As always, Valentine’s Day will be Feb. 14. In the past, Richard has looked back at baseball Valentines. This year, he celebrates players who share their name with the emotional center of the holiday.
For anyone who has celebrated Valentine’s Day, even once, the ubiquity of hearts cannot be missed. There are hearts on cards, hearts on decorations, even candy hearts. (And boy, are those things disgusting.) But while baseball is never in season on Valentine’s Day, even it cannot escape the ubiquity of hearts, even if it spells things a little differently.
The first Hart to play major league baseball (there’s been no one who spells it like the thing in your chest) was Bill Hart, a pitcher who debuted in 1886 for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association. He would last, appearing on and off in the majors, until 1901, playing in the National and American Leagues for a variety teams.
Hart was never as good as he was during his debut season in the relatively mediocre American Association; he posted his only ERA better than league average that season. But he usually hovered around league average, even when his results (he led the NL in losses in 1896) did not reflect that fact.
Various Harts would enter the league for a season or two until 1963, when Jim Ray Hart debuted with a cup of coffee. The next year, at age 22, he hit 31 home runs for the Giants. That was good for third in the league and more than teammates Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda. Hart finished (a distant) second in the Rookie of the Year voting to Dick Allen.
Hart continued to slug his way to strong performances, receiving MVP votes or appearing in the All-Star game every year from 1964 through ’67. Indeed, though his raw statistics were somewhat held down by the relatively low offense of the era, his numbers through age 25 were among the best for third baseman with a minimum of 600 games. His OPS+ was comparable to David Wright and above that of names like Gary Sheffield and Ron Santo.
Unfortunately for Hart, from age 26 on his performance was not quite to that level. Although he continued to hit, injuries began to take their toll. He slipped to a 114 OPS+, and more importantly, couldn’t stay on the field. From age 26 to when he retired at age 32, he played in just 491 games, including three years of 40 or fewer games.
The injuries also affected Hart’s defense. Never the strongest third baseman, he found himself spending increasing time in the outfield. After a disastrous 10-game spell with the Yankees in ’72, the only time he spent outside of San Francisco, Hart’s career ended.
The second best Hart is currently active, Milwaukee’s Corey Hart. (And please, spare him the “Sunglasses at Night” jokes; I’m sure he’s heard them all.) He debuted in 2004 and seemed primed to break out after an excellent 2007 season, when he hit .295 with a 126 OPS+. That continued with a .851 OPS through mid-June. But Hart collapsed in the second half, hitting only .246 and walking just 14 times in the last 90 games.
Hart was especially hapless as the Brewers drove for the playoffs. Over the season’s final 40 games he had just 15 extra base hits while hitting only .208. This was especially galling for those of us who had Hart on their fantasy teams, me included, as you might have guessed. Nonetheless, Hart is entering what should be his prime, and a few more years like 2007 might be enough to push him over Jim Ray for the best playing Hart of all-time.
When it comes to success though, the ultimate baseball Hart never played in the majors and won just eight of the 19 games he managed. That would be John Hart, whose tenure at the head of the Cleveland Indians organization in the 1990s established a reputation as one of baseball’s sharpest minds.
Taking over as general manager of the Indians at the tail end of the 1991 season—he had been the field manager for his 8-11 stretch in 1989—Hart was inheriting a fairly gruesome franchise. The Indians’ collective record the previous three seasons was 207-279; that comes out to an average record of 69-93. The team had been over .500 just once in the previous 10 seasons, and just five times in the last 25. The Indians had not made the postseason since 1954.
Hart did have some things going for him. The 1991 draft saw the Indians land a high-school slugger named Manny Ramirez, plus Paul Byrd and Chad Ogea. Earlier drafts had produced Jim Thome and Brian Giles. Hart continued to draft well throughout his tenure, overseeing the selections of Sean Casey, Russell Branyan, Jaret Wright and C.C. Sabathia during his time in charge.
Hart’s real talent, however, came in keeping his young players together. Hart signed many of the young Indians to long-term contracts for reasonable money. This not only allowed him to retain his home-developed talent, but left salary available to add key parts like Roberto Alomar.
Hart’s plan worked. After not making the playoffs for 40 years, the Tribe made it every year but one from 1995 through 2001. The 1995 squad was one of the greatest ever assembled, its reputation held back by the Indians’ loss in the World Series and the strike-shortened season keeping their number of victories low.
Hart’s work was noticed both locally—the Indians sold out 455 straight games—and nationally—he earned back-to-back Executive of the Year awards. Today, the Indians continue to be run astutely by Hart’s one-time deputy, Mark Shapiro.
Hart would go on to a less successful stretch running the Texas Rangers, and today is a senior adviser to Rangers GM Jon Daniels, although I have no idea if that job involves actual advising or is a sinecure from owner Tom Hicks.
So when it comes to baseball, it might not have quite the legacy of glory that surrounds hearts on Valentine’s Day. But Harts like Corey, Jim Ray and John have all done well by it, and at the least earned themselves one of these this Valentine’s Day.