We continue our tribute to the Hall of Fame players who passed away in 2020. There were seven in total, a new record for any calendar year. In Part 1, we looked at the four whose careers spanned the 1950s, 60s and 70s. In this installment, we look at the remaining three whose careers extended into the 1980s. More after the jump.
I closed Part 1 with a look at the career of Whitey Ford, one of the pillars of the post-war Yankee dynasty. By the time Ford retired early in the 1967 season, that dynasty was well and truly finished. The ’67 Yankees finished next-to-last, one slot higher than the previous year’s team whose cellar finish was the franchise’s first in more than half a century. It was the same story across town in Queens, where the expansion Mets had climbed out of the cellar (all the way to 9th place!) for the first time in 1966, but returned to their familiar spot in the standings the next year.
Though obscured somewhat by that last place finish, the 1967 Mets had reason for optimism. That reason was a 22 year-old rookie pitcher named Tom Seaver whose blazing fastball had garnered the young right-hander NL Rookie of the Year honors. And, well deserved it was, as Seaver delivered easily the finest season of any Mets player in the franchise’s 6 year history. Seaver’s total of 6.7 WAR was 50% more than any other Met pitching season and more than double the franchise’s best season by a position player. Seaver improved on that WAR each of the next two seasons, the latter year the breakthrough campaign in which the perennial cellar dwellers were suddenly transformed into World Series champions. That championship season owed much to Met pitchers who posted a team ERA under 3.00 in the first season with a lowered mound and smaller strike zone. Leading those pitchers was Seaver, claiming his first Cy Young Award with a career best and majors-leading 25 wins and a league low 6.7 H/9.
Seaver amassed 20 pitching WAR over those first three seasons, then the most of the live ball era and since surpassed only by another Met phenom, Dwight Gooden. It was the beginning of an 11 year run in which Seaver reached 5+ WAR every season, a unique accomplishment to start a career. Included were five seasons leading in strikeouts (and six leading in SO/9), four seasons leading in FIP, three seasons leading in ERA, ERA+, WHIP, SO/BB, H/9 and WAR, twice leading in Wins and once in CG and SHO. Seaver took home two more CYAs, including in the Mets second “championship” (ahem) season in 1973 when Seaver posted a career best 10.6 WAR.
With the Mets floundering to start the 1977 season, team management hit the “reset” button and traded away their veteran players, with Seaver going to the two time defending WS champion Reds. In Seaver’s time in Cincinnati, the Reds continued to be a contending team but managed just one post-season appearance, swept by the eventual WS champion Pirates in 1979. A second post-season appearance as a Red might have come in 1981 but Cincinnati, with the best overall record in the NL West, failed to win either half of that bifurcated season. That year, Seaver reached 3000 career strikeouts, the first pitcher to do so in the first 15 seasons of a career. It was also Seaver’s 15th qualified season* with a .500 or better record, an achievement to start a career that only Cy Young himself had previously managed. The Reds cratered to a last place finish in 1982 and, like the Mets five years before, traded away their veteran players, with Seaver going back to his former club.
* Seaver had enough innings in 1981 to qualify him in a 162 game season.
The 1983 Mets had some similarities to the 1967 team that Seaver debuted with. Both finished last, both had RoY winners (Seaver in ’67, Darryl Strawberry in ’83) and both would shortly claim a world championship (two years later for the ’67 team, and three for the ’83 squad). Alas, Seaver didn’t get to stick around for another championship. After one season back in New York (during which he reached the 4000 IP plateau), Seaver was plucked off the Mets’ roster by the White Sox as compensation for a not-so-free agent signing by the Mets. Perhaps making a start in a new league was a good thing for Seaver; after two pretty rough campaigns, he found his groove again in Chicago, turning in a pair of fine seasons to become one of just seven pitchers to record 450+ IP, 30+ Wins and 115 ERA+ aged 39 and 40. (Quiz: which of those pitchers is not in the Hall of Fame?) Seaver bagged his 300th win in the latter season and finished his career the next year with a 2.86 career ERA, fifth best among retired live ball era starters but only a smidge behind the leading 2.75 score posted by Whitey Ford.
Seaver’s 300th win in August 1985 was quickly followed by another 300th victory, this time for Phil Niekro, reaching the milestone with the last shutout of his career on the last day of that season (a game I was privileged to attend). At age 46, Niekro became the oldest pitcher to record a 300th win (about 9 months older than Randy Johnson), a remarkable achievement for a man who had made it only 10% of the way to that goal (31 wins, to be exact) by the time he reached age 30.
Niekro started his professional career as a 20 year-old in D ball in 1959 and was quickly promoted to A ball the next season. But, it was long road from there to the majors, as Niekro spent the best parts of three seasons in AAA, and lost a season to military service, before finally reaching the majors to stay in 1967 at age 28. Niekro was a swingman that year with 20 starts and 26 relief appearances, including 20 GF (Quiz: which teammate of Niekro has the only other 20 start/20 GF season in the expansion era?). Though Niekro had been a starter or swingman in only one of his minor league seasons, he was an immediate success in the new role, leading the majors in ERA and ERA+ (and also in wild pitches, as his catchers learned how to handle the knuckler for nine innings). Niekro moved to starting almost exclusively in 1968, upping his workload to 34 starts in the first of 13 straight seasons with 225 IP, then led the Braves to the 1969 NL West title with a 23-13 record, earning All-Star recognition and a runner-up finish (to Seaver) in CYA voting. The new Braves ace was on his way.
Niekro next reached 20 wins in 1974, the start of a 6 year peak (aged 35-40) in which he recorded 47.5 WAR, including 32.1 WAA; only Randy Johnson has more WAR (barely) for those ages, and only he and Lefty Grove have more WAA. A good chunk of that WAR total can be attributed to Niekro’s indefatigable arm which logged 1855 IP for those seasons, including four 300 IP campaigns, a total for those ages second only to Cy Young and almost 200 IP more than anyone else. In the space of those six seasons, Niekro led his league (or the majors) four times in starts, CG and IP, three times in BF, and twice in WAR and Wins. The only downside was the team: the Braves were awful, finishing last or next-to-last in the last five of those seasons.
Atlanta started to rebound as the decade turned to the 1980s and, in 1982, led by young stars like Bob Horner and Dale Murphy, the Braves claimed their first division crown in 13 years. They were in the thick of the pennant chase the next year too, finishing just three games back. But Niekro, now 44, was released at season’s end, even though he remained a useful pitcher, providing Atlanta with 200+ IP and ERA+ near 100 in each of his last two Brave seasons. Niekro finished his career with two seasons as a Yankee, one in Cleveland, and a final campaign split between the Indians, Blue Jays and, for one last game, as a Brave.
Niekro holds all manner of records for achievements by pitchers of advanced years, among them the oldest (47) to record a 200 IP season, and the oldest (48) with a complete game. Niekro has the most IP after: age 30, age 35, age 40, and age 45 (and likely the years in between); and he has the most wins after ages 35, 40 and 45 (he’s second to Cy Young in wins after age 30). Niekro’s live ball era CG ranks are 3rd, 2nd, 3rd and 1st after ages 30, 35, 40 and 45, and he’s one of 10 live ball era pitchers to record CG in 20 or more consecutive seasons (Quiz: which of those pitchers has the longest streak of such seasons?)
Joe Morgan played 22 major-league seasons and batted against almost 800 different pitchers, but none more frequently than his 200 PA against Phil Niekro. Morgan debuted with Houston in 1963, one season before Niekro, getting into eight September games, including the Colts’ Sep 27 tilt against their expansion cousin Mets. In that game Morgan was one of seven Houston starters aged 20 or younger, still a major league record. Morgan got another September call-up the next year (in a preview of things to come, he had a 4 walk game three days after his 21st birthday, the youngest to do so within the first 40 games of a career), then made the big team to stay in 1965. In Houston’s first season playing indoors, Morgan played almost every game at second base, displacing the incumbent and future HOFer Nellie Fox (it was Fox who noticed that Morgan was prone to dropping his back shoulder when he started his swing, leading to an upper-cut and too many pop-ups; Morgan corrected that flaw by adopting his signature “flapping” of the left arm as he waited for the pitch). Morgan scored 100 runs in that rookie season and led the majors with 97 walks, the last a rookie feat matched in the modern era only by the Tigers’ Donie Bush in 1909.
Morgan lost time to injury in the the next two seasons, but still put up qualified slash scores similar to his rookie campaign. Early in the 1968 season, Tommie Agee took out Morgan at second base with a body block slide, resulting in a torn knee ligament injury that shelved the second baseman for the remainder of the season. Morgan returned to play with no ill effects, and became a serious baserunning threat with at least 40 stolen bases in each of his next three seasons. But, other than those stolen bases, Morgan failed to progress offensively, putting up seasons similar to but not quite as good as his first three years. Meanwhile, relations with manager Harry Walker soured to the point that Walker wanted Morgan out, resulting in a trade to the Reds after the 1971 season.
Making a fresh start in a new city, Morgan promptly entered his career peak, posting five consecutive 8 WAR seasons, the longest such streak of seasons by a second baseman. In each of his first five seasons in Cincy, Morgan reached triple digits in runs and walks, added 50 SB, and posted a .400 OBP, the most such seasons in a career, consecutive or not (in fact, only three other modern era players have had even one such season). In 1976, Morgan also drove in 100+ runs to become the only player with such a campaign (100 R/100 BB/100 RBI/50 SB/.400 OBP). In his eight seasons as a Red, Morgan led NL position players four times in WAR and OBP, twice in OPS, OPS+ and BB, and once in R and SLG. As a team, the Reds won three pennants and two world championships during Morgan’s tenure, the latter the first for Cincinnati since 1940 (it was Morgan’s 9th inning RBI single that provided the game 7 margin of victory for the first of those WS titles). Morgan was NL MVP in the Reds’ back-to-back world championship seasons in 1975 and 1976 (Quiz: which other player won MVP awards in back-to-back pennant-winning seasons?).
A free agent after the 1979 season, Morgan signed with Houston for one year (and led the NL in walks for a fourth time), then moved on to San Francisco for two seasons, Philadelphia for one (where he appeared in his fourth World Series) and ended his career playing for his hometown A’s in 1984. For his career, Morgan reached the milestones of 2500 Hits, 1500 Runs, 1500 Walks and 1000 RBI, and is the only middle infielder among 11 players with those totals. Of that group, only Morgan, Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds added 500 SB to those totals. Morgan topped 100 WAR for his career, 21st* among position players and 5th among middle infielders. Among integration era players, Morgan’s WAR ranks 10th* among position players, and 1st among middle infielders.
* Depending on Albert Pujols‘s final WAR total, Morgan’s WAR ranks will be 20th or 21st among all positions players, and 9th or 10th in the integration era.