Tomorrow afternoon Jack Morris will find out if his life will change forever.
If he’s elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Morris will forever be in a fraternity of baseball legends. Whether there’s a faction of people who think he doesn’t belong or not, if Morris is elected, he’ll be “Hall of Famer Jack Morris” forever. He’ll add three words to his signature on baseballs and 8×10 glossy photographs, but the difference is far more than just a few letters. The life of a Hall of Famer is different – it’s special – and it can be lucrative.
If Morris is not elected he will remain a former major league pitcher who had a brilliant career, one of the best of his generation. He’ll remain a controversial figure who rests on the line between really good and greatness. He’ll be talked about and he’ll get cheers at old timers games, but it won’t be the same.
This year marks the 14th time Morris’ name is on the Hall of Fame ballot. For the 14th time the 580 or so baseball writers who have a vote will cast their ballots. Over the years Morris has went from a smattering of support (a low of 19.6%) to a groundswell – 66.7% last year. It takes 75% to get in, and only one other player (not on the ballot currently) who received as much as 50% has not been elected. That was Gil Hodges, the old Brooklyn Dodgers first baseman who shared the spotlight with superstar teammates Roy Campanella, Jackie Robinson, and Duke Snider. Morris is a better candidate than Hodges, and the former Tiger ace has emerged as one of the most controversial in a long time. His election or non-election will be debated by baseball writers, historians, and fans.
The Baseball writers are important because they are the only ones who have a vote. And those writers who are not supporting Morris are missing the point. They risk creating a huge gap in history if they don’t elect Morris, who won 254 games in an 18-year career and captured four World Series rings.
If we look at baseball history as a series of eras, we find that the best players at their positions are represented in the Hall of Fame. The best catcher of the 1920s (Mickey Cochrane), the best center fielder of the 1940s (Joe DiMaggio), the best third baseman of the 1970s and 1980s (Mike Schmidt or George Brett), and so on. Baseball’s best pitcher (or top 2-3) is represented too, of course. Here they are:
1890s: Cy Young
19o0s: Christy Mathewson or Three-Finger Brown
1910s: Walter Johnson or Pete Alexander
1920s: Alexander, Johnson or Lefty Grove
1930s: Grove or Carl Hubbell
1940s: Bob Feller or Hal Newhouser
1950s: Warren Spahn or Robin Roberts
1960s: Sandy Koufax or Bob Gibson
1970s: Tom Seaver or Steve Carlton
You can debate a few choices, but even if you don’t agree with my selections, there are other starting pitchers who you could choose for each “era” who are in the Hall of Fame. Of course the eras aren’t exactly perfect: Carlton was still a great pitcher in the early 1980s for a year or two. Feller was great in the 1930s too, but you get the point. At any one time in baseball history, the top 2, 3, 4, 5 – or even 6-7 – starting pitchers in baseball were Hall of Famers. At least the baseball writers thought they were.
But then we run into a problem. All of the pitchers I list above started their careers prior to 1970. In fact among all Hall of Fame starting pitchers, only Bert Blyleven, who was elected in his 14th year on the ballot in 2011, began his career in the last 43 years. He debuted as a 19-year old with the Minnesota Twins in 1970. Blyleven had his best seasons in the 1970s, when he was in his 20s. He pitched in the 1980s but he was not in his prime and was never considered the best pitcher in the game. Largely as a result of his status as a very good but not great pitcher, Blyleven waited and waited for his election. But it finally came, and it was deserved. Morris also deserves his place in Cooperstown. In fact, if the voters shun him, they will ignore an entire period of baseball history, breaking with their prior voting pattern.
For the period from the late 1970s to the early 1990s these were the best starting pitchers in baseball:
Jack Morris, Nolan Ryan, Frank Tanana, Dennis Martinez, Bob Welch, Charlie Hough, Bert Blyleven, Frank Viola, Dave Stieb, Ron Guidry, Dwight Gooden, Roger Clemens, Fernando Valenzuala, Rick Sutcliffe, Dave Stewart, Mike Flanagan, and Orel Hershiser.
Then there were a few pitchers, like Steve Rogers and John Tudor, who were really good for a stretch of time but didn’t have a long run. Or David Cone, who added years of good pitching to his resume later. There was also Tommy John and Phil Niekro, who put up some solid numbers in the late 1970s and 1980s, but who started their careers in the 1960s. Their careers spanned a few eras, and Niekro is a Hall of Famer, while John has received some attention. Ryan is a Hall of Famer, of course, but he began his career in the 1960s and he had been in the big leagues for more than a dozen years when Morris pitched his first game in 1977.
The fact is that among Morris’s contemporaries, he rates at the top in almost every category and he was clearly the most durable and dependable starter of that era. Sure, Stieb may have had a season here or there where he was more effective than Morris, and Fernando and Sutcliffe and Doc Gooden too, but those guys didn’t put up 15 seasons in a row as the ace of a staff, churning up innings, mowing down the opponent, and winning pennants. Morris was #1 among the #1 starters of his era – the late 1970s to the early 1990s. It’s not just that he was “The Pitcher of the 1980s”, he was the consummate ace from the 1977 season through 1992 when he won 21 games and led the Blue Jays to their first pennant at the age of 37.
From 1977 to 1994, Morris led baseball in games started, innings pitched (almost 300 more than Dennis Martinez, who was second), and wins (254, 36 more than Martinez). His 175 complete games were almost 50 more than anyone else in baseball over that span. He trailed only the ageless Ryan in strikeouts for the era. (It should be noted that had Morris had the advantage of pitching in a four-man rotation as the generation of pitchers before him did – he would have surely won 300 games and the argument over his election would be moot).
With the Tigers, Morris was the ace of the team that posted baseball’s second-best record in the 1980s, and he won two games in the 1984 World Series (both complete games). In 1991 he left Detroit and signed as a free agent with his hometown Minnesota Twins. He finished fourth in Cy Young voting, won two games in the ALCS, and started Games 1, 4 and 7 in the World Series. In Game 7 he pitched 10 innings of shutout ball and won the game 1-0, earning the World Series MVP Award with two wins and a 1.17 ERA. His post-season record was 7-1. What else could Morris do to establish himself as baseball’s ace? Well, he signed a fat contract with the Blue Jays, won 21 games and finished fifth in Cy Young voting. He didn’t pitch well in that post-season, which was the only time he was ever sub-par on baseball’s biggest stage. He had two mediocre seasons after that, clinging to the possibility that he still had it (like most pitchers do) and his ERA jumped from 3.71 to 3.90 as a result.
It’s that 3.90 ERA that many SABRmetric fans cite as the reason Morris doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. Apparently, their argument held sway with the baseball writers for a while, but gradually that paper tiger has been torn away. Using Morris’ ERA to keep him out of the Hall of Fame is like refusing to kiss Charlize Theron because her toenails are too long. It’s silly and it misses the point.
Morris was baseball’s biggest big game pitcher during his career, he toed the rubber, took the ball, chewed up innings, struck out batters, threw a no-hitter, won games, gave his bullpen a rest, led his team with the force of his unbending competitive spirit, and was the ace of three World Championship teams.
His ERA would be the highest of any starting pitcher in the Hall of Fame? So what.
The writers didn’t keep Ozzie Smith out because his batting average was low, or Reggie Jackson because he struck out more than anyone else. They were elected because what they did best they did better than anyone in their era. Morris is a no-brainer inductee by that criteria. If the writers don’t see the error of their ways, their blunder will create a gaping hole in Cooperstown. There will not be one starting pitcher in the Hall whose prime was from the late 1970s to the early 1990s (call it the transitional era from the 4-man to the 5-man rotation). Clemens may make it someday, and Greg Maddux and others from the 1990s certainly will, but their time came after Morris. The writers will have to answer for why they chose to elect the best shortstops of Morris’s era (Robin Yount and Cal Ripken Jr.) and the best catchers (Carlton Fisk and Gary Carter), and the best outfielders (Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Kirby Puckett, etc.) but not a single starting pitcher. Most glaringly, how is it that relievers from that era like Bruce Sutter, Goose Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley are in the Hall, but not a starting pitcher who threw more than twice as many innings and started and won some of the biggest games of the era?
The writers have two more chances to get it right, either this election or the next one. Strangely so far they’ve decided that for this one era in baseball history, the best starting pitcher shouldn’t be inducted. They need to fix that mistake. Not because it will change the life of Jack Morris, but because it’s the correct thing to do.