Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Vada Pinson-A Great Baseball Player

While I was thrilled that Ron Santo was finally elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame last month, I was also annoyed that Vada Pinson was not on the ballot. The Veteran’s Committee that voted Santo in examined the careers of players active during the “Golden Age,” defined by the Committee as 1947-72. Pinson’s major league career started in 1958 and ended in 1975, putting the bulk of his career within that time span. Apparently, the ballot went through a screening committee, and the committee felt that Pinson wasn’t good enough to be on the ballot. I strongly disagree with the decision of the screening committee, and I feel that Pinson should have been on the ballot. The extremely overdue election of Ron Santo proves that the writers and the Veteran’s Committee sometimes get it wrong, and it can take a long time to correct that wrong.

I don’t know if Vada Pinson should be a Hall of Famer, but he was a great player who should at least still be considered for the Hall of Fame. I’m too young to have ever seen Vada Pinson play, so I can’t sprinkle this post with anecdotes about the time I saw him make a game-winning catch in center field or hit a game-winning home run. I’ve never even seen film footage of Pinson playing. All I have are Pinson’s numbers, and they’re pretty darn good. I’m not quite sure why Pinson became a favorite player of mine. I got to know of him through his baseball cards, which I collected when I was a little kid. I always liked players with unique names, and Vada Pinson’s name was certainly unique. I also remember looking at his stats and seeing how high Pinson ranked among the all-time leaders in various categories. I thought, “Wow, he seems pretty good. Why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame?” (Pinson still ranks among the top 100 players in Games, At Bats, Runs, Hits, Total Bases, Doubles, and Triples.) I remember being saddened to read of his death in 1995, at the age of just 57. The notice of his passing that I read in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was just a line or two. I want to shine more light on Vada Pinson and his career-he deserved much more than just a line or two.

As an adult baseball fan I look back at Pinson’s stats and I’m still very impressed. Pinson was a truly great player for the first half of his career, and an above-average player for the second half of his career. Pinson finished his career with 2,757 hits. If he could have remained a great player for just two or three more seasons he would have reached the 3,000 hit milestone and he would be a Hall of Famer for sure. (Although he would probably be the most obscure member of the 3,000 hit club.) Pinson’s career breaks almost exactly in half-from 1959 to 1967 he was a terrific player, and from 1968 to 1975 he was merely pretty good. After appearing in more than 150 games in every season from 1959-67, from 1968-75 Pinson never again appeared in 150 games in a season. Were nagging injuries the cause of his decline as a player? I’ve read online that he played with a broken leg for most of the 1969 season. I’m not quite sure how that’s possible, but that’s what I read.

Vada Pinson made his major league debut with the Cincinnati Reds in 1958, at the age of 19. Pinson began the 1958 season as the Reds’ starting right fielder. However, he quickly slumped and was sent down to the minors in May. After hitting .343 in the minors, he returned to the major leagues to stay in September of 1958. In 1959 Pinson shifted to center field, and he would go on to play 1,681 games in center field during his career. Pinson had a huge year in 1959, hitting .316, good for 4th in the National League. Pinson also cracked 20 home runs, collected 205 hits, and lead the league with 47 doubles and 131 runs scored. He might have easily been Rookie of the Year, but he had slightly too many at bats in 1958 to be considered a rookie in 1959. Pinson quickly became friends with the Reds’ other African-American superstar, Frank Robinson. Ironically, Pinson and Robinson had attended the same high school, Oakland’s McClymonds High. McClymonds also boasted Cardinals center fielder Curt Flood and NBA great Bill Russell among its alumni.

Pinson and Robinson tore up National League pitching during the early 1960’s. The Reds went to the World Series in 1961, and Pinson and Robinson both played key roles in getting the Reds to the Series. Pinson hit a career-best .343 and led the league in hits. Robinson led the league in slugging, hit 37 home runs, and was voted the MVP. Pinson floundered in the World Series against the Yankees, getting just 2 hits as the Reds lost in 5 games. His batting average for the Series was an anemic .091. This would prove to be Pinson’s only post-season experience. Robinson was traded to the Orioles after the 1965 season, just after he turned 30. The Reds’ General Manager famously pronounced Robinson to be “an old 30.” (Robinson went on to win the Triple Crown and lead the Orioles to the World Series, where they swept the Dodgers.) Pinson was traded just after he turned 30 as well, after the 1968 season. Pinson had suffered through a lackluster 1968 season, hitting just 5 home runs. He was dealt to the Cardinals, where he teamed with Lou Brock and Curt Flood to make up an awesome outfield. (The second photo posted above is of Brock, Flood, and Pinson, from left to right.) However, 1969 would prove to be another disappointing season for Pinson, as he broke his leg and slumped to a .255 batting average, the lowest he had ever hit in the majors. Pinson was sort of a victim of bad timing in his trade to the Cardinals. Had the Reds traded Pinson after the 1966 season, Pinson could have played for the pennant-winning Cardinal teams of 1967 and 1968. On the other hand, if the Reds would have kept him for his entire career, Pinson would have played for the Big Red Machine team that won pennants in 1970, ’72, and ’75. After the 1969 season, Pinson was traded to the Cleveland Indians, and he rebounded, hitting 24 home runs-the most he ever hit in a season-and hitting .286. 1970 was Pinson’s last really good year. He spent the rest of his career in the American League, playing for the Indians in 1971, the Angels in 1972 and ’73, and finishing with the Royals in 1974 and ’75. He was reunited with Frank Robinson in 1973 when they both played for the Angels. (Robinson had a better year that Pinson, as he slugged 30 home runs.) After being released by the Royals after the 1975 season, Pinson was signed by the Brewers in early 1976. However, he was released by the Brewers on April 4, 1976, just 4 days before the season began. No other teams were interested in signing Pinson, and he retired.

That’s a short summary of Pinson’s major league career. He was a good hitter who usually hit for a pretty high average and he had good power, putting up solid totals of doubles, triples, and home runs. He was fast on the base paths, stealing 305 bases. He played most of his career in center field, a very demanding defensive position. From everything I’ve read about Pinson, he was a good defender who was quick and graceful in the outfield. So why isn’t Pinson a Hall of Famer? I think there are several reasons why Pinson has been so overlooked by the baseball writers and the Veteran’s Committee. (Of course, you could simply say that Pinson clearly isn’t a Hall of Famer, but I think it’s more complicated than that.) Pinson seems to have been underrated for just about his whole life. During the best years of his career, he was overshadowed by his teammate Frank Robinson. Pinson was also overshadowed by his fellow National League outfielders. Pinson played in the All-Star games in only two seasons, 1959 and 1960. However, from 1959 to 1962 2 All-Star games were played, so Pinson is either a 2-time or 4-time All-Star, depending on how you look at it. The outfielders that Pinson was competing against for the All-Star selection were Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Billy Williams, among others. Robinson, Mays, Aaron, and Clemente were some of the very best players to ever play the game, and Pinson simply wasn’t as good as they were. Pinson was also up against the same competition when it came to winning Gold Gloves for fielding excellence. Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Curt Flood, and Roberto Clemente had virtual locks on the Gold Gloves while Pinson played. Pinson won one Gold Glove, in 1961.

Pinson is also a player without a “signature stat.” He fell short of 3,000 hits, which so far has ensured Hall of Fame election to everyone who surpassed it. Pinson had good power for his era, and he hit more than 20 home runs in a season 7 times. But his career high in a season was just 24, and he finished his career with 256 home runs, which is certainly a respectable total, but that alone won’t get you into the Hall of Fame. Pinson was also a gifted base stealer, swiping 305 bases during his career. But, like his home runs, this stat alone is not enough to get him in the Hall. In short, Pinson’s career numbers are very, very good, but he doesn’t have any stat that really stands out. And his totals have since been dwarfed by the numbers put up by players during the offense-heavy 1990’s and 2000’s.

After he retired, Pinson stayed in the game as a coach, and he coached nearly every season from 1977 until 1994. So he was at the major league level as either a player or coach for about 35 years. Oddly enough, Pinson’s visibility after his retirement did not help his Hall of Fame vote totals. Pinson got less than 5% of the vote his first 4 times on the HOF ballot, which now would get him kicked off the ballot. However, the rules were different at that time, and Pinson stayed on the ballot. After those first 4 votes, he was always above 5% of the vote, but seldom above 10%. His highest total was 15.7% in 1988, which is a long ways from the 75% of the votes required for election. I’m not sure what Pinson’s relationship with most of the press was, but he once punched Cincinnati beat writer Earl Lawson. Lawson had been riding Pinson in his columns, and they got into an argument in the locker room. Lawson said to Pinson, “If you want a piece of me Vada, come and get it.” And Vada did. Which begs the question: Why would you say something that dumb to a pro athlete? If I were a betting man, I would always put my money on the athlete to win the fight rather than the sportswriter. Judging from his baseball cards and just about every picture I’ve ever seen of him, Pinson looks like a really nice, happy guy. But if he were mad at me, I wouldn’t provoke him. Anyway, I wonder if the incident with Lawson hurt Pinson’s reputation with the press. Pinson seems to have had a quiet personality, which could be another factor in why he didn’t get much support for the Hall of Fame. He never seemed to get much attention from the press, and he never wrote an autobiography. I haven’t been able to find out much about Pinson’s life, and just about everything I know about him I’ve repeated in this post. Pinson was so quiet during his first spring training with the Reds that coach Jimmy Dykes thought Vada didn’t speak English. (Pinson was not foreign and was raised in Oakland.) Dykes attempted to communicate with Pinson using gestures and broken English until Vada said, “Mr. Dykes, if there is something you want me to do with my stance, please tell me.” Dykes was shocked.

Another reason why the baseball world is not clamoring for Vada Pinson to get into the Hall of Fame is that the new sabermetric stats don’t really help Pinson’s case very much. Sabermetric stats tend to place a great importance on drawing a walk, and that wasn’t one of Pinson’s strong points. His career OBP is .327, which is really low for someone with a lifetime batting average of .286. Pinson’s selling points for the Hall of Fame are not found in the “new stats,” they’re found in the old stats like batting average and hits. Pinson’s stats don’t get any better when you view them through the sabermetric lens. In this way, Pinson is very similar to Al Oliver, another player with over 2,700 hits who didn’t walk very much and also didn’t get much support for the Hall of Fame.

So, what’s the conclusion? Like I said at the beginning of this post, I’m not really sure if Vada Pinson is a Hall of Famer or not. I’d like to see him elected to the Hall of Fame partly because he’s one of my favorite players. I think he was a really great player who deserves to still be considered by the Veteran’s Committee. Pinson was not an “inner-ring” Hall of Fame player like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and his friend Frank Robinson were. However, Vada Pinson was a better player than many players who are in the Hall of Fame. Sure, some of the players I’m thinking of are widely regarded as terrible choices for the Hall of Fame, but putting Vada Pinson in the Hall of Fame would not blemish the reputation of the Hall of Fame one bit. Hopefully Vada Pinson will be on the ballot the next time the Veteran’s Committee votes on players from the Golden Age of baseball.


Anonymous said...

A very good column. I don't think Pinson is hall-of-fame caliber, but either are some of the guys in it. I agree with you, I don't think Pinson would hurt the hall's reputation at all.

Ben said...

Great column! I actually had the pleasure of meeting Vada on more than one occasion, he was one of the nicest people you could know. Always smiling, and laughing.

My step father had become a fan much the same way you did by the uniqueness of his name. He became friends with Vada while he was a coach of the Florida Marlins, and we enjoyed our trips to the Marlin's spring training complex in Melbourne, FL (where we lived). I have always said Vada is probably one of the best all-around players NOT in the HOF, and that there are others in the HOF that have lesser stats than his. He just played in the golden era of outfielders and was overshadowed by the others of the era. Thank you for the effort, and time put in to this!

Mark said...

Hi Ben, thanks for the kind words! That's so cool that you had the opportunity to meet Vada. It's great to hear that he was really a nice person. I agree with you that Vada's one of the best players not in the HOF. Hopefully Vada will be considered for the HOF on future Veteran's Committee ballots.

Anonymous said...

i saw him play many times in s.f. terrific speed, great glove, solid hitter, and above all, a real gentleman. he was smiling when he signed my baseball. he was my favorite ball player when i was growing up. clemente was my brothers favorite. jim

cap peterson said...

When he was the Marlins first base coach, Rusty Kuntz did a little backstabbing to take Pinson's job