A Strange Cooperstown Proposal

baseballhallIn 1936, five players were elected as the inaugural class for the Baseball Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson.

The Immortal Five. Legends all.

High standards, indeed, for induction, and that’s the way it should be. The Hall of Fame should be reserved only for the greatest of the greats.

With membership going up to 189 players after Ozzie Smith was voted in last week, the Hall has descended too far from its Promethean heights.

Ruth and Cobb should not be surrounded by Phil Rizzuto, George Kelly, Ray Schalk, Rick Ferrell, Jimmy Collins, Lloyd Waner and Tommy McCarthy.

Phil Rizzuto? An immortal? Not in a pantheon created by baseball scholars. Simon and Garfunkel didn’t sing, “Where have you gone, Phil Rizzuto/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you/Woo, woo, woo.”

Rogers Hornsby, the Rajah, said it best for the immortals: “The big trouble is not really who isn’t in the Hall of Fame, but who is. It was established for a select few.”

Eppa Rixey, 266-251 in his career as a pitcher, said it best for the mortals: “They selected me to the Hall? They’re really scraping the bottom of the barrel, aren’t they?”

Here’s an idea that may be extreme but certainly would ensure that Hall of Fame standards never would be relaxed: Limit the Hall to 25 players. Here’s the kicker: Keep it that exclusive. To put an immortal in, you must take an immortal out.

In this version of the Hall of Fame, on-base percentage and slugging average are more significant than batting average. Run production (runs and RBIs) is even more important. Defense counts (that’s why Joe DiMaggio is ranked higher than Ted Williams), but positions don’t (this Hall has six center fielders but only one catcher, Josh Gibson, and one third baseman, Mike Schmidt). Eras and ballparks must be taken into consideration, and longevity does not an immortal make (example: Don Sutton vs. Sandy Koufax).

The sacred 25

1. Babe Ruth. He was more popular than presidents, Hollywood stars or the raging bull market of the ’20s. His stats (.690 career slugging average, 12 home run titles) speak for themselves, but they hardly begin to define his Brobdingnagian impact on America’s culture.

2. Willie Mays. Like Ruth, an electrifying presence inside and outside the world of baseball. Had five golden tools (could hit, hit with power, run, field and throw). Considered by baseball scholars as the greatest defensive player regardless of position.

3. Honus Wagner. Despite his stocky build, he played shortstop with effortless grace and led the National League in batting average eight times and slugging percentage six times.

4. Oscar Charleston. Barrel-chested with spindly legs, this Negro Leagues star had a physical resemblance to Ruth, and he also was a power hitter. John McGraw called him the best player he had ever seen.

5. Pop Lloyd. One anecdote says it all about this Negro Leagues shortstop and his 26-year career (1906-32). Announcer Graham McNamee asked Ruth who was the greatest player of all time. Ruth: “You mean major leaguers?” McNamee: “No, the greatest player anywhere.” Ruth: “In that case, I would pick John Henry Lloyd.”

6. Ty Cobb. Mean as a junkyard dog, racist to the bone, despised by opponents and teammates. The achievements, though, cannot be ignored: highest lifetime average (.366) and a record 12 batting titles. In the famous 1936 Hall balloting, Cobb drew more votes than Ruth.

7. Hank Aaron. Broke Ruth’s career home run record, which had been considered absolutely untouchable. Never hit more than 47 homers in a season yet finished with 755. Also was a superb baserunner and skilled right fielder. His quick wrists were the stuff of legend. Don Drysdale said: “Trying to throw a fastball past Henry Aaron is like trying to get a sunrise past a rooster.”

8. Lou Gehrig. An angelic assassin, Gehrig was an RBI machine and an ironman while playing 2,130 consecutive games. When he died at 37 of the nerve disorder that bears his name, his legend transcended sport and became part of the country’s lore.

9. Joe DiMaggio. An American icon. Seemed to walk on water in the outfield. His 56-game hitting streak in 1941 might never be broken. Led the Yankees to nine World Series titles. Perhaps most amazing of all: He never struck out more than 39 times in a season.

10. Ted Williams. Perhaps the greatest pure hitter ever. Finished with the best career on-base percentage in history (.483) and second-best slugging average (.634). Hit 521 career homers, despite losing almost five years to World War II and the Korean War.

11. Walter Johnson. All fastballs, all the time. Won 417 games (second to Cy Young’s 511) playing for one of the least successful teams of his era (1907-27), the Washington Senators. His 110 lifetime shutouts never will be approached.

12. Lefty Grove. A temperamental lefthander, he won nine ERA titles, and his 3.06 career ERA is underrated, considering he pitched in a hitters park and during a juiced-ball era. Went 31-4 for the Philadelphia Athletics in 1931.

13. Josh Gibson. The Babe Ruth of the Negro Leagues, he crushed larger-than-life home runs. He hit nearly 800 homers before dying of a stroke at 35. Rated by many as the best catcher in history.

14. Rogers Hornsby. Generally considered the greatest righthanded hitter ever. Hit .424 in 1924, and finished with a .358 lifetime mark, second only to Cobb’s .366. Averaged .402 from 1921-25, an unprecedented accomplishment.

15. Christy Mathewson. Gentleman, scholar, football All-American. Won 373 games with a dazzling screwball and uncanny control. He was the dominant pitcher in the game during the early part of the 20th century.

16. Mickey Mantle. God blessed him, then threw a few curveballs at this once-in-a-century athlete. The knees began hurting early. A drinking problem kept him from hitting 800 home runs, his destiny. His 536 homers pale in comparison with Aaron’s 755 and Mays’ 660, yet in his prime Mantle was better than either.

17. Jimmie Foxx. Said Ted Williams of The Beast: “I never saw anyone hit a baseball harder.” Clubbed 58 home runs in 1932, despite not getting anything to hit in the last weeks of the season.

18. Tris Speaker. Revolutionized outfield play by anticipating where the ball would be hit and moving before the batter made contact. By playing shallow in center, he set outfielder records for double plays and assists. He had a clue at the plate, too: 3,514 hits and a .345 lifetime average.

19. Stan Musial. The statistical legacy: 17 years hitting .300 or better, seven batting titles, three MVPs. The enduring legacy: “The Man.”

20. Grover Cleveland Alexander. Won 373 games and threw 90 shutouts, second all-time. Won Triple Crown for pitchers (wins, strikeouts, ERA) four times from 1915-20.

21. Satchel Paige. A showman par excellence, Paige ranks as the best pitcher ever in the Negro Leagues. In 1930, he struck out 22 major leaguers in a barnstorming game.

22. Sandy Koufax. From 1963-66, he was perhaps the best pitcher of all time. In that four-year span, he had ERAs of 1.88, 1.74, 2.04 and 1.73; strikeout counts of 306, 223, 382 and 317; and win totals of 25, 19, 26 and 27. He stands as a symbol of quality over longevity.

23. Napoleon Lajoie. He hit .426 in 1901 and .338 lifetime. So popular that the Cleveland Blues were renamed the Naps in 1903.

24. Mike Schmidt. This exceptional athlete collected eight home run titles, 10 Gold Gloves and three MVP awards.

25. Jackie Robinson. In terms of impact on a culture, he ranks No. 1 and could never be replaced in this Hall. As a player, he helped lead the Dodgers to six pennants in 10 years.

Closest calls

Cy Young. 511 victories and pitching’s most prestigious award named after him.

Johnny Bench. Revolutionized the catcher position. Great defensive player. In his 20s, tremendous power numbers. But faded rapidly, too rapidly.

Frank Robinson. Has requisite stats (586 career homers, 1,812 RBIs), just not quite as good as Mays, Mantle or Aaron from his generation.

Shoeless Joe Jackson. More of a legend than any player except Ruth. Hit for average (.356 lifetime) and power (168 triples) in dead-ball era.

Joe Morgan. Arguably the most valuable component of the Big Red Machine. The consummate team player, he topped the National League in on-base percentage four times and won back-to-back MVP awards in 1975 and ’76.

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