Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Albert Belle

Claim to fame: Belle may be the fourth-best power hitter of the 1990s after Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds and Frank Thomas. In a 12-year career from 1989-2000, Belle hit 381 home runs with a .295 batting average. He smacked at least 30 homers eight straight seasons, led the league in RBI three times and made five All Star appearances. He also did so apparently without steroids. Famously surly, Belle told a Cleveland Plain Dealer reporter last year, “I was just an angry black man.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Belle appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot twice, receiving 7.7 percent of the vote in 2006 and 3.5 percent the following year, which removed him from future ballots. He will be eligible for enshrinement by the Veterans Committee in 2021.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Short of Lou Whitaker receiving 2.9 percent of the Hall of Fame vote from the BBWAA his only year of eligibility, I think Belle peaking at 7.7 percent of the vote is the greatest Cooperstown injustice of the past decade. But it isn’t surprising.

Belle’s attitude may have influenced at least one voter. And historically, if a non-white player has been perceived to have character issues, he shouldn’t count on making the Hall of Fame. Just ask Dick Allen, Dave Parker, Dwight Gooden and Maury Wills. Ask Jose Canseco, who would’ve lost votes even if it never was confirmed he did steroids. Same goes for Bonds who alienated writers long before he (probably) started juicing.

Many white players with questionable characters have been enshrined, from Ty Cobb, so reviled by fellow players that only three attended his funeral, to Tris Speaker, Rogers Hornsby and Gabby Hartnett who told sportswriter Fred Lieb they were in the Ku Klux Klan. Pete Rose was barred for life for gambling in 1989, and he still received as many Hall of Fame votes in 1992 as Belle got in 2006 with 40.

I took a look at recent white inductees to the Hall of Fame, and none appear to be scumbags. Off the cuff, I couldn’t think of any recent white player denied Cooperstown for this reason. But that could have more to do with the fact that the sports media doesn’t seem to negatively label white players as often it does others.

If a minority wants to be enshrined, he’d better be as beloved as Jackie Robinson, Ozzie Smith or Kirby Puckett. And Puckett ballooned to 300 pounds, developed hypertension and died at 45, after it emerged he was, in fact, human, rather than a lovable stereotype.

Occasionally, minorities with less than glowing reputations are honored. Jim Rice, a player who clashed with the media, made it with the BBWAA on his 15th try. The Veterans Committee tabbed Orlando Cepeda, who served a drug-related prison sentence. The writers also selected one of their arch-nemeses, Eddie Murray, on his first ballot, but with 3,255 hits and 504 home runs, anything less would have been unjust. For fringe candidates, I venture character keeps a minority out of Cooperstown more often than it gets him in.

Belle is a fringe candidate. Baseball-Reference ranks him similar to two batters in Cooperstown, Ralph Kiner and Hank Greenberg, as well as another who’s destined to join them, Albert Pujols, and a few other players who could make it eventually, including Allen; Belle also rates near or above on three of the four Hall of Fame monitoring metrics listed on the site.

I ding Belle most for quitting at 34 due to injuries, like my subject here last week, Don Mattingly and for being somewhat one-dimensional, simply an amazing hitter. Belle was dominant enough in this capacity for most of his career I’d probably honor him, but I suspect I’m in the minority, to pardon the expression.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here that debuted June 1.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Don Mattingly

Claim to fame: Donnie Baseball, as fans knew him, ranked with Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn as one of the premier hitters of the 1980s. He hit over .300 six consecutive seasons from 1984 through 1989, twice led the American League in hits and was the circuit MVP in 1985, on his way to a lifetime .307 average. Mattingly also won nine Gold Gloves, second-most all-time among first basemen and retired in 1995 having played his entire career for the New York Yankees, a rarity in the era of free agency.

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Mattingly has appeared on the Baseball Writers Association of America ballot 10 times and has five remaining years of eligibility.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Whether Mattingly belongs in Cooperstown or eventually is honored are different questions to me.

I think Mattingly parallels with Steve Garvey and Nomar Garciaparra, players who would easily make the Hall of Fame had they sustained the early pace of their careers. Mattingly struggled with injuries over his final six seasons, hitting above .300 just once before retiring at 34. Were it up to me, I probably wouldn’t enshrine him. I’ll honor players with truncated careers if there’s a compelling reason, as I wrote last week, but injuries don’t rate as such for me, unless we’re talking Sandy Koufax, and Mattingly was never that dominant.

With that said, I think there’s a better than 50 percent chance the Veterans Committee enshrines Mattingly eventually. Why? Mattingly got 28.2% of the BBWAA vote, his highest total thus far, in his first year of eligibility in 2001.

Not counting Mattingly and five other players still eligible for enshrinement through the BBWAA, 25 players peaked between 20-30% of the writers vote for the Hall of Fame in the past 75 years. Of those 25 players, 13 are now in Cooperstown, and that number could climb as men who peaked in the last 30 years begin to be honored by the Veterans Committee, which sometimes has a slow turnaround.

In chronological order of their peak, the 25 players are:

  • Mordecai Brown (HOF): Peaked at 27.0% in 1942, enshrined by Old Timers Committee in 1949; sought by Mr. Burns to pitch for Springfield Nuclear Plant (though he kicked Mattingly off the team)
  • Fred Clarke (HOF): Peaked at 24.9% in 1942, enshrined by Old Timers Committee in 1945
  • Joe McGinnity (HOF): Peaked at 25.3% in 1942, enshrined by Old Timers Committee in 1946
  • Eddie Plank (HOF): Peaked at 27.0% in 1942, enshrined by Old Timers Committee in 1946
  • Ross Youngs (HOF): Peaked at 22.4% in 1947, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1972
  • Zack Wheat (HOF): Peaked at 23.0% in 1947, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1959
  • Casey Stengel (HOF): Peaked at 23.1% in 1953, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1966
  • Chuck Klein (HOF): Peaked at 27.9% in 1964, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1980
  • Lloyd Waner (HOF): Peaked at 23.4% in 1964, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1967
  • Mel Harder: Peaked at 25.4% in 1964
  • Johnny Vander Meer: Peaked at 29.8% in 1967
  • Billy Herman (HOF): Peaked at 20.2% in 1967, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1975
  • Bucky Walters: Peaked at 23.7% in 1968
  • Joe Gordon (HOF): Peaked at 28.5% in 1969, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 2009
  • Arky Vaughan (HOF): Peaked at 29.0% in 1968, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1985
  • Tom Henrich: Peaked at 20.7% in 1970
  • Bobby Doerr (HOF): Peaked at 25.0% in 1970, enshrined by Veterans Committee in 1970
  • Mickey Vernon: Peaked at 24.9% in 1980
  • Elston Howard: Peaked at 20.7% in 1981
  • Lew Burdette: Peaked at 24.1% in 1984
  • Mickey Lolich: Peaked at 25.5% in 1988
  • Minnie Minoso: Peaked at 21.1% in 1988
  • Ken Boyer: Peaked at 25.5% in 1988
  • Jim Kaat: Peaked at 29.6% in 1993
  • Joe Torre: Peaked at 22.2% in 1997

The five players besides Mattingly still eligible:

  • Dave Parker: Peaked at 24.5% in 1998
  • Dale Murphy: Peaked at 23.2% in 2000
  • Mark McGwire: Peaked at 28.2% in 2001
  • Fred McGriff: Peaked at 21.5% in 2010
  • Alan Trammell: Peaked at 22.4% in 2010

So Mattingly has history on his side, even if I’m not totally.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? is a Tuesday feature here that debuted on June 1, 2010.

Does he belong in the Hall of Fame? Don Newcombe

Today marks the first appearance of a new Tuesday feature for Baseball: Past and Present, “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” I first wrote about the Hall of Fame here in May 2009 when I made a list, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Now, I could probably name 50-100 such players. I intend to look at as many as possible here.

Claim to fame: Newcombe was the ace pitcher on an iconic team, the 1950s Brooklyn Dodgers written about in Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer. The 1949 National League Rookie of the Year when he went 17-8 with a 3.17 ERA, 19 complete games and five shutouts, Newcombe proceeded to win at least 20 games three out of his next five seasons. He peaked in 1956 when he won the MVP and Cy Young awards, going 27-7 for Brooklyn.

Newcombe was gone from the majors by 1960 at 34, with a 149-90 lifetime record and 3.56 ERA, and as it emerged later, he battled alcoholism during his career. While Newcombe has just one less win than Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean and a better lifetime ERA than two other Cooperstown members, Red Ruffing and Waite Hoyt (another pitcher who later disclosed that alcoholism marred his playing), one has to wonder what Newcombe would’ve achieved if he’d found recovery sooner.

He said he’s been sober since 1967 and told in 2007, “I’m glad to be anywhere, when I think about my life back then. What I have done after my baseball career and being able to help people with their lives and getting their lives back on track and they become human beings again — means more to me than all the things I did in baseball.”

Current Hall of Fame eligibility: Newcombe exhausted his 15 years of eligibility with the Baseball Writers Association of America in 1980, peaking at 15.3% of the vote that year; he’s eligible for enshrinement with the Veterans Committee.

Whether he belongs in Cooperstown: The Veterans Committee could do (and has done) worse than to honor a player like Newcombe, a fine example to any player struggling with substance abuse. I’ve read that the Dodgers of the 1950s overused their pitchers, so the argument could be made that Newcombe would have left the majors early regardless of if he drank, but I still think his Cooperstown induction could positively effect the game. It could send the message: If you’re a talented player who falls short of the Hall of Fame behind drugs or alcohol, and you turn your life around after you leave the big leagues, we’ll take note.

If I understand correctly, the Hall of Fame is about celebrating the best of baseball, just as it’s about honoring players with gaudy career numbers. While I don’t know if what Newcombe has done in retirement is enough to make up for his truncated career and earn him a nod from the Veterans Committee, it would be a bright spot for a game whose players have famously struggled with alcohol, amphetamines, cocaine and steroids. If it were up to me, I’d give him a plaque. He’s in my Hall of Fame.