Wednesday, February 5, 2020

My Three Favorite Baseball Cards and Thoughts on the Hall of Fame Case of Mainstay Era Committee Ballot Candidate Tommy John

As a lifelong baseball enthusiast, I can point to three aspects of the sport which have served as my foundation as a fan:  watching the games, studying the statistics of the players, and collecting baseball cards.  The majority of the articles I have written focus on overlooked Hall of Fame candidates.  However, this past year, I dug back into my baseball card collection.  As a result my recent writing has been less analytical and more baseball card-centric.  With this in mind, I have been taking a look at some of the candidates who have recently appeared on the Era Committee Hall of Fame ballots, seeing which cards of these candidates I have in my collection, picking out my three favorite cards, and giving my thoughts on their Hall of Fame cases.  This article focuses on left-handed pitcher Tommy John, who has been a mainstay on the Era Committee ballot, appearing on each of the Expansion and Modern Baseball Era ballots.  I currently have fifteen cards of John in my collection.

My full collection of Tommy John cards
Despite an impressive 288-win major league career which spanned parts of 26 seasons, Tommy John is arguably more famous for the surgery that bears his name than for any of his accomplishments on the playing field.  John made his major league debut in 1963 with the Cleveland Indians.  Prior to the 1965 season, John was sent to the Chicago White Sox as part of a massive three-team trade.  John spent seven years on the Southside, putting up a solid 2.95 ERA but with only a middling 82-80 record to show for it due to spending the bulk of that time pitching in front of uncompetitive White Sox teams.  Following the 1971 season, John was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Finally with a perennial contender, John became a regular winner—going 40-15 in his first two and a half seasons with the Dodgers.  However, disaster struck when John suffered a torn ligament in his pitching elbow midway through the 1974 season.  Facing a potential career-ending injury, John became the first pitcher to undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction when Dr. Frank Jobe performed the procedure, which would later become known as Tommy John Surgery, roughly two months later.  Determined to return to the mound, John dedicated himself to a strenuous rehabilitation program for what was, at the time, an uncharted path to recovery.  Fortunately, the surgery and the rehabilitation program both proved successful and John was able to resume his pitching career at the beginning of the 1976 season.

John made a strong return and was named The Sporting News Comeback Player of the Year for 1976.  The following season, John won 20 games for the first time, finished runner-up in the NL Cy Young vote, and helped lead the Dodgers to the World Series where they fell in six games to the New York Yankees.  John won 17 games for the 1978 Dodgers, who took the NL Pennant for the second straight year but once again lost in six games to the Yankees in the Fall Classic.  At the conclusion of the 1978 season, John became eligible for free agency and signed with the Yankees.  John flourished in the Big Apple, reaching the 20-win plateau in his first two seasons with the Bronx Bombers, finishing runner-up to the AL Cy Young Award in 1979, and playing a key role in getting New York back to the World Series during the strike-shortened 1981 campaign.  Ironically, John faced his old team, the Dodgers, in the 1981 Fall Classic.  However, this time Los Angeles came out on top, beating the Yankees in six games.  John made his final postseason appearance in the 1982 ALCS, pitching for the California Angels, who acquired the lefty in a late season trade.  Despite being on the losing end of three Fall Classics, John was a solid playoff pitcher going 2-1 with a 2.67 ERA in the World Series and piecing together an overall 6-3 career postseason record supported by a 2.65 ERA.  John finally began to struggle in his early forties, finishing the year with an ERA over 4.00 for the first time in 1983.  After a particularly difficult 1985 season, split between the Angels and the Oakland Athletics, it appeared at age 42, the veteran pitcher might be ready to call it a career.  Yet, John returned to the game with the Yankees the following year and pitched for parts of four more seasons.  When John’s lengthy career finally came to a close in 1989, the 46-year old southpaw had finished just a dozen victories shy of the 300-win milestone with a 288-231 career record, while making 700 starts and putting up a solid 3.34 ERA in a little over 4700 innings.  John’s perseverance to comeback from his elbow injury had certainly paid off as the hurler picked up 164 of his 288 wins after going under the knife.

I started regularly collecting baseball cards in 1983, so my first several years in the hobby coincided with the latter stages of John’s career when the lefty was already in his forties.  I knew John was an important pitcher and based on the tiny font used for his statistics on the back of his cards, I could tell the southpaw had plied his trade for a long time.  However, it was evident from his more recent stats that the veteran’s best days were behind him.  John never possessed anything close to an overpowering fastball and was not known for blowing hitters away.  In fact, John’s highest strikeout total in a season was just 138.  Instead, John relied on craftiness and guile, using the sinker as his primary pitch and focusing on producing weak ground balls from opposing hitters.  In my cards of John that feature the hurler on the mound, his slow pitching delivery makes him look more like a little league coach throwing batting practice than a multiple time 20-game winner.

John's 1984 Topps and other cards featuring his slow pitching delivery
The card I most associate with John from my early years of collecting is his 1984 Topps, which was one of the initial cards I owned of the sinkerballer and has always been among my favorites.  Topps’ and Fleer’s sets from 1983 and 1984 were the first cards I regularly purchased in packs.  I have always been particularly fond of the 1984 Topps design, so I often hold cards from that set in high regard.  The shot used for John’s 1984 Topps captures the veteran at the end of his pitching delivery with his arm blurred and face grimaced.  Yet even in full pitching motion with his strained facial expression, John still looks like he’s not actually throwing the ball very fast.  On his 1984 Topps, John is wearing an Angels jersey, the team he pitched for at the time I started collecting.  In addition to John’s 1984 Topps, I have two other cards from the same year which feature the southpaw in an Angels jersey.  John appeared on a Topps AL Active Career Victory Leaders card he shared with Jim Palmer and former Dodgers teammate Don Sutton.  Due to being among the active wins leaders, John was also included in the Donruss Champions series, a small set of oversized cards which honored active players and Hall of Famers for career and single season achievements.

Since my first cards of John were as a member of the Angels, I spent most of my youth under the impression that the sinkerballer played with the Halos for an extended period of time when in actuality he only spent two full seasons and parts of two others taking the mound for California.  The majority of John’s career was spent with three teams—the White Sox, the Dodgers, and the Yankees.  Despite having an interest in collecting old cards from the 1960s and being intrigued by the many jersey changes the White Sox went through over the years, thus far, John’s seven seasons in Chicago are absent from my collection.  Some of John’s best seasons came in Los Angeles, yet I only have two cards which feature the hurler in Dodger Blue.  More than half of the cards I own of John are from his time with the Bronx Bombers, who the lefty played for on two separate stints.  John’s initial 1979 to 1982 stretch in New York slightly predated my entry into the hobby while his second tour of duty in the Big Apple from 1986 to the conclusion of his career was right in the thick of main years of buying packs of cards, so the southpaw’s final seasons are well represented in my collection.

John retired just a dozen victories shy of the 300-win milestone
During John’s later go-around in New York, the Yankees were my favorite team to collect cards of, mostly because I was a fan of their All-Star first baseman Don Mattingly.  I own John’s 1987, 1988, and 1989 Topps as well as his Donruss Diamond King and regular issue Donruss from 1988—each of which feature the sinkerballer in a Yankees jersey.  Yet, even though I considered myself a Yankees fan, John’s cards from this time never stood out to me the way some of his teammates did as the aging hurler lacked the prestige of sluggers Mattingly and Dave Winfield, the suaveness of staff ace Ron Guidry, and the style of leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson.  With those more recognizable, higher-profile teammates, it’s not surprising a veteran pitcher who I thought looked like a little league coach would get lost in the shuffle.  Aside from John’s 1984 Topps, my two other favorite cards of the crafty lefty are actually from his first stint in the Bronx.  Up until a couple of years ago, the only cards I owned of John from his initial run in New York were his 1982 Donruss Yankees Winners and 1982 Topps Yankees Leaders cards he respectively shared with fellow hurler Guidry and slugger Jerry Mumphrey.  However, as I began to write about Hall of Fame candidates and the election process, I wanted to buy some older cards of John to use in articles in which I mentioned the pitcher.  Since I didn’t have any regular issue cards of John during his first spell in New York, I decided to purchase his 1979 Topps Burger King and 1980 Topps cards.  These two cards, along with John’s 1984 Topps, make up the trio of my favorite cards of the southpaw.

Between 1977 and 1980, Burger King distributed small sets of cards produced by Topps.  These cards featured players from select teams and were available at Burger King locations in the team’s corresponding market.  For 1979, Burger King distributed cards of players from the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies.  Topps used the exact same designs for their Burger King cards as they did for their base set.  However, in some cases the photo of the player on the Burger King issue differed from the shot used on the base set.  John’s 1979 Topps cards are a good example of one of these variations as he is wearing a Dodgers uniform on his card from the base set while his Burger King card uses a completely different picture of the hurler which features him in a Yankees jersey taken after his signing with New York prior to the 1979 season.  The action shot on John’s Burger King card looks similar to his 1987 Topps but I prefer the image of the crafty lefty in home whites over the club’s gray road jersey.

The photo on John's 1979 Topps Burger King card differed from the shot used for Topps' base set
Similar to his 1984 Topps, the photo on John’s 1980 Topps is taken just as the southpaw completes his follow through but is shot from the opposite side and gives us a wider angle view.  The clean white borders of John’s 1980 Topps complements the bright shot of the hurler in Yankee Pinstripes.  Another reason I like John’s 1980 Topps is because the team set also includes the sinkerballer’s rotation-mates Ron Guidry, Jim Kaat, and Luis Tiant—giving the club a quartet of pitchers with intriguing Hall of Fame cases who have each appeared on the Era Committee ballot.

The 1980 Topps Yankees team set featured four Era Committee candidates
John made his first appearance on the 1995 BBWAA ballot and collected 21.3% of the vote.  Following his initial showing, John’s support stagnated and generally hovered just above or just below 25% before finally topping out 31.7% in his fifteenth and final year on the ballot.  After appearing on the maximum number of BBWAA ballots, John’s Hall of Fame case became eligible to be judged by the Era Committee.  John made his first appearance on an Era Committee ballot when he was one of the candidates selected for the 2011 Expansion Era ballot.  Despite his solid career, John failed to make any headway among the 16-member Expansion Era Committee electorate as his support was ambiguously listed as having garnered “fewer than eight votes.”  For several years, the Era Committee and its predecessor the Veterans Committee have used the “fewer than” description or a similar variation of the term to avoid embarrassing candidates who drew little to no support from the electorate.  Three years later, John was selected for the second Expansion Era ballot.  However, sharing the ballot with Tony La Russa, Bobby Cox, and Joe Torre—the respective third, fourth, and fifth-winningest managers in baseball history—essentially made the rest of the ballot an afterthought as all the other candidates’ support, including John’s were listed as “six or fewer votes.”  With the revamping of the Era Committee time frames, John next became eligible for the 2018 Modern Baseball Era ballot but once again fell into the “fewer than” group with no more than seven tallies.  Most recently, John made the 2020 Modern Baseball Era ballot, his fourth appearance on an Era Committee ballot.  Arguably, the 2020 vote represented John’s best chance at election as he was the only pitcher candidate on the ballot—having previously shared the 2011 ballot with Ron Guidry and Vida Blue, the 2014 ballot with Dan Quisenberry, and the 2018 ballot with Jack Morris and Luis Tiant.  Yet, being the sole hurler on the ballot did little to reverse John’s fortunes with the electorate as the southpaw fell into the all too familiar ambiguous vote category which was this time described as “three-or-fewer votes.”

Since the Era Committee replaced the Veterans Committee in 2010, Ted Simmons, Steve Garvey, and Tommy John are the only candidates to have appeared on all four Expansion/Modern Baseball Era ballots.  Each of those candidates struggled to draw support on the two Expansion Era ballots and were relegated to the “fewer than” group.  Simmons broke out of the pack on the 2018 ballot, missing election by a single tally before being voted into Cooperstown on the subsequent 2020 ballot.  Garvey has yet to come close to election but after finishing among the “fewer than” group on his first three appearances, the slugger finally drew notable support on the 2020 ballot with his 37.5% mark tied with much ballyhooed newcomer Lou Whitaker for the fifth-highest total among the ten candidates.  As the lone candidate to appear on all four Expansion/Modern Baseball Era ballots who failed to break out of the “fewer than” group, John’s continued presence on the ballot is not a given.  Each Era Committee ballot is devised by the Historical Overview Committee—a small 10-12 member panel which screens and selects the candidates for each ballot.  The Historical Overview Committee rarely changes members so it is clear that John’s career is held in high regard by the panel.  However, due to repeatedly struggling to draw support on four consecutive ballots, the Historical Overview Committee may choose to exclude John from the 2023 Modern Baseball Era ballot and go with a candidate who has previously been on the ballot like Luis Tiant or select a candidate such as Rick Reuschel or Dave Stieb who has yet to appear on an Era ballot.

Mainstay Era Committee candidates John & Kaat share similar stats
Something that could breathe life into John’s stagnant Hall of Fame candidacy would be if fellow left-handed pitcher Jim Kaat gets elected to Cooperstown.  Kaat, whose lengthy career spanned from 1959 to 1983, was a contemporary of John.  Kaat’s 283-237 win-loss record and 3.45 ERA are comparable to John’s 288-231 career ledger and 3.34 ERA.  In addition, John and Kaat each reached the 20-win plateau three times and both are the number one most similar pitcher to the other on Baseball Reference's Similarity Scores.  The two hurlers, who were teammates for parts of the 1979 and 1980 seasons with the Yankees, even drew an equivalent level of support on the BBWAA ballot with Kaat’s peaking at 29.6%, just below John’s 31.7% high water mark.  The two southpaws also have an extra element outside of their career numbers that adds to their candidacies as Kaat is widely regarded as one the finest fielding pitchers—a view that is underscored by his 16 Gold Glove Awards—while John holds the distinction of being the first pitcher to undergo ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction which revolutionized sports medicine in baseball.  However, due to having more of his career accomplishments take place in the 1960s, Kaat’s Hall of Fame case has been considered by the Golden Era Committee rather than the Expansion Era and Modern Baseball Era Committees which have judged John.  Thus, the two pitchers have never appeared on the same Era Committee ballot.  Despite having similar career numbers and comparable cases for the Hall of Fame, John has been a non-factor in the voting while Kaat has drawn strong support—finishing just two tallies shy of election on both the 2012 and 2015 Golden Era ballot.  Due to the 2016 revamping of the Era Committee process, Kaat’s Hall of Fame case is now evaluated by the Golden Days Committee which meets with less frequency—once every five years—than the Modern Baseball Era Committee.  The Golden Days Committee is slated to hold their initial election in December but will not convene again until 2025.  Since the Golden Days Committee meets with less regularity and most of the eligible candidates are well into their seventies or eighties, the voting panel may be more apt to try and elect multiple candidates which could bode well for Kaat as the hurler finished with the second and third highest vote total on the respective 2012 and 2015 Golden Era ballot elections.  To have a pitcher with nearly identical career achievements like Kaat get elected to Cooperstown could help draw attention to John’s struggling Hall of Fame candidacy.

Some of what has hindered John’s Hall of Fame candidacy are his detractors who view the southpaw as a compiler and dismiss his 288 wins as a byproduct of longevity rather than dominance.  By pitching well into his forties, John added an extra tail to his career that, while it brought him closer to 300 wins, also made him appear to be more of a compiler than he actually was.  For example, had John retired after the 1985 campaign and not comeback to take the mound for New York for parts of four additional seasons during his early-to-mid forties, the lefty would have still crossed the secondary milestone of 250 wins and finished his career with a 259-207 record and 3.23 ERA.  Also, by playing until 1989 at age 46, John retired nearly a decade removed from his last 20-win season.  Nevertheless, between 1972 and 1982, John had an excellent eleven-year run in which he went 153-80 with a 3.08 ERA across 2101.2 innings despite losing nearly a season and a half to an elbow injury.  During that impressive stretch, John’s .657 winning percentage led all hurlers with 1500 or more innings pitched.  Within that span, John had a five-year spell, from 1977 to 1981, in which he reached the 20-win plateau three times and finished runner-up to the Cy Young Award in both 1977 and 1979.  In addition, John played a key role in helping the Dodgers capture the 1977 and 1978 NL Pennant and the Yankees take the 1981 AL Pennant.

Another factor that likely has cost John Hall of Fame support is that he was not a fastball pitcher who blew away hitters and did not amass high strikeout totals during his career.  Instead, John primarily used the sinkerball to produce weak ground balls and often ranked among the league leaders in fewest walks issued and home runs allowed.  According to an article by Joe Posnanski, John’s 605 double plays induced are the most all-time—well ahead of the 462 by runner-up Jim Kaat.  Obviously the only way to create double play opportunities is to allow baserunners.  Yet, by generating weak contact and rarely giving up the longball, John was able to minimize the damage and be an effective pitcher.

Will John remain on the Era Committee Hall of Fame ballot in the future?
Similar to his pitching style, John’s Hall of Fame case may not be overpowering but in my opinion, the combination of his longevity to nearly reach the 300-win milestone along with the key role he played as a consistent winner for the Dodgers and Yankees headline a list of career achievements impressive enough for me to endorse the hurler’s election to Cooperstown.  Additionally, I feel John is owed a small amount of pioneer credit for being the first baseball player to undergo the revolutionary surgery which now bears his name as well as showing the perseverance to put in the hard work to return to the mound and set a successful precedent for future patients.

However, looking at a list of candidates for each of the four Era Committee ballots John has appeared on, I can only state with 100% certainty that the sinkerballer would have received my vote on the 2011 Expansion Era ballot.  As for John’s other three appearances on Era Committee ballots, the combination of only being allowed to vote for a limited number of candidates and the presence of more deserving candidates would have forced me to leave the hurler off my mock ballot.  Most recently, on last December’s Modern Baseball Era ballot, I would have used the four available spots to vote for Dwight Evans, Lou Whitaker, Marvin Miller, and Ted Simmons.  Had I been able to vote for one more candidate, John along with Thurman Munson and Dale Murphy would have vied for a hypothetical fifth spot.  Unlike BBWAA Hall of Fame voters, Era Committee panel members are very secretive and do not divulge which candidates they voted for or may have supported had they had room to include them on their ballot.  Thus, we do not know if any voters supported John’s Hall of Fame case but ran out of space, forcing them to exclude the hurler from their ballot.  As the lone candidate to appear on all four Expansion/Modern Baseball Era ballots and fail to break out of the “fewer than” group, John’s continued presence on the ballot is not a given.  Nevertheless, if John makes a fifth Era Committee ballot, I hope members of the electorate will take a longer look at his impressive career and find room on their ballot to vote for the crafty lefty.

----by John Tuberty

Follow me on Twitter @BloggerTubbs

Tommy John cards:  1976 Topps, 1979 Topps, 1979 Topps Burger King, 1980 Topps, 1982 Donruss Yankee Winners, 1982 Topps Yankees Leaders, 1984 Donruss Champion, 1984 Topps, 1984 Topps AL Active Career Victory Leaders, 1986 Topps, 1987 Topps, 1988 Donruss, 1988 Donruss Diamond Kings, 1988 Topps, 1989 Topps

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Sunday, July 21, 2019

Funny Baseball Cards and Silly Captions, Volume 4: 2019 Hall of Fame Induction Edition

This volume’s theme is for the 2019 Hall of Fame induction and includes cards of new and existing Hall of Famers

“After seeing this Eddie Murray card, Tim Burton got the idea for Eddie Cartoonhands which he eventually turned into Edward Scissorhands.”

“Lance Bass didn’t need to try and pay the Russians to get him up in space, all he needed was one good swing from Houston Astros slugger Jeff Bagwell.”

“I can’t make up my mind whether it’s worse that Bobby Grich drew just 2.6% of the vote in his sole appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot or that Donruss positioned their card so it looks like he’s crapping out the California Angels logo.”

“In the late 80s a lot of hitters were victims of “Niekrophilia”, that’s when a 147-year old pitcher strikes you out with a 42-mile per hour knuckleball.”

“You don’t think I belong in the Hall of Fame.  Ok, well what’s your career WAR, egghead?”

“Chipper Jones’ heart was torn in June 1990:  should he sign with the Atlanta Braves who drafted him with the 1st overall pick of the Amateur Draft or should he change his name to Parker and join his Abercrombie & Fitch co-workers, Preston, Ryder, and Ethan to spell out and form the boy-band PREP.”

“You sure these pants aren’t too baggy?”
-“Nah, Buddy.  You look ‘Saved by the Bell’ cool.”
Abercrombie & Fitch Employee of the Month Chipper would say anything to make a sale—even to a fellow baseball prospect.  Mariano ultimately got his revenge, beating Jones in both the 1996 and 1999 World Series and becoming the BBWAA’s first unanimous Hall of Fame selection.”

“If the 1998 home run chase is the symbol of the “Steroid Era,” than George Brett’s quest to hit .400 in 1980 was the symbol of the “Hemorrhoid Era.”

“A little known fact about Reggie’s unsuccessful assassination attempt on Queen Elizabeth II during his disastrous comeback with the 1988 California Angels is that it was actually not his first try at taking out the monarch.  Turns out the slugger actually was supposed to take aim at the Queen during an Oakland Athletics home game that was part of the head of state’s itinerary for her 1975 visit to the Bay Area.  Fortunately, the Queen had to cancel plans to attend the ball game due to an unfortunate heckling incident involving the Duke of Atholl and some crazed Oakland Raiders fans at the football game the day before.”

“Mr. Lasorda...I’m a huge fan...can I please have your auto—“
“—Hey pal, ya gonna eat the rest of that corn dog?!?”
Ladies and gentlemen, this card shows us that making positive changes in your lifestyle at whatever age is a wise decision.  It’s been about three decades since Tom Lasorda went on his Slim Fast-fueled diet and transformed himself from being the Los Angeles Dodgers roly-poly manager to a much leaner and healthier version of himself.  In a stark contrast from his 1987 card, Lasorda is pictured jogging with his players on his 1992 Topps.  Lasorda, who turned 91 last September 22, is the oldest living Baseball Hall of Famer.

“Damn...they got a curse here too?”
After years playing for a Chicago Cubs franchise supposedly doomed by a billy goat, Lee Smith thought with his trade to the Boston Red Sox he wouldn’t have to worry about curses, hexes, and other superstitions.

“Somehow I doubt that Bryce Harper, Yasiel Puig or any of the “Let the Kids Play” Generation would have bat-flipped on either of these guys.
Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale were two of the most intimidating pitchers in the history of the game.  Gibson and Drysdale wouldn’t hesitate to brushback, knock down, or even throw at a hitter if their mood suited it.  Sadly, Gibson was recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  Let’s pray for a speedy recovery for the legendary Cardinals hurler.

----by John Tuberty

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