The National Baseball Hall of Fame Museum’s list of inductees is largely driven by quantifiable performance. There are exceptions to the rule of “the best players get in, the not-best players don’t”, of course, but it serves as the template for induction almost across the board.
On a national level, this makes sense, because fans across the United States and the world do not have identical experiences as baseball connoisseurs, and statistics are how we can quantify things in an objective manner. For instance, as a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan, I have far more distinct memories of watching Jason Isringhausen playing than I do of, say, Jim Thome, but this is my experience—surely, Cleveland Indians fans (among others) would disagree that Izzy was the more iconic player.
So instead of pitting fan experiences against each other and arguing about whose personal favorites matter the most, an impossible factor to measure, we have numbers. Jim Thome had a far greater impact on the field than Jason Isringhausen and thus he belongs in the Hall of Fame. And by and large, Cardinals fans can concede this argument just as Indians fans can concede that Omar Vizquel is less deserving of the Hall of Fame than Scott Rolen (okay, bad example).
The Cardinals Hall of Fame, however, is a different animal. The natural tendency is to expect the Cardinals Hall to mirror the one in Cooperstown, but for an entity designed to focus solely on the Cardinals, voters need not be objective. See: Willie McGee.
McGee, the Cardinals’ starting center fielder from 1982 through 1990 who returned to St. Louis from 1996 through 1999 as a bench outfielder (and is with the organization once again as a coach), ranks 37th in franchise history by Baseball Reference Wins Above Replacement. By the FanGraphs measure, he ranks 50th. And yet, with dozens of options with more statistical merit, McGee was inducted in the inaugural class of the Cardinals Hall of Fame.
Willie McGee may not have “deserved” to make the Cardinals Hall of Fame so quickly, but ultimately, that the fans wanted him in it is a compelling argument that McGee’s importance to the Cardinals franchise transcends his numbers. The 1985 Cardinals had among the most celebrated seasons in franchise history, and McGee won National League MVP in what was easily his best individual campaign. Even during his lackluster second go-around in St. Louis, McGee was overwhelmingly popular among local fans.
These factors resonate less with a national audience, hence McGee receiving just 5% and 2.3% of National Hall of Fame votes in his two seasons of eligibility, but for the Cardinals Hall, the perspective of Cardinals fans is all that matters. Last month, Tyler Kinzy wrote a smart, analytical piece weighing the 2018 candidates for the Cardinals Hall of Fame based on each’s statistical merits and ultimately concluded that the two most deserving candidates from this year’s ballot are longtime center fielder Ray Lankford and first baseman Keith Hernandez, with third baseman Scott Rolen not too far behind.
Everything Tyler wrote is spot-on and I fully agree with his conclusions if you believe that the purpose of the Cardinals Hall of Fame is to reward the best players in franchise history—it’s a completely reasonable purpose to wish to fulfill. But I’m not necessarily beholden to the idea that players cannot be inducted based on aesthetics and sentimentality.
Ray Lankford’s best season as a St. Louis Cardinal came in 1998, when he was worth 6.2 bWAR (it is hard to top “having your best season the year your teammate is hitting 70 home runs” in the pantheon of Ray Lankford being underrated). Keith Hernandez’s best season came in 1979, when his 7.6 bWAR campaign resulted in him sharing the MVP with Willie “finished 9th on his own team in Wins Above Replacement” Stargell. Meanwhile, John Tudor had a higher peak than either, accumulating 8.1 bWAR for the aforementioned 1985 Cardinals.
Tudor’s 1985 was the best Cardinals pitching season since 1948 by a pitcher not named Bob Gibson. If not for an all-time great season from Dwight Gooden, Tudor would have won the NL Cy Young Award, and although he was coming off three consecutive three-plus win seasons before joining the Cardinals, he became a definitive example of Cardinals Devil Magic by becoming a pivotal part of an iconic team.
Vince Coleman, unlike Tudor, did not have an especially high peak by overall production. Coleman’s best season came in 1990, when he was worth 3.1 WAR. The 2015 Cardinals had eight players worth this many wins above replacement. But Coleman brought an electricity to the Cardinals which was rarely, if ever, seen. He may not have been the best Whiteyball player, but Vince Coleman was the most Whiteyball player.
There isn’t really a Cooperstown analogue for Coleman—comparing him to a base thief like Rickey Henderson or even Lou Brock, who were far more dynamic batters, is disingenuous. But with an average of 92 steals during the six seasons of his Cardinals career, Coleman’s brand of baseball has not been duplicated anywhere, much less St. Louis, in the years since. Coleman stole a base over half as many times as he reached first base, a convoluted way of saying there was a really good chance he was going to make it to second base once he made it to first.
He also starred in the greatest moment in the history of St. Louis television.
The point here is not that you should vote for John Tudor or Vince Coleman for the Cardinals Hall of Fame, nor that you shouldn’t vote for Lankford or Hernandez or Rolen, all of whom also provided tremendous excitement for Cardinals fans. The point is that the Cardinals Hall of Fame belongs to the fans for whatever criteria they deem necessary. You can believe it should be essentially a Hall of WAR or you can believe it should reward those who give the best playoff-clinching television interviews (congratulations in advance to 2024 Cardinals Hall of Fame inductee Seth Maness). It’s up to you.