Jim Rice: Making The Hall of Fame Bigger

Brian ConlinAnalyst IJuly 23, 2009

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York will need to get bigger as it prepares to welcome Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson as its newest members on July 26.

The votes are in and there’s no turning back, but only one of these players belongs.

In a career that took place in four decades, Henderson became the all-time leader in stolen bases at 1,406 and runs scored with 2,295. Henderson could beat you with more than just his speed. He had more power than anyone with three seasons of 100 or more stolen bases should.

Three times the outfielder had a season where he led the American League in stolen bases and hit over 20 home runs. He also holds the record for most home runs to leadoff a game with 81. These statistics got Henderson voted into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

Baseball historian Bill James said it best, “If you could somehow split [Henderson] in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers.”

While his statistics are astonishing, Henderson’s love of the game, personality, and playing style contribute to his legacy. At 44-years-old, the 10 time All-Star played in the Atlantic League, an independent minor league, hoping for one more season in the Majors.

For 25 seasons, Henderson tormented other teams. With Henderson on first, pitchers would lose focus of the batter, fearing that he would turn his single into a triple.

As legend has it, one time as Henderson was taking his lead from first he caught the eye of Floyd Rayford, the Baltimore Orioles’ third baseman, and held up two fingers. Rayford had no idea what it meant until Henderson was standing on the bag next to him after quickly stealing two bases.

Henderson’s intangibles and his flair (his headfirst slides, an exaggerated arm motion to snatch routine fly balls from the air, and references to himself in the third person,) made baseball exciting to watch.

Incidentally, the people who voted for Jim Rice relied on intangibles because he’s not deserving based on his statistics.

Over 16 seasons, Rice, a left-fielder who played his entire career in Boston, had several terrific seasons that resulted in eight All-Star appearances, but his overall statistics fall short.

Rice collected 2,452 hits, had a batting average of .298, and clubbed 382 home runs. He led the American League in homers three times and in RBIs twice. He finished in the top five in MVP voting six times.

Don’t get me wrong. Every team in Major League Baseball would love to get production like that from their outfield, but it’s not Hall of Fame production.

Numbers can sometimes lie.

Rice ended up with similar final numbers to Joe DiMaggio (2,214 hits and 361 home runs), a no-doubt Hall of Famer. However, DiMaggio lost three years of his prime (his 28, 29, and 30-year-old seasons) because he served in World War II.

Despite missing the three seasons, DiMaggio still won three MVP Awards, two more than Rice. This doesn’t even consider his 56-game hitting streak.

Ralph Kiner, an outfielder in the 40’s and 50’s who spent most of his career with the Pittsburgh Pirates, was elected to the Hall of Fame despite finishing his career with a paltry 1,451 hits and a Rice-ian 369 home runs.

However, Kiner led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons. He led the majors for six straight years. That’s a dominance that Rice never came close to matching. In fact, it’s dominance that has no precedent and no duplication.

It also isn’t to say that mistakes haven’t been made in Hall of Fame voting before.

Only 1.34 percent of players who get the opportunity to put on a Major League uniform get inducted into the Hall of Fame.

That’s one player out of about 75.

Rice falls short. Rice never had an extended period of dominance like Kiner. He never reached any of the magic numbers like DiMaggio probably would have had he not spent three seasons serving his country.

Rice wasn’t even close to those magic numbers.

To collect 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, Rice would have needed to play three more seasons in which he collected over 180 hits or hit 40 home runs. Few even in the steroid era could maintain that type of production after their age 36 season, when Rice retired.

In Rice’s 15th and final year of eligibility to be elected into the Hall of Fame, 76.4 percent of the BBWAA (Baseball Writer’s Association of America) voted that he deserved to be enshrined in Cooperstown.

A player needs 75 percent of the vote to get in. Rice received less than 30 percent of the vote in his first year of eligibility in 1995. These facts are evidence of his borderline candidacy.

Rice’s supporters looked beyond the fact that he only won one MVP award and never reached any of the magic numbers. Perhaps the voters were convinced by marketing campaigns organized by fans, writers, some Hall of Famers, and the Red Sox organization that Rice was the most feared hitter in baseball for over a decade.

That’s intangibility. The statement is impossible to prove. It also isn’t accurate.

Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote, “In the 11 seasons from 1975 to 1985, American League pitchers would rather have seen Freddy Krueger stalking up their street than Jim Rice stalking toward the old batter's box.”

Interesting, Mr. Stark.

This most feared hitter never drew more than 10 intentional walks in a season and only drew 77 intentional walks in his career. That’s two less than the light hitting Ozzie Smith.

Barry Bonds drew 688. George Brett, Rice’s AL contemporary, had 229.

Since Bill James was so colorful in illustrating Henderson’s career, let’s call on him again. James wrote in his Historical Baseball Abstract that Rice was “probably the most overrated player of the last thirty years.''

James ranked Rice as the 27th best left fielder in history, behind Roy White (No. 25), Albert Belle (No. 20) and Tim Raines (No. 8).

Whether Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame is a moot point now that he is days away from induction, but the reason for concern stems from how big the Hall of Fame will need to grow to accommodate players who have similar statistics and a similar “fear factor.”

If other borderline players like Dave Parker, Raines, and Dale Murphy get into the Hall of Fame, their induction speeches should include a special thank you to Rice and his supporters.


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