As we near the conclusion of our Reds all-time best at each number countdown, it is fitting that Vada Pinson makes his way onto the list. One of the most underrated players in Reds history had to wait until his number was called, but there was no doubt over who would get the honor of being the best to ever wear the #28.
Our own Cory Collins pointed out in an article a few weeks ago about Pinson’s Hall of Fame prospects, and how we was maybe unrightfully dismissed as a legitimate candidate for Cooperstown.
Pinson crash-landed on the scene similarly to how mega-stars Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig and Mike Trout are now, by making his debut at only 19 years old. In 1959, at age 20, he led the league in runs scored (131) and doubles (47). This was just the beginning for the dynamic centerfielder.
Maybe part of the reason Pinson is so undervalued is the era that he played in. In the National League at the time, there were the two New York centerfielders, Willie Mays and Duke Snider taking up a lot of the notoriety; not to mention Richie Ashburn out in Philadelphia. Pinson may have been setting the Midwest on fire, but the east coast bias overrode his achievements.
His next year, 1960, he once again led the league in doubles (37) and drew back-to-back All-Star appearances at the ripe age of 21. His best was yet to come, as when the Reds needed him most, he led the National League in hits in 1961 with 208, on his way to batting .343 for the year. Although he went a miserable 2-for-22 in the World Series against the Yankees, his success throughout the regular season spoke for itself.
Two seasons after that, he led the league in hits yet again (204), while smacking 14 triples, also a league high. Pinson would go on to run off nine consecutive seasons of at least 165 hits, in which he went over 200 four times. During that same stretch, he stole at least 18 bases in all but one season, topping out at a high of 32 in 1960. Playing with the Reds until his thirties, Pinson racked up some of the games top, elite-level numbers.
After his time with the Reds, Pinson bounced around, but not due to his inability to hit and field, as he certainly could still do that. As he grew older, he transitioned to the corner outfield spots with his legs not being able to cover the ground he once could. Pinson was with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1969, the Cleveland Indians in 1970-71, the California Angels in 1972-73, and lastly, the Kansas City Royals from 1974-75, never again making an All-Star team after his departure from Cincinnati.
When viewing Pinson’s career as a whole, it is understandable that the numbers don’t exactly equate to enshrinement in baseball paradise at Cooperstown. He was only a two-time All-Star, only won one Gold Glove, never a Silver Slugger, never a MVP award. As mentioned earlier, most of these recognitions were saved for some of the best players to ever play the game, as the National League was a gold mine of Hall of Fame talent during this era.
In the fall of November 2010, Arne Christensen of Seamheads.com wrote a compelling piece on Pinson and his Hall of Fame merits. It is widely accepted information that Pinson was regarded as one of the best pure human beings to ever play a game meant for boys, ruled by the grown men accustomed to the cold world.
The central point of the passage stated that since there is indeed a “character clause” included in order for a player to make it to the place of the immortals, does Vada Pinson earn extra consideration for being a Hall of Fame person as well?
This past Hall of Fame induction saw the embarrassment of players connected directly to the Steroid Era by Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire all falling significantly short of the 75% of the ballot needed for induction. That is not even mentioning Rafael Palmiero who did not receive even 5%, thus kicking him off the ballot.
It would be unfair to let Pinson’s career be overshadowed, even though he did play with one of the 50 best players ever, in Frank Robinson. Pinson patrolled centerfield like a cat waiting to jump on a mouse, quick and as graceful as there can be.
Sure, DiMaggio may have worn #28 with the Reds, but he still wasn’t on the same level as Pinson. No, not that DiMaggio, his older brother, Vince, who appeared with the club in 1939. Wally Post also had an impressive six-year stretch with the club; as did Bobby Tolan who was the table setter for the team before the Big Red Machine arrived. The #28 has had an illustrious history with the Reds, and its tradition is carried on today by reserve outfielder Chris Heisey. Surprisingly, the number is not retired. Sometimes it does take decades to decide to make the decision, but Pinson is surely worthy of the honor.
Vada Pinson may have been a victim of being born at the wrong time. Had he been around during the dead ball era, there would have been a lot less competition (not to mention the Negro Leagues yet to be integrated) for him to grind against. Put him in today’s game, and anybody with 2700 hits is a near lock to be on the yellow brick road to Cooperstown. He was never flashy, and never outspoken, yet he was one of the most well-liked and respected individuals in the game. In an age where that is so often forgotten, this honor is a tip of the cap to a man who deserves a standing ovation.