In the opening section of Fever Pitch, his splendid memoir, Nick Hornby discusses the amount of time he devotes to contemplating all things soccer. He bemoans that “none of this is thought in the proper sense of the word. There is…no mental rigor going on at all.” Like Hornby, great parts of my day are taken up with these moments related to baseball. Once in a great while, though, I actually get something meaningful out of these, or at least something I can make into a column.
Today’s column comes from one of those ideas, to wit, is there any award which guarantees one baseball immortality based on a single win? Baseball gives away a fair share of individual honors each season: Most Valuable Player for each league for the season, MVP for each League Championship Series and the World Series, two Cy Young Awards, 18 Glove Gloves and Silver Sluggers, two Rookies of the Year, two Managers of the Year, two Rolaids Relief Awards and the always illustrious All-Star Game MVP.
(That’s 50 total awards each season, of which a non-managing offensive player could theoretically win seven and a truly exceptional pitcher could win nine.)
That doesn’t count less glamorous but still relevant trophies like the Babe Ruth Award (WS MVP voted by New York writers) and Roberto Clemente Award (based on, according to MLB.com, “the player who best exemplifies the game of baseball, sportsmanship, community involvement and the individual’s contribution to his team.”).
Of course, writing for a site with the kind of cutting-edge analysis as the Hardball Times, I knew I couldn’t just pull these out of my head. I therefore developed an especially rigorous scientific formula: I called some acquaintances; both casual and diehard baseball fans and quizzed them about certain players and awards.
A bit of disclosure: as I’ve probably said before, I’m a relatively young guy, and consequently so are most of my friends. I have therefore avoided players from a time period before 1980 (with one exception, as you’ll see) to eliminate the passing of years from being a factor. Also, I chose to not include my Hardball Times cohorts, on the grounds that quizzing the likes of Steve Treder about something like past Silver Slugger winners would almost be a gimmie.
As such, I feel confident in my answer to the question of which award ensures one a spot in the mind of even casual fans: none. Not the MVP, not the Cy Young, not Gold Gloves or Rookies of the Year or even post-season awards. Sadly, it seems obscurity awaits some of the winners of baseball’s most glamorous awards.
As an example, take Terry Pendleton. Pendleton last played in the majors in 1998 and his MVP award came in 1991. (He also finished second in 1992.) Pendleton’s MVP-caliber play came for the Braves and he was part of five different pennant winning teams, although he never got a ring. Despite all this, several people I spoke to could not identify Pendleton when given hints, and a few still could not come up with anything when I gave his name. (One person heard all this and then asked me “You sure you don’t mean Chipper Jones?”)
Embarrassingly, there’s even an MVP I’ve never heard of: Bob Elliot. Allow me to be the first to say who was this guy and how have I not heard of him before? He has a fantastic nickname—Mr. Team—and in addition to his MVP was a seven-time All-Star. Admittedly some of those All-Star appearances came during the Second World War, but even so. I’m not saying anything about Elliot because he’s clearly worth his own column someday.
So if being voted the Most Valuable Player isn’t enough, do any of the other awards have a chance? Maybe greatness on the mound is the key to being remembered, or perhaps heroics in the post-season or the All-Star game is the key.
As it turns out, if any of those are the key, the people I talked to haven’t yet noticed. Rick Dempsey hit .385 in 1983 World Series, including five extra base hits good for a .923 slugging percentage. He drove in or scored more than a quarter of the Orioles runs in the series. Despite these post-season heroics, my friends were of shaky memory at best. One remembered him solely from his time as an Orioles’ coach while another managed to confuse him with former Yankees’ catcher Rick Cerone and added he didn’t “think [Dempsey was] that much of a player.”
La Marr Hoyt only had an eight year Major League career, but won nearly 100 games and was named Cy Young winner in 1983 (his White Sox lost to Dempsey’s Orioles in the ALCS that year) and All-Star MVP in 1985. Despite this pair of accomplishments, Hoyt maintains among my associates an anonymity that would make J.D. Salinger proud. Several people could not come up with any information on Hoyt, and only one managed to identify him as a pitcher.
Mike Squires played 10 seasons in the majors, after making his debut on Sept. 1, 1975. He was a career.260 hitter, a one-time teammate of Hoyt and won just one career award: the 1981 Gold Glove at first base. If anyone was going to remember someone as little known as Squires, it would have to be a big White Sox fan. I therefore contacted the biggest ChiSox fan I know, Vince Galloro.
Responding to my e-mailed question of what—if anything—he recalled about Squires, Vince quickly replied. Not only did he remember Squires off the top of his head, he also identified Squires’ nickname (Spanky) the positions he played besides first (even Squires’ two career games behind the plate) and his offensive struggles.
Even more on point, Vince wrote that he “remember[s] Squires being considered a defensive whiz at first base, although [he] was too young to know whether that was really true.” Advanced metrics weren’t around but Squires’ Gold Glove does tend to support the idea.
So while I don’t think a Gold Glove is the key to being remembered, perhaps it is a sign that for the true and loyal fans of a team, fine performance is always remembered.