A Bert Blyleven near miss may have cost Jack Morris a shot at the baseball Hall of Fame

Jon Heyman has arguably been the most prominent advocate for Jack Morris’ Hall of Fame candidacy among higher-profile baseball writers. Heyman currently works for CBSSports.com and also appears on MLB Network. After Morris did not get 75% of the vote in this year’s election, Heyman tweeted the following:

Time to start pro Jack Morris hall campaign. Guy can’t get break. All-AL SP in dh era hurt by roid guys and ‘net negativity

Heyman has been the de facto campaign manager for Morris over the last few years anyway, so this tweet wasn’t particularly surprising. There is some angst for Morris backers, as he will only be the ballot for one more year. If he isn’t elected in 2014, he will have to wait and hope for the mercy of the Veterans Committee.

I wanted to point out one piece of bad luck that may have really hurt Morris’ chances. This is going to be a little bit involved, and is somewhat speculative. Nevertheless, here goes…

Bill James, from The Politics of Glory:

Writers tend to balance their ballots. A writer, making out a Hall of Fame ballot, normally looks to include one or two starting pitchers, a reliever maybe, a middle infielder or two, a couple of slugging outfielders, a first baseman or third baseman, a catcher. He looks for the best in each little pocket.

This natural tendency of the BBWAA voters has the effect of occasionally causing a “cratering” of certain players’ vote totals. James pointed to Jim Bunning as a good example of this. Bunning received 74.4% of the vote in 1988, just missing election, but in 1989 Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins appeared on the ballot, and Bunning’s support declined. He would have to wait to be elected by the Veterans Committee. (Something similar also happened to Luis Tiant.)

A more recent, if less dramatic, example of writers “choosing” between players at the same position involved Bruce Sutter and Goose Gossage. Both were relievers, and both drew considerable support from the electorate. However, Sutter appeared on the ballot first (in 1994), six years before Gossage became eligible. In Gossage’s first year of eligibility, the two actually drew similar vote totals (192 for Sutter, 166 for Gossage).

That pattern continued for a few years, then Gossage’s totals began to stall. It appeared the writers were struggling to separate the candidacies of the two relievers, and collectively needed to focus on just one of them. Sutter, with more history on the ballot, continued to draw more votes and was finally elected in 2006, in his thirteenth year of eligibility.

With Sutter out of the way, that cleared the decks for Gossage, who then became the leading candidate among relievers. Gossage had to wait one “extra” year when Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. appeared on the ballot, but he was eventually elected in 2008.

By 2008, Bert Blyleven was receiving 61.8% of the vote from the BBWAA and was the top candidate among starting pitchers for enshrinement. It had been a long journey up the ballot for Blyleven, but he was getting closer. In 2009 he finished fourth overall, receiving 62.7% of the vote.

By that time, the next-most-supported pitcher was Jack Morris. This had been the case since Jim Kaat’s final year on the ballot in 2003. In 2009, Morris got 44% of the vote.

In 2010, Blyleven came very, very close to being elected. He was only five votes short of election. Morris moved up to 52.3% of the vote, fourth overall, third among those not elected (Andre Dawson got the nod that year).

Blyleven finally made it in 2011, gaining election. And Morris?

Well, he stalled a bit, at 53.5%. Blyleven’s breakthrough probably cost Morris some momentum, as writers who might have been inclined to vote for just one starting pitcher may have chosen to select Blyleven, then in his fourteenth year on the ballot and on the precipice.

With Blyleven finally off the ballot, Morris became the top choice among starting pitchers on the ballot. He received 66.7% of the vote in 2012, a sizable improvement from 2011.

However, in 2013, his fourteenth year on the ballot, he stalled again, just like practically all the other ballot holdovers, as the writers tried (and seemingly failed) to come to grips with “the steroid era”. Morris now has one more shot, and it won’t be easy for him to gain election. He has to have a historically large jump in support despite being joined on the ballot by several starting pitchers with much better credentials (Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Mike Mussina).

Here is where I speculate…

I think Blyleven just missing out in 2010 really hurt Morris’ chances. If Blyleven had been elected that year, it would have given Morris a clear field, in terms of viable starting pitching candidates.

Instead of only getting 53.5% of the vote in 2011, I think it’s likely Morris would have had vote totals similar to what he eventually got in 2012 — and if he had been sitting at 66.7% after 2011, then I think he would have had a very good chance of joining Barry Larkin in Cooperstown in 2012.

As I stated earlier, Blyleven missed election in 2010 by only five votes.

There were writers who voted for Blyleven and Morris that year. There were some who obviously just voted for Blyleven (and some who voted for neither).

There were a few, though, who voted for Morris and not Blyleven, despite Blyleven having demonstrably superior statistical credentials in both standard and sabermetric pitching categories (including wins, ERA, strikeouts, shutouts, innings pitched, ERA+, and WHIP). Blyleven also had a better overall postseason record than Morris, the latter’s outstanding performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series notwithstanding.

I wonder if any of those writers who voted for Morris but not Blyleven have ever considered the possibility that by not voting for Blyleven in 2010, they may have cost Morris a later shot at election.

One of those writers, by the way, was Jon Heyman

If I had a Baseball Hall of Fame vote

There are 26 players on the 2010 BBWAA ballot, and like almost everyone else in the world, I have an opinion on who deserves enshrinement.  My opinion isn’t any better than anyone else’s, of course, but I felt like making a post on the subject, and here it is…

For the ballot holdovers, I’m going to basically copy/paste what I said when I posted about last year’s ballot.  I will bold those players whose candidacies I favor.

Harold Baines:  He played forever, but if I’m going to support the candidacy of a DH-type he needs to put up a little more than a career 120 OPS+.  Baines led the AL in slugging in 1984.  That’s the only time he ever led the league in a significant statistical category.  That’s not exactly dominant.

Bert Blyleven:  He’s up to 62.7% of the vote.  Every year he picks up a few (just a few) votes, and it does appear that the bulk of the BBWAA membership has come around on his candidacy, which is good, although he is running out of time.  I understand the problem with trying to evaluate him (he surely has one of the more unusual pitching careers in MLB history), but if you’re still not sold on him, just consider all those shutouts.  He had 60 of them, which is ninth all time, and he’s going to stay in the top 10 for many, many years to come.

Andre Dawson:  He got 67% of the vote last year and is going to get in eventually, possibly this year (he may just miss the 75% mark).  I support his candidacy, despite the .323 OBP.  I think people sometimes evaluate him as a corner outfielder and forget he won four of his eight Gold Gloves as a centerfielder.  He’s a very close case, but he also gets bonus points on the character issue and for having a cool nickname.  When he was active, I think the majority of baseball fans thought of him as a future Hall of Famer.  Of course, you could also say that about Steve Garvey…

Don Mattingly:  Some of the people supporting his candidacy have been known to argue that if Kirby Puckett is in the Hall, so should Mattingly, because their batting statistics are similar.  Of course, they never seem to mention that Puckett was a centerfielder and Mattingly a first baseman.  Comparing a first baseman’s batting stats to those of a borderline Hall of Fame centerfielder is not the way to get your man in the Hall.

Mark McGwire:  I would vote for him.  The rules were the same for him as they were for everyone else, which is to say, there were no rules.  You have to evaluate him by the era in which he played.  In that era, he’s a Hall of Famer.  There are those who think even without the steroids issue, he’s not of Hall of Fame caliber.  Those people are wrong.  (In Mike Nadel’s case, he apparently didn’t bother considering McGwire’s walk totals.  This is like looking at McGwire’s career with one eye shut.)

Jack Morris:  One game doesn’t make up for a career ERA+ of 105.  He was a workhorse, but he was never an elite pitcher.  That said, he seems to be gaining support.  Alas.  There are even voters (including SI’s Jon Heyman) who have voted for Morris and not Blyleven, which is ludicrous.

Dale Murphy:  Like Dawson, a lot of people forget that Murphy played the majority of his career as a centerfielder, including the bulk of the six-year period (1982-87) during which he was arguably the best player in baseball.  Murphy’s career was short, which hurts him, and the argument against him is that his peak wasn’t long enough to offset that.  I think it’s close.

There is something else about Murphy that doesn’t get discussed much, but I think needs to be.  Murphy was a Superstation Star, perhaps the first.  Everyone around the country could follow the Braves via TBS, even when they were bad, as they were through much of Murphy’s time with the club.  Because of that, along with his reputation as an individual of high character, Murphy has to be one of the most popular players of his era, and maybe of any era.

Personally, I think it’s possible that the success (and in some cases, existence) of programs like East Cobb Baseball can be traced to kids following and being inspired by the Braves, and the main, if not only, reason to follow the Braves in the mid-to-late 1980s was Dale Murphy.  It’s worthy of study, at least.  I believe that type of influence on the game should be recognized.

Dave Parker:  There is a five-year doughnut hole in his career which is basically going to keep him out of the Hall of Fame.  It’s nobody’s fault but his.  “Cobra” was an outstanding nickname, though.

Tim Raines:  Raines got less than 25% of the vote in the last balloting, same as the year before, in part because he played his best years in Montreal, the Witness Protection Program of baseball, and in part because he is compared to Rickey Henderson.  That’s a tough comparison for just about anybody, so Raines loses out.  Never mind the fact that Raines was better than Lou Brock, who is already in the Hall.

Raines was a truly great player, and belongs in Cooperstown.  I think he will eventually get there, but it’s going to take a while.  I’m hopeful the BBWAA votes him in sometime in the next decade.  I’m not confident that it will happen, however.

Lee Smith:  Trying to define a Hall of Fame relief pitcher is difficult.  Of the relievers already enshrined, I would rate all of them above Smith except maybe Bruce Sutter, who is a questionable selection to say the least.  On the other hand, among other eligibles and active pitchers, I would only rate Mariano Rivera as being clearly ahead of Smith.  Ultimately, I can’t support Smith’s candidacy, mainly because he never “seemed” like a Hall of Famer to me.  I reserve the right to reconsider…

Alan Trammell:  The biggest injustice in the balloting the last few years, easily, is Trammell not even being close to election.  His problems are at least twofold:  he played at the same time as Cal Ripken Jr., essentially, and then after his career ended the ARod-Nomar-Jeter triumvarite appeared on the scene, closely followed by Miguel Tejada.

He suffers in comparison to Ripken, and his batting stats don’t measure up to the new wave of shortstops that followed him.  He also got jobbed of the 1987 MVP award, which would have helped his case (he did win the World Series MVP award in 1984).  In the New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James rated him the 9th-best shortstop of all time, which struck me as a reasonable placement.  The 9th-best shortstop of all time belongs in the Hall.

There are 15 first-timers on the ballot.  Lightning round for most of them:

Kevin Appier:  not a Hall of Famer, but a very nice career.  He was excellent for many years in Kansas City (1993 in particular, when he finished third in the Cy Young Award balloting).

Ellis Burks:  his most-similar comp is Moises Alou, which seems reasonable.  Burks, like Appier, had a long, productive career.  He scored an amazing 142 runs in 1996 for the Rockies.

Andres Galarraga:  like Appier and Burks, not a Hall of Famer but a very good player; an inspirational one, in fact.  He finished his career with 399 home runs — and also finished with a .499 slugging percentage.  In 1996-97 for Colorado, he drove in a combined 290 runs (a fair number of them scored by Burks).

Pat Hentgen:  like Burks and Galarraga, he had a great year in 1996, winning the Cy.  The rest of his career didn’t quite measure up, though.

Mike Jackson:  if you thought he hung around forever, he did — 1005 career games.

Eric Karros:  Mike Piazza’s buddy was a consistent RBI man but didn’t really hit that well for a first baseman, all things considered.  Still, 11 straight years as the regular 1B for the Dodgers is a very good run.  What did he do in 1996?  Led the NL in grounding into double plays.

Ray Lankford:  probably better than you think he was, but not really that exceptional.  A strikeout machine.

Edgar Martinez:  boy, he could hit.  Ultimately, his career wasn’t quite long enough/dominant enough for me to support the candidacy of a DH.  His most similar comp is Will Clark, but Clark was also a fine first baseman, while Martinez offers nothing in terms of defense.  Clark fell off the ballot after one year.  I think Martinez will not; he’ll be like fellow DH Harold Baines in that respect, although I do think he is a better candidate than Baines.

Shane Reynolds:  basically a league-average pitcher who threw about 1800 career innings.  There is a lot of value in that, but not a Hall of Fame case, obviously.

David Segui:  he’s the worst player on the ballot.

Robin Ventura:  one of the great college hitters ever, and he had a really nice MLB career too.  He’s probably one of the 20 best third basemen of all time, but that’s not quite Hall of Fame territory.  His most similar comp is the Penguin, Ron Cey.

Todd Zeile:  he wore the uniform for 11 different teams (and was part of six trades), mostly playing third base after debuting as a catcher.  He was a good player and a solid citizen.

And those newbies on the ballot who would get my vote…

Roberto Alomar:  a slick-fielding second baseman who could hit, and a perennial All-Star with a sterling postseason record?  Sign me up!  I’ll look past the spitting incident and the fact his career cratered with the Mets.  He’s an easy choice.

Barry Larkin:  you know, he’s really just like Alan Trammell except Larkin got his MVP, while Trammell was robbed of his.  The only negative was a tendency to miss time every year with injuries.  Still, a 116+ OPS from a good-fielding shortstop (3 Gold Gloves) is Hall of Fame material.

Fred McGriff:  that’s right, I’m backing The Crime Dog.  His eerily consistent home run totals are in part a by-product of his prime occurring shortly before the offensive explosion in the majors.  He was a key player for winning teams; his performance after being traded to Atlanta ignited the Braves’ great pennant drive in 1993 (and maybe the Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium press box).

He has no truly similar comps, but the two players who are most similar to him (per Similarity Scores) are Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell, which is not bad at all.  (His 10 “most similar to” list is very impressive as a whole.)  Throw in the fantastic Tom Emanski endorsement, and you’ve got a Hall of Famer.  I think the hat on his plaque should definitely be the one from the Emanski commercial.

So on my ballot, I would have Alomar, Larkin, McGriff, Blyleven, Dawson, McGwire, Murphy, Raines, and Trammell.  That’s nine guys, which is a lot, but I see no need to be unnecessarily stingy.

Who do I think will actually be elected this year?  Possibly nobody, but I think that there is a chance for Alomar and Dawson to make it.  Blyleven and Larkin will probably draw strong support as well.  The others?  Well, I think they are in for a long wait, if they ever make it at all.

The next baseball Hall of Famer and…the Pittsburgh Steelers

Neil Best of Newsday had a blog post on Monday about Luis Tiant and the new ESPN documentary about Tiant, The Lost Son of Havana.  Best asked Tiant about not being a member of the baseball Hall of Fame and got an “I don’t care, except I really care” response from the former pitcher.  This got me thinking about the Hall, but not really about Tiant (a very good pitcher in his day, but not quite Hall-worthy, although he certainly has the right to wonder how Catfish Hunter got in and he didn’t).  Of course, it doesn’t take much for me to riff about the Hall, as anyone who peruses this blog can tell (just a few examples:  here, here, and here).

Anyway, I took a quick look (not for the first time) at potential eligibles for next year’s ballot.  First, here are the returnees and the percentage of votes they got in the last election:

Andre Dawson (67.0%); Bert Blyleven (62.7%); Lee Smith (44.5%); Jack Morris (44.0%); Tim Raines (22.6%); Mark McGwire (21.9%); Alan Trammell (17.4%); Dave Parker (15.0%); Don Mattingly (11.9%); Dale Murphy (11.5%); Harold Baines (5.9%)

The list of newly eligible players likely to appear on the ballot:

Roberto Alomar, Kevin Appier, Andy Ashby, Ellis Burks, Dave Burba, Andres Galarraga, Pat Hentgen, Mike Jackson, Eric Karros, Ray Lankford, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McLemore, Shane Reynolds, David Segui, Robin Ventura, Fernando Vina, Todd Zeile

Last January I wrote that “… the only one of those players with a shot [at getting elected next year] is Dawson.  He’s going to get in eventually, but I’m not sure if his support will jump from 67% to 75%+ in one year.”

Well, I still think Andre Dawson is the only one with a shot at making it next year, but I now believe that he’s got a very good chance.  Why?  Because I have come up with a theory about the baseball Hall of Fame that revolves around…Lynn Swann.

Lynn Swann was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his 14th year of eligibility.  It was (and is) a controversial selection, as there was (and is) considerable disagreement about whether or not he deserved enshrinement.  Swann was famous in his day, and played for a well-known franchise.  The casual fan probably rated Swann higher than many who followed (or studied) the sport with more intensity.  This is due in part to Swann not having A) a particularly long career, and B) an overwhelming statistical record.

Now, does that description in the preceding paragraph remind you of a certain baseball player recently elected to Cooperstown?  Jim Rice, maybe?

Rice was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in his 15th year of eligibility.  It was (and is) a controversial selection.  Rice, like Swann, was famous in his day, played for a prominent club, did not have a long career, and has a Hall of Fame argument that is more about visceral reaction than bottom-line accounting.

In 2001, Lynn Swann got his bust in Canton.  The very next year, his teammate and fellow wide receiver, the outstanding (but lower-profile) John Stallworth, was elected.  Stallworth, it has been said, had to wait for his own enshrinement because Swann’s candidacy essentially stood in the way.  Once Swann finally made it over the line, however, the voters apparently came to the conclusion that you couldn’t have a Hall of Fame with Lynn Swann in it that didn’t also include John Stallworth, because Stallworth was at least as good as Swann, if not better.

In 2009, Jim Rice finally has his plaque in Cooperstown, and who do we find leading the list of returning candidates?  Andre Dawson, who like Rice was an outfielder who debuted in the mid-1970s, and who arguably was just as good a player as Rice, if not better.  Like Stallworth, Dawson was a star, but not as big a star as Rice or Swann were at their respective peaks (although Dawson did win an MVP with the Cubs, his best years were spent in Montreal, more or less hidden from many casual fans and a few sportswriters).

Now, there are good arguments to be made that Dawson is not a Hall of Fame player, with his career .323 OBP foremost among them.  This is not unlike Stallworth, whose career totals, while solid, do not scream “automatic Hall of Famer”.  However, Jim Rice is now in the Hall.  Dawson, to most observers, was at worst equal to Rice, and was probably better (particularly if you account for defense — Dawson played over 1000 games in center field and won eight Gold Gloves).

Stallworth went to Alabama A&M.  Dawson went to Florida A&M.  Both A&Ms, both HBCUs — I think my little theory should get a bonus for that…

There is a difference when it becomes time to tally Hall of Fame votes, though.  Canton’s legends are determined by a relatively small group of less than 50 voters.  Last year 539 members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) cast ballots for the baseball Hall.  It’s generally easier to reach a consensus among smaller groups, especially since the pro football voters actually meet and discuss candidates as a group, as opposed to the baseball voters (who mail in their ballots).

Despite this, I think the “Rice is in, so Dawson has to be in” point of view will still take hold, at least enough to sway the additional 8% of the electorate Dawson needs for enshrinement.  It helps that there is no “lock” among the new candidates, although Larkin, Alomar, and McGriff will all draw significant support (as might Edgar Martinez).

Next year will be Dawson’s ninth year on the BBWAA ballot.  Stallworth was elected to pro football’s Hall after being named a finalist for the eighth time.

I’m rooting for The Hawk to make it.

In defense of Rabbit Maranville’s Hall of Fame plaque

A few weeks ago I was reading a column by Chicago-based sportswriter Rick Telander, who as a longtime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) gets a Hall of Fame vote every year.  This was his (presumably) annual column about his vote.  One of the benefits of being a BBWAA member is that every year you get an easy column by just writing about your ballot.

Telander’s column is a bit of a ramble.  He whines about steroids, decides he’s getting old, and also mentions the “grandeur” of the Hall.  He writes:

When you go to Cooperstown, there is not a player enshrined (other than maybe Rabbit Maranville) who doesn’t blow your socks off.

There it is again.  Somebody who doesn’t understand why Rabbit Maranville is enshrined in Cooperstown.

It’s not like Telander’s the only one.  I remember reading an article on the Hall of Fame back in 1989 by Steve Wulf, then writing for Sports Illustrated.  While leading up to a paragraph about Abner Graves (!), Wulf wrote:

Some are more deserving than others, but once you walk into the Hall of Fame Gallery—the wing that holds the famous bronze plaques—you know you are in a place of worship, and you could never begrudge a man his place there. You might wish that Phil Rizzuto, Richie Ashburn, Leo Durocher, Roger Maris, Nellie Fox, Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo, etc., could be there too, but you wouldn’t wish to unscrew Rabbit Maranville’s plaque to make room for another, even if Maranville did hit just .258 lifetime.

Besides, there’s no sense in trying to read the minds of the baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame candidates (in the first election, in 1936, 11 of them left Ruth off their ballots). And there’s no benefit in chastising the veterans’ committee, which, in trying to undo past injustices, has perhaps relaxed the standards a bit; Jake Beckley may not be a household name, but that’s not to say his name doesn’t belong here. No, the overwhelming feeling you get in that splendid room is one of gratitude. Thanks, fellas, for filling up the afternoons and evenings of so many, for bringing them to their feet, for the memories.

The story was accompanied by a picture of Maranville’s plaque.  I don’t remember the caption under the photo, but I am fairly sure it was something along the lines of “he only hit .258 and shouldn’t really be in the Hall, but don’t sweat it”.

Re-reading that passage, I think it’s interesting that of Wulf’s list of players “you might wish” would also be enshrined, all of them have now been elected except for Maris and Santo.  (Poor Santo.  A quarter-century of being the woulda-coulda-shoulda guy when it comes to the Hall.)

The thing that kills me, though, is that he says that while Jake Beckley “may not be a household name” that doesn’t mean he doesn’t belong in the Hall, even though he mentions Beckley while mildly criticizing the Veterans Committee.  He says that and then talks about Maranville as something of a lesser pick than Beckley, despite the fact that Maranville wasn’t a VC pick — he was elected by the BBWAA.  It’s obvious that Wulf doesn’t know anything about Maranville either, other than his .258 career batting average.

Wulf was only three years old when Maranville was elected to the Hall (in 1954).  Still, a little research wouldn’t have hurt any.  Of course today finding out about past players is much easier than it was in 1989, so Telander has even less of an excuse.  The thing is, though, Maranville still comes up on lists of “least deserving” or “not deserving” Hall of Famers, even among people who follow the sport fairly closely.  At first glance he looks like a guy who didn’t hit for average, had little power, and just hung around a long time.  All of that is true, and yet…

Maranville debuted in the majors in 1912, for the Boston Braves.  He was 20 years old and appeared in 26 games that season.  In 1913, he became the everyday shortstop for the Braves, batting .247 in 143 games, with two homers.  His OPS+ that season was 83, right around his career average (82).  Not impressive, at first glance…but then you realize that in 1913, at the age of 21 and playing his first full season in the major leagues, Maranville finished third in the MVP voting, just ahead of the great Christy Mathewson (who won 25 games that year with a 2.06 ERA).  So how does a guy batting .247 with no power finish so high in the MVP voting?

Well, he was a great defensive shortstop, and a great defensive shortstop can be tremendously valuable, especially if he can hit just a little (and it’s arguable that such a player had more value in the Dead Ball era than at any other time in baseball history).  This was the first of several years in which Maranville fared very well in the MVP voting without obvious offensive numbers to justify it.  That in itself probably is a good indication of just how good a fielder Maranville was.

Another indication, of course, is just how long a career he had.  Maranville had a 23-year career in the majors, playing a total of 2670 games, all but four of which were as a middle infielder (80% of those appearances came as a shortstop).  Maranville held the record for chances for a shortstop for decades and still holds the record for putouts by a shortstop.  At age 41, Maranville batted .218 in 143 games, with no homers (OPS+ of 60)…and finished in a tie for 12th in the MVP voting, ahead of Frankie Frisch (who batted .303 that year with an OPS+ of 111).

Maranville was the runner-up in the MVP voting in 1914 to his middle infield partner, Johnny Evers, as the “Miracle Braves” won the pennant and swept the World Series.  Maranville batted cleanup on that team.  He also finished seventh in the voting in 1924 (OPS+ of 86) and had two other top-10 finishes.

From 1915 through 1923, there was no MVP award for the National League.  It just so happens that Maranville’s seven best offensive seasons (in terms of OPS+) came during that stretch.  I think it’s likely that he would have finished in the top 10 in the MVP voting (if not the top 5) in most, if not all, of those seasons.  If you add, say, five top 10 and two Top 20  finishes (which is probably a bit conservative) to his already impressive MVP history, you would have a player who in his career compiled ten seasons in which he finished in the Top 10 of the MVP voting and another five seasons in the Top 20.

I compared that to some of the players on his “most similar batters” list, courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com.  Ozzie Smith finished second in the ’87 MVP voting (he probably should have won it; that was a weird year) and had three other Top 20 finishes.  Luis Aparacio had two top 10 finishes and four other finishes in the top 20.  Like Smith and Maranville, Aparacio was also an MVP runner-up, in 1959.

Tangent:  the top of the 1959 AL MVP vote mirrored the top of the 1914 NL MVP vote.  For both, the top three finishers played for the pennant winner, and the order was second baseman (Nellie Fox/Evers), shortstop (Aparicio/Maranville), and pitcher (Early Wynn/”Seattle Bill” James).  Also, the fourth place finisher both times was an outfielder.  The 1959 outfielder was Rocky Colavito, who played in 1841 career games.  The 1914 outfielder was George Burns, who played in 1853 career games.

Next on Maranville’s most-similar list is Omar Vizquel, who has one Top 20 MVP finish in his entire career.  Part of why I’m posting about Maranville is that I suspect Maranville’s name is going to pop up more and more as people continue discussing the Hall of Fame candidacy of Vizquel.  They are going to be compared, and my hope is that folks are able to start understanding Maranville’s career a little better.

Nellie Fox follows Vizquel on the comp list, and here finally we have a player who shares Maranville’s propensity for getting MVP votes.  Fox finished in the top 10 six times (as mentioned above, winning in 1959) and had three other Top 20 finishes.  Fox was elected by the Veterans Committee after narrowly missing election by the BBWAA; really, the writers should have elected him.  He’s not as big a miss by them as Arky Vaughan or Johnny Mize, but it was still a mistake.

One other player on the similar-list to note:  Dave Concepcion had two Top 10 MVP finishes and another in the Top 20.

I realize that the MVP voting is not the end-all and be-all.  There is a danger that you can compound a mistake by referencing an error of the past (i.e. the 1987 AL MVP vote, which still haunts Alan Trammell).  Still, when you have a player whose statistical batting line does not immediately suggest greatness, it’s worth it to check the historical record.  In the case of Maranville, in his time he was obviously considered to be something special.  Generally speaking, the MVP voting tends to favor offensive-minded players (especially HR-RBI guys).  This is why a comparison to Maranville’s peers is appropriate; I think most people consider Ozzie Smith to have been a great player, but other than one season he never did very well in the MVP race.  Yet despite the historical tendency by MVP voters to not recognize defensive specialists, Maranville still did well.

Of course, there was another thing about him that probably is reflected in his MVP voting — he was famous, for he was a great player who also happened to be a clown of the highest order.

There are many, many Maranville stories, and a lot of them are actually true.  If you needed a player to wax another player’s bat with soap, or swallow a goldfish, or jump into a hotel pool fully clothed, or offer a pair of eyeglasses to an umpire after a bad call, Maranville was your man.  If you needed a player to go drinking with Jim Thorpe, and swing through tree branches screeching like Tarzan, or to be dangled outside the 15th floor of a Manhattan hotel by Thorpe (with one arm), Maranville was your man.  If you needed a player to paint iodine streaks on a hapless ump, or to throw buckets of ice at fellow train passengers (which he did as a player-manager), or trick a teammate into thinking he had accidentally killed him, Maranville was your man.

Maranville once got a hit off Carl Mays by making him laugh so hard he couldn’t maintain his control.  He was in the dugout during the infamous Babe Herman-three men on third base play; when Wilbert Robinson asked Maranville what had happened, Maranville said, “There’s three men on third and if they hang on long enough I’ll go down and make a quartet out of it.”

Once during a pitcher-vs.-batter fight, Maranville distracted everyone, including the fans, by going into the first base coach’s box during the fracas and pantomiming a fight against himself, pretending to knock himself out.  (Judge Landis thanked him later for that one.)  Entertaining the crowd during a slow part of the game with various pantomime activities was one of his specialties.

When Maranville caught a popup, he usually caught it by holding his glove open at his navel, allowing the ball to strike him in the chest, and having it roll down his shirt into his glove.  He called it his “vest pocket catch”.

Bill James (not the Boston Braves hurler), in his New Historical Baseball Abstract, refers to Maranville having a “Marx Brothers life”, and I think there’s a lot of truth to that.  He was probably on Chico’s level, but definitely ahead of Zeppo.

Maranville was elected by the BBWAA in 1954, shortly after his death.  The fact he had recently died had little to no impact on his election; he had risen in the balloting gradually over the preceding decade, finishing tenth in 1949, ninth in 1950 and 1951, seventh in 1952, and fifth in 1953.  Two players were elected in 1953, meaning that Maranville was in the top three of those on the ballot who had not been elected, along with Bill Dickey and Bill Terry.  All three of those players were elected in 1954.  Maranville actually jumped ahead of Dickey and Terry in the voting to finish first overall that year.  Keep in mind that the Hall had only been around for a few years and there were many outstanding players on the ballot.  Nineteen of the top 20 vote-getters from 1954 are now in the Hall (the exception is Hank Gowdy).

After his career in organized baseball was over Maranville helped run youth baseball programs in Detroit and New York.  One of the kids he taught was Whitey Ford.

Anyway, to sum up:  Maranville wasn’t a great hitter, but he was a great player.  His specialty was in preventing runs as opposed to producing them, and this was recognized by his contemporaries.  He was considered something of a clutch hitter (although I tend to find most claims of being “clutch” not involving George Brett to be somewhat dubious).  He had an incredibly long career, and he was enormously popular.  Thinking of him as just being a .258 hitter is small-minded, to say the least.

I’m not saying he was the greatest player who ever lived.  All I’m saying is that if you’re a writer and you’re trying to reference a player who doesn’t belong in the Hall, Maranville is not the right guy to name.  Look, you want suggestions?  Try Chick Hafey or George Kelly, or Rube Marquard if you need a pitcher (don’t get him confused with Rube Waddell, though).  You’ll be safe criticizing those selections — unless a member of one of their families is reading your column.

Just leave Maranville’s plaque alone…

Next year’s Hall of Fame disaster scenario: a party in Cooperstown with no guests of honor

Today, Rickey Henderson and Jim Rice were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the former with near unanimity and the latter with a fair share of controversy.  With their election, along with the earlier selection of Joe Gordon by the Veterans Committee, there will now be 289 members of the Hall, 201 of whom were elected based on their playing careers.  The wait for Hall of Fame player #202 may be a while…

First of all, there won’t be any players elected next year by the Veterans Committee, because the committee won’t vote again on players eligible for selection by the VC until 2010 (and that’s just for post-World War II eligibles; the pre-World War II players won’t be up for consideration again until 2013).  That means that the only players who can be elected next year will be those on the BBWAA ballot.  The players on this year’s ballot who will return to the ballot next year (with this year’s voting percentage in parenthesis):

Andre Dawson (67.0%); Bert Blyleven (62.7%); Lee Smith (44.5%); Jack Morris (44.0%); Tim Raines (22.6%); Mark McGwire (21.9%); Alan Trammell (17.4%); Dave Parker (15.0%); Don Mattingly (11.9%); Dale Murphy (11.5%); Harold Baines (5.9%)

Now, here is a list of players who next year will be eligible for the BBWAA ballot for the first time and are likely to be on the list (courtesy of the Hall of Fame website):

Roberto Alomar, Kevin Appier, Andy Ashby, Ellis Burks, Dave Burba, Andres Galarraga, Pat Hentgen, Mike Jackson, Eric Karros, Ray Lankford, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff, Mark McLemore, Shane Reynolds, David Segui, Robin Ventura, Fernando Vina, Todd Zeile

There are several serious candidates for the Hall on the list on newly-eligibles, most prominently Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Edgar Martinez, and Fred McGriff.  I could also see some support (greater than 5% of the vote, at least) for Andres Galarraga and Robin Ventura.  However, none of those players is a “lock”.  I think the best candidate of the group is probably Alomar, and I would expect him to get a lot of votes — but I would be surprised if he received more than, say, 60% in his debut on the ballot.

That means that if anyone is to be elected, it has to be someone from the “holdover” group, and I think the only one of those players with a shot is Dawson.  He’s going to get in eventually, but I’m not sure if his support will jump from 67% to 75%+ in one year, especially since he’s not that close to his final year of eligibility, as was the case with Rice this year (who managed a 4% increase in his vote total from last year to this year).  At 63% of the vote, and with his support essentially unchanged from last year, Blyleven’s chances of being elected next year are remote.

Compounding the chances for the holdovers and the newly-eligible players is that there is a surplus of serious-but-not-automatic candidates who will almost certainly split up the vote.  Over the last two elections, an average BBWAA ballot has listed 5.35 names (last year) and 5.38 names (this year), historically low vote totals.  I don’t see that changing much, and so the “competition” for votes (a ludicrous concept, but unfortunately applicable in this situation) will likely depress individual vote totals across the board.  I think the only player with a shot next year is Dawson (unless I am seriously underestimating Alomar’s chances), and I don’t know if Dawson can make that big a leap in the voting.  I tend to think he won’t.

The last time the BBWAA failed to elect anyone was 1996 (Phil Niekro came closest; he was elected the following year).  However, in 1996 the Veterans Committee elected Jim Bunning, along with Negro Leagues star Bill Foster.  Earl Weaver and Ned Hanlon were also elected that year (as managers), so the traditional ceremony at Cooperstown had two living honorees (Bunning and Weaver).  At least one player has been elected by either the writers or the VC every year since 1960.

The committee that selects Hall of Fame managers, umpires, and executives does vote next year.  I think there will be some pressure on that committee to select somebody (Whitey Herzog?  Doug Harvey?) because that’s probably the avenue most likely to produce an enshrinee in 2009.  It won’t result in a player being elected, but it would be better than nothing.  Induction weekend is a boon to the local economy.  No enshrinee = no boon.

Cooperstown has already lost the annual Hall of Fame Game, which has been discontinued.  It may be time for the folks at the Hall to think of another attraction for next year (an Old-Timer’s game?) in case  its showcase event has no one to showcase.