Rickey Henderson, Jim Rice, Elected to Baseball Hall of Fame

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Henderson makes it easily in his first year of eligibility. Rice squeaks through in his last.

The man who sprinted to a record-shattering 1406 stolen bases during his great career, waltzed into Baseball’s Hall of Fame, earning the votes of 94% of Hall of Fame voters on his first try (a player needs to appear on 75% of ballots to make it in). Henderson was best known for being a terror on the bases, but he was more than that – a selective hitter who drew more walks than any player in baseball history except for Barry Bonds, a surprisingly powerful hitter who smashed nearly 300 career homeruns and a devastating leadoff hitter who did what leadoff hitters are paid to do: score runs. Henderson scored more of those than any player in baseball history. If you had to draw up the perfect leadoff man – you’d be hard-pressed to do better than finding the guy who ranks number one in baseball history in stolen bases and runs scored and number two in walks. And, yes, Henderson was an excellent defensive left-fielder for much of his career. Rickey’s brash and cocky style didn’t always sit well with the media, but he was just so good – under-rated, in fact, because of the excessive focus on his steals and lack of attention to how well he did everything else. Bill James, the Godfather of the modern revolution in baseball statistical analysis was once said of Henderson, “If you could split him in two, you’d have two Hall of Famers.”

Jim Rice, the other player elected today, has been a controversial figure in Hall of Fame voting for many years. He last played in 1989 and was first eligible for election in 1995. Rice was part of a fantastic rookie duo (along with league MVP Fred Lynn) that helped the Red Sox to an unlikely American League pennant in 1975. From 1977 to 1979, Rice was a terror, tearing up the American league. In 1978, when Rice won the American League Most Valuable Player award, he smacked 46 homeruns, drove in 139 runs and hit .325. And he added an oh-by-the-way league-leading 15 triples. These numbers, while common now, were all but unheard of in the American League of the late 1970s. Rice was 25 years old in 1978 and seemed headed for an all-time great career. But Rice peaked early. He had an excellent year in 1983, hitting a league leading 39 homers (the third and final time he led the league in that category) and another big year in 1986, helping the Red Sox to another pennant. Rice was 33 and was out of baseball by age 36. As a result, his career numbers, while very good, are not overwhelming. He was not a good defensive player and he didn’t run very much. According to the kinds of statistical analysts who have revolutionized the way baseball evaluates talent (pioneered by the aforementioned James), Rice is not a worthy Hall of Famer.

One such writer, Joe Sheehan (a favorite of mine) said this about Rice after his election today:

“The hagiographers, the storytellers, the mythmakers…they’ve won. Those who would argue the objective standards have lost. Once Rice advanced to within a handful of votes and a spot as the leading returning vote getter, it was clear that he would cross the line this time around, making a debate over his candidacy pointless. All of the points made last year, and the year prior, and the year before that are just as valid, just as winning as they have always been. All of the comparisons of Rice to Hall members, and those left out, and his peers on the ballot still show him to fall below the line. Nevertheless, the idea that Rice was the “most feared” hitter of his era, a notion that is both unproven and unprovable, has carried the day.”

Another such writer, Rob Neyer (also a personal favorite) wrote today:

“Now we can stop talking about Jim Rice, until a respectful period has passed and we can simply add him to the list of good players — Bruce Sutter, Catfish Hunter and Orlando Cepeda come to mind — who don’t really belong in the Hall of Fame but are there anyway. As I wrote earlier this morning, the election of Rice will do little to lower the standards of the institution, as it’s unlikely that players like Dave Parker, Albert Belle, Dick Allen and big Frank Howard now will be knocking on the Coop’s door (even though, it should be said, all of them were at least Rice’s equal).”

But his peers did think the world of him. Ron Guidry, the great Yankee pitcher of the late 1970s and early 1980s (who finished a close second to Rice in the 1978 MVP voting) is a good example. In a recent exchange with a sportswriter, ” When Ron Guidry was asked whether he thought Rice should be in the Hall of Fame and he looked at the interviewer like I was crazy. “Of course he should be,” Guidry said. “Guy scared the crap out of every pitcher in the league.” Rice’s strength was legendary – he reputedly broke bats just by checking his swing. And he endured a lot in the late 1970s and early 1980s, playing in a racially tense and divided Boston when, in some years, he was the team’s only African American player and when opposing players often reported being the targets of racial slurs and taunts by Boston fans.

A final note: The Red Sox were the last major league team to racially integrate their roster and Rice is the first Black player who spent the bulk of his career with the Red Sox to be elected to the Hall.

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