|The Role of the Hall of Fame in the 21st Century - Part III First Base||| Print |||Send|
Written by Robert Grossman (Contact & Archive) on August 14, 2003
Now of course, statistics like this are deceptive. There has never been a “Lou Gehrig” type Boston Red Sox first baseman. Jimmie Foxx has a Boston hat on his plaque, but he actually played a few more years in Philly than in Boston, and if you look at his stats, a strong argument can be made that his more dominant years were in Philly—though not by that much—where he won two of his three MVPs back to back in 1932 and 1933, including the triple crown in ’33. The other two Red Sox HoFers at first base were marginal in Boston—Tony Perez played 3 years there (1980-82) including his last good year (’80) and Orlando Cepeda played one single season (1973)—the only good one he had during the last five years of his career, when he played on four different teams over that stretch.
The Yankees also have three first basemen in the Hall, Lou Gehrig, Johnny Mize, and a technicality, Frank Chance. Chance actually managed the club in 1913 and 1914, appearing in only 11 games for the 1913 Yankees (he hit .208), and played in one game the following year, leading them to 7th and 6th place finishes respectively. Before Red Sox fans begin gloating, Chance came back to manage the 1923 Red Sox, and Boston finished 8th with only 61 wins (but at least he didn’t pick up a bat…). Mize spent most of his career in the NL, split between the Cardinals and the Giants, and missed three years during WWII. After the war, Mize played a few more years with the Giants, and came to the Yankees in 1949 in a mid-season trade for the pennant drive. As a part-timer and bench player, Mize hit 25 homers in 1950 in only 274 AB. He was fairly dominant in his pinch-hitting role, even in his declining years. For example, in ’52 he drove in 29 runs on only 4 homers and 9 doubles in 137 AB. But Mize was not really a HoF first baseman for the Yankees, any more than Tony Perez was for the Red Sox. But there is one Yankee first baseman that probably does belong in the Hall of Fame for the Yankees, and his name is Don Mattingly. But the case is somewhat difficult to make.
I ended my last essay with a discussion of Craig Biggio as a probable Hall of Famer. After reflecting a bit, I would say that he certainly already is at least one of the ten best second basemen ever; and, though I do not watch Houston Astros games every day, I’ve seen enough of him to understand what he does for that club. Certainly most Astros fans would rise up immediately and declaim, “of course Biggio is a Hall of Famer—it’s indisputable.” We all tend to favor players whom we watch and admire for many years. Every Reds fan knows that Barry Larkin is a Hall of Famer—and yet even high profile baseball analysts like Rob Neyer feel that Larkin falls short. The main problem, it seems, is that sports analysts, never without a point to argue or a dispute to instigate, really do not have a common standard for a Hall of Fame Player, and the standards are different for every position, and this is because no one can really agree on what the Hall of Fame is for, or the degree to which longevity matters against, say, 6-7 year dominance at one position amidst a longer, but injury-ridden or shortened career. Should players with shorter, but truly outstanding careers be left out of the Hall of Fame?
I have argued in this series that the Hall of Fame is both a cultural museum, and a place to honor the game’s greatest players. Many today feel that only the best of the best of the best should be in the Hall, particularly in an era of increased offense—and many look purely at the most quantifiable aspect of the game to reach their conclusions--offense. For example, Rob Neyer, an analyst whose opinions I respect a great deal, and with whom I often find myself in agreement where others are not—discounts Fred McGriff as a HoFer, not by the numbers, but, by his aesthetic reasoning: “McGriff doesn’t feel like a Hall of Famer.” On the other hand, Frank Thomas is definitely a Neyer Hall of Famer, given the numbers. Now, I’m not one to argue with Thomas’s extraordinary offensive career—one of the best hitters of his era, surely, but Frank Thomas, who plays no position in the field, and hasn’t for some time, and is more of a career DH, doesn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer to me because he doesn’t really play the complete game of baseball (though admittedly, I do follow the American League more than the National, and although I do generally like the DH conceptually). On the other hand, his fantastic numbers make him impervious to any “feelings” we might have—and though he doesn’t “feel” like a Hall of Famer to me, I must be persuaded purely on surfeit of offense. But can we be persuaded purely on a surfeit of defense? Generally, not the case for any position, unless you are Brooks Robinson. What about a superb defensive player—let us say, one of the two or three best ever to play first base—and who was dominant for at least half a decade as the best hitter in baseball, a career .300 hitter, and the best first baseman in either league during his dominance? Isn’t that a Hall of Famer? Isn’t that Don Mattingly? Mattingly “feels” like a Hall of Famer to me, and to a lot of people, but he apparently doesn’t have the longevity to satisfy enough voters. Right now, Neyer also considers Pedro Martinez a probable “near miss” for his longevity issues. While I also have concerns about Pedro’s durability, and, sure, he never won a World Series, but what if he does? What’s the difference between Pedro and Koufax, especially if Pedro maintains his dominance for a few more years? For ten years? And isn’t Keith Hernandez the Brooks Robinson of First Base? Hmmmmm…
Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez and Steve Garvey are currently on the Hall of Fame ballot, but have not been viewed by the majority of voters as HoFers. Garvey’s ballot percentage is the highest of the three, but remains stuck at just under 30%, whereas Hernandez is on the verge of falling out (he didn’t hit enough home runs) and Mattingly’s stock has fallen from 20% to about 13% (see chart in next section). To summarize the main arguments against Donnie Baseball: “Mattingly didn’t put up milestone numbers” (e.g., 3000 hits, 1500 RBI), “He didn’t have enough healthy seasons,” or, the most problematic reason by far, “he didn’t put up ‘first baseman’ numbers” (i.e., he was not a .270 hitting, 40 HR slugger).
The first one is mostly true, since chronic back problems forced him into offensive decline by his late 20s, though percentage-wise his numbers are excellent. The second rationale makes no sense if we look at the career, say, of Sandy Koufax, who was truly dominant for four or five years and great for about six—same as Mattingly, who did not have the good fortune to play in a World Series. The third is pure hogwash; but, unfortunately, it is also true in the sense that first baseman, by the outdated standards of many voters, are mainly supposed to hit home runs and drive in runs—lots of them. First base is where you are supposed to put someone with high offensive production whom you don’t want to get injured or who can no longer play his “normal” position in the field, or can play no other position in the field (Frank Thomas). By that standard it is not really a position one plays at all, but a retirement home for old stars, or a default for the ostensible NL designated hitter. It’s where Mickey Tettleton goes when he can no longer catch or play the outfield, where Paul Molitor and Joe Carter are sent at the very end—or where the NL played an immobile Eddie Murray in deference to his still formidable production. It’s where great, old catchers like Joe Torre go to die, and where Mike Piazza may just fade away. Why develop superstars at first base as legitimate position players when you have a prefabricated night depository for your favorite, aging superstars to keep them shining a little longer? Moreover—and this is a key point—if all one is expected to do is hobble about at first base and generally catch a thrown ball while swinging a formidable bat, the positional expectations of “first baseman” are rather slender indeed. The definition simply does not apply to Hernandez or Mattingly. Anyone who can swing a bat can play first—meaning that anyone who can pile up home runs and catch the ball here and there can pad a good career into Hall of Fame viability. Pitchers do not have this luxury. Non-sluggers generally don’t have this luxury. The idea of “First baseman” becomes transformed from a practical matter of where to logically play someone in the field (depending upon the makeup of your club) into to a mythic definition of the kind of hitter someone is supposed to be in order to reach the Hall of Fame.
Don Mattingly and Keith Hernandez shattered that myth. During the years in which they played, first base was one of the most exciting positions in the field. Even Mark McGwire, when he was healthy, played an excellent first base. Had Mattingly not dominated, McGwire surely would have won Gold Gloves, as would Kent Hrbek. “Good” (defensive) first baseman were suddenly a desirable commodity—one heard the advantages of defense at first praised so frequently during the 80s and into the early 90s (especially in New York with both Hernandez and Mattingly playing in the same city), that it seemed we had turned a corner in our perception of first base. Excitement even brewed when the defensively excellent J.T. Snow was coming up to replace Mattingly.
But the trend did not hold. Today most seem to view the position as a slot for power hitters to get into (or stay in) the lineup. Look at the gold glove stars at first base today and compare them with Hernandez and Mattingly. No offense to Todd Helton—a very good first baseman—but with the exception perhaps of J.T. Snow on a good day, there is nobody even in their league. What have we been hearing in NY for two years? “Send Piazza to first.” How about sending him to the American League and getting a guy with a glove that can actually play first base? Has Keith Hernandez (or John Olerud) already faded from your memories, my dear, sweet Mets fans? And why do people think Giambi plays first base like Frank Thomas, when he is merely adequate, and not well below average? Consider too how long it took for Tino Martinez to be accepted, first as a merely “average” first baseman, and then as an “above average” first baseman in the wake of Mattingly’s memory. Only after his many fine plays in the field received national exposure during the post-season did Tino earn a reputation as a slightly above average defensive player. Yet he was “always” accepted as a generally good first baseman because he hit home runs and drove in runs efficiently. And yes, he usually hit .260
No matter what position we speak of, every player is supposed to do the same thing: excel in every possible way at their position in the field and at the plate, executing, moment by moment, whatever actions will have a maximum impact on their team’s success. This means working the count, making contact, avoiding the double play, moving the runner over with no outs, scoring a sac fly with one out and a man on third, executing the hit-and-run, making the right decisions with the ball, having a good arm, knowing where to position yourself, going from first to third on a single, making adjustments at the plate, walking if you don’t get a pitch to hit, taking the outside pitch the other way, playing through injuries, taking advantage of the other guy’s mistakes—I can list a hundred more. And Mattingly did them all well. And the hundred I did not name.
There will be many first basemen in the coming years that will present impressive numbers for the Hall of Fame. So, in the first section of this article on first basemen, I wish to address the status of current Hall of Fame candidates, and in the second segment move on to discuss a very interesting class of players on the near-term ballots. We’ll compare the numbers of 2000 Hall of Fame inductee Tony Perez with those of Mattingly, Garvey and Hernandez, and then look ahead to future elections in which Cecil Fielder (2004), Will Clark (2006), Gregg Jeffries (2006), Wally Joyner (2007) and Mark McGwire (2007) will become eligible. I have left the fine hitting Hal Morris of this list, since he only hit 76 HR with 513 RBI in less than 4000 AB, hitting .304 in 13 seasons. He was a fine player, but not a Hall of Famer. Fred McGriff, another first baseman with big numbers at the end of a fine career will also be considered, along with current players Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Bagwell, John Olerud and Frank Thomas.