Very few players make an immediate splash in the Major Leagues and sustain that excellent for years. Many flash-in-the-pan young stars made their mark early – think of Mark Fidrych, Joe Charbonneau and Dontrelle Willis – but couldn’t keep the pace. Vada Pinson was one player who shot out of the gate running and kept on sprinting.
In Pisnon’s first full season at the Major League level – at the tender age of 20 – he paced all of baseball with 47 doubles and 131 runs scored. The youngster immediately brought respectability back to the Cincinnati Reds with his five-tool talent. The Kid could hit the ball with authority, run like a gazelle and covered the outfield like a tent. He personified what scouts look for. Vada Pinson had all the talent and the tools and he proved that he wasn’t a freshman fluke when he again paced all of baseball in the two-bag department while also coming in second in the National League in the stolen base category.
In 1961, Vada led the Reds to a pennant, pacing Major League baseball with 208 base hits. Although he failed to net the batting crown, his remarkable .343 batting average guided the Reds to an October showdown with the Yankees. The Reds ultimately lost the contest – the only World Series action Pinson ever saw – when they ran into Whitey Ford and the M&M Boys.
Still young, the five-tool sensation topped the 100 RBI mark in ’62 while also posting a 20/20 season: eclipsing 20 homers and 20 steals. He followed up that season with one even better. In 1963, Vada led all Major Leaguers with 204 safeties and 14 triples. But the Reds – prior to their legendary Big Red Machine days – struggled in the standings and Pinson was the only Cincy player to post a batting average over .280 – he hit .313. Showcasing his immense tools in ’65, Vada had another 20/20 season and then in 1967 he again led the Majors with 13 triples.
The Reds sent Vada to the Cardinals in 1969 and he spent one year in St. Louis before making his mark on the American League. In 1971, with the Cleveland Indians, Vada finished first in the AL East with 25 stolen bases. 1971 proved to be Vada’s last great year as an injury limited his play and he later saw action with the Angels and Royals before retiring after the 1975 season. Vada was one of baseball’s finest players throughout the 1960s, roaming the Cincinnati pasture throughout the majority of the decade, often pacing all of baseball in hits and triples. However, he has been overlooked by Hall of Fame voters largely because he didn’t dominate the center field position in the 1960s. Remember, this was the time of Willie Mays, therefore Vada was constantly in his shadow.
Dominating a position over the course of a decade is not a good way to judge whether or not a player should be in the Hall of Fame. Did Carlton Fisk dominate catching in the 1970s? Not really. Johnny Bench had a larger fanbase but can you imagine the Hall of Fame without Fisk? The same can be said for Bill Dickey, who had to fight with Mickey Cochrane and Gabby Hartnett, or Paul Molitor, who was overshadowed by George Brett and Mike Schmidt. No, Vada Pinson may not have been the best center fielder of his time, but you can’t deny his greatness. Few players in baseball history have tallied the career totals that Pinson built. He had all the tools and his career stats prove this.
Pinson’s stats: G 2,489/ R 1,366/ H 2,757/ 2B 485/ HR 256/ RBI 1,170/ SB 305/ BA .286/ SA .442