When Harold Baines was elected to the Hall of Fame via the 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot, the argument that he would have reached 3,000 hits had he not lost substantial parts of the 1981, ’94 and ’95 seasons to player strikes must have weighed heavily on the minds of voters. How else to explain the panel shocking the baseball world by tabbing a steady longtime DH who never led the league in a major offensive category and whose advanced statistics equated his career value to good-not-great players such as Paul O’Neill or Reggie Sanders? That time missed was a major talking point for Tony La Russa, who managed Baines in both Chicago and Oakland and was one of several key figures in the slugger’s career who not-so-coincidentally wound up on the committee. Baines finished 134 hits short of the milestone, while his teams fell 124 games short of playing out full schedules in those seasons (never mind the fact that he missed 59 games due in those three seasons due to injuries and off days). On this particular committee, he received the benefit of the doubt regarding what might have been.
Baines was neither the first player nor the last to gain such an advantage in front of Hall voters. As you might imagine, the topic has been on my mind as we confront this pandemic-shortened 2020 season, and I’m hardly alone. In chats, article comments, and on Twitter, readers have asked for my insights into what the current outage might mean with regards to the Hall hopes for active players. I’ve spent the past four
years weeks ruminating on the matter, but for as tempting as it may be to dive headfirst into analyzing the outage’s impact on Zack Greinke, Yadier Molina, Mike Trout et al if the season is 100 games, or 80, or (gulp) zero, the more I think about it, the more I believe that it’s important to provide some historical perspective before going off half-cocked.
According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, at least 69 Hall of Famers — from Civil War veteran Morgan Bulkeley, the first president of the National League, to Ted Williams, who served in both World War II and the Korean War — served in the U.S. Armed Forces during wartime. Fifty-one of those men were elected for their major league playing careers, and six more for their careers in the Negro Leagues, the rest being executives, managers, and umpires. Some players, such as Yogi Berra, Larry Doby, Ralph Kiner, and Red Schoendienst, served before they ever reached the majors, and others, such as Christy Mathewson, did so afterwards, but many gave up prime seasons to wars. Williams missed all of the 1943-45 seasons and was limited to just 43 games in 1952-53. Joe DiMaggio, Bob Feller, Hank Greenberg, Johnny Mize, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Rizzuto, and Warren Spahn all missed the entire 1943-45 span as well, with Greenberg missing most of ’41 and half of ’45, too. Several other players missed one or two years.
Missing multiple seasons often meant missing out on major milestones. Williams certainly would have surpassed the 3,000-hit and 600-homer marks, beating Willie Mays and Hank Aaron to that towering tandem. DiMaggio, Greenberg, and Mize all would have cleared 400 homers with Greenberg quite possibly reaching 500, a total that only Babe Ruth, Jimmie Foxx, and Mel Ott had surpassed at that point. Feller would have been the second pitcher to reach 300 wins and 3,000 strikeouts, after Walter Johnson, while Spahn might have made it to 400 wins. Hell, Mays might have reached 700 homers had he not missed most of 1952 and all of ’53 in the Army.
Despite the time and milestones missed due to their extended stints in the military, all of those players found their way to Cooperstown, some in short order via the BBWAA, others belatedly through the Veterans Committee. Voters may have extrapolated to fill in the gaps for time missed or granted extra credit to the players for serving their country, but one way or another they accounted for those gaps.
Were there players whose Hall hopes deteriorated during extended absences? The number is probably smaller than you think, particularly because that era has been so picked over by voters. Thirty-eight players active in 1941 are enshrined, an average of 2.38 per team; by comparison, 40 players active in 1981 are enshrined, 1.54 per team, while for 1994, the numbers are 35 players and 1.25 per team. Suffice it to say that I spent several hours doing a number of WAR-based Play Index searches trying to identify players who were truly derailed by World War II, and wrote a couple thousand words that might work for a sequel to The Cooperstown Casebook but were too far down the rabbit hole to merit publishing in this context. The short version, in my view, is that a few players might have been derailed, but only if they had aged very well, which they generally did not. These ones come to mind:
- Senators shortstop/third baseman Cecil Travis, a three-time All-Star who hit .359/.410/.520 in 1941, his age-27 season, then missed all of the next three years and all but 15 games of ’45. He compiled 31.2 WAR before going off to war, but was 1.2 wins below replacement level thereafter.
- Reds second baseman Lonny Frey, a three-time All-Star who was a key cog for Cincinnati’s back-to-back pennant-winners in 1939 and ’40. In the five years before he missed the 1944-45 seasons, he tallied 28.6 WAR, with five top-10 finishes in the category, two of those in the top three. After missing his age 33-34 seasons, he played just one more full season and bits of two others, finishing with 44.0 WAR.
- Buddy Lewis, a teammate and even roommate of Travis with the Senators, a third baseman who transitioned to right field as Travis moved from short to third. Lewis debuted in 1935, 37 days past his 19th birthday, became a regular the following year, his actual age-19 season, and averaged 3.6 WAR over a six-year span. His bat took a big jump in 1939, a 5.6 WAR age-22 season, which helped to offset his move to the easier position. After missing his age 25-27 seasons, he had a couple more solid years, but a late 1947 hip injury led him to retire at age 30, and a brief comeback two years later was sub-replacement level.
- Yankees left fielder Tommy Henrich. “Old Reliable” was a late bloomer who actually had more four- and five-win seasons after the war (three) than before (two), backed by an even wider split in All-Star appearances (four after, one before). Despite missing his age 30-32 seasons, he finished with 39.2 WAR in just 11 seasons played; it’s not too hard imagining him finishing above 50 WAR with those three missing seasons, which when combined with his starting role on four championship teams might have been enough to carry him into Cooperstown, not unlike secondary Yankees from previous generations such as Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri.
At best, perhaps a couple of those players would have kept it together long enough to get elected to the Hall of Fame, which isn’t to say that they’d have been strong choices.
One player who inevitably surfaces in this conversation is Gil Hodges, the only player (besides those currently on the writers’ ballot) to receive at least 60% of the vote from the BBWAA and never gain entry. While Hodges missed all of 1944 and ’45 due to military service, he had just one major league game played prior to that, at age 19; in his first two years after returning, at ages 23 and 24, he was still catching, and was below replacement level. Rightly, he’d have been in the minors during those lost years, which might have accelerated his developmental time and in turn helped him to 400 homers (he had 370) and 2,000 hits (he had 1,921). That might have been enough to flip a Veterans Committee vote somewhere along the way, but to these eyes, and via the advanced metrics, he’s still just the fifth-best position player on those Dodgers teams after Jackie Robinson, Duke Snider, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella (however you want to order those last three).
Anyway… thinking more about the players in Baines’ era, which has been less picked-over from a Hall standpoint, practically every candidate from the recent Modern Baseball and Today’s Game Era Committee ballots — as well as some who haven’t made it that far — was affected in one way or another by lost time. For example, I count 27 position players who missed time in either 1981, ’94, or ’95, did not have a PED-related allegation or other disqualifier (hello, Pete Rose), and still finished with at least 49 WAR:
I am by no means proposing that all of those players are worthy of Hall consideration, but in this millennium, Jim Rice is the only position player elected with less than 50 WAR (he had 47.7), so that’s a reasonable place to start. Before looking to that column, consider the players on that list who fell short of 2,000 hits, a line below which no post-1960 expansion era player has been elected by either the writers or small committees. Grich, who was amid his best offensive season in 1981 (he tied Evans for the AL in homers and led in slugging percentage) wouldn’t have gotten to 2,000 with those missing seven weeks, but he’d have cut it closer. Edmonds, who like Grich went one-and-done on his only BBWAA ballot appearance, probably would have gotten there, and 400 homers was a possibility as well.
Lofton, another one-and-done, would have gotten to 2,500 hits and given his JAWS a notable boost, as he led the AL with 7.2 WAR in 1994, a season that’s part of his seven-year peak. Likewise for Evans, who led the AL with 6.7 WAR in 1981 and probably would have reached 2,500 hits without the strike. While he likely would have fallen a few homers short of 400, he might have been motivated to stick around another year, given that he could still hit (119 OPS+ in 1991, albeit with just six homers); had he remained an Oriole, he’d have played in brand new Camden Yards, a hitters’ haven. Kent would have gotten to 2,500 hits, but probably not 400 homers, though he too might have been motivated to stick around. Hernandez missed part of a season that would have boosted his peak score.
Two other players particularly stand out here. McGriff doesn’t fare particularly well in terms of WAR and JAWS but likely would have reached 500 homers if not for the 194-95 outage; he’ll probably get a level of sympathy (if not quite the quality of bag job) comparable to Baines when he becomes eligible for the Today’s Game Era Committee ballot in 2022. Whitaker was affected by all three of those shortened seasons, and given those extra games back likely would have attained the 2,500 hit and 250 homer marks, a combination that among second basemen only Rogers Hornsby and Joe Morgan had attained by the time he retired; Craig Biggio and Robinson Canó have done so since. With those in hand, it seems a lot less likely he’d have polled just 2.9% on the 2001 ballot.
I chose to focus on WAR totals not because voters are necessarily using them as guidance (though a growing percentage are) but because the players below that cutoff are getting nowhere, electorally; via the election results for the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, Dale Murphy (46.5 WAR), Thurman Munson (45.7), and Don Mattingly (42.4) all received three or fewer votes out of 12, and Steve Garvey (38.1) and Dave Parker (40.1) were below 50% — and none of them were particularly close on previous ballots either. Yes, Murphy would have topped 400 homers if not for the 1981 strike (a comparatively subpar season for him), but having his last good season at age 32 is a bigger problem for his Hall case.
As for the pitchers, I didn’t find anybody from the World War II era for whom I could make a compelling case with the addition of their missed years, not that I tried very hard after realizing how far down the aforementioned rabbit hole I’d fallen. Don Newcombe, who lost two years to the Korean War and possibly three to the color line and unofficial quota system that followed once it fell, has a more compelling case. Even so, he finished with just 37.6 career WAR (including offense), and by his own admission, the alcoholism that ended his major league career at age 34 did more to scuttle his Hall chances.
Turning to the strike guys, the list for pitchers is shorter than that for the position players, even with a slightly lower cutoff, but I don’t see nearly as much potential to swing a vote from no to yes with a bit of extra time:
With the exception of Schilling, who will eventually be elected, most of these guys had the bad luck to land on the ballot at a time when pitchers with fewer than 300 wins simply weren’t getting elected, so it’s not like an extra handful of starts would have made a difference to voters. Arguably Brown shouldn’t even be here, as he was listed in the Mitchell Report; while he had one excellent season before the strike, he was replacement level in 1994, and didn’t emerge as a consistent ace until after. Though he pitched until he was 40, he averaged just 19 starts and 119 innings a year over his past five seasons, which cost him a lot more in terms of value and perception than the strike.
John might have gotten closer to 300 wins had the 1981 strike not hit, but he’d have needed to get 12 starts and win them all (he had 20 that year), and if he missed… well, he was bad enough to get released in late May in his age 46 season, so the march to the milestone might have been utterly gruesome. Maybe Cone, who won the AL Cy Young in 1994, would have gotten to 200 wins without the work stoppage, but at best that might have kept him on the ballot a bit longer, like Hershiser.
While it’s natural to assume that missed seasons or parts of them can have an impact on a player’s Hall of Fame chances, finding evidence to back up those claims is harder. In part, that’s because it appears that even the most borderline candidates from among the players who lost whole seasons due to military service — guys like Rizzuto (42.0 career WAR) and Bob Lemon (48.2, including offense) — are now enshrined, and what’s left from that period is slim pickings.
It appears more likely that the strike-affected position players have suffered, not only because of the impact of major milestones on the voting, but due to the introduction of bottlenecks in the voting process, most notably the Five Percent Rule, though shorter eligibility windows on the writers’ ballot and the cycled era committees can additionally reduce the number of chances the candidates get. That said, I don’t see much to suggest that any pitchers from that era have suffered in the way that the top position playing candidates might have.
All of this is worth bearing in mind as we turn attention to active players and surmise how they might be affected by the current layoff. I’ll get to that search in the near future.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.