The Finalists: Tommy John and Joe Torre
Our continuing series on the 12 players on the Baseball Hall of Fame Expansion Era ballot.
Summary: Pitched in the big leagues for an amazing 26 seasons -- and he actually lost a full season in the middle because of, well, a certain kind of elbow injury that had no surgical solution. Cy Young never won a Cy Young. Tommy John did not have the option of having Tommy John surgery. But he did have a risky kind of surgery that would someday bear his name, and he pitched 14 more seasons and twice finished second in the Cy Young balloting. The quick case: John’s case usually begins with his 288 victories -- the most for any eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Famer (well, Roger Clemens has more victories and has been on the ballot one season so far). John threw more than 4,700 innings (20th all-time), had pinpoint control (10 times he finished among the leaders in fewest walks per nine) and was probably the greatest in baseball history at coaxing the double-play grounder.
Most double plays forced since 1916:
1. Tommy John, 605 2. Jim Kaat, 462 3. Gaylord Perry,451 4. Phil Niekro, 431 5. Greg Maddux, 422.
He also helped revolutionize the game by coming back and pitching effectively after the revolutionary reconstructive elbow surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe.
The history: John was on the BBWAA ballot for 15 seasons, topping out at 31.7% in his final year. His numbers never went up and they never really went down either. He pretty consistently received about one-quarter of the vote.
Comparable Hall of Famer: There are a few, but he was probably somewhere between Eppa Rixey and Don Sutton.
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Summary: An excellent player -- and former MVP -- Torre is on the ballot as a manager. He managed 29 seasons for five teams and his teams won more than 2,300 games. His greatest success, of course, was with the New York Yankees, who won four World Series championships in five years.
The quick case: It’s pretty simple -- every single eligible manager with three or more World Series championships is in the Hall of Fame. Torre’s teams won four and won two other pennants. He navigated the choppy George Steinbrenner waters and New York media landscape as well as anyone could. He is all but certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame.
The history: This is really Torre’s first look as a manager, but he was a good enough player to stay on the ballot for 15 years. In his last year on the ballot, he received 22.1% of the vote, his highest total.
Comparable Hall of Famer: As a manager, he had some similarities to Sparky Anderson in how he stayed positive and handled the various egos on his team with quiet style.
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I put Torre and John together for a specific reason. The Baseball Hall of Fame, as we have talked about her pretty often, means different things to different people. Well for one thing, everyone has his/her own standard for the Hall of Fame, and it’s quite likely that every single person reading this would have different players in their personal Hall of Fame. But I’m not exactly talking about standards here. What I mean is that the Hall of Fame MEANS different things to different people.
Here’s a little game to play. You get your own personal Hall of Fame ... but you are only allowed to put five people in it. That’s all. Five. Who would you put in?
Let’s say you would put in: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson. That’s a fine list. What you are probably saying is that you believe that the Hall of Fame should have the best players in it.
OK, but may you would put in: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds. Well, that’s a different kind of list. Maybe you are saying that you want five players who tell the story of baseball.
What about these five: Marvin Miller, Vin Scully, Bill James, Satchel Paige and Sy Berger (the father of Topps baseball cards).
Or these five: Duane Kuiper, Buddy Bell, Greg Maddux, Raul Ibanez and Buck O’Neil. Those five are, well, you know, my favorites.
You could go like this forever. The five you choose reflect your own personal view of baseball.
My personal view is that the Hall of Fame has not done a good enough job commemorating the people who contributed to baseball in a variety of ways. This feeling goes back to that rotten day in 2006 when Buck O’Neil was not elected to the Hall of Fame. You might remember: There was a panel of Negro Leagues historians -- the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues or SCNL -- who essentially were given unbridled freedom to elect as many people as they wanted from the Negro Leagues. They took full advantage of this and elected SEVENTEEN people into the Hall.
They elected owners, executives, scouts, players, writers. It was a free for all and, in my opinion, it was not only a disservice to the Hall of Fame, it was a disservice to their own mission. By electing 17, they essentially elected none. It was like a lawyer blinding the other side with paperwork. If you give people 17 things to think about all at once, they will pay attention to none of them. These days Ben Taylor and Louis Santop and Ray Brown and Jose Mendez and Pete Hill and Frank Grant and Andy Cooper and Sol White and Jud Wilson are all in the Hall of Fame, and there’s a pretty good chance you don’t know a thing about any of them -- including the fact that they are in the Hall of Fame.
But even in their misguided throw-open-the-door policy of electing basically anyone they could think of, they could not find it in their hearts to vote for Buck O’Neil, who was actually alive (unlike any of the 17) and was probably the biggest reason there even WAS a Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in the first place. I’ve written often about being with him that day at the Negro Leagues Museum. It was awful. Buck, of course, handled it with the greatest dignity because he was Buck O’Neil. But it was still awful. I have been told by people who would probably know that the SCNL was set up largely as a way to honor Buck O’Neil and his lifelong effort to celebrate the Negro leagues. And then that very committee could not come up with enough votes to honor him. It was like not being invited to your own birthday party.
The committee had many smart and reasonable people on it, and their reasoning seemed to be as follows: Buck was not a good enough player to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was a good player, but not Hall of Fame worthy -- a point I agree with. They said Buck was not a good enough manager to be elected to the Hall of Fame. That’s a closer call -- Buck was an excellent manager and one of the most respected men in the Negro Leagues -- but, OK, let’s grant that one too. Buck was a pioneer, the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues, but nobody seemed to know what to do with that information.
The committee suggested that Buck’s scouting -- he was integral in signing Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter and Lee Smith, not to mention his role in the careers of Billy Williams and Elston Howard -- was not really applicable because there is currently no channel for scouts to get into the Hall of Fame. I think this is wrong, by the way, but I had particularly little regard for the SCNL argument because they did induct Alex Pompez, who had a fairly undistinguished career as a Negro Leagues owner and executive. Pompez’s major contribution to baseball was really in scouting Latin America and signing players like Tony Oliva and Orlando Cepeda.
But OK, let’s grant that also that Buck’s brilliant scouting career cannot alone make him a Hall of Famer. Finally, they really did not seem to know what to do with the 50-odd years that Buck O’Neil spent commemorating the Negro Leagues, keeping the memory alive, traveling the country and telling stories, helping found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, on and on and on. They seemed to ignore all that.
And so, in the end, the committee broke Buck O’Neil’s baseball life into five smaller parts and decided that none of the parts on their own made him worthy of the Hall of Fame. Now, the fact that they elected SEVENTEEN people into the Hall of Fame and parsed Buck O’Neil into oblivion tells me there were other reasons they did not vote for Buck But that’s old news. My point here is that the Baseball Hall of Fame has often ignored people who contributed to the game in multiple ways while electing people who were excellent at one thing.
Tommy John, for instance, was a very good pitcher. His career value seems to put him somewhere in the circle with Don Drysdale and Dennis Eckersley and Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning and so on. Those are Hall of Famers. He also fits in with Jim Kaat and Bobby Mathews and others who are not Hall of Famers. He pitched a very long time and had some excellent years and many good years. If he had “won” 12 more games, he would be in the Hall of Fame right now. Twelve more would have given him 300 wins. You know how many no-decisions John had when he pitched eight-plus inning and gave up one-or-fewer runs? Thirteen. Yeah. It’s that close.
But here’s the thing about John: His decision to have exploratory elbow surgery in 1974 changed baseball. At the time, Dr. Frank Jobe put his chances of recovery at one in 100. John was in so much pain and so desperately wanted to pitch again that he took the chance. He spent all of 1975 rehabilitating his arm. In 1976, he returned and pitched more than 200 innings. The next year, he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting. His success encouraged others. And now Tommy John surgery is a bigger part of baseball than Cracker Jacks. You almost never see people at the ballpark eating Cracker Jacks. You almost always see a pitcher who had Tommy John surgery.
So how should the surgery affect John’s Hall of Fame case? Again, people will disagree but I think it’s a huge part of his case. He helped change the game. And he was an excellent pitcher. It should all go into one big bucket of Tommy Johnness.
The same goes with Joe Torre. When you combine his playing AND his managing, Joe Torre is unquestionably one of the great figures in the history of baseball. As a player, Torre was fantastic -- everyone remembers his 1971 MVP season when he hit .363 with 137 RBIs, but he was about as good in 1970 and 1967 and 1966. He was .300 hitter with some power. People forget that he won a Gold Glove as a catcher in 1965 and the next year he threw out 49% of the runners who tried to steal against him. He had a great arm. If he had stayed at catcher, he might be in the Hall of Fame already. Instead, he was moved to third base where he struggled a bit defensively (though hit like a star).
And then, as a manager, he suffered through two decades of mediocrity. For one thing, he spent the first decade or so managing mediocre or dysfunctional teams. For another, he simply had not found his rhythm. He did lead the Atlanta Braves to the playoffs one year, and his St. Louis Cardinals had winning records. But it wasn’t until he got to New York that it all came together -- a perfect match of team and manager. Torre’s managing was never fancy and often predictable, but he knew how to grab the moment in the postseason. He knew how ballplayers thought and he knew how sportswriters thought and he knew how George Steinbrenner thought and he knew how to make all of it work.
Torre will get elected on this ballot, I feel confident in saying that, but again there’s a question: Shouldn’t Joe Torre’s entire career -- as a player, as a manager, as a representative of the game -- be considered when thinking about the Hall of Fame. It might not matter for Torre. But I think about Gill Hodges -- wonderful player, also managed the Miracle Mets. Should that managing part help his case? How much? I suspect everyone answers those questions a little bit differently.