May 17, 2012
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As in life, sentiment often trumps objective judgment when discussing accomplishments in sports. And that's how it should be. We humans are meant to inject some instinctive, heartfelt emotion into our daily actions and passions. The mixing of intuition and objectivity is what makes us different.
But when judging a player's career in a supposedly nonpartisan fashion, it's important to remove as much sentiment as possible to afford the truest accounting of a career. This is the task that confronts the voters for the Baseball Hall of Fame, who each year must discern the great from the very good - while leaving personal bias aside.
This is impossible, obviously, and frequently players make it into Cooperstown who are borderline in terms of accomplishments.
The case that comes immediately to mind is Phil Rizzuto. I grew up watching and listening to Rizzuto in the 1970s and '80s. His blatant pro-Yankees commentary in the broadcasting booth was actually refreshing and one of the joys of tuning in. His distinctive, enthusiastic tone was part of the summer soundtrack to my early childhood. He was truly one of the most loved figures in Yankees history. And when he was enshrined via the Veterans Committee into the Hall in 1994, I, along with all of Yankeedom, was thrilled.
But a glance at his statistics should give anyone pause upon supporting his candidacy:
AVG HR RBI OBP SLG OPS
.273 38 563 .351 .355 .706
It wasn't as if he was Ozzie Smith in the field, either, as his mediocre .968 fielding percentage attests. He also hit only .246 in the many World Series games he played. In the end, Rizzuto was simply a key component, a major role player on legendary Yankees teams. But that shouldn't have been enough for enshrinement. And I don't mean to pick on Rizzuto, as many others' Hall credentials are suspect. Don Sutton and Tony Perez are examples of impressive longevity without brilliance.
This brings up the eternal debate of - well, if he's in the Hall with these numbers, then why isn't so-and-so? It's an entirely fair question. And a question that is appropriate to ask now.
Last week the Hall announced the nominations for the "Golden Era" - those who played from 1947-72. (There are now three eras that comoose what used to be the general category of Veterans, now broken up into Pre-Integration, Golden and Expansion, with each era voted on in rotating years. Next year the Pre-Integration Era will be voted on, and in 2013 the Expansion Era.)
The names put forth are: Buzzie Bavasi, Ken Boyer, Charlie Finley, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Minoso, Tony Oliva, Allie Reynolds, Ron Santo and Luis Tiant. I was left a bit perplexed as to why Dick Allen was left off the list.
Allen, the former Phillies and White Sox standout in the 1960s and '70s, had stats that were at least as impressive as all everyday players nominated, and in each case I'd argue that his numbers were better.
AVG HR RBI OBP SLG OPS AB
Allen: .292 351 1119 .378 .534 .912 6332
Hodges: .273 370 1274 .359 .487 .846 7030
Santo: .277 342 1331 .362 .464 .826 8143
Minoso: .298 186 1023 .389 .459 .848 6579
Oliva: .304 220 947 .353 .476 .830 6301
Boyer: .287 282 1141 .349 .462 .810 7455
For the sake of brevity, I'll focus mainly on comparing Allen's accomplishments with Hodges and Santo.
The beloved Hodges, who played first base for both the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and then most famously led the legendary 1969 Mets to their improbable World Series victory, was an extraordinarily consistent performer for those great Dodgers teams. But he never led the league in any major statistical category, and the highest he finished in MVP voting was sixth. However, he was a standout fielder, winning three Gold Gloves, and that should matter.
The equally or perhaps more beloved Santo played third base for the Cubs in the 1960s and early '70s when pitching was dominant. Another superb fielder - he collected five Gold Gloves - Santo did lead the league twice in OBP. Playing alongside Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Billy Williams, Santo's Cubs were an offensive force, though repeatedly crestfallen during the period.
Then there's the decidedly not-always-loved Allen, who played not in the friendly confines of Wrigley Field but mostly in Philadelphia, the self-loathing and dysfunctional fans' paradise. The always controversial Allen garnered the Rookie of the Year Award in 1964, won the MVP in 1972 with the White Sox and led the league in triples once, home runs twice, RBIs once, walks once, OBP twice, slugging three times and OPS four times. All this during the time when pitching was utterly dominant. To his discredit, Allen was not a strong fielder.
Aside from Albert Belle, Allen is the player with the highest OPS who is not in the Hall of Fame.
And aside from the statistics in Allen's defense, there's the ample anecdotal evidence that is unusually strong for a player not already in the Hall of Fame. Perhaps more than any of his contemporaries, Allen elicited fawning praise from teammate and foe alike. This falls into the category of I-know-greatness-when-I-see-it that should factor into a Hall selection.
Willie Mays once said Allen "hit the ball harder than any man I've ever seen." Tigers pitcher Mickey Lolich said: "Allen was scary at the plate. When he came up there, he had your attention. I want to forget a couple of line drives he hit off me, but I can't because they almost killed me."
And there are the mammoth blasts that Allen struck. Several times he hit home runs to the center-field bleachers at Comiskey Park, the rarest of feats in that pitcher-friendly stadium. At the old Tiger Stadium in 1974, Allen struck a ball off the façade in left-center field that would have traveled 500 feet on the fly. And to prove he could do it with speed as well as his eerily powerful physique, in 1974 Allen became the first player of the modern era to hit two inside-the-park home runs in one game. He did it against Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven.
So with both his impressive stats and a long list of eyewitness accounts as to his prodigious power and innate offensive genius, why isn't he on the list for this year's nominations? It likely comes down to reputation.
Whereas Santo and Hodges are revered to the level of near-sainthood in Chicago and New York, respectively, Allen was always surrounded by controversy. He was known as a clubhouse distraction for numerous on- and off-the-field occurrences, and this led to his being traded on numerous occasions. Some of it was merited, but most of the criticism was unfounded. And consider: He had to deal with racial epithets and batteries being tossed at his head by the self-hating Philadelphia fans.
But none other than Mike Schmidt, Red Schoendienst, Chuck Tanner and Goose Gossage spoke glowingly of Allen's clubhouse demeanor. Said Tanner: "Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth." Schmidt called Allen his "mentor" and once said: "The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse."
So while sentiment is surely in favor of Santo and Hodges, those feelings must not override the committee in 2014, the next time players during Allen's era are up for nomination. The numbers and, more importantly, the memories don't lie. Dick Allen is deserving of the Hall of Fame if anyone on this year's ballot is enshrined.