Saturday, December 05, 2009

"The Clutch"

Bruce Markuson notes the passing of "Old Reliable," Tommy Henrich, and I couldn't agree more.

On the surface, Henrich’s Triple Crown numbers don’t sound like that of a Hall of Famer: .282 batting average, 183 home runs, and 795 RBIs. But let’s look at what could have been. Henrich missed three full seasons in the midst of his prime—his age 30, 31, and 32 seasons—while serving in the U.S. military during World War II. If Henrich had been able to play and post even “average” seasons during that span—let’s say 20 home runs and 85 RBIs per season—he would have finished his career with over 240 home runs and over 1,000 RBIs. Those are far more impressive numbers, especially within the context of Henrich’s percentages. For his career, Henrich compiled an on-base percentage of .382 and a slugging percentage of .491, both favorable numbers. On top of that, Henrich was a smart, disciplined hitter who walked nearly twice as often as he struck out. He also played a solid defensive right field, helping to form one of the great outfields in baseball history, teamed with Joe DiMaggio in center and the similarly overlooked King Kong Keller in left. Finally, let’s throw Henrich’s four world championship rings into the argument, and suddenly we have a far more viable candidate for the Hall of Fame.

I’m a firm believer that Hall of Fame candidates who lost playing time during the war deserve some kind of “war credit” for what they might have achieved. After all, these men often had no choice but to enlist in the military; many of them also felt a civic and patriotic duty to do so. Their responsibility and bravery should not be held against them. The crux of the matter is this: exactly how much war credit do we give these players for time lost in service? Each case varies, given the length of military service and the time that it occurred within a player’s career. In the case of Henrich, he enjoyed three of his finest seasons after the war, so it’s reasonable to assume that the three years he lost fell in the midst of what we should rightfully consider his peak or prime. That becomes a huge chunk of war credit, and perhaps it’s enough to put Henrich right on the Cooperstown village limits.



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