Harold Baines Versus...
The Harold Baines selection to the Hall of Fame through the veterans committee has been categorized as “baffling” by most, good for a good guy by some and bullshit by many. Baines’ was a soft talking designated hitter whose most interesting characteristic as a player was his long career and sizable hit tally. His former minor league manager and later manager with the A’s Tony La Russa marveled at Baines’ sweet swing and clutch hitting late in games as he cited him as a top 4 or 5 hitter in his time. His position as a designated hitter and quiet demeanor were explanations for his very low Hall of Fame vote totals by the writers. Last year and this year there has been a bit of a reckoning where some of the best closers and designated hitters in baseball history have come up for either Hall of Fame votes or prominent retirements (Hoffman, Rivera, Edgar Martinez and soon David Ortiz) that a seeming backlog at those positions may explain the elections of Lee Smith and Harold Baines. It could also be that Tony La Russa was a strong personality with a law degree in the veterans committee strong armed his guy into the Hall of Fame by convincing a rather small group of people in a closed room.
Harold Baines was not the worst player in baseball history and may well have played his way into the Hall of Fame, but I don’t think he established himself above other overlooked White Sox players, designated hitters, first basemen, or utility players. This isn't a comprehensive list of all of the players that could be mentioned compared to Baines, just a little six-pack of guys who just might happen to be better than a newly minted Hall of Famer.
Harold Baines, DH
Here is the standard to compare the rest of the players here, a guy who nearly compiled 3000 hits, had a long career, came close to 400 home runs and never won an MVP award or a World Series. He wasn't a very good fielder and mostly played designated hitter in his career resulting in an unimpressive WAR compared to his longevity. He never hit 30 or more homers, never had more than 200 hits, and his onbase percentage was just below what could be expected for a .300 hitter. He never led the league in hits, homers, doubles, runs, RBI, AVG or OBP. He had one trip to the World Series in 1990, losing to the Reds as a member of the A's. His career went from 1980 to 2001, and he played two-thirds of his career with the White Sox over three stints.
Resume: 38.7 WAR, 2866 hits, .289 AVG, 384 HR, .356 OBP, 6x All-Star, Silver Slugger, 22 years, 4x MVP votes, 1 WS appearance.
Chili Davis, DH
Chili got a bad haircut in sixth grade that was so bad that his friends teased him relentlessly. They teased him so relentlessly for the cut that looked like a chili bowl that he gained a nickname that has followed him ever since. Charles Theodore Davis is a 58 year old man who is still answering to a haircut he got in sixth grade. I hope that barber knew about this and changed professions because they were so bad at their job that they haunted Davis like a ghost that he couldn't bust.
One of very few prominent players from Jamaica with Devon White, ended his career tied for the most games with home runs from both sides of the plate and finished fourth for career home runs for a switch hitter behind Mantle, Murray and Chipper Jones. Davis was actually a pretty speedy center fielder for the Giants early in his career before an ankle injury relegated him to being a designated hitter when he moved to the American League. His career started a year after Baines' rookie year and ended two years before Baines' own retirement. Their year to year numbers were nearly identical and it is difficult to decipher a difference in their career numbers as well. One big difference is that Chili took home three rings before retiring. He was the DH on the 1991 Championship Twins team and later inherited the DH role late in the '98 season for the Championship Yankees after Darryl Strawberry's season ended early due to a bout with colon cancer. Although he was the primary DH for most of the 1999 Yankees season, by the postseason he was in a four-way platoon at that position and only played one game in that World Series before retiring after the season.
Resume: 38.3 WAR, 2380 hits, .274 AVG, 350 HR, .360 OBP, 3x All-Star, 19 years, 3x MVP votes, 3x WS champ
Fred McGriff, 1B
Perhaps the Crime Dog didn't get over the top in Hall of Fame voting because the writers had assumed he had already been immortalized. McGriff was a Blue Jays minor leaguer when he went to visit a "swing doctor" (not a medical or PhD doctor) in Orlando by the name of Tom Emanski. Apparently he learned the secrets to hitting in those sessions because years later McGriff said Emanski "showed me a lot of stuff."
In McGriff's own words, “I’m in the big leagues and were playing in Chicago. After the game he picks me up right outside the stadium and we go to a Little League park. He just gives me this shirt and this hat and says put them on. He had his own little video camera so he shoots the video. At the time I was just like, OK give me one percent. I didn’t know it was going to turn into anything.”
Tom Emanski’s Defensive Drills, apparently became one of the best-selling baseball instructional videos of the 1990s, although it's probably better known for being shown back to back to back on ESPN commercial breaks with a Fred McGriff cameo. As of 2010, the Crime Dog was still getting his one percent royalty on the videos sold.
McGriff played from 1988 to 2004 and hit 109 more homers than Baines. He had seven straight 30+ home run seasons, ten in his career and led the league twice. McGriff was the sparkplug addition to the Braves in 1995 that put them over the top for their only Championship from those great '90's teams. This year was his last year on the writer's ballot after ten years of coming up short.
Resume: 52.6 WAR, 2490 hits, .284 AVG, 493 HR,, 2x home run champ, .377 OBP, 5x All-Star, 3x SS, 19 years, 8x MVP votes, 2x WS appearances, 1x Champ
Keith Hernandez, 1B
A great fielder known for his love of Civil War history. While he was a solid player for the Cardinals, a cocaine addiction secured a ticket out of town and to the Mets in the prime of his career. New York is probably not the best place to try to clean up, and it didn’t help that the Mets were a pretty terrible team at the time. Hernandez faced a hefty suspension for his part in a drug bust before the start of the ‘86 season but he ultimately took a deal with the Commisioner to take drug tests for the rest of his career and to donate 10% of his salary to drug treatment programs. He went on to have one of his best seasons and the Mets won their second World Series in franchise history.
Hernandez was not a power hitting first baseman, but his consistency getting on base and his superior fielding made him perhaps the best National League first baseman over his career that spanned 1974 to 1990. In 1979 he led the league in runs, doubles and AVG (116, 48, .344), won his second of eleven straight Gold Gloves on his way to winning the MVP award as a Cardinal. He won the World Series in '82 and '86 with the Cards and Mets and had five seasons with an on base percentage over .400. He's Keith Hernandez.
Resume: 60.4 WAR, 2182 hits, .296 AVG, 162 HR, AVG champ, .384 OBP, 5x All-Star, 2x SS, 11x GG, 1979 MVP, 8x MVP votes, 2x WS champ, 17 years
John Olerud, 1B
Olerud was the son of a former minor league catcher, yet he skipped the minors right out of college to jump to the Blue Jays. That jump forced the Jays to trade their other firstbaseman, Fred McGriff, to the Padres for Joe Carter setting the roster for Toronto’s two World Series runs. It was an unlikely success for Olerud who suffered a brain aneurysm in college, Olerud was known for playing in the field wearing a helmet at first base. It was January of 1989 and he was a Junior at Washington State when he collapsed while on a run. He had a subarachnoid hemorrhage from a brain aneurysm that caused bleeding on the spinal collumn and a seizure. He was in the hospital for two weeks, lost 15 pounds, but was back to lcass soon after. Despite having brain surgery in February he was back on the field by mid-April and drafted by the Blue Jays in June. In 1992 and ‘93 he was the starting 1B for the Championship Jays. Although he was slow runner with a sweet swing and a slick glove.
Early in Olerud's career Ted Williams named him as one of the guys he considered one of the best active hitters in the game. It seemed like an outrageous leap at the time, but not long after that statement Olerud led the league in AVG and OBP at .393 and .473, respectively, and doubles with 54 while finishing third in MVP voting in 1993. In 1998 he nearly equaled the fete, this time with the Mets with a .354 AVG and .447 OBP although he didn't lead the league in either category that year, finishing second to Larry Walker and Mark McGuire, respectively. Olerud was prominent with the Blue Jays, Mets and Mariners over his career that ran from 1989 to 2005. He never played in the minor leagues until he played three games in the Red Sox system in his final season at the age of 36.
Resume: 58.2 WAR, 2239 hits, .295 AVG, 255 HR, .398 OBP, ‘93 batting champ, 2x All-Star, 3x GG, 2x MVP votes, 2x WS Champ, 17 years.
Julio Franco, UTL
He retired as the oldest active player in the majors and was the all-time Dominican hits leader in the history of the MLB until he was surpassed by Vlad Guerrero in 2011. He had one of his best seasons in 1994 before the strike hit. Before the strike ended he signed to play in Japan for just one year in 1995 where he won the equivelent of the Gold Glove award for first basemen. He was back in Japan in 1998 and the next season he started out in the Mexican League where he hit .423 over 93 games. In 2000 he played in the South Korean League before returning to Mexico in 2001. He returned to the majors in late 2001 at the age of 43. In 2004 at the age of 45 he became the oldest regular position player in MLB history and he continued to play as a reserve into 2007 at the age of 48. He is the oldest player to hit a home run, to hit a grand slam, to hit a pinch-hit home run, to hit two homers in a game, to steal two bases in a game, to pinch run and the second oldest to steal a base in a game. After his last game in Major League Baseball he signed to play in the Mexican League as a 49 year old the next year. He is currently a hitting coach for the farm team of the Lotte Giants of the Korea Baseball Organization.
Over his career, he played shortstop, second base, designated hitter, outfield, and first base. In his forties he even started to play third base for the first time in the MLB in 24 years. He was a four-time All-Star with the Rangers in his thirties, he even collected an All-Star MVP trophy. He was the batting champion in 1991 in the AL batting .341 and just missed being a career .300 hitter, perhaps a casualty of his incredible longevity.
Resume: 43.5 WAR, 2586 hits, .298 AVG, 173 HR, AVG Champ, 281 SB, .365 OBP, 3x All-Star, 5x SS, 3x MVP votes, 23 years
Minnie Minoso, OF
“Minnie” was his nickname only once he came to the US, in Cuba he was only known by his birth name of “Orestes…” well, his birth name was Saturnino Orestes Arrieta. Minoso was the first black player to play for the White Sox and he rose to occasion by homering in his first at bat. Across the majors, minors, Cuba, Mexico and Negro Leagues, Minoso is just one of nine baseball players with at least 4000 professional hits (the list notes that it may not be comprehensive and Ichiro has since come within eight hits of Ty Cobb). His 4073 hits are just one behind Julio Franco. The White Sox have retired his number 9 and he has a statue just outside their stadium.
Minnie came up just last month in my survey of great fielding outfields and he was considered one of the most exciting fielders of all time. He was an oddball like Franco, playing games in his 50's as part of stunts to have him play games in the 1970's and 1980's. Thanks to those stunts he played in five different decades playing from 1949 to 1980. He led the league in hits once, doubles onces and triples three times, all in different seasons. He had a great ability to get on base, was a great fielder and led the league in steals three consecutive seasons. He had a 50.5 WAR compared to Baines' 38.7 and he only had one shot at the veterans committee in the early 2000's when he was up for consideration with more than 80 other players from his era.
Resume: 50.5 WAR, 1963 hits, .298 AVG, 186 HR, 205 SB, .389 OBP, 9x All-Star, 3x GG, 8x MVP votes, 17 years.
I don't think it's 100% fair to say that Harold Baines doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. If nothing else, his election highlights a big problem the Hall has regarding the under-representation of players from the '90's and 2000's compared to other eras. I'm sure he was a spectacular player to watch during his heyday and I worry that his inclusion gives ammunition for the argument against designated hitters' enshrinement or the AL brand of baseball altogether. Some may worry that Harold Baines in the Hall of Fame will mark the instant that it became too crowded. I want a big Hall, hell, I want more wings of exhibits in the museum, too. At least they let him in while he was still alive so that he could enjoy it rather than being let in thanks to a historical committee decades after any eyewitnesses to his game-play have long forgotten his swing.
Sources: Sabr biographies, Baseball Biography Encyclopedia, Wikipedia, Baseball-Reference.com.