This should come as no surprise: Winning a Rookie of the Year Award in baseball is no guarantee of lasting greatness.
In the first 50 years from the award’s 1947 inception and through 1997, only 16 of 102 recipients (15.6 percent) have gone on to the Hall of Fame. How do I know that? I crunched the numbers.
Wait, you might ask, 102 in 50 years? Yes, there were two cases when players shared the award in the same year.
Anyhow, back to the numbers. I placed a yellow legal pad on a table next to my MacBook and visited the greatest website in the history of the Internet – baseball-reference.com. I jotted down the names of every Rookie of the Year recipient from 1947 through 1997 and counted up how many made the Hall of Fame and how many didn’t. Then using a blue pen on that yellow legal pad I put my third-grade arithmetic skills to the test and determined fewer than one in five Rookies of the Year have made Cooperstown.
That number will certainly rise. Derek Jeter was the 1996 American League Rookie of the Year and is a slam dunk, to mix sporting metaphors, for Cooperstown.
Why did I cut it off in 1997? Two reasons.
- It marked the 50th anniversary of the first Rookie of the Year Award, which was won by Jackie Robinson.
- Rookies of more recent vintage have either recently retired or they are still playing.
Anyhow, here’s the list of Rookies of the Year who made Cooperstown:
- 1947 – Jackie Robinson. (Note: In its first two years only one award was handed out. Separate awards for each league began in 1949.
- 1951 – Willie Mays.
- 1956 – Frank Robinson and Luis Aparicio.
- 1958 – Orlando Cepeda.
- 1959 – Willie McCovey
- 1961 – Billy Williams
- 1967 – Tom Seaver and Rod Carew
- 1968 – Johnny Bench
- 1972 – Carlton Fisk
- 1977 – Andre Dawson and Eddie Murray
- 1982 – Cal Ripken
- 1991 – Jeff Bagwell
- 1993 – Mike Piazza
The reasons behind so few reaching the Hall of Fame are obvious, I believe. Few players have the sublime talent and extraordinary longevity free of debilitating injuries to build Hall of Fame resumes.
Two tragedies jumped out at me from the list – Rookies of the Year who died piloting their own planes.
Chicago Cubs second baseman Kenny Hubbs was the 1962 National League Rookie of the Year. Only two years later he died in Utah while flying his own plane _ a Cessna 172.
Yankees catcher Thurman Munson was the 1970 American League Rookie of the Year. He died in a 1979 crash of a Cessna Citation I/SP he was piloting.
Could either Hubbs or Munson have compiled Hall of Fame resumes if not for their early deaths?
Munson played 11 years before his death at 32. He was a career .292 hitter, with 113 homers. He was on the Hall of Fame ballot for 15 years starting in 1981. He received 15.5 percent of the votes that year, well short of the 75 percent needed. In his remaining years on the ballot he never again cracked 10 percent in the balloting.
Other players seemed on their way to the Hall of Fame before injuries sidetracked them.
Indians pitcher Herb Sore was the 1955 American League Rookie of the Year. In 1957 he was hit in the face by a line drive and was never again the same.
Ironically, the ball was hit by another former Rookie of the Year – Gil McDougald, who won the award in 1951 with the Yankees.
Then there was the case of Sam Jethroe, the 1950 N. L. Rookie of the Year with the Boston Braves. He was a 33-year-old rookie. What? 33? Yes, Jethroe spent his 20s in the Negro Leagues and didn’t get his chance in the white big leagues until he was in his mid-30s.
What if he had reached the majors at 20 or 23 instead of 33?
We’ll never know.
In 1958, 5-foot-5 Washington Senators outfielder Albie Pearson was the American League Rookie of the Year.
In 1960, 6-7 Los Angeles outfielder Frank Howard was the National League Rookie of the Year.
Then there’s the curious case of the 1963 National League Rookie of the Year. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. He’s baseball’s all-time hits leader – Pete Rose. He’s not eligible for the Hall of Fame.
Then there are other players of astounding talent who had careers shortened or damaged by injuries. The names that strike me as players of Hall of Fame caliber talent who had careers sidetracked by injuries includes the following – Tony Oliva, Fred Lynn and Mark Fidrych.
And then there are the ones whose off-field escapades might have cost them a shot at the Hall of Fame – Dwight Gooden and Darryl Strawberry spring to mind.
Then there is the PED category. At least two former Rookies of the Year whose use of supplements could keep them out of Cooperstown. The Bash Brothers top this list. That would be Jose Canseco (1986) and Mark McGwire (1987) who won the award with the A’s.
The list of players who have gone from Rookie of the Year to Cooperstown will grow.
I already mentioned Jeter.
The 2001 National League Rookie of the Year was Albert Pujols. His American League counterpart that year was Ichiro Suzuki.
Both are still playing and both seem destined for Cooperstown, where they will join Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Frank Robinson and very few others.