Dubbed “The Me decade” by Tom Wolfe, the 1970s saw events ranging from the rise of disco to the fall of Saigon. In baseball, meanwhile, it was something of a time of mini-dynasties, with the A’s, Reds and Yankees each winning two—or in the A’s case, three—World Series in a row. It would seem, then, that the talent was condensed around a few teams. So what did that mean for the talent of the decade, and how it compares to some of the other teams we’ve seen?
But then, we can’t begin to have that discussion until we know the criteria under which we’re picking the players. Thus we shall once again review the rules selecting this team: to qualify for any non-pitching position, a player must have played at least 500 games there during his career—though not necessarily during the decade in question. For starting pitchers, to appear on the team requires at least 200 starts in a given decade. Now that we have finally reached an era when relievers were an established role, it’s time to set some rules. In order to be eligible for a reliever spot, a player must have appeared in at least 400 games in relief in the decade while starting no more than 30 games.
Having dispensed with that, let’s move on to the fun stuff:
Catcher: Johnny Bench
Here’s a spoiler alert: we’ll be seeing a lot Cincinnati Reds on this team. We’ll address the success of the Big Red Machine a little later, but for now we’ll focus on the players that provided the motor for that machine.
The 1970s saw more than its share of talented catchers; the likes Thurman Munson, Ted Simmons, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk all played for some or all of the decade. Bench, though is the king. For the decade, he hit 290 home runs; no other catcher even topped 175. In fact, the gap from Bench to second place Gene Tenace is as large as the gap from Tenace to 17th place Bob Boone. For good measure, not only was Bench the best power-hitting catcher in the decade, but he also stole the most bases.
And, if all that is not enough, Bench also did a fair bit to stop his share of would-be base stealers, winning the Gold Glove at catcher every year from 1970 through 1977.
First Base: Rod Carew
As I’ve said before, writing about some of these players can make for a challenge. On the other hand, some players I’ve always known were great, but coming up with these blurbs actually teaches me something. For example, Rod Carew—who I knew was a great hitter, particularly for average, hitting .350 or better five times—hit a lot of triples. Not a lot for baseball history (he’s barely in the top 125 all-time) but quite a lot for the era. He was in the top three in triples six times and led the decade in triples with 80. Rod Carew: triples machine. Who knew?
|WWE wrestler The Big Show listens as Reggie Jackson talks, possible about how great he was (US Presswire)|
Another thing about Carew, he probably had less home run power than any first baseman on these teams since Frank Chance. Now, that’s relative, of course, but Carew was out-homered in the decade by names like Dave Duncan, Jason Thompson (who?) and Mike Ivie. Of course, this tells you a lot about how good Carew was everything else, that he is the no-doubt choice for a power position despite never hitting more than 14 home runs in a single season.
Second Base: Joe Morgan
Lo and behold, it’s another member of the Big Red Machine. Of course, Morgan would be on this list no matter where he played. Morgan was the best overall player of the decade, in large part based on his strength at every aspect of the game. His best skill was simply getting on base, Morgan’s OBP was second only to Carew for the decade—and that came while Morgan hit .282 compared to Carew’s .343 for the decade. Not surprisingly, Morgan had, by far, the most walks of the decade. In fact, he drew nearly 1,100 walks while no other played even topped 900.
Of course, Morgan was more than just a player capable of taking a walk. After arriving in Cincinnati prior to the 1972 (part of a truly wretched trade for Houston who traded the decade’s best player—and four other players!—for three players who collectively barely played 1,000 games for the Astros) Morgan promptly went through a five-year stretch as one of the NL’s three best players, twice winning the MVP award and starting a streak of five straight Gold Glove awards.
There is serious competition for the title of best second baseman ever, but it seems likely that the nod goes to Joe Morgan.
Third Base: Mike Schmidt
This is something of an unusual choice. Technically, Schmidt contributed less value—at least in pure WAR terms—than did Graig Nettles for the decade. But the comparison isn’t quite that clear. For a start, Schmidt’s value is only about a third of a win per year less than Nettles. Moreover, he earned that value while playing nearly 500 fewer games.
When speaking of peaks, Nettles was no slouch, twice topping 7.5 WAR in a single season, and averaging almost 6.5 WAR per year during his three-year peak of 1976-78. On the other hand, Schmidt had five seasons of 7.5 WAR or better and his three-peak (1974-76) saw him average an astonishing 8.4 WAR. Schmidt has three of the five best third base seasons of the decade, and five of the best 10.
One could do far worse than Nettles for third base, but despite putting up slightly lesser cumulative numbers, the hot corner belongs to Schmitty.
Shortstop: Bert Campaneris
This was not, if we’re being honest, a great decade for shortstops. Across the course of his career, “Campy” is certainly no slouch: he led the league in steals six times and among those players who saw at least two-thirds of their time at shortstop, he has more WAR than more prominent modern names like Miguel Tejada, Omar Vizquel, and Nomar Garciaparra.
Though Campaneris did have some strong years in the decade—he was among Oakland’s better players while they were winning three World Series in a row—it also included much of his decline phase. The decade’s other prominent shortstops all carry their own issues. Mark Belanger was, of course, brilliant defensively (and why Campaneris never won a Gold Glove) but hit .200 for the last three years of the decade. Toby Harrah took too long to get going while most of the other decade-long shortstops—such as Chris Speier
, Larry Bowa and Bud Harrelson—simply weren’t good enough to seriously challenge for the spot.
I suppose this all make it sounds like Campaneris isn’t very good. That’s not the case, but he is definitely the weak link on this particular team.
Left Field: Pete Rose
Lucky me, it’s yet another chance to write about Pete Rose. Once again, let’s try to focus on his career on the field, rather than his… less admirable elements. And on the field, Rose was never better than he was in this decade. He let the league in hits four times, runs three times and doubles four times. His best season came in 1973 when he won the league MVP and batting title.
Rose qualifies all over the field—every infield position except shortstop and both outfield corners—but left is where he slots in for the all ‘70s team, topping the likes of Carl Yastrzemski, Roy White, and Willie Stargell. And you can bet on that. As would Pete.
Center Field: Cesar Cedeno
Here is the complete list of players who accumulated more WAR than Cedeno during their age 21 and 22 seasons: Ted Williams, Eddie Matthews, Ty Cobb. That’s it. Here are the three players behind him: Rickey Henderson, Rogers Hornsby, Jimmie Foxx. You’ll notice something about all those players except Cedeno; they’re in the Hall of Fame.
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In fact, of top 10 players in that statistic, the only ones on the outside looking in to the Hall of Fame are Cedeno and two players not eligible: Alex Rodriguez, who probably won’t make it in, but would based purely on his performance, and Andruw Jones, who also won’t make it in but probably should.
So what happened? There are a lot of theories. A popular one holds that Cedeno never recovered from an incident when he shot and killed his mistress in the Dominican Republic during the off-season. (Cedeno was eventually found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and fined $100. A contemporary article mentions that he “immediately paid the fine,” so I guess he learned to keep his checkbook handy just in case he wanted to shoot anyone else.)
Other theories hold that Cedeno altered his swing when the Astros moved back the fences at the Astrodome, or that injuries cost him his spot in the Hall. While there’s unquestionably some truth to the last idea—Cedeno averaged fewer than 100 games per season the last nine games of his career—the real reason Cedeno never again reached such heights is unknown and, probably, unknowable.
Right Field: Reggie Jackson
Here’s a thought that just occurred to me: is there any player less accurately rated by common consensus than Reggie Jackson? On the one hand, there is a segment of the public—mostly Yankee fans, I grant, though also Reggie himself—that sees him as a clutch hero, Mr. October, always coming through in the clutch. On the other hand, there is a group that sees him as something of a proto-Adam Dunn, all strikeouts and home runs and cover-your-eyes-they-hit-it-his-way defense.
Of course, the first group overlooks that Jackson was a.227 hitter in 45 career LCS games including a particularly gruesome 2-for-16 stretch in the 1977 ALCS shortly before his home runs heroics in the World Series. Meanwhile, the second group conveniently ignores that the young Reggie was actually a fine defensive player and had enough speed that he had a five-year stretch when he stole 109 bases in 140 tries.
The truth of Jackson’s quality lies, inevitably, somewhere in-between the two points of view. When it comes to this decade, there is no dispute that Jackson deserves the right field spot.
Starting Pitchers: Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Gaylord Perry, Bert Blyleven, Jim Palmer
If Jackson has a reputation entirely divided between those who overrate him and those who underrate him, Seaver seems to be almost entirely underrated. Though he does rank sixth in Baseball-Reference’s fan ELO rating—behind only Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Greg Maddux, Lefty Grove and Pete Alexander—one almost never hears his name in the discussion of the greatest pitchers of all-time. It probably should be in there, in no small part because of his work during this decade, when Seaver won 178 games (that’s nearly 18 per year) and did it with a 2.61 ERA.
Perhaps it is appropriate that two pitchers known for a “gimmick” pitcher would be rotation mates on the all-‘70s staff. For Niekro that pitch was the knuckleball. And with his arm not being taxed by the pitch, Niekro was able to throw huge number of innings, topping 300 innings four times in the decade. He was more than just an inning eater, though, placing in the top 10 in ERA+ four times during the decade.
Perry’s pitch, meanwhile, was the spitball—or “hard slider,” depending on when you asked—which he used to post five seasons of 300 innings or more. Exactly how often Perry threw the wet one is a matter of conjecture, but whatever he was doing, he was effective enough to lead the NL in wins in both 1970 and 1978.
I won’t say too much on Blyleven, whose Hall of Fame worthiness and merits have been discussed ad nauseum, but deserves credit for making the all-decade team despite having made his debut, at age 19, in 1970 but not letting the growing pains stop him from winning nearly 150 games and putting up an ERA of 2.88. Palmer, meanwhile, was an established veteran by the time 1970 rolled around and he continued rolling through the decade, winning 20 or more games an incredible eight times. In fact, despite being the fifth man on this start, it is Palmer who won more games during the decade than any other pitcher.
Relief Pitcher: John Hiller
I know, I know. No one thinks of John Hiller when they think of 1970s relievers. You think of Rollie Fingers, who is the saves leader for the decade. Or Sparky Lyle who won a Cy Young award relieving for the Yankees. Or Mike Marshall, who also won a Cy Young award coming out of the bullpen. Or Goose Gossage, and his mustache. Or Al Hrabosky and his. Or maybe even Kent Tekulve and his glasses.
But here’s the thing, at least when it comes to his decade, John Hiller was better than all of them. Hiller’s 1973 season—125 innings, 38 saves (the single-season decade high) and a 1.44 ERA—was arguably the finest of the decade. But he was no one-year wonder, Hiller posted the best ERA+ and K/9 number among eligible pitchers. Had he played for a better team than the Tigers—who averaged just 82 wins and a fourth place finish during the decade—Hiller would perhaps come to mind with names like Fingers and Gossage.
Manager: Sparky Anderson
Sparky Anderson took over the Reds for the 1970 season. That year they went 102-60 and made it to the World Series. The next year the team went just 79-83, and finished fifth. Clearly, Sparky decided he didn’t like that and for the rest of the decade the Reds were an unmatched success. The never won fewer than 88 games, won four division titles, three pennants and two World Series. Overall, and counting the beginning of his career as Tigers’ manager in 1979, Anderson-led teams won 919 games at a .590 clip—that’s an average of nearly 96-66.
Many other great managers—including Hall of Famers like Tommy Lasorda, Earl Weaver and Whitey Herzog—were active and often at the peak of their powers during the ‘70s, but “Captain Hook” is the skipper for this team.