A Plaque on the Wall, But No Ring on the Finger

Despite his greatness, even the late Ernie Banks didn't make a World Series appearance. (via the White House)

Despite his greatness, even the late Ernie Banks didn’t make a World Series appearance. (via the White House)

I had a friend in college, a Cubs fan, who often lamented that Ernie Banks was the “greatest player never to go to a World Series.” At the time, I figured that was a pretty reasonable statement. Mr. Cub is a Hall of Famer with 512 lifetime home runs and over 1,600 RBIs. “Let’s play two!” With his recent passing, the game lost one of its great ambassadors.

But Ernie Banks isn’t the only name with a plaque in Cooperstown but no World Series ring. All told, The Hall of Fame has 24 players who have never had the opportunity to shine on baseball’s brightest stage.

Here’s a look at the game’s immortals who lacked World Series cred on their resumes. These are not the Hall of Famers who made it to the Fall Classic and lost (Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Harmon Killebrew and Tony Gwynn, to name a few) but thos who never got there at all. It should be noted that we’re talking about guys who are in the Hall as players. Joe Torre, for example,  a nine-time All-Star and MVP winner who never played in a World Series but managed in six with the Yankees, is not on this list because he is in the Hall as a manager.

I also should point out that for Hall of Famers whose careers spanned the late 19th and early 20th centuries, I’ve excluded those who played a majority of their years before 1903 (the year of the first modern World Series). Players are listed in order of their induction into the Hall of Fame (with their year in parentheses).

Nap Lajoie (1937): Call him Napoleon, Larry, Poli or Nap. If he’d played a half-century later, they’d have called him the Woonsocket Rocket. Lajoie, a lifetime .338 hitter with five batting titles, was so great Cleveland named the team after him. The Cleveland Naps came close in 1908, finishing a half-game behind the American League champion Detroit Tigers. As a 40-year-old in 1915, Lajoie was purchased by the two-time defending AL-champion Philadelphia Athletics, but by that time Connie Mack had already decimated the team, and the A’s had sunk to the cellar. Lajoie has the highest lifetime WAR among players on this list (107.4).

George Sisler (1939): Gorgeous George was doomed to playing out the string every year with mediocre St. Louis Browns teams. The closest they came to an AL pennant was 1922, when they finished a game behind the Yankees. Trades to Washington and the Boston Braves at the end of his career didn’t help Sisler’s October prospects. A five-tool player, he twice batted over .400, and in 1922 hit in 41 straight games, a modern record until some guy named Joe DiMaggio came along.

Rube Waddell (1946): How can you not love a player who would suddenly go AWOL to chase after speeding fire trucks? The eccentric Waddell was one of the fastest pitchers ever, leading the American League in strikeouts six straight years in the Deadball Era. His best year was 1905, when he won pitching’s triple crown with 27 wins, a 1.48 ERA, and 287 Ks. But there were suspicions Waddell had been paid by gamblers to fake an injury in September, thus conveniently keeping him from playing in that year’s World Series. His Philadelphia Athletics eventually lost to the New York Giants in what proved to be Waddell’s only chance at October glory.

Jack Chesbro (1946): In his incredible 1905 season, Chesbro set modern records for games started (51), complete games (48) and wins (41). But it was also the year in which his wild pitch in the ninth inning of the final game cost his New York Highlanders the pennant. Chesbro won over 20 games five times, but his teams never again came that close.

Harry Heilmann (1952): Heilmann, a San Francisco native, is second behind only Rogers Hornsby for the highest lifetime batting average for right-handed hitters (.342). He hit .403 in 1923 and over .390 three other times. Along with Cobb and Bobby Veach, he made up a dynamic outfield for the Detroit Tigers. The team put together some competitive seasons but had the misfortune of playing in the same league with the New York Yankees and Babe Ruth.

Bobby Wallace (1953): This turn-of-the-century shortstop is in the Hall primarily because of his outstanding defensive skills. He was nothing special at the plate, as his lifetime .268 average proves. His plaque at Cooperstown boasts: “He pitched for Cleveland in 1896 Temple Cup Series.” We’ll take their word for it. But neither the players nor the fans really gave a damn about the Temple Cup at the time, and we’re certainly not going to now.

Ted Lyons (1955): Spending his entire 21-year career with the perennially also-ran Chicago White Sox, his lifetime numbers don’t particularly overwhelm (260-230). He is the only Hall of Fame pitcher who walked more than he struck out. But Lyons was a workhorse; at age 41 in 1942, he made 20 starts and completed every one of them. Yankees manager Joe McCarthy once said of him, “If he’d pitched for the Yankees, he would have won over 400 games.”

Elmer Flick (1963): It took a while for Flick to get his Cooperstown plaque; at 87 years of age, he was the oldest living inductee ever. A poor man’s Heinie Manush, he hit .313 in 13 years with the Phillies, Athletics and Cleveland Naps. He was almost traded for a young Cobb in 1907, but Cleveland nixed the deal at the last moment. Too bad; Flick played only three years and 99 games more.

Luke Appling (1964): A longtime teammate of Lyons on the White Sox, the man known as “Old Aches and Pains” was a lifetime .310 hitter and two-time batting champ. He also drew a ton of walks, rarely struck out, and was an excellent shortstop. He was just the type of player who would have generated a bidding war had he played in the free agent era. Instead, Appling toiled for 20 years for mediocre teams on the South Side of Chicago.

Ralph Kiner (1975): Kiner is the poster boy for this group. An awesome slugger with a high on-base percentage, he began his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1946. He played for them for seven full seasons, in which they finished above .500 only once and lost at least 90 games five times. Midway through the 1953 season, he was traded to the Chicago Cubs, who lost 89 games that summer and 90 the next. He finished his career in 1955 with the defending A.L. champion Cleveland Indians, who finished a close second behind the Yankees.

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Ernie Banks (1977): Banks didn’t stand a chance with the Chicago Cubs. A two-time MVP and one of the most popular players ever to call Wrigley Field home, Banks was doomed to play for a franchise that was the joke of the National League for much of his tenure. The collapse of 1969, after it had seemed so certain all summer that Banks would finally see October baseball, was a gut-punch by the baseball gods.

Addie Joss (1978): This four-time 20-game-winner was a teammate of Lajoie and Flick on the early 20th-century Cleveland Naps. One might well ask how a club with three future Hall of Famers couldn’t manage to win at least one pennant. Joss has the lowest lifetime WHIP ever (0.968). He died of tubercular meningitis at age 31 in 1911.

George Kell (1983): He’s one of only 11 third basemen elected to the Hall, the fewest of any position. A great glove at the hot corner, he was also a high-average hitter who rarely struck out, drew a fair share of walks, and hit a ton of doubles. The only time Kell even sniffed a World Series was with Detroit in 1950, when the team finished three games behind the Yankees after being in first place for much of the summer.

Rick Ferrell (1984): One of the best defensive catchers ever, he was pretty good with the bat as well, hitting over .300 four times with 931 career walks against only 277 strikeouts. His circuitous 18-year career took him from the St. Louis Browns to the Boston Red Sox, then the Washington Senators, back to the Browns, and then back to the Senators. Only four times was he on a team that finished with a record better than .500. The Browns finally went to the World Series in 1944, the year after they’d traded Ferrell. He has the lowest career WAR among players on this list (29.8).

Billy Williams (1987): He and Banks were a wonderful home-run-hitting duo for years at Wrigley Field, but it took a trade to the Oakland A’s at the end of his career for Williams to finally reach the postseason. “Ain’t no feeling like this,” he gushed in the post-game celebration after the A’s clinched the division. “Never knew champagne tasted so good. Fifteen years to pour champagne.” The hangover came quickly; the three-time-defending world champion A’s got swept in the 1975 American League Championship Series, with Williams going hitless in seven at-bats.

Gaylord Perry (1991): In a 22-year career with eight teams, the spitball maestro made the postseason only once, with the San Francisco Giants in 1971. Perry pitched the opening game of the National League Championship Series, going the distance for a hard-fought 5-4 win. But the Pittsburgh Pirates shellacked him in the deciding Game Four; he lasted only 5.2 innings and gave up seven earned runs.

Fergie Jenkins (1991): His resume includes seven 20-win seasons (including six consecutive with the Cubs) and over 3,000 strikeouts. Jenkins played for some contending teams in Boston and Texas but has not one postseason game to show for it.

Rod Carew (1991): A seven-time American League batting champion. A .328 lifetime hitter. Over 3,000 career hits. An 18-time All-Star. A serious run at .400 in 1977. Carew at least made it to the ALCS four times. But he hit only .220 in the postseason, the only down note on an otherwise stellar career.

Jim Bunning (1996): He played 17 years, winning 224 games primarily with the Tigers and the Phillies. Bunning was part of that infamous 1964 Philadelphia team that blew the pennant. Up 6.5 games with only 12 left to play, the Phillies lost their next 10. Trying to stop the bleeding, manager Gene Mauch overused Bunning (who was having perhaps his finest season) and No. 2 starter Chris Short. It didn’t work. The Phillies finished a game behind the champion Cardinals.

Phil Niekro (1997): An interesting note: The Niekro brothers were both knuckleballers. Phil won 318 in 24 years. Joe won 221 in 22 years. Phil is in the Hall of Fame, but his little brother is the one with the World Series ring, finally getting it in 1987 with the Twins, at age 42.

Ryne Sandberg (2005): He made it to the NLCS twice, losing both times. As I was growing up in Michigan, Ryno was my favorite Chicago Cub. I spent lazy summer afternoons tuned in to superstation WGN, watching him turn a double play or hitting another home run onto Waveland Avenue while Harry Caray and Steve Stone sung his praises. What I don’t remember is him playing in a World Series, because he never did, and that is a shame.

Andre Dawson (2010): For about a five-year stretch in the mid 1980s, the Hawk was considered the finest overall player in the game. He had all the tools, although the years of pounding on the artificial turf at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium turned his legs into swizzle sticks. Dawson chose to go to the Cubs as a free agent to take advantage of the grass and daytime baseball at Wrigley. The move turned him into an instant MVP, gave him some long-deserved national cred thanks to WGN, and probably prolonged his career. But it didn’t result in a World Series. Just ask Sandberg.

Ron Santo (2012): Another player on this list from the 1960s Cubs. Was it something in the water on the North Side of Chicago? Most years, they weren’t even .500, let alone competing for a pennant. Santo had a monster first half in the near-pennant year of 1969, with 20 home runs and 84 RBIs. Unfortunately, he stumbled in September when the Cubs needed him most, hitting .244 with two homers and 13 driven in.

Frank Thomas (2014): The Big Hurt came close more often than just about anybody on this list. In 19 years, his teams made the postseason four times. The toughest pill to swallow was 2005. After all those years with the White Sox, the team finally made it to the World Series, beating the Houston Astros. But Thomas didn’t play after July 20 because of an injury. The Sox had him throw out the ceremonial first pitch in Game One of the ALDS against Boston. “I had tears in my eyes,” he said. “It was a great feeling. One of my proudest moments in the game.” Chicago still awarded him a World Series ring. But his days in the Windy City were over; by the next season he was with Oakland.

One thing notable about the players on this list is that so many played for the Chicago teams: Waddell, Lyons, Appling, Kell, Kiner, Banks, Williams, Jenkins, Santo (who played for both the Cubs and the Sox), Sandberg, Dawson and Thomas. That’s 12 out of 24.

Has the modern implementation of postseason playoff rounds made it easier to reach the World Series? More teams playing in October simply means the field is increasingly wide open. The tournament is larger and, consequently, the risks are greater. The World Series remains as elusive as ever. Show me the 1973 Mets or the 1987 Twins, who reached the Fall Classic with mediocre regular-season records, and I’ll show you the 2001 Mariners or the 2012 Nationals, who were great all year long but were knocked out of the postseason before reaching the ultimate goal of a World Series.

And what about free agency? Wouldn’t players like Lyons, Appling and Banks, had they the freedom to sign with contending teams, been more likely to have played in the World Series? You certainly could point to Hall of Fame players like Rich Gossage, Dave Winfield and Randy Johnson, who were without World Series credentials until they moved on to better teams through free agency.

But what about guys like Carew or Dawson? They left for greener pastures as well, but still fell short of having played in a Fall Classic. Mobility helps players in the free agency era, but, more than any other sport, baseball is a team game. It takes 25 men working together to reach a World Series, not just one great one (or, in the case of the 1969 Cubs, not just four great ones).

And finally, this list is likely to grow larger soon. Ken Griffey Jr. will be eligible in 2016. He would seem a sure first-time Hall of Famer. The closest he got to the World Series was the ALCS with Seattle in 1995. His teammate Edgar Martinez first appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2010. He received 36.2 percent of the vote that year but only 27 percent in 2015. It’s tough to predict that he’ll ever get in. Martinez played in seven postseason series, including three trips to the ALCS, but no World Series. His best shot was probably in 2001, the year Seattle won 116 games to set an AL record. The team won the Division Series but got booted in the ALCS by the Yankees.

Was my friend correct? Is Banks the greatest player never to reach the World Series? Mr. Cub endured all the losing and never lost his joy for the game. “It’s a great day for baseball!” he’d say, and he was right, even when it’s the dog days of August and your team is 25 games out.


Scott Ferkovich edited Tigers by the Tale: Great Games at Michigan & Trumbull, published by the Society for American Baseball Research. He is the author of Motor City Champs: Mickey Cochrane and the 1934-35 Detroit Tigers, coming in 2017 from McFarland. Follow him on Twitter @Scott_Ferkovich.
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Jim S.
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Jim S.

Ralph Kiner finished his career with the Indians in 1955, not 1954. Nice job, though.

Carl
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Carl

Great analysis, but couple of issues w dates:

1) Jack Chesbro’s “career year” was 1904, not 1905. Important as he comes right after Waddell who as you stated won the pitcher’s triple crown in 1905 w 27 wins. Wouldn’t have lead in wins if Chesbro had won 41.

2) The Indians won the pennant in 1954 so they were defnding league champs in 1955 won Kiner jonied them, not 1954.

dshorwich
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dshorwich

Not only was Chesbro’s big season 1904 rather than 1905, as Carl noted, but Chesbro’s wild pitch had no bearing on whether he ever appeared in a Series, as there was no World Series that year.

And to correct one further point of fact, Chebsro’s wild pitch did not occur in the last game of the season, but rather on the last day; the game in question was the first game of a doubleheader, with New York trailing Boston by 1 1/2 games and needing a sweep to take the pennant.

Bryan Cole
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Rocco Baldelli is furious that you won’t let him have “The Woonsocket Rocket” nickname.

Matthew
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Richie Ashburn says, “What about me?” (He’s used to be overlooked — he waited an unnecessarily long time for Hall of Fame induction.)

Matthew
Guest

Sorry, I just realized you were talking about players who didn’t play in the World Series at all. I should have read more carefully.

Paul E
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Paul E

Great list of players. But, I believe Ken Griffey, Jr. has (or, will have) trump over all these guys. Closest to him might be Lajoie from the dead-ball era. But, was it really baseball when the ball was dead? I mean compared to 1920 – present, it was just a different game.

….just sayin’

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

Somehow it seems sadder to me for someone like Banks not to have played in the World Series than, say Griffey. At least Griffey made multi-millions of dollars; the pre-free agent guys didn’t even have that. And the World Series money meant something to those players.

Philip
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Philip
Nice article, Scott. The greatest HOFs not to play in a World Series? Banks is certainly right up there near, if not at the top of the list. Banks, Sisler and Lajoie. Pick any of those three. Adding to the list of star players who never made it to the Fall Classic are some who didn’t make it to the Hall of Fame but looked to be on track before injuries took their toll. There are also a few whom arguably should be in the HOF and may indeed be inducted down the road some day. Bobby Bonds – His… Read more »
Paul G.
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Paul G.
This reminds me of an article in the local newspaper years ago about players who had to wait a long time to play in their first World Series. I remember laughing out loud when they had Cy Young on the list. Well, yeah, it took a long time for Cy Young to make the World Series, but that leaves out the facts that (a) he played in the Temple Cup (the kinda, sorta precursor of the World Series) in 1892 in only his third season, (b) he had played 13 seasons before there was a World Series, and most importantly… Read more »
Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider

It’s very much the way the media acts as if pro football championship games started with the Super Bowl. There was an NFL (and later, AFL) championship game long before the Super Bowl but most media analysis ignores the pre-Super Bowl era. Of course, that also goes to the fact that people are much more cognizant of baseball history than football.