Free Friday: Let's Talk Hall of Fame Catchers!
Hi, welcome to Free Friday. Today, we’ll be talking Hall of Fame catchers—the Hall of Fame announcement is on Tuesday, so we’ll have lots of fun stuff next week! There’s a chance that FOUR players will be elected. How crazy is that?
Just a quick update on WHY WE LOVE FOOTBALL. I’m down to the final two weeks of writing and editing, I believe. I’m so excited for you to see this book. Many of you read The Football 101 here on JoeBlogs, when I counted down the 101 greatest football players ever. That was the book I actually sold.
But then, for any number of reasons—the main one being that I simply have to make life harder for myself at every turn—I decided to write an entirely different book. So, WHY WE LOVE FOOTBALL is a countdown of the 100 greatest moments in football history—college, pro, high school, lots of other things, too. It has been my day and night for several months now, and I have to tell you I love it so, so much. Admittedly, that could be the exhaustion speaking.
I’ll have a whole lot more on WHY WE LOVE FOOTBALL in the months ahead; the book comes out on Sept. 17. Next week, we’ll unveil the cover (which I love). For now, let me write about some catchers and then back to work!
For those of you catching up here on Free Friday, the percentages listed below are those from the Baseball Hall of Fame survey that more than 4,000 of you took a couple of weeks ago.
Fully qualified Hall of Famers
Buster Posey (90.8%)
Joe Mauer (on ballot this year—we’ll get to him)
Yadier Molina, 81.6%
Strong Hall of Fame candidates
Double Duty Radcliffe, 57.0%
Thurman Munson, 47.6%
Elston Howard, 32.3%
Quincy Trouppe, 26.4%
Bill Freehan, 26.0%
On this year’s ballot
Joe Mauer, 84.7%
Happy Friday! Our Friday posts are free so everyone can enjoy them. Just a reminder that Joe Blogs is a reader-supported newsletter, and I’d love and appreciate your support.
One of my favorite parts about looking over the Hall of Fame is that it helps us define eras. A lot of times we THINK we’re in a golden age for, say, centerfielders (in the 1950s) or third basemen (in the 1970s/’80s)… but the Hall of Fame elections often clarify that thinking.
For example, in the late 1990s, most of us believed that we were in a golden age for shortstops. I mean, you had Derek Jeter, you had Alex Rodriguez, you had Nomar Garciaparra, Omar Vizquel was making all those incredible barehanded plays, the young Edgar Renteria was looking super promising, you had a bunch of solid Jay Bell types, a golden age.
And, I mean, you could still argue that it was a golden age. But from that ultra-specific era—Barry Larkin was still around, but at the end; Ripken was already playing third base—only Jeter is in the Hall of Fame. We all know the reasons that a couple of others are not, but the point is, I don’t think too many people look back on the late 1990s as a golden age for shortstops.
You know what the late 1990s WERE a Golden Age of? Pitchers. Over that same period—say, 1996 to 2001—you had Pedro, you had Big Unit, you had Rocket, you had Mad Dog, you had Curt Schilling, you had Mike Mussina, you had Tom Glavine, you had Mariano Rivera, you had John Smoltz and you had a bunch of not-quite Hall of Famers* who were really good, like Kevin Brown and David Cone and Jamie Moyer and Chuck Finley and David Wells, among others.
*I do realize that I put Schilling among the Hall of Famers, but that’s because he truly is unique—he’s the only player, I do believe, in the history of baseball who talked his way out of the Hall of Fame. That takes special talent.
That’s an all-time lineup of pitchers. I love my baseball history, as you might know, so I’m always going to talk about Walter Johnson and Satchel Paige and Bob Gibson and Smokey Joe Williams and Tom Seaver and Lefty Grove and Warren Spahn and Sandy Koufax and the other titans. But there’s at least an argument that Pedro, Unit, Rocket and Mad Dog are the four best pitchers who ever lived.
In the late 1960s, 1970s and into the ’80s, we had a golden age of catchers: Hall of Famers Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter and Ted Simmons all played in that time period. You also had Thurman Munson, who we’ll talk about in a minute. That’s as good as the catcher position has ever been in MLB.*
*In the Negro leagues in the 1920s, ’30s and into the ’40s, you had Biz Mackey, Josh Gibson, Roy Campanella and an aging Louis Santop, along with Double Duty Radcliffe and Quincy Trouppe, so that was pretty special. Note to self: Write a piece on what an amazing collection of catchers they had in the Negro leagues.
Well, it looks like we have just been through ANOTHER golden age for catchers.
It looks REALLY good that Joe Mauer will get elected to the Hall of Fame on first ballot. I’ve already written how excited I am about that; I thought there was a chance Mauer would have to wait, because his career was short and because he spent the last five years as a first baseman after he suffered a concussion.
But it sure looks like the voters will recognize quality, recognize just what a titanic force Mauer was from 2005 to 2013 (.323 average, three batting titles, an MVP, three Gold Gloves). According to the Tracker, with almost half the vote in, he has 84% of the vote, meaning he needs only to be on roughly two-thirds of the non-public ballots to get in. I think he’ll do that. Unlike some of the other, more contentious candidates, I can’t see there being a big gap between the public and private ballots for Mauer.
That’s so awesome. And I think it’s pretty clear that in the near future, he’ll be joined in Cooperstown by his contemporaries Buster Posey and Yadi Molina. That makes for something of a golden age.
Hey, if you feel like it, I’d love if you’d share this post with your friends!
A Little Survey Talk
All right, let’s break down the eras for the 18 catchers in the Hall of Fame (soon to be 19! Then 21!).
One catcher started in the 19th century (Roger Bresnahan)
Two catchers started during Deadball (Louis Santop, Ray Schalk)
Four catchers started during the 1920s (Mickey Cochrane, Bill Dickey, Rick Ferrell, Gabby Hartnett)
Three catchers started in the 1930s (Roy Campanella, Josh Gibson, Ernie Lombardi)
One catcher started in the 1940s (Yogi Berra)
Three catchers started in the 1960s (Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Ted Simmons)
One catcher started in the 1970s (Gary Carter)
Two catchers started in the 1990s (Mike Piazza, Iván Rodriguez)
You can see the gaps. No catcher who started in the 1950s is in the Hall of Fame. The best catcher to debut that decade was probably Tim McCarver, believe it or not. I mean, it might have been Ed Bailey or Gus Triandos or John Roseboro, but the point is, no, there wasn’t a Hall of Fame catcher to come up in that decade.
Also, no catcher to debut in the 1980s is in the Hall of Fame. The best catcher to debut that decade? I’d say Benito Santiago, but it might have been Mickey Tettleton or Tony Peña or Mike Scioscia or Terry Steinbach, lots of good catchers* but, alas, no great ones or, perhaps it’s better to say, none who could maintain their greatness.
*Mike MacFarlane debuted in 1987, and when I think of “good players” he’s one of the first to come to mind, for two reasons. One, he and Kevin Seitzer run a little baseball academy in Kansas City called Mac N’ Seitz—I think they still run it—and that was where I went to train before my infamous appearance at Royals fantasy camp.
But more to the point, MacFarlane is the guy who prompted Bill James to rank the 100 greatest players at every position in the new Historical Baseball Abstract. Bill was at a Royals game with a friend, and their attention focused on Mac, and Bill said, “I’ll bet he’s one of the top 100 catchers in baseball history.” His friend mocked the idea and said he could name 200 catchers better than MacFarlane. When Bill challenged him to do so, he only got to about 30 or 35 before he started naming catchers that might or might not have been better than Mac. In the Abstract, Bill ended up ranking MacFarlane 84th. It’s possible that now, more than 20 years later, Mac would fall out of the top 100 (he’s 118th in WAR) but I might still rank him in there. He was a good player.
Catchers do seem to come at us in groups—Mauer, Posey and Yadi; Piazza and Pudge 2.0; Bench and Pudge 1.0; Yogi and Campy; etc.
The only older catcher who seemed to really capture the survey-takers’ attention was Thurman Munson. Munson was just 32 when he died in a plane crash during the 1979 season, and he’d won the Rookie of the Year, won an MVP award, won three Gold Gloves and had been a seven-time All-Star. He was the leader of the Bronx Zoo Yankees.
I have very vivid memories of the day he died. I was playing catch in the backyard with my buddy Michael, and at some point, we were talking about Munson, because he had made it very clear that he was to come and play for Cleveland. Munson was an Akron guy. There can be no question, looking back, that Munson was in decline as a player—his back and neck were giving out on him—but we didn’t know that. Nor did we care. We were 12 years old. The idea that a superstar like Munson would be coming to Cleveland was so mind-boggling to us that we could barely fathom it.
Moments after that conversation, my father reached his head out the window to tell us that Thurman Munson had died in the plane crash.
Should he be a Hall of Famer? I think his case is pretty strong. Statistically, you know, he was a particular kind of hitter—put the ball in play, pretty high average, had a little power, drove in 100 runs three years in a row—and he was a good defensive catcher, who, in his younger days, especially, threw out a lot of base stealers. He was also the kind of mean that defined a team and an era; Sparky Lyle said Munson wasn’t moody, because “when you’re moody, you’re nice sometimes.”
On the other hand, I’d say that since Yogi and Campy, the standard for Hall of Fame catchers had skyrocketed… and Munson isn’t quite in the same league as Bench, Fisk, Carter, Piazza or either of the Pudges. At his best, Munson was better than Simmons, I think, but Simmons just lasted so darned long. It’s a super-close call. I’d like for Munson to have his case heard again, at least.
Reminder: Mike and I are opening baseball cards on the PosCast in order to raise money for the ALS charity Project Main Street! Donate what you can, then send us a gmail at PosCastRaffle to possibly win super-fabulous prizes. The prizes keep coming in—Strat-O-Matic has just donated a full, current edition 2023 game!
Oh, and listen to the PosCast, obviously. We’re at the top of our games when it comes to dispensing utterly meaningless and pointless nonsense.
JoeBlogs Week in Review
Monday: Our final Browns Diary of the season.
Tuesday: Hall of Fame breakdown: corner outfield.
Wednesday: Remembering consolation games.
Thursday: Hall of Fame breakdown: centerfield.