If not for one pitch in one game in 1960, Bill Mazeroski would not be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame. In Game 7 of the World Series, Mazeroski became the first person to win a World Series with a walk-off home run in the 9th inning.
But for that accomplishment, Mazeroski would join Bobby Thompson, Kirk Gibson and a few other select players who remain in the collective memories of baseball fans for their feats in one memorable at-bat.
Maz’s famous home run was especially celebrated because it defeated the Yankees, a team that had become a World Series steamroller. New Yorkers were the victims of Mazeroski’s bat, and the home run became a hallowed part of New York baseball lore. What was forgotten was that Mazeroski was having an otherwise unremarkable career at the bat.
The Mazeroski vote by the veterans committee in 2001 was seen (pardon the pun) as so far out in left field and a blatant example of cronyism that the committee was reorganized to prevent a recurrence.
Not that Mazeroski was a stiff; far from it. In 17 seasons for the Pittsburgh Pirates he was elected to 10 All-Star Game squads and appeared in seven games (two games were held each season from 1959 to 1961). He twice appeared in voting for Most Valuable Player, though his best finish was eighth.
Offensively, however, he was just average. He had 2,016 career hits and a .260 batting average with 138 home runs. He was a perennial victim of double plays, but that’s probably not a helpful statistic.
Defense was cited as Mazeroski’s strong point, and he did win eight Gold Glove awards as a second baseman. His career fielding percentage is very high, .983, compared to the league average for second basemen, .976. His average of assists plus putouts per game, 5.57, is extremely high for a second baseman and is a testament to his speed and fine teamwork.
In his best year, 1966, his fielding percentage was an astonishing .992. He committed only eight errors and he participated in 161 double plays. That’s nearly one double play per game and fewer than two errors per month. As a defensive second baseman in the National League, Maz was excellent.
But Hall of Fame caliber?
Let’s look at two other multiple Gold Glove award winners from the National League. Conveniently, the Gold Glove awards began in 1957, just as Mazeroski was starting his career.
The obvious parallel is Ryne Sandberg of the Chicago Cubs. Sandberg was most active 1982 to 1997 and was elected to the Hall of Fame in 2005.
Sandberg’s very high career fielding percentage, .989, and his multiple Gold Glove awards and All-Star Game appearances are strikingly similar to Mazeroski’s. Sandberg didn’t participate in nearly as many double plays, but some of that can be attributed to the terrible Cubs clubs to which he was consigned during many seasons.
But Sandberg had offensive talent, and he used it. He batted .385 in post-season play, and had 282 career home runs — more than twice as many as Mazeroski. He batted over .300 five times, and even had 344 stolen bases.
Perhaps most importantly, Sandberg was recognized for his greatness even as he was still playing. He appeared in Most Valuable Player voting six times and won in 1984. And Sandberg was durable: In 16 seasons he played in 2,164 games, one game more than Mazeroski despite playing one full season less.
A Hall of Fame second baseman from the same era as Mazeroski, Joe Morgan, was a two-time MVP winner for the Cincinnati Reds. He also combined offensive and defensive skills along with good fielding abilities, and won five Gold Glove awards.
Morgan, however, recovered from some pretty bad Houston Astros clubs in the 1960s to become a major cog in the Big Red Machine of the 1970s. Perhaps most tellingly, in 1972 he committed just nine errors for a .990 fielding percentage, while still maintaining an outstanding average of 5.41 assists plus putouts per game.
Morgan also amassed batting statistics similar to Sandberg’s. In particular, he twice hit .320 or better, about 40 percentage points above Mazeroski’s best season.
So in the 1960s and 1970s it was possible to combine offense and defensive play into a Hall of Fame career.
What of other multiple winners of the National League Gold Glove who also played infield at about the same time as Mazeroski? Bill White (7 consecutive times; first base) and Wes Parker (6 consecutive times; first base) are the two best examples, and neither is seriously discussed for Hall of Fame membership. In the American League, the same can be said of Vic Power (7 consecutive times; first base) and Bobby Richardson (5 consecutive times, second base).
In the outfield, Mazeroski’s multiple Gold Glove peers included Curt Flood, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente; Mays and Clemente were easy Hall of Fame picks and were outstanding at the bat. (Flood’s shortened career was mired in the politics of the Reserve Clause lawsuit and can’t be used as an example.)
Lack of batting skills definitely hurts Hall of Fame chances, but Maz was also far surpassed in fielding. The great Brooks Robinson of the Baltimore Orioles won 13 consecutive Gold Gloves at third base, appeared on 12 MVP ballots (winning outright once) and was named to 15 straight All Star teams. He, too, excelled at batting and easily made the Hall of Fame.
Maz was of course prominent on offense in the 1960 World Series (he batted .320, capped by his famous home run), but he hardly figured in the Pirates’ post-season games in 1970, ’71 and ’72. His All-Star Game batting was also poor, with 2 hits for 16 at-bats.
Yet despite the career benchmarks set by Ryne Sandberg and Joe Morgan and Brooks Robinson, the veterans committee elected Maz. Even the previously unique accomplishment of hitting a World Series-winning home run had been matched by Joe Carter of the Toronto Blue Jays in 1993. The election was immediately followed by accusations of cronyism and lack of oversight.
One thing seems certain: It was the lead-off home run pitched by Ralph Terry of the New York Yankees that cemented Mazeroski’s offensive reputation and earned him a place in the Hall of Fame. Once again, being good was good enough.