“Baseball’s Who’s Who of What Ifs:
Players Derailed en Route to Cooperstown”
The publishing info:
Released March 17, 2021
The review in 90 feet or less
It’s official: There will be no curious case of why Mike Trout will be able to muscle his way through the front door of the Baseball Hall of Fame someday with a lifetime pass.
No doubt, his WAR-boggling achievements amassed by the yet-to-turn 30 year old Angels centerfielder – a three-time American League MVP (’14, ’16, ’19), the 2012 AL Rookie of Year, eight-time All Star (nine, if one was played in ’20), two-time All-Star Game MVP – are the obvious bullet points toward his resume building. A Twitter feed called Mike Trout Slash Line even lets us know on an at-bat basis what his career numbers are trending. There may be some otherwise vague set of guidelines about what constitutes a Cooperstown-caliber career, which continues to baffle writers such as Forbes’ Bernie Pleskoff, but Trout can’t reasonably be pooh-poohed.
But as of the 2020 campaign, Jay Jaffe of FanGraphs.com pointed out last July, Trout has satisfied the Hall of Fame’s eligibility rule 3(B) of having played in “each of ten (10) Major League championship seasons.” (even if there’s some gray area about what a “championship season” entails — didn’t 1994 end without a championship?).
This requirement — however it came about — isn’t something to take for granted.
Jaffe, also the author of the exhaustively impressive and often referenced 2017 book “The Cooperstown Casebook” (which we interviewed him about its release), noted in his FanGraphs post that Trout’s participation in the 2020 COVID-19-polluted season was hardly a given.
Trout’s first child was coming due and before the MLB braintrust trusted everything was in place to start an abbreviated campaign in late July, Trout himself wasn’t convinced he’d come back, calling it “a tough situation .. honestly I don’t feel that comfortable.”
A few high-profile players did sit things out. Trout eventually played, and was fifth in the AL MVP voting.
We know this in part because Bill Deane does the list of Awards Voting for SABR and it is posted on Baseball-Reference. … It’s all here.
In the preface of this new book documenting the careers of players who either came up short of a Hall of Fame career because of circumstances beyond their control, “Baseball’s Who’s Who of What Ifs” author Deane — and can we thank the editors for making correct use of apostrophes? — begins with the idea that famous people who die young create an aura of fascination in pop culture and beyond.
As Deane continued:
Along the same lines, much has already been told and written over the years about athletes who might have become immortals if only fate hadn’t intervened. Unlike participants in other sports, a baseball player has to sustain excellence for a long period of time to qualify for its Hall of Fame. Bill Walton played just 468 NBA games, less than six full season’s worth, yet was elected to the Naismith Baseball Hall of Fame. Gayle Sayers played just 68 NFL games yet made the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But to qualify for Cooperstown, one must have played in at least 10 major league seasons (if Mike Trout had been killed by COVID-19 before the 2020 season, he wouldn’t have been eligible) and, for all practical purposes, excelled for at least a decade. Short-term stars need not apply.”
So, where do we start with dismantling that paragraph?
* Walton’s Basketball Hall induction obviously takes into consideration his legendary college career achievements at UCLA. By the way, the 1977 NBA Finals MVP, the ‘77-78 NBA regular season MVP and 1986 Sixth Man of the Year, playing on two title teams, is honored at a facility in Springfield, Mass., that is not called the NBA Hall of Fame.
* Sandy Koufax hardly meets that suggestion that one has to have “excelled for at least a decade” and “short-term stars need not apply.” In his 12-year MLB season, the first six look like a reason why one should retire early. The last six created his legend, and there’s only more wishful thinking of what would have happened if he didn’t retire after his age-30 season, after leading the league in wins, ERA, innings pitched and strike outs, plus another NL pennant.
* “If Trout had been killed by COVID-19 …”
Let’s sit with that one for a second.
That’s about as insidiously insensitive and distasteful a way to try to emphasize the apparent rigidness of this 10-year eligibility requirement.
Somehow, we’re having a tough time getting past that sentence. The hors d’oeuvre has almost lose our appetite for going further.
Listen, all things considered, if something did happen to tragically end Trout’s career (including his life), the hope is that the Hall trustees, sensitive to the plea of the fans and the goodness of the game, would figure out a way to make sure Trout was immortalized with a plaque? (It won’t hurt that the soon-to-be-departing Hall president, Tim Mead, is a former long-time Angel employee/assistant GM known to make things happen). We have examples of players fast-tracked into the Hall after tragic circumstances — see Roberto Clemente and Roy Halladay, even though both played well past the 10-year mark and amassed plenty of measurable achievements.
Let’s get a tongue-scraper and trudge on …
In the interest of not assuming someone’s first 10 years of playing time is a slam-dunk for Hall of Fame induction, there was once a recent can’t-miss Cooperstown inductee who starred in center field and, in something that surpasses Trout, helped make his team appear in the post-season all 10 of his first seasons.
From 1996 to 2006, Andruw Jones was an NL Rookie of the Year, nine-time Gold Glove winner and five-time All Star, leading the majors with 51 homers and the NL with 128 RBIs in ’05 at age 28 when he was runner-up in NL MVP voting. He had also been in 75 playoff games in his first 10 seasons.
At age 30, he exercised his free-agency rights and went to the Dodgers (as Ned Colletti got Scott Boras to a agree to a two-year contract worth $36.2 million, with $9 million in ’08, $15 million in ’09, and a $12 million signing bonus.).
It was one big mess from that pivotal point forward.
The team decided to eat the rest of his contract following one injury-plagued season (75 games, 3 HRs, 14 RBIs, .158 average), a $20 million-plus dump. Jones/Boras then duped the Rangers, White Sox and Yankees to keep him employed through 2012, allowing him to walk away at age 35 with 434 homers, almost 2,000 hits and a modest .254 career average. And more than $120 million banked in contracts.
Ten great seasons. Seven sloppy ones.
Still, a 62.7 WAR that ranks 108th of all time and is something that weighs far more in someone’s favor these days than before. As you see, in his first year of Hall of Fame eligibility, Jones may have only received 7.3 percent of the votes, barely hanging in to stay on the ballot. But in 2021, as his voting percentage jumped to 33.9 percent, as it could be time to reconsider his entire body of work rather than just how it ended.
Maybe a player like Trout also makes one think twice about someone like Jones.
There are 40 players Deane decided to take a deeper dive into their careers, trying to explain with research and little polished prose how their Hall trajectory was somehow diverted. Jones didn’t make that list – perhaps because his case isn’t closed yet.
Deane says his criteria was “difficult” to create, but at the essence, the player can’t be in the Hall because of “circumstance or tragedy.” It can’t be self-inflicted (the steroid suspects, and the drug users, and … Pete Rose).
That assumption, then, leads to the assessment that without a bad break or two — including an untimely death, but then again, when is death really timely? — a player would have had a real decent shot of being voted in based on career stats accumulated.
That can be a huge leap.
In the Top 40 here, we’re led to believe players like Rick Ankiel, Lyman Bostock, Tony Conigliaro, Mark Fidrych, Ken Hubbs, Mark Prior, J.R. Richards, Dickie Thon and Brandon Webb were on a HOF trajectory.
Eh … OK … but …
(Side note: Deane seems to take some pride in having figured out that Bostock officially died on Sept. 24, 1978, instead of Sept. 23 as “long listed in ‘official’ sources, based on an UPI wire service story. We note that Bostock’s death is accurately recorded at Baseball Reference.com, in his SABR biography, and on his Inglewood Park Cemetery headstone. It is incorrect on his official Wikipedia page.)
There are others – Tommy Davis, Jose Fernandez, Jim Maloney, Carlos May, Denny McLain, Don Newcombe, Pete Reiser – that we have some historical reference points, can figure out why they made this list, but we’re still not sold they wouldn’t have been Hall deserving had fate been kinder. Maybe. Just maybe.
Then there are those names that may need more research and context, which Deane provides. Ray Chapman, Herb Score, Monty Stratton, Hal Trosky, Al Rosen and Joe Wood – some of whom actually played 10 or more years and were still turned down by Veterans Committee consideration.
But wait, there’s more.
“Appendix A: Honorable Mention” mentions those Deane considers “pretty good” and had a few notable achievements or awards but still didn’t make the 40 cut. Those 108 names include Jim Abbott, Nomar Garciaparra, Vida Blue, Dean Chance, Dwight Gooden, Bret Saberhagen, Thurman Munson, Bo Jackson, Dave Kingman, Darryl Kile, Dontrelle Willis, Johan Santana and David Wright (the later of whom is a seven-time All Star who played in New York and becomes Hall voting eligible in 2024).
And if that’s not enough – and don’t you think it ought to be? — we plow into another group called “Appendix B: Players Who Made the Hall Despite Careers Cut Short” where the likes of Clemente, Koufax, Jackie Robinson, Ted Williams and Dizzy Dean can be explained.
(As a reminder: Robinson, starting his career as a 28-year-old first baseman for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947, finished as a 37-year-old infielder/outfielder in ’56 with 10 seasons on the back of his baseball card. A .311 career average and all other sorts of reasons led to his Cooperstown induction in 1961 – his first year of eligibility, since the Baseball Writers Association of America were only casting ballots for recent major league players on even-numbered years. Still, Robinson received just enough — 77.5 percent of the votes – to get him in along with Bob Feller, also first-time eligible.)
As for Robinson, Deane writes only one graph, not really explaining what sort of circumstances cut his career short, but only opine that he “accomplished enough” to merit induction. But we do know why it ended, right? Robinson with the Giants would have qualified as a tragedy by a loose definition of the word.
How it goes in the scorebook
A few votes short of a consensus.
It’s not that this is a terrible idea. Subjectivity comes into play, which is key to starting discussion and debate. It’s just that the execution here seems more random, with formulaic research and little room offered for context — something Jaffe does so well in his Cooperstown measurements.
Some times, well-written essays combined with research are a better way to find out what happened to someone’s life and career. For those like Conigliaro and Bostock, they’ve been well executed in book bio form and are worthy of individual expansion.
We leave this feeling it was better suited for an extended magazine story – perhaps in the Cooperstown Gazette – rather than spinning wheels on pages that, once you get past the initial 40, feels like it’s swimming just to fill space, or create a backstop for anyone who thinks his Top 40 had some obvious misses. Interviews along the way with four people from his Top 40 list – Thon, Steve Busby (the former USC star), Carlos May and Boo Ferriss, before his 2016 passing) – don’t add as much depth as we’d expected. Not even Wes Parker talking about Dodgers teammate Davis seems to make strong cases for anything, but they could have.
For what it’s worth, Deane, a longtime SABR contributor, and a Henry Chadwick Award winner, is an actual Cooperstown, N.Y.,-adjacent resident with his family. He has said he enjoys the research part of this far more than the writing. Maybe next time, incorporate a writing partner who can make this a bit more enjoyable and memorable.
More to cover
== Other works by Bill Deane include:
= “Finding the Hidden Ball Trick: The Colorful History of Baseball’s Oldest Ruse,” from 2015
= “Baseball Myths: Debating, Debunking, and Disproving Tales from the Diamond,” from 2012
There’s more to read on his WordPress blog, DizzyDeane.wordpress.com, including an excerpt of the Jose Fernandez chapter.
== A further clarification on the 10-year/10-season rule to be Hall eligible:
== More cool info on Mike Trout: