I saw when Jeter when first broke in at the end of 1995, and recently made one last trip to Yankee Stadium to see the great Yankee play one last time, although he struck out so quickly in his last at bat that I barely had time to take a photograph. I want to remember Jeter for the numbers he put up year after year, the championships he helped win, and the many great moments including the flip, the diving catch against the Red Sox where he landed in the stands, the leadoff home run in the 2000 World Series and being in the middle of almost every big Yankee rally for a generation. However, I can live without being told by MLB, the Yankees and their cheerleaders in the media who deserves my respect and reverence.
The real reason these men, including my father, became Cardinals fans is simply because of Stan Musial. Musial, who died over the weekend at the age of 92, had not uncoiled his famous swing in a meaningful baseball game in just short of half a century. During that time a legend grew around Stan Musial. Of all the great World War II era stars, Musial was the decent one who rarely sought attention but lived his life honorably, was polite, pleasant and respectful and never had any contact with even the whiff of scandal. Musial's personal story reinforced this. He was a Polish-American who grew up in a coal mining town, was a natural athlete who worked hard to make it in baseball, spent his entire career with one team and was married to the same woman for more than 70 years. Gradually, other stories leaked out. Turns out that in 1947 Musial had without fanfare made it clear that he, as the leader of the reigning World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, had no problem with African American players and expected his teammates to act the same way. Baseball history might have been very different if Musial had given in to the racist pressure coming from some corners of that team. The legend of Stan Musial helps explain why of the thousands of men who have played professional baseball, only one was known as "The Man."
Carew, Boggs and Gwynn were the three great singles hitters of the last 60+ years. Obviously, they did more than hit singles, but that is the term used for players who, like them, don’t hit a lot of home runs. The reason there are so few players who meet this criteria is that some who we may think of as great singles hitter leadoff types, like Rickey Henderson, hit for more power than is sometimes remembered. Others, such as Lou Brock, did not produce enough offensive value to be great offensive players, while others, such as Jackie Robinson, had careers that were too short to accumulate enough plate appearances.
Henry Aaron turned 77 on Saturday. Somehow it seemed appropriate that Aaron’s birthday, as might be expected, was overshadowed by the centennial of Ronald Reagan’s birth. Aaron’s birthday receiving almost no attention demonstrates how the he remains bewilderingly underrated in his retirement, just as he was during his career. Aaron retired as the all time leader in home runs and RBIs and among the top three in hits. His career numbers of .305/.374/.555 were good for a career OPS+ of 155 which, while not in the same ballpark as Babe Ruth or Ted Williams, are still very good. These numbers are even more impressive because Aaron accumulated them over 23 seasons and 13,940 plate appearances. This latter number is the third most ever, but was good enough for first at the time Aaron retired. However, Aaron, who was overshadowed by Willie Mays for most of his career, is still oddly underrated by most casual students of baseball’s past.
The recent controversy over whether Ken Griffey Jr., who at age 40 would be within striking distance of 3,000 hits and fourth place on the all time home run list if he played beyond this year, did or did not miss a pinch hitting opportunity because he was sleeping in the clubhouse was a tragicomic twist in the long decline of Ken Griffey Jr. Griffey’s decline has been going on for at least a decade and may be the longest such decline in baseball history.
The questions of how the core four of the New York Yankees compare to other groups of four players who played together for ten or more years, which was discussed here last week, raises the question of what was the greatest threesome of all time to have played together for ten or more years. There are four serious contenders for the best group of three players as well as one group, Ted Williams, Dom DiMaggio and Bobby Doerr, who are not eligible because they all missed time due to military service.
A more interesting question about Thomas’s career is how he ranks among the greatest right handed hitters ever. There are some players who were right handed hitters who were more valuable because of the positions they played and their ability to contribute defensively such as Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt and Honus Wagner, but when looking at batting numbers only, there are fewer right handed hitters who were clearly better than Thomas. Thomas is one of only eight right handed hitters to have over 9,000 plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better, and one of only four with 10,000 or more plate appearances and an OPS+ of 150 or better
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.