A few weeks ago, a reader emailed with a question: Was there any player whose spot in the Hall of Fame was so dependent on the team he played on as Roberto Clemente? The Brooklyn Dodgers signed Clemente as an 18-year-old free agent in 1952, though he went to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 draft two years later. Clemente struggled his first several years in Pittsburgh, before blossoming into a perennial All Star and batting champ in the 1960s. The rest is history.
My reader wrote of Clemente:
He lacked power and lost time due to many nagging injuries that on another club would have made him an ideal candidate for a backup player or a trip to the minors.Had he stayed with the Dodgers, he would not have been able to break into their starting lineup and might well have gone to either the Mets or Colts in the expansion draft.With any of the [other second-division teams he could have started for as a young player], his playing time certainly would have been curtailed and limited. He would probably have spent some time back in the minors, or been traded around the league a few times before becoming a well traveled journeyman.All things considered, with any other team besides the Pirates, not only does he lose about three or four more seasons in the minors and maybe one or two more as a part time player, but there’s absolutely no way he reaches 3000 hits and becomes the Roberto Clemente we now know.His career, perhaps more than any other shows just how dependent a ballplayer is on so many factors that are all beyond his control.
I agree. So much about success in baseball and life in general seems to hinge on being in the right place at the right time. It’s not to say hard work and perseverance don’t matter as well, but baseball history is filled with players who soared high with the help of luck and happenstance.
Here are 10 such men:
1. Joe Sewell: A lot came out of the death of Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman in 1920 including, arguably, Sewell’s Hall of Fame career. A 21-year-old Sewell made his debut September 10, 1920, less than a month after Chapman was killed by a pitched ball. While he’d done nothing special his only year in the minors, Sewell proceeded to bat .329 the rest of the season as Cleveland won the World Series. He played another 10 years with the Indians, hitting above .300 eight times, famous for his miniscule number of strikeouts each year.
2. Chuck Klein: A number of hitters posted gaudy numbers in the Philadelphia Phillies’ ballpark in the early part of the 20th century, the Baker Bowl. Klein may have earned his spot in the Hall of Fame because of it. Consider that in 581 games lifetime at the Baker Bowl, Klein batted .395 with 164 home runs and 594 RBI. In 1172 games elsewhere, he hit .277 with 136 home runs and 607 RBI.
3. Yogi Berra: The Hall of Fame catcher was regarded highly enough that Branch Rickey wanted to sign him to the Dodgers in the early 1940s. The Yankees won out on Berra, though, and his arrival in New York in 1946, after he served in World War II, coincided with the final seasons of another great catcher, Bill Dickey. Dickey mentored Berra through the ’46 season, and Berra progressed enough that the following year, the Yankees traded away former starter, Aaron Robinson. Berra later won three MVP awards, and Bill James ranks him as the greatest catcher all-time.
4. Sandy Koufax: Koufax signed with the Dodgers as a Bonus Baby in 1954, and his first several seasons, he struggled to keep his ERA under 4.00 and his winning percentage above .500, just another young, impossibly hard-throwing southpaw. He considered quitting after 1960 but thought better of it, and in spring training in 1961, catcher Norm Sherry offered sage advice. “Take something off the ball and let ’em hit it,” Sherry told Koufax. “Nobody’s going to swing the way you’re throwing now.” Koufax went 129-47 the rest of his career, winning three Cy Young awards and an MVP.
5. Hank Aaron: My reader offered former home run king Aaron as another example. “This skinny, 20-year-old converted second baseman gets his shot because Bobby Thomson breaks his ankle in an exhibition game [in 1954],” my reader wrote. “No broken ankle, probably no rookie season and the 13 home runs that eventually lead to breaking the record. Without it, he may have spent a year or two either in the minors or as a backup outfielder. Think of the implications to all the records he wouldn’t have been able to set.”
6. George Foster: The early 1970s were bleak years to be a San Francisco Giant, with the club experiencing a near-two-decade slump following the departure of Willie Mays. Foster debuted with the Giants in 1969 and played parts of three years in San Francisco. He could have been limited by those years, another Bobby Bonds or Gary Matthews or Jack Clark, though one of the worst trades in baseball history sent Foster to greener pastures. In exchange for two forgotten players, Foster went to the Cincinnati Reds in 1971, and by the end of the decade, he’d be a power-hitting MVP for the Big Red Machine.
7. Ron LeFlore: For LeFlore, the right place at the right time was prison. Doing a 5-15-year stretch for armed robbery at the State Prison of Southern Michigan, LeFlore began playing on the baseball team. One of his fellow inmates knew Detroit Tigers manager Billy Martin, and after scouting LeFlore, Martin got him paroled in 1973 on a unique work-release program. LeFlore made the majors in 1974 as a 26-year-old rookie and played nine seasons ultimately. In baseball as in life, LeFlore distinguished himself for stealing, swiping 455 bases. Being incarcerated or meeting Billy Martin never paid so many dividends.
8. Jay Buhner: Getting traded from the New York Yankees to the Seattle Mariners early in his career made Buhner a starter and brought him to a home ballpark, the Kingdome that boosted his hitting numbers. Superstar teammate Ken Griffey Jr.’s broken wrist in 1995 elevated Buhner again. Hitting 40 home runs and driving in over 100 runs for the first time, Buhner helped fill the void and lead Seattle to the American League Championship Series. He remained a force his next two seasons.
9. Eddie Perez: How does a catcher make the majors at 27 and stay despite hitting in the low .200s? By being one of the preferred backstops of Greg Maddux. In his years with the Braves, Maddux generally opted to not be caught by regular starter Javy Lopez, the kind of exception made for a Cy Young hurler. Perez was Maddux’s primary battery mate from 1996 through 1999, and he played 11 seasons, ultimately.
10. Mike Piazza: Being the son of a childhood friend of Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda had its perks, including the chance to be drafted by Los Angeles in the 62nd round in 1988. With the draft maxing out at 50 rounds today and Lasorda retired since 1996, there’s less chance Piazza would make the show, let alone become an elite catcher.