The Straw That Stirs the Stink
July 22, 2012 by Jeff Kallman • Print Story •
Mr. Robert Watkins, a writer for Yahoo! Contributor Network, asks: "Did Reggie Jackson deserve Cooperstown?" He is provoked to the question by a) Jackson's recent comments (in Sports Illustrated) questioning the Hall of Fame credentials of Jim Rice and Gary Carter; and, b) Mr. October's concurrent questioning of Alex Rodriguez's prospective legitimacy for consideration. Not to mention, c) comments he received, after writing about the Yankees' apparent (albeit temporary) banishment of Jackson from the organization.
The comments in question ranged from the ludicrous to the misinformed and back. To quote one Mr. Watkins cited: "Jackson batted .227 over the last five years of his career. We always [hear] of other guys holding on too long but never Reggie. He should have hung it up after 82 in my book. That would have given him 464 homers. Hall of Fame — no."
Well, now. We're basing a Hall of Fame election on when a player "should" have hung it up, are we? By that measure, we should say goodbye concurrently to Mickey Mantle. After all, he should have hung it up after 1964, by the numbers to come, right? And wouldn't Mantle have under 500 lifetime bombs if he had? Hit the road, Commerce Comet. Steve Carlton lingered six seasons beyond 1982, which some think was his last serviceable season, by his standards. He would have ended up short of 300 wins if he had. Sayonara, Sphinx.
It gets better, and you begin to feel for Mr. Watkins: "When did a .262 career batting average become a ticket to the Hall of Fame?" Looks like we're going to have to purge the greatest all-around third baseman ever to play the game. After all, Mike Schmidt batted a measly .267 lifetime. Guess the fact that he produced an average of 208 runs per 162 games while playing, arguably, the second-most demanding position on the field, means nothing. Not to mention leading his league in home runs eight times (that's as many as Mays and Hank Aaron combined; or, Mays and Mantle combined) and finishing his career 103.0 wins above a replacement-level player.
It also looks like we'll have to say goodbye to the second-greatest catcher ever to be on the field, too. After all, Johnny Bench only hit .267 lifetime. (Yes, I said second-greatest: Yogi Berra edges Bench by a small margin. I did say small.) How about throwing Carlton Fisk out of Cooperstown? After all, the man only hit .269 lifetime. And I notice a .262 lifetime batting average didn't keep Gary Carter out of Cooperstown, either. Nor should it have done. If there's a reason to beef about Jackson's including Carter in his Hall of Fame critique, that's it. Jackson is nothing if not a man who has asked, at bottom, that you see his entire game. (Look between Mr. October's lines and you see a guy who always strained awkwardly enough toward asking that his overall work be appreciated.) Shouldn't he do likewise to those players about whom he chooses to comment?
Alex Rodriguez, as Allen Barra (now of the Village Voice) points out, has taken something of the high road regarding Jackson's demurral from his Cooperstown prospectus. "But someone ought to point out, so I suppose I will," Barra continues, "that the only accusations made about Rodriguez have been for his years in Texas and that a study of those years proved that his road production was commensurate with his other road seasons and that his apparent boost in power came from playing in the Rangers home stadium — where everyone's power numbers received a boost."
From Mr. Watkins's apparent fan club again: "More strikeouts than hits, his career extra base hit numbers are a joke, and he only lead the league (in) homers once ... and he knocks Jim Rice?" Actually, Jackson led his league in home runs four times to Rice's three. He averaged 27 doubles per 162 games, incidentally. And he didn't spend most of his career in home parks weighted to hitting in general or left-handed hitting in particular. It's worthwhile to ponder what his numbers might have been if Yankee Stadium (always manna to left-handed hitters) had been his home park for more than five years.
Rice's Hall of Fame case is cut considerably by a little home-park stat inflation, and he happens to meet fewer of the Hall of Fame standards (by the Bill James measurement, a pretty good measurement when all is said and done) than Jackson does. As a matter of fact, Rice meets 43 percent of the standards to Jackson's 54; the average Hall of Famer would meet 50.
One more from the fan club, please: "Reggie played most of his career in California, first with Oakland and then with the Angels, if the Yankees had lost the 78 World Series where he hit 3 homers he'd be nothing to Yankee fans." This isn't exactly giving Yankee fans too much credit, is it? Yankee fans may have a troubling sense that their team is entitled (entitled, mind you) to reach the postseason year in and year out. But if there's one thing they never forget it's an outstanding World Series performance, no matter the end of it on which the Yankees finish. Three bombs, on three swings, against three single servings, in three consecutive plate appearances, would be remembered even if the Yankees had lost that Series in four straight.
Okay, let's address the first absurdity in the foregoing quote. He played most of his career in California! Oh, the horror! So did Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale. So did Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, and Juan Marichal. You may have heard that Jackson won a World Series ring or three while playing in California, too. Three consecutive, to be precise. Mays, McCovey, and Marichal might have won a couple of Series rings themselves if it hadn't been for Koufax (half a pennant by himself, when the 1960s Dodgers were winning pennants) and Drysdale's teams winning three of them. Come to think of it, Marichal might have been winning a few Cy Young Awards, too, if Koufax hadn't been there to beat him out of them — in the era when the Cy Young Award was given to one pitcher across the board, yet.
If Reggie Jackson would have been "nothing" to Yankee fans in a different '78 Series outcome, he still would have been something to Oakland Athletics fans. Oh, that's right. They're California fans. The hell with them.
Halt right there, Kallman. Jackson didn't play in the '72 Series. Yes, I can hear you saying that. Jackson couldn't play in the 1972 Series — he was out with a broken thumb, piled atop a hamstring pull he incurred while scoring on a suicide squeeze, in the clinching League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers, as noted by Jim Keller, the historian whom Mr. Watkins cites.
Mr. October didn't earn that nickname by being a shrinking violet in postseason play. But you don't have to do as Watkins cites Keller doing and hang his Hall of Fame case strictly on his postseason heroics. If you want to criticize him for scoring 100+ runs only once in his career, you have to look at whether he had great-hitting teams to drive him in when he reached base. Let's look at the pennant winners on which he played:
1972 A's: .240.
1973 A's: .260.
1974 A's: .247.
1977 Yankees (for whom Jackson scored 93 runs): .281.
1978 Yankees: .267.
1981 (strike-shortened) Yankees: .252.
Jackson was a good baserunner, if you rate him by his stolen base percentage of .619. Consider that you weren't paying him to hit early in the order and make a pest of himself on the bases, you were paying him to drive in runs. Given that, I'd have to say that a lifetime average of 89 runs scored per 162 games is an above-average result. He missed 100 runs scored by one in 1973; he scored 90+ runs in seven seasons; he drove in 100+ runs six times. (Did I mention he led his league in runs scored twice?)
And he was a good clutch hitter. Since we think of Jackson mostly as a home run hitter — and we would have thought of him that way even without those three bombs in Game Six of the '78 Series — note that he hit almost half his home runs with men on base. He hit about a third of them with two outs. And, he hit more than half when games were within a run, either way, and a bomb could either tie it, send his team ahead, or buy them some insurance runs.
In the field? Jackson was a slightly below-average right fielder with a below-average throwing arm. He has that much in common with Babe Ruth, incidentally. I haven't noticed any trends toward keeping big, game-breaking hitters out of the Hall of Fame simply because they weren't great defenders.
Mr. Watkins should have known better than to offer this observation, though: "If Bill Mazeroski [sic], Ozzie Smith, and Rick Ferrell belong [in the Hall], then [so does] Reggie." Jackson wasn't the same kind of player as Mazeroski and Smith. They were middle infielders who had a trainload of defence to argue for themselves, against a Hall of Fame culture that underappreciated defence for the most part (Brooks Robinson was the obvious exception) until Mazeroski (2001) and Smith (2002) were inducted. Never mind that the value of run prevention is (and should be) as game-changing a value as run production, even if you value run production (rightly) a little bit higher. (Come on, you don't really think Mazeroski's in the Hall of Fame solely because of his World Series-winning home run, do you?)
Reggie Jackson wasn't a middle infielder. Nor was he a catcher, as Ferrell was. (James has rated him the third-best American League catcher of his era, behind Mickey Cochrane and Bill Dickey.) The values for middle infielders and catchers are different enough from those for corner outfielders.
My unschooled opinion: I think the real knock on Reggie Jackson roots in his strikeout totals and his personality. Yes, he's the all-time strikeout leader among hitters, though Jim Thome may yet pass him if he continues to play, and Thome's going to be standing with a Cooperstown plaque in his arms in due course. Yes, Jackson is nothing if not an outspoken man when he chooses to speak, and was such a man at the peak of his playing career.
There have been a lot worse hitters than Jackson pilling up fat strikeout totals. (Adam Dunn, anyone?) There are a lot bigger mouths than Jackson's in the Hall of Fame. (Rickey Henderson, anyone?) He's far from the only egomaniac (actual or alleged) in the Hall. (Ted Williams and Babe Ruth, anyone?) Take his career objectively, without the swish-outs, without the mouth, and look at the man's entire game. I think Reggie Jackson shakes out as an average Hall of Famer.
This isn't the first time Jackson has put his foot in his mouth when it comes to Cooperstown. A decade ago, as a member of the Veterans Committee, Jackson declined to vote for Marvin Miller's enshrinement, never mind what Miller accomplished for such players as Jackson himself. Said Jackson: the Hall should be for players alone. Would he really wish to purge the Hall of, say, Connie Mack? John McGraw? Casey Stengel? Branch Rickey? Bill Veeck? Doug Harvey? Walter O'Malley? Sparky Anderson?
Ron Santo (posthumously) and Barry Larkin will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this weekend. So will longtime Toronto Sun writer Bob Elliott (J.G. Taylor Spink Award winner to the writers' wing) and longtime broadcaster (and longtime major league catcher) Tim McCarver (Ford Frick Award winner to the broadcasters' wing). Whatever might Jackson think of these, dare we ask?
Jackson certainly cut across the proverbial grain with his Sports Illustrated remarks. When the hoopla exploded he couldn't wait to back away from them, to an extent, saying he shouldn't have called out particular players by name. The Yankees, for their part, seemingly couldn't wait to distance themselves from the original remarks. It must be interesting, in a slightly perverse way, that after all these years Jackson's still the straw that stirs the stink.