Gavvy Cravath — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Received very little support from the BBWAA, peaking at 1.2% of the vote in 1947)
Gavvy ‘Cactus’ Cravath is typical of the players in this edition in that he both had a great nickname and killed a bird during a game. But don’t be mistaken, there is nothing typical about Cravath’s Hall of Fame case.
Similarly to Earl Averill, much of Cravath’s case comes from his time in the Pacific Coast League, where he was among the best players in the first decade of the 20th century. Cravath would also spend a couple of years dominating the American Association with the Minneapolis Millers, before permanently going to the majors. While he had spent parts of four seasons with the Red Sox, White Sox, and Senators, Cravath’s first starting gig was with the Phillies in 1912, by which point he was already 31 years old. The following season, Cravath would become a star, hitting a league leading 19 home runs and batting a phenomenal .341/.407/.568. Cravath would continue his reign of terror, leading the league in home runs a total of six times, despite only really playing eight full seasons. He finished his career with 119 dingers, which is sometimes mentioned as the record prior to Ruth, but it was in fact 4th at the time (Roger Connor held the record with 138).
Despite Cravath being quite the good player, there are some significant issues. Nearly 80% of his dingers came at home in the Baker Bowl, a notorious hitters park. While no one before had taken advantage of the park as well as Cravath, he certainly benefited significantly from it. While he deserves credit for being a great player stuck in the minors for a long time, his career falls short for me. Even if I take his numbers at face value and add in some credit for his PCL and AA years, he still is only a borderline candidate. He had a really cool career, but it’s not enough.
Randy Johnson — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Elected in 2015 on the first ballot)
When you think of old guy pitchers, you normally think of the wily veteran throwing slop, like a Phil Niekro or Warren Spahn. You do not think of fireballers like Bob Feller lasting well into their 40s as effective pitchers. But then there was Randy Johnson, who was an above average starter in his age-44 season. But then again, who was like Randy Johnson.
Johnson was known for being really tall, having a mullet, throwing really fast pitches and, like the aforementioned Gavvy Cravath, killing a bird during a baseball game. While the Big Unit had great stuff even when he first came up with the Expos in 1988, he really didn’t figure out of to control his stuff all too well until 1993 with the Mariners, when he was 29 years old. He lead the league in strikeouts every year from 1992-1995, and won the Cy Young that last year. Johnson had a nice run of about seven years with the Mariners and the Astros, but then, starting in 1999 after joining a brand new Diamondbacks franchise, Johnson took his pitching to the next level. He once again would lead the league in strikeouts for four consecutive seasons, with at least 334 a year. He would also win the Cy Young award every single year in that stretch. His ERA from 1999-2002 was a stellar 2.48, his FIP was 2.53. It’s as good of a four year stretch as any pitcher ever had. Johnson would pitch for seven more seasons, split between the Diamondbacks, Yankees, and Giants. He would have some injury issues, and the only fantastic season he would have was his 2004 campaign, but he was always average to above average, and would gather his 300th win in 2009, his final year.
Johnson’s case is pretty open and shut. His peak was high, his career was long, and he was extremely fun to watch. One of the greatest pitchers ever.
George Kelly — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1973)
Like Cravath and Johnson, George ‘High Pockets’ Kelly had a fantastic nickname. Unlike those two however, High Pockets did not kill a bird during a game, at least not that anyone knows of, and he does not have a very good Hall of Fame case. Even his Hall of Fame plaque has little to say about him — it spends half its short time on his defensive stats at first base.
To be fair to Kelly, he was a pretty good hitter. His prime seasons were spent as a part of the dominant Giants teams of the early 1920s. He had decent power, consistently hitting around 15-20 dingers a season, although he had one stretch in 1924 where he hit seven homers in six games. But really, his bat wasn’t particularly special for the ‘20s. He was probably the worst starting infielder for those Giants’ teams, although Frank Frisch and Travis Jackson are both in the Hall of Fame, and Heinie Groh deserves to be in the discussion. He did apparently have a great arm, which for a first baseman is about as useful as having a jackhammer as an airline pilot.
Kelly is in Cooperstown because Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry were his teammates, and they ran the Veteran’s Committee. While he was a decent player, he was nothing special, and clearly doesn’t belong, even if I give him substantial nickname credit (which I do). This is almost as easy of a decision as Randy Johnson.
Johnny Mize — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1981)
Johnny Mize, known as the ‘Big Cat,’ originally came up to play first base for the Cardinals in 1936. As soon as he came up he started to hit. His following three seasons were virtually identical — a robust batting average, around 25 dingers, good OBP, and a wRC+ in the 170s. Then, in 1940, he traded some of that batting average (although he still hit .314) for power, managing to hit 43 home runs. However, his 1941 was not quite up to snuff with the previous four seasons, so Branch Rickey shipped him to the Giants. Upon arrival in New York, Mize continued to hit. Then he missed all of 1943-1945 to military service. Then, after returning in 1946, he started right where he left off and began to hit. His best year, perhaps, was 1947, when Mize hit 51 home runs. He also struck out less than 50 times that year, which is very impressive. But while his next season was more of the same hitting, in 1949, the Giants would send him across the Harlem River to the Yankees. There, Mize would finally stop hitting, spending four and a half years as a part time player.
So is it good enough? Mize’s first ten seasons were remarkably consistent. While he never erupted for a truly absurd offensive year in that stretch, he was always a top of the line middle of the order type bat. Based on those ten years, he has a pretty good case. But then you remember he missed three years in the middle of that stretch to WWII. Overall, Mize might have been hurt most by the War of any player, with the possible exception of Bob Feller. I think Mize has a pretty good case when you don’t give him war credit, but with it he becomes a slam dunk candidate.
Hal Newhouser — In the Hall of Fame: YES (Veteran’s Committee in 1992)
Hal Newhouser was the dominant ace for the Detroit Tigers during the 1940s. He was ineligible for military service for health reasons, which allowed him to dominate weaker leagues in 1944 and 1945, leading to two MVP awards. Prior to the war, Newhouser had been a young and good, if wild pitcher on some bad teams. He made a couple of All-Star games, but it wasn’t anything special until 1944. That year he went 29-9 with a 2.22 ERA and 187 strikeouts. It was a spectacular season, even if it was against lesser competition. IN 1945, he was even better, winning the pitching triple crown, while also leading the league in FIP, shutouts, and innings pitched. Then in 1946, he might have been even better. His ERA went up a little bit (from 1.81 to 1.94) but his FIP was way down and his strikeouts were way up. Furthermore, he was pitching against a much stronger league, with most of the players back from war. And while his next three seasons weren’t quite as good as the previous three, he was still a dominant force. In fact, by fWAR, Newhouser was far and away the best pitcher from 1947-1949. Newhouser would pitch until 1953, but never nearly as effective as he was in the ‘40s.
So is he a Hall of Famer. His case looks pretty good to me. I think that his fantastic 1946 is a big game changer. Had it been more in line with ’47-’49, my gut would say he mostly beat up on bad competition during the war years, and wasn’t much more than a very good pitcher. But by 1946, the league was largely as strong as it had been in 1942. Furthermore, no one was quite as good as Newhouser even during the war years. I think he was probably as good of pitcher as Stan Coveleski, and likely better, which means he pretty much has to be in. Only shame is that his nickname, ‘Prince Hal,’ is not nearly as awesome as the other four players I’ve covered in this edition.
Tony Oliva — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Peaked at 47.3% in 1988, was one vote short of election in 2014 by the Golden Era Committee)
Tony Oliva was a good hitting right fielder for Twins in the 1960s. He won a batting title on his way to a Rookie of the Year award in 1964, and would win two more batting titles, in 1965 and 1971. He had decent home run power, although he never came particularly close to his total of 32 in his rookie season. He was a prolific doubles hitter, leading the league four times. He also made the All-Star game every year between 1964 and 1971. He was a pretty good player.
Oliva has gotten a lot of Hall of Fame support, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he gets in sometime in the next decade. But honestly, his case is not very convincing to me. His career is really short. He had an eight year stretch (1964-1971) where he was very good, but Oliva produced essentially no value outside that stretch, primarily due to injuries that kept him out for most of 1972, and would cripple the rest of his career. But even that eight year stretch doesn’t really jump out at me. While the ‘60s were not a strong hitting era, Oliva was clearly behind the best hitters of his day. During those good eight years, Oliva was clearly behind Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, and Frank Robinson just among right fielders. Al Kaline was also a right fielder whose peak overlaps with Oliva who I think was better, and Carl Yaz and Billy Williams were pretty much as good, if not better in left field. Oliva was not anything special in the field, and his bat, while comparable to the greats of his era, wasn’t quite on their level. Combined with the shortened career, I really don’t see a good argument for Oliva.
Alan Trammell — In the Hall of Fame: NO (Will be on 15th and final ballot in 2016)
Alan Trammell was the star shortstop for the Detroit Tigers throughout the 19080s. He was one of those players who was good at everything, but had no standout skill. He could hit some dingers, in a relatively dinger free era. He stole some bases, and was a good contact hitter. His defense was very good, although he was playing at the same time as Ozzie Smith, so it didn’t stand out all too much. His best season was 1987, in which he should have beaten George Bell for the MVP. Nevertheless, it was a wonderful season in which Trammell hit .343/.402/.551, good for a 152 wRC+. He also stole 21 bases and hit 28 homers, to go with his aforementioned excellent defense. And while he never quite came close to that level again, he was had another eight or so really good hitting seasons.
Trammell is a popular choice as a player ignored by the BBWAA, but I do think his case is more borderline than many will admit. His 1987 season is the only one that jumps off the page. He’s often compared to other ‘80s shortstops like Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken, but I think he’s closer to Ryne Sandberg in terms of career value. Trammell played longer, but had fewer great years, but both were well rounded players. Like Sandberg, I think Trammell is in, but it’s very close.
This might have been the strongest bunch in terms of nicknames. ‘High Pockets’ Kelly is a top tier nickname, ‘Big Unit’ and ‘Big Cat’ are both great as well, and ‘Cactus’ is solid and unique. I do think that the Big High Pockets Cat would make an excellent character in a children’s book or cartoon or something.