The Hall of Fame Case for Vada Pinson

Vada Pinson guarded the outfield grass at Cincinnati’s Crosley Field in the 1960s like a sentry guards on outpost—with determination, concentration, and resolve.  In his “Counterpoints” editorial for the November 13, 1995 edition of USA Today, Tony Snow wrote, “Pinson was the best unknown player in the history of baseball.  He performed with an almost feral grace and transformed the game of farm-boys into something more akin to ballet.”

Despite formidable credentials, however, Vada Pinson is not a member of the Baseball Hall of Fame.  Pinson played from 1958 to 1975, mostly with the Cincinnati Reds.  His tally of 2,757 hits falls shy of the 3,000 hits threshold, but not by much and certainly not enough to dismiss him from consideration for Cooperstown.  On the other hand, 256 home runs and 1,169 RBI while respectable numbers, will not support a Hall of Fame argument.

Pinson had career statistics that compare nicely to Roberto Clemente’s.  To be a true measure, though, Clemente’s numbers must be considered as if the Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder would have retired after the 1972 season; he died in a plane crash on December 31, 1972, having played his entire career from 1955 to 1972 in a Pirates uniform.  Clemente got inducted into the Hall of Fame by a special election in 1973.

Clemente had 3,000 hits, a yardstick for the Hall of Fame, and a .317 batting average, more than 30 points above Pinson’s.  But Pinson exceeded, or at least nearly paralleled Clemente in other categories, indicating prowess at the plate—1,196 strikeouts to Clemente’s 1,230 while having nearly 200 more plate appearances.  For Pinson, this is an 11% strikeout ratio; Clemente’s is 12%.

Pinson’s statistic of stolen bases offers more evidence of Hall of Fame potential.  While Clemente had 83 stolen bases in his career, Pinson had 305.  Speed on the base paths indicates a well-rounded player, making up for the gaps, however slight, separating Pinson from Clemente in on-base percentage (.327 to .359), slugging percentage (.442 to .475), and RBI (1,169 to 1,305).

Character, while an intangible and mostly irrelevant topic for Hall of Fame voters, deserves, at the very least, a mention.  When the St. Louis Cardinals traded Pinson to the Cleveland Indians, he made a difference in the latter’s clubhouse.  A 1970 article by Russell Schneider in the Sporting News quoted catcher Ray Fosse on Pinson’s impact:  “Vada has been on a winning club all his life.  Yet he comes to a young club like ours and fits right in.  All the time he’s watching you and building your confidence.

“There are a lot of little things to learn that helps make the difference.  He takes time out to tell you about them.  He’s been just great for the club.”

Snow echoed the sentiment in his column, explaining a meeting with Pinson in 1985, when the former Reds standout became a pitching coach with the Detroit Tigers.  “Small acts of kindness live on.  So when my boy gets old enough to care about baseball stars, I’ll tell him about the night the greatest unknown player ever talked openly with a kid he never had known and would never see again—a guy for whom there will never be an athlete as graceful or achingly human as Vada Edward Pinson Jr.”

Of course, character alone does not overcome the perceived deficiency, no matter how negligible, in statistics required for a plaque on the walls of the Hall of Fame.  Perhaps it should.

A version of this article appeared on www.thesportspost.com on November 12, 2015.

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