Santo best among post-'42 Hall candidates

December, 8, 2008
Later today, the Hall of Fame will announce the results of that body's latest and greatest version of Veterans Committee balloting. This time around, the ballot comes in two parts: post-1942 and pre-1943 (with those years corresponding to the middle of the U.S. participation in World War II), with 10 players per ballot.

Once the results are announced, I might have some thoughts on the process itself, but this morning I'm going to run through all 20 candidates. And while I could write 1,000 words about each of them, instead I'll limit myself to 100 words apiece. First, our post-1942 stars in alphabetical order …

Dick Allen is not only the greatest hitter on the post-1942 ballot, he's also one of the greatest hitters ever, with a 156 OPS+ that puts him in the company of guys like Stan Musial, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron. But he was terribly erratic and unreliable in an era when an erratic, unreliable black player risked becoming a pariah. Which is what happened to Allen (granted, he deserves a fair amount of the blame for this), and which goes a long way toward explaining why the BBWAA's Hall of Fame voters never gave him even 20 percent of their support.

Gil Hodges certainly was a fine player. He was not, on the other hand, a Hall of Fame-quality player. And it's not just me who thinks that way. Hodges was an RBI man for a perennially contending team, yet he never did better than eighth in MVP balloting. Essentially, Hodges was Tony Perez but without Perez's incredibly long career (and Perez was a marginal Hall of Fame candidate who probably shouldn't have been elected). And yes, it's true that the voters are free to consider Hodges' accomplishments as a manager … but if they do that, they'd better measure Dusty Baker for his Hall of Fame plaque, too.

Jim Kaat's case comes down to one question, really: Should we lower the Hall of Fame bar from 300 wins to 280? Every eligible pitcher with 300 wins has been elected; three pitchers with 280 wins -- Kaat (283), Tommy John (288) and Bert Blyleven (287) -- have not. Of course Kaat was a very good pitcher, but he was mentioned in Cy Young balloting just once (and finished fourth). His case is built almost entirely upon his admirable durability and exceptional longevity (he pitched until he was 44). Perhaps that's enough, but the line for 280-game winners should probably form behind Blyleven.

It's often said of Tony Oliva that if his knees hadn't given out on him, he'd have been in the Hall of Fame long ago. Sure, but roughly the same may be said for dozens of other players (not to mention hundreds of sore-armed pitchers). And the facts are Oliva played only 12 full seasons, was good in only eight of those, and was great in only three or four of those. Purely in terms of value, Oliva was almost precisely as good as Albert Belle, another excellent player whose career was abbreviated by a debilitating injury.

Al Oliver first became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1991. He picked up 19 votes and fell off the BBWAA ballot forever. Now he's back, thanks to 2,743 hits and his reputation for hitting line drives in his sleep. The only problem is Oliver was not a great player. Because he rarely walked, Oliver never scored 100 runs in a season. Because he didn't have a great deal of power, he drove in 100 runs only twice. He wasn't much of a fielder, didn't score or drive in a lot of runs. The math just doesn't work.

Some years ago, I wrote something uncomplimentary about Vada Pinson's Cooperstown credentials, and shortly afterward I received an uncomplimentary e-mail message from one of Pinson's closest relatives. Fair enough, but I'm afraid nothing has changed since then. Pinson remains a fine player who didn't make a single All-Star team after turning 22 and by his late 20s had become merely an adequate player. His 2,757 career hits are impressive, but his .327 career on-base percentage is not. Maybe that wouldn't matter if he'd won a bunch of Gold Gloves or hit a bunch of home runs. But he still hasn't.

Ron Santo is the best and most deserving candidate on the post-1942 ballot. Santo was an All-Star nine times, more than anyone else on the ballot. He hit 342 home runs, which at the time of his retirement was No. 2 all-time among third basemen. Santo also drew so many walks that he finished with a .362 on-base percentage, higher than those of Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. The one legitimate knock against Santo is he was washed up at 34, but before that he was perhaps the most durable third baseman ever. He has my whole-hearted endorsement.

I don't get the Luis Tiant argument. It's true that he won 20 games four times, which is impressive. But did you know he won more than 13 games only six times? He has the four 20-win seasons, an 18-win season, and a 15-win season. That's it. Otherwise it's a bunch of 12s and 13s. The problem for Tiant is he never won a Cy Young Award (or came close), he won only 229 games, and he was never a dominant pitcher for even two straight seasons. Those magical few weeks in 1975 can take him only so far.

My take on Joe Torre is it's not hard to find a spot for him in the Hall of Fame as a catcher, because for a catcher he was one fantastic hitter … except he was a catcher for less than half of his career. He played nearly as many games at first base as behind the plate, and he played a few seasons worth of games at third base, too. As a catcher he's a Hall of Famer, easy. But as a C/1B/3B he should have to wait for the nod as a manager. And that will come eventually.

The flaw in Maury Wills' Hall of Fame case is simple: He enjoyed his first good season in the majors when he was 27, and his last great season when he was 32. Wills gets credit for "changing the game" with his speed, which might be compelling if only it were true. In 1962, Wills destroyed the single-season record with 104 steals. But he wasn't the first player in his era to steal bases; in 1959, Luis Aparicio had stolen 56 (and stole 53 more in 1961). Wills didn't change his era; he was merely a product of his era.

In my next post, I'll review the list of pre-1943 candidates, some of them far from household names …


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