As Los Angeles Dodgers fans celebrate their first pennant in 29 years, one of the key players of that pennant run, first baseman Cody Bellinger, will be honored on Monday as the National League Rookie of the Year. For older fans of Dodger Blue, a first base legend of yesteryear will have another opportunity to gain baseball’s highest honor.
Earlier this week, the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum announced ten candidates for a Cooperstown plaque via the “Modern Game” Committee, which is tasked with voting on players (and one executive) who have been previously overlooked in the Hall of Fame vote. One of those candidates is Steve Garvey, the long-time first baseman for the Dodgers and San Diego Padres. Garvey was the Iron Man before Cal Ripken Jr., having played in 1,207 consecutive games from 1975 to 1983, a National League record that remains to this day.
Known as “Mr. Clean” during his playing days, Garvey was one of the game’s most popular players in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. He was one of those players who you just knew would be a Hall of Famer in the future and probably a U.S. Senator or Congressman. The script hasn’t quite worked out for Garvey. His playing career fizzled in his late 30’s and he was also tarnished with scandals in his personal life.
Garvey hit the BBWAA ballot in December 1992 (for the Class of 1993) and finished with 42% of the vote from the Baseball Writers Association of America (the BBWAA). In the previous history of the Hall of Fame voting, every single player who hit their first ballot with at least 40% of the vote wound up with a Hall of Fame plaque within ten years. But it didn’t happen for Steve Garvey. After 15 years on the BBWAA ballot without being elected, this is his third appearance on one of the Eras Committee ballots (previously known as the Veterans Committee).
Cooperstown Cred: Steve Garvey
- Career: .294 BA, 272 HR, 1,308 RBI, 2,599 hits
- 10-time All-Star
- 4-time Gold Glove Winner
- 1974 N.L. MVP (.312 BA, 21 HR, 111 RBI)
- 5 times in top 6 of N.L. MVP voting
- 6 times with 200 or more hits
- 7 times with a .300 batting average or bettter
- 5 times with 100 or more RBI
- Career post-season: .338 BA, 11 HR, 31 RBI, .910 OPS
- MVP of 1978 and 1984 NLCS
- Career in 10 All-Star Games: .393 BA, 2 HR, 7 RBI, 1.255 OPS (two-time MVP)
- 1,207 consecutive games played (1975-1983), longest streak in N.L. history
(cover photo: Dodgers Nation)
Steve Garvey was the most Blue of the Dodger Blue. He was the biggest star on a team that made the playoffs four times between 1974 and 1981. With Davey Lopes, Bill Russell and Ron Cey, Garvey was the anchor of one of the greatest long-standing infields in the game’s history.
If you’re a serious baseball fan of a certain age (late 40’s and above), you will agree that, during his playing career, Steve Garvey was one of those players that you just assumed would eventually be in the Hall of Fame. On the “fame” meter of players from 1974-1984, Garvey was in the same class as Bench, Rose, Morgan, Schmidt, Jackson, Brett and Carew.
An All-Star among All-Stars
I started watching baseball in 1975, at the age of eight, my initial interest piqued by collecting baseball cards. It was how I started learning about the game. I learned about Hank Aaron breaking the all-time home run record in 1974 because of his ’75 baseball card.
Card collecting allowed me to learn the names of a lot of players, including the name Steve Garvey. The first baseman for the Los Angeles Dodgers had two cards for collectors that year, his regular card and his “’74 Highlights” card which touted his write-in candidacy and MVP performance in the All-Star Game in Pittsburgh. Garvey had not become the Dodgers full-time first baseman until the second half of the ’73 campaign and his name was left off All-Star ballot, which was handed out to fans at the ballparks in those days. Despite that disadvantage, Garvey won the starting job due to gaining over one million write-in votes.
Capitalizing on the good story, Garvey went 2 for 4 with a run scored and game-tying RBI double in the 4th inning of the Mid-Summer Classic and was the MVP of the game. Garvey’s emergence continued with the Dodgers’ first playoff appearance since 1966. In the team’s four-game NLCS win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, Garvey was one of the hitting stars, hitting .389 with 2 home runs and 5 RBI. Although the Dodgers would fall to the two-time defending champion Oakland Athletics in the World Series, Garvey hit .381 in the losing effort.
Shortly after the ’74 season, the magic behind Garvey continued with his first Gold Glove Award and his first and only trophy as the National League MVP.
Anyway, all of this happened before I started watching the game. One of the first games I ever did see (on TV) was the 1975 All-Star Game. Memories are often vague at that age but I distinctly remember seeing the legend Aaron in the game (he made an out in a pinch-hitting appearance). I also vaguely remember watching Garvey and L.A. teammate Jimmy Wynn hit back-to-back home runs in the 2nd inning.
I attended my first All-Star Game in 1977. I was a New York City kid; the game was at Yankee Stadium and a classmate’s father had tickets to the game. In the top of the third, you guessed it, Garvey hit the N.L.’s third home run of the game, a solo shot off future Hall of Famer Jim Palmer. It was a blast that landed not too far from our seats in left field. The N.L. went on to win that game 7-5.
If you’re under the age of 45 you might not realize what a big deal the All-Star Game was in the 1970’s. The players really wanted to win and the National League players took pride in their seemingly endless ability to whip the the American League in those Mid-Summer Classics. All told, the ’77 All-Star win was the 14th victory out of the previous 15 contests for the Senior Circuit. The N.L. would go onto win the next five All-Star Games, led by Garvey in ’78, when he earned his second All-Star MVP. In that game (in San Diego), Garvey delivered a game-tying two-run single off Palmer in the third inning and sparked the N.L.’s rally in the 8th when he led off the inning (in a tie game) with a triple off another future Hall of Famer, Goose Gossage.
For whatever it’s worth, since All-Star MVP honors were initially rewarded in 1962, five players have had the honor bestowed on them two times. The names are Willie Mays, Gary Carter, Cal Ripken Jr., Mike Trout and Steve Garvey. That’s three Hall of Famers, a future lock for the Hall (Trout) and Garvey.
By now, it shouldn’t surprise you to know that the Dodgers’ long-time first baseman also starred on baseball’s biggest stages, the League Championship Series and the World Series. In 1977, in which the Dodgers would lose in 6 games to the New York Yankees, Garvey hit .351 with a .914 OPS in October. In 1978, he was the NLCS MVP, hitting .389 with 4 home runs, 7 RBI and a 1.611 OPS. Still, that World Series ring eluded Garvey and his Dodgers’ teammates again; the Yankees prevailed in 6 games for the second year in a row.
The Dodgers’ title drought ended in 1981, the strike-shortened season which featured an extra layer of playoffs, the N.L. Division Series, in which the Dodgers faced off against the Houston Astros (a matchup that would be repeated this past October). The Dodgers won that round in 5 games, beat the Montreal Expos in 5 games in the NLCS and then vanquished the Yankees in 6 games to bring the World Series trophy back to Los Angeles. All told, Garvey hit .359 with with a .926 OPS in the ’81 post-season.
With Garvey eligible for free agency after the 1982 season, the Dodgers were outbid by their neighbors to the south, the San Diego Padres, who inked him to a five-year, $6.6 million contract. The ’83 Padres finished at 81-81. In ’84, with an emerging star in right fielder Tony Gwynn and two new acquisitions who were veterans of October baseball (the Yankees’ Gossage and Graig Nettles), the Padres made the post-season party for the first time in team history. Their opponent was the Chicago Cubs, who were in the playoffs for the first time since 1945.
The Cubs won the first two games of the NLCS at Wrigley Field, with the Padres winning Game 3 as the series moved to San Diego. In Game 4, facing elimination, in the bottom of the 5th inning, Garvey tied the score at 3 with an RBI single. In the bottom of the 7th, Garvey broke that tie with another run-scoring single. Finally, after the Cubs had tied the score at 5, Garvey hit a two-run home run to right-center field in the bottom of the 9th inning (off the Cubs’ closer Lee Smith) to deliver the Padres a 7-5 victory. The Friars would go on to win Game 5 and earn their first pennant. Although they would fall to the 108-win Detroit Tigers in the World Series, it was the most successful Padres season in the franchise’s history.
Watching the clip of Garvey’s walk-off never gets old. You can link to it here. Both Garvey and Smith had long and productive careers and they also share the fate of having spent 15 years on the Hall of Fame ballot without getting close to the greatest honor in sports.
Should Steve Garvey be in the Hall of Fame?
During his prime, while he was playing, this was an easy question to answer. The answer was “yes.” We’ve recapped all of his accolades. If it’s about fame, Garvey had it. If it’s about hitting benchmarks like 200 hits or a .300 batting average, Garvey did it. If it’s about succeeding on the game’s biggest stages (the post-season and All-Star Games), Garvey succeeded.
Garvey reached the 200-hit mark six times, something achieved by only 13 other players in baseball history at the time of his retirement. All of the other 13 are in the Hall of Fame with the exception of Pete Rose.
While he was playing, Garvey was voted to 10 All-Star teams. Only one currently or previously eligible Hall of Fame candidate not linked to scandal (gambling or PEDs) has failed to get a Cooperstown plaque with that many All-Star appearances. That one person is Detroit Tigers’ catcher Bill Freehan, who played in 11 Mid-Summer Classics.
After the Padres won their first pennant in 1984, Garvey’s October exploits of the previous eleven seasons included 11 home runs and 31 RBI. For the first 16 years of the LCS era (starting in 1969), those marks were second best in both categories only to Mr. October himself, Reggie Jackson.
There was no reason to think that Garvey wasn’t on his way to the Hall of Fame. In an espn.com piece penned by Steve Wulf a five years ago, George Brett is quoted as saying “I don’t think I was imagining it. I know I read a lot of stories about ‘future Hall of Famer’ Steve Garvey.”
Once he was retired, the Hall of Fame question became harder to answer and not just because embarrassing revelations about his personal life sullied his “Mr. Clean” image.
As a player who got 200 hits six times between 1974 to 1980, one might have expected Garvey to finish with over 3,000 for his career. Unfortunately, he fell 401 hits short of that milestone. His career was unexpectedly cut short by a torn tendon in his right biceps in early 1987. He was 38 years old. If he could have hung around as a part-time player into his early 40’s, he could have reached the 3,000 hit milestone and would likely already be in the Hall.
When Garvey tasted champagne with his teammates after the World Series victory in 1981, his career batting average was .303. But in the ensuing years his average dipped, not much, but below the magic .300 number (to .294).
As he hit the BBWAA ballot, his 272 home runs looked weak for a first baseman; this only got worse the longer he lasted on the Hall of Fame ballot, as balls flew out of ballparks at record rates. In his 7th year on the ballot (the results revealed in January 1999), Garvey’s voting support dipped from 41% to 30%. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs in the previous season.
In Garvey’s first eight years on the BBWAA ballot, it also didn’t help that he shared the ballot with Tony Perez, a member of the Dodgers’ long-time division rival Cincinnati Reds. Perez had hit the ballot one year earlier, earning 50% of the vote. On the 1993 ballot, Perez got 55% compared to Garvey’s 42%. That’s not a dramatic difference but Perez eventually climbed over the 75% finish line while Garvey’s voting support would never get above 43%.
Here are how Garvey and Perez stack up statistically. If you’re not familiar with WAR (Wins Above Replacement) or park-adjusted OPS+, please take a look at the Glossary:
Side by side, it’s clear that Perez had a more prolific career.
The Big Dog, of course, was also a post-season hero. Although he didn’t have the prolific October numbers that Garvey did, he was a key factor in the Big Red Machine’s Games 5 & 7 wins over the Boston Red Sox in the classic 1975 World Series, hitting three home runs in those two wins.
Complicating matters further was that another first baseman (Orlando Cepeda) was on his 14th ballot while Garvey was on his first. Cepeda gobbled up 60% of the 1993 vote. Maybe a voter would check two first basemen on their ballot, but three? So let’s add the Baby Bull to this chart.
When Garvey, Perez and Cepeda were all on the same ballot in 1993 and 1994, there was no such thing as WAR or OPS+ in the consciousness of any voter. But all you had to do was pull out a MacMillan Encyclopedia to compare the career numbers of the three first sackers on the ballot and it’s pretty easy to see why Garvey was third out of these three.
If your curious, let me explain why Garvey’s WAR is so low. It’s not because he was an average fielder and base runner and it’s not because he couldn’t hit. It’s because he didn’t take a lot of walks. Garvey got 200 hits six times but only managed to reach base 250 times once in his 19-year career. From 1974-1986, not one other player could match Garvey’s six 200-hit seasons. However, during those same 13 seasons, 36 players reached base 250 times or more (via hit, walk or hit batter) two times or more.
Keith Hernandez, another of Garvey’s contemporaries at first base, only managed 200+ hits one time but he reached base 250+ times eight different times in his career.
It’s easy for an old school fan to dismiss Garvey’s low on-base percentage as statistically irrelevant. While he was playing, OBP was not something that was considered important in the baseball mainstream. The players’ batting average was what was on the consciousness of every fan (and almost all writers) in the game. Sabermetric pioneer Bill James, writing about Garvey in The New Historical Baseball Abstract (in 2000), wrote that “Garvey had a ‘program’ for getting 200 hits. He was supposed to bunt for a hit a certain number of times… He was supposed to go with the pitch and slap it into right field a certain number of times.”
(Incidentally, James was the one man in America who did understand, at the time, the importance of drawing a walk. I became aware of the importance of on-base percentage by reading James’ Baseball Abstracts in the the early 1980’s).
Is it fair for sabermetric thinking to punish a player from the 1970’s and 1980’s because they didn’t think walks were important? Garvey was a #3 or #4 hitter. In his time, he was an RBI man. RBI men weren’t supposed to take walks when runners were on base, ready to be driven in. For whatever it’s worth, Garvey’s career batting average was .294. His average with runners on 2nd and 3rd was .366; his average with the bases loaded was .329. It’s likely that, if Garvey were playing today, working counts and drawing walks would have been a part of his game plan.
Still, I’ll admit, that argument is a bit of a cop-out. There were plenty of players, Garvey’s contemporaries, who drew plenty of walks, and it’s not just because they were getting pitched around. In Garvey’s MVP season (1974), he hit .312 and got 200 hits on the nose but only walked 31 times, the 11th lowest number among the 66 players who qualified for the N.L. batting title. In that same season, six players drew 100 walks, including the immortal Bob Bailey (nobody pitching around was him) and Pete Rose, a player who certainly liked getting his hits! You don’t have to use advanced metrics to see that Garvey probably wasn’t the best player in the N.L. that year. What he was, however, was the player with the great story (his write-in All-Star MVP journey) and the most famous player on the team that led the league with 102 wins.
Anyway, Garvey now has yet another chance (his 18th) at a Cooperstown plaque. Many players who felt that they were worthy of the Hall of Fame but have experienced decades of disappointment have expressed bitterness about the voting process. Many have the right to feel bitter. The previous versions of the Veterans Committees inducted players like drunken sailors while the more recent versions have been shutting the door for years.
There are 53 players who debuted in the major leagues between 1910 and 1929 who are in the Hall of Fame; there were just 16 teams during those decades and no African-American players. Among players who debuted between 1960 and 1979, only 37 have made the Hall, despite expansion raising the total number of teams from 16 all the way up to 26. In the last 16 years, the various incarnations of the Veterans or Eras Committees have inducted just three players, not one of whom was alive to enjoy their induction ceremony.
Searching the internet for some nuggets for this piece, I can’t find a quote of Garvey expressing bitterness. He’s said that he’s “disappointed” but that’s about it. In an interview he did yesterday with Christopher Russo on MLB Network’s High Heat, he made his case, rattling off his accomplishments, almost as if he were a politician running for office. He also said he was happy that there were 9 other players on the “Modern Baseball” ballot. In addition to noting that former MLB Executive Director Marvin Miller should have been in the Hall of Fame “a long time ago,” he went on to say that “any one of the guys, I think, should have a great chance to be in the Hall of Fame.”
This last line is so important. There are ten people on the ballot (nine players and Miller). Every single one of them has an excellent case to be in the Hall of Fame. If any single one of them are inducted, they will do honor to the club they’re joining. There will be 16 members of the Modern Baseball Committee who will be tasked with voting for no more than four out these ten men. Among these 16 members, there will be Hall of Fame players, managers and executives; there will be a couple of well-respected long-time media members; there will be some current baseball executives who are not in the Hall. Each of these 16 voters have a very difficult decision.
Besides Miller and Garvey, the candidates are pitchers Tommy John, Luis Tiant and Jack Morris, shortstop Alan Trammell, outfielders Dave Parker and Dale Murphy, catcher Ted Simmons, and first baseman Don Mattingly. This is an illustrious group.
Which four out of these ten to vote for? It’s a tough call. If you go strictly by WAR, it’s Trammell, Tiant, John and Simmons (dropping Simmons if you choose to vote for Miller posthumously). Most of the members of this committee will not be going by WAR and they shouldn’t. However, as the years pass, as younger, more statistically savvy players enter the Hall of Fame and sit on these committees, future committees might. If Garvey doesn’t make it while he’s alive and future panels who didn’t see him play are tasked with evaluating his career, he’s not going to make it.
Garvey’s WAR is low, uncomfortably so, but WAR is just a guidepost that points us towards further study. Garvey’s overall career statistics are not what I’m sure he thought he’d finish his career with. The question is how to you measure what WAR doesn’t. How do you measure the All-Star performances, the October performances, the MVP trophy, and his consecutive games streak? Another Bill James invention, the “Hall of Fame monitor,” gives him 130 “points” which, based on past inductees, should have made him a virtual cinch. But it’s important to note that James’ points system attempts to assess “how likely (not how deserving) a player is to make the Hall of Fame.” The Hall of Fame monitor gives credit for accolades; WAR has no use for them.
In his Historical Abstract book (written in 2000), James, being the numbers guy that he is, took the lack of walks into account; he ranked Garvey the 31st best first baseman of all-time (in 2000). That ranking put him just behind Gil Hodges, another long-time Dodger who fell just shy of Cooperstown, and also (for context) behind Boog Powell and Cecil Cooper.
I’m going to finish with an excerpt of an article written by comedian Jimmy Kimmel, long before he started talking about politics. This was a Page2 story on espn.com, and Kimmel’s words eloquently capture how the Hall of Fame debate is so important to so many people. It also captures what was the growing chasm between old school fans and analytically oriented fans, a chasm that continues to this day.
“Before I begin the annual tirade that my friends are now very sick of hearing, I should admit that — like all sports fans — I’m biased. My favorite sport is baseball and my favorite athlete, hands-down, is Steve Garvey…
…Hindsight is cold. We have computers now that “re-value” baseball players of the past. They travel back in time with new and frequently nonsensical formulas designed to quantify greatness — or, more often, to make a case against it… These are the “facts” pointed to most often when Garvey’s Hall of Fame qualifications are discussed: Random, machine-generated equations. His on-base percentage wasn’t good enough. His OPS (whatever that is) doesn’t compare to some of the other guys…
…The reason Steve Garvey isn’t in the Hall of Fame has little to do with baseball. It’s because he couldn’t live up to the “perfect” status we assigned him. The paternity suits — which seem quaint by today’s standards — made him a national punch line. The same writers who created his All-American image now punish him for embracing it. Of course, if he had been using steroids and human growth hormones during his playing career, everyone would have looked the other way. You can be super-human; you just can’t be human.”
— Jimmy Kimmel (on espn.com’s Page 2) (May 1, 2004)
Kimmel is nearly my age. He’ll turn 50 on November 13th. He grew up watching baseball as I did. For Kimmel, as it was for me, as kids, Steve Garvey was a legend, a no doubt Hall of Famer. The difference is that he grew up a Dodger fan and I didn’t. It’s hard to look at the heroes of our youth under the analytical microscopes we have available today. I understand his passion and his frustration. But the “nonsensical formulas” actually make a lot of sense and have to be taken into consideration.
I would be delighted if Garvey made the Hall of Fame. He might lower the analytics standard of what a Hall of Famer should be but he wouldn’t lower the standard of accomplishments that we expect from our inductees. If a plaque in Cooperstown means that you were an important part of the history of the game, not for one moment or one season, but for a decade on the diamond, Garvey passes that test.
However, there are eight other players (plus Marvin Miller) on the Modern Game ballot and each committee member can only vote for four men. Is he one of the four best on the current slate? That’s a more difficult question and, as Garvey himself has said, any of the nine players on the ballot are worthy of Cooperstown. This is Garvey’s third bite at the Veterans/Eras Committee apple and the first two tries didn’t go well.
On the 2011 ballot, longtime G.M. Pat Gillick was the only candidate to get the necessary 12 votes. Miller fell one vote shy. The only player to even get 8 votes was Reds shortstop Dave Concepcion. This was a weaker ballot (from a player standpoint) than the current one and Garvey couldn’t even get 50%. That particular panel of committee members included Johnny Bench and Tony Perez, which might explain Concepcion as the top vote getter among players.
The 2014 ballot was a waste of time from a players standpoint. Managers Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa were all on the ballot together. Each were (deservedly) unanimous selections, leaving the other nine candidates with no chance (remember, the committee members are limited to four choices on each ballot).
Is it possible that Garvey will have a breakthrough on this ballot? I’m dubious. More to come on that topic in the coming weeks.
Thanks for reading.