, Bash Brothers: A Legacy Subpoenaed, finds the former American League Rookie of the Year retired and angry at all the players who used and prospered, while he stayed clean, struggled with injuries and retired early.  “I compare it to stealing money,” Grieve said via email in the book. “You are breaking the rules of baseball (as well as the law) in order to make money for yourself… I’m happy every time a player is accused because it demeans their accomplishments.”

9. Fred McGriff: There are a lot of recent baseball players who put up artificially inflated home run totals.  McGriff is one of the few who probably did it naturally. He is tied with Lou Gehrig with 493 career home runs and never had the surreptitious spike in power numbers that typically accompanied steroid use, I.E. he didn’t bust out with 56 home runs in 1999.  McGriff was a model of consistency in his 19-year career, and I’m a little surprised he hasn’t done better in the Hall of Fame vote (consider him a Veterans Committee pick waiting to happen, if nothing else.)

10. Rico Brogna: I racked my brain trying to come up with a tenth player, and got Brogna, who once told ESPN the Magazine that he considered using steroids late in his career when he was struggling with injuries but chose not to and quit playing shortly thereafter.  In this era, that’s more believable than, “I only took it once.”

A lot of guys didn’t make the list, including Tony Gwynn.  That might sound insane, but Gwynn put up some of his best slugging numbers late in his career, including in 1997 when he hit .372 with 17 home runs and 119 RBI at age 37.  Granted, at 38, Ted Williams had the second-highest slugging percentage, of his career, .731, nearly 100 points above his lifetime rate, and I would bet he didn’t use steroids.  Still, Williams had the luxury of not accomplishing his feat of ageless wonder at the zenith of the Steroid Era.  These days, everyone’s a suspect.

Related posts:

Got $1,000? Jose Canseco will spend a day with you

Seeing McGwire through Rose-colored glasses

Alternate history: If Barry Bonds hadn’t used steroids

Great injustices: Babe Ruth was not MVP in 1927

I have been telling people that I think Babe Ruth is the greatest baseball player of all-time.  Others may choose Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb or someone else.  For me, it’s Ruth, who hit 714 home runs, won 94 games as a pitcher, and even stole 123 bases. More than 60 years after his death, there’s a reason Ruth’s name remains hallowed, like Michael Jordan in basketball or Joe Montana in football.

Mark Shapiro, a producer on the ESPN Sports Century project a decade ago that measured the top athletes of the 20th Century told Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke he considered Ruth the best of the century.

“Had he not moved to the outfield, he would have been the best pitcher ever,” Shapiro told Plaschke, for a December 31, 1999 column.  “If he had played football, he would have been one of the best football players ever.”

“Everything he did, he did bigger and better than anyone else.”

Imagine Ruth’s numbers if he had been a hitter his entire career– at least 800 home runs, no tainted record for Barry Bonds.  Imagine if Ruth had maintained solid conditioning throughout.  Imagine Babe Ruth on steroids.

Anyhow, I was on Baseball Reference a little while ago, as I am most days and noted with surprise that Ruth did not win Most Valuable Player in the American League in 1927, when he hit 60 home runs.  That award went to his teammate, Lou Gehrig.  It can be argued that Gehrig had a better all-around season, just as it could be said Sammy Sosa did better than Mark McGwire in 1998. But let’s look further at that.

Gehrig hit .373 in 1927, with 47 home runs and 175 runs batted in, along with 218 hits, 52 doubles and 18 triples.  Meanwhile, Ruth coupled his 60 long bombs with a .356 batting average, 192 hits, 158 runs and 164 runs batted in.  Both had on-base percentages approaching .500 and were the two best members of a Yankee team that won 109 games and swept the Pittsburgh Pirates in the World Series. (Those Yankees may be the best team ever, but that’s cause for another debate)

What it comes down to for me is that if I had to choose between Ruth or Gehrig that year for my team, I’d take Ruth.  No question.  I could sleep knowing I’d passed on Gehrig, as there are a select number of players in baseball history on par with him.  I think a number of players could have put up gargantuan numbers hitting next to the Sultan of Swat (Mel Ott, Bill Terry and Al Simmons come to mind.) But there was only one Babe Ruth.

Surprisingly, Ruth won a single MVP award during his career, in 1923 when he led the league in home runs and runs batted in but missed out on the Triple Crown, despite hitting .393.  The MVP award debuted in 1922, a year after the best season that Ruth– or any player– ever had, his 1921 campaign where he hit .378 with 59 home runs and 171 runs batted in.  Ruth had more home runs that year than eight entire teams, half the clubs in the majors that year.

They just don’t make them like Ruth anymore.

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.

Who to trust, Canseco or McGwire?

Amid the hoopla surrounding Mark McGwire admitting he used steroids, an exchange he had with Bob Costas got my attention.  In an interview on MLB Network on Monday, Costas read excerpts from Jose Canseco’s autobiography, Juiced, which claimed he personally injected McGwire.

“‘Right before a game, we would load up our syringes and inject ourselves’,” Costas read, quoting the book.

“There’s absolutely no truth to that whatsoever,” McGwire responded immediately, not breaking eye contact besides to blink once.

“That’s not true?” Costas said.

“Absolutely not,” McGwire said.

“Why do you think Jose would say that?” Costas said.

“He had to sell a book,” McGwire said.

“So that didn’t happen, in the clubhouse?” Costas said

“Absolutely not,” McGwire said.  “I couldn’t be more adamant about that.”

Canseco, for his part, went on sports talk radio today, insisting he told the truth.  He had defended his former teammate one day prior.  As reprinted in the Oakland Tribune, where I read it, Canseco told Sirius XM Radio on Monday, “Mark, steroids or not, was one of the greatest nicest guys you could possibly meet.  People make a mistake and say, ‘Well, he used steroids.  He’s a bad guy.  He’s evil.  He’s not worthy.’  I extremely regret telling the truth.  I extremely regret writing that book.  This thing has taken on a life of it’s own, and it’s far from over, guys.”

But on Tuesday, following the interview with Costas, Canseco called McGwire a liar.

“I’m tired of justifying what I’ve said,” Canseco said. “I’ve polygraphed, I’ve proven that I’m 100 percent accurate. I never exaggerated. I told it the way it actually happened. I’m the only one who has told it the way it actually happened. Major League Baseball is still trying to defend itself. It’s strange. All I have is the truth, and I’ve proven that.”

What’s apparent here is one of these men is lying.  I’m not sure who I believe.  Both players lied or gave misleading statements during their careers.  McGwire vigorously denied using steroids in a Sports Illustrated cover story in 1998, while Canseco released a tutorial while playing for the A’s that said steroid use would be unwise because it would hinder quick twitch muscles.  He also claimed the following, in Juiced:

I remember one day during 2001 spring training, when I was with the Anaheim Angels in a game against the Seattle Mariners, Bret Boone’s new team. I hit a double, and when I got out there to second base I got a good look at Boone. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He was enormous. “Oh my God,” I said to him. “What have you been doing?”

“Shhh,” he said. “Don’t tell anybody.”

As reported by ESPN in 2005, the Mariners and Angels played five games that spring, and Canseco and Boone never encountered one another on the basepaths.

There’s also a part of me that feels Canseco knew, leading up to Juiced, that guys like McGwire, Boone and Jason Giambi were using steroids.  It had to be apparent.  I also think Canseco knew baseball would be unwilling to talk about steroids, providing him a great money-making opportunity.  So a part of me thinks he wrote about the obvious users and took creative liberties about their personal interactions where he had to.

I doubt Canseco called out anyone who wasn’t using, but it seems unlikely he and McGwire injected together at the ballpark.  McGwire and Canseco ran in different circles and had vastly different personalities, McGwire shy and reserved, Canseco charming and outgoing.  The Bash Brothers image about them was largely a marketing creation, just like the M&M image was for Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle.  It seems more likely to me McGwire did steroids with his brother, a professional bodybuilder who lived with him.

This doesn’t mean Canseco has to fear a libel suit from McGwire.  Proving libel is not simply a matter of believing a person is lying.  There are two different thresholds for proof, depending on whether a private or public individual is claiming libel.  If a publication makes an error about a private individual, that individual need only prove negligence for a civil judgment.  McGwire is a public individual, though, so he would have to prove malice, that Canseco knew he was lying when he made his claims.  Proving that is typically difficult, if not impossible.  It’s why Barry Bonds may never do a day in jail.

What McGwire could prove, if he wanted to, is that Canseco’s book was devastating to his image.  But I doubt McGwire would go to those lengths, private as he is.

Seeing McGwire through Rose-colored glasses

I emailed one of the guys that oversees this site today, curious what he thought of my post about Mark McGwire’s admission of using steroids.  He liked what I wrote and suggested I write about how upset Pete Rose would be.

“You know he is going to come out and say you banned me but hired a cheater that lied for 10 years,” my friend said.

I had to concur about baseball’s double standards. Rose got banned in 1989 for betting on baseball, while Ty Cobb remains in the Hall of Fame, despite the fact he told his biographer late in life that he killed a man in the street in 1912.  And Cobb is far from the only unsavory character in Cooperstown.  Longtime baseball writer Fred Lieb wrote in his memoir, Baseball As I Have Known It, that Rogers Hornsby, Tris Speaker and Gabby Hartnett told him they were members of the Ku Klux Klan (Lieb figured Cobb a member as well–what didn’t that guy do?) I could list dozens of personally flawed players if I wanted to.  Nobody’s perfect, really.

I’m not sure if I quite see Rose’s cheating as being on par with McGwire’s cheating.  No one ever said Rose hit a home run or won a game by gambling on it.  But I thought of another connection between the two men.

In a 1990 postscript to his seminal bestseller and playing diary of the 1969 season, Ball Four, Jim Bouton wrote about Rose.  Bouton called the all-time hit leader’s banishment from the game “cruel and unusual punishment.”  He declared baseball’s rule against gambling “an anachronism,” a response to the 1919 Black Sox Scandal.

Bouton continued:

There’s no evidence that Pete Rose ever “threw” a ballgame.  But it is pretty clear that he’s a compulsive gambler, even though he denies it.  Today we know that compulsive gambling is an addiction, just like alcohol or drug addiction, and denial is part of the illness.  Accordingly, Rose should have been treated the same as baseball’s drug users; a one-year suspension and rehabilitation with Gamblers Anonymous.

In the wake of McGwire’s announcement today, many people around the blogosphere have been unloading on the former Cardinal slugger, including yours truly.  I stand by the statements I made earlier.  It is reprehensible that McGwire lied for so many years, however nice his belated honesty is.  But I can’t condemn him.  I might not support letting him in the Hall of Fame, at least just yet, but I also don’t support continuing to ostracize him from the game.

Addiction is considered by many a disease.  And steroids can be classed with narcotics like cocaine and marijuana as a drug of abuse.  Any recovering alcoholic who used steroids, except under advice of a doctor, would need to reset their sobriety date.  There are treatment programs for steroid abuse, just as there are for drugs, alcohol or compulsive spending.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that every baseball player who ever touched steroids is a drug addict.  I’ve heard only one in six people who use drugs typically become addicted.  Some people can take them or leave them.  But McGwire said he used steroids for 10 years.  That goes far beyond the experimental stage.

Stanton Peele, a psychologist who rejects the disease model of addiction writes on his website:

Simply discovering that a drug, or alcohol, or an activity accomplishes something for a person who has emotional problems or a particularly susceptible personality does not mean that this individual will be addicted. Indeed, most people in any such category are not addicts or alcoholics. Addicts must indulge in their addictions with sufficient abandon to achieve the addicted state. In doing so, they place less value on social proprieties or on their health or on their families and other considerations that normally hold people’s behavior in check.

The wild card in all this is that McGwire told Bob Costas he only used steroids for health reasons, not to gain strength and that he’d been given a gift to hit home runs.  That logic seems dubious, since steroids have been argued to help lead to injury.  Any health benefit would only come in the short term, if at all.

Whatever the case may be, McGwire sounds like a sick man.  When I look back on the Steroid Era for baseball, I see a lot of sick men.

Randy Johnson: Best lefthander ever?

I read a story by Carl Steward of the Oakland Tribune about the retirement yesterday of Randy Johnson that included a curious bit. Steward opined:

From an inauspicious start as a gawky 6-foot-10 kid from Livermore who threw the ball hard but didn’t have much clue where it was going, Johnson evolved into one of the eternal legends of the game, certainly one of the top dozen pitchers ever and arguably the best to ever throw from the left side. Certainly, he is right there alongside Sandy Koufax, Steve Carlton, Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn.

That got me thinking.  My first instinct was that Steward may have been engaging in some homerism. Urban Dictionary defines this as hometown bias, with an example: “The local newspapers practice homerism, predicting that the hometown teams will win and complaining about the refs when the local teams lose.” Steward was on the 43-minute conference call yesterday where Johnson announced his retirement.  Frankly, I’d be jazzed too if I’d been apart of that.

Granted, looking over the career numbers, there is some cause for debate.  Of the group, Johnson has the highest number of strikeouts and most Cy Young awards, with five, though out of fairness to Spahn and Grove, the award was not given out until 1956.  The others also have the benefit of having some years away to enhance their legacies.  Maybe I’d feel stronger about Johnson if he had pitched in the 1930s, striking fear into Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.  Then again, Johnson had to face Barry Bonds in his prime and spent much of his career in the Kingdome, which was essentially the baseball equivalent of a pinball machine.

I’d take Johnson for sure over Spahn or Carlton, but I have a harder time when it comes to Koufax or Grove. If a general manager assembling an all-time dream had any of these players in their prime available to pitch Game 1 of the World Series, how could he pass over Koufax for Johnson?  It just doesn’t compute. The last four years Koufax pitched, he was essentially untouchable.  Only a bum arm cut his career short, made him the sole member of this group not to win 300 games and disqualified him, at least in my book, from being the best lefthander ever.  But in terms of sheer talent, I believe he is the best.

For overall career, I’d take Grove over Johnson.  Johnson won three more games lifetime, but Grove got his 300 in an era where hitters ruled supreme.  Consider that Grove is generally acknowledged to have had his best years from 1929 to 1931, when he went 79-15.  The batting average for the American League was .284 in 1929, .288 in 1930 and .278 in 1931.  For context, in 2002 when Johnson went 24-5, the National League batting average was .259.  If Grove pitched today, especially in the NL, the results would be mindblowing.

All this being said, it will be a long time before another player like Johnson comes along.  He’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer, no doubt.

Mark McGwire: Hall of Famer?

With the results of this year’s Hall of Fame vote due to be released tomorrow, I wonder how Mark McGwire will fare.  I don’t expect him to be inducted.  Each of the last three years that McGwire has been on the ballot, he’s gotten around 20% of the vote, far short of the 75% needed.  But I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets a few more votes this year.  And down the road, he seems like a decent bet for the Veterans Committee.

Initially, McGwire seemed like the first clear casualty of the Steroid Era.  McGwire appeared before Congress in March 2005, repeatedly refusing to answer if he’d done steroids, stammering he was not there to discuss the past and seeming, as an Associated Press writer put it, like “some fidgety Mafia don.”  From a public relations standpoint, it looked worse than Richard Nixon at the 1960 Presidential Debate.  The effect on McGwire’s legacy and Hall of Fame candidacy was immediate.

“He doesn’t want to talk about the past?  Then I don’t want to consider his past,” said Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News, according to the book, Bash Brothers.

Despite having 583 home runs and a higher career on-base percentage than Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Al Kaline, among other Hall of Fame members, McGwire received 23.5% of the vote from the writers in his first year of eligibility, with eighth players on the ballot faring better.  He also finished ninth in 2008 and 2009.  And while others like Jack Morris and Tommy John have begun to climb the ballot in the last three years, McGwire actually got ten fewer votes last year.

Here’s why I think the ice may be thawing and McGwire may have a chance at Cooperstown one day: The media has started to relax toward McGwire, and his Congressional appearance, while poison in terms of PR, actually may endear him to the baseball establishment.

Ken Rosenthal recently wrote on FoxSports.com that he voted for nine players this year, but not McGwire. He wrote:

I have yet to vote for McGwire, but I am warmer to the idea than when he first appeared on the ballot in 2007. The more we learn about the Steroid Era, the better we understand just how deeply performance-enhancing drugs were entrenched in the game’s culture. My problem with McGwire is that his candidacy is largely based on power, and there is ample reason to believe that his late-career power surge was fueled by PEDs.

That’s not great but it’s also not the “Never talk to me again, asshole” break-up letter the Baseball Writers Association of America sent McGwire a few years ago with their vote.

As more and more steroid users have been outed, McGwire doesn’t look so sinister.  We’re also quickly approaching having the first juicer in the Hall of Fame.  Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens will all be on the ballot in the next few years.  It will look ridiculous if one of them is not inducted before too long.  When that inevitably happens, it should help ease the way for McGwire.

That being said, aside from steroids, McGwire still faces many hurdles.  He struck out a lot, hit .263 lifetime and had just 1626 career hits.  McGwire also had a relatively short window of dominance, 1996 to 1999.  Granted, those years were astonishing, as he averaged over 60 home runs and 130 runs batted in.  Otherwise though, he wasn’t much more than a high class version of Dave Kingman.

I don’t see McGwire ever getting near the votes he needs from the writers.  But I think he has a shot with the Veterans Committee.  When he appeared before Congress and famously refused to discuss his past, McGwire made it sound like he was doing it, in part, for the sake of the game.

“What I will not do, however, is participate in naming names and implicating my friends and teammates,” McGwire said in a prepared statement.  “I reitred from baseball four years ago.  I live a quiet life with my wife and children.  I have always been a team player.  I have never been a player who spread rumors or said things about teammates that could hurt them.”

I’m undecided if I buy the display of gravitas, but others might.

The task for the Veterans Committee is to find players seemingly overlooked by the writers.  The committee tends to be conservative, generally favoritive toward baseball-friendly candidates.  McGwire would fit them well.

The 10 Most Overrated Hall of Famers

Several months ago, when this site was in its infancy, I wrote a post, “The 10 best players not in the Hall of Fame.” It remains my most popular post, by far, and has lead to other entries. When in doubt, I learned, the Hall of Fame makes for thought-provoking writing.

Today, I offer a new list. Let me preface this. Bill James used mathematical formulas, years ago, to make his own determinations in his book, Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? I submit no such claim and, in fact, am deliberately not including his choices. There’s no sense in trying to compete with James, and I don’t know his methodology, sabermetrics.  It is one of those things I’ve meant to pick up but haven’t, like Spanish, HTML coding and guitar.  I also am putting a few players on in the hopes of stirring debate. I considered including Joe DiMaggio, but thought better of it.

Also, the following players aren’t necessarily the worst in Cooperstown. Some are, but most are simply guys who I feel got in unjustly, for one reason or another. Consider:

Jim Rice: He got in for what others did or, moreover, what he didn’t do. Probably. If it ever comes out that Rice used steroids, Cooperstown will have problems.

Bruce Sutter: After the floodgates opened on letting relievers in, Sutter was inducted. When I think of great relievers, I think Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage, and from this generation, Mariano Rivera and maybe Trevor Hoffman. That’s it. I tend to be hard on relievers, just as I am on defensive stars and designated hitters. True Hall of Famers, in my book, are multi-faceted, game-changing players, the kid I’d pick first on the playground, no question.

Rube Waddell: I love reading about Waddell in Ken Burns Baseball, hearing how the child-like star pitcher could be distracted with puppies and lured from the mound by the sound of firetrucks. If there were a Hall of Fame for storied characters in baseball history, Waddell would be a first-ballot inductee. But the facts are that he won 197 games and drank himself out of the big leagues while he was still young. This wasn’t as funny when it happened with Dwight Gooden.

Dizzy Dean: Ditto.

Lou Boudreau: As noted here before, Boudreau was an extremely similar hitter to Orlando Cabrera. Cabrera belongs in no Hall of Fame, not even the Montreal Expos team Hall of Fame (which is probably in an airport restroom somewhere.)

Gaylord Perry: So, yeah, this choice might be controversial. After all, Perry won 314 games and reinvented himself many times. Among his generation, he was one of the very few best pitchers in the game. But he did it in part by cheating, throwing a ball that had more grease on it than an engine. Had Perry played a generation later, he’d have no shot at the Hall of Fame. Just look what’s happening to Roger Clemens.

Rabbit Maranville: When in doubt, Maranville is a name for angry supporters of a player who can’t get in the Hall of Fame, as in: “Why can’t Dale Murphy get in the Hall of Fame, if Rabbit Maranville can?” For good reason, as Maranville hit .258 lifetime. Granted, he was a solid defensive shortstop, but I’m generally against recognizing these sorts of players unless they’re Brooks Robinson, Ozzie Smith or Omar Vizquel.  Aside from all that, perhaps the biggest injustice is that the year writers voted Maranville in, 1954, they declined to induct DiMaggio.

Phil Rizzuto: As noted before, Rizzuto falls into a class of players I like to call, “If they played for the Washington Senators…” As in, if they had played for the Senators, they’d have no shot at the Hall of Fame. They can mostly be noted for holding down jobs for long stretches on hallowed clubs. Others in this class include Earle Combs, Pee Wee Reese, Tony Lazzeri, Lefty Gomez and Bill Dickey. If Gil Hodges gets in Cooperstown, he can be grouped here too. Rizzuto made his name playing shortstop for great Yankee teams in the 1940s and ’50s, in the same lineup as DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Rizzuto did an able job, seemed like a nice guy, and had a long career as a broadcaster after he retired. But he also hit .273 lifetime.

Dave Bancroft: Bancroft is in an opposite school to Rizzuto, one of those players who can mostly be noted for being the best member on really terrible teams. I don’t like this kind of recognition, just as I don’t think it’s right to have a token All Star from the Pittsburgh Pirates each year.

Tinker to Evers to Chance: I’ll group together these three– Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance– because they were a famed double play combination for the Chicago Cubs in the early twentieth century. Defensively adept though they may have been, none had more than 1,700 hits or hit .300 lifetime. Without each other, none would have made the Hall of Fame.