March 6, 2013
Prospectus Hit and Run
The Curious Case of Freddie Lindstrom
Cronyism was an even more glaring problem; Frankie Frisch, who was on the VC from 1967-73, ran something of an underground railroad between the Polo Grounds and Cooperstown, helping former teammates Jesse Haines (1970), Dave Bancroft (1971), Chick Hafey (1971), Ross Youngs (1972), George Kelly (1973), Jim Bottomley (1974), and Fred Lindstrom (1976) gain entry. All of those players rate below the JAWS positional standards, and over the years, some have ranked as the single worst enshrined player at their positions…
The younger Lindstrom complained that given that Frisch died in 1973, he couldn't have had a hand in his father's election. "I wonder if you could give me evidence that he reached back from the grave to make such a remarkable impact on the committee," he wrote.
I have no such evidence, of course. A Hall of Fame second baseman himself, Frisch may have been an immortal in the baseball sense, but he's not known to have voted as a member of the Veterans Committee once he passed away. In retracing my steps, it appears that I'm guilty of imprecision in what I wrote, which was a quick distillation of a sequence of events from Bill James' Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame (originally published as The Politics of Glory), which I'll outline below.
In a pair of follow-up emails, the younger Lindstrom also noted that many of the examples I cited had more connection with Frisch via his time with the Cardinals, and that his father and Frisch "disliked each other on a very personal level over the way Frisch and George Kelley [sic] mistreated 1924 rookies Lindstrom, Bill Terry and [Travis] Jackson (sawed-up bats, ripped shoes and gloves, etc., according to stories my dad told us in later years)."
In fact it's Terry, who played for the Giants from 1923 (all of three games) through 1936 and who managed the team from 1932 through 1941, who is believed to have played a role in Lindstrom's election, as he served on the Veterans Committee from 1971-1976. I am by no means the first person to suggest that cronyism played a role in many VC selections, either in general or over the 1967-1976 span in particular, during which the group was particularly busy, voting in 23 players and eight non-players (executives, umpires, and managers)—an average of just over three per year. But before I wade into the cronyism allegations, it's worth outlining the career of the player in question.
The Giants liked him enough to purchase his contract, so Lindstrom spent all of 1924 with the team, which was at that point an NL powerhouse riding a streak of three straight pennants under future Hall of Famer John McGraw; they had beaten the Yankees in the 1921 and 1922 World Series but fallen to them in 1923. The 18-year-old Lindstrom, like the 25-year-old Terry, was a reserve on that team, which had no fewer than eight other future Hall of Famers on the roster: regulars Kelly (first base), Frisch (second base), Jackson (shortstop), Hack Wilson (center field), Youngs (right field), plus Terry, Lindstrom, and Billy Southworth (elected as a manager) off the bench.
With Heinie Groh as the regular third baseman, Lindstrom was an afterthought for most of the year. He played just 52 games and received 88 plate appearances, but he took over the starting job when the 35-year-old Groh suffered a serious knee injury late in the year. He started all seven games of the World Series against the Washington Senators and hit .333/.394/.400 with a pair of doubles in 30 plate appearances. While he still stands as the youngest player ever to appear in the Fall Classic, history remembers him as the goat due to a pair of bad-hop groundballs in Game Seven, the first of which allowed two runs to score to tie the game in the eighth inning, and the second of which scored the winning run in the 12th. Ouch.
Lindstrom put that debacle aside, claimed the starting third base job the following year, and hit .287/.332/.430, a respectable showing for a 19-year-old, though not spectacular in a league that averaged 5.06 runs per team per game and hit .292/.348/.414 as a whole; his OPS+ was 96*. He improved to .302/.351/.420 the following year (108 OPS+), the first of six straight years in which he'd post a batting average of at least .300. He received some down-ballot support in the NL MVP voting, placing ninth despite the team's 74-77 record.
Despite consistently high batting averages, Lindstrom ranked in the NL's top 10 in average just three times, the first in 1928, when he hit .358/.383/.511, led the league in hits (231), ranked second in total bases (330), and placed third in the batting race behind Rogers Hornsby (.387) and Paul Waner (.370). He placed a close second behind Bottomley for the MVP vote that year, the strongest showing of his career. He hit a sizzling .379/.425/.575 in 1930, tying his career high in hits and setting new ones with 22 homers and 127 runs. In a league that averaged a whopping 5.68 runs per game on .303/.360/.448 hitting—the NL's highest post-1900 marks across the board—his average ranked fifth, though neither his on-base nor slugging percentages—or for that matter his career-best 141 OPS+—cracked the top 10.
Lindstrom was shifted to right field in 1931 due to the arrival of a player named Johnny Vergez. He broke his leg sliding into third base on July 9 and missed two months, limiting him to just 78 games that year. When McGraw visited him in the hospital, he didn't offer much sympathy. From Lindstrom's New York Times obituary:
When McGraw came in, he said: ''Breaking your leg? I always said you never learned to slide.''
Lindstrom flared right back at him. ''Do you think this is fun?'' he said. ''I hope you break your leg, too. Then you 'll find out what it's like.'' After an angry McGraw left the hospital, he was hit by a taxi and suffered a broken leg.
While in the hospital, Lindstrom was apparently led to believe via Giants club secretary Jim Tierney that he was in line to succeed the ailing McGraw as the Giants’ manager. As recounted in Donald Honig's The October Heroes, Tierney is said to have told Lindstrom, "We're making that change we spoke about next year. McGraw is going out and we want to make you manager. We're not doing it this year because of your broken leg. Mr. Stoneham and I have decided to postpone it until next year. "
"It was supposed to be a secret, but it leaked out and McGraw heard about it," Lindstrom told Honig. "Well, he was quite bitter. He seemed to feel that I had undermined him, which of course was not true. But this was what he believed." When McGraw retired early in the 1932 season due to health problems, owner Charles Stoheham and his son Horace tabbed Terry as McGraw's successor instead of Lindstrom, who requested a trade and was accommodated as part of a three-team deal that sent him to the Pirates in December 1932. A quarter century later, he expressed regret over that request, telling an L.A. Times reporter, "It was the worst mistake I ever made… I know that now. The only trouble is you don’t get wise until you get old… If I could have just accepted that setback it'd have worked out in time. I'm sure I'd have managed some club. It was just a matter of waiting. But I fouled the whole thing up—forever."
The trade initially appeared as though it would pay off for the 28-year-old Lindstrom. Coming off a down season in New York (.271/.303/.407), and now primarily a center fielder, he rebounded to hit .310/.350/.448 for the Pirates, but that was the last time he played even 100 games in a season. Amid diminishing returns, he spent another season with the Pirates, one with the Cubs that included a trip to the World Series, and an abbreviated one with the Dodgers that ended in mid-May after a collision on a routine pop fly, prompting him to retire. He was just 30 years old, with 1,747 hits to his name, but his hair was prematurely gray and his skills diminished; he had hit only .272/.297/.368 in 468 PA over those final two seasons. The 1,719 hits he collected through his age-29 season (1935) were the sixth-highest total of any player to that point; the five men above him—Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, Willie Keeler, George Davis and Tris Speaker—all wound up in Cooperstown because they kept producing well into their thirties. Lindstrom made it anyway, though he added just 28 more hits.
Exactly what the writers thought a Hall of Fame third baseman looked like is unclear. Eddie Mathews made nine All-Star teams, was twice runner-up in the MVP voting and bashed 512 home runs—sixth all-time at the point when he retired—in a career that ran from 1952 through 1968. He ranks second in JAWS at the position, behind only Mike Schmidt, but he needed five turns on the ballot before gaining entry in 1978, the most of any 500-homer hitter prior to the Steroid Era sluggers. Seven-time All-Star and 1964 NL MVP Ken Boyer (now 14th in JAWS at the position) couldn't buy a vote, either. He received just 2.5 percent of the vote in his initial appearance in 1975, and while he was allowed to linger on the ballot until 1980 (when the five percent minimum rule was first applied) he couldn't even crack that modest level; when his eligibility was restored in 1985, he never topped 25.5 percent. Ron Santo (sixth in JAWS) wouldn't become eligible until 1980, but he would suffer a similar fate. It would take a wave of post-1960 expansion era third baseman—Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Paul Molitor and Wade Boggs—to round out the ranks, but the position remains underrepresented in Cooperstown.
Because his career ended early, Lindstrom doesn't stack up well among Hall third basemen either via traditional or advanced statistics. Among the 12 enshrined, his totals of games, hits, and total bases rank last, and while his .311/.351/.449 slash line is superficially attractive, his 110 OPS+ is 10th, while his .284 True Average (from the 2011 JAWS set) is in a virtual tie with George Kell for eighth. In the new B-Ref WAR-based version of JAWS, he ranks last among the Hall third basemen, and 67th overall, with a 26.8 career/25.3 peak/26.0 JAWS against a standard of 64.9/41.8/53.4. Only three times did he have seasons where he was worth more than 3.0 WAR.
Lindstrom's renown as a player owed much to his defense, which drew its share of comments in its day. He led NL third basemen in fielding percentage three times and placed in the top four three others. In the absence of advanced fielding metrics or even Gold Gloves (which didn't debut until 1957), that was what passed for analysis; for what it's worth, advanced metrics such as Total Zone (+21) and Fielding Runs Above Average (+1) see him as above average afield, if not the Brooks Robinson of the era.
The dearth of third basemen in the Hall put some amount of pressure on the VC to put one in. When they did, they chose rather poorly in tabbing Lindstrom. Among the eligible players who would have made better choices during that stretch were four-time All-Star Stan Hack (2,193 hits and four World Series appearances for the Cubs from 1932-1947, with a 50.7/34.9/42.8 JAWS line), 1947 NL MVP Bob Elliot (six All-Star appearances, 2,061 hits, and a 47.6/33.1/40.3 JAWS line) and even Groh (1,774 hits, a role on five pennant winners, and a 46.3/34.2/40.2 JAWS line), though of course the latter would have been similarly vulnerable to charges of cronyism given the Giants connection.
• Frisch joined the Veterans Committee in 1967, at a time when several writers who had covered his career were on the committee. Two writers from his days in New York (1919-1926 as a player), Fred Lieb (on the VC from 1966-1980) and Dan Daniel (1961-1976) were, in James' words, "highly susceptible to Frisch's arguments about the greatness of that team." One writer from his time in St. Louis (1927-1938 as a player and manager), Roy Stockton (1961-1971), had written a book, The Gas House Gang, about Frisch's famous 1934 champions. Lieb had also written a book about the Cardinals from that time.
• In 1970, Haines, who spent 18 of his 19 seasons (1920-1937) with the Cardinals, was elected by the Veterans Committee.
• In 1971, Terry joined former teammate Frisch on the VC. In their first election together, both Bancroft (a Giant from 1920-1923 and again briefly in 1930) and Hafey (a Cardinal from 1924-1931) were among the seven players elected—a group so large that the Hall's Board of Trustees imposed a limit of two players and one non-player elected per year by the VC.
• In 1972, Youngs, who spent all of his brief career with the Giants (1917-1926) before dying of illness at age 30, was elected.
• In 1973, Kelly, who spent most of his 16-year career with the Giants (1915-1917, 1919-1926), was elected. James says that shortly afterwards, Frisch was involved in his accident, and he died a month later; it's true that he died in March 1973, but elsewhere in the book, James cites a Hall source, senior researcher Bill Deane, whose records show that Frisch's tenure ran only through 1972. Terry, however, was still on the committee.
• In 1976, Lindstrom was elected. This was Terry's final year on the committee.
"The Veterans Committee has always been prone to favoritism," wrote James. "It has, from 1953 on, often selected Player A while Player B, who had credentials just as good, was asked to wait outside—and when you look at the makeup of the committee, you can almost always see bloodlines which help to explain the decision."
Indeed, those "bloodlines" aren't hard to spot. In 2001, a man names James Vail wrote a book called The Road to Cooperstown: A Critical History of Baseball's Hall of Fame. I haven't read it, but it's up on Google Books, and in researching this article I found that he had neatly summarized the crossover between the members of the VC and those elected across a 48-year span in a table which he titled "Possible 'Crony' Selections by the Veterans Committee 1953-2000." I've reproduced it here:
Correlation doesn't prove causation, but the largest concentration centers around Frisch, Terry, and Hoyt, a 1969 VC selection who spent 10 of his 21 years with the Yankees and split the rest across six other teams. To be fair, those players played when there were only 16 teams and fewer players to cross paths with, but on the other hand, the reserve clause was in effect and players couldn't become free agents unless their teams refused their services, thus restricting player movement.
James didn't like the smell of all that. In perhaps his harshest words for the 1967-1976 wave of VC selections, he wrote, "Selecting eight marginally qualified or frankly unqualified Hall of Famers from the same narrow well of talent, clearly defined by its proximity to members of the committee, is favoritism of the ripest, rottenest and most obvious nature."
James wasn't the first to suggest that cronyism played a role in the VC's selections during that period. A February 17, 1973 column by Bob Burnes in The Sporting News, titled "Does Vet Panel Vote Pals Into Shrine?" specifically took issue with that year's election of Kelly. "At best his qualifications are marginal. Without question, he was a popular figure on a convivial team, well liked by teammates, opponents and the media. The thought has to be there that cronyism had to exist among some members of the committee who knew him, played with him or against him or wrote stories of his day. This does not add to the stature of the Hall of Fame, which wants only the very best."
A January 22, 1977 editorial by Sporting News editor and publisher C.C. Johnson Spink noted the growing rift between the BBWAA and the VC over the latter's choices. Spink quoted BBWAA secretary-treasurer Jack Lang as noting that Kelly and Lindstrom had both fared poorly in the writers' vote during their eligibility. "Some critics have charged that the committee has been governed in its selections by sentimentality, nostalgia and 'cronyism.' The 'youthful' period of most committee members covers the years from 1920 to 1935. That now is the most heavily represented period in the Hall of Fame. About 40 players in the shrine (out of 121) were active during all or part of that time." In the September 3, 1977 edition, Spink pleaded for the voting procedures to be reorganized, writing, "Aside from possible 'cronyism' in its voting, the Veterans Committee, without question, has deviated from its original purpose."
Charges of cronyism continued to haunt the VC long after Lindstrom's election, right up through the 2001 election of Bill Mazeroski. At the time of his election, the VC was chaired by Joe L. Brown, who served as the Pirates’ general manager from 1955-1976, thus encompassing all of Mazeroski's career. Ted Williams was reportedly among the Hall of Famers who were displeased with the connection, and right after Mazeroski was inducted, the VC was expanded to include all of the living Hall of Famers, Spink and Frick Award winners, and VC members whose terms had not yet expired; Brown was not among the latter.
The Good Son
In his villa at Sarasota, Lindstrom has framed a 1930 story in which McGraw rated in order, as follows, the greatest 20 players he'd ever seen:
1. Honus Wagner, 2. Ty Cobb, 3. Willie Keeler, 4. Eddie Collins, 5. Babe Ruth, 6. Tris Speaker, 7. Rogers Hornsby, 8. Napoleon Lajoie, 9. FRED LINDSTROM, 10. Paul Waner, 11. George Sisler, 12. Lou Gehrig, 13. Roger Bresnahan, 14. Al Simmons, 15. Frank Frisch, 16. Christy Mathewson, 17. Walter Johnson, 18. Grover Alexander, 19. Rube Waddell, 20. Dazzy Vance.
Provocative, yes, and impressive. Andy Lindstrom's point is that every one of the 20 is in the Hall of Fame except his father, who also prizes—and displays as a keepsake—an article in which Babe Ruth picked Lindy over Pie Traynor as his choice of All-Star major league third basemen for the 10-year period of 1923-1933.
Again, controversial and debatable, but, also, another tribute to the talent of Fred Lindstrom, and, by the way, to the pursuasiveness [sic] of his No. 2 son, Andy, a handy guy to have in any family and a self-appointed campaign manager for a former major league star whose record recommends recognition.
Better than Gehrig? To be fair, 1930 was just the Iron Horse's sixth full season, but it was also a year in which he hit .379/.473/.721 with 41 home runs and 174. Even if we assume the article dated to a point in the year before he put up those numbers, he owned a career line of .333/.436/.620 coming into 1930, with an MVP and two world championships under his belt. Many others listed by McGraw were still in mid-career as well, and since he would be dead before the start of the 1934 season, he wouldn't get the chance to apply a proper perspective to their careers. As blistering a pace as Lindstrom was setting in the hits department at that point, in retrospect, it's difficult to justify his inclusion among those players.
Even so, the combination of a chummy VC panel and his son's campaigning appear to have been enough to put Lindstrom over the top and into Cooperstown, and for better or worse, today he's a Hall of Famer. Those of us who study the Hall by using its members as a yardstick to measure contemporary candidates will never be satisfied with his inclusion. However, the recent campaign on behalf of Dale Murphy illustrates that while progeny may not be as objective as Hall of Fame voters, living up to their standard for heroism is no small accomplishment. Whatever his flaws as a Hall of Fame candidate, Freddie Lindstrom must have done enough to live up to Andy Lindstrom's standards. To that, we can tip our caps.