1967 was an odd year for MVPs. There was a unanimous choice that year, which certainly happens, but I think most baseball fans, if they’re not familiar with irregularities in MVP voting, would assume that Carl Yastrzemski would have earned that distinction with his AL Triple Crown season (alas, some writer chose the Twins’ Cesar Tovar, of all people, leaving Yaz one vote shy of a clean sweep). Instead, the unanimous selection came in the NL in the person of Orlando Cepeda, which some will cite as one of the more egregious examples of the “RBI leader + Pennant winner = MVP” trope. To others, though, this is an example of leadership being provided by an outstanding player in a new and difficult circumstance, justifying his MVP selection and creating a narrative worthy of the award. So let’s step back to 1967 in the NL.
As was the case in our 1960 NL post, there was no NL pennant race to speak of in 1967. While the AL thrilled to one of the great ones (perhaps the greatest?) in history, the NL was a bore all summer. The Cardinals took over first on June 19th and never relinquished the lead. The closest any pursuer would come was on July 24th when the Cubs opened a three game set with a win over the Cards and moved into a tie at the top. But St. Louis took the next two and pulled away over the rest of the summer, as the heat increased at Wrigley, both literally and metaphorically, with the Cubs, like the ivy, wilting, eventually finishing 14 games back and in third, while the Cards went 101-61 to win by ten games (the Giants were second).
Instead of a pennant race, the big narrative in the NL was around the MVP – Orlando Cepeda. It is perhaps one of baseball’s more famous stories that the Giants in the 1960s had a boatload of hitting talent, and Cepeda was certainly one of those stars. At some point, though, management realized that he was blocking an even brighter star, Willie McCovey, at first base. After injuries derailed Cepeda in 1965, the Giants tried him in LF in early 1966, but when that experiment failed, Cepeda was shipped to the Cardinals, where he had a pretty good year, while the Giants came up two games short in the NL.
The following year, Cepeda posted his MVP season in what may have been the best year of his career (it was either this season or in 1961). His .325 average (6th in the NL) was a career high, as was his .399 OBP (3rd, and only .005 out of first). With Cepeda’s respectable .524 SLG placing him fifth in the league, it all added up to a fourth best OPS result of .923. Cepeda scored 91 and knocked 25 homers, to go along with his league leading 111 RBI, and, for good measure, finished second with 37 doubles. He certainly seemed to have justified the Cardinals’ move in trading for him, and made the Giants look foolish for giving up on him. The narrative was almost cinematic in its karmic justice, particularly as Cepeda’s old team finished ten games out in second place (likely leading to a lot of Giants “what ifs” in the minds of the writers).
But, as we’ve become accustomed to in these posts, Cepeda was not the only Cardinal having a banner year. Catcher Tim McCarver, the MVP runner-up, slashed .295/.369/.452, with 26 2B, 14 HR, 68 scored and 69 batted in, all as the finest young (25) catcher in the NL (well, there WAS a fella in Cincinnati, but he only played in 26 games; his coming out party would be the following year). McCarver was known even then as a cerebral player and a leader, and his style appealed to the voters, particularly those who believed in the catcher’s ability to “handle” the pitching staff, especially since the Cardinals allowed the second fewest runs in the NL (557, just behind the Giants’ 551), so McCarver must’ve had SOME effect, right? As for other Cardinals, Lou Brock did next best in MVP voting, slashing .299/.327/.472 with 113 R, 76 RBI, 21 HR and 52 SB. I can’t think there were too many other players capable both of 20+ HR and 50+ SB, so Brock looked good, finishing 7th in the voting. Julian Javier (9th) and Curt Flood (13th) also show up in the voting for the Cards, which shouldn’t be too big a surprise – it was a deep, balanced team.
Willie Mays was having the worst year of his career between the Korean War and his stint with the Mets, so he wasn’t a real candidate. But there were three non-Cardinals who finished 3rd, 4th and 5th in the voting, for each of whom a reasonable case can be made. Taking them in order:
Roberto Clemente lapped the field to win his fourth (and last) batting title by a whopping 24 points, posting a .357 average that was exceeded in the NL by only three players from 1949 to 1993 (Rico Carty in 1970, Joe Torre in 1971, and Tony Gwynn in 1986). This was the second of three times that Clemente would hit .350 or better, matching Gwynn, Stan Musial and Larry Walker, as the only NLers with that trifecta in the integrated era. But Clemente wasn’t all batting average; coming off an MVP award the previous year, he also led the NL with 209 hits and smacked 26 doubles, 10 triples, and 23 homers. His .400 OBP was then a career best (and 2nd in the league, by .004, to Dick Allen, who only played 122 games), his .554 SLG was third (again, right behind Dick Allen, so don’t count him if you don’t want to), and his OPS was 2nd (again, behind Dick Allen, so take that for what it’s worth). But, when your team, which was in the thick of the pennant chase the year before, drops 11 wins to finish at .500, it’s going to be tough to get a lot of attention from MVP voters.
Ron Santo was next. Santo narrowly missed a .300/.400/.500 season, slashing .312/.397/.512 while mashing 31 HR, with 98 RBI and 107 runs scored. He also led the league in walks, with 96, and recorded an even 300 TB. There’s actually not that much to say about this Ron Santo season, because it’s basically the same as his 1966 campaign and the ones he would post from 1968 to 1970. Santo was nothing if not consistent. Had the Cubs not faded down the stretch, this season (which looks an awful lot like an MVP year) would probably have been the winner.
Finally, there’s the ever-present Hank Aaron, who’s been mentioned in each post so far (but don’t worry; this is his last one). Aaron led the NL in HR (39) and R (113) and finished third in RBI, one behind Clemente and two behind league-leader Cepeda. Unfortunately, those totals came in the Braves second year in Atlanta, and their first year in the second division and first below .500 since moving out of Boston – in other words, before Aaron’s MLB career even began! So, an MVP award was, perhaps, not in the cards (or Cards) for Aaron.
So, as we look back on 1967, is the winner a leader on the pennant winner, or a player with flashier numbers for a disappointing team? And, no matter which way you answer that first question, WHICH leader on a pennant winner or star for another team is the man of the hour? Or is there another player elsewhere you think deserves the honor?
DIRECTIONS: Please list 5-10 players on your MVP ballot (ballots with fewer than 5 candidates will be thrown out). Ballots will be scored as per BBWAA scoring (14-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1). Strategic voting is discouraged, though unenforceable, so please just don’t do it, as the goal here is to (somewhat) mimic the BBWAA process. The post will be live for about a week; please discuss and vote whenever you’d like, but there will be no vote changes, so don’t vote until you’re sure you’re ready!