Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Al Oliver

Claim to fame: Quietly, Oliver may have been one of the best hitters of the 1970s and ’80s, amassing 2,743 hits and a .303 lifetime batting average, hitting above .300 eleven of his 18 seasons. Oliver had perhaps his best year in 1982 when he led the National League in hits, doubles, runs batted in, and batting average, was an All Star, and finished third in Most Valuable Player voting. Mostly, though, he was a solid supporting player.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Oliver received 4.3 percent of the vote in 1991, his only year on the writers ballot for Cooperstown. Having last played in 1985, Oliver can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This was originally going to be a column about Harvey Kuenn, Bill Madlock, Tony Oliva, or Mickey Vernon, other great hitters yet to be inducted. When I began examining their stats, I noticed Kuenn and Madlock each have more than 2,000 hits and a career batting average above .300. I decided to find all the players who achieved this.

Not counting active, recently-retired players, and Pete Rose– who is ineligible for Cooperstown– there are 20 men with at least 2,000 hits and a lifetime batting average of .300 or better. A chart alphabetized by first name follows, with leading stats among the group in bold:

Al Oliver 1189 2743 529 77 219 1326 .303 .344 .451 .795
Bill Madlock 920 2008 348 34 163 860 .305 .365 .442 .807
Bobby Veach 953 2063 393 147 64 1166 .310 .370 .442 .812
Buddy Myer 1174 2131 353 130 38 850 .303 .389 .406 .795
Deacon White 1140 2067 270 98 24 988 .312 .346 .393 .740
Dixie Walker 1037 2064 376 96 105 1023 .306 .383 .437 .820
Don Mattingly 1007 2153 442 20 222 1099 .307 .358 .471 .830
Ed McKean 1227 2084 272 158 67 1124 .302 .365 .417 .781
Edgar Martinez 1219 2247 514 15 309 1261 .312 .418 .515 .933
George Burns 901 2018 444 72 72 951 .307 .354 .429 .783
Harvey Kuenn 951 2092 356 56 87 671 .303 .357 .408 .765
Jake Daubert 1117 2326 250 165 56 722 .303 .360 .401 .760
Jimmy Ryan 1643 2513 451 157 118 1093 .308 .375 .444 .820
Mark Grace 1179 2445 511 45 173 1146 .303 .383 .442 .825
Patsy Donovan 1321 2256 208 75 16 738 .301 .348 .355 .702
Paul Hines 1217 2133 399 93 57 855 .302 .340 .409 .749
Roberto Alomar 1508 2724 504 80 210 1134 .300 .371 .443 .814
Stan Hack 1239 2193 363 81 57 642 .301 .394 .397 .791
Stuffy McInnis 872 2405 312 101 20 1062 .307 .343 .381 .723
Will Clark 1186 2176 440 47 284 1205 .303 .384 .497 .880

This chart could double as a list of fringe candidates for Cooperstown. The majority of the players could have — and many have had — impassioned cases made for their enshrinement. Depending how one looks at it, Oliver might be most deserving.

Martinez is the group leader for home runs, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage, and he obliterates the others on the chart with his .933 OPS, fourth-highest among non-inducted players who have been eligible for Cooperstown. With any defensive ability, Martinez would have been a first-ballot inductee, instead of receiving 36.2 percent of the vote in 2009. As it stands, Martinez redefined the value of an excellent designated hitter and should be enshrined eventually.

Oliver has the most hits, doubles, and runs batted in of the group, and in many respects, he’s the antithesis to Martinez. Where Martinez wasn’t an everyday player until he was 27 and assaulted the offensive leader boards like a man making up for lost time, Oliver was a starter at 22 and remained consistent for the better part of two decades. He was perhaps never a star and rarely the best player on his team but generally a solid teammate, good for about 170 hits, 80-100 RBI and a .300 batting average. I suspect he made a lot of guys better.

Oliver’s Web site features testimonials from Andre Dawson, George Foster, Bob Gibson, and Willie Stargell suggesting he should be in Cooperstown. There’s also a quote from baseball researcher Bill James which ends, “It’s an injustice for him to be off the ballot. He shouldn’t be put in that category. It surprises me that he received so little support.” I don’t know if I’m surprised, but I’ll say this: The stated task of the Veterans Committee is to find players overlooked by the writers. To this end, Oliver seems an ideal candidate for them. I’d vote for him if I could.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Rocky Colavito

Claim to fame: Colavito had a 14-year career from 1955 to 1968, and for about ten of those years, he was one of the best players in the American League. From 1956 through 1966, Colavito smacked 358 home runs, made six All Star teams, and finished among the top five in Most Valuable Player award voting three times. The right fielder went into rapid decline after 1966, bouncing between four teams his final two seasons, though as noted here recently, Colavito had a moment in the sun his last year in the majors, 1968, when he pitched and won a game for the Yankees.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Colavito appeared on the Cooperstown ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America twice, receiving two votes in 1974 and one in 1975. He can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? My knee jerk reaction from looking at Colavito’s career numbers is: No, he doesn’t merit a Hall of Fame plaque.

A lifetime batting average of .266, 374 career home runs and 1,730 hits don’t seem sufficient for Cooperstown, and several of the players Colavito charts most closely to offensively fall into the good-but-not-great category: Boog Powell, Norm Cash, Frank Howard. All were solid members of their teams in their day, but if every man like this were to be honored, the Hall of Fame would mushroom in size and become watered down to the point I’d be devoting columns here to whether or not Reggie Sanders deserved induction.

To me, Colavito falls into a class of players who might have been Hall of Famers had they kept up the pace from the first half of their careers, rather than falling almost completely off the map around 30. Ted Kluszewski is another player like this from Colavito’s era. Dwight Gooden and Nomar Garciaparra are more recent examples. In their primes, each may have seemed like a shoe-in for future enshrinement, but it’s a push to lobby for any of them now (though I included Gooden among the 10 best players not in the Hall of Fame.)

All this being said, it was a little surprising to me when I learned Colavito was not in Cooperstown. With his name and the great years he had, I’d have thought he received a plaque years ago (Kluszewski as well, come to think of it.) Colavito’s anemic vote totals with the BBWAA are more surprising still. Heck, the Cleveland Indians were supposedly afflicted for years with something called the Curse of Rocky Colavito following their ill-fated trade of him for Harvey Kuenn just before the start of the 1960 season. Legends usually inspire curses.

A place on the Internet devoted to Colavito’s candidacy, Rocky Colavito Fan Site notes, “Many avid baseball fans assume that Rocky is already in the Hall of Fame and are shocked when they learn that this is not the case.” The site carries a Hall of Fame petition in Colavito’s name, with a goal of making the slugger eligible this year with the Veterans Committee for enshrinement next summer. I would encourage anyone interested to check it out.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Mel Harder

Claim to fame: Harder went 223-186 with a 3.80 ERA in a 20-year career spent entirely with the Cleveland Indians, spanning 1928 to 1947. He twice won at least 20 games in a season, made four All Star teams, and finished with a career Wins Above Replacement rating of 42.50, better than Chief Bender, Burleigh Grimes, and Bob Lemon among other Hall of Fame hurlers. Out of many solid pitchers not in Cooperstown, Harder might rank among the best.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Harder appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America 11 years, peaking with 25.4% of the vote in 1964. He exhausted his eligibility in 1967 and can be enshrined by a section of the Veterans Committee that considers players whose careers began 1943 or earlier. The committee will next meet before the 2014 election.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This column was suggested by reader Clay Sigg, who helped me research last week’s post on Cecil Travis. Sigg is writing a book on players who spent their entire career on the same club, and he sent me something on Travis before I started writing. After my article went live, Sigg provided his work on Harder, adding in an email to me, “He’ll grow on you.”

I read over the roughly 900-word biography on Harder, who I admittedly have confused with Mel Parnell before (I think it’s the baseball equivalent of mistaking Upton Sinclair for Sinclair Lewis.) I was impressed with Harder’s stats and durability as both a player and longtime pitching coach after he retired. Sigg noted that Harder is “the lone star to have played 20 years for a single franchise that is not in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.”

It’s an interesting idea, enshrining a player on the basis of his contributions to a franchise, though I’m not sure if it’s enough to merit enshrinement for Harder. There are a few pitchers I would honor first.

Not including active, recently-retired or pre-modern era hurlers, I count nine pitchers with more wins than Harder who are not in the Hall of Fame. In order of victories, these pitchers are:

Pitcher Wins ERA WAR
1 Tommy John 288 3.34 59.00
2 Bert Blyleven 287 3.31 90.10
3 Jim Kaat 283 3.45 41.20
4 Jack Morris 254 3.90 39.30
5 Jack Quinn 247 3.29 49.7
6 Dennis Martinez 245 3.70 46.90
7 Frank Tanana 240 3.66 55.10
8 Luis Tiant 229 3.30 60.10
9 Sad Sam Jones 229 3.84 30.1

I would definitely enshrine Blyleven and Tiant before Harder, and I might even make a case for Martinez, one of the more underrated hurlers in recent decades whose 3.2% of the Hall of Fame vote in his only year on the ballot, 2004, remains somewhat baffling to me. I know Morris and John have their boosters too, as each has received some support on the writers ballot for Cooperstown.

Of the nine pitchers listed above, Harder has a higher WAR ranking than just three:  Kaat, Jones, and Morris. And some of the Hall of Fame hurlers Harder ranks just above for this stat are part of the lower echelon of Cooperstown: Jesse Haines, Catfish Hunter, and Herb Pennock. There are also many non-Hall of Fame pitchers with fewer wins but better WAR than Harder including Vida Blue, David Cone, and Bret Saberhagen.

Harder is certainly a player worth celebrating, and it makes sense his spike in Hall of Fame votes came in the initial election after teammate Bob Feller’s first ballot induction. As an underrated hurler confined to some abysmal Cleveland clubs, Harder paved the way for Feller and others to enjoy great individual success and multiple World Series trips with the Indians. One can only wonder what Harder might have accomplished playing 20 years in a different era or with a better franchise.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Cecil Travis

Claim to fame: Travis broke in with the Washington Senators in 1933 and quickly emerged as one of baseball’s best infielders. Playing primarily at shortstop, Travis hit above .300 eight of his first nine seasons, making three All Star teams. He peaked in 1941 at 28 when he hit a career-high .359, led the American League with 218 hits, and finished sixth in Most Valuable Player voting. He would never again approach stardom.

The United States entered World War II in December 1941, and Travis spent nearly four years in the military. Most established ballplayers served by playing on USO ball clubs. Travis is one of the few who saw combat, and he paid a heavy price, suffering frostbite to his feet in the Battle of the Bulge and just avoiding amputation. He played just three more seasons, never again hitting above .300.

There are those who say Travis’s feet were permanently damaged, though his New York Times obituary in 2006 reported him once saying his timing was gone after the war.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Having begun his career before 1943, Travis can be enshrined by a section of the Veterans Committee that meets once every five years and will reconvene for the 2014 election. Travis never appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot for the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? If we merely analyze Travis’s career stats, his numbers don’t come close to Cooperstown standards. But statistics aren’t why Travis deserves a plaque.

Travis is among a small number of players who might already be in Cooperstown if not for losing prime years from the middle of their careers to military service. Dom DiMaggio is the only other member I know of in this club. Of course, there may have been many minor league or amateur players on their way to good things in baseball before wartime duty changed this. If anyone reading has such a relative or friend, please feel free to contact me. I’d love to write something.

Were it up to me, I’d enshrine Travis, DiMaggio too, who I once interviewed. I’m generally in favor of Cooperstown recognizing special circumstances when it comes to truncated careers of good players, for a variety of reasons. Travis had no choice being drafted and was willing to fight. I think the Hall of Fame should honor him for that, not ding him.

I’m not the only person singing praises. A fellow member of the Society for American Baseball Research, Clay Sigg recently sent me a short biography he wrote on Travis. It featured a quote from Ted Williams about his and Joe DiMaggio’s 1941 seasons. Williams said, “Hell, in 1941, Cecil Travis was just as good as either of us! Cecil Travis is one of the five best left-handed hitters I ever saw.” In the 1995 book on Williams’ top hitters, Ted Williams’ Hit List, co-author Jim Prime noted that Bob Feller included Travis with Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Hank Greenberg, Al Simmons and Williams on his own list of all time toughest hitters.

I recently reviewed a DVD of color 8 mm film footage by another former Senator, George Case, which is being marketed by his son, George Case III. Incidentally, Case III emailed me on Monday evening while I was working on this post. I let him know what I was up to. Case III wrote back:

Thanks very much Graham – I think you know my opinion – definitely YES – and if his career hadn’t been shortened by his combat experience in WWII – I believe he would have put up HOF numbers – I know my dad certainly had his opinion as he knew first-hand, as a teammate, how great a ballplayer Cecil Travis was … Cecil was very quiet and extremely modest, and my opinion is that he would have definitely been elected to the HOF had he NOT played so many years in Washington and had he NOT suffered his injuries during his service to our country that shortened his career.

It amazes me that Travis seemingly never appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot. I recently compiled a dream lineup of players who got zero votes for Cooperstown, but those men at least were somehow nominated. If Travis had worn Yankee pinstripes, rather than Senators attire, perhaps the New York press would have pushed for a different outcome. Some players just have bad luck, I suppose.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Bert Blyleven

Claim to fame: Blyleven finished with 3,701 strikeouts, 287 wins and 60 shutouts, ninth-best in baseball history. I named Blyleven one of the 10 best players not in the Hall of Fame and included him in a poll of players yet to be enshrined. As of this writing, Blyleven is the only player with more than 75 percent of the vote in my poll, besting others like Roberto Alomar, Gil Hodges, and Pete Rose.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Blyleven has made 13 appearance on the writers ballot and has two more years of eligibility remaining.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Before I offer whether I think Blyleven belongs in Cooperstown, let me say first that I think he will almost certainly be enshrined. Blyleven is one of 12 players who have received at least 50 percent of the vote in their 13th year of eligibility from the Baseball Writers Association of America. These players are:

  • Rabbit Maranville, 62.1 percent, 1953
  • Bill Terry, 72.3 percent, 1953
  • Sam Rice, 50.6 percent, 1962
  • Red Ruffing, 70.1 percent, 1964
  • Ralph Kiner, 75.4 percent, 1975
  • Enos Slaughter, 68.9 percent, 1978
  • Gil Hodges, 60.1 percent, 1981
  • Jim Bunning, 63.3 percent, 1989
  • Orlando Cepeda, 57.2 percent, 1992
  • Bruce Sutter, 76.9 percent, 2006
  • Jim Rice, 63.5 percent, 2007
  • Blyleven, 74.2 percent, 2010

Of the group, only Hodges and Blyleven don’t have a Cooperstown plaque. I suspect Hodges might eventually, courtesy of the Veterans Committee and that Blyleven probably will get inducted on his next go-round with the writers in January.

The question is less if Blyleven gets in than when and how. The writers inducted six of the players, Maranville, Terry, Ruffing, Kiner, Sutter and Jim Rice, while the veterans tabbed Bunning, Cepeda, Sam Rice, and Slaughter. Blyleven reminds me of fellow power pitcher Bunning, albeit with better stats and less polarizing political views. Maybe that’s enough for the writers. Interestingly, Bunning got an equal percentage of the vote in his 12th year on the ballot that Blyleven got in his 13th year, on similarly weak ballots. Bunning then saw a drop in his votes, exhausted his 15 years of eligibility, and was enshrined at the first opportunity for the Veterans Committee.

Perhaps Blyleven will also need the veterans, though like I said, I think he gets in with the writers. Rafael Palmeiro is going to hit the ballot this December, he will be shunned, and the writers will need someone to honor. They may turn to Jeff Bagwell, who will be newly eligible as well and looks like a first ballot Hall of Famer. But I think Blyleven should see a boost as well.

I don’t know if I personally would honor Blyleven. Like Nolan Ryan, he lost a lot of games. It’s also hard to picture him as being dominant enough on any one team to denote him wearing their cap on his plaque. Then again, the same can be said for Dave Winfield or any number of Veterans Committee selections over the years. And he’s a better pitcher than a lot of men already in Cooperstown.

There’s something else worth mentioning here. In a classic scene in Bull Durham, Kevin Costner’s character bitterly says that the difference between a .250 and a .300 hitter is one hit a week. In Blyleven’s case, the difference between early enshrinement and where we sit now may have been about one win a year. His average full season, as listed on Baseball-Reference is 14-12 with a 3.31 ERA. If he’d averaged 15 wins, Blyleven would have 309 career victories and would have been inducted in about the same amount of time as someone like Don Sutton.

Sutton won 324 games, played on far better teams than Blyleven by and large, and still needed five tries on the writers ballot to earn his plaque. In fact, Sutton is one of several 300-game winners who were far from first ballot inductions, but ultimately no shot to be overlooked. Even in the modern game, 300 victories still usually equals eventual enshrinement, no matter what.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? George Steinbrenner

Claim to fame: Memorably autocratic owner of the New York Yankees won seven World Series titles after buying the team in 1973. Set a standard for excellence in New York where even a finish in the divisional playoffs could spell doom for a manager. Was death on facial hair, even if it killed Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi as we know them. Inspired characterizations on Seinfeld.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Steinbrenner can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee as an executive.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This column was prompted by a July 13 piece by Wallace Matthews on arguing for a plaque in Cooperstown for Steinbrenner, who died last week at 80. Matthews referenced the upcoming Hall of Fame inductions for Andre Dawson, Doug Harvey, and Whitey Herzog, calling them all deserving inductees. Matthews added:

But I defy anyone, [New York Yankees] lovers and haters alike, to make the case that any one of them — or, in fact, all three combined — made a bigger impact on Major League Baseball than George M. Steinbrenner III.

It’s a bold statement, and I’m not sure how much I agree with where it leads. Personally, I think the abrogation of the Reserve Clause in December 1975 did more to help the Yankees return to prominence than anything Steinbrenner did. Note that after winning 83 games and finishing third in 1975, the Yankees capitalized on their sudden ability to stockpile high-priced free agents like Reggie Jackson by appearing in the next three World Series, winning two of them.

It should be noted, too, that after this return to prominence, the Yankees sucked for the better part of 20 years before rising again in the mid-1990s. Why isn’t Steinbrenner faulted for that? Why isn’t he dinged for repeatedly firing Billy Martin or alienating players like Dave Winfield? That did more to cripple the Yankees for a long time than help them.

Don’t get me wrong, Steinbrenner could have been Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who ran his basketball team aground by refusing to support a large payroll, even though he was making good profits. Steinbrenner did his job as competently as any owner of a major market sports franchise should do. But that hardly places him in the pantheon. Steinbrenner was a character, no doubt, but then, so was Marge Schott.

I would induct two executives before Steinbrenner, and Matthews references both of them in his piece. They are:

  • Marvin Miller: I wrote in December about the shame of the Veterans Committee failing to induct Miller, the former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association who led the charge to overturn the Reserve Clause. As Matthews notes, Miller fell two votes shy of the Hall of Fame last year, failing to garner much support from league executives on the committee. Miller’s 93 and will hopefully be enshrined in his lifetime, but I wouldn’t count on it.
  • Colonel Jacob Ruppert: Owned the Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939, winning as many World Series as Steinbrenner, with seven and doing it in over ten fewer years on the job. More importantly, Ruppert helped orchestrate the purchase of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox in 1920, which did more to change New York — and baseball — than anything anyone’s done before or since.

Still, as I wrote in my piece on Miller, I’m not even wild on enshrining Ruppert. With Babe Ruth under my employ, I’m pretty sure I could have won some World Series titles. Really, what’s so hard about being an owner?

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Thurman Munson

Claim to fame: Next to Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, Munson may have been the best catcher of the 1970s. He made seven All Star appearances in the decade along with winning three Gold Gloves and the 1976 American League Most Valuable Player award. He also helped revitalize the once-proud Yankees, joining a sputtering New York club in 1969 and later contributing to back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 and 1978. Munson’s career was cut short August 1, 1979 when he died in a plane crash at 32.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Munson posthumously exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1995 and can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? That’s a tough question. Had Munson played a full career, he’d likely have a plaque in Cooperstown by now. He’s part of a small group of players whose Hall of Fame chances were hurt by their untimely deaths. Others in this class include Ray Chapman and Urban Shocker. Of the group, Munson may come closest to enshrinement on playing merit. He hit .292 lifetime with 1,558 hits and was a cornerstone of the Yankee rebirth. I’d probably vote for him if I could.

There are a few men in the Hall of Fame whose careers ended prematurely, be it for injury, illness or death. These men include:

  • Roy Campanella
  • Roberto Clemente
  • Dizzy Dean
  • Ed Delahanty
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Addie Joss
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Kirby Puckett
  • Rube Waddell
  • Ross Youngs

Munson’s numbers fall short of the only catcher on that list, Campanella, who dominated more in fewer seasons, though I liken Munson favorably to Joss or Youngs. Joss won 160 games with a 1.89 lifetime ERA before dying of meningitis at 31 in 1911, while Youngs hit .322 in ten seasons before dying of Bright’s disease in 1927 at 30. Munson played more seasons than either player and rates comparably well or better on some of the Hall of Fame metrics. That being said, it took until the 1970s for the Veterans Committee to tab Joss or Youngs. In addition, Youngs had a teammate on the committee, Frankie Frisch, who helped get several friends enshrined. I don’t know if Munson has any such booster on the current committee.

It’s worth noting that historically, the Veterans Committee has generally rewarded players who got significant Hall of Fame vote totals from the BBWAA, and Munson was mostly an afterthought after peaking with 15.5 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot, 1981. Even then, when Munson likely received extra votes from writers who didn’t know it was okay to vote otherwise, the Yankee catcher still finished 16th. Gil Hodges, Roger Maris and three other men who have yet to be enshrined as of this writing received more votes in 1981 than Munson. I wouldn’t be surprised if the committee considers Hodges or even Maris before Munson.

Even with a full career, Munson would face slim odds of making Cooperstown. Catchers have about as easy a time earning plaques as relief pitchers, stolen base specialists or any defensive whiz not named Brooks Robinson or Ozzie Smith. Two other fine catchers from Munson’s era awaiting enshrinement are Bill Freehan and Ted Simmons. Both had more All Star appearances than Munson by the time they were 32. In addition, Freehan had five Gold Gloves before his 28th birthday while Simmons amassed 2,472 career hits and a .285 lifetime batting average.

Interestingly, both Freehan and Simmons were one-and-done Hall of Fame candidates, meaning they got less than 5 percent of the vote their only year on the ballot which automatically disqualified them from future votes. Freehan spent his career with Detroit while Simmons did his best work with St. Louis and Milwaukee. Had Freehan or Simmons played in a comparably-sized media market to Munson or died in similarly tragic circumstances, I think their Hall of Fame bids would have received better support.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Steve Garvey

Claim to fame: Garvey had 2,599 hits, six seasons with at least 200 hits, and a .294 lifetime batting average in a 19-year career from 1969 to 1987. He shined most early on, making eight consecutive All Star appearances from 1974 through 1981, winning four straight Gold Gloves and the 1974 National League Most Valuable Player award in that stretch.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Garvey exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 2007 and can be enshrined by the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Months ago, a reader of my list of the 10 best players not in Cooperstown asked my opinion on Garvey, who didn’t make the list. I responded that if Garvey hadn’t declined after 1980, I think he would have been a Hall of Famer.

I stand by my opinion, though I was motivated to write more about Garvey after my piece on Maury Wills last week led to a forum discussion at Baseball Think Factory. One member noted how Wills’ Cooperstown votes fell, commenting:

Maury Wills had one of the steepest dropoffs in HoF support in history. Guys at 40% don’t fall to 20%. They just don’t – except for Wills and Steve Garvey.

It goes deeper than that. Dating back to the first Hall of Fame ballot in 1936, just seven players who received at least 30 percent of the vote in their first year of eligibility have not since been voted in by the writers. The seven players are as follows, with their first year of eligibility and vote totals in parentheses:

  • Roberto Alomar (73.7 percent, 2010)
  • Steve Garvey (41.6 percent, 1993)
  • Barry Larkin (51.6 percent, 2010)
  • Edgar Martinez (36.2 percent, 2010)
  • Lee Smith (42.3 percent, 2003)
  • Luis Tiant (30.9 percent, 1988)
  • Maury Wills (30.3 percent, 1978)

For our purposes, we can disregard Alomar and Larkin who will almost certainly be inducted by the writers sometime soon. No other player who has cracked 50 percent of the vote in their first year has failed to be enshrined. We can also set aside Martinez, who has another fourteen tries with the writers and may need several years to determine whether his Cooperstown stock will rise or fall.

That leaves Garvey, Smith, Tiant, and Wills. Smith has mostly hovered in the 40th percentile in eight years on the ballot. The other three men got their highest level of support in their early years and exhausted their eligibility with much fewer votes. Usually it’s the other way around, with players receiving modest vote totals initially and building momentum for enshrinement. Incidentally, Garvey, Tiant and Wills all got a higher percentage of the vote their first years on the ballot than Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Jim Rice and Billy Williams, as well as every player enshrined by the Veterans Committee except for Jim Bunning, Pee Wee Reese and Enos Slaughter.

I suppose Garvey, Wills, and Tiant got many early votes because some writers figured that’s how everyone would be voting. Perhaps when these writers realized this wasn’t the case, they changed course. There are other factors to consider, of course. Wills lost votes after a drug bust, while Tiant’s first appearance on the Cooperstown ballot came in a weak year for it, 1988.

It’s harder to say what sunk Garvey. He had well-publicized extramarital affairs, but that was old news by the time he became Hall of Fame-eligible. It’s worth noting that Garvey had his first big drop in votes just months after a fellow first baseman, Mark McGwire set the single-season home run record with 70. Garvey hit more than 30 home runs just one season and had 272 lifetime. With the anti-steroid backlash now in effect against McGwire and others, it could make Garvey a prime candidate for the Veterans Committee when it reconvenes in less than six months. I wouldn’t vote for him if I could, but others might.

Garvey might get in regardless of McGwire. As I noted in a recent piece on Don Mattingly, the Veterans Committee historically has a better than 50 percent hit rate on enshrining players who peak between even 20 and 30 percent of the writers vote. Given that Garvey, Smith, Tiant, and Wills all fared better, two of them may eventually have plaques. Try to guess who.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Maury Wills

Claim to fame: Wills revolutionized baseball in the 1960s by the leading the National League in steals from 1960 through 1965. In his 1962 MVP season, Wills stole 104 bases, broke Ty Cobb’s 47-year-old Major League record, and personally accounted for 13 percent of the steals in the National League, a rare feat. Other players soon followed suit. By 1965, the stolen base total in the National League was nearly twice what it was the year before Wills began playing, setting the stage for speedsters like Lou Brock, Tim Raines and Rickey Henderson.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Wills exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1992 and can be enshrined through the Veterans Committee.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? This post was inspired a piece from Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray in January 1978, not long after Wills first fell short on the Hall of Fame ballot with the writers. Murray wrote:

It’s a good thing these guys aren’t on the gates of heaven. It’s all right to be selective, but will someone in the congregation please rise and tell me why Maury Wills only got 115 votes? Will someone please tell why Rabbit Maranville is in the Hall of Fame and Maury Wills isn’t?

Murray went on to point out Wills’ 1962 record (since broken multiple times), career marks and his impact on bringing back the steal. He added:

If Maury Wills doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, Babe Ruth doesn’t. He did the same thing Ruth did–change a national pastime, forever. For him to get only 115 votes and finish 11th behind a pack of journeymen players is a joke.

Murray was and remains one of the most respected sportswriters ever, nearly 12 years after his death, and in the three years after his column, Wills’ Cooperstown votes rose, to a peak of 40.6 percent in 1981, though he never again cracked 30 percent thereafter. Of the 11 men who finished in front of Wills on the 1978 ballot, all but one — Gil Hodges — is now in Cooperstown. Wills also finished 11 spots in front of future Veterans Committee pick Bill Mazeroski.

So the question is, does Wills belong in Cooperstown? Much as I respect Murray, one of my writing idols, my vote is no though I suspect the Veterans Committee may tab Wills before too long because of how he did on the writer’s ballot. Wills has also gotten sober since leaving the big leagues and turned his life around. As I wrote about another man who did this, Don Newcombe, the committee could do well to honor players who find recovery after falling short of greatness due to substance abuse.

For me, though, Wills’ career was too brief, his game didn’t offer much besides base running  (though he did win two Gold Gloves) and his career marks aren’t impressive. He ranks 19th all-time in career steals. Raines is fifth all-time and until he gets a plaque, I can’t support giving one to Wills. These days, Wills seems more like the Home Run Baker of base stealers than the Babe Ruth.

I’m not surprised at Murray’s piece. It’s common for sportswriters to lobby for local heroes. I recently watched a DVD compiled from 8 mm color footage shot by Washington Senators outfielder George Case and there’s a clip at the end from 1989, after Case’s death, where longtime Washington Post writer Shirley Povich says Case belongs in the Hall of Fame. And though it wasn’t a plug for Cooperstown, the last published words Red Smith ever wrote were, “Indeed, there was a longish period when my rapport with some who were less than great made me nervous. Maybe I was stuck on bad ballplayers. I told myself not to worry. Some day there would be another Joe DiMaggio.”

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Chipper Jones

Claim to fame: Jones rates among the greatest-hitting infielders, with 2,452 hits, 430 home runs and a .306 lifetime average. The 1999 National League Most Valuable Player, six-time All Star and longtime Atlanta Braves third baseman has declined since winning the 2008 batting title, though he’s wrapping an outstanding career.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Jones still plays and will be eligible for enshrinement through the Baseball Writers Association of America five years after he retires.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? The short answer is yes. Every eligible infielder with 400 home runs and a .300 lifetime batting average is in Cooperstown. The question is not if Jones will be enshrined but when.

I took part Friday in a forum discussion at Baseball Think Factory prompted by a blog post from Furman Bisher on news Jones may be retiring (Bisher’s a 91-year-old sportswriter who in 1949 conducted the only interview Joe Jackson granted about the 1919 World Series.) Bisher wrote of Jones:

I don’t care to get into a spitting fight over his ticket to Cooperstown, but I don’t foresee him as a first-ballot inductee. Nor a second, but somewhere down the line. If he had hit 500 home runs, that might have been the decider. Sorry, but he’ll come in somewhere behind Griffey Jr.

Several forum members objected, calling Jones a certain first or second-ballot pick. I side with Bisher, and I commented:

Five of the 10 batters that Jones compares most to on his Baseball-Reference page are in Cooperstown and only one, Mickey Mantle, was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. The others: Duke Snider (11th ballot), Billy Williams (6th ballot), Eddie Matthews (5th ballot) and Jim Rice (15th ballot.) Or, to put it another way, if you were filling out a Braves dream team and had a choice between Jones and Matthews at third, could you honestly take Chipper over Matthews? That’s what, in effect, would happen with making Jones a first-ballot inductee.

This attracted opposition. Some forum members suggested voting for worthy players regardless of their ballot and decried penalizing Jones for Matthews’ unjustly late enshrinement. I still wouldn’t give Jones a first ballot vote. To me, these votes are best rarely used, for immortals like Ken Griffey Jr. and Greg Maddux. Jones has fine numbers, but I doubt he’s considered immortal.

Few are. Of the 104 players the BBWAA has voted in (and 292 people elected total), just 44 made it on their first ballot, not counting Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente who were enshrined through special elections. Using Baseball-Reference, I compiled a list of the 44 first ballot inductees. They are:

  • Hank Aaron
  • Ernie Banks
  • Johnny Bench
  • Wade Boggs
  • George Brett
  • Lou Brock
  • Rod Carew
  • Steve Carlton
  • Ty Cobb
  • Dennis Eckersley
  • Bob Feller
  • Bob Gibson
  • Tony Gwynn
  • Rickey Henderson
  • Reggie Jackson
  • Walter Johnson
  • Al Kaline
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Mickey Mantle
  • Christy Matthewson
  • Willie Mays
  • Willie McCovey
  • Paul Molitor
  • Joe Morgan
  • Eddie Murray
  • Stan Musial
  • Jim Palmer
  • Kirby Puckett
  • Cal Ripken Jr.
  • Brooks Robinson
  • Frank Robinson
  • Jackie Robinson
  • Babe Ruth
  • Nolan Ryan
  • Mike Schmidt
  • Tom Seaver
  • Ozzie Smith
  • Warren Spahn
  • Willie Stargell
  • Honus Wagner
  • Ted Williams
  • Dave Winfield
  • Carl Yastrzemski
  • Robin Yount

Interestingly, Jones’ career Win Above Replacement (WAR) rating of 78.4 bests 19 first ballot Hall of Famers: Banks, Bench, Brock, Eckersley, Feller, Gwynn, Koufax, Jackson, McCovey, Molitor, Murray, Palmer, Puckett, Brooks Robinson, Jackie Robinson, Smith, Stargell, Winfield, Yount. It also ties Jones with Griffey, 59th all-time. But I don’t know if enough BBWAA members rely on sabermetrics yet for it to factor. I suspect more voters will employ a subjective sentiment that goes, Chipper was good but he should have been a little bit better… 500 home runs…

Even Roberto Alomar fell short his initial vote in January. Jones and Alomar each may rank among the best-hitting infielders in recent years, but Alomar nabbed 10 Gold Gloves while Jones hasn’t won any. Alomar’s reputation plummeted after he spit on an umpire in 1996, and he still got 73.7 percent of the Cooperstown vote. There are different ways to look at this. Some may suggest Jones, a player with arguably better offensive numbers (and, not that many writers care, better WAR) may receive a sufficient boost without Alomar’s personal baggage to garner the necessary 75 percent of the vote for Cooperstown. Maybe so. But I also think it shows when there’s doubt, the BBWAA votes conservatively.

For what it’s worth, most Hall of Famers needed multiple tries at induction, including Joe DiMaggio, Jimmie Foxx and Tris Speaker. Same goes for 14 of the 20 300-game winning pitchers in Cooperstown. And from 1937 until 1962, there were no first ballot selections. I could write more on how voting has changed over the years or what might make a first ballot Hall of Famer today. For now, I’ll close by saying there’s no shame if Jones joins the multitudes in Cooperstown without that distinction.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here.