On Wednesday, Cooperstown will learn the latest names to soon hang in its hallowed halls. After weeks of speculation, accusation, and venom-spitting, a decision will be handed down. A moment of finality will come. The 2014 Class of the Baseball Hall of Fame will be officially, irrevocably complete.
Just don’t expect the debates, or dust, to settle.
Every year, the Hall of Fame vote garners much passion and argument from fans and writers alike. And every year, those debates extend beyond the ballot, gathering ghosts of baseball’s recent and distant past to argue their merit for induction. Reds fans, especially, understand this annual rite.
One name always rises to the top of the pile. The all-time Hit King, Charlie Hustle, the gambling man: Pete Rose.
For now, his baseball ban continues to lock him inside his “prison without bars.” And fellow cog of the Big-Red Machine, David Concepcion, didn’t receive enough votes from this year’s Veterans Committee to earn his own delayed admittance. Yet some will still loudly plead both their cases.
But there’s another former Red who lingers outside the gates of Cooperstown, his Hall-of-Fame case playing out just like his career: with relative quiet, lost in a sea of greatness. But worth remembrance.
Vada Pinson debuted for the Redlegs in 1958, a fresh-faced 19-year-old speedster from Oakland, California. But it didn’t take much time for him to become a fixture in Cincinnati’s centerfield. With immense speed (reportedly could run to first from home in 3.3 seconds) and a smooth swing, Pinson displayed early the potential to one day knock down the gates of Cooperstown. He garnered more hits in his first five seasons than Willie Mays or Stan Musial. You may have heard of them.
That was the torrid start of a decade-long marriage with the Reds for Pinson. In that span, no Reds player this side of Frank Robinson contributed more to their success. He gave them nine straight seasons of 154 games or more at one point, hitting .297/.341/.469 and averaging season totals of 17 home runs, 20 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 119.
Despite this dazzling display, though, it was easy to lose Pinson among brighter stars. He only made four All-Star Games, trying to shine in the giant shadows of fellow centerfielders like Willie Mays and Duke Snider. Only once would he take home the Golden Glove.
He’d remain overshadowed in his best season: 1961. Pinson led the league in hits, finished second to Roberto Clemente in the batting title, finished third in MVP voting. The Reds, riding the strength of his and Robinson’s offense, won the NL Pennant. But when it comes to 1961, no one remembers the Reds, or Robinson’s MVP, or Pinson’s ability to swat, to steal, to score.
Pinson’s fantastic but forgettable tenure in Cincinnati would end in 1968 as the legs beneath him began to give way. Along with his speed, Pinson’s game diminished. He’d spend seven seasons with the Cardinals, Indians, Angels, and Royals failing to reignite the flame that once burned so brightly in Cincinnati.
But despite being a young star that faded fast, Pinson retired with borderline Hall-of-Fame numbers.
His 2757 career hits rank him fifth among Hall-of-Fame eligible players that haven’t been elected. Two are linked to PEDs (Barry Bonds, Rafael Palmeiro), one may be elected as soon as Wednesday (Craig Biggio), and the other is Harold Baines.
Pinson hit a career .286/.327/.442 with 256 HR, 485 doubles, 127 triples, and 305 stolen bases. A consummate hitter, he never once struck out 100 times in a season, but instead, thrived due to his versatile skill set. He lacked the power of Mickey Mantle, and didn’t quite have Lou Brock‘s speed. But in combination, he produced aplenty.
Pinson finished top-10 in total bases in seven separate seasons during his career. His career total places him 61st all time, ahead of luminaries like Tony Gwynn, Willie McCovey, Jeff Bagwell, Harmon Killebrew, Willie Stargell, Wade Boggs, and Jeff Kent. He also finished in the top-10 in runs scored seven times; top-10 in stolen bases ten times; and top-10 in WAR (wins above replacement) four times.
According to Bill James‘s Power-Speed #, a stat that quantifies a player’s combined prowess both with the bat and on the base paths, Pinson ranks 36th all-time. That places him ahead of HOF-ers like Robin Yount, Barry Larkin, George Brett, and Mantle, and within four spots of Ken Griffey Jr., Tim Raines, and Jeff Bagwell. Put simply, this reflects the fact that Pinson found a unique way to contribute, but that contribution was substantial.
Yet it seems that when history comes to mark his name, to give the grade, Pinson doesn’t measure up.
Jay Jaffe’s JAWS standard rates him as the 17th best CF of all time, with a career and peak WAR that doesn’t quite meet the Cooperstown standard. And voters, long ago, agreed. Pinson’s name was penciled onto the Hall-of-Fame ballot for fifteen consecutive years. He never garnered more than 15.7% of the vote.
A stroke took Pinson’s life in 1995, with little fanfare. The strokes of pens, for fifteen years, took his Hall-of-Fame case away with similar quiet acceptance. The sadness, the dispute, barely amounted to more than mournful whispers.
But did Pinson deserve a second look? Does his career deserve a resurrection we can’t bestow upon a body lost too young?
His once-teammate and present Hall-of-Famer thinks so. And not because of the case highlighted above. Not because of the numbers. But in spite of them. For if you ask Frank Robinson, they always sold Pinson short.
Shortly after Pinson’s death, Gordon Edes (now of ESPN Boston) penned an elegy in the Sun-Sentinel. He quoted a distraught Robinson, who said of Pinson’s career, “The numbers don’t tell the true story. Vada was underrated and underappreciated as a player. He brought a whole lot more to the game than just cold numbers.”
And that’s why Pinson’s Cooperstown case should still rise within the chaos that is this voting season. Because sometimes numbers undersell the narrative –and this is a sport of stories.
Numbers struggle, for example, to encapsulate Pinson’s versatility. It’s not enough to cite the fact that he’s one of only ten players in MLB history with 2500 hits, 25o home runs, and 250 stolen bases. It doesn’t do him justice to mention his five seasons of 20-20 (HR-SB) production. As Robinson notes in that piece, the power of Pinson was the intangible threat he’d leave hanging in the air; that, in any given moment, he could take an extra base, that if you didn’t hustle, he sure as hell would.
And numbers fail, universally, to take into account the context of a career. Pinson’s Cincinnati debut came at only 19-years of age, a young black man fresh out of a Jim-Crow south. He played in an environment in which the baseball press could accuse him and Frank Robinson of forming a “negro clique” and face zero backlash. Those were the times. But Pinson didn’t just survive the racial tension; he thrived. Up until his death, he was beloved for his character, for the fact that he faced these barrages and obstacles with a smile on his face, with quiet fortitude.
So respected was Pinson that Richie Ashburn, a fellow centerfielder, took a moment from his own Cooperstown speech to plea for the inclusion of the Red that had once streaked through Cincinnati’s outfield.
But today, as the names and numbers are tossed about, as decisions are made and debated, no one will take to the podium, or Twitter, with Vada Pinson’s candidacy. They’ll be too busy citing character clauses as the reason an era of sluggers don’t deserve admittance into the hallowed annals of baseball history. The same justification will quickly quell the annual Pete Rose questions.
And meanwhile, no one will answer for the man of good stats and greater character rejected by 85% of the writers’ union brethren.
No one will argue for Vada Pinson.
Thus an underrated Red will remain where he always was: in the company of greatness, but lost beneath their shadows.