Had the pleasure of joining Brian Kenny on MLB Network’s Clubhouse Confidential yesterday (more on that below) and as we batted back and forth the necessity of electing Gil Hodges to the Hall of Fame, Brian mentioned that if he gave me a chance I could drop a lot of 19th Century Cooperstown-worthy players. I had time to say only “look up Herman Long.”
I’ll detail his Hall credentials in a moment. But first: for all of the weird HOF elections of the first 75 years, he is in the middle of the weirdest. Take a look at the results from the first-ever Veterans’ Committee vote, conducted in 1936:
- Buck Ewing 39.5 Votes, Elected 1939
- Cap Anson 39.5 Votes, Elected 1939
- Wee Willie Keeler 33 Votes, Elected 1939
- Cy Young 32.5 Votes, Elected 1937
- Ed Delahanty 21.5 Votes, Elected 1945
- John McGraw 17 Votes, Elected 1937
- Old Hoss Radbourn 16 Votes, Elected 1939
- Herman Long 15.5 Votes
- King Kelly 15 Votes, Elected 1945
- Amos Rusie 11.5 Votes, Elected 1977
- Hughie Jennings 11 Votes, Elected 1945
- Fred Clarke 9 Votes, Elected 1945
- Jimmy Collins 8 Votes, Elected 1945
- Charles Comiskey 6 Votes, Elected 1939
- George Wright 6 Votes, Elected 1937
So there were 78 ballots, 60 different players got votes, half of them eventually wound up in the Hall, but the guy who got the eighth most, who finished ahead of 23 future Hall of Famers, not only never made it but never again got significant support? I mean, in the 1937 Veterans’ Committee ballot, Long got one vote.
Something is very, very strange here. I mean, while we think of the stars of the 19th Century and the early 20th as having played in some kind of baseball version of the Pleistocene era, consider who the 1936 voters were. If this were January, 1936, Bob Costas would’ve made his NBC baseball debut in 1907, I would’ve covered my first World Series in 1900, Peter Gammons would’ve broken in with The Boston Globe in 1893, and Tim McCarver would’ve started with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1883.
In short, the 78 members of the Veterans Committee of 1936 saw most of the antediluvian names on that ballot play either professionally or as kids (let’s just play with that again: if this were 1936 I’d have seen my first MLB game in 1891 and I believe Peter’s first would’ve been in 1882). These guys thought of Herman Long in the same breath with the most famous player of the 19th Century (King Kelly), the man who won 59 games in one season (Hoss Radbourn), and the man who played or managed 14 pennant winners (John McGraw). For further context, there were six players to whom the first Veterans voters gave exactly one vote each, who wound up in Cooperstown and to some degree in the baseball public’s awareness, like 342-game winner Tim Keefe and the inventor of the curveball Candy Cummings. And Herman Long got 15 times as many votes.
So who was this guy?
Herman Long was the great shortstop of the Boston Beaneaters’ dynasty of the 1890’s. He produced four consecutive years of an OPS of .800 or higher, had two 100-RBI seasons, six 100-Run seasons, and in a time without home runs, he hit 91 of them over 13 seasons including a dozen in each of two years. He stole 537 bases (that’s still 30th all-time) and scored 1,456 runs (77th all-time). In that measure of what an individual player’s offense and defense was “worth” to his team, “WAR,” Long finished with 44.6 (his Hall of Fame teammate, third baseman Jimmy Collins, finished at 53, and his Hall of Fame teammate, centerfielder Tommy McCarthy, finished at just 19). And despite having made more errors than anybody else in history, he has the 122nd best Defensive WAR+ among all position players ever. Boston’s two spurts – at the beginning and end of the 1890’s – produced five pennants and Long was the shortstop on all of the teams.
His nickname was “The Flying Dutchman.” When they began to use it late in the 1890’s for a kid named Honus Wagner, it was a tribute to Herman Long. More trivially, he would later play only 22 games there, but he was the first shortstop of the New York Yankees (then the Highlanders).
Is Long a Hall of Famer? I’m not sure. But he was considered the 8th best player among the “Old Timers” in 1936, and then fell into a black hole. It wasn’t even a matter of public scandal or diminished rotation – Long had been dead since 1909. He certainly merits consideration.
Remind me to tell you later about Bobby Mathews.
SPEAKING OF OLD TIMERS
Returning to the topic of my visit to MLB Network, if you didn’t know, that’s where my erstwhile employers MSNBC were headquartered from 1996 until October, 2007. I worked in this very building from September of ’97 through December of ’98, and then again from February of ’03 until we moved out. Yesterday was my first day back and it was mind-blowing. Baseball invested a reported $54,000,000 to upgrade the facility with rebuilt studios and state-of-the-art technology.
But they changed almost nothing else.
Not the carpets. Not the desks. Not the chairs. Not the make-up rooms. Not the cubicles. Not where the large clusters of desks are. Not the cafeteria. Not the offices. Not the office door plates. Not the “Employees Must Wash Hands” signs in the bathrooms.
Going into it was like one of those dreams you’ve probably had where you walk into some place totally familiar to you – your childhood home, or where you live now, or go to work, or school – and in the middle of it your unconscious has placed a nuclear reactor or a jungle or something else utterly incongruous, without changing even one other thing.
You think I’m kidding? My old offices, the one from 2003 and the one from 1997, are still offices, with the same doors, windows, nameplates, and televisions. The newer of them is occupied by an old colleague of mine from Fox Sports named Mike Konner, and to my amazement I found that on what is now his wall was a poster from MSNBC’s 2004 Campaign Coverage. I remembered this one distinctly, because there was controversy over some of the people shown in the back row (somebody wasn’t under contract, or somebody was left out, or something), and the thing was immediately replaced by a revised version with somebody else’s body swapped in. As I saw it hanging on Mike’s wall I remembered I had left the rare “uncorrected” version in a pile of junk when I left.
So why was it on Konner’s wall? I asked Mike where he found it. “It was here when we moved in. In a pile of junk.”
A year too late for him to enjoy it, 30 years past the day he should’ve been selected, the Baseball Hall of Fame Veterans’ Committee has finally elected the most deserving candidate not in Cooperstown, Ron Santo.
For those who doubt, here is my statistical analysis of the five leading playing candidates:
The simplest tool for judging a player against his contemporaries is, I think, the most overlooked one – exact comparisons, from a guy’s debut season through his final year.
Awards are useful, especially as an indicator of greatness – in Ron Santo’s case, the five straight NL Gold Gloves 1964-68 pretty much confirm his defensive prowess – consider the one from 1964, when Cardinals’ third baseman and defensive hero Ken Boyer was MVP, but Santo still won the Glove.
The hardware is nice. But statistics are better.
In short, in his era, from when he came up with the Cubs in 1960 through his last year with the White Sox in 1964, Ron Santo was one of the top ten hitters in all of baseball.
Santo was fifth in RBI in his era.
Santo was ninth in Runs in his era.
Santo was tenth in Homers in his era.
Santo was tenth in Hits in his era.
There are 17 players besides Santo on these four lists of the top ten offensive producers of the 1960’s. Only four men on all four lists: Aaron, Frank Robinson, Billy Williams – and Santo. Even the three men who are only on three lists, compared to Santo’s four, are all in Cooperstown already.
Needless to say, only one other full-time Third Baseman (Brooks Robinson) shows up on any of the four lists – and he, only twice. Part-timer Killebrew is on three of them: handily ahead of Santo in one (HR), behind Santo in another (R), and just two spots and only 74 RBI ahead of him in the third.
You can’t ask more of a man than to produce those kinds of numbers against his direct contemporaries: what he did while he played, compared to what everybody else did while he played, is all that he can be judged on. But it focuses exactly where a player stood against his peers.
By the way, if you want to be more generous to Santo, and judge him from his first full year as a regular (1961) through his last year as an everyday player (1973) he looks better still: he holds at fifth in RBI, but moves up one spot each in Runs (eighth), Homers (ninth), and Hits (9th).
I had Gil Hodges second.
Again, what he did in his time tells me what I need to know. Here is a list, updated through May 5, 1963 – the date Gil Hodges played his last game in the major leagues.
All-Time MLB Home Run Leaders (RH Batters):
1. Jimmie Foxx 534
2. Willie Mays 373
3. Gil Hodges 370
4. Ralph Kiner 369
5. Joe DiMaggio 361
6. Ernie Banks 340
7. Hank Greenberg 331
8. Hank Aaron 307
8. Al Simmons 307
10. Rogers Hornsby 301
By the way, on the all-time homer list, lefties and righties both, Hodges had just been knocked out of 10th place, by Mays (373 to 370). The game changes. Still, it is extraordinary that Hodges’ home run performance measured against all his contemporaries and predecessors, is pretty much ignored.
Hodges’ career spanned 20 calendar years, but he only played regularly from 1948 to 1959. In “his” era, Hodges was second in MLB in homers (344, to Duke Snider’s 354), second in RBI (tied with Berra at 1136, behind Musial’s 1226), fourth in Runs, and seventh in Hits. Hodges is often dismissed as a “Home Park Homer Hitter.” In fact in his ten years at Ebbets Field he averaged only 4.60 homers a year more in Brooklyn than on the road. For comparison, Duke Snider, in the Hall since 1980, averaged 4.56 homers a year more in Brooklyn than on the road.
It is also of note that Hodges hit 27 or more homers in eight consecutive seasons, drove in 102 or more runs seven years in a row, and the first baseman on two World’s Champions and four more NL champs.
Haven’t even mentioned Hodges the manager (1969 Miracle Mets) nor Hodges the Man (I have never, ever talked to anyone who knew him who didn’t revere him.
Third on my list? Luis Tiant. Bill James hit the nail on the head: Luis Tiant is Catfish Hunter with poorer marketing.
Statistical doppelgangers are often either coincidental, superficial, or irrelevant because the players are of different historical eras. Not Hunter and Tiant. They pitched side-by-side in the same league for fifteen seasons, in the same division for six, and were teammates for a year. And they look like twins in a dozen key stats:
Statistic Hunter Tiant
Starts 476 489
Complete Games 181 187
Shutouts 42 49
Innings 3449.1 3486.1
Home Runs 374 346
Wins 224 229
Losses 166 172
ERA 3.26 3.30
Run Support 4.30 4.46
20-Win Seasons 5 4
Sub 3.00 ERA Seasons 5 6
‘Wins Above Team’ 20.2 20.6
That’s right: Tiant made 13 more starts, won five and lost six more games, threw seven more shutouts, and finished with an ERA 0.04 higher, than Hunter. Otherwise, they share a virtually identical statistics.
Where they deviate leaves open the question of which was the better pitcher. Tiant had 404 more strikeouts, but 150 more walks. Hunter twice led the AL in wins, which Tiant never did. Tiant twice led it in shutouts, which Hunter never did. Tiant twice led it in ERA, which Hunter did once.
Hunter’s big advantage? He made 22 ALCS and World Series starts to Tiant’s five. He was seen on the biggest stage, by fans and reporters alike, for seven of eight Octobers. Tiant had only one shot at such impact.
Beyond the Hunter comparisons, in the match-him-against his era numbers, Tiant was ninth in wins, tenth in K’s, twelfth in ERA, 1964-80 (even though in five of those seasons he did not make even 20 starts).
And there is one more remarkable and overlooked statistic. Two of Tiant’s six sub-3.00 ERA seasons were actually sub-2.00 ERA seasons. Since 1920, only 29 pitchers have had a seasonal ERA under 2.00. Koufax did it three times, and the other four did it twice: Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez – and Tiant.
Fourth – and he’s right below Tiant – is Minnie Minoso. He’s kind of damned by the overall quality of his play: superb at a lot of contradictory things, not extraordinary at any one of them:
Who were the top five hitters during Minnie Minoso’s 13 seasons as a Major League regular, 1951-63? Keep it to the guys who averaged at least 475 at bats a year and here’s the headline: one of them was Minnie Minoso.
Highest Batting Average 1951-1963 (Minimum 6175 AB)
1. Stan Musial .319
2. Willie Mays .315
3. Richie Ashburn .309
4. Harvey Kuenn .307
5. Minnie Minoso .299
Note please, that performance included eight .300 seasons. It’s impressive stuff, but below is my favorite Minoso stat:
Highest Slugging Percentage 1951-1963 (Minimum 6175 AB)
1. Willie Mays .588
2. Stan Musial .543
3. Eddie Mathews .535
4. Minnie Minoso .461
5. Harvey Kuenn .417
The slugging number is especially astounding given that Minoso only hit 184 homers in those 13 years (28th in the era). Without being a real longball threat, he still places 8th in total bases in the span, and 9th in RBI.
Most Runs Scored, 1951-1963
1. Mickey Mantle 1381
2. Willie Mays 1258
3. Eddie Mathews 1220
4. Nellie Fox 1142
5. Minnie Minoso 1130
Seeing my point here? Pick a category, and Minoso shows up on it:
Most Stolen Bases, 1951-1963
1. Luis Aparicio 309
2. Willie Mays 248
3. Maury Wills 236
4. Minnie Minoso 205
5. Billy Bruton 193
Minoso is also fifth in hits in the era, second in doubles (behind Musial, ahead of Mays), fourth in triples, led the A.L. in hit-by-pitch ten times, won three Gold Gloves – and all this even the color line and circumstance kept him from becoming a major league regular until he was at least 28 years old.
My fifth guy out of the group is just a notch below. I love Jim Kaat and I think he belongs (as does Tommy John). I mentioned contemporaries Hunter and Tiant looking separated-at-birth. Jim Kaat and Robin Roberts are unlikely statistical twins who overlapped by only seven full seasons:
Statistic Kaat Roberts
Starts 625 609
Innings 4530.1 4688.2
Wins 283 286
Losses 237 245
Strikeouts 2461 2357
Walks 1083 902
ERA 3.45 3.41
10+ Win Season Streak 15/15 16/17
Roberts got to Cooperstown quickly because of the fact he reeled off six consecutive brilliant seasons, and despite of the fact that after the age of 28, only once did he finish more than three games above .500 in his final eleven seasons.
By contrast, Kaat won 18 as a 22-year old, slumped for a year, then starting in 1964 reeled off 17, 18, and then 25. Eight and nine years later he would produce consecutive seasons of 20 and 21 wins. As Bill James pointed out, if like Roberts, Kaat had bunched his great years instead of scattering them, he might’ve been elected in the ‘90s. As it is, he is still 31st all-time in victories — eighth all-time among lefties:
Wins, Lefthanded Pitchers:
1. Warren Spahn 363
2. Steve Carlton 329
3. Eddie Plank 326
4. Tom Glavine 305
5. Randy Johnson 303
6. Lefty Grove 300
7. Tommy John 288
8. Jim Kaat 283
9. Jamie Moyer 267
10. Eppa Rixey 266
11. Carl Hubbell 253
12. Herb Pennock 241
There are only eight active lefties with more than 100 wins, and of them, only CC Sabathia (176) is younger than 32. Kaat is also 10th in strikeouts by lefties. Kaat’s victory total has been criticized as “padded” by his five years as a reliever and spot starter. But subtract those seasons and his career won-lost improves to 261-217, he remains in the top 10 among lefties, and still has better won-losts than Ted Lyons and Eppa Rixey (and is just behind Red Faber).
Lastly, the 16 consecutive Gold Gloves are almost a cliché. We don’t stop to think that the first of them was won when Kitty was 23, and the last when he was 38 – and that the streak stretched through five presidential administrations and three expansion drafts.
Just to show my math, here are the Homer, Runs Scored, RBI, and Hit lists from ’60-’74 that back-up Santo’s greatness:
Most RBI, Majors, 1960-74:
1 Hank Aaron, 1585
2 Frank Robinson, 1412
3 Harmon Killebrew, 1405
4 Billy Williams, 1351
5 Ron Santo, 1331
6 Brooks Robinson, 1217
7 Willie Mays, 1194
8 Willie McCovey, 1190
9 Carl Yastrzemski, 1181
10 Orlando Cepeda, 1164
Most Runs Scored, Majors, 1960-74:
1 Hank Aaron, 1495
2 Frank Robinson, 1390
3 Billy Williams, 1306
4 Lou Brock, 1303
5 Willie Mays, 1285
6 Carl Yastrzemski, 1240
7 Pete Rose, 1217
8 Vada Pinson, 1177
9 Ron Santo, 1138
10 Harmon Killebrew, 1131
Most Homers, Majors, 1960-74:
1 Hank Aaron, 554
2 Harmon Killebrew, 506
3 Frank Robinson, 440
4 Willie McCovey, 422
5 Willie Mays, 410
6 Billy Williams, 392
7 Frank Howard, 380
8 Norm Cash, 373
9 Willie Stargell, 346
10 Ron Santo, 342
(Note: 11th was Orlando Cepeda, 327)
Most Hits, Majors, 1960-74:
1 Billy Williams, 2505
2 Hank Aaron, 2463
3 Brooks Robinson, 2459
4 Vada Pinson, 2455
5 Lou Brock, 2388
6 Pete Rose, 2337
7 Roberto Clemente, 2318
8 Willie Davis, 2271
9 Carl Yastrzemski, 2267
10 Ron Santo, 2254
(Note: 11th was Frank Robinson, 2220)
It should go without saying that the true tragedy is the death of Ron Santo at the age of 70 after a brave and inspirational fight against diabetes and the amputations of both legs it necessitated.