Monday, December 6, 2010

We’ll have to root for John, instead of Santo, for local Hall of Fame outcome

The pickings are slim for those of us with an interest in Chicago baseball when it comes to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which on Monday announces whether or not there will be any new members when induction ceremonies are held next summer.

Under the mechanisms being used by the Hall of Fame these days, this election for veterans who didn’t make the cut by the sportswriters is for considering ballplayers from the 1980s and 1970s. Ballplayers from the 1960s (Ron Santo’s era) will come up next year.

SO FOR THOSE people who are looking to Monday’s results for a Chicago connection; there’s only one. We’re going to have to root, root, root for Tommy John – the pitcher who was a rookie in the final days of the JFK administration, and didn’t hang up his spikes until the era of George Bush, the elder.

Most people remember John from his time pitching in the late 1970s for the Los Angeles Dodgers, although his time with the New York Yankees also caught the public attention.

It’s almost an after-thought that John was once a pitcher for the Chicago White Sox – from 1965 to 1971, to be exact,.

John wasn’t a bad pitcher in Chicago. In terms of winning percentage, his worst record came in 1970. But that was a dreadful White Sox team that managed to lose 100 ballgames. He was a good player on a crummy team.

IN 1967, A year when the White Sox were in the final throes of their winning “Go Go” era, he had a record of 10 wins and 13 losses with an earned run average of 2.47, with 47 walks and 110 strikeouts. He also was the White Sox’ representative to the American League all-star team in 1968.

Not bad, but not spectacular. Certainly nothing that would give us the impression that this was a career destined for baseball’s version of immortality (a bronze plaque hanging in a museum in upstate New York).

If anything, John’s greatest accomplishment for Chicago baseball was his departure. He and infielder Steve Huntz were traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers following the 1971 season for a bad-attitude ballplayer the Dodgers were eager to get rid of.

Dick Allen only went on to have a phenomenal season in 1972, arguably the best (leading the American League in home runs, runs batted in and also managing a .308 batting average of his career, as he nearly led the White Sox to a division title that season. John leaving Chicago gave the White Sox the ’72 American League most valuable player.

IF IT WERE just a matter of the statistics, Allen would be the Hall of Fame candidate, and John would be an afterthought – despite the 288 victories he achieved during his 26 seasons as a major league pitcher.

The key to understanding John’s significance is to realize that through 1974, he only had 125 career wins. That was the season he suffered a tear in a ligament of the elbow of his left arm – the one he pitched with. That kind of injury was a career-killer. By all rights, John should have been washed up at that point.

But John, desperate to stay in baseball as a player, allowed himself to be the “guinea pig,” so to speak, for what was then an untried surgical theory by which the torn ligament was replaced with one from another part of his body (in John’s case, they took it from his right elbow).

It was thought that John had 1-100 odds of ever pitching in a game again. But he came back in 1976, established himself as a reliable pitcher, and was a significant part of those Dodger teams that won National League championships in 1977 and 1978, along with a Yankees pennant winner in 1981.

HE ALSO WAS the evidence that the one-time athletic career killer could be overcome with surgery.

I know some people say the native of Terre Haute, Ind., deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame on that ground alone – his career had a significant influence in the expansion of sports medicine. I must admit to being skeptical on that ground.

If baseball wants to honor someone for that, why not honor the surgeon who came up with the theory, then made it work on John’s career. Dr. Frank Jobe for the Hall of Fame is something I could see.

John? Eh. It wouldn’t offend my baseball sensibility if he gets in. But I’m not sure he will. My guess is that New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner is the one guy who gets in, although if I had a say, I could be persuaded to support the managerial career of Billy Martin.

WHICH LIKELY MEANS we’re going to have to accept that the Hall of Fame is considering an era of baseball history when the “significant” Chicago ballplayers were guys like Larry Biittner and Harry Chappas.

Those two give me a headache just thinking about them. We’ll just have to wait until next year when Santo gets his next chance. And maybe, by some chance, they’ll also give some consideration to Minnie Minoso.


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