The Hall of Limited Fame: The Inaugural Class

I had my first meeting on Saturday as a member of the Society for American Baseball Research and this site came up in conversation with the group. While we waited for others to arrive for our breakfast at Lefty O’Doul’s in San Francisco, I mentioned my most popular post here, The 10 best baseball players not in the Hall of Fame. Our chapter president asked if I included O’Doul, and she scoffed when I said no. I understand my words could be seen as blasphemy, especially given where we were at or the fact that we’re the Lefty O’Doul Chapter, but the man isn’t a Hall of Famer in my book.

O’Doul falls into an interesting class of ballplayers: Those men who were brilliant for short stretches. Their chances for Cooperstown are slim because, as late, great Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray noted in a 1978 column, “The baseball writers are sometimes loathe to reward a guy for a single, incandescent, virtuoso performance over one season. They prefer a guy who keeps doing a predictable thing over and over again. Henry Aaron, who piled up 755 home runs, 30 to 40 at a time over 20 years, will go in the hall by acclamation. Roger Maris, who hit 61 one season, more than anyone ever hit in oneĀ  season, will never make it.” And the Veteran’s Committee won’t help much either, as it does little for modern era players besides tabbing those who fell just short with the writers.

Perhaps the answer is giving O’Doul and his cohorts a Hall of Fame of their own, a place to honor men who may not have been Cooperstown-worthy their entire careers but played like it for at least a few seasons. I think this could make a great Web site, and if anyone wants to handle design, I’d be happy to write copy. The place could be called Cooperstown II, or better yet, Mini-Cooperstown. Until that comes to be, here are ten men who could be honored:

Player Claim to fame Highest percentage of Hall of Fame vote
Dom DiMaggio
Number three on my list of the ten best players not in the Hall of Fame, DiMaggio is a member of the Hitters Hall of Fame at the Ted Williams Museum and is considered one of the greatest defensive outfielders. Williams had a pamphlet for years in his museum detailing why DiMaggio deserved Hall of Fame enshrinement. His Cooperstown bid was hurt because he played just ten full seasons, missing three years to World War II.
11.3 percent (1973, 9th ballot)
Nomar Garciaparra
Looked like a sure-bet Hall of Famer his first four full seasons, culminating with his .372 year in 2000. He missed most of the next season injured, though, and was never again the same dominant player.
Not yet eligible
Dwight Gooden
Had more wins before his 25th birthday (100) than after (94) when his career fell apart. That would seem to be a dubious record of some sort, but every pitcher on this list shares that distinction.
3.3 percent (2006, 1st ballot)
Roger Maris
His lifetime numbers of 275 home runs and a .260 batting average are pedestrian, but when Maris shined, he shined bright. American League Most Valuable Player in 1960 and again in 1961 when he hit 61 home runs. He deserves enshrinement for what he endured in the latter season alone.
43.1 percent (1988, 15th ballot)
Denny McLain
Like Gooden, won more games before 25 than after. Became the first man in 34 years to win at least 30 games, with his MVP and Cy Young season in 1968. McLain won another Cy Young in 1969 but never again had a winning season thereafter, between arm troubles and rumors he associated with gamblers and underworld figures. He was gone from the majors by 29 and later went to prison on a RICO conviction.
0.7 percent (1979, 2nd ballot)
Lefty O’Doul
Struggled as a pitcher, with a 1-1 lifetime record and 4.87 ERA, bouncing out of the big leagues at 26. Resurfaced five years later as an outfielder and, short of Babe Ruth, is probably the most successful player to make this transition. .349 lifetime average, fourth-highest all-time, with 1140 hits; hit .398 in 1929, .383 in 1930 and .368 in 1932.
16.7 (1960, 9th ballot)
Riggs Stephenson
His .336 lifetime batting average is 22nd all-time, but he was a utility player most of his career and had 500 plate appearances only four times. In those seasons, though, Stephenson hit .362, .344 and .324 (twice.) The ad on his Baseball Reference page calls him, “The greatest baseball player who is NOT in the Hall of Fame!” and I wrote a post in January exploring this.
1.5 percent (1960, 3rd ballot)
Fernando Valenzuela
One word: Fernandomania. The southpaw swept into Los Angeles and the majors with his Cy Young and Rookie of the Year season in 1981 and thrived up through a 21-11 year in 1986. However, he was never as effective thereafter. Assuming he was being truthful about his age– and there has been debate on this– Valenzuela is like McLain and Gooden: He won more games before 25 than after.
6.2 percent (2003, 1st ballot)
Maury Wills
Wills didn’t reach the majors until he was 26 and did his best work his first six full seasons. He led the National League in steals each of those years and was MVP in 1962 when he stole 104 bases and broke a record set by Ty Cobb in 1915. Jim Murray wrote in the 1978 column, “Will someone please tell me why Rabbit Maranville is in the Hall of Fame and Maury Wills isn’t?”
40.6 percent (1981, 4th ballot)
Smoky Joe Wood
Went 34-5 in 1912, and as he told Lawrence Ritter years later in The Glory of Their Times, “That was it, right then and there. My arm went bad the next year and all my dreams came tumbling down around my ears like a damn house of cards. The next five years, seems like it was nothing but one long terrible nightmare.” Wood still won 117 games in his career, all before age 25. Like O’Doul and Ruth, he later played in the outfield, albeit with more modest results.
18 percent (1947, 6th ballot)