Shakedown 1968

So, I was messing around with something else entirely … and I came across this weird baseball anomaly. You probably know that Bill James has broken down the Baseball Hall of Fame by birth year. It’s a smart way of doing it, I think; it gives you a real perspective of just how good a player has to be to even be considered for the Hall of Fame. I’m focused today only on hitters, and over the last 75 years, only 29 hitters have been elected to the Hall of Fame, one more if you count Joe Torre who was elected as a manager.

Beyond those 29, I have come up with 60 more hitters who have been “talked about” as Hall of Fame candidates. I tried to make this “talked about” category” pretty liberal — I don’t think that there really has been any extensive Hall of Fame talk about Willie Davis or Jimmy Wynn or Roy White or Bobby Bonds or Willie Randolph or most of these others. But they were superb players who could have a case made. Here they are, players born between 1939 and 1975 … see if you can find the weird year:

1939 In the Hall: Carl Yastrzemski, Lou Brock. Talked about: None

1940 In the Hall: Ron Santo, Joe Torre, Willie Stargell. Talked about: Willie Davis.

1941 In the Hall: None Special category: Pete Rose Talked about: Bill Freehan

1942 In the Hall: Tony Perez Talked about: Dick Allen, Jimmy Wynn

1943 In the Hall: Joe Morgan Talked about: Roy White

1944 In the Hall: None Talked about: Graig Nettles.

1945 In the Hall: Rod Carew Talked about: Reggie Smith

1946 In the Hall: Reggie Jackson Talked about: Bobby Bonds, Al Oliver.

1947 In the Hall: Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk. Talked about: Thurman Munson, Darrell Evans.

1948 In the Hall: None Talked about: Ron Cey, Dave Concepcion, Steve Garvey.

1949 In the Hall: Mike Schmidt Talked about: Bobby Grich, Ted Simmons.

1950 In the Hall: None. Talked about: None. Best of the rest: Brian Downing, Doug DeCinces.

1951 In the Hall: Dave Winfield Talked about: Dwight Evans, Buddy Bell, Dave Parker.

1952 In the Hall: None Talked about: Fred Lynn.

1953 In the Hall: George Brett, Jim Rice. Talked about: Keith Hernandez.

1954 In the Hall: Ozzie Smith, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson. Talked about: Willie Randolph

1955 In the Hall: Robin Yount. Talked about: None. Best of the rest: Chet Lemon, Jack Clark.

1956 In the Hall: Paul Molitor, Eddie Murray. Talked about: Dale Murphy.

1957 In the Hall: None. Talked about: Lou Whitaker Best of the rest: Brett Butler, Kirk Gibson.

1958 In the Hall: Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs. Talked about: Alan Trammell.

1959 In the Hall: Ryne Sandberg Talked about: Tim Raines. Best of the rest: Jesse Barfield.

1960 In the Hall: Cal Ripken, Kirby Puckett, Tony Gwynn. Talked about: None.

1961 In the Hall: None. Talked about: Don Mattingly.

1962 In the Hall: None Strong cases: None. Best of the rest: Devon White, Darryl Strawberry.

1963 In the Hall: None. Special category: Mark McGwire. Talked about: Edgar Martinez, Fred McGriff. Best of the rest: Lenny Dykstra.

1964 In the Hall: Barry Larkin Special category: Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro. Talked about: Will Clark.

1965 In the Hall: None Talked about: Craig Biggio

1966 In the Hall: None. Talked about: Larry Walker

1967 In the Hall: None Talked about: Kenny Lofton, Omar Vizquel.

1968 In the Hall: Frank Thomas, Robbie Alomar Talked about: Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Kent, Bernie Williams. Best of the rest: John Olerud.

1969 In the Hall: None Going in: Ken Griffey.

1970 In the Hall: None Will be talked about: Jim Thome, Jim Edmonds

1971 In the Hall: None Going in: Ivan Rodriguez. Best of the rest: Jason Giambi, Brian Giles.

1972 In the Hall: None Going in: Chipper Jones. Special category: Manny Ramirez. Best of the rest: Carlos Delgado.

1973 In the Hall: None Going in: Ichiro, Todd Helton. Best of the rest: Nomar Garciaparra, Johnny Damon.

1974 In the Hall: None Going in: Derek Jeter. Will be talked about: Bobby Abreu, Miguel Tejada.

1975 In the Hall: None. Special category: Alex Rodriguez, Will be talked about: Scott Rolen, Vlad Guerrero, David Ortiz. Best of the rest: Torii Hunter.

OK, did you see it? What about that crazy year: 1968? Based on the way the BBWAA has voted, there was not a single Hall of Fame hitter born in 1961 (Mattingly cannot get any traction), 1962, 1963 (maybe Edgar Martinez gets some love over time), 1966 or 1967.

But in 1968, there are EIGHT viable Hall of Fame candidates (nine if you consider Olerud, whose career does demand consideration).

And then, before you say, “Well, that’s just the steroids,” go on to the next year, 1969, only Ken Griffey will get elected. In 1970, there were two Hall of Fame candidates born, and I’m not sure either Thome or Edmonds will get the support I think they deserve. Go to the next year, 1971, only Pudge Rodriguez will get elected from that group.

Wo what the heck happened in 1968? How do you explain so many amazing players being born in one year? How do you deal with it?

Look: In February, Roberto Alomar was born in Puerto Rico — son of a developing Major League baseball player, little brother to a future Major Leaguer. A month later, Jeff Kent was born in a suburb of Los Angeles. Two of the greatest offensive second basemen born within a month of each other.

Most baseball fans know about May 27, 1968 — that was the day that Jeff Bagwell and Frank Thomas were born. The fact that they grew up to become two of the best right-handed first basemen in the game’s history is just one of those wonderful baseball bits of serendipity.

John Olerud was born in Seattle in August — he went on to become a dominant hitter and pitcher at Washington State University, recovered from a brain aneurysm, and went on to a career that was a heck of a lot better than Steve Garvey’s — though Garvey keeps popping back up in Hall of Fame discussions.

A month later, near Philadelphia, a used car and real estate magnate named Vince Piazza had a son he called Mike. Vince loved baseball so much that, in time, he would have Ted Williams give his boy batting tips and he would ask his friend Tommy Lasorda to do him a personal favor and draft the boy.

A week or so after that, in Puerto Rico again, Bernie Williams was born, and he would grow up playing baseball and music with equal brilliance.

Sammy Sosa was born two months later in San Pedro de Macoris, that famous baseball town in the Dominican Republic. He grew up poor and hungry and in love with the game. Finally, one week after that, Gary Sheffield was born in Tampa — almost four years to the day after his uncle, Dwight Gooden.

That’s nine amazing hitters born within 10 months of each other. It’s crazy.

I do wonder if this is crazy boom of super players has a subtle impact on voters’ mentality. Here’s what I mean: Part of what makes the Baseball Hall of Fame the most discussed in all of sports is that it is perceived to have the highest standard. The BBWAA hardly votes in anybody. Yes, there are a hundred or more players are in the Hall of Fame that most people have never heard of, but they don’t come up much. The Hall of Fame, to most people, is Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron and Ted Williams.

Point is, a historic rush of talent like what happened in 1968 doesn’t compute easily. It just doesn’t FEEL right. Imagine you work in a charity office, and on average you get one or two calls a day for donations — some days you get none, some days you get three. Then, one day, you get NINE calls with donations, You would think: Something must be causing this.

It just doesn’t seem possible for that many terrific hitters to have been born in one year. So, we look for reasons why it can’t be true. PEDs are the obvious reason — Sammy Sosa’s 609 home runs are written off as steroid creations. Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza are put in ballot purgatory until the voters can make sense of what is being whispered in the wind. Gary Sheffield admitted using steroids, and I suspect his case will be summarily dismissed. Meanwhile Jeff Kent and Bernie Williams and John Olerud do not seem to have any PED whispers around them, but their numbers — which in other years would have put them very much in the center of Hall of Fame conversations — seem to fall a bit short when compared with the bulked up hitters of their time.

In other words, I suspect four of the nine will get elected to the Hall by the BBWAA, though Bagwell’s support did take a dip last year. Four Hall of Famers in one birth year is still a lot, but I don’t think it quite captures just how remarkable a year that was.