It’s Hall of Fame Week at Umpbump. We’ll be taking a look at the guys on the ballot and giving you our take on who does and doesn’t belong in Cooperstown. Making his 14th appearance on the HOF ballot: Jim Rice, one of the most dominant hitters of any 10-year period. But did his career have the longevity to get him the brass plaque?
I know that Jim Rice’s career numbers make him a borderline candidate for the Hall of Fame. I know that, if selected, those numbers would put him in the bottom quartile. But you know what? Someone has to be. We can’t all be valedictorians. We can’t all win gold medals. We can’t all date Angelina Jolie. Some of us have to be in the bottom half of the class. Someone has to win the bronze. Someone has to end up with Jennifer Aniston. Why not Jim Rice?
Because although Jim Rice’s 16 years in the majors are on the short side for the Hall, Jim Ed’s fast rise, complete dominance during his prime, and durability for most of those years should be enough to make up for that. No, he did not manage to hang on through his late 30s, and thus could not pad his career offensive numbers like so many other HOFers. And yet, if I may be forgiven for quoting my own article from last week’s Boston Metro:
In 1975, he was one of many glorious Red Sox rookies and finished third in MVP voting and second in the Rookie of the Year tally. In ’77, ’78 and ’79, he was in his prime. He hit more than 35 homers in each of those three years, while also collecting over 200 hits — the only major-league player to ever accomplish that feat.
Six times did Rice finished in the top five in the MVP balloting. Eight times was Rice elected an All-Star. And perhaps most impressive to me, twice did Rice break his bat on a checked swing alone. An ash bat. In the pre-steroids era. Yes, Rice had a temper, but so did many other Hall of Famers. In Rice’s defense, it can’t have been easy working for a deeply racist organization—an organization that was the last major league club to integrate and which, for season after season, would only field one African American player at a time. Add the fact that Boston is a tough media town, and you have a recipe for surliness. There’s the famous incident in which he strode into the stands at Yankee stadium to get his hat back from the impertinent fan who had to foolishly swiped it. But he also entered the stands on another, less noted occasion: in Fenway, when a child had been struck by a foul ball. He carried the boy into the clubhouse for treatment.
And for those who say that Rice had no speed? In 1975, his rookie season, he led the team in steals. Sure, he only had 10—but then, the Red Sox organization has never been known for encouraging the stolen base. But to accuse him of no speed? In 1978, he led the majors in triples. During the same annus mirabilis, he also led baseball in homers and RBI—and he’s the only player to ever lead baseball in triples, homers, and RBI. That year also made him one of only a handful of players to collect 400 total bases in a season—putting him in the company of Joe DiMaggio and Hank Aaron. In fact, though Rice is now remembered as a lead-footed, perennially injured slugger, he was actually possessed of the rare ability to hit for both power and average. Though his lifetime batting average of .298 and 382 total home runs may not look like much on their own, look at them together and the impact is powerful: out of all retired players, Rice ranks tenth in terms of batting average and homers. Needless to say, those players (Hank Aaron, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Stan Musial, Mel Ott, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams) are all in the Hall of Fame.
As for his defense, which is either overlooked or derided, Paul White at BaseballLibrary has done a nice job of applying modern defensive stats to Rice’s glove, and showing that his numbers weren’t substantially different from his outfield contemporary, eight-time Gold Glove winner Dwight Evans:
Rice’s career range factor was 2.10, Evans’ was 2.11. Rice’s career total of Fielding Runs, as calculated by Total Baseball, was 71; Evans’ was 76. Rice threw out a baserunner once every 11.3 games he played in the outfield; Evans did so once every 13.7 games.
Sure, Evans made fewer errors and Fenway’s right field is more difficult than its left field. Nonetheless, let this put to rest the unfair accusation that Rice’s “poor defense” should keep him out of Cooperstown.
Many have looked at Rice’s numbers, and seen his name included on the ballot every year for fourteen years, and wondered why he continues to garner enough votes to stay on that ballot—while somehow always falling short of never the support needed to actually be elected. Are the same old codgers who may have gotten the rough side of Rice’s tongue now bearing grudges against the slugger-turned-hitting coach-turned-broadcaster? I hope not. Because no Red Sox has worn Jim Ed’s number 14 since he retired. In a decade that saw few excellent hitters and even fewer excellent power hitters, he was the best. He was the last man any pitcher wanted to see stepping into the batter’s box with the game on the line. And the Red Sox are just waiting for Cooperstown to call. And as soon as they do—if they do—number 14 will hang in right field forever.