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 one  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)

About five years overdue: I join the Society for American Baseball Research

I did something today that I have wanted to do for the past few years and joined the Society for American Baseball Research. For those who don’t know, it is a research society for people who like to read, write and talk about baseball (I like to do all three.) I attended a lunch meeting in Sacramento on my birthday in 2004 and was home. Never before have I been in a room with so many fellow baseball geeks, intimidating though it was when a trivia quiz was given early in the lunch, and I finished in the middle of the pack. I’m used to being the guy who amazes my friends and co-workers by knowing things like who won the World Series in 1961 and Babe Ruth’s career batting average. To a SABR member, such knowledge is equivalent to $100 questions on Who Wants to be a Millionaire?

Since attending the 2004 meeting, I’ve wanted to become a  SABR member, but for the most part, have been financially constrained or otherwise distracted. I’m starting to get above water with my new job, though, so I decided to take the plunge today. It took five minutes to fill in my credit card info on the SABR Web site, and I am now a SABR member through December 31 of this year. It only cost me $45, since it’s already April and I’m under 30, which qualifies me for some discounts.

The membership should get me connected with other baseball lovers, a good thing since I tend to isolate left to my own devices. I signed up to be in a research group on minor league baseball and elected to be in two chapters: the Lefty O’Doul one in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, as well as the Sacramento group, since I’ve begun research on a book about a player from there, Joe Marty. I will also have access to a wealth of SABR research materials online, which are restricted from non-members, and I’m hoping I might be able to get this blog indexed on the SABR site.

Anyhow, expect more SABR-related posts as I begin to attend meetings.

Yes, send me all of the baseball books

Had something cool happen yesterday afternoon.

I got a knock on the door from the postman, who had a package for me.  I don’t often get much beyond bills in the mail, so I was intrigued.  It turns out a publisher had sent me a copy of a new baseball book.

I’ll rewind by saying that a few months ago, I requested a copy of a baseball book, Chief Bender’s Burden, so I could review it for this site.  The publisher, University of Nebraska Press, graciously sent me a copy, and yesterday, I received another book from them, Joe Cronin: A Life in Baseball. I hadn’t requested this, though the correlation, I think, is that both texts are about deceased Hall of Famers, written by members of the Society of American Baseball Research (Side note: One of my goals for 2010 is to join this society; I think I more than qualify for membership.)

Anyhow, I am still reading Chief Bender’s Burden but have happily added this new book to the mix.  I’ll say this too: Anyone who wants to send me a baseball book, have at it; I will review anything that’s sent to me, though with that said, if it turns out to be not-so-good, I will most likely make note of that here.

Coming attractions

I have wanted to make book reviews a more frequent part of this site and to that end, I have a few logs in the fire.

First, I received a review copy today of Chief Bender’s Burden, a book about the Philadelphia Athletics Hall of Fame pitcher written by Tom Swift, a freelance writer and member of the Society of American Baseball Research. I requested the copy a few weeks ago after seeing it as the sponsor for Bender’s page on If I ever write a book, there’s probably a good chance it will be in a similar vein (I went to a S.A.B.R. meeting a few years ago and felt like I was home.)

Also, I have been reading Bash Brothers, a book about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire by a Bay Area writer named Dale Tafoya. I interviewed Tafoya and obtained a copy of his book leading up to my interview with Canseco in April 2008. I did not use my interview with Tafoya since it didn’t seem relevant to my story for the East Bay Express, and the San Francisco Chronicle passed on a book review (I know someone there, which is enough for periodic rejections.) I never read the book and always felt a little guilty. However, I picked it up again recently after finishing The Boys of Summer, and it’s not bad. Tafoya did commendable research in his four years compiling the book including dozens of interviews with former teammates and coaches of McGwire and Canseco.

I’ll be interested to read how both books come out. Expect reviews soon.