My favorite baseball player ever died this month. Perhaps that is a rite of middle aged American male passage. Willie McCovey was a gigantic left-handed slugger who hit his first home run when Eisenhower was President and George Christopher was mayor of San Francisco, the city where McCovey played most of his career. He hit his last home run for the Giants when Jimmy Carter was in the White House and Dianne Feinstein was our mayor. During his very long career, McCovey was often overshadowed by his more famous teammate with whom he shared a home state, Alabama, and the same first name. McCovey was not as good as Willie Mays, but almost nobody ever was. Nonetheless McCovey a formidable power hitter. When he retired in 1980 McCovey’s 521 career home runs tied him with Ted Williams for second most ever by a left handed hitter. At that time, the only player with more round trippers from the left side of the plate was Babe Ruth.
Therefore, what is at stake in Hall of Fame voting is how the game’s history gets passed down from one generation to another. This is further complicated by the vague and differing definitions of what makes a Hall of Famer, specifically the relationship between narrative and numbers in evaluating players. Jim Rice, for example, got an increase in support because of his great 1978 season and the false, but broadly accepted narrative that he was the most feared hitter of his generation.
The Giants have won the World Series bringing the championship to San Francisco for the first time ever! When Buster Posey caught the third strike on Nelson Cruz, a journey which began with my mother dropping off me, my brother and our friend Charles, who back then was known as Tony, on the corner of Clay and Van Ness in San Francisco sometime in the mid 1970s, ended in a hotel room in Tbilisi, Georgia more than 30 years later. Those spring and summer mornings, my mother would give each of us seven dollars-three for a ticket in the upper reserved section of old Candlestick Park, the remainder was for bus fare and food. When the bus driver was in a good mood and only charged fifty cents for the ballpark express, there was plenty left over for hot dogs, soda, popcorn and ice cream, but if the driver charged two dollars or more, it made for a hungry day at the ‘Stick.
LeMaster was a unique combination of mediocre fielding, atrocious hitting, a strong link to bad teams and bad periods in team history and, best of all, a sense of humor and awareness. Of course, being the worst non-pitcher to ever have a big league career is an extraordinary accomplishment, accordingly LeMaster is remembered fondly by most Giants fans, but few players ever played the game so badly for so long.
Sometimes players who would be expected to be borderline candidates get elected, such as Dawson this year or Jim Rice last year, but sometimes similar candidates get little consideration at all. One example of this type of player is Will Clark who got less than 5% of the vote the first time he appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot and was dropped from future ballots. Will Clark’s story is well known. He had a few great years with the Giants before moving to the AL where his career took a downturn, but had one last great run in 2000, the last season of his career as a late season pickup by the Cardinals where he filled in for the injured Mark McGwire down the stretch run.