David N. Townsend
Baseball Journal


June 18, 1998
Hall of Fame Watch 1998,
plus the Rock 'n' Roll parallels.

Welcome back to the Hall Watch.  We kind of skipped a year in there, but that's okay: it gave baseball a little more time to move forward, and some new stars have come out, while others have dimmed.  We'll get to the lists in a moment (skip to them directly, if you must), but this time I've got a different angle to explore, entirely for the fun of it.  It's the Rock 'n' Roll / Baseball parallels:

Here's how it works.  If you follow both baseball and rock 'n' roll as passionately as I do, you can recognize certain similarities between the careers of great classic rock bands and those of great baseball players.  In this view, think of a baseball season as generally the equivalent of a record album.  A typical baseball star, for example, might have a breakthrough rookie season, maybe a sophomore slump, then several peak seasons of superstar performance, then a period of being injured and underperforming, then a comeback season or two, followed by a few more years of good, but gradually declining production.

Similarly, a typical star rock band might break on the scene with a big hit debut album, followed by a less inspired second release, then two or three strong albums that mark their peak period, then take some time off or split up for awhile, then stage a comeback with some new hits, followed by a few more albums of quality but declining popularity.  Eventually, both the player and the rock band "retire", although they may resurface in the public eye, living off the fame of their great years, either in Old Timers games and interviews, or on reunion tours.

That's just a general comparison, and there are many other possible parallel tracks.  If a typical star ballplayer plays for about 15 years, then that's reasonably close to a typical star rock band's production of original albums.  Also, there are similar grounds for debate among fans as to who were the greatest players and bands, who make up the second tier, and so forth.  So, for what it's worth, here's my lineup of comparisons, baseball players to rock bands.  Send in your own suggestions, and I'll print them in a follow-up column:

The Rock 'n' Roll / Baseball Parallels

1. Elvis Presley = Babe Ruth
The legend, the superstar, the one who set the standards for all others to pursue. The greatest.  Actually, this is a bit of a change for me, because in Chapter 5 of my book, I compare the Beatles to Babe Ruth.  But in this context, Elvis makes more sense.  He set all the records for #1 hits, records sold, etc.   And even though he wasn't the first rock 'n' roll star, he was the one who put the music on the map.  Babe did the same for baseball.  Also, they both faded a bit at the end, going out as fat, over-the-hill has-beens.  But ultimately their legends have overcome their personal weaknesses, and they personify greatness in their fields.
2. The Beatles = Lou Gehrig
I chose this matchup for a couple of reasons.  Gehrig's career was tragically brief, compared with most legends, but in his time he performed at a level unmatched by anyone but Ruth. And he established the seemingly untouchable record for durability.  The Beatles, too, were only around for a short time.  In rock history, their 7 years of recording together is barely a blip.  But in that period, they took over and dominated like no one else with the exception of Elvis, achieving records for an uninterrupted string of hits from their first release to their last. They both quit too soon, while they were still on top, to the chagrin of their legions of fans. There's even the tragic early death parallel, in Lennon's case.  They remain beloved figures for all true fans.
3. Chuck Berry = Cy Young
This parallel works for me, although I'm not quite sure why.  You could probably pick Ty Cobb just as well.  Chuck Berry is the source, the original, the creative founding father of the genre that came to be called rock 'n' roll.  There was plenty of influence that came before, of course: R+B and blues, doo-wop and western swing.  Those might be equated to the likes of Cap Anson and other pre-1900 baseball stars.  Cobb and Young were the foundation of modern baseball history.  I give the edge to Young because he is still the standard by which all pitchers are measured: their award is named after him, and no one will ever surpass his 511 wins.  Likewise, all rock 'n' roll guitarists are by definition followers of Chuck Berry, and his tunes defined the form itself.
4. Buddy Holly = Sandy Koufax
A brief, shining star.  For a few magnificent years, possibly the very best of all, and then it was suddenly over.  Buddy Holly made rock 'n' roll songs like they were meant to be made, and everyone, from the Beatles to Elvis Costello, reveled in his talent.  But he was snuffed out in a plane crash just as he was reaching his peak.  Sandy Koufax didn't die, but injuries prevented him from fulfilling his promise as perhaps the greatest pitcher of all time.  He, too, went out on top of his game.
5. The Rolling Stones = Hank Aaron
The Stones have had an endless career of great hits, and they are hanging around to the point where maybe the comparison should be with Dennis Martinez or Phil Niekro.  But the cumulative greatness of their music puts them on a par with Aaron, just as does their second-tier stature in terms of creative talent.  Aaron broke the Babe's career home run and RBI records, and sits near the top in hits, runs, and so forth, because he played in more games (at the time) than anyone in history: he lasted the longest, while also performing at an exceptional, though not unequaled, level of skill.  The home run king never had more than 47 in a season, and only led the league four times.  But he played 22 years, and hit over 30 homers in 15 of them.  It's like the Stones: they have few #1 hit songs or albums to their credit, but so many great tunes over 35 years, they add up to the most prolific rock 'n' roll career ever.

I could go on for a long time with these.  I'm real interested to hear some of your thoughts.  Just as fodder for some arguments, here are some other parallels I might suggest:

  1. Led Zeppelin = Ted Williams
  2. The Who = Willie Mays
  3. The Grateful Dead = Joe DiMaggio
  4. Jimi Hendrix = Mickey Mantle
  5. Elton John = Dennis Eckersley
  6. Nirvana = Tony Conigliaro
  7. Eric Clapton = Pete Rose
  8. Pink Floyd = Ken Griffey, Jr.
  9. Bob Dylan = Wade Boggs

(I came up with most of these several months ago.  I'm not even sure what parallels I had in mind for some of them.)

Progress toward the Hall.

Now, back to the Hall of Fame.  Let's just make a quick review of where we stand, and what's changed.  Our last entry, in December 1996, suggested a timetable of retirements and subsequent 5-year eligibility for contemporary stars with a decent chance at the Hall of Fame.  According to that forecast, and if my timing's right, next year should see a bumper crop of new inductees (I somehow forgot about this year's choice, Don Sutton): Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount.  That would be a ceremony worth attending.  

After them, the pickings will be slim again for a few years through about 2001, with possibilities including Dave Winfield (highly probable), Ozzie Smith (likely), Jack Morris (good chance) Andre Dawson (borderline), Kirby Puckett (very borderline), Dale Murphy (stock has fallen), and an assortment of long shots like Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell, Gary Carter, and Don Mattingly.

I'm already wrong about the retirement of a few aging candidates, including Dennis Eckersley and Lee Smith, who continue to postpone the day when the Hall must come to grips with the value of post-Rollie Fingers closers.  Likewise, sure-things Paul Molitor and Rickey Henderson continue to draw paychecks, so their dates with immortality are still on hold.  Expansion has breathed new life into old careers, it seems, and that also includes Wade Boggs, for whom the Hall awaits, and Joe Carter, who will be borderline.  At least Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandberg have now finally retired, for good we presume, and they should both be selected for induction in 2002.

Of the many other stars on the fields today, we can sort out a few worth mentioning in the context of their pursuit of Hall of Fame membership.  Note that Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux remain the only two active starting pitchers with a guaranteed ticket to Cooperstown (their 1997 seasons didn't exactly hurt that conclusion), with Tom Glavine a lingering third possibility.  Perhaps we should reconsider the candidacy of Dennis Martinez, as he surpasses Juan Marichal as the winningest Latin pitcher, but remember that the guy has never won more than 16 games in a season, and Don Sutton notwithstanding, longevity alone is not sufficient qualification for the Hall of Fame.  Instead, let's take note of Dennis's namesake, Pedro Martinez, who has won more than 16 (when he won 17 last year), and is off to a decent start; if he can keep it up for another, say, 12 years, he's got a real shot at the Hall.  Ditto Andy Pettitte. Otherwise, we may not see another starting pitcher enter Cooperstown for a generation: not Randy Johnson, not David Cone, not Pat Hentgen, not Curt Schilling, not John Smoltz.  Maybe Kerry Woods will assume the mantle, or some other kid like Bartolo Colon or Jaret Wright.  But it looks to be a long pitching drought in Cooperstown.

As for hitters, the list just keeps getting longer in this era of juiced balls and hitter-friendly ballparks. We already know about the shoo-ins: Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey, Jr. (See the 1995 HoFW).  They are joined by Molitor, Henderson, Boggs, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Tony Gwynn in the long-standing no-brainer group.  The latest addition to this category is a bit of surprise, but Mark McGwire has guaranteed his immortality these past 2 years, regardless of whether he surpasses Maris or not.

As for the aspiring Hall inductees who still have something to prove, there are dozens, so let's just note some of the more recent additions.  Despite his astonishing 1997 campaign, Larry Walker is at best a long shot, with only 202 homers at age 31 entering this season.  A better case might be made for newcomer Sammy Sosa, whose career totals match Walker's, but who's two years younger and appears to be just reaching his peak performance.  Two years younger than Sosa is Jim Thome, who seems just to keep getting better.  Chop off another five years of age, and you're looking at Alex Rodriguez, who may already be the best hitting shortstop of all time, and is likely to continue to play alongside Griffey in a Ruth-Gehrig tandem for the next 10 years.  The other Rod, Ivan Rodriguez, continues to make his own case, this year adding a .370 batting average to his historic defensive skills at catcher.  Not on the same level defensively, Mike Piazza nevertheless holds his own as the premier hitting catcher in the game after last year's .362-40-124 performance; playing in NY won't hurt his fame, either.

Those are some of the gainers, what about the decliners?  Albert Belle is no slouch, but he's dropped from a 50-homer stud to a 30-homer crybaby.  Matt Williams and Fred McGriff are now toiling for expansion teams, and their Hall of Fame credentials are fading fast.  Gary Sheffield has fallen back to Earth after his inflated career year in 1996.  Roberto Alomar has settled into a Very Good, but not quite Great status, and seems to have lost some of his competitive fire.  Kenny Lofton needs to steal 50-70 bases and hit 10-15 homers to be a Hall candidate, a la Rickey Henderson, and last year he had 27 and 5.

Whom have I left out?  Juan Gonzalez, looking more and more like the next Hank Aaron.  Mo Vaughn, who has yet to have an off-year and keeps making his critics eat their words.  Rafael Palmeiro is almost as good as Vaughn, but three years older, so not likely to last long enough.  John Olerud has made a nice comeback, but would have to keep at it for about another 9 years. Tino Martinez had his career year in '97, but he won't be remembered even in the top five first basemen of his era.  Chuck Knoblauch has been making a pretty good case, and is a real candidate now that he's in New York.  Andres Galarraga, however, is too little, too late, despite the lofty power numbers at age 35-36.  The same goes for Edgar Martinez and Jose Canseco, even in view of Canseco's remarkable turn back of the clock so far this season.

So there you have it, once more.  Please feel free to comment, criticize, critique, and compliment. That's why we're here.  See you again soon.


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