Now that Jim Thome has returned to Cleveland for what is probably the last leg of his baseball career, his credentials for the Hall of Fame look quite strong. There was a time when a player with 500 career homeruns was a lock for Cooperstown and since Jim swatted 600+ he seems destined for enshrinement. But he played in an era in which homeruns were hit at record clips. Thome only led the league in long balls once but was typically among the league leaders in that category. Is Thome’s high career total of dingers enough to carry a player from this power-obsessed era to Cooperstown?
Clarence Childs had a chunky, compact build which gave him a cherubic appearance. Given his roly-poly image, he was tagged with such nicknames as “Fats,” “The Dumpling,” and the one that stuck, “Cupid.” However, despite his squatty body, Childs was an elite second baseman and quite possibly the best of the 1890s. Although he wasn’t quite of the same defensive caliber as Hall of Fame peer Bid McPhee, Cupid was an above average defender with exceptional range that belied his build. When you couple Cupid’s solid defensive stats (he ranks 22nd all-time in career putouts at 2B) with his offensive abilities, you get a player far and away superior to his Hall of Fame peer.
Given that Childs has all of one Hall of Fame peer, McPhee, who played in the same era and manned the same position, one must broaden their scope when judging Childs against Cooperstown residents. George Davis also played during the 1890s and though not a 2B he was a middle infielder and therefore comparing the two isn’t as foolish as comparing Childs with a corner outfielder. Both Davis and McPhee played much longer than Childs, who suffered from malaria which hindered his effectiveness late in his career. Be that as it may, Childs still exceeded the two Hall of Famers in many categories.
A well-rounded performer, not just his build but also his playing ability, Childs was one of the greatest on-base machines of baseball’s early years. He possessed an exceptional batting eye which allowed him to post eleven seasons in which he finished in the Top Ten in walks drawn. Much like Ted Williams, Childs posted astronomical on-base percentages while maintaining high batting averages. His career BA was .306 and his career OBP was .416. These two stats far exceed his Hall of Fame peers. McPhee retired with a .272 BA/.355 OBP while Davis had a .295 BA/.362 OBP. Over the course of his career he had six seasons with an OBP above .400 (Davis had four, McPhee had three) and was able to enjoy three monster seasons with an OBP above .460–Davis and McPhee had one season apiece in which their OBP exceeded .420.
Given his exceptional on-base skills, Childs was a run-scoring machine for the old Cleveland Spiders of the National League. Although the Spiders are long forgotten, having been disbanded just before the American League became a Major League, they had plenty talent with such Hall of Famers as Cy Young and Jesse Burkett. Cupid was the man on the club who raced home at amazing clips. He ended his career with an average of 0.833 runs scored per game which easily eclipsed Hall of Fame peers McPhee (0.788) and Davis (0.651). Biddy posted two years in which he scored 125 or more runs while Davis had one such campaign. As for Childs, he had a three-year stretch, from 1892 to 1894, in which he posted 136, 145 and 143 runs scored in succession.
Many on-base gurus tend to draw a lot of walks which hinders their total of base hits. Cupid was that rarity, like the Splendid Splinter, who draw a massive amount of walks while also banging out a great number of safeties. Bid McPhee had just two seasons in his career in which he exceeded 155 base hits while Childs had six such campaigns, five in a row. To go with those hits, Cupid drew an immense amount of walks. In four of his 155+ base hit seasons, he drew 100 or more walks which allowed his OBP to reach those Williams heights. He currently rests 24th all-time in career on-base percentage, well above the majority of the Cooperstown elite.
Bid McPhee has the distinction of being the only player from the 19th Century inducted into the Hall of Fame in the 21st Century. It’s a rarity when the powers-that-be at Cooperstown look back in the books and champion an old-timer, especially one as old as Childs, for Hall of Fame induction. Also, Cupid spent the bulk of his career with the Cleveland Spiders, a team that only baseball historians have heard of. His relatively short career and his affiliation with an obscure team may keep him out of Cooperstown for all time, but it is quite clear that he was an exceptional performer who was head and shoulders above McPhee in many categories.
Brett Butler was one of the most consistent leadoff men of his time. He handled the bat expertly, capable of dropping a bunt on a dime, and legging out those little drags with his gazelle-like speed. Although he didn’t bash the ball like the popular stars of his day, Brett’s game was just as important, for those big boppers needed someone to get on base and drive in. There were few better at setting the table than the swift Mr. Butler.
When one looks at leadoffmen of the 1980s, three names come to the forefront: Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines and Butler. Henderson has made his way to the Hall of Fame, and rightly so, for he coupled Butler’s legs and on-base skills with solid power, which separated him from Butler. Raines was a Henderson-light, who excelled with wheels and too had some modest power, but Brett was lucky when he hit homeruns. Never did he dig in the batter’s box with the notion of swatting a 450 foot dinger, for his angular frame was not conducive to Mantleesque tape measure blasts. He understood this and played within himself, legging out infield hits and slashing liners to all parts of the field. Although he wasn’t the slugger that Henderson and Raines were, Butler was just as swift and was a far superior defender to the two constant All-Stars. Brett’s .993 fielding percentage in center field is tops among those players who patrolled that area during the 1980s.
The 1980s had a number of swift outfielders who patrolled center and left field and also batted at the top of the order. Butler, Henderson and Raines have already been mentioned but others like Vince Coleman, Willie McGee, Otis Nixon and Willie Wilson also flourished in this capacity. Rickey was the best of the crop, without question, and Raines was a step behind him, but who pulled in third? Which one of those fast gents had the stuff that made leadoffmen valuable, like Rickey and Rock?
The perfect leadoffman is he who gets on base by any means necessary. A fast man makes for an ideal table-setter but when his on-base percentage is shaky, his wheels serve little purpose. When your number one hitter starts the game with a ground out, it doesn’t matter if he’s as quick as Mercury or as idle as a park bench, he’s simply an out. Butler understood this and posted a career .377 on-base percentage. His peers were well behind him. Vince Coleman had a weak .324 career OBP, Willie Wilson’s was slightly higher at .326. The other Willie, Mr. McGee, posted a career OBP of .333 while Otis Nixon topped him with a .343 mark–which trailed Butler’s OBP by 34 points. Over the course of his career, Brett had six seasons with an OBP of .390 or higher.
Getting on base and wreaking havoc after he posted himself on the hassock was the key to Butler’s success. Although his trademark move was the drag bunt, Brett was also quite adept at tallying those exciting three-baggers. He netted four triples titles in his career and his constant guardianship of third base enabled him to cross the plate a great many times. Brett put together six seasons in which he scored 100 runs, which tied him with Raines. Otis Nixon never had a 100 runs scored season and Willie McGee fashioned just one such campaign. Both Willie Wilson and Vince Coleman had two 100 runs scored seasons, as Brett exceeded his peers in this department.
Few speedy outfielders owned the bat control that Butler possessed. The hickory in his hands was a wand that he employed to deliver bunts down that line and seeing-eye grounders that found open avenues in the opposition. Due to his expert handling of the hickory, Brett was a difficult out who fought every at-bat. Umpires rarely rung-up Butler on strikes. In thirteen seasons during his career, Brett posted more walks than strikeouts. This was a feat that McGee, Coleman and Wilson never achieved while the switch-hitting Nixon accomplished the trick in just four seasons.
Critics of Butler will complain that he was what they call a “Judy-hitter,” meaning that he slapped weak little singles all over the field. Judy-hitter or not, Brett did something Tim Raines couldn’t even come close to: post eleven consecutive seasons with 200 or more total bases. The most Rock Raines could string together were six such campaigns, a total equaled by Royals rabbit Willie Wilson. McGee’s longest string was four seasons and Vince Coleman could only muster back-to-back seasons once in his career. The real Judy-hitter, Otis Nixon, never had a season in which he tallied 200 total bases despite being a regular player for a number of years.
Although Butler is best known for his speed–he rests 24th on the all-time stolen base list–he exceeded all of his peers in flychasing. Brett was able to smother 5,296 balls in his career, a putout total that exceeded such Hall of Fame ballhawks as Roberto Clemente, Andre Dawson, Al Kaline, Dave Winfield and the legendary Waner Brothers. His total of putouts is the 13th highest total among outfielders in baseball history. As far as fielding percentage is concerned, Brett eclipsed every center fielder of his time with a .9925 mark. Robin Yount was the only man in close proximity to Butler with his .9920 ledger.
In closing, Brett Butler was an elite leadoffman but to label him such is to dismiss his all-round game. Ballhawks don’t come as sure-handed as Butler and he was an exceptional team man who led the league in sacrifices. Sure, he played in a slugger’s era but his Deadball style allowed him to score runs at a greater clip than most of his peers. One would be hard-pressed to find a more ideal leadoffman than Butler.
Those baseball Hall of Fame pundits who have been irked by Cooperstown’s dismissal of defensive stars can now point to the NBA Hall of Fame for some support. The latest induction to the NBA Hall of Fame was the ever-flamboyant freak Dennis Rodman. Anyone who followed Rodman’s career–it was hard not to because the media ate-up his antics–knows that Dennis wasn’t an elite offensive player. In fact, he wasn’t even a good offensive player, merely serviceable, but he was a top-flight defender. The NBA understood Rodman’s value and thus ushered him into the basketball Hall of Fame, while baseball still grapples with the notion of enshrining their defensive wizards. Bill Mazeroski was the lone exception but even his induction was met with loud cries of opposition.
Critics can point to Luis Aparacio, Brooks Robinson and Ozzie Smith as proof that the baseball Hall of Fame honors its defensive stars, but these men, although defensive giants, were no slouches offensively either. Little Luis was one of the greatest base stealers of his day, Brooks was a fine RBI man with above average power and Ozzie Smith was a fleet-footed table-setter who never gave away at-bats. Mazeroski is really the only Rodman-like induction in baseball history. He wasn’t a good offensive player–he couldn’t run, he couldn’t hit for authority, his batting average was ho-hum and his on-base percentage was very weak. But Maz was elite with the glove.
Perhaps the induction of Dennis Rodman in the NBA Hall of Fame will open some eyes of voters for the baseball Hall of Fame, but don’t hold your breath. Such great defenders like Mark Belanger and Frank White have received little-to-no support for the Hall of Fame and that trend will probably continue for some time.
The best hitter few people have ever heard of, Pete “The Gladiator” Browning is the best pure hitter of the 1800s left out of the Hall of Fame. The robust Dave Orr may have had a higher career batting average but he didn’t play the mandatory ten years in the Majors for induction, which Browning did. If one was looking for reasons as to why The Gladiator has yet to be enshrined, he’d have to look no further than league bias. During the 1880s, when Browning was one of the best sluggers in baseball, he starred with the now forgotten Louisville Colonels of the long disbanded American Association. Browning’s league was a Major League, just like the National League, but since the NL usually whooped the AA champs in the early World Series, many historians have placed the American Association on a status well underneath the NL.
A three-time batting champ, Browning won two titles in the American Association and copped the only Player’s League batting title in that circuit’s only year of existence. After both the AA and Player’s League folded up shop, the NL was the only Major League in operation and Pete ventured to that league where his bat remained hot at the age of 30. Given that Pete’s top years came in the American Association, he has received little support for the Hall of Fame despite his robust hitting in every league he played in. In his prime during the 1880s, he was 30 years old when he joined the National League and continued to hit well above .300 in the premier circuit. A fast-liver, Browning’s career slowed down in his early 30s and after baseball he was institutionalized after a nervous breakdown.
Browning is best remembered today as the very first Louisville Slugger. He had a carpenter make him a baseball bat which led to the advent of the famous Louisville Slugger Company. It only seems fitting that Pete was the first Louisville Slugger since he was the star ballplayer of that city. But The Gladiator was more than just a hometown hero–he was one of the best ballplayers of the 1800s. He was able to win three batting championships over the course of his distinguished career and put together a string of seven seasons in which he finished in the Top Three in batting average. This feat was matched by such legendary hitters as Wade Boggs, Rod Carew and Honus Wagner, while perennial batting champion threats Tony Gwynn and Nap Lajoie could only manage a five-year and four-year string respectively. Such legendary hitters as Ichiro Suzuki and George Brett can’t even half Browning’s string.
A tremendous hitter during his day, Browning was always among the leaders in extra base hits and slugging average. His career numbers greatly exceed many Hall of Fame stars of the late 1800s. Pete banged out 295 doubles over the course of his career–104 more than Hall of Fame peer Tommy McCarthy, who, it must be added, played in more games than Browning. Of Browning’s career base hit total, 26% went for extra bases, a higher percentage than Hall of Famers from the 1800s McCarthy 19%, Jesse Burkett 20% and Wee Willie Keeler 14%. When one judges Browning to McCarthy, corner outfielders who played in the same era, it will be found that the superior player is not in the Hall of Fame. McCarthy was a lifetime .292 hitter while Pete excelled him with a .341 career average. Tommy had 1,493 career hits in more games while The Gladiator slapped out 1,646. The following paragraphs will show an even greater discrepancy between the two stars.
A terrific all-round offensive force, Pete hit for the high average, posted solid on-base percentages and lofty slugging averages. When the Gladiator’s career was all said and done, he had a .869 OPS. This mark is superior to Hall of Fame peers McCarthy (.740), Burkett (.861), Keeler (.802), Joe Kelley (.853) and Orator O’Rourke (.775). The star of the Louisville Colonels excelled his peers in many of the important stats, for he hit for far more authority than many of the enshrined stars of the 1800s and was vastly superior to them in pure hitting, with his lusty .341 career mark. It must be noted that stats of the 1800s are often difficult to track and many sources do not agree. Some sources list Pete as a lifetime .347 hitter and hot a .341 hitter.
Although he wasn’t the greatest defender in the game, defense was crude in the 1800s and Pete wasn’t any worse than average in the pasture. However, even if he did patrol left field like Greg Luzinski, he was one of the most fearsome threats in the batter’s box. Browning had eight Top Five finishes in slugging average over the course of his career. His peers can’t hold a candle to him in this regard. Tommy McCarthy had one such season, Orator O’Rourke had three and Jesse Burkett and Joe Kelley had just four such campaigns apiece.
As one of the greatest hitters in baseball history, Pete Browning would make for a solid Hall of Fame induction–one well overdue.
Matt Stairs, one of baseball’s greatest sluggers from north of the border, has officially ended his career. Stairs had a solid 19-year career, but had he not been a late-bloomer, he could have achieved greater success. He didn’t gain fulltime work at the Major League level until he was 29 years old when Billy Beane of Oakland gave him a regular place in the lineup. Despite his delayed success, Matt still smashed 265 career dingers and fell just short of 1,375 base hits. An above average power threat throughout his career, Stairs offered a valuable bat–one with solid raw power. But he was more than just a homerun threat, for Stairs was also an on-base stud at his peak who occasionally eclipsed the .370 OBP. But his most famous moment came when his career was nearing its end in 2008 when he delivered a clutch pinch hit homerun off Dodgers stopper Jonathan Broxton in the NLCS that led the Phillies to the World Series and an eventual title.