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Fun Cards: “Baseball Immortals” Phil Niekro


Phil Niekro‘s career was drawing to a close when I started watching baseball, and as a teenager, I didn’t find him that exciting. He looked way older than my dad (he is actually only a few months older) and Dwight Gooden was much more entertaining. Who cares about knuckleballs when the Doc is firing those heaters? Of course, as an adult, I appreciate Knucksie’s talent much more, and his numbers make him a clear Hall of Famer.

If you haven’t noticed, I’m taking some liberties with the color schemes of this set. I didn’t think there were any blue/yellow combinations, but looking again at COMC, I have noticed a couple. Soon, however, you will start seeing some off-the-wall colors that are more reminiscent of another set.

1986 Quaker Chewy Granola Bars Cards #28-33

In 1986 Topps teamed up with Quaker to issue a 33-card set full of superstars, including a nice handful of future Hall of Famers. Today we have the final six cards in the set…

1986 Quaker Chewy Granola Bars 19-27

Five out of the last six cards feature Hall of Fame players. Tom Seaver received the highest-ever percentage of votes when he was inducted in 1992 with 98.8%, and it was thought that Cal Ripken might challenge that mark when his name appeared on the ballot. Ripken ended up with 98.5% of the vote, which landed him third on the list behind Tom Terrific and Nolan Ryan. Jim Rice struggled the most to get into Cooperstown, finally garnering the 75% required in his fifteenth and final year on the BBWAA ballot.

The lone non-Hall of Famer here is Dan Quisenberry, one of the best closers in the majors in the first half of the 1980s and especially famous for his submarine style of delivering the ball to the plate. He finished in the top five in Cy Young voting five times, and top 10 in MVP voting four times. Quisenberry retired in 1990 and passed away in 1998 from a brain tumor. In addition to his baseball career, Quisenberry is known for his writing; a book of his poetry was published in 1998.

What makes a Hall of Famer?

Fortunately, not Reggie Jackson‘s opinion. I’m not talking about players involved with the steroid scandal, but guys who are already enshrined in Cooperstown. Jackson said the following to a Sports Illustrated reporter:

I didn’t see Kirby Puckett as a Hall of Famer. I didn’t see Gary Carter as a Hall of Famer. I didn’t see Don Sutton as a Hall of Famer. I didn’t see Phil Niekro as a Hall of Famer. As much as I like Jim Rice, I’m not so sure he’s a Hall of Famer.

So you have a first-ballot Hall of Famer in Puckett, a catcher who is considered by many to be among the best ever in Carter, and two pitchers who reached the 300 win and 3000 strikeout plateaus in Sutton and Niekro, and none of them are Hall of Famers? This isn’t a discussion of who isn’t in that should be (Don Mattingly says hello), but of who is in that shouldn’t be, according to Mr. October himself. And that even includes the pitcher who is in fifth place on the all-time strikeouts list, Bert Blyleven. Reggie says, “No. No, no, no, no. Blyleven wasn’t even the dominant pitcher of his era, it was Jack Morris.” Alright, I’ll agree that Morris belongs, but his omission should not distract from Blyleven’s accomplishments.

While the voting process isn’t perfect, requiring a 75% consensus is a pretty lofty standard and one that is hard to achieve. For the most part, the BBWAA has done a pretty good job on their end of keeping the riff raff out of the Hall. The Veterans Committee hasn’t done so splendidly, but most of their choices can at least be rationalized to some extent. If the BBWAA has failed at all, it has failed by its omissions (see also: Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso). Reggie is simply wrong on this point.

Retired Numbers: #35

A Hall of Fame pitcher, a future Hall of Famer slugger, and a guy who has awesome hair.

Randy Jones, San Diego Padres

Jones led the National League in losses in 1974. The next season, he won 20 games, led the NL in ERA, and came in second in Cy Young voting. The next season, two years after leading the league in losses, he won the Cy Young Award, winning the most games in the league. He never again had a winning record, and finished his career losing more games than he won, but the Padres saw fit to retire #35 in his honor in 1997, seventeen years after he threw his last pitch for the team.

Frank Thomas, Chicago White Sox

Phil Niekro, Atlanta Braves

How magical are “magic numbers”? (part 1)

Hall of Fame elections are tricky. In the past, if a player had reached certain milestones, or “magic numbers,” he was assured a spot in Cooperstown. With the recent revelation of steroids in the game and the tainting of our precious statistics, those “magic numbers” are now marred with allegations and accusations. Players like Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro are no longer guaranteed admittance into the sacred company.

But I got to thinking, how magic are those magic numbers? For hitters, the magic numbers are 3000 hits and 500 home runs. For pitchers, 3000 strikeouts and 300 wins. How easy is it for a player to get in with those numbers? Let’s take a look, starting with pitchers…

300 wins

  • Cy Young (511 wins) – Selected to HOF in 1937 by BBWAA (2nd year receiving votes)
  • Walter Johnson (417) – Selected to HOF in 1936 by BBWAA (1st)
  • Pete Alexander (373) – Selected to HOF in 1938 by BBWAA (3rd)
  • Christy Mathewson (373) – Selected to HOF in 1936 by BBWAA (1st)
  • Pud Galvin (365) – Selected to HOF in 1965 by Veteran’s Committee
  • Warren Spahn (363) – Selected to HOF in 1973 by BBWAA (1st year on ballot under current rules)
  • Kid Nichols (361) – Selected to HOF in 1949 by Old Timers Committee (4 years on BBWAA ballot, never received more than 2.6%)
  • Greg Maddux (355) – Not yet eligible
  • Roger Clemens (354) – Not yet eligible, plus the steroids taint
  • Tim Keefe (342) – Selected to HOF in 1964 by Veteran’s Committee
  • Steve Carlton (329) – Selected to HOF in 1994 by BBWAA (1st)
  • John Clarkson (328) – Selected to HOF in 1963 by Veteran’s Committee
  • Eddie Plank (326) – Selected to HOF in 1946 by Old Timers Committee (spent 5 years on BBWAA ballot, high support was 27%)
  • Nolan Ryan (324) – Selected to HOF in 1999 by BBWAA (1st)
  • Don Sutton (324) – Selected to HOF in 1998 by BBWAA (5th)
  • Phil Niekro (318) – Selected to HOF in 1997 by BBWAA (5th)
  • Gaylord Perry (314) – Selected to HOF in 1991 by BBWAA (3rd)
  • Tom Seaver (311) – Selected to HOF in 1992 by BBWAA (1st)
  • Old Hoss Radbourn (309) – Selected to HOF in 1939 by Old Timers Committee
  • Mickey Welch (307) – Selected to HOF in 1973 by Veteran’s Committee
  • Tom Glavine (305) – Not yet eligible
  • Randy Johnson (303) – Not yet eligible
  • Lefty Grove (300) – Selected to HOF in 1947 by BBWAA (3rd)
  • Early Wynn (300) – Selected to HOF in 1972 by BBWAA (4th)

Twenty-four pitchers in the history of baseball have won 300 ballgames. Seven of those guys were inducted by the Veterean’s Committee or the Old Timers Committee, while another four are not yet eligible. The top four were in the very early days of the Hall of Fame, and there was a tremendous backlog of players on the ballot at that time. It’s amazing that Cy Young did not get enough support that first year, despite being the only pitcher in history with more than 500 victories, but at the same time we’re not going to hold it against the voters because they did get it right eventually.

If we eliminate those fifteen names, we have nine guys to look at, mostly in the modern era, with 300 wins: Spahn, Carlton, Ryan, Sutton, Niekro, Perry, Seaver, Grove, and Wynn. Spahn, Carlton, Ryan, and Seaver were first ballot guys (we’re ignoring the vote cast for Spahn while he was still active in 1958, which would not be allowed under current rules). Why were the others forced to wait three, four, even five years, despite 300 wins?

Personally, I look at the career of a player rather than the peak. Sutton, Niekro, and Perry reached the 300-win plateau as well as 3000 strikeouts. Shouldn’t that end the conversation? Alright, I understand the hesitation on Perry…

But for Sutton and Niekro, there should have been no debate. Sutton only had one 20-win season; Niekro had three. Sutton had a nice 5-year peak in the 1970s with several top-five finishes in Cy Young voting and All-Star appearances. Niekro spread out his success more, with Cy Young support and All-Star honors in three decades. In the end, I suppose both were seen more as compilers than dominant forces, but credit has to be given for longevity, doesn’t it?

Despite 300 wins and 3000 strikeouts, both were forced by the BBWAA to wait five years before enshrinement.

Now look at a few other players that reached 3000 strikeouts in their career, but did not reach the 300-win mark.

3000 Strikeouts

  • Bert Blyleven(3701 strikeouts) – Selected to HOF in 2011 by BBWAA (14th year receiving votes)
  • Fergie Jenkins(3192) – Selected to HOF in 1991 by BBWAA (3rd)
  • Bob Gibson (3117) – Selected to HOF in 1981 by BBWAA (1st)

We all know the struggles Blyleven faced. Just one 20-win season, two All-Star games, three top-ten finishes in Cy Young voting. Like Sutton and Niekro, he was seen as a compiler, and he fell just short of 300 victories. Jenkins battled the stigma of a cocaine-related arrest which may have forced him to wait a few years for induction.

So back to the original question, how magical are the milestones of 300 wins and 3000 strikeouts? No eligible pitcher has been denied induction, but neither are the marks automatic first-ballot guarantees.

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