Golden Era, my foot. That’s what they’re calling the era from 1947-72. Actually, the era didn’t start getting “golden” until 1965. Unless you want to say to yourself that it really was the good old days when a) players were still chattel; b) a team from New York was invariably in or winning the World Series, with the occasional freak exception, until 1965; and, c) it was a big slugging/modest pitching/little else era for the most part.
But let’s not quibble about such details for now. The Hall of Fame Veterans Committe is considering ten men from that era as prospective Hall of Famers.
Here is my call, in alphabetical order:
Buzzie Bavasi—Often underappreciated Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers general manager. Bavasi built teams that won World Series championships in 1955, 1959, 1963, and 1965. He also built the California Angels’ first American League West winner and, in due course, admitted in the breach how foolish he was to let Nolan Ryan escape to free agency. (“Nolan, I already said I made a mistake,” Bavasi told him after his fifth no-hitter. “You don’t have to rub it in.”) He probably should have been a Hall of Famer in the executive category long enough ago, and it’s a shame he isn’t alive to receive the honour himself.
I’m guessing Bavasi might have had two strikes against him: 1) The 1959 Dodgers really weren’t a great or even a good team, and the end of Sandy Koufax’s career meant the end of the Dodgers’ first truly great Los Angeles teams; he wasn’t able to rebuild a pennant competitor after Koufax was gone. 2) He botched the release of veteran right fielder Carl Furillo in May 1960, whle Furillo was on the disabled list with a torn calf muscle. Clearly a violation of Furillo’s contract, though Bavasi denied the move was made to cut Furillo out of the higher fifteen-year-man player pension, Furillo sued and subsequently collected $21,000 while claiming he was blackballed out of the game as a result.
But Bavasi also deserves consideration because, before his promotion to the parent club’s front office, he made it possible for the earliest of the Dodgers’ black signings following Jackie Robinson to break into the organisation as painlessly as possible, when he accepted Branch Rickey’s challenge to become the general manager of a new minor league franchise and find the right city for the team. Bavasi’s pick of Nashua, New Hampshire helped make it easier for Roy Campanella, Don Newcombe, and others, partly because Bavasi was a clever promoter and partly because he knew how to neutralise potential racial incidents. His success earned him the stewardship of the Dodgers’ Montreal Royals farm (where Robinson shone before his Brooklyn callup) the following year and, in time, brought him to Brooklyn.
Ken Boyer—Probably the outstanding all-around third baseman in baseball from the mid-1950s until 1964 (when he won the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award for the World Series-winning Cardinals), when Ron Santo came into his own. As a matter of fact, you could look at both their careers and see two very similar players, even if you give the edge to Boyer for speed and Santo for power. They were both excellent defencive third basemen (each won five Gold Gloves), although Boyer’s brother, Clete, was probably the greatest fielding third baseman who ever lived. (So why isn’t Clete Boyer a Hall of Famer? Easy—he really wasn’t any kind of hitter, and it took ages before the Hall of Fame recognised defencive standouts not named Robinson.) Boyer’s career after 1964 was compromised by back trouble; he died of lung cancer at 51 in 1982, after he’d had a brief stint managing the Cardinals. Boyer, too, probably should have been in the Hall of Fame long enough ago.
Charlie Finley—Love him or loathe him, he did build the first Oakland Athletics powerhouse. I don’t know if that makes him a Hall of Famer if only because he’s remembered best for his negative impacts on the game. He was the archetypal meddlesome owner who humiliated as often as he hosannaed his players. It didn’t begin or end with his humiliating treatment and waiver release of Ken Harrelson, after Harrelson blasted Finley in the press over a heavy fine for reputed drunkenness, allowing the Red Sox to pick him up when Tony Conigliaro was beaned horrifically in 1967, a pickup that probably secured the pennant for the Red Sox. And, which probably helped almost as much as the Koufax-Drysdale holdout to show players what could be had in free and fair market bargaining: Harrelson got paid $150,000 by the Red Sox, after he leveraged a couple of offers from the Atlanta Braves and the Chicago White Sox.
Most infamously, Finley deliberately reneged on an insurance payment called for in Catfish Hunter’s contract, which provoked Hunter to sue for and win his pre-Messersmith free agency, provoking in turn the bidding war that showed players once and for all just what was out there to be had in a free, fair, and open market. If you want to enshrine Finley for being an inadvertent impregnator for the free agency, by way of his abuses of Ken Harrelson and Catfish Hunter, that’s your business.
But I really can’t see how a man who was willing to destroy a franchise rather than pay his players their fair market value (unless you’ve forgotten the Joe Rudi-Vida Blue-Rollie Fingers fire sale attempt on the threshold of baseball’s first free agency class; or, how he tried to low-ball Vida Blue so drastically and nastily that Blue changed, almost overnight, from a happy-go-lucky winner to a much-troubled man) deserves a plaque in Cooperstown.
Finley also has a somewhat unwarranted reputation as a baseball forward-thinker, but if you want to call gimmickry and stunts forward thinking, be my guest. He really has only one innovation to which you can assign him credit: years before the American League finally went for the nefarious idea, as the designated hitter, Finley was pushing anyone who’d listen to think about a permanent pinch-hitter for the pitcher’s spot. There are still plenty enough who think that was a stain rather than a gain upon the game. And one legitimate innovation isn’t quite enough to put a rogue into the Hall of Fame.
Gil Hodges—Hodges is a unique case. He was arguably the best first baseman in baseball in an era that didn’t produce great first baseman; though he was an eight-time All Star, Hodges isn’t the best first baseman who isn’t in the Hall of Fame—Keith Hernandez is, and Hernandez isn’t going to be in the Hall of Fame, mostly because injuries threw him into a ferocious downslope after 1986 when he still should have had a few more decent-to-excellent seasons. Hodges was also a three-time Gold Glove winner and might have won one or two more if the Gloves had been instituted before 1957.
Where Hodges stands out, however, is because he combines a solid playing career (he never led his league in any key category, but he was among the top ten as often as not) with a striking managerial one: he managed the expansion Washington Senators to steady improvement from their usual doldrums in the mid-1960s (you can argue that he helped build what Ted Williams finished in 1969, a pennant-contending team, though they didn’t stay the distance); and, of course, he jerked the Miracle Mets from their last days of lameness into their stupefying 1969 triumph and kept them pennant-competitive until his death of a second heart attack at 48.
If Hodges is elected, it’ll clear the way even more vividly for Joe Torre’s eventual enshrinement. Torre as a player should be Hall of Famer in his own right (he shakes out as an average Hall of Famer who gets an edge because he played several positions very well); his success managing the 1996-2009 Yankees should put him into Cooperstown in a walk. I’m still on the fence about Hodges, but I can be persuaded either way.
Jim Kaat—Bill James swayed me on Kaat in The Politics of Glory (later republished as Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?): Re-arrange his best seasons a little bit and you have a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. Overall, Kaat’s career is a near-match to Robin Roberts; on that, James is absolutely right, even if Kaat didn’t give up quite as many home runs as Roberts. Kaat’s biggest problem was that he tended to have his best years when someone else was having a career year and even a record-busting year. They didn’t give the Cy Young Award in each league in 1966, when Kaat was the best pitcher in the American League but a) Sandy Koufax’s final season put him even further beyond the fifth dimension; and, b) Juan Marichal probably would have won the 1966 Cy Young Award if there had been no such thing as Koufax.
Because Kaat’s top seasons are spread out just a bit too far, he doesn’t look like an obvious Hall of Famer—but a) he shakes out as an average Hall of Famer regardless; and, b) seven of his ten closest pitching comps are Hall of Famers themselves. He throve on spotlight competition when he got his chances, and he was an outstanding defender at his position—until Greg Maddux happened along, Kaat probably set the standard for Gold Glove-winning pitchers.
Minnie Minoso—He has a solid Hall of Fame case in the major leagues; it’s easy to forget that his race kept him out of the majors during his best playing years—he didn’t make the Show until 28, he had to spend two years making hash of the Pacific Coast League before he convinced the majors he should be there to stay, and there’s a case to make that had he not been impacted by the former colour line he might have ended up a 3,000 hit man.
That’s not to say you should call a man a Hall of Famer because of what he might have done. He was a seven-time All-Star, five of those coming when fans still had the vote before the Cincinnati ballot box stuffing scandal. He was an outstanding defencive outfielder who probably would have won more than three Gold Gloves if the Gloves had been instituted before 1957. He was, essentially, Jackie Robinson if Robinson had been a permanent outfielder and got caught stealing a few more times.
Minoso, the first black Latino to make and star in the Show, was a hugely popular player in Cleveland and Chicago (you want to talk about bad timing, notice Minoso got swapped between the two teams before each won their 1950s pennants, missing out on two shots at the World Series!), extorted his way on base (how many guys do you know led his league in getting hit by pitches in ten out of eleven seasons running?), hit for average, hit with some power, and did the most to establish the idea that Latin ballplayers could play dominantly or close enough to it in the major leagues even if they had to be better than even the black Americans to make people sit up and notice. You can make him a case as a pioneer, but you can also make him a legitimate case just as a player who got started late enough and made the most of what prime playing time he had left.
Tony Oliva—Because batting average has long since been revised and shown to be less significant than other batting statistics, Oliva doesn’t look as good as he once looked. But he was a fine all-around player even if he wasn’t as good a defender in right field as he’s remembered for being; he was an eight time All-Star mostly in an era when the honour wasn’t voted by the fans. His dilemna is that he’s almost the best right fielder who isn’t in the Hall of Fame (Darryl Strawberry, who destroyed himself after putting up an early career in which he looked like a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer, was actually better) but Oliva actually doesn’t shake out that powerfully as a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer. Had he not been brought down by long-standing knee trouble at last, he might have hung up another season or two in which his case would be more clear.
Allie Reynolds—Not quite. Reynolds looks like a Hall of Famer because of those Yankee seasons, but if you examine him a lot more closely, you’re going to discover a jarring contrast: Reynolds pitched better when Yogi Berra was his catcher than when he threw to any other catcher, in or out of a Yankee uniform. (As a matter of fact, if you look closely you may discover that all the key Yankee pitchers not named Whitey Ford in Yogi’s prime looked great with Yogi behind the plate and ho-hum when anyone else was, with or without the Yankees.) You may also decide that Reynolds personified the teams for whom he pitched—if they were good teams, he won; if they weren’t, he didn’t, at least not really as often. He had six genuinely outstanding seasons in a thirteen-year career, all with the Yankees (he began his career as a not-quite-great Cleveland Indian) but they weren’t the kind of half-career peak value of Dizzy Dean or Sandy Koufax.
I’m convinced Reynolds’s Hall of Fame candidacy rests on two factors: 1) He threw a pair of no-hitters in 1951 and finished, as surprising as it now seems, in a three-way tie for first-place Most Valuable Player Award votes with Yogi and with St. Louis Browns pitcher Ned Garver (a 20-game winner for a genuinely terrible team). 2) He has a sterling World Series record on the surface: a 7-2 won-lost record and a 2.79 ERA in six Series, including the five straight under Casey Stengel. But Reynolds had a 1.20 walks and hits per inning pitched average in those Series, and a 1.39 over his regular-season career. His wins above replacement for his first six Yankee seasons is 3.7. He wasn’t that much better than those outstanding teams.
I’m not entirely convinced there’s a genuine Hall of Fame case in that. If he’d had even one more genuinely outstanding season, he might look more like an average Hall of Fame pitcher.
Ron Santo—The best all-around third baseman in baseball in the 1960s. It’s a crime that Santo didn’t live to see his Hall of Fame enshrinement, but I think he’s going to get in sooner or later and he deserved the honour for a very long time. He wasn’t as good a defencive third baseman as Clete Boyer (who couldn’t hit) or Brooks Robinson (who could hit enough); he wasn’t as good a hitter as Mike Schmidt (who was, and this is forgotten because of those conversation-piece home runs, a genuinely great defencive third baseman) and George Brett (who was a good defencive third baseman), but if you’re talking the greatest all-around third basemen ever to play the game Santo is number three behind Brett (two) and Schmidt (one), and probably in a dead heat with Ken Boyer (Eddie Mathews should be right behind them, though as a defencive third baseman he was one helluva hitter), though he was a slightly better hitter.
Santo probably got hurt most of all by two things: 1) He was never able to lead his teams to a World Series, period, never mind a ring. (Boyer, Brett, and Schmidt each have one ring.) 2) He ripped rookie outfielder Don Young in the press, almost violently so, after two Young miscues, at least one of which couldn’t be blamed on the rookie, cost the Cubs a key September game against the surging Mets. Santo apologised for the rip subsequently but it may have damaged his image in the minds of a lot of voting writers. He also may not have prodded Durocher as hard as he could have done to rest his regulars more often than he did, leaving the Cubs a badly gassed team down the stretch as the Mets heated up to stay.
Those should have been long forgiven. Santo’s all-around play should have earned his Cooperstown plaque long ago.
Luis Tiant—There’s no question but what El Tiante was one of the most colourful players of his time. There’s also no question that Don Zimmer’s foolish decision to start Bobby Sprowl instead of Tiant in that crucial Yankee series in 1978 helped throttle an apparent Red Sox runaway into that single-game American League East playoff. Tiant actually shakes out as a knocking-on-the-door average Hall of Famer on the surface, but his two closest comps (Catfish Hunter, Jim Bunning) are Hall of Famers, and Tiant was actually a slightly better pitcher than Hunter when all was said and done.
Tiant doesn’t look as good as he was because he didn’t pitch for as many good teams. He has little peak value to speak of otherwise, on the surface; but he’s at least an average career value Hall of Famer. I don’t know whether he’ll get in this time, though.