10 February 2005

Two Wrongs Don't Make a Right

I don't believe it, but the talking heads on sports radio have found yet another excuse for putting Roger Maris in the Hall of Fame. I just dealt with this issue a week or two ago, but it's back, and, like Mike and Mike in the Morning, not better than ever.

The logic goes something like this:

1) Jose Canseco says that Mark McGuire was cheating, so maybe he was. We know Barry Bonds has cheated and it's possible that Sammy Sosa was too, though nobody has named him outright yet.

2) If those who passed Roger Maris to take the single-season home run record weren't legit, and they're going to be in the Hall of Fame, then Maris' record was all the more impressive.

3) Therefore, since Maris "earned" his record, he should be in Cooperstown.

Mike Greenberg and Steve Phillips were proposing this line of thought this morning on their show, and Mike mentioned that newsman Bob Pecose had initially brought it to his attention. Pecose, like me, was raised a Yankee fan, so you can see why he would be biased towards Maris. I, however, try to keep personal stuff like that out of the picture when thinking about things like this.

The idea was simply that Maris' record must be remembered somehow, since it's no longer the record, but it now appears that his record was more legitimate than the current ones. Putting Maris in Cooperstown, as the player who held that record the longest, would accomplish this. Greenberg contended that Maris deserves it anyway, that he was a two-time MVP, one of only two eligible players (of 20) with two or more who are not in the Hall. (The other is Dale Murphy, who has a more compelling Cooperstown case, but still doesn't belong there, in my opinion.) Maris was also supposedly a great defensive outfielder, and of course he held the single-season home run record longer than anyone else in history, 37 years, 4 more than Babe Ruth held it.

That's a pretty weak case in my book. First of all, the last of those points is just silly. Maris had no control over when he broke the record, and therefore deserves absolutely no extra credit for having his career when he had it. Earl Webb has held the single season record for doubles (67) since 1931. That no one's been able to best him doesn't make him worthy of the Hall.

Besides, Maris' record, though it is not the record any longer, had its own extenuating circumstances, as the American League added two expansion teams in 1961, adding eight additional games and increasing home runs/game by 7.4% from 1960. Take away those eight games and drop the rate by 7.4% and Maris hits only 54 homers, not 61, and Rajah is remembered only as an also-ran in the 1961 MVP race, finishing well behind Mickey Mantle. Maris may have won two MVP awards, but Mantle deserved at least one of those, if not both, in two of the closest MVP votes in history.

By my count, there are 78 players currently in Cooperstown who are listed as having been predominantly an outfielder, firstbaseman or DH, i.e. those whose offensive contributions were paramount in their careers. Maris' .260 career batting average would perhaps be the second lowest of any of these in the Hall, ahead of only Harmon Killebrew, who hit almost 300 more home runs than Maris did, while playing ten seasons more than Maris, and walking a lot more often. Maris' .345 OBP would be the 4th lowest in the Hall for OF/1B DH types. These are the three below him on that list:

Name         Years  .300+  100RBI  100Runs  All-Star   Other
Tony Perez 22 2 7 2 7 379 HR, 505 2B
George Kelly 16 7 5 0 N/A 337 2B
Lou Brock 20 8 0 7 6 938 SB
Roger Maris 12 0 3 1 4 61*

Those middle columns are the numbers of seasons that each player hit .300 or higher, had 100RBI or 100 Runs scored, All-Star Selections, and finally any other reason they might belong in the Hall. As you can see, each of these players, despite their relatively pedestrian OBP numbers, were better players than Maris in at least a couple of areas. Lou Brock was the most prolific base stealer in baseball for the better part of two decades, went to two more All-Star games than did Maris, and did his job as a leadoff man well enough to score 100+ runs seven different times, not to mention at least 92 runs in three other seasons. Tony Perez, a borderline Hall of Famer in his own right, hit over 300 more doubles than Maris, over 100 more homers, played ten more seasons, had 100 RBI seven times (and 90 or more five more times). George "Highpockets" Kelley, another borderline guy, hit .300 seven times in his 16-year career, part of which occurred during the Dead Ball Era.

*It should be noted that, other than Hall of Famers, this list also would include guys who aren't yet eligible (Bonds, Palmiero, etc.) and guys who never will be eligible, namely Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Numerous players aren't yet retired for five years, so thay can't be in the Hall yet, though they too are much better than Roger Maris was. Also, Joe Jackson was permanently banned from baseball because of his involvement in the 1919 Black Sox Scandal. Also, if you heard any Pete Rose interviews before 2004, you know he was kicked out for football betting.

For all the talk that Maris was a great defensive outfielder, he won only one gold glove in his 12 seasons, and more modern measurements of his defensive abilities, like Bill James' defensive Win Shares or Baseball Prospectus' fielding runs, do not seem to indicate that he was even good, let alone great, in the field.

Maris didn't hustle either, and you don't have to take Jim Bouton's word for it: Despite all his power, he hit more than 21 doubles only once in his career, and remains the only player in history with more than 250 homers but fewer than 200 doubles. Loafers don't get into my Hall of Fame.

To quote Greenie, "at the end of the day" Maris was
a good but not great outfielder who had one really good season. He was in the right place at the right time, and didn't choke in the spotlight.

His record is on the wall at Cooperstown where other such records are, 7th on the single-season home run list, where it belongs. The rest of Maris' career was in no way worthy of induction in Cooperstown.

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