A thousand miles from Cooperstown

I love Hall of Fame debates. One thing you sometimes hear is that whether you think a player belongs in the Hall or not, for him even to be in the discussion means he was a great player. And it’s true: you may not think Jim Rice and Andre Dawson are Cooperstown-worthy, but you can’t deny they were outstanding players.

Some players are famous for not being in the Hall: Bert Blyleven, of course, and Ron Santo. Gil Hodges. Some guys don’t have much Hall of Fame buzz, but they’ve been recognized elsewhere, in places like the Hall of Merit. Jimmy Wynn is there, and Graig Nettles, and Stan Hack.

But what about the best of the rest? The Hall-eligible players who

1) Played in the “modern era” (post-1900)
2) Aren’t in the Hall of Fame,
3) Weren’t on the recent Veterans Committee ballot
4) Aren’t in the Hall of Merit, and
5) Aren’t the subject of much—if any—Hall of Fame buzz, but
6) Were really, really, really good.

These guys are the unrecognized greats. Even if there was a stathead coup of the Coop, these guys wouldn’t stand much of a chance of getting elected. Don’t get me wrong—not all of these players actually belong in the Hall. But you could make a case for all of them, and that’s what I aim to do today.

We’ll take things position-by-position…

Catcher: Wally Schang

Wally Schang was the regular or semi-regular catcher for six pennant winners in a span of 11 years. (He was also a part-timer for the champion 1930 A’s.) He had a .604 career offensive winning percentage, which is awesome for a catcher. (Consider that Johnny Bench had a .627 OWP; Gary Carter was at .581.)

Schang had 245 Win Shares. His exact contemporary, Ray Schalk, earned 191 and made it into the Hall. Later on, Rick Ferrell (206), Ernie Lombardi (218) went in with weaker credentials.

I don’t know if Schang belongs in the Hall of Fame. I do know that he was the best catcher in baseball from 1913 to 1922, and he remained a good player for many years after that. He also played on a large number of championship teams, and he did very well in 32 World Series games.

Honorable Mention: Lance Parrish, Gene Tenace

First Base: Norm Cash

Now and then, someone will suggest that Norm Cash had a near-Hall of Fame-caliber career. But generally, this guy isn’t getting much attention. Cash has several things working against him. He was a slugger in a pitcher’s era. He couldn’t hit lefties, so he got platooned quite a bit, keeping his season totals down. (He had 600+ plate appearances in just three seasons.) And his greatest season, 1961, is written off by a lot of people because of the mistaken belief that he used a corked bat.

Those are the negatives. The positives? Well, for starters, he may well have been the best player in baseball in 1961—him or Mickey Mantle. He hit .385 in the 1968 World Series. His career OWP was a robust .707—higher than Alex Rodriguez (who has yet to go through his decline phase), contemporary Harmon Killebrew, and teammate Al Kaline, to name a few. By this measure, Cash was a better offensive player, pound-for-pound, than all but 61 people in baseball history.

I don’t actually think he’s that good; he’s certainly no A-Rod, and he’s a good distance behind Killer and Kaline. But Norm Cash had 315 Win Shares, more than Hall of Fame first basemen Orlando Cepeda, George Sisler, Bill Terry, Jim Bottomley, Frank Chance, and George Kelly. (Also more than Hank Greenberg, but that’s only because of World War II.)

Of course, you could argue—and I might agree—that all of those first basemen really shouldn’t be in the Hall. But Cash certainly wouldn’t be one of the worst players in the Hall of Fame, or one of the 20 worst. He was an exceptionally good player.

Honorable Mention: Ed Konetchy, Boog Powell

Second Base: Larry Doyle

Like Cash, Larry Doyle had the misfortune of being a great hitter in a pitcher’s era—in his case, the 1910s. But Doyle could rake. He was the National League MVP in 1912 and won the batting title in 1915. His career line is very similar to Lou Boudreau’s, except Boudreau played in a much more hitter-friendly environment.

Doyle’s offensive winning percentage was .666. For some perspective, consider that George Brett and Tony Gwynn both had OWPs of .668. Reggie Jackson was at .661. You think Joe Gordon deserved to make it into the Hall? He had 242 Win Shares, with a career high of 31. Doyle had 289, topping out at 33.

Taking into account Doyle’s whole career, offense and defense, he’s basically equal to Bobby Doerr, Billy Herman, and Nellie Fox. And he’s a good bit ahead of Gordon, Tony Lazzeri, and Johnny Evers (to say nothing of Bill Mazeroski). In other words, he’s a solid Hall of Fame-level player.

Honorable Mention: Jim Gilliam, Del Pratt

Third Base: Sal Bando

It’s funny: in both the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit, there are fewer third basemen than players from any other position. And it’s not for lack of solid candidates. I picked Sal Bando, but I could just as easily have gone with Bob Elliott or Toby Harrah or Buddy Bell or Ron Cey. All five of those guys have between 280 and 301 Win Shares, which puts them in the gray area as far as the Hall is concerned.

There’s a push to induct Ron Santo into the Hall of Fame, and the Hall of Merit has already enshrined the likes of Santo, Darrell Evans, Graig Nettles, Stan Hack, Ken Boyer, and Heinie Groh. Bando and friends are basically in the same group, but nobody seems to be pushing their cases.

There are several reasons why all these third basemen have been overlooked. For one, none of them has a slam-dunk Hall of Fame case; they’re all pretty borderline. Two, excepting Elliott, they all played around the same time—‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. Not only are they basically interchangeable, but they take a back seat to contemporaries like Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, and George Brett.

And for good measure, their raw numbers aren’t eye-popping. Bando was a career .254/.352/.408 hitter with fewer than 1,800 career hits. Bell hit .279/.341/.406; Harrah was at .264/.365/.395; Ron Cey, the slugger of the bunch, hit .261/.354/.445. Of course, these guys were all doing their thing in a run-scarce environment. That, and the shadow of Schmidt and Brett, has rendered them all but forgotten.

Honorable Mention: Bob Elliott, Toby Harrah, Buddy Bell, Ron Cey

Shortstop: Bert Campaneris

I’m beginning to notice a pattern: Campaneris—like Cash, Doyle, Bando, and partly Schang—spent his best years in poor hitting conditions. The raw numbers of all of those players hardly scream “Hall of Fame,” but the raw numbers are deceiving. Campaneris hit .259/.311/.342—not pretty. But if you go to Baseball-Reference and put him in a 750-run context, he improves to .293/.349/.386. His hit total rises from 2,249 to 2,693. In other words, put him in a more neutral context, and he’s pretty close to a Hall of Fame player.

Campaneris had 280 Win Shares, with a career high of 29. How does that compare to some of the shortstops in the Hall of Fame?

Player               Career    High
Joe Cronin             333      35
Ernie Banks            332      33
Ozzie Smith            325      33
Pee Wee Reese          314      32
Rabbit Maranville      302      27
Luis Aparicio          293      22
Bert Campaneris        280      29
Lou Boudreau           277      34
Joe Sewell             277      29
Dave Bancroft          269      31
Joe Tinker             258      32
Phil Rizzuto           231      35
Travis Jackson         211      24

In terms of overall quality, he’s pretty much indistinguishable from Maranville, Aparicio, Boudreau, Sewell, and Bancroft. That’s not a terribly illustrious group of Hall of Famers, but they’re hardly the bottom of the barrel. Campy meets the implicit standard the Hall has set for shortstops.

Honorable Mention: Jim Fregosi, Dick Bartell

Left Field: Frank Howard

Yet another player hurt by his context (Dodger and RFK Stadiums, 1960s), Frank Howard was basically Harmon Killebrew in a shorter career. He qualified for a batting title just once prior to his age-28 season, and his last year as a regular was at 34 (though he could still hit). Still, he finished with 297 Win Shares, a borderline Hall of Fame total.

Howard’s 10-year run from 1962 to 1971 (260 WS) stacks up to the best decades of any number of immortals. Willie Stargell had 253 in his best decade; Roberto Clemente had 265, Willie McCovey 261, Al Kaline 245, Killebrew 267.

In the Year of the Pitcher, 1968, Howard set a career high with 44 home runs (which he would surpass a year later). He out-hit the league by almost 40 points, and out-slugged it by more than 200. He was just as good the next year, and the next. And he had half a dozen other seasons as an All Star-caliber player.

I could just as easily have gone with Jose Cruz, Sr. Like everybody else, his numbers are seriously dampened by his context (Astrodome, 1970s and ‘80s), but he earned an impressive 313 career Win Shares. The amazing thing is that he did this despite not qualifying for a batting title until he was 29 years old.

From age 29 through the end of his career, Cruz had 240 Win Shares. Pretty much everyone around him on that list is a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. Cruz’s total is basically the same as those of Dave Winfield, Paul Waner, Reggie Jackson, and Tony Gwynn. And it’s better than a ton of other players who aged very well—guys like George Brett, Eddie Murray, and Zack Wheat. Bottom line, from age 29 on, Jose Cruz was a Hall of Fame player.

Honorable Mention: Jose Cruz, Brian Downing, Bob Johnson

Center Field: Cesar Cedeño

Tough call in center field. Willie Davis has the highest career value of the possible choices, with 322 Win Shares. Problem is, he was never a really great player; he never topped 26 WS in a season. I almost went with Amos Otis, who was a consistent high-quality player throughout the 1970s before turning into a pumpkin. But instead of those two, I’m picking Cesar Cedeño, who easily had the highest peak of the bunch.

Cedeño was one of the greatest young players of all time. Through age 26, he had Cooperstown written all over him. He had 192 Win Shares at that point, putting him right in between Rickey Henderson and Joe Jackson. Had he gone on to peak at the normal age—27 to 29—he would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Even if he had coasted from 27 on out, his place in the Hall would have been all but assured.

But Cedeno got hurt at 27 and struggled at 28. He had one more great year at 29, but after 30 his decline was swift. His last year as a regular was at 31, and he was finished altogether by age 35. To make matters worse, his stats were hurt by the Astrodome. The lost promise, combined with the subdued numbers, spelled ruin for his Hall of Fame case.

Like his closest comparable, Vada Pinson (a Veterans Committee candidate), Cedeño tempts us to wonder what might have been. But what actually was was pretty darned good. Cedeño’s credentials may fall just shy of the Hall of Fame line, but they’re not too far off.

Honorable Mention: Willie Davis, Amos Otis

Right Field: Rusty Staub

Lots of guys from the ‘60s and ‘70s, huh? It goes without saying that Rusty Staub was hurt by his era and parks. His career Win Shares, 358, are more than any modern player not in the Hall of Fame or Hall of Merit.

Staub was never really perceived as a great player. He only once finished in the top 10 in MVP voting, and by then, he was way past his prime. But from 1967-71, he was awesome, with Win Shares in the 27-32 range every year. His context killed him. In those five years, he never had 100 RBIs, and only twice got to 90. He had seasons of six and 10 home runs. He slugged .500 just once. For a right fielder at his peak, the raw stats are underwhelming.

Take a look at 1969: Staub was with the expansion Expos that year, and he hit .302/.426/.526, 29 homers, 110 walks. He had a .785 offensive winning percentage (third in the league). If you prefer OPS+, his was 166. It was an awesome year. Staub got one single point in the MVP vote. The fact that he had just 79 RBIs didn’t help.

Anyway, altogether, Staub hung around long enough to collect over 2,700 hits and nearly 300 home runs. He was a good on-base guy, had a .620 career OWP. He’s got basically the same qualifications as Tony Perez, except Perez played for the Big Red Machine and piled up loads of RBIs. On balance, I’d say Staub was a hair better than Perez.

I went with Staub in large part because of career value, but I may be wrong. Bobby Bonds had a shorter career, but man, he was amazing. He had the misfortune of coming up as a fast, power-hitting black outfielder in San Francisco in the late ‘60s, which meant endless, unflattering comparisons to Willie Mays. But half of Mays is still a Hall of Famer, and that describes Bonds pretty well.

Aside from Mays himself, Bonds was the greatest power/speed combo until the 1980s. He had five 30-30 seasons, and he led the league in power/speed number nine times. Yes, he struck out a lot, but he also drew 75-80 walks a year, and more in his best years. And his mediocre-looking .268 batting average was still six points better than the league average. Oh, and he won three Gold Gloves.

Bonds suffers not only from the shadow of Mays but from the inevitable comparisons to his son, Barry. But how fair is this? Does anyone look good compared to those two? Bobby Bonds did more to help his teams win than loads of Hall of Famers. He was a great, great player.

Honorable Mention: Bobby Bonds, Jack Clark, Ken Singleton

Starting Pitcher: Jack Quinn

Let me begin by saying that I don’t actually think any buzz-less starting pitchers belong in the Hall of Fame. Jack Quinn leads the bunch in wins (247) and Win Shares (287), but he wasn’t really a great pitcher.

He was, however, an exceptionally unique pitcher. When he’s remembered, it’s always as the oldest something. Oldest pitcher to start a World Series game; oldest player to hit a home run in the American League; oldest player to get multiple hits in a season. He was one of the last legal spitball pitchers. His last game was a few days after his 50th birthday. He was old.

Quinn got his start in 1909, with the New York Highlanders (Yankees). One of his teammates that year was Wee Willie Keeler, who had once played with Orator Jim O’Rourke, who had played in the National Association.

Quinn was 25 years old. He had a couple good years before falling apart, spent part of a season with the Boston Braves, and then jumped to the Federal League. There, he had his only 20-win season (26-14, 129 ERA+, 342 innings), but the next year he went 9-22. He didn’t play in the majors at ages 32 and 33, and he made five starts with the White Sox at age 34. He then returned to the Yankees, where his career stabilized.

With the Yankees, Red Sox, and A’s, Quinn was a regular starter until he was 45. He was never great, but he also never had a below-average season. He played for the World Champion A’s in 1929-30 (ages 45-46). Then he went to Brooklyn, where he became a full-time reliever and led the NL in saves at ages 47 and 48. (Of course, saves hadn’t been invented yet, so nobody knew this until decades later.)

Quinn’s last year was with the Reds in 1933. The team’s main catcher was Ernie Lombardi, who later played with Bobby Thomson, whose career ended in 1960. Jack Quinn was a bridge between eras. If you want to connect some player from today to somebody from the 1870s, there’s a decent chance you’ll have to go through Quinn.

Honorable Mention: Wilbur Cooper, Babe Adams

Relief Pitcher: Firpo Marberry

Dan Quisenberry should be in the Hall of Fame. I gather that a number of other people agree with me, enough so that he’s got too much buzz to make this list. So I’m going with Firpo Marberry. The key, of course, is to have “berry” at the end of your name…

Firpo Marberry pitched with the Senators and then the Tigers in the 1920s and ‘30s. He actually started over a third of his games, and he had more complete games than Curt Schilling, so you might be wondering how exactly he qualifies as a reliever. Actually, Marberry was the original star relief pitcher, the first guy to become famous for being a great reliever.

His stats sort of boggle the mind today. In 1924, he made 35 relief appearances, plus 15 starts, threw 195 innings, and had a 131 ERA+. In the World Series, he pitched in four games (one start), and had a 1.12 ERA. This was a pretty typical year for him.

The next year, he made 55 relief appearances and zero starts. That shattered the record for games pitched without a start—the previous record was 40. He also set the record for games finished, with 39. In 1926, he set a new record for games finished, 47, and he also saved 22 games, a record that would stand until 1949.

Marberry’s best season was probably 1929, when he went 19-12 with a 139 ERA+ in 250 innings. He had 26 starts, 23 relief appearances, finished second in the league in ERA, and led the league in saves. He had 26 Win Shares, which wasn’t quite as good as Lefty Grove (28), but was better than any other AL pitcher.

He had a bunch of other good years, but you get the idea. He was traded to the Tigers before the 1933 season. They used him almost exclusively as a starter, and he went 16-11 with a 132 ERA+ in 238 innings. The next year, he went 15-5 and the Tigers won the pennant. It was his last full season.

Marberry went 148-88 in his career, for a very good .627 winning percentage. His record was even better as a starter: 94-52 (.644). His 101 career saves were the record until 1946. Given his overall excellence and his role in the development of relief pitching, Marberry has a solid Hall of Fame case.

Honorable Mention: Tom Henke, Kent Tekulve, Sparky Lyle

*****************

Okay, here’s the team:

Pos   Player               Years
C     Wally Schang       1913-1931
1B    Norm Cash          1958-1974
2B    Larry Doyle        1907-1920
3B    Sal Bando          1966-1981
SS    Bert Campaneris    1964-1983
LF    Frank Howard       1958-1973
CF    Cesar Cedeno       1970-1986
RF    Rusty Staub        1963-1985

SP    Jack Quinn         1909-1933
RP    Firpo Marberry     1923-1936

Six of the eight position players peaked in the 1960s and ‘70s. In fact, all six were active from the years 1970-73. The other two position players, Schang and Doyle, had their best years during the dead ball era. Every single one of the position players played in a context unfriendly to hitters. As for the pitchers, both were at their best in the hitter-friendly 1920s.

Not all of those guys belong in the Hall of Fame, and even the best of them are borderline candidates. Doyle, Bando, Campaneris, and Staub all meet the basic standards of the Hall (as do some of the other third basemen and right fielders). I’d probably go with Schang as well, and given all his contributions, I think Marberry is a Hall of Famer too.

At the end of the day, I think this study just reinforces the old lesson: context matters.

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