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In trying to answer the question, “Who is the greatest
living player?,” only a few players even enter the discussion. Willie Mays
comes to mind, as does his controversial godson, Barry Bonds. Fans mindful of
the game’s history may want to include Stan Musial in the conversation. A few
bold contemporary fans might even throw Albert Pujols into the fray, even
though he is still in the midst of career greatness.
The other man who deserves to be mentioned in this
discussion actually visited Cooperstown on
Saturday. Hank Aaron, the game’s longtime home run king who is now second on
the all-time longball list, came to Cooperstown
to participate in the opening of a sparkling new exhibit, known as “Chasing the
Dream,” which details the life and career of “The Hammer.”
Aaron has long wanted the Hall of Fame to honor him with an
exhibit. Clearly, he believes he deserves it. When asked what it meant to join
Babe Ruth as the only men to have entire rooms dedicated to them at the Hall,
Aaron did not supply a politically correct answer that smacked of humility. “It
means I’m supposed to be on the same platform [as Ruth]. I’m proud of what I’ve
I can’t say that I would argue with The Hammer. Given his
ceaseless consistency, his sustained brilliance, his unquestioned success in
the face of racism and hatred, Aaron deserves a special place in the Cooperstown museum. Aaron was not the most colorful or
flashy of ballplayers–he didn’t hit tape measure home runs and he didn’t run
out from under his cap–but he was, if you will, a workmanlike superstar. He was
a true five-tool player who graded out as excellent in all departments:
hitting, speed, defensive prowess, strength of throwing arm, and, of course,
power. And he remained a high-level player well into his late thirties, at a
time when most other stars of his and earlier eras had begun to show
significant levels of decline.
Aaron’s accomplishments become even more impressive in the
face of the shackles that were placed on him early in life. He grew up as part
of a poor family in Mobile,
Alabama. “As a black kid, we
didn’t have that many things to do. You either had sports or you could become a
schoolteacher. There was not many things you could do.”
As a youth, Aaron impressed scouts from the Negro Leagues
enough to merit his first professional contract. “I was signed from the
sandlots of Mobile,”
Aaron told a packed house in the Hall of Fame’s Grandstand Theater. “I got $200
per month. Back then, that was big money,” Aaron said with a chuckle. “I had
been making nothing in Mobile.”
During Negro Leagues stints with the Bears and the Indianapolis
Clowns, Aaron caught the eyes of the Boston Braves, who would soon become the
Milwaukee Braves. The Braves gave Aaron a raise, but sent him to Jacksonville of the South
Atlantic League. Aaron made history by becoming part of a contingent that broke
the league’s longstanding color barrier. “We had three black players on that
team. I had a very good year. I led the league in everything but hotel
Not only did Aaron and his two black teammates have to stay
in separate hotels and eat in different restaurants; they had to endure uncivil
behavior at the games. “The problem we had was with spectators. We had a rough
time in the South. It got ridiculous.
“At some ballparks, we could not dress in the clubhouse. If
you went 0-for-4, the fans would throw bananas at us. After the game, we would
be at the [boarding] house together and say to ourselves, ‘How silly is this?’
Some people were so hateful to us.”
Such abusive and outward racism subsided when Aaron received
his first call to play for the Braves. “Milwaukee
was a great city,” Aaron said unequivocally. “If not for Milwaukee, I didn’t know if I’d be a
ballplayer. The fans were really good. I give them all the credit.”
Aaron not only started his big league career in Milwaukee, but he
finished it there. When the Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966, Aaron moved with them,
staying there long enough to hit his record-breaking 715th home run
in those gaudy blue and white Braves uniforms. After that historic 1974 season,
the Braves sent him back to Milwaukee–by
now the home of the Brewers. Aaron played two seasons with the Brewers as a DH,
before retiring at the end of the 1976 season. He realized that it was
appropriate to call it quits. “The last year in Milwaukee, Del
Crandall was the manager. I slid into what I thought was a base, but the base
was 15 feet away. I knew it was time.”
Just like it was time for the Hall of Fame to create an
exhibit in his honor. It’s tastefully done and aesthetically pleasing, with a collage of
Aaron photos as you first enter, followed by four distinct sections that
chronicle The Hammer’s youth, his minor league days, his halcyon major league
career, and the good work he’s done after baseball, highlighted by his “Chasing the Dream” foundation.
Thirty five years after succeeding Ruth, Aaron and the Babe now stand alone–with rooms all to themselves–right here in Cooperstown.
On Monday, the San Francisco Giants announced the formation of a “Wall of Fame” that would be displayed at AT&T Field beginning with the 2009 season. The inaugural class of Wall of Famers would include over 40 members. The criteria for making the Wall are simple: a retired player becomes automatically inducted if he has played at least nine seasons with San Francisco, or has been an All-Star who has played at least five seasons with the Giants.
This “Wall of Fame” sounds like a good idea, a noble concept, but it’s one that has gone awry. Now there’s no problem with the top end of the wall. The Giants, who have been celebrating their 50th year in San Francisco (yes, it’s been that long since the move west from the Polo Grounds), easily have an elite group of core players to form the upper tier of the wall: Hall of Famers Orlando Cepeda, Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry. Then you have a second tier of really good players who have been All-Star caliber performers, including the underrated Felipe Alou, the late Rod Beck, the late Bobby Bonds, Vida Blue, Will Clark, Chili Davis, Darrell Evans, the late Tom Haller, Jim Ray Hart, Gary Lavelle, Jeff Leonard, Greg “Moon Man” Minton, Kevin Mitchell, Robb Nen, and Matt Williams. And if you want to include a group of “common card” Giants, players who have been contributing foot soldiers over the years, you have a solid group formed by the likes of John Burkett, Dick Dietz, Scotty Garrelts, Atlee Hammaker, Mike Krukow, Mike McCormick, Stu Miller, John “The Count” Montefusco, Rick Reuschel, Chris Speier, and Robby Thompson. They were all decent players, or better in some cases. Some of them, like Montefusco, were also very popular with the fans. By all means, give them their places on the Wall.
But here’s where the Giants have gone wrong. When you start including players like Johnnie LeMaster, Tito Fuentes, and Kirt Manwaring, especially in the inaugural class of the Wall of Fame, I think you’ve lost all credibility. LeMaster, in particular, makes the Giants look like they’ve miscalculated their standards. He is one of the worst players to step onto a field in the last 40 years; he couldn’t hit, couldn’t field, couldn’t steal bases. He was a bad player who was best known for putting “Boo” on his uniform in response to angry fans at Candlestick Park.
As for Fuentes, he was a colorful performer who was a member of the 1971 team that claimed the National League West, but at his peak was never much more than an average player. And for much of his career, he was well below average, an iffy fielder who struggled to reach base. Finally, Manwaring was a little bit better, a good defensive catcher who couldn’t hit for either average or power. On the list of standout Giants catchers of the past 40 years, Manwaring would rate well below Haller, Dietz, Bob Brenly (also scheduled for Wall induction in 2009), and current Giants receiver Bengi Molina. I just don’t see where a one-dimensional catcher like Manwaring merits inclusion on this list.
The problem with the Giants Wall of Fame is quite simple: the standards for induction are way too low. Nine years of play with the Giants, or five years and one All-Star appearance with San Francisco, will open the floodgates too wide for mediocre or worse players to join the Wall of Fame. Do you really want light-hitting utility infielders, middle-of-the road platoon players, and interchangeable long relievers making your team’s Wall of Fame? The Giants would be far better off tightening the standards, perhaps by calling for a minimum of 12 years with the franchise, or perhaps by making the criteria more subjective, based on a player’s performance and popularity in San Francisco.
By all means, let’s honor the Jim Ray Harts, Count Montefuscos, and Rick Reuschels of the Giants’ baseball world. I love it when players who were good, but something less than immortal, receive their due. But when you’ve lowered the bar so far that you have to include the Johnnie LeMasters of years gone by, it’s time to shake up the formula, give it a good stir, and start over again.
It’s become plainly evident that the Mets can no longer trust Aaron Heilman to close out games during Billy Wagner’s tenure on the shelf. After watching Heilman blow a save on Monday afternoon against the lowly Pirates, Jerry Manuel has to try someone else–anybody for that matter–in an effort to clot the bleeding. While there is no slam dunk choice, given the bullpen’s ERA of more than 6.70 since the All-Star break, I would nominate Pedro Feliciano. The lefty specialist has been arguably their most consistent set-up reliever over the past three years, and while he’s certainly no sure thing against right-handed bats, he’s more deserving of a shot than Scott Schoeneweis. The only other option for the Mets is a waiver trade. Omar Minaya should put in a claim for any serviceable reliever who is put on waivers. Perhaps a team looking to shed some salary will just say, “Take him,” to the Mets, and ask for no trade compensation in return…
Assuming that neither of the players to be named later are top prospects, the Diamondbacks did very well in securing Adam “Big Donkey” Dunn in a waiver deal with the Reds. The D-Backs need offense in the worst way, particularly in the form of a left-handed bat who can balance their righty-heavy lineup. Dunn is a two dimensional player–he hits home runs and draws walks–who does nothing else well, but his power and patience are so exemplary that he’ll lift the spirits of Arizona’s offense. The D-Backs plan to use Dunn in right field while Justin Upton works his way back from the disabled list; once Upton is ready, Dunn will move back to his more accustomed position in left field. The trade will also give the D-Backs, if they’re so inclined, a head start on negotiations for a long-term contract with the impending free agent. Good move on all fronts for Arizona…
Finally, it’s time to change the baseball card image on our home page. We’ve had Willie Mays (the greatest living ballplayer) up for more than a month, but we’re now ready to move on to another selection. If you’ve got a card you’d like to nominate, just post your suggestion here, along with your reasons. Perhaps you like one of the 1973 Topps cards we’ve featured on “Card Corner” (like Norm Cash, Dave McNally, or Joe Rudi), or perhaps you’d prefer something completely different. Just let us know.
As I walked into the Otesaga Hotel on Friday afternoon, the first person I noticed was Willie Mays. Sitting in a chair in the front of the lobby, Mays was surrounded by a phalanx of friends and family. I guess when you’re Willie Mays, it’s hard to move five feet in any direction in Cooperstown without drawing some sort of a crowd. Later in the day, I spotted several other Hall of Famers making their way through the Otesaga lobby, including Jim Bunning, Bob Feller, and Bob Gibson. At 89 years of age, Feller is the third oldest Hall of Famer, just behind Bobby Doerr and Lee MacPhail. He’s also sporting a different look these days, with a new crew cut that reminded me of his days in the military during World War II. Gibson’s appearance also surprised me a bit; he appeared to be smiling, an expression not often seen on the master of intimidation…
Making my way around the basement of the Otesaga, I caught a glimpse of Dick Williams, who is now less than 48 hours away from his induction, in the “Abner Doubleday Room.” A fitting name. As I eavesdropped on Williams’ conversation with a member of the media, I heard him talk about today’s ballplayers. He praised them for being bigger, stronger, and better trained than athletes of the past, but complained “that they have no idea how to play the game.” When it comes to the art of baserunning and the ability of outfielders to throw to the right base, I’m in complete agreement with Williams…
Later in the day, I ran into Cincinnati Reds broadcaster George Grande, who peaked in on us as we sat in the “Natty Bumppo Room.” Grande is currently preparing for Sunday’s induction ceremony, where he will continue his longstanding role as emcee. One of the truly nice guys in the game, Grande reminisced with me about the early days at ESPN, when the channel didn’t broadcast 24 hours a day and when SportsCenter anchors had to wear blazers with ESPN logos. We also talked about his former broadcast partner with the Yankees, Bobby Murcer. Just like everyone else in the game, Grande has nothing but kind words for Murcer, who died earlier this month from cancer. Just like Murcer, Grande is one of the good guys who help make our game something special.
Bobby Bonds–Topps Company–1973 (No. 145)
A number of players have been compared to Willie Mays over the past 40 years–Eric Davis, the late Glenn Burke, and Cesar Cedeno are just three that come to mind–but only one has ever played on the same team with the “Say Hey Kid” while having to deal with the burden of unfair comparisons. In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, Bobby Bonds not only played next to Mays in the San Francisco Giants’ outfield but also displayed such an immediate combination of athleticism, pure power, and baseball instincts that some fans were convinced they were watching the new Mays and the old Mays at the same time. (I love the 1973 Topps card of Bonds, which is pictured here, partly because it shows the athletic outfielder trying to elude a rundown and in part because the card features a cameo of personal favorite Willie Stargell, who was playing first base for the Pittsburgh Pirates at the time.)
And yet, by 1975, both the “old” Mays and the “new” Mays had left the Bay Area; Mays was traded to the Mets and then retired after a dismal 1973 World Series, while Bonds joined the other New York team in a straight-up swap for the talented but athletically inferior Bobby Murcer. Bonds slugged .512 in his lone season with the Yankees (while playing in the pitcher’s haven of Shea Stadium), but he could never make people forget the more popular Murcer and soon became an Angel, in exchange for the uncelebrated package of Mickey Rivers and Ed Figueroa. From there, Bonds hurt his hand and bounced from club to club, raising questions with his fast lifestyle. On the field, his critics said he struck out too much, didn’t run out routine ground balls, and couldn’t hit the cut-off man. Ever a threat to hit 30 home runs and steal 30 bases, he remained productive but enigmatic, never quite living up to the foreshadowing of superstardom and always giving teams reasons to move him on to another destination.
Bonds died during the summer of 2003, the victim of lung cancer that very possibly had been brought upon by years of cigarette smoking. When I learned about Bonds’ death five years ago, a thought came to me: we’re starting to hear about an increasing number of players from that era (the late sixties and seventies) who have been hit with lung cancer, the likely result of a culture that too readily accepted cigarettes, in part because they didn’t have the volume of medical information that we have today. Mark Belanger, a persistent smoker, died from lung cancer. John Milner, also a heavy smoker, died from the same kind of cancer. And in the fall of 2003, Dave McNally (one of Belanger’s teammates in Baltimore) succumbed to lung cancer.
These tragic developments should serve as a reminder to us that each era in baseball has had its vices, specifically its problems with drugs. As much consternation as the use of steroids has created in the new millennium, the cigarette smoking of the 1960s and seventies has begun to inflict its own toll. There is another similarity between the use of steroids in the current day and the heavy smoking of years past. We don’t yet know the full long-term effects of steroids today, just as many of the players of the sixties didn’t understand the havoc that cigarettes would cause to their bodies in their later years.