Baseball is an elite profession. For every player who makes it to “the show,” countless aspiring players fall short. A recent post here raised the question of whether growing up as the son of a famous player makes for an even more difficult path to the big leagues. As Graham Womack stated in his March 28 post, “children of top ball players have tough standards to live up to.”
Searching Baseball-Reference.com and retrosheet.org, I can find only ten sons of Hall of Fame players who have ever made it to the major leagues. If not for their famous fathers, we would have little reason to discuss these players, most of whom played at or near the replacement level. Interestingly, two sons of George Sisler, Dick and Dave, account for more than half of the collective WAR of the group. Please note that Earle Mack is not on this list, although he would fit right in with his -0.2 WAR. His father Connie is enshrined as a manager, not a player.
|Earl Averill, Jr
|Tony Gwynn, Jr
|Eddie Collins, Jr
|Ed Walsh, Jr
In all fairness, Tony Gwynn, Jr, is young and still an active player. Currently with the LA Dodgers, he could rise to the top of this list with one or two solid seasons.
In contrast to the above group, brothers of Hall of Famers are much more accomplished. Lloyd and Paul Waner are both in Cooperstown, making them both brothers of Hall of Famers. Wes Ferrell and Dom DiMaggio are not enshrined, but each has a camp of fans advocating for his candidacy. Jim Perry and Joe Niekro were each superb pitchers in their own right, even if they were overshadowed by their more famous brothers.
|Sandy Alomar, Jr
The list of brothers has some lesser lights, too. Larry Yount and Joe Evers epitomize the expression “cup of coffee.” Billy Ripken played above the replacement level (2.1 WAR), but Tommie Aaron, Chris Gwynn, and three more Delahanty brothers didn’t. Also included is Hall of Fame manager Harry Wright, who played briefly in the 1870s and whose brother George is in the Hall as a player. In all, 39 brothers of Hall of Famers have made it to the big leagues, and they have accumulated more than 300 WAR.
In short, Major League Baseball has employed nearly four times as many brothers as sons of Hall of Famers, and the brothers’ accomplishments, as encapsulated by WAR, are approximately 20-fold greater. Even if you have objections to distilling a player’s performance to a single number, you cannot quarrel with the notion that the Waners, Vince and Dom DiMaggio, Jim Perry, and Ken Brett are a cut above the likes of Dale Berra and Eduardo Perez. Are the sons underachievers, or have the brothers performed above expectations? Or perhaps is it some of each?
I do not know whether there are simply many more brothers of HoF players than sons. If true, this could account for the difference in numbers of major leaguers that have emerged from each group. However, this idea seems remote to me. As a group, men have about the same number of brothers as sons, perhaps somewhat fewer sons as family sizes have steadily shrunk over the past hundred years. If there is a difference in the case of Hall of Famers, though, I’ll wager it is nowhere near 4-fold.
What’s striking to me is not so much the absence of Hall of Famers among the sons, but the absence of even solid, steady, double-digit WAR players. Why there are no equivalents of Harry Coveleski and Sandy Alomar, Jr among HoF sons, I can only speculate.
While a host of social and family factors might play into the disparity between the brothers and sons, the way that I can best reconcile the different accomplishments of the two groups is by drawing a parallel to coaching. It is often said that star players typically do not make good coaches or managers. There are exceptions of course, such as Joe Torre, Frank Robinson, and perhaps Tony Gwynn, who has had success coaching at the college level. However, the accepted wisdom is that the game comes easily for star players and, as a result, they do not relate well to the struggles of the majority of players for whom the game brings its usual challenges. Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Tommy Lasorda, for example, are all great managers, and they all have enormous personal insight into the struggles of the marginal player.
A good coach teaches, nurtures, offers encouragement, and does an array of other things to maximize the abilities that his players bring to the sport. It might be that Hall of Famers in general are at a disadvantage in fulfilling this role. And when it comes to baseball, often a son’s first and most influential coach is his father.