By In Baseball, Hall of Fame

The Finalists: Tommy John and Joe Torre

Our continuing series on the 12 players on the Baseball Hall of Fame Expansion Era ballot.

Tommy John

Summary: Pitched in the big leagues for an amazing 26 seasons — and he actually lost a full season in the middle because of, well, a certain kind of elbow injury that had no surgical solution. Cy Young never won a Cy Young. Tommy John did not have the option of having Tommy John surgery. But he did have a risky kind of surgery that would someday bear his name, and he pitched 14 more seasons and twice finished second in the Cy Young balloting.

The quick case: John’s case usually begins with his 288 victories — the most for any eligible pitcher not in the Hall of Famer (well, Roger Clemens has more victories and has been on the ballot one season so far). John threw more than 4,700 innings (20th all-time), had pinpoint control (10 times he finished among the leaders in fewest walks per nine) and was probably the greatest in baseball history at coaxing the double-play grounder.

Most double plays forced since 1916:

1. Tommy John, 605
2. Jim Kaat, 462
3. Gaylord Perry,451
4. Phil Niekro, 431
5. Greg Maddux, 422.

He also helped revolutionize the game by coming back and pitching effectively after the revolutionary reconstructive elbow surgery performed by Dr. Frank Jobe.

The history: John was on the BBWAA ballot for 15 seasons, topping out at 31.7% in his final year. His numbers never went up and they never really went down either. He pretty consistently received about one-quarter of the vote.

Comparable Hall of Famer: There are a few, but he was probably somewhere between Eppa Rixey and Don Sutton.

* * *

Joe Torre

Summary: An excellent player — and former MVP — Torre is on the ballot as a manager. He managed 29 seasons for five teams and his teams won more than 2,300 games. His greatest success, of course, was with the New York Yankees, who won four World Series championships in five years.

The quick case: It’s pretty simple — every single eligible manager with three or more World Series championships is in the Hall of Fame. Torre’s teams won four and won two other pennants. He navigated the choppy George Steinbrenner waters and New York media landscape as well as anyone could. He is all but certain to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

The history: This is really Torre’s first look as a manager, but he was a good enough player to stay on the ballot for 15 years. In his last year on the ballot, he received 22.1% of the vote, his highest total.

Comparable Hall of Famer: As a manager, he had some similarities to Sparky Anderson in how he stayed positive and handled the various egos on his team with quiet style.

* * *

I put Torre and John together for a specific reason. The Baseball Hall of Fame, as we have talked about her pretty often, means different things to different people. Well for one thing, everyone has his/her own standard for the Hall of Fame, and it’s quite likely that every single person reading this would have different players in their personal Hall of Fame. But I’m not exactly talking about standards here. What I mean is that the Hall of Fame MEANS different things to different people.

Here’s a little game to play. You get your own personal Hall of Fame … but you are only allowed to put five people in it. That’s all. Five. Who would you put in?

Let’s say you would put in: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Honus Wagner and Walter Johnson. That’s a fine list. What you are probably saying is that you believe that the Hall of Fame should have the best players in it.

OK, but may you would put in: Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson, Sandy Koufax, Henry Aaron and Barry Bonds. Well, that’s a different kind of list. Maybe you are saying that you want five players who tell the story of baseball.

What about these five: Marvin Miller, Vin Scully, Bill James, Satchel Paige and Sy Berger (the father of Topps baseball cards).

Or these five: Duane Kuiper, Buddy Bell, Greg Maddux, Raul Ibanez and Buck O’Neil. Those five are, well, you know, my favorites.

You could go like this forever. The five you choose reflect your own personal view of baseball.

My personal view is that the Hall of Fame has not done a good enough job commemorating the people who contributed to baseball in a variety of ways. This feeling goes back to that rotten day in 2006 when Buck O’Neil was not elected to the Hall of Fame. You might remember: There was a panel of Negro Leagues historians — the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues or SCNL — who essentially were given unbridled freedom to elect as many people as they wanted from the Negro Leagues. They took full advantage of this and elected SEVENTEEN people into the Hall.

Yeah. Seventeen.

They elected owners, executives, scouts, players, writers. It was a free for all and, in my opinion, it was not only a disservice to the Hall of Fame, it was a disservice to their own mission. By electing 17, they essentially elected none. It was like a lawyer blinding the other side with paperwork. If you give people 17 things to think about all at once, they will pay attention to none of them. These days Ben Taylor and Louis Santop and Ray Brown and Jose Mendez and Pete Hill and Frank Grant and Andy Cooper and Sol White and Jud Wilson are all in the Hall of Fame, and there’s a pretty good chance you don’t know a thing about any of them — including the fact that they are in the Hall of Fame.

But even in their misguided throw-open-the-door policy of electing basically anyone they could think of, they could not find it in their hearts to vote for Buck O’Neil, who was actually alive (unlike any of the 17) and was probably the biggest reason there even WAS a Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in the first place. I’ve written often about being with him that day at the Negro Leagues Museum. It was awful. Buck, of course, handled it with the greatest dignity because he was Buck O’Neil. But it was still awful. I have been told by people who would probably know that the SCNL was set up largely as a way to honor Buck O’Neil and his lifelong effort to celebrate the Negro leagues. And then that very committee could not come up with enough votes to honor him. It was like not being invited to your own birthday party.

The committee had many smart and reasonable people on it, and their reasoning seemed to be as follows: Buck was not a good enough player to be elected to the Hall of Fame. He was a good player, but not Hall of Fame worthy — a point I agree with. They said Buck was not a good enough manager to be elected to the Hall of Fame. That’s a closer call — Buck was an excellent manager and one of the most respected men in the Negro Leagues — but, OK, let’s grant that one too. Buck was a pioneer, the first African-American coach in the Major Leagues, but nobody seemed to know what to do with that information.

The committee suggested that Buck’s scouting — he was integral in signing Ernie Banks, Lou Brock, Joe Carter and Lee Smith, not to mention his role in the careers of Billy Williams and Elston Howard — was not really applicable because there is currently no channel for scouts to get into the Hall of Fame. I think this is wrong, by the way, but I had particularly little regard for the SCNL argument because they did induct Alex Pompez, who had a fairly undistinguished career as a Negro Leagues owner and executive. Pompez’s major contribution to baseball was really in scouting Latin America and signing players like Tony Oliva and Orlando Cepeda.

But OK, let’s grant that also that Buck’s brilliant scouting career cannot alone make him a Hall of Famer. Finally, they really did not seem to know what to do with the 50-odd years that Buck O’Neil spent commemorating the Negro Leagues, keeping the memory alive, traveling the country and telling stories, helping found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, on and on and on. They seemed to ignore all that.

And so, in the end, the committee broke Buck O’Neil’s baseball life into five smaller parts and decided that none of the parts on their own made him worthy of the Hall of Fame. Now, the fact that they elected SEVENTEEN people into the Hall of Fame and parsed Buck O’Neil into oblivion tells me there were other reasons they did not vote for Buck But that’s old news. My point here is that the Baseball Hall of Fame has often ignored people who contributed to the game in multiple ways while electing people who were excellent at one thing.

Tommy John, for instance, was a very good pitcher. His career value seems to put him somewhere in the circle with Don Drysdale and Dennis Eckersley and Robin Roberts and Jim Bunning and so on. Those are Hall of Famers. He also fits in with Jim Kaat and Bobby Mathews and others who are not Hall of Famers. He pitched a very long time and had some excellent years and many good years. If he had “won” 12 more games, he would be in the Hall of Fame right now. Twelve more would have given him 300 wins. You know how many no-decisions John had when he pitched eight-plus inning and gave up one-or-fewer runs? Thirteen. Yeah. It’s that close.

But here’s the thing about John: His decision to have exploratory elbow surgery in 1974 changed baseball. At the time, Dr. Frank Jobe put his chances of recovery at one in 100. John was in so much pain and so desperately wanted to pitch again that he took the chance. He spent all of 1975 rehabilitating his arm. In 1976, he returned and pitched more than 200 innings. The next year, he won 20 games and finished second in the Cy Young voting. His success encouraged others. And now Tommy John surgery is a bigger part of baseball than Cracker Jacks. You almost never see people at the ballpark eating Cracker Jacks. You almost always see a pitcher who had Tommy John surgery.

So how should the surgery affect John’s Hall of Fame case? Again, people will disagree but I think it’s a huge part of his case. He helped change the game. And he was an excellent pitcher. It should all go into one big bucket of Tommy Johnness.

The same goes with Joe Torre. When you combine his playing AND his managing, Joe Torre is unquestionably one of the great figures in the history of baseball. As a player, Torre was fantastic — everyone remembers his 1971 MVP season when he hit .363 with 137 RBIs, but he was about as good in 1970 and 1967 and 1966. He was .300 hitter with some power. People forget that he won a Gold Glove as a catcher in 1965 and the next year he threw out 49% of the runners who tried to steal against him. He had a great arm. If he had stayed at catcher, he might be in the Hall of Fame already. Instead, he was moved to third base where he struggled a bit defensively (though hit like a star).

And then, as a manager, he suffered through two decades of mediocrity. For one thing, he spent the first decade or so managing mediocre or dysfunctional teams. For another, he simply had not found his rhythm. He did lead the Atlanta Braves to the playoffs one year, and his St. Louis Cardinals had winning records. But it wasn’t until he got to New York that it all came together — a perfect match of team and manager. Torre’s managing was never fancy and often predictable, but he knew how to grab the moment in the postseason. He knew how ballplayers thought and he knew how sportswriters thought and he knew how George Steinbrenner thought and he knew how to make all of it work.

Torre will get elected on this ballot, I feel confident in saying that, but again there’s a question: Shouldn’t Joe Torre’s entire career — as a player, as a manager, as a representative of the game — be considered when thinking about the Hall of Fame. It might not matter for Torre. But I think about Gill Hodges — wonderful player, also managed the Miracle Mets. Should that managing part help his case? How much? I suspect everyone answers those questions a little bit differently.

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32 Responses to The Finalists: Tommy John and Joe Torre

  1. wordyduke says:

    At one time, I read the rules (pretty carefully, several times) about electing non-players, and they said that it was appropriate to consider the playing accomplishment of these people in one’s judgment. Or maybe it was the other way around, that the veteran players’ committee, in looking at an individual’s “body of work,” could consider his post-player baseball accomplishment. It was one or the other. Or both.

    But of course they keep changing the nature of the veterans’ committees, and their missions and voting rules, hoping to remedy past madness, sometimes (often?) making things worse.

    In any case, by the past rules, Torre could have been voted in the last time his grouping (whatever it was called then) came up for selection, but apparently not enough people paid attention to the rules. Or maybe the manager had/has to be retired X years, X perhaps being longer than their life expectancy.

    Gil Hodges has many admirers. He also has fewer win shares as a player (Torre 315, Hodges 263) and fewer wins as a manager (Torre 2326, Hodges 660, though that’s not Hodges’s “fault”).

    Eloquent cases for Buck and for Tommy John. As you indicate, daring to be the surgical guinea pig (not a great image, sorry) and in particular persevering afterward merits a lot of thought, even for those who prefer other candidates based on some of the numbers.

  2. I’m just throwing this out here and personally don’t think it should happen but, what if it was Dr. Frank Jobe on the ballet instead of Tommy John? Would all the countless players that had Tommy John surgery extend their careers be a compelling argument for Cooperstown? Yes Tommy John was the guinea pig but Dr Jobe was the guy who started trying it on athletes.

  3. Carl says:

    Hi Joe,

    I read your book about Buck O’Neil and I literally cried when he didn’t get in. Knew the outcome before I read it, and still had tears welling up.

    Question on Buck though. He told you (and you repeated several times in the book) that he hit for the cycle in 1943 the day he met his lovely wife. Baseballreference however shows that Buck did not hit a triple in 1943. In your opinion, was Buck telling a tall tale, or perhaps forgetting, or is baseballreference simply missing a day’s boxscores?

  4. Adam says:

    The claim for being the best pitcher at inducing double plays has me thinking. Double plays induced seems kinda like RBI to me. In order to induce a double play, you need to first allow a baserunner. Has anyone calculated the rate of double plays for the above list? In other words, the percentage for a pitcher getting a double play or a strikeout when in a double play situation?

    • You don’t have to let someone on first to induce a double play if you are a relief pitcher…

      • Karyn Ellis says:

        Sure, but a reliever is unlikely to get as many opportunities to induce a GIDP.

        • Adam says:

          That is exactly why I’d be interested in a rate statistic for that. Because while I’ve no recollection of seeing Tommy John pitch, I’d be interested in how he compares to my perceived best double play inducer, Quiz.

          • KHAZAD says:

            I don’t know if there is a place where you can find double play opportunities. (There are so many variables) But a simplistic way to look at it is to see what percentage of base runners allowed were “erased” via the double play. Tommy John erased 9.82% of the base runners he allowed. As a comparison Don Sutton (who was mentioned above as a comp) erased only 4.77% of his base runners.

            Since you asked about Quiz, I will tell you that he erased 10.54% of his baserunners via GIDP.

  5. Blake says:

    Joe: I always expected Torre to get in. This is the best I’ve heard the argument expressed for Tommy John. Would we have Tommy John surgery without him? How many years would it have taken another pitcher to try it? Missing an entire season, then excelling at the big league level — who might have done that?

    The game is better today for all the post-TJ surgery pitchers that enrich it. I predict the oldtimers on the committee won’t respect the argument you’ve made here. But it convinced me.

  6. Dave Conley says:

    Positing Tommy John surgery as a contribution to the game sounds like utter nonsense to me. Put aside Tommy John himself, a very good pitcher. The game was no better after this surgical procedure than it was before. Pitchers still get chewed up, but the old ones can be recycled for additional paydays. Performance is rarely equal to pre-surgery levels, and it actually entices parents and management into a spiral of mistreatment.

    It’s like nominating Roy Hofheinz because he gave us astroturf.

    • “Performance is rarely equal to pre-surgery levels,”

      I want to see the data on that because pitchers seem to throw better after Tommy John, at least for the last few years.

    • nickolai says:

      TJ surgery is just for “old pitchers?” I think you need to look closer. The surgery is being used more and more by pitchers in their prime or even before it, to lengthen or even make possible entire careers. Here’s just a recent list of current MLB pitchers who had the surgery — about 1/3 of current MLB pitchers:

      A sampling of those included: Jarrod Parker in 2009 (21 at the time), Jordan Zimmerman in ’09 (23), Strasburg in 2010 (22), Brett Anderson in 2011 (23), Cory Luebke in 2012 (26), etc. etc. etc.

      The impact to the game has been undeniable, and I think your claim that TJ surgery has led to increased mistreatment / overuse is a tenuous one.

  7. CT Bold says:

    In re Torre as a manager: I appreciate the logical pieces of the argument, which are substantial and make the presence of “post-season moment grabbing” even more jarring. How does that ‘standard’ figure into your normal logical constructs?.

    In re Tommy John: I appreciate what he did on the field, which has so far proved unconvincing to the voters. His surgery was a medical procedure, and perhaps the innovative surgical team should be honored in a Sports Med HoF, which could have a non-surgical wing to recognize Julio Franco (e.g.) and others whose exceptional physical condition also provided longevity.

    Is it true that there was no practical alternative at that point? I’m glad it all worked out, but what did he have to lose from trying it? His career was otherwise over, correct?

    Maybe his ligaments should be on display.

  8. Interesting idea to credit Tommy John for opting to have surgery. Not sure that the logic works, but on the other hand no one calls it “Frank Jobe surgery”, so we have all been giving John some credit for decades.

    In terms of his ground-ball inducing ability, I recall watching a game (I believe against the Twins) when he got 21 outs out of 27 on ground balls. Forget about double plays, that was just ridiculous.

    In terms of Torre, completely agree with the notion of considering an entire career. While I appreciate that the Hall is starting to recognize specialists (such as closers and perhaps DH’s) for doing very well the limited things that were asked of them, at the same time there should remain an appreciation for those people whose career included doing so many things so well.

  9. Matthew says:

    I recall Bill James saying that Red Schoendienst is an example of a Hall of Famer elected for the total package of his contributions to the game. As a player, he was pretty good (2400+ hits and a .289 average as a 2B, but only 42 rWAR / 37 fWAR). He managed the Cardinals to back-to-back pennants in 1967-68 (including a World Series win in ’67), and he was in the game for decades as a coach and manager. His Hall of Fame plaque mentions his post-playing career, so even if he’s classified as a “player” for Hall purposes, it seems like he was inducted for his total body of work.

  10. One more argument in favor of Tommy John. He pitched for a lot of bad teams, almost always pitching better than his team played. He didn’t reach the playoffs until he was 34 years old. His postseason record: 6-3. 88.1 IP, 2.65 ERA. That’s an ERA more than a run better than Jack Morris, Roger Clemens, or Don Sutton, and almost a run better than Pedro Martinez.

    I would not feel my HOF was diminished if Tommy John, Joe Torre, Gil Hodges, or Buck O’Neil was in it. I will feel my HOF is diminished if Jack Morris gets elected.

    • Matthew says:

      For what it’s worth, according to an article called “Fixing Pitcher Wins” on Bill James Online, Tommy John had 24 starts in which the following happened:

      (1) He left the game after five innings with his team in the lead,
      (2) Another pitcher blew the lead, and
      (3) His team went on to win.

      Because of a weird glitch in the “pitcher wins” statistic, a reliever (often the one who blew the lead) is credited with the win. If you close that loophole, that adds 24 wins to John’s total, putting him at 312 career wins.

      According to the article, John is 2nd all-time in games like that. Roger Clemens leads the way, with 26.

  11. Dan says:

    Many people take the opposite approach when Pete Rose’s name comes up. I have heard many people say that “I understand the whole gambling thing, but that was when he was managing. They should just consider what he did as a player.” Like Poz said, it’s all a matter of how you look at it.

  12. tombando says:

    Putting a guy in for the sum of his varied parts-Birdie Tibbetts, Jimmy Dykes, Charlie Grimm, Dusty Baker, maybe now Don Mattingly fit this. I’m all for it.

    Torre-should be in the Hall. Ditto Tommy John.

    They hosed Buck O’neill of course.

  13. Brent says:

    Red Schoendienst (mentioned above) is a very good example of the parts adding up to enough to makde the HOF. Maybe a better one is Wilbert Robinson, who was a good catcher, but not a HOF one, then was perhaps the first real pitching coach in history and then went one to manage for many years, but whose teams only won a couple pennants and no World Series.

    • Ian R. says:

      There’s also Al Lopez, who was quite similar to Robinson – a very good catcher and a successful manager who basically made the Hall as a lifetime achievement award.

  14. Stephen says:

    Of course, if you bounce John’s wins upwards on this basis, you also have to adjust contemporaries like Kaat and Sutton and Jenkins upward too, presumably by about the same amount, and then maybe the “magic number” becomes 350, not 300. Or maybe not, our fascination with round numbers being what it is, but John wouldn’t move up in a vacuum.

    As for Hodges vs. Torre, it’s interesting to note that Hodges’s teams only once won more than 83 games or finished above third place. Of course, that one exception was a doozy. But that one season aside, he was not an especially successful manager.

  15. NevadaMark says:

    John and Torre are both fully qualified as players. You can take a group of well qualified Hall of Famers and both would be in the middle of said group. And they tower over guys like Rick Farrell, Bobby Wallace (who?) and Bill Mazeroski.

  16. Rick R says:

    Tommy John was a lefty sinkerballer who didn’t throw that hard. He rarely struck people out. He threw everything low and away, basically living a few inches off the outside corner. He knew that if he kept throwing junk just off the plate, sooner or later somebody would be tempted to swing at it. If they did, they would most likely roll it over and hit a ground ball. It meant that he gave up a lot of singles (he rarely gave up homers) but also he induced a ton of double plays.

    It was an effective way to pitch, but it was brutal to watch. Nibbling nibbling nibbling until the batter finally bit. There’s always a few of those guys sprinkled throughout baseball, often older pitchers who have lost their stuff and are hanging on by guile. Soft-tossing left-handers specialize in this, especially if they can turn the ball over a bit. They know they can throw 16 straight balls before walking in a run, in the hopes that hitters will be so anxious to take a whack at their slow stuff that they’ll go fishing for it.

    In my Hall of Fame, I reward players who are entertaining, and I penalize players who make me want to watch something else. Tommy John was the kind of pitcher I hated whether he was pitching for me or against me. No Hall for him.

  17. I certainly agree that…in Torre’s case…he deserves to be judged on the totality of his baseball career, both as a player and as a manager. He was always a fine hitter, although he won his Gold Glove as much with his bat as behind the plate. I know the pitching staff in Atlanta at the time didn’t especially like pitching to him. They felt that a lot of passed balls were scored as wild pitches because he had won a Gold Glove. (Of of those pitchers was Phil Niekro…so caveat emptor.) Personally, I think that Torre’s managerial career alone merits HOF admission…and adding in his playing career makes his candidacy even stronger.

    I’m not sure that I agree with giving Tommy John credit for the operation that saved his career. But then, I think Tommy John was a HOF pitcher anyway.

    There has NEVER been a more idiotic, unjust decision than keeping Buck O’Neill out of the HOF while he was still alive, and able to enjoy it. And it deprived us of what would probably have been one of the best induction speeches ever.

  18. Shagster says:

    “… one big bucket of Tommy Johness”

    Another delightful candy from the box of Posnanski chocolates.

  19. MRH says:

    I’ve read a lot of baseball books, but I really enjoyed Buck’s biography, I Was Right On Time.

  20. el Aguila says:

    If you want “proof” that people’s overall contributions can and have been considered for their induction, just look at Frank Chance’s HOF plaque.
    Inducted/elected as a player, his plaque DOESN’T MENTION HIS PLAYING CAREER. It’s all about his MANAGING:
    “Famous leader of Chicago Cubs, won pennant with Cubs in first full season as manager in 1906- that team compiled 116 victories unequaled in Major League history- Also won pennants in 1907, 1908 and 1910 and World Series winner in 1907 and 1908. Started with Chicago in 1898. Also manager New York A.L. and Boston A.L.”
    Granted, he was a player-manager for most of that, but still…

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