I couldn’t help but notice, but this Albert Pujols person, he’s pretty good at this whole baseball thing, isn’t he? Really good even. So good that it’s not really a question of if he’ll make Cooperstown.
All Pujols needed to make Cooperstown was step on the field on Opening Day, 2010. As of that moment, he could say he played in 10 seasons, and the Hall of Fame stipulates that a person must play for a decade to be a Hall of Famer. Now, unless authorities bust Pujols for attempting to throw the World Series to earn money to pay for some advanced PED, he’s in.
That raises a question: Who else would be in Cooperstown had their careers ended after just 10 seasons? Today is a good day to look into it, with the Hall of Fame announcing its annual picks.
It’s a little tricky, as there is no perfect in/out line. That area is pretty hazy, and there’s some guesswork involved. Still, let’s manage it as best as we can.
One surprising factor is how many guys seem to qualify as 10-year guys. So few short-career guys are in Cooperstown that you’d figure it would be hard to make it in unless you last a long time. Yes, but the guys who are great for ten years almost always keep playing. There are several dozen who would make into Cooperstown without their 11th season. Looking it over, almost all of these players fall into one (or more) of these overlapping categories:
Inner-circle greats: Here’s the obvious one. Your Mantles and Mays would make it in without an 11th season because they were so ungodly good before then.
Big-win pitchers: Historically, the Hall of Fame likes nothing more in a pitcher than a lot of 20-win seasons. These are the pitchers with the best peaks. If you go back to pre-1920 baseball, you find a bunch of pitchers who had nearly all of their career value in their first ten seasons.
Short-career players: Would Ralph Kiner make the Hall of Fame if his career only lasted 10 years? If? His career did last only 10 years, and he is in Cooperstown.
Great peak/prime guys: These are guys like Duke Snider, who made it to Cooperstown almost entirely on what they did in their first decade but also were aided a little bit by compiling enough career time afterwards to have somewhat adequate career totals. Would they still get in without the latter? It’s hard to say, but some would.
Mistakes: Some guys just plain don’t belong in Cooperstown but are there anyway. Some of them are already short-career guys, so shaving a year or two off shouldn’t make too much difference.
Well, those are the basic categories. Let’s look across baseball history, going decade by decade, ordering them by when they played their 10th year, and we’ll include guys not yet eligible.
19th century: Nine players
It’s difficult to figure things for these early guys. By the time the Hall got around to voting, it was decades since they played, and they didn’t keep many historical records back then. But these are the most likely guys to get in anyway.
Given how hazy memory of the 19th century was when the Hall began voting, almost any of the current enshrines had a chance. Tommy McCarthy? He’s a horrible pick as a Hall of Famer, but since that’s already the case, would losing a few extra years really hurt him?
Galvin, Radbourn, Clarkson, and Nichols won exactly 1,200 games combined prior to their 11th seasons. With Galvin, it only works if you discount the National Association as a major league, which I’m doing here.
Duffy’s Hall of Fame case comes largely from his all-time record single-season batting average of .440 in 1894. That occurred in his seventh season, and he stopped playing as a regular after 12 years. Brouthers and Connor were the best hitters of their day. Hamilton was a great hitter with nearly 800 steals after 10 years. Kelly was the biggest star of his era.
Others might make it. Ed Delahanty, though a lot of his value comes from after his 10th year, and his strange and sudden death gave him an extra mystique. Cap Anson was a great player but more a career candidate. Similarly, Cy Young was overshadowed by Nichols in his first decade. It was the second decade that made Young a legend.
1900s: Nine players
Most of these guys are pitchers. Hurlers threw more innings per season back then and rarely lasted as long. Rusie and McGinnity, for instance, each had careers that lasted exactly 10 seasons. Chesbro lasted 11 years, and his final season was just six innings.
Waddell is partially in for his achievements and partially in because he was such a memorable character. Either way, he’s remembered for his achievements pitching for Connie Mack’s A’s, and that ended with his tenth season in 1907.
Mathewson is the only pitcher who contributed anything after his tenth season, but he was 236-112 in his first decade.
Keeler, Lajoie, and Wagner were all huge stars. In the days when batting average was king, they all won numerous batting titles. Lajoie was such a big name that when he joined the Indians, they were re-branded the Naps in his honor.
Jennings was a peak-rific player who was done as a regular after ten seasons.
1910s: Eight players
Again, it’s largely pitchers. Walsh had virtually all his value after 10 years, and Joss only pitched nine before dying young. Brown’s great prime was complete by this time, plus he was associated with the great 1906-10 Cubs. Tinker and Evers also get in from the 1906-10 Cubs association as well as that famous Tinker-Evers-Chance poem. Chance misses out because half of Chicago’s glory run came after his 10th season.
Speaking of missing out, Eddie Collins arguably belongs in, but he’s more a career value guy. He was never the best player but always among the best for a long, long time. Speaker, Cobb, and Johnson were the biggest names of their day.
1920s: Five players
These are easy ones. Youngs died after his tenth season. Sisler made it into Cooperstown based on his tremendous prime, and that came to an abrupt end after an eye issue after his eighth season.
After season number ten, Ruth was already the career home run king, Hornsby had five consecutive batting titles, and Alexander had a 235-114 record.
1930s: 14 players
1932: Hack Wilson, Lou Gehrig
1933: Earle Combs, Chick Hafey, Fred Lindstrom, Al Simmons
1934: Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove
1935: Mickey Cochrane
1937: Chuck Klein, Carl Hubbell
1938: Mel Ott, Earl Averill
1939: Lefty Gomez
Several short-careered mistakes here: Hafey, Lindstrom and Combs, most obviously. Their inductions helped drive the peak-heavy candidacies of Wilson and Klein, each of whom did squat after their 10th season.
Averill is an interesting case because he really was a great player for a brief time but didn’t contribute much outside of it. He’s the sort of player that normally wouldn’t make Cooperstown, but he is far better than Combs.
Gomez also had a short career but won a ton of games for the 1936-39 Yankee four-peat world champions. Plus, he was a funny guy and a great storyteller, which would keep him alive in the popular consciousness.
Grove, Hubbell, Ott, Foxx, and Cochrane were clearly established greats. Simmons was, too. He was a superstar for ten years, but then his career cratered in his early 30s. Simmons’ career might look even better if he’d left earlier.
1940s: Three players
Not much to say here. By career numbers, Dean has no case, but he had a great peak and a dominant personality. By logic, personality shouldn’t play a role, but in reality it does. It always does. Feller and DiMaggio were the biggest stars of their day.
1950s: Eight players
Campanella, Robinson, and Kiner each lasted exactly 10 years in the big leagues (though Campanella and Robinson obviously got a late start due to segregation).
Berra, Musial, and Williams combined for eight MVPs in their respective first ten seasons. Roberts and Snider both had very impressive primes (especially Roberts) but both just played out their string afterwards.
1960s: Eight players
Some are all-time greats: Mantle, Mays, Aaron, and Robinson. (Actually, Robinson is a bit borderline, but after 1965 he was already in the top 20 all time in homers and had a .300 average).
Others timed things just right. Mathews is a guy like Simmons. His career might look more impressive if he had fewer seasons. He had 370 homers before his 30th birthday, then he just petered out. Banks was great in his 20s, winning back-to-back MVPs despite playing for a lousy team. Then he blew his knees out halfway through his career and wasn’t too special after it. Neither Mathews nor Banks gets 500 homers if he stops after 10 years, but both impressed many with their peaks.
Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA in his 10th season. Marichal had a record of 191-88 with a half-dozen 20-win campaigns in his first ten years.
Not listed: Sandy Koufax. Wait—what? How could I leave out Captain Peak himself, a man who cruised into Cooperstown on the first ballot after pitching 12 seasons?
Koufax famously was a blah pitcher for six seasons and then a dynamo for six more. So he’d only have four dynamo seasons if we reduced him to 10 years. Yeah, but the first two of those six majestic seasons were the least majestic of them. He went 18-13 with a 3.52 ERA in the first and, due to an injury, won only 14 games in the second.
That just leaves him with two great seasons, and in one of those he was injured for just long enough to pull up short of 20 wins, going 19-5 with a 1.74 ERA in 1964. Ultimately, Koufax was at his best in seasons No. 11 and 12. I figure the 11th year gets him in Cooperstown, and the 12th makes him a first-ballot guy.
1970s: Six players
Some of these guys are pretty easy: Seaver, Yaz, Carew, and Bench had already established themselves.
The other three pitchers are a bit more questionable, but the hall normally likes pitchers who can post a lot of 20-win seasons. Jenkins had seven of those, including six in a row in his first ten years. Hunter had four in a row, plus three World Series rings. He only had one really good season after 1974. Palmer is the iffiest of the bunch, but he had five 20-win seasons, a pair of Cy Youngs and a place on three pennant winners.
Not listed: Reggie Jackson. He was a huge star, but he also widely disliked. In an era when batting average was king, he had a .267 career mark after 10 years. He had “only” two home run titles and one MVP. While he had three world championships, his signature moment didn’t come until the 1977 World Series—at the conclusion of his 11th season. That assured him a space in Cooperstown, but not earlier.
1980s: Five players
These all seem straightforward. In the early 1980s, people were already saying Schmidt might be the best third baseman ever. Brett had once batted .390 in a season, won an MVP award, came second place in another MVP voting and third place in yet another. Henderson was already the greatest base stealer ever. Sutter barely lasted over 10 years, in reality.
As for Smith, he was already regarded as the best defensive shortstop of all time, had been on three pennant winners, and had a personality the masses and the media love. That always helps.
1990s: Eight players
From a Cooperstown perspective, Clemens and Bonds would’ve been better off if they stopped at 10 years. The PED talk focuses on later seasons.
(If you’re curious about previous scandals, after ten years Shoeless Joe Jackson played in barely 1,000 games. Pete Rose is an iffy candidate. He loses the gambling scandal but also the hit record. He might get in, but he probably needs a few more strong seasons).
Puckett only lasted 12 years and was really good throughout the first ten. Plus, he rivaled Smith for the title of most widely beloved player. That’s true of Griffey, too, while Maddux, Thomas, and Boggs all had tremendous primes in their first decade.
Ripken loses the consecutive-game record but still has a great prime and an MVP season. (That said, his second MVP came in year 11, so maybe he needs that).
In a tough call, I left out Tony Gwynn. He was overshadowed by Boggs in their primes. Gwynn actually hit considerably better in the second half of his career: .328 early versus .351 later.
2000s: Eight players
I-Rod might not make it now due to steroid rumors, nor A-Rod with his failed test. If the BBWAA becomes a complete witch-hunt, they might leave out Piazza because he has back acne. But they all had tremendous opening decades that would’ve put them in.
Rivera and Jeter both had great opening decades plus four World Series rings each. Pujols is just an absolutely awesome player. Ichiro is a unique player with plenty of supporters.
Martinez is borderline. He’s like Koufax but with more of his prime in the opening decade. While Koufax pitched more in his best seasons, Martinez has an overall edge after 10 years, 1693 innings to 1,665.2.
There you have it. It’s hard to have it perfectly down, but these are the guys who likely would have made it into Cooperstown without needing any extra years—even the guys who didn’t fully deserve it.