On January 16, 1974, Eddie Mathews called home to his wife after he got word that he was not elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. In truth, he had not even come close. Of the many curiosities in the history of Hall of Fame voting, this might be the strangest.
Mathews had hit 512 home runs in his career, a record at the time for third basemen. He had played in 12 All-Star Games and finished among league leaders in homers, runs, RBIs and total bases year after year. He had been something of a World Series hero**, and he had been one of the great young phenoms in the game’s history. That year, 1974, was when Mike Schmidt and George Brett began; at that point Eddie Mathews was almost inarguably the greatest third baseman in baseball history.
He received 32.3 percent of the vote. Eight players finished ahead of him on the ballot.
The next year, his Hall of Fame percentage went up on only a few points, and he finished seventh on the ballot behind, let’s be honest, seven lesser players*. A year after that, he again picked up a few points but still wasn’t even at 50 percent of the vote.
*Kiner, Roberts, Lemon, Hodges, Slaughter, Newhouser, Reese — none of these, save Roberts, was even close to Mathews stratum.
This was all very strange. It was only in 1977 that there was any sort of turning point and the reason, I suspect, had very little to do with Mathews himself. It so happened that year that Ernie Banks was eligible. Obviously Ernie Banks was a Hall of Famer; even the grumpy old Baseball Writers Association of America wouldn’t deny that. He was elected first ballot with 83.4% of the vote.
Only then people looked and realized … there was nothing Ernie Banks did better than Eddie Mathews.
— They were both infielders at roughly the same time.
— Banks was arguably a better defender at shortstop than Mathews was at third, but he played only 1,259 games there before being moved to first. Mathews played more than 2,100 games at third. It would be hard to argue that Banks, in total, was a significantly more valuable defensive player than Mathews.
— Banks hit .274/.330/.500 with 512 home runs. Mathews hit .271/.376/.509 with 512 home runs.
— Banks played his career in a great-hitting park. Mathews played most of his in a lousy-hitting park. A couple of quick ways to show this include:
1. Matthews OPS+ is 143 to Banks’ 122.
2. Banks’ neutralized numbers are: .278/.334/.508 with 537 homers.
Mathews neutralized numbers are: .281/.388/.528 with 553 homers.
— Banks famously never played in a World Series. Mathews played in three of them and was a key player on what was legitimately a great team, the late 1950s Milwaukee Braves.
“You have to wonder,” Jim Murray wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “what toes Eddie Mathews stepped on.”
Mathews didn’t wonder. He knew or at least he thought he knew: He had stepped on BBWAA toes. Eddie Mathews was a surly man. He was famous for his battles; in his career, he had epic fights with Jackie Robinson, with Don Drysdale, with Frank Robinson and so on. Mostly he fought for teammates, but the larger point was that he did not back down from a fight. And, yes, he fought with the press. He did not like seeing the press show up at his wedding. He did not like hearing the press bash his defense (Mathews took great pride in his defense and, according to defensive WAR, was a fine third baseman). He did not like getting probed on private matters.
Mathews sure that the sportswriters were not voting for him because they did not like him.
He was right, at least to a point. Dick Young, probably the most read sportswriter in the country and unquestionably the most belligerent, saw himself as the gatekeeper of the great game of baseball. In one of his “Young Ideas” columns he printed a letter from a Milton Herman of Irvington, N.J.:
Dear Mr. Young: Baseball’s Hall of Fame has become strictly a popularity contest. If not, why wasn’t Eddie Mathews voted in? He hit the same total of 512 home runs that Ernie Banks did.”
The response was vintage Dick Young, a mixture of patronizing arrogance and arrogant patronizing.
Dear Mr. Herman: There is, hard to believe, more to baseball than home runs. Banks was, through much of his career, a fine shortstop who hit home runs, a rare combination. But yes, popularity does count, in baseball, in voting, in life.
Perfect. And the final sentence is key, it’s essentially an admission: Dick Young did not like Eddie Mathews and, therefore, did not vote for Eddie Mathews.
Mathews did get elected the following year, the Ernie Banks things was simply too stark a comparison. Before the vote, Mathews’ friend and a superb third baseman Al Rosen made the rounds on Mathews behalf, saying it would be a sin if he did not get elected. Upon election, Mathews gave a warm speech that included the memorable line: “I’m just a beat up old third baseman, I’m just a small part of a wonderful game.”
I have my own theory why Eddie Mathews got so little Hall of Fame support before the Ernie Banks’ comp made it impossible to keep him out. There are obvious things, of course, like sportswriter dislike and the weird purgatory that third basemen often live in. Nobody seems to have a clear picture of what a great third baseman is supposed to look like. A great shortstop, a great centerfielder, a great catcher — these are clear to the mind. Close your eyes, and you can see it. But third base … even Mike Schmidt was weirdly unappreciated, and he more or less checked every box.
Anyway, here’s my theory about Mathews: He had a hard time getting into the Hall in large part because he never won an MVP award.
The Baseball Writers began voting for an MVP award in 1931. Mathews is probably the greatest player of this era to not win one. It would come down to him, Mel Ott and Wade Boggs. Here, in alphabetical order, is my list of the 10 best players to never win an MVP award:
— Wade Boggs
— Tony Gwynn
— Derek Jeter
— Al Kaline
— Eddie Mathews
— Mel Ott
— Ozzie Smith
— Alan Trammell
— Duke Snider
— Arky Vaughan
High batting averages tend to lessen the effect — see Gwynn, Boggs, Kaline to an extent — and so can a stellar defensive reputation. But here you also see some of the underrated great players. Arky Vaughan got no Hall of Fame support at all. Snider was ignored for years. I originally had Jeff Bagwell on this list, forgetting that he did win an MVP in the strike season. Anyway, his Hall of Fame candidacy is being delayed for other reasons. I put Alan Trammell on the list instead, and he fits. And, of course, Eddie Mathews was kept in limbo for way too long.
Look at a these pairings:
Alan Trammell (70.4 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Can’t get any Hall of Fame traction.
Barry Larkin (70.2 WAR). Did win an MVP Award. Elected to Hall of Fame.
Lou Whitaker (74.9 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Knocked off ballot almost immediately.
Ryne Sandberg (67.5 WAR). Won an MVP Award. In the Hall.
Tim Raines (69.1 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Still struggling to get into the Hall.
Andre Dawson (64.5 WAR). Won an MVP. In the Hall.
Dwight Evans (64.5 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Never seriously considered for Hall.
Jim Rice (47.4 WAR). Won an MVP. In the Hall.
Reggie Smith (64.5 WAR). Never won an MVP Award. Never seriously considered for Hall.
Willie Stargell (57.5 WAR). Won an MVP. In the Hall.
Obviously, there are counter examples — Dave Winfield got into the Hall easily without winning an MVP, so did Paul Molitor and others. And multiple MVP winners like Dale Murphy were not elected. But I think if you look at the whole picture, the MVP Award does play a role in Hall of Fame voting. And I think terrible decisions, such as Alan Trammell getting snubbed in 1987, linger long after they were made. Mathews, by the way, had legitimate MVP seasons in 1953, 1959 and 1961.
Eddie Mathews was a classic pull hitter — he said he learned that from his mother, who used to pitch to him and would make him do extra chores if he hit the ball up the middle toward her.
Because he pulled the ball so beautifully and violently from such a young age — “I’ve only known three or four perfect swings in my time,” Ty Cobb said after seeing him in the minors, “and this lad has one of them” — he became one of the greatest young home run hitters in baseball history. He had one of the great age-21 seasons in baseball history — he hit .302/.406/.627 with 47 home runs. Through age 23, he hit 153 home runs, still a record. At age 25, he he had 222, 100 or so more than Babe Ruth had at that same age and 40 more than his teammate Henry Aaron would.
There was a lot of talk in those days that Mathews could break Ruth’s record; he hit his 400th home run just as he turned 31 and he was still well ahead of Ruth’s pace. But, obviously, it was not meant to be. He was, however, the Atlanta Braves manager when Aaron broke the record. Aaron and Mathews still hold the record for most home runs hit by teammates, and it is truly a shared record (Aaron hit 442, Mathews 421), unlike Aaron’s other shared record.*
*Henry Aaron and Tommie Aaron still have the record for most home runs by brothers. Henry hit 755. Tommie hit 13.
Anyway, because he was so great young and because he did not challenge Ruth’s record, there was a whiff of disappointment about Mathews. I suppose that too may have had something to do with the Hall of Fame delay. Anyway, Mathews called his wife that day in 1973 after he found that he got only 30-some percent of the vote.
“I didn’t make it,” he told his wife.
“Didn’t make what?” she asked back.
* * *
**Eddie Mathews hit only .227 in the 1957 World Series and actually started out 0-for-8. But you could argue he was still hero. In Game 4, with his Braves down two games to one, Mathews came to the plate in the 10th inning with one out, the score tied and a man on second. The Yankees had led going into the inning but the Braves led off with the famous shoe-polish moment — Nippy Jones pinch hit for Warren Spahn and a pitch by Tommy Byrnes was landed near his foot. The umpire originally ruled that Jones was not hit by the pitch, but Jones pointed to shoe polish from his cleat on the ball and was given his base. He scored the tying run on Johnny Logan’s double. Then Mathews came up.
The Yankees had shown no inclination up to that point to pitch to him — they walked him three times in Game 3 — but this time they decided to pitch to him with first base open. He hit a mammoth home run for the walk-off victory.
In Game 5, Mathews singled with two outs against Whitey Ford, went to third on Aaron’s single and scored on Joe Adcock’s single. That was the only run scored in the Braves 1-0 victory.
In Game 7, Mathews hit a two-run double in the third inning and then scored himself on Aaron’s single to give the Braves a 3-0 lead. Lew Burdette threw a shutout so that was more than enough.
Burdette was named Series MVP — he won three games and gave up two runs the whole series. Aaron confirmed his super-stardom by hitting .393 with three home runs during the series. But Yankees manager Casey Stengel thought Mathews was the difference. “Without him in the lineup,” Stengel said, “it would have been a different series.”