The greatest class of all time? (Part 3)

This is the third and final partial reprint of an article that appeared in the 2009 Hardball Times Baseball Annual. It is being published here with permission of the author.

The 2013 THT Baseball Annual is now available.

The Intro

This is a story about what Hall of Fame Induction Day 2013 might have been, had it not been for all those things I won’t mention. If everything was a little different, Induction Day 2013 might have been the most amazing crossroads in baseball history.

Obviously, the first class was the best and most famous Hall of Fame class ever. There have been other good ones—the 1947 class with Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch and Carl Hubbell was awfully good. The 1966 class had Ted Willians and Casey Stengel. The 1972 class had Yogi Berra and Sandy Koufax and also Negro Leagues stars Buck Leonard and Josh Gibson; that could very well be the best class since the first.

In 1982, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson were inducted together. In 1989 it was Johnny Bench and Carl Yastrzemski. In 1999 George Brett, Nolan Ryan, Robin Yount and Orlando Cepeda all went in on the same hot weekend.

None of those really push the first class. Let’s face it: In 1936, you have perhaps the greatest hitter and most intense competitor (Cobb), perhaps the most overwhelming force (Ruth), perhaps the most complete player (Wagner), perhaps the greatest pitcher who ever lived (Walter Johnson) and—one more perhaps—perhaps the most respected gentleman to ever play the game (Mathewson). That seems an impossible group to beat.

But—close your eyes, imagine that some of the bad news of the past 10 years never happened—the Class of 2013 might be even more spectacular.

Fourth Inductee: Craig Biggio

I’d say Biggio’s 1997 season is one of my favorites of all time. It’s a numbers and achievement smorgasbord. In 1997, Craig Biggio played in all 162 games. He won a Gold Glove at second base. He led the league in runs scored despite playing half his games in the dreadful-hitting Astrodome. He banged 37 doubles, eight triples and 22 home runs. He stole 47 bases. He walked 84 times. He got hit by 34 pitches, the third-highest total in baseball history. He led the league in plate appearances, yet he did not hit into a single double play all year.

Of course, 1997 was a year for amazing performances. Mike Piazza had the greatest-hitting season ever for a catcher. Larry Walker had a preposterous season with a .366 average, 49 homers, 46 doubles and a right field Gold Glove. Nomar Garciaparra had a fabulous rookie season with 44 doubles, 11 triples, 30 homers, 122 runs scored and 209 hits. Junior hit 56 homers and drove in 147 runs.

But Biggio’s season stands out because he did so many of those quiet things that go unnoticed, like getting hit by pitches and avoiding the double play. Bill James has told me this is why Biggio became his favorite player; Bill enjoyed having a player he appreciated in a way that so few others appreciated.

In the end, everyone came to appreciate Biggio, though probably for less compelling reasons. He ended up with 3,000 hits, thanks to eight seasons at the end of his career when he was barely an average player. But I prefer to think of Biggio in 1997—baseball people often talk about those players who will do anything to help a team win. Normally they say that when the player’s statistics simply don’t look too good. I think Biggio fit that tag in measurable ways.

Comparison to 1936: Biggio is, of course, nowhere close to the player that Honus Wagner was. But I still think he’s the Wagner stand-in for this class, the do-everything player who showed up every day. You probably have heard the Wagner quote: “I never have been sick. I don’t even know what it means to be sick.” Biggio was a catcher, a second baseman, a center fielder, and he played 150 or more games in 11 seasons and got hit by 285 pitches in his career. He didn’t know what sick meant either.

Fifth Inductee: Sammy Sosa

No matter how many times I see this chart, it amazes me endlessly.

Most home runs in a single season:
1. Barry Bonds, 73
2. Mark McGwire, 70
3. Sammy Sosa, 66
4. Mark McGwire, 65
5. Sammy Sosa, 64
6. Sammy Sosa, 63
7. Roger Maris, 61
8. Babe Ruth, 60

It really is mind-boggling. Sammy Sosa hit more than 60 home runs in a season three different times. I don’t really have much to add to that; it seems to tell a pretty good story. You can make an argument—in fact, it’s more or less inarguable—that from 1998 to 2002, Sammy Sosa was the most prolific home run hitter in baseball history.

Most home runs over a five-year period.:
1. Sammy Sosa, 292 (1998-2002)
2. Mark McGwire, 284 (1995-1999)
3. Sammy Sosa, 279 (1997-2001)
4. Mark McGwire, 277 (1996-2000)
5. Barry Bonds, 258 (2000-2004)

The most home runs that Babe Ruth hit over a five-year period is 256.

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This is not to say that Sosa was a truly great player; had he gotten as many plate appearances as Reggie Jackson, Sosa would have broken Reggie’s career strikeout record. He was a great hitter for those magical five years, but before that his OPS+ was a fairly pedestrian 106, and afterward it was 109. His lifetime .273 average and .344 on-base percentage do not match up well with other corner outfielders in the Hall. And he often seemed an uninterested or slightly confused outfielder who was never quite sure what to do with his strong arm.

That said, Sosa was very good at one thing. He hit the ball out of the ballpark.

Comparison to 1936: Sosa, like Piazza, is such a unique player he probably does not compare well to any of the first class. He’s more like a Ralph Kiner or Harmon Killebrew or Reggie.

Sixth Inductee: Curt Schilling

Schilling is talking about making a comeback in 2009. It could be tough. Even if he does come back, I can’t imagine he would add much more to his career value. I think now we have to look at his career numbers and try to decide if they are Hall of Fame worthy.

Schilling has won 216 games, which does put him on the low end of the Hall of Fame. His argument would have to be the Don Drysdale argument—that he wasn’t good for very long, but he was very good for as long as he pitched. I don’t like comparing prospective Hall of Fame candidates to current Hall of Famers because situations are so different. Still …

{exp:list_maker}Schilling, like Drysdale, was a right-handed power pitcher.
They both started about 450 games (Drysdale started 465, Schilling 436).
Drysdale had the better ERA (2.95 to 3.46) but that seems to be entirely based on context. Drysdale pitched in a pitcher’s era in perhaps the greatest pitcher’s park ever. Because of this, Schilling has a substantial edge in ERA+ (127 to 121).
Drysdale went 209-166 for mostly good teams.
Schilling went 216-135 for a mishmash of good and bad teams.
Schilling struck out 3,116 batters, 500 more than Drysdale.
Schilling also walked fewer batters and gave up fewer hits. His WHIP is better.
Drysdale threw 49 shutouts to Schilling’s 20. {/exp:list_maker}

Drysdale also had some good postseason moments, including the shutout he threw against the Yankees in the 1963 World Series. But, of course, Schilling has been pretty close to legendary in the postseason. He’s 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in the postseason, he’s even better in the World Series, and of course he started Game Seven against the Yankees in the remarkable 2001 World Series and pitched the bloody sock game.

All in all, Schilling seems like a better candidate for the Hall than Drysdale. But there are two other factors. First, you can make the same comparison I just made with a dozen pitchers who are not in the Hall of Fame, and Schilling will not come out as good. Second, it took 10 years for Drysdale to get elected into the Hall of Fame.

Personally, I think Schilling is a Hall of Famer. Now, I will admit that unlike many of my colleagues, I like Curt Schilling. Many of the sportswriters and baseball people I know think he’s a loudmouth, a self-aggrandizer, a guy who will say anything. OK. I don’t like him despite those things; I like him because of those things. To me, Schilling is generally fun and over the top and opinionated, he lets his emotions go, and he really has been great in the biggest moments. I don’t agree with him much. But I like that he’s out there.

Comparison to 1936: I suspect that even if Schilling gets in, he will not go first ballot. That’s a guess. Still I see him as the Christy Mathewson of this class. He’s nowhere close to Mathewson as a pitcher or as a statesman of the game. Mathewson remains one of the 10 best pitchers ever, and Schilling is probably closer to 25 or 30. I don’t mean it like that. It’s just that, like the Great Matty, he was awesome in the big moments. And the bloody sock, for whatever else, is about as big a part of baseball lore as Matty’s three consecutive shutouts in the 1905 World Series.

Bonus Seventh Inductee: Pete Rose

So, 2013 will mark the 50-year anniversary of Pete Rose’s first game in the major leagues. Pete will be 72 years old in April of that year. I think that would make for a great year to induct baseball’s all-time hits leader into the Hall of Fame. Rose, obviously, would be the stand-in for Ty Cobb in that first class.

It won’t happen because, as they say in elections, the math doesn’t work for him. Even if someone could get Rose on the Baseball Writers ballot for the first time,* there is no way he would get 75 percent of the vote. Even if they could get his name on the ballot of the veterans committee—which is now made up of all the living Hall of Famers—he would not get anywhere close to 75 percent of the vote. I think, based on the people with whom I’ve talked about this, Rose would get considerably less support among the Hall of Famers.

*Here’s a little known fact: Shoeless Joe Jackson got two votes in the first Hall of Fame ballot in 1936.

So when people ask: “Do you think Pete Rose will make it into the Hall of Fame?” my honest response has to be: “Not even the slightest chance.”

But I need to put here—especially because this gives me a chance to get in a plug for my new book coming out about the 1975 Reds—that the Hall of Fame really is incomplete without Rose. You know, he is the all-time leader in:
{exp:list_maker}Games played.
Plate appearances
Times on base. {/exp:list_maker}
Beyond that, though, Rose defined baseball for a generation. People hated him. People loved him. But he was inescapable in the way he ran to first base, the unrepentant way he upended second basemen and shortstops on double-play grounders, the way he slid head first, the way he memorized his own statistics, the way he fought for every dollar, the way he switched positions (sometimes midyear) to help the team, the way he treated his teammates (every single Reds player I’ve talked to has a story about Pete Rose being good to him), the way he would go for his fifth hit in a game like it was the most important thing on earth. He wasn’t just a baseball player, he was baseball, for all the good and bad of his time.

I don’t know how long you punish someone for breaking the gambling rule. It’s baseball’s cardinal rule, and Rose’s refusal to admit it or apologize for it for a long time left a sour taste. Still, as far as I know, Pete Rose never threw a game. As far as I know, Pete Rose never adversely affected a game so that he could win a bet. As far as I know, Pete Rose played his guts out for a long time. Yes, he was a troubled guy who did a lot of lousy things, and he let a lot of people down, and it’s at the discretion of the commissioner and the owners whether Pete Rose belongs in the game today.

But I wish that all these years later, they would allow Pete’s name back on the Hall of Fame ballot. Maybe he would not get enough votes—in fact, as mentioned, I’m pretty sure he would not get enough votes. But I would vote for him. There was never another player like him.

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Re: Pete Rose, my impression is a lot of his teammates that played on the same team as he did would vote for him.  Even besides the Reds, you have a lot of people who speak positively of him.  Mike Schmidt credits Pete Rose with helping him develop as a hitter.  Larry Bowa, talking about Rose, gets a glazed over, crazy look in his eye, and starts rambling about winners (in a positive fashion, lest anyone misunderstand.) Rose truly is a polarizing figure, but oddly enough, for a guy who is so denigrated, the actual people who played him with… Read more »