In 1979, One Vote Capped the Careers of Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell

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In 1979, One Vote Capped the Careers of Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell
Rusty Kennedy/Associated Press
Though he was only co-MVP in 1979, it was enough to get Keith Hernandez an appearance on "Seinfeld."

Well, I goofed—the previous 11 articles belong to a 12-part series. (Hours upon hours of preparation, only to miscount…) Thus, this is the final part of my series examining the vagaries of awards voting.

For the only time in the modern history of the Most Valuable Player Award, the 1979 National League honor split evenly between Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell, crowning them co-MVPs. Hernandez, already a Gold Glove–winning first baseman, put together a season far superior to Stargell.

Winning the batting title with a .344 average, Hernandez also paced the NL with 48 doubles and 116 runs scored. Eighty walks, 105 runs batted in, double figures in home runs and triples as well as spectacular defense rightfully added up to 10 first-place votes in the MVP vote.

Yet, as Hernandez’s St. Louis Cardinals limped to a distant third-place finish in the NL East, “Pops” Stargell’s timely hitting and his “We Are Family” rallying cry pulled his aged Pittsburgh Pirates through a summer-long dogfight with the rising Montreal Expos.

Jostling for first place since late July, the rivals faced off at Three Rivers Stadium in late September. With Montreal ahead of Pittsburgh by a half-game, they split a double-header on September 24.

The next evening, Stargell smashed a pair of home runs, including a tone-setting two-run clout in the bottom of the first, to lead Pittsburgh to a 10-4 rout of the Expos. With the Pirates now a half-game ahead, another 10 runs buried Montreal the following evening.

After Pittsburgh dropped a makeup game to the Cardinals, cutting its lead to one game, Montreal entered the season’s final weekend with a chance to catch, and even pass, Pittsburgh. With each team splitting its first two games, the Expos—in front of nearly 51,000 expectant Montrealers—came up empty against Steve Carlton and the Philadelphia Phillies.

Meanwhile, Stargell cracked his 32nd home run and drove in two against the Chicago Cubs as Pittsburgh clinched its first division crown since 1975.

Montreal actually played only 160 games that season, finishing 95-65, as Pittsburgh’s two-game lead at the finish line rendered a pair of Montreal rainouts moot.

Although it had no bearing on the MVP vote, Stargell was a one-man wrecking crew in the postseason. Hitting .455 and driving in six runs in a three-game sweep of the Cincinnati Reds in the NLCS. Pops then led Pittsburgh from three games down to a World Series triumph over the Baltimore Orioles.

In the World Series, Stargell clubbed 12 hits, including three long balls. It was one of the great postseason performances in baseball history. 

KEITH SRAKOCIC/Associated Press
Willie Stargell took home all three MVPs in 1979—which was probably as big a thrill as appearing in a "Seinfeld" episode.

Enjoying his last big season in 1979—although he did not hit well during the stretch drive—the 39-year-old Stargell tied Hernandez with 216 vote points, despite receiving only four first-place nods. A stranger MVP ballot might be hard to find. Eight players received a first-place vote, and 14 of the 24 first-place votes went to players (Hernandez and Dave Winfield) on teams that never really entered the pennant race.

It is the cases of Gary Carter and Bill Madlock that I find most interesting. Each received one first-place vote, which should be no surprise, considering they were key players on teams battling to the wire for a division crown. However, Carter and Madlock finished 17th and 18th, respectively, in the vote, garnering little support from other voters (each received only four percent of the ballot share).

Oddly, 10 players finishing higher than them in MVP consideration did not earn a first-place vote, including Montreal’s best player in 1979, Larry Parrish, who collected 38 percent of the ballot share.

Although Parrish was a much more deserving Expo, I can understand Gary Carter earning a first-place vote—a rugged, personable backstop on a contending team who launched 22 home runs and always provided writers with good ink.

However, Bill Madlock, who came to Pittsburgh in a six-player swap in late June, is a curious choice. He undoubtedly sparked Pittsburgh, hitting .328 and compiling an OPS of .860 while providing strong defense at the hot corner. Yet Madlock played only 85 games for the Pirates.

Granted, Pittsburgh went 61-30 from Madlock’s acquisition, but the vast majority of voters either did not accord Madlock a high-placed vote or did not vote for him at all.

There is nothing inappropriate, or novel, about a player getting some level of MVP consideration for a half-season of heroics, but a first-place vote? Madlock was not Roy Hobbs…

One would think that a first-place vote cast for a Pirate other than Stargell would have fallen to Dave Parker, who actually had a strong season but whose statistics paled to his MVP numbers of the previous year. Again, it was an odd year, as Pittsburgh won a division with no Pirate dominating the league either at the plate or on the mound.

Considering how “displaced” Madlock’s first-place vote is relative to how little of the ballot share he earned, had the voter who penciled him (or Carter) at the top of his ballot instead gone with one of the clear-cut contenders (despite a superlative season, I don’t think Dave Winfield, a player on a fifth-place team, should have collected first-place votes), then either Keith Hernandez or Willie Stargell would have won the NL MVP outright—obviously denying the other of the co-MVP honor.

In essence, the voter who selected Madlock might well have altered the collective perception of two players. Certainly, Willie Stargell was bound for the Hall of Fame even had he finished as yet another close-but-no-cigar in MVP consideration—but he would not have the historical icing on a championship season that largely defined a great career.

And Keith Hernandez, though an excellent all-around ballplayer and beloved of two fan bases, might now be better remembered for asking Jerry Seinfeld to help him move his furniture—Hernandez’s MVP (conspicuously not “co-MVP”) is even mentioned twice in that episode, “The Boyfriend.”

Instead, winning an MVP, rather than being an obscured runner-up to one, gives our memory of Hernandez a luster that sets him above a pool of similarly skilled first basemen such as Mark Grace, John Olerud and Wally Joyner.

I wonder how Kramer and Newman would have voted...

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