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Seen in context, some Hall of Fame picks, like Herb Pennock, don't seem as strange

Updated on December 21, 2012

Sometimes when looking at the Hall of Fame you come across players that make you scratch your head about why – and if – they deserve a plaque.

Of course, many were voted to the Hall on the basis of nostalgia by a Veteran’s Committee long after they’d been dropped from ballot. Ron Santo and Phil Rizzuto are recent examples.

But the writers also voted in some players that we wonder about. On MLB Network’s Hot Stove Friday morning, Peter Gammons alluded to one of those. In discussing the possibility of the Mayan prediction of the end of the world coming true, he lamented that something like 30 of the top players based on WAR (Wins Above Replacement) wouldn’t be in the Hall while Herb Pennock, who ranks 154th on the list, is already in.

A closer look at Pennock

Well, that does seem like a travesty. How could the writers elect a pitcher who ranks so low? So I did a little research.

Pennock, a lefty, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1948. He played from 1912 to 1934, the bulk of it with the Red Sox and Yankees. He finished with a 241-162 record and 3.60 ERA, 35 shutouts and a rather unimpressive WHIP of 1.348. And his WAR was 38.8, which now ranks him in 154th place all time.

Of course, when he was elected to the Hall no one knew about a stat called WAR. Even if they had, he wasn’t 154th at the time. He was 70th. However, of those in front of him on the list, 31 played part or all of their careers before 1900. Three others had played in 1947, and two others had played as late as 1945 and 1946.

While the writers then knew some of the old-timers, like Cy Young, Old Hoss Radbourn and Joe McGinnity, it’s likely that they never heard of guys like Ed Morris, John Clarkson or Charlie Buffinton. Many of the stats we know about those types of pre-1900 players were compiled by researchers in the past 30 years.

How people at the time viewed Pennock

So it’s almost certain that the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) didn’t see Pennock as the 70th best pitcher of all time. Even just going by stats, they probably viewed him as being at least in the top 50 and probably in the top 35.

But many of them probably saw him as ranking quite a bit higher than that.

Pennock was known for his down-to-earth personality, which played well in New York and led to his looking cool and collected on the mound. He was rarely considered the ace of the staff, but became known for winning big games. He was the winning pitcher for the Yankees in the deciding game of their first World Series win in 1923.

But there were other factors as well. Pennock had his best years for the Yankees of Murderer’s Row fame from 1923-28. During that time he was 115-57 with a 3.03 ERA, 14 shutouts and 15 saves (although saves wasn’t a statistic known in 1948). He obviously was a very good pitcher for a very good team.

According to some sources, in the 1930s his value as a big-game pitcher was so great that many considered him the left-hander you’d pick to win a big game (Christy Mathewson was the righthander). This was at a time when Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell were in their prime, so he was held in high regard.

Pennock gained name recognition as a GM

But he also had something else going for him. In 1944 he was named General Manager for the Phillies and was considered a somewhat radical GM. From 1944-46 he renamed the Phillies the Blue Jays. He was instrumental in signing the players who would become known as the Whiz Kids that won the National League pennant in 1950. He also apparently was one of the people against the integration of baseball.

All of those factors played a big role in giving Pennock name recognition at the time and led many writers to remember him as one of the best lefthanded pitchers the game had ever seen.

Untimely death leads to emotional voting

Still, in 1946 he’d received only 16 percent of the vote for the Hall of Fame. But then something happened that turned the tide in his favor. On Jan. 30, 1948, Pennock suffered a stroke and died just a few days shy of his 54th birthday.

This naturally generated huge publicity, as would the death of any current GM today, and brought forth a number of newspaper articles reminiscing about his greatest accomplishments. Babe Ruth, who would die later that year, announced that his all-time greatest pitching staff would include Pennock.

Although under current rules, BBWAA members turn in their ballots by Dec. 31 and the results are announced in early January that obviously wasn’t the case in 1948. Pennock received 82 percent of the votes that year and was elected to Hall along with third baseman Pie Traynor.

Today the election of Pennock seems odd, maybe even a miscarriage of what the Hall of Fame should be about. I imagine even in 1948 it seemed a bit suspect since in the emotion right after his death he only garnered seven percent more votes than he needed for election.

But at the time it didn’t seem oddly out of place. Many probably even felt it was a long overdue honor.

A modern-day comparison

For a bit of perspective, I decided to look at a pitcher from the recent past who compares favorably with Pennock: David Wells. Like Pennock, Wells was rarely the ace of the staff but was known for winning big games. Although Wells has a slightly higher WAR ranking at 49.4, they had quite a few similarities.

David Wells
Herb Pennock

Now let’s say David Wells was named General Manager of a team that has been down on its luck for a while, like the Padres. He gains some instant fame by changing their name to the Lions for a few years, makes some great draft picks and starts building up their farm system. A few years later, he drops dead from a heart attack.

How would we remember him? I’m sure we’d focus on the great seasons he had with the Yankees during their World Series run in the late 1990s, his perfect game and his 20-win season with Toronto when he finished third in the Cy Young Award voting. If Derek Jeter named him as a member of his all-time pitching staff, we’d be swayed by that opinion.

Perspective of the times makes a difference

If following Wells’ untimely death, Hall of Fame voters suddenly elected Wells we’d probably wonder a bit but I don’t think we’d be shocked by it. Some might even think it a well-deserved honor. But in 60 years, after 50 or 60 pitchers have bypassed him in WAR or whatever the statistic of choice is then, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren might look back and consider Wells an awful selection.

So it all comes down to perspective at the time. Perhaps if Pennock hadn’t died when he did, or hadn’t been a GM at the time, he wouldn’t have been elected to the Hall of Fame. I believe, however, that eventually one of the Veteran’s Committees would have selected him and he’d be in today anyway.


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