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“Say good night, Gracie”

by Rob Neyer

You might find this hard to believe, but there are people who think that Mark Grace should be elected to the Hall of Fame.

And there are a fair number of these people, as I find every winter when I write about the Hall of Fame. Their argument boils down to this: “Nobody got more hits in the 1990s than Mark Grace!”

Which is true, nobody did. And on its face, this would seem to be a truly impressive accomplishment, indeed. After all, look at this list:

1900s  Honus Wagner
1910s  Ty Cobb
1920s  Rogers Hornsby
1930s  Paul Waner
1940s  Lou Boudreau
1950s  Richie Ashburn
1960s  Roberto Clemente
1970s  Pete Rose
1980s  Robin Yount
1990s  Mark Grace

Friends, that’s an impressive list. Eight Hall of Famers, Pete Rose, and Mark Grace.

But the list is sort of a trick, you know? If you think that list is important, you have to accept that either
1) there’s something special about those particular decades, and/or 2) those decades are representative of
all decades.

Well, we know there’s nothing special about those particular decades. The years 1970 through 1979 aren’t any more
meaningful than 1975 through 1984. This is, I hope, something we don’t have to argue about. So next, we have to ask,
are the hits leaders for all decades — whether they end with a zero or not — great players?

Over the ten seasons beginning in 1959, nobody got more hits than Henry Aaron (1,878), who’s in the Hall of Fame. The Nos. 3, 4, and 5 spots on the list are held by Roberto Clemente, Willie Mays, and Brooks Robinson . . . all of them Hall of Famers, and comfortably so. That’s a point in Grace’s favor.

But who’s the No. 2 man, only twenty-three hits behind Aaron?

Vada Pinson, who was a very good player, but wasn’t really a great player, nor was he a very good player for a very long time. Pinson isn’t in the Hall of Fame, he received very little support from the Hall of Fame voters, and he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

Here’s another one: You want to guess who’s No. 2 in hits for the decade beginning in 1975? You wouldn’t get it in five tries unless you’re a Red Sox fan, so I’ll just tell you: Jim Rice.

Now, I know there are a lot of people who think Jim Rice should be in the Hall of Fame, but the facts are that 1) he’s not; and 2) I don’t think he should be (and no, I’m not going to engage in that debate now; if you’re interested, Bill James went over this ground thoroughly in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, available in fine and some crummy bookstores).

“But wait,” you might be saying, “you’re talking about No. 2 guys, but Mark Grace is a No. 1 guy.”

And so he is.

You want to guess who’s No. 1 in hits for the decade beginning in 1975?

It’s Steve Garvey. Yes another player who’s not in the Hall of Fame and doesn’t quite belong there. Granted, Garvey was a damn good player. But he wasn’t as good as Boog Powell, or Mickey Vernon or Norm Cash or (especially) Keith Hernandez or Dick Allen or Will Clark.

And exactly the same can be said of Mark Grace, who is a different sort of player than Garvey — Grace’s strength as a hitter was reaching base, Garvey’s was driving baserunners home — but their overall contributions were similar. Garvey totaled 279 Win Shares in his career, with his best seasons being twenty-seven, twenty-six, and twenty-five. Grace has totaled 293 Win Shares in his career (through 2002), with his best seasons being twenty-seven, twenty-five, and twenty-five.

It’s probably worth mentioning, too, that Grace has been an All-Star exactly three times, and that he’s never finished in the top ten in the MVP balloting. Not even once. It’s safe to say that no modern Hall of Famer has fared so poorly in MVP voting.

The problem with Grace’s Hall of Fame case is that while leading the majors in hits over a ten-year span is certainly impressive, it’s all he’s got.

Look at Dale Murphy, for example. From 1981 through 1990, he hit 299 home runs, thirty-one more than anybody else in the major leagues. That’s impressive, probably more impressive than Grace leading the majors in hits. But in addition to the home runs, Murphy also was the National League’s Most Valuable Player. Twice.

And while it’s not at all obvious that Murphy actually was the best player in the league in those years, it is fairly apparent that he was one of the three or four best players in the league in 1982 and 1983 (when he won the Awards), and in 1983 (when he didn’t).

You just can’t make an argument like that for Grace. He has the hits, and that’s all he’s got. Frankly, the notion that Mark Grace belongs in the Hall of Fame is preposterous. I understand that his supporters — Cubs fans, for the most part — are well-meaning, but they’re doing little more than wasting their time. If Cubs fans with spare time really want to do something, they should throw their support behind a couple of Cubs who do deserve plaques in Cooperstown.

Ronnie and Ryno, anyone?

I’m immensely grateful to George Wu for providing the Excel file that allowed me to compute ten-year hits leaders.