This year, Dale Murphy will become the 35th player to age off the Hall of Fame ballot after 15 years. We’ll get into Murphy in a minute, but first: It’s an excellent collection of players. Some were elected into the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee: Richie Ashburn, Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda, Nellie Fox, Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo and Red Schoendienst.
Others made it all 15 years because of a singular achievement: Don Larsen, Maury Wills and Roger Maris being the most obvious of those.
The other 24 were all terrific players … but in the end, the voters determined that something was missing. Something. It’s worth taking a quick look.
Dick Allen: Perhaps the most famous non-Hall of Famer not named Pete Rose, he won Rookie of the Year (one of the best-ever rookie seasons) and an MVP award, and his 156 career OPS+ ranks 19th all-time. His career was short, and he was a contentious character — neither helped him. Topped out at 18.9 percent of the vote. Only appeared on 14 ballots for some reason, but I still include him here.
Ken Boyer: MVP, five-time Gold Glove winner, one of the best defensive third basemen in baseball history, never quite captured the voters’ imaginations. Topped out at 25.5 percent.
Lew Burdette: 200-game winner who, at different times, led league in wins, winning percentage, ERA, shutouts, complete games, hits, runs and home runs. His 3.66 career ERA (a 99 ERA+) hurt his chances. He topped out at 24.1 percent.
Dave Concepcion: A brilliant defensive shortstop who had some good offensive seasons, Concepcion just never excited the voters the way his countryman Luis Aparicio did (Aparicio had stolen bases as an added dimension of his game). Concepcion topped out at 16.9 percent.
Alvin Dark: Good hitting shortstop was Rookie of the Year in 1948 and one of the most admired players of his time. In the end, did not hit quite enough. Topped out at 18.5 percent.
Roy Face: Pioneering reliever led league in games finished four times and had amazing time in 1959 when, right-place-right-time, he finished 18-1 without ever throwing more than five innings. Many see him as the first modern closer. Topped out at 18.9 percent.
Curt Flood: Defensive virtuoso in center field, .300 hitter in his prime, Flood was very much a Hall of Fame candidate at 31 years old when he refused to be traded. His stand — though he personally lost — helped change the very structure of baseball. But it was at great personal cost; he never played regularly again. He topped out at 15.1 percent.
Steve Garvey: I would say no non-Hall of Famer in baseball history — again, with the obvious exception of Pete Rose — was called a “future Hall of Famer” more than Steve Garvey. He had 2,599 career hits, an MVP, four Gold Gloves and nine All-Star Game starts. He got 41.6 percent of the vote in his first year, which should lead to certain election. But his various off-the-field adventures and the statistical holes in his game (a .329 career on-base percentage) derailed his chances. He topped out at 42.6 percent.
Gil Hodges: Another beloved player, he hit 25-plus homers nine times and drove in 100 runs seven times. He topped 60 percent in the voting three times but for some reason never could quite push over the top. He managed the Miracle Mets, and there are now numerous efforts to induct him for his entire body of work in baseball.
Elston Howard: Highly esteemed by everyone, Howard was first African American on the Yankees and the first African American to win the AL MVP Award. He started in the Negro leagues and was blocked at first by Yogi Berra, but in time he became the best catcher in the game. Unfortunately the career was too short. He topped out at 20.7 percent.
Tommy John: Saw that Dr. James Andrews has a book coming out; always wondered how he felt about the surgery being called “Tommy John Surgery.” I mean, Tommy John didn’t PERFORM it. He did come back from it, though, and he won 288 games. He threw strikes, kept the ball down, induced more than 600 double plays. Topped out at 31.7 percent.
Jim Kaat: Won 283 games. Now think about this: 16 times in his career he pitched 7-plus innings, allowed 1 or fewer earned runs and got a no-decision. Another 17 times, he pitched 7-plus innings, allowed 1 or fewer earned runs and got the loss. If you could find 17 “wins” in there, he’d have 300 … and he’d be in the Hall of Fame. Great, great guy. Topped out at 29.6 percent.
Ted Kluszewski: For four years — 1953 through 1956 — Big Klu hit .315 and averaged 44 homers and EACH YEAR had more home runs than strikeouts. Those four years, though, make up almost the entire value of his career, and the voters decided it just wasn’t long enough. Topped out at 14.4 percent.
Harvey Kuenn: Led league in hits four times and finished with a career .303 average. Limited contribution beyond ability to hit singles and doubles, but he topped out at 39.3 percent. Also: “Two and two to Harvey Kuenn, one strike away …”
Mickey Lolich: Won 217 games and led league in virtually every category at one point or another in his career. Best known for his amazing 1968 World Series, when he threw three compete games and won them all — he out-dueled Bob Gibson in Game 7. Topped out at 25.5 percent.
Minnie Minoso: One of the most beloved players in baseball history, he began his career in the Negro leagues. Was 25 when he finally got his shot, and for 10 seasons, 1951-1960, he hit .307, won the first outfield Gold Glove, led the league at various times in hits, doubles, triples, stolen bases, total bases and hit by pitch (10 times in all). Really could have won the MVP as a rookie, probably should have won it in 1954. Topped out at 21.1 percent.
Thurman Munson: MVP, three-time Gold Glove winner, died in a plane crash at 32. He got 15.5 percent of the vote in his first year on the ballot, and never got that high a percentage again, though he kept staying on the ballot.
Don Newcombe: Rookie of the Year in 1949, Cy Young and MVP winner in 1956, his peak was not quite long enough (he missed two full prime seasons serving in the military). Topped out at 15.3 percent.
Tony Oliva: One of baseball’s magical names, he won three batting titles, led the league in hits five times and doubles four. People who watched him play say he hit the ball as hard as any player in baseball history. But his career was short — he did not get 2,000 hits. He hit 47.3 percent of the vote in his seventh year, which is normally a good sign. But his percentages fell off from there.
Dave Parker: The Cobra had 2,700 hits, more than 500 doubles, two batting titles, an MVP award and he was on his way to an all-time career when he was sidetracked by drugs and some bad decisions. He rebounded and became a good hitter again in his mid-30s, but the voters didn’t think he quite got to the Hall of Fame line. He topped out at 24.5 percent in his second year on the ballot.
Vada Pinson: Had 2,757 hits in his career — was a good season and two months away from 3,000 hits and a place in Cooperstown. Was a fabulous player until about age 26 and an average-to-below average player the last 10 years of his career.
Luis Tiant: He won 229 games, his case is almost precisely the same as Hall of Famer Catfish Hunter (it’s actually a better case than Catfish’s). But his timing was off … after getting 30.9 percent of the vote his first year, there was a parade of 300-game winners to hit the ballot and Tiant never even topped 20 percent after that.
Joe Torre: Will undoubtedly be inducted as a manager someday soon, but he was an excellent player with nine All-Star appearances, an MVP award and a 126 career OPS+. Topped out at 22.2 percent in his last year on the ballot.
Mickey Vernon: Two-time batting champion with almost 2,500 hits, he — like Newcombe — missed two prime years because of military service. Beloved player who played 20 years. Topped out at 24.9 percent.
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OK, so now Dale Murphy. He is on his 15th ballot, and he topped out at 23.2 percent on his second. He has been between 8.5 and 15 percent the last 11 years. For most of those years, I have been one of the people voting for him.
I will admit … there is emotion involved in my vote. I fully understand why his Hall of Fame case does not speak to the majority of voters. He was not a really good player until he was 24. And he was done after he was 31.* And even if you just look at those eight seasons, he was up and down — he wasn’t a standout player in the strike year or in 1986. And even in his excellent seasons, he was greatly aided by his ballpark, Fulton County Stadium, where baseballs just soared.
*And I mean DONE … his case would be helped so much if he’d had even one good year after 31. But his body was just too beaten up.
So, yes, I get it. Dale Murphy’s Hall of Fame case, essentially, is made up of eight seasons: 1980-1987 … with a few bonus points for some of the seasons surrounding. But, I should say, there were six pretty great seasons among the eight. This stretch included:
• Two MVP awards.
• Two home run titles.
• Two RBI titles.
• Two slugging percentage titles.
• Four straight years of playing 162 games.
• Five Gold Gloves.
• A 30-30 season.
There is no question in my mind that, for those years, Dale Murphy played on a Hall of Fame level — even taking into account the two down seasons. But beyond his play, Murphy was a class act, someone who took being a role model seriously, and in many ways he was the first baseball hero that the American South could call its own. Superstation WTBS played such a big role in bringing baseball around the country and Murphy was the star attraction … even when the Braves were awful (as they often were).
I like to tell myself that I have voted for Murphy because of his extraordinarily high peak … I do believe, in his prime, he was a better baseball player than Jim Rice or Andre Dawson in their primes, and they are the last two outfielders voted into the Hall of Fame. But I could be wrong about that, and the prime was short, and if I’m honest with myself, I look at the list above of players who aged out on the ballot, and I think that Minnie Minoso, Ken Boyer, Dick Allen, Curt Flood, Tommy John and others are at least as worthy as Murphy, maybe more so.
And if I’m being honest with myself … I wish he could exchange two of his poorer seasons for two elite seasons. The case would be so much stronger. But this is the Hall of Fame, where the standards are extraordinarily high. You have to be a really, really good player to last on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years. Dale Murphy was a really, really good player.