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Short careers and the Hall of Fame: it’s better to burn out than fade away

Dec 29, 2011, 10:43 AM EDT

kirby puckett game 6 1991

After writing the Dale Murphy post an uncomfortable thought struck me: would it have been better for his Hall of Fame case if he had been hit by a bus in 1988 than for his career to have simply cratered like it did?

I know, I’m awful for thinking that. Trust me when I say this is just a thought experiment. Dale Murphy is by all accounts a wonderful father, husband and human being and he gave me great joy in the early years of my Braves fandom. I’m delighted that he was not, in fact, run over by a bus while crossing a street in Salt Lake City, Utah in January 1988. Because that would be dreadful.

But if it had happened, he would have shuffled off this mortal coil — or at least out of baseball if the bus had inflicted merely debilitating as opposed to fatal injuries — with a damn interesting baseball career.

Our last memory of him would have been putting up a monster year: .295/.417/.580, 44 homers, 105 RBI and 115 runs scored. All for an awful team, so by all rights he shouldn’t have had a decent pitch to hit all year.  At the moment the bus hit him, he’d have a career line of .279/.362/.500 in 12 seasons, which for the era was fantastic: a 132 OPS+.  Oh, and multiple MVP awards and gold gloves at a premium defensive position.

Clearly that would have landed him in the Hall of Fame, right? It had to!  Because let’s look at another center fielder whose career was cut short after 12 seasons:  .318/.360/.477, an OPS+ of 124, and multiple gold gloves. That center fielder was Kirby Puckett, and he was voted into the Hall of Fame with over 80% of the vote in his first year of eligibility.

The difference: Puckett left the game on top, having his eyesight ruined by a freakish onset of glaucoma, ending his career. Murphy, in contrast, had something just as freakish but not as conventionally tragic happen: his skills just somehow evaporated, and he spent another six years in the baseball wilderness, toiling for the Phillies and the Rockies, desperately trying to regain his elite form.

It’s a safe assumption that Puckett would have remained a Hall of Fame caliber player for several more years and would have finished with career stats that more than justified his induction.  But it is an assumption. Dale Murphy is a rare example of a player who just lost it overnight, but he is proof that it could happen to anyone.

I don’t mean to make some sort of political point with this. I don’t think Puckett was unfairly inducted nor do I think Murphy is unfairly being held out.  It’s just one of those strange and uncomfortable realizations about how we as human beings fill in gaps in a narrative. How we mentally honor or reward victims of a certain set of circumstances and give no benefit of the doubt to victims of a different set of circumstances.  Of how we think better of going out on top, no matter how tragic it was that the man in question went out, than we do of someone working hard but ultimately failing to recapture what he once had.

Even for those of us who are really partial to the numbers, it’s never just about the numbers. And I’m not sure how to reconcile it all.

  1. nolanwiffle - Dec 29, 2011 at 10:53 AM

    …Rusty Staub never sleeps.

  2. dondada10 - Dec 29, 2011 at 10:56 AM

    Koufax, though far more dominant than Puckett, is another example of somebody who’s HOF career was cut short.

  3. e5again - Dec 29, 2011 at 10:58 AM

    A couple of world series titles always helps your cause.

    • kopy - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:00 AM

      I was thinking this too. If Puckett wasn’t a good candidate based on his all-around numbers, he would be still getting Morris-like attention just because of the ’91 series.

  4. hansob - Dec 29, 2011 at 10:59 AM

    Puckett’s postseason (2 rings, legendary game 6 performance in the ’91 world series) probably had a lot to do with it. That, and the batting average still being looked at much more than OBP at the time he was inducted.

  5. mox19380 - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:05 AM

    I agree for the most part although it might have best served to retire after ’86 or ’87… If you’re like a lot of fans my age your most prominent memories of Murphy are playing three seasons in Philadelphia and about two years before than when he was beyond over the hill…. Not that an earlier retirement would’ve guaranteed his spot in the HOF but it would’ve helped

  6. lukeslice - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:09 AM

    This is basically the same argument used against Don Mattingly in the HOF…one of the greatest players in the game for a decade or so, matches up almost perfectly with Kirby, but he deteriorated due to back problems (and of course didn’t have the post-season accolades Kirby did).

    • davebrownspiral - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:43 AM

      As an unabashed Mattingly fan as a kid growing up, “best player for a decade or so” is a stretch. However, he was undoubtedly the best player in baseball for a four year stretch from 1984-1987. Kirby Puckett was never once considered the “best player in all of baseball” like Mattingly was. Puckett was a very good player, and was fortunate to play in a weaker AL West and thus the Twins were able to make the playoffs and make Kirby a household name for his post season exploits. Mattingly played on some very good Yankee teams but was dealing with the Red Sox, Blue Jays and Tigers who were all very good teams in that era, which denied him the playoffs in the mid-80′s. Remember, Mattingly’s one post season in 95′ where he was at the end of his career due to a debilitating back injury, he had a monster series. It’s just a shame injuries ruined what would have undoubtedly been a hall of fame career, and numbers that would have absolutely made Puckett’s look laughable by comparison.

      • nolanwiffle - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:06 PM

        While the Orioles were clearly beginning their decline in 1984, they weren’t completely dreadful…….yet. I don’t think Donnie Baseball feasted on O’s pitching…..except Scottie McGregor.

      • rgledz - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:40 PM

        @davebrownspiral..

        Woulda, shoulda, coulda…..The only thing laughable is your logic. Two World Championships are just that……I’ll say it again….two world championships, no matter what division they played in. How many rings does Donny have? How many batting championships does Donny have? Exactly, none. Puckett has a better career average, more hits (In less years) and only slightly less home runs that Mattingly. I’m sure that having a 317 foot fence in right field for a lefty in Yankee stadium would have nothing to do with that either. Puck was the fastest player to 2000 hits (in years, just over 10) in MLB history! The bottom line is he was one of the greatest players in baseball, not just a “very good player”. “Very good” players don’t put up the numbers and accolades that Puck did, Hall of Fame ballplayers do. I’ll close this by saying that I think Mattingly was one of the greats of his era, I was a fan of his. I believe that he should be in the Hall of Fame. I also believe that trying to diminish the career of a great, Hall of Fame ballplayer like Kirby Puckett, is a weak tactic in arguing another’s ability to get in the Hall.

      • lukeslice - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:01 PM

        Uhhhh…both Kirby and Mattingly had exactly ONE batting title actually. And Mattingly has 1 more MVP award than Puck as well. Both were great players with unfortunately abbreviated careers. Neither were “one of the greatest” though, that’s just your Puckett homerism speaking loud and clear.

        I’m not trying to diminish the career of Puck…it certainly was a great one and HOF-worthy BECAUSE he was cut short during his prime. The comparisons are spot on and to argue that is foolish. I don’t believe Mattingly is a HOFer, I’m just stating the obvious point that his career being cut short slowly and painfully versus Puck’s ending rather quickly is 100% relevant to this article.

      • danrizzle - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:28 PM

        Mattingly was UNDOUBTEDLY the “best player in all of baseball” from 1984-1987? By that, you mean he was about 70% as good as Wade Boggs during that time period, right?

      • davebrownspiral - Dec 29, 2011 at 2:33 PM

        Puckett’s career just ended suddenly due to his eye. There were never any decline or unproductive years due to injury. In Pucket’s final year he was still producing solid numbers. Mattingly hobbled around for five/ six years and was shadow of the player he was. Even with this, both players numbers were very similar. If Mattingly doesn’t have back problems, his numbers would have dwarfed Pucket. That’s all I’m saying. Not diminishing Puckett at all, he was a solid player, but he was healthy his entire career. You give Mattingly five more healthy years, and similar production to those from 84-87 when healthy, it’s not even an argument who was better. Mattingly wins hands down and goes in as a first ballot Hall of Famer. And just because you brought it up, didn’t Puckett play in something nicknamed the “Homer-Dome?”

        And for the guy (I assume a Red Sox fan who brought Wade Boggs into the conversation), go compare Mattlingly’s numbers to Boggs over the the four year stretch in 84-87. It’s not even a comparison. Mattingly’s average was similar and he destroys Boggs in every other category. Besides, the only time Boggs was better than Mattingly is when he sat out the last four games of the 1986 season so he could narrowly beat Donnie Baseball for the batting title. What a warrior

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Dec 29, 2011 at 5:11 PM

        And for the guy (I assume a Red Sox fan who brought Wade Boggs into the conversation), go compare Mattlingly’s numbers to Boggs over the the four year stretch in 84-87. It’s not even a comparison. Mattingly’s average was similar and he destroys Boggs in every other category. Besides, the only time Boggs was better than Mattingly is when he sat out the last four games of the 1986 season so he could narrowly beat Donnie Baseball for the batting title. What a warrior

        Sure why not:

        bWAR 84-87
        Boggs – 32
        Mattingly – 25.3

        oWAR 84-87 (let’s remove defense)
        Boggs – 28.8
        Mattingly – 23.9

        Triple Slash
        Boggs – .353/.442/.489
        Mattingly – .337/.381/.560

        Walks
        Boggs – 395
        Mattingly – 201

        Someone double check my math please, especially the triple slash #s.

      • davebrownspiral - Dec 29, 2011 at 5:53 PM

        HR’s – 84-87

        Boggs: 6-8-8-24
        Mattingly: 23-35-31-30

        RBI’s – 84-87

        Boggs: 55-78-71-89
        Mattingly: 110-145-113-115

        Slugging – 84-87

        Boggs: .416-478-486-588
        Mattingly: .537-.567-.573-.559

        MVP’s
        Boggs – 0 (no top five finishes)
        Mattingly: 1, (finished in top five three times)

        To quote Mickey Mantle: “If I had played my career hitting singles like Pete (Rose) (in this case Wade Boggs), I’d wear a dress”

      • notdumb - Dec 29, 2011 at 8:53 PM

        whats laughable is ignorant yankee fans thinking every yankee that was anywhere near decent deserves to be in the HOF
        Don Mattingly .830 OPS career
        Kent Hrbek .848 OPS career with superior defense on a great team
        Mark Grace .825 OPS career
        Tino Martinez .815 OPS career

      • danrizzle - Dec 30, 2011 at 10:13 AM

        (This post is still on the “Top Posts” bar, so maybe this comment isn’t too stale.)

        @ davebrownspiral:

        I’m a Yankee fan. Mattingly’s average was indeed similar, but his OBP wasn’t even close, and the difference I think more than accounts for the HRs that Mattingly hit. The fact of the matter is that Mattingly played 1st base and made a ton more outs than Boggs did playing third base.

    • Kevin S. - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:58 AM

      I will never understand why Donnie fans line him up with Puckett. Puckett produced similar offense while playing a much tougher defensive position, and he’s *still* considered a marginal selection. Donnie, slick a fielder as he was, doesn’t benefit by that comparison – he’s hurt by it.

      • lukeslice - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:49 PM

        Why Donnie fans line him up with Kirby…are you serious? Puckett to Mattingly: 1783 to 1785 games played, 1071 to 1007 runs scored, 2304 to 2153 hits, 414 to 442 doubles, 207 to 222 HRs, 1085 to 1099 RBIs, .318/.360/.477 to .307/.358/.471 slash lines, 124 to 127 OPS+, 6 to 9 gold gloves and both consistently gathered MVP votes.

        The real question is what ISN’T similar? The only glaring marks are Kirby’s 134 SBs to Mattingly’s 14 and Kirby’s aforementioned postseason history…and the point of this article, Kirby’s sharp decline due to injury while Mattingly’s was drawn out over 5 or so years.

        And just to clarify, I didn’t say he was “the best player for a decade,” I said he was ONE of the greatest, which is absolutely true of him in the 80s. Line up his #s from ’84-’89 next to just about anyone else and good luck proving that statement wrong.

      • danrizzle - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:30 PM

        @ lukeslice: the difference is that Puckett was a CF and Donnie was a 1B. That’s what ISN’T similar, and it’s a big dissimilarity.

      • wlschneider09 - Dec 30, 2011 at 8:59 AM

        And can we just agree to stop using gold gloves as an indicator of defensive skills? Especially those that played in a New York market. It’s actually more insane than judging hitters by RBIs.

      • lukeslice - Dec 30, 2011 at 9:23 AM

        I understand gold gloves these days are just about meaningless…but I mean come on, are you trying to say that Mattingly didn’t deserve them? He was a sick fielder…he didn’t win those gloves with his bat like people do these days.

      • wlschneider09 - Dec 30, 2011 at 12:07 PM

        Um, yes, I am implying that Donny baseball didn’t earn those gold gloves as much as he was given them. Especially at the end.

  7. tuftsb - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:11 AM

    If he had played ten years later, Puckett’s increase in home runs from 4 (in 1985) to 31 (in 1986) would have dealt his candidacy a Bagwell-like death blow as a presumed steroid user.

  8. bigtrav425 - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:15 AM

    i hate the OBP thing…also not a fan of “oh he did great in the post season so he must be a great player” thing.Its all about when ya get and catch a hot streak and by the last few yrs or so it can be anyone at anytime obviously.Having a great post season doesnt make you a great player

    • Charles Gates - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:50 AM

      i hate the OBP thing/

      Why?

    • ireportyoudecide - Dec 29, 2011 at 6:42 PM

      Hate OBP, you must play 5 x 5 roto baseball or something if you don’t think walks matter.

  9. godcanfirealdavis - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    The 300 lifetime avg says alot… Put donnie baseball in for gods sake!

    • Kevin S. - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:01 PM

      Other first basemen to hit .300 for their careers: Will Clark, Mark Grace, Sean Casey. Just hitting .300 for your career at the far end of the defensive spectrum isn’t enough.

      • jayaresea - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:42 PM

        mattingly still on the ballot while clark was one and done still bugs me. if only clark grew a porno stache! #narrative

  10. Francisco (FC) - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:28 AM

    Love the Kurgan reference… (assuming Craig was thinking of Highlander when he wrote the title).

    • Old Gator - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:41 AM

      Poor Lambert. Poor Sean. The Highlander films were so dumb, so corny, so plain old bad that Kubrick and Kurosawa combined couldn’t have made them watchable. They could have only been saved if Ed Wood Jr. had directed them.

      The planet what?

    • Francisco (FC) - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:32 PM

      The first movie was awesome, the rest are best consigned to Oblivion.

    • Tim OShenko - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:33 PM

      I thought it was a reference to Neil Young, singing about Johnny Rotten. (The song in question is “Hey hey, my my”)

      • Francisco (FC) - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:31 PM

        It probably is, I just heard that turn of phrase for the first time in the movie. I found the song much later…

  11. Jason @ IIATMS - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    What about Munson? He was clearly on the downslope of a very good career when his plane crashed. Could he have played a few more years, DH’ing some, bolstering a borderline HOF career? Not sure.

  12. Old Gator - Dec 29, 2011 at 11:56 AM

    Let’s think of some other fallen stars whose reputations could have been saved if they had been hit by a bus; the dates given are for the putative star-crossings when the spinner of the years said “now,” and consummation comes, and saves their careers:

    Paris Hilton (2005)
    Mark McGwire (2004)
    Roger Clemens (2006)
    Tiger Woods (2008)
    Britney Spears (1994)
    O J Simpson (1993)
    Dick Cheney (1999)

    • Chris Fiorentino - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:23 PM

      Old Gator (Dec 29, 2011 at 11:55 AM)

      nah, just kidding. I like the list, except for our former VP :P

      • Old Gator - Dec 29, 2011 at 4:10 PM

        What’s funniest is that you imply I had a career worth saving in the first place.

      • JBerardi - Dec 29, 2011 at 8:30 PM

        You’re right, Cheney was irredeemable long before ’99.

    • Utley's Hair - Dec 29, 2011 at 3:29 PM

      I think you’re off base with Cheney. His reputation’s halflife expired prior to 1999.

      • Old Gator - Dec 29, 2011 at 4:56 PM

        Credit where it’s due: however loathsome I find him, as Secretary of Defense under GWB’s smarter older father he did a masterful job of orchestrating and overseeing Gulf War I. He was a useful technocrat in a team context. Left to his own devices, other than his delightful propensity to shoot lawyers by accident he’s a loose cannon and an intriguing glimpse of what the Hitler Youth would have been like if they’d been left around long enough to grow up.

      • bozosforall - Dec 29, 2011 at 7:28 PM

        Dick Cheney is a POS…always was and always will be.

    • Roger Moore - Dec 29, 2011 at 5:23 PM

      I’m not sure about McGwire and Clemens; I think they would have had to be hit before they started taking steroids, not just before anyone found out about their steroid use. Otherwise, they just would have had their reputations sullied when they were too dead to defend themselves, rather than still being around to try to protect their legacies.

      Under that logic, I think you could also add:

      Barry Bonds (1998)

  13. xmatt0926x - Dec 29, 2011 at 12:51 PM

    Puckett’s case perfectly fits our human nature to be fascinated by tragic or troubled figures. It’s a more dramatic story that his career was cut short as opposed to a guy who may have had as many good years as Puckett but played 4 or 5 more years at a so-so clip. It’s just not as sexy. If a decade of dominance or near dominance and a decent compiling of numbers is the basic standard of hall of fame credentials then it shouldn’t matter if 1 guy played another 5 years outside of that decade of superiority.

  14. ditto65 - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:18 PM

    Imagine Mike Schmidt driving said bus in a charity race against Ricky Henderson when the tragic, career ending accident took place? Tragic, but awesome.

    And remember, Murph does NOT have to die. The accident need only end his career. He could still be a great husband, father, role model.

  15. theonlynolan - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:34 PM

    It seems to me the real difference is projectibility. Puckett was still a very good ball player when his career was abruptly ended. On the other hand Mattingly’s career was a constant struggle due to back injuries that plagued the 2nd half of his career. Would he have been a HOFer had he been able to stay healthy? Probably but that’s irrelevant because he couldn’t stay on the field. Al Rosen is a similar player for me. He was on a HOF path when nagging injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from finishing his career naturally. We know how Murphy’s career ended, unfortunately the same can’t be said about Puckett.

  16. missthedayswhenwedidnthavetologin - Dec 29, 2011 at 1:53 PM

    Jason Bay: The Modern Day Dale Murphy

    • bozosforall - Dec 29, 2011 at 3:26 PM

      Still wondering where those two MVPs that Bay has are going to miraculously materialize.

  17. rgledz - Dec 29, 2011 at 4:09 PM

    @ davebrownspiral…..

    By your logic, imagine what Puckett’s numbers would have been like with another 5 good seasons? He already had 2300+ hits in just 12 seasons. He would have far surpassed 3000 and then some. He was still putting up great stats and then it was over. I do agree with you on the Boggs thing though. Keep him outta the conversation. He did the same thing in 88, by sitting out the last 3 games to win the batting title with a .363 average. Puck played all the way to the end and finished 2nd with a .359 average. The highest average for a right handed hitter since Dimaggio. Boggs is a turd in that regard.

    • bozosforall - Dec 29, 2011 at 7:27 PM

      He was a Red Sox player then…so of course he was a turd.

  18. notdumb - Dec 29, 2011 at 9:15 PM

    all you yankee fanboys wanting to compare puckett to mattingly just stop ok your delusional and grasping at straws . mattingly had a few great years and then was a liability because the yankees hoped he would put his career back together . he had to hang on desperately to compile the numbers he did when he should have been cut. puckett was still producing consistently good offense and GREAT defense in CF.
    You should compare mattingly to another twin Kent Hrbek a guy who won a WS game with a grand slam

    • lukeslice - Dec 30, 2011 at 9:25 AM

      You have proved your namesake wrong.

      • notdumb - Dec 31, 2011 at 4:15 PM

        did i genius im sorry minnesota doesnt have 15 million brain dead residents to grow up and whine about their mediocre heroes not being in the HOF. every city has kids with heroes they just dont have the population or media presence to get them all HOF consideration. MY POINT ISNT THAT KENT HRBEK BELONGS IN THE HOF ITS THAT IF YOU WANT TO COMPARE MATTINGLY TO A TWIN KEEP PUCKETT WHO WITHOUT QUESTION BELONGS, OUT OF THE CONVERSATION INSTEAD COMPARE HIM TO A SUPERIOR PLAYER WHO ISNT IN AND DOESNT BELONG IN -HRBEK MATTINGLY DIDNT DESERVE A GOLD GLOVE AFTER HRBEK ENTERED THE LEAGUE BUT HE PLAYED IN NEW YORK

  19. sleepyirv - Dec 30, 2011 at 11:04 AM

    I would guess HOF voters to do not want to appear soft on people suffering from voodoo curses, even if (ESPECIALLY if) there’s no evidence of such a thing.

  20. notdumb - Dec 31, 2011 at 4:28 PM

    will clark .880 career OPS!
    kent hrbek .842 career OPS
    paul o’neill .833 career OPS
    don mattingly .830 career OPS
    tino martinez .815 career OPS
    any other extremely overated yankees need pointing out

  21. fenianblastard - Dec 31, 2011 at 4:31 PM

    If Chase Utley doesnt bounce back in 2012, he too will be in a catagory of skills disappearing overnight.

    Understanding injuries have taken a toll on his play making his BA has drop by dbl digits since 2009.

    For a 2nd Baseman he seemed like a shoe in for the HOF totaling approx 150 HR’s in first five and a half seasons. Hitting for both power and average culminating in helping the Phillies establish themselves as a perennial playoff powerhouse w a WS Ring, Back to Back NL Pennants and hitting 5 HR’s in a 6 game WS vs the NYY and 2 in a game vs CC who hadnt surrendered a HR vs a LH bat all season, then suddenly he became old. Most likely this was a result of his relentless play, leading the league for a few years in HBP, refusing to move for the runner coming into 2nd, an running into 2nd w reckless abandonement breaking up a Sure DBL Play is the only way he knows..

    The biggest indictment of our 2nd Base Super Hero having a kryptonite Jockstrap on was his feeble attempt to steal 3rd in the 2011 NLDS on the NL’s best 1st baseman (Pujols) only to be tagged out giving a Mo boost to the eventual WS Winning Cards is further evidence of his brain not realizing skills have went poof in a flash..

    Hopefully ill come back here in Sept of 2012 and eat this statement because I revere Utley, as far as Im concerned he can stay at 2nd base till he is 70 for the excitement he has given me and the Phills Faithful, Charlie will just have to realize too he is no longer the 3 Hole Hitter if he cant regain his League Dominance that made h a top 10 Fantasy Pick and household name across the USA…

  22. fenianblastard - Dec 31, 2011 at 4:41 PM

    davebrownspiral… You say ** IF** Donnie Baseball didnt have back problems… IF your Aunt had a pair of Testies, she would be your Uncle, If’s are all part of the Game, what if Mantle didnt Booze and Gallavant w multiple women until he had to report to the Park, he maybe wld have hit 756 HR’s by extending his career thru rest, diet and exercise… Only IF, only IF A Fraud wasnt using PED’s during his “Prime” ( which sums up about how bright he is Not, using a PED when your body is at its height of producing a high level of the same substance) maybe his abuse wouldnt make him look like his body is breaking down from Abuse now..

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