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Tony O & Kitty’s different paths to Cooperstown

The tortoise & the hare

October 8, 2002. Minneapolis, MN. ALCS game #1. Twins vs. Anaheim. At center, former Twin Jim Kaat puts his arm around Jacque Jones after throwing out the first pitch. In back is Eric Milton and Tony Oliva, and in the foreground is Bert Blyleven.

When looking through the roll of baseball’s Hall of Fame, there are certain players who stand out as slam-dunk choices—Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, & Stan Musial, to name just a few. Superstars who were utterly excellent and long-tenured.

The majority of enshrine-ees, however, have a plaque in the hallowed halls due to one or the other—either they were the best in the game for a relatively short period of time or they put together marvelously long & consistent careers. The recently-inducted Tony Oliva & Jim Kaat stand out as starkly different examples of the path one can take to Cooperstown.

When it comes to what I’ll call “short Hall” players, Sandy Koufax & Dizzy Dean immediately stand out. Both pitchers could easily be called the best in baseball during their respective eras, but both only had about six years of preeminence. Kirby Puckett could reside in this category, what with his freak eye injury curtailing a longer career. If Johan Santana or Joe Mauer ever give long speeches on hot July afternoons, they too will be doing so due to short bursts of dominance.

Sandy Koufax Displaying Their Strong Hands
Unfortunately for the Twins, Koufax’s dominance came right during their 1965 World Series appearance.

Tony Oliva made it to the Hall in this exact manner. His accomplishments from 1964-1971: .313 BA, .867 OPS, 140 OPS+, 8 All-Star Games, Rookie of the Year, 1 Gold Glove, 3 top-four MVP finishes. During that period, he was arguably one of MLB’s top batsmen. Though the raw OPS may seem a little weak, the OPS+ speaks volumes to Oliva’s expertise in such a pitching-dominant era. It isn’t just nostalgia talking when literally everyone who saw Oliva play has told me that he was one of the very best.

Sadly, after Tony’s knees become major hindrances, his ’73-’76 totals plummeted: .277 BA, .721 OPS, 102 OPS+, no awards or All-Star consideration. Essentially, he became a league-average player. But the 8-year run of sovereignty was ultimately what allowed him this special moment.

On the other side of the proverbial coin, there are “long Hall” players. Take Rabbit Maranville—he certainly isn’t enshrined on his lifetime .258 BA or 82 OPS+. Other than being named Rabbit, one has to believe his longevity (23 years) did the trick. Carlton Fisk (24 seasons), Phil Niekro (24), & Don Sutton (23) could have similar claims made about them. Though no slouches in their respective roles, 20+ year residencies are hard to ignore. Even a luminary like Nolan Ryan—for how admittedly impressive his strikeout, IP, and no-hit totals were—was probably helped on the ballot by chucking heaters for a mind-boggling 27 years.

Rabbit Maranville During Spring Training
The Rabbit

On the wings of those brethren is how Jim Kaat sailed into the Hall. His average season went like this: 13-11, 3.45 ERA, 202 IP, 108 ERA+. Solid, but not spectacular by any means (unless one counts 16 gilded fielding implements). Truth be told, there are only four seasons—’65, ’66, ’74, & ’75—in which Kaat could be considered elite. But he plied his trade for 25 years—pitching in an astounding four different decades (’59-’83)!—and then almost immediately went into broadcasting, where he turned himself into one of the game’s best analysts. He has never left the baseball consciousness, if you will, for 50+ years.

In the classic Aesop fable “The Tortoise & the Hare”, it is intuited that slow-and-steady is better than fast-fast-fast. That may be true in everyday life, but when it comes to baseball’s Hall of Fame either approach works fine. Just ask Tony-O & Kitty.