Joe Gordon is proof that being a New York Yankees star second baseman for a few years is good enough to get in the Hall of Fame. As if electing Phil Rizzuto under similar circumstances was not enough, the veterans committee repeated the mistake in late 2008. The difference seems to be that Joe Gordon really did have some Hall of Fame years — just not enough of them, in our view.
How, exactly, did Joe Gordon accrue enough Hall of Fame votes?
He fails the Fame test — within a few years of retirement from baseball in 1970 he was all but forgotten by most fans. Upon his election, even die-hard Yankees fans asked “Who?”
He fails the career statistics test, primarily because he lacks longevity. He batted over .300 just once, in 1942, and his career lasted just 11 years.
It’s true that Gordon is the sole American League infielder of his era with 253 home runs and 1,530 hits; only Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (both outfielders) equalled those numbers while Gordon was active. However, his career stats cannot be even superficially compare to the entire careers of Williams and DiMaggio, nor most other Hall of Famers. Gordon’s “era” lasted little more than a decade.
Gordon was named Most Valuable Player in 1942 (beating Ted Williams), but by then the ranks of the players had been thinned by World War II. He was a nine-time All-Star between 1939 and 1949. But neither of those accomplishments, even taken together, should be a ticket to the Hall of Fame.
He never led the American League in an important batting category. His fielding was average to above average though he did form part of a good double play combination with Frankie Crosetti and Babe Dahlgren. His Yankees World Series appearances were undistinguished except in 1941, when he batted .500 with an outstanding slugging percentage of .929. His nine All-Star Game appearances led to only four hits, even though he started in five of the games.
Gordon supporters cite anecdotal evidence, always suspect in baseball, that includes high praise from his manager. He was, it is said, known as one of the best second basemen of all time. If so, where were the Hall of Fame voters when Gordon retired? After all, the voters were the baseball writers who actually saw him play.
Here are more objective observations about Joe Gordon’s career:
So what is the argument for electing a very good but not famous journeyman infielder to the Hall of Fame? First, look at the value placed on him by his teams: The Yankees traded Gordon to Cleveland in 1946 for an excellent pitcher, Allie Reynolds, but he was released by the Indians just four years later.
Like many marginal Hall of Fame inductees, Joe Gordon managed minor- and major-league teams for many years after retiring as a player. The players from his managing era are now on the Hall of Fame veterans committee. (Gordon’s best finish was second place with the 1959 Cleveland Indians, so no statistical explanation there.)
In 1960, Gordon was traded to Detroit for Jimmy Dykes, the only trade in baseball history involving two managers. In fact, managing probably kept his name current among the voters even after his death in 1978.
What does the Hall of Fame press release say about Gordon?
“Gordon combined power and fielding ability like few second basemen before or since. He hit 20 or more homers seven times, drove in 100-plus runs four times and averaged 89 RBIs and 83 runs scored per season. With the leather, Gordon posted a .970 fielding percentage, leading the American League in assists four times and double plays three times.
“In 1942, Gordon won the AL Most Valuable Player Award, edging out Triple Crown-winner Ted Williams of the Boston Red Sox. He was part of World Series-winning teams in New York in 1938, '39, '41 and '43 and helped the Indians win their last Fall Classic in 1948. Gordon died on April 14, 1978.”
A lot of team achievements are mentioned, but where are the outstanding career numbers? Assists and double plays are equally a result of sure-handed teammates, no surprise on the Yankees.
Yes, Joe Gordon was the only American League second baseman from his active years to have more than 25 home runs, and he did it four times. But when it comes to general hitting stats among second basemen, his on-base percentage is roughly equal to Snuffy Stirnweiss’s.
Gordon was passed over many times in Hall of Fame voting, including the famous 1988 veterans committee vote that resulted in no inductees. Bill James, a leading baseball statistician, was apparently a big booster for Gordon, which no doubt helped with the 2008 veterans committee vote. But James himself lists Gordon behind Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, neither likely Hall of Famers, on the list of all-time great second basemen. Gordon is #16, just ahead of Willie Randolph.
The argument was also made that if Bobby Doerr could be elected, why not Joe Gordon? But Joe Gordon was on the ballot roughly twice as long as his own career lasted, a big hint that he just didn’t have a Hall of Fame career.
Our argument is that a career of 11 years simply isn’t long enough to judge a position player, even someone as good as Joe Gordon. Extrapolating might-have-been statistics for fielders with short careers is simply not sufficient to determine Hall of Fame credentials. What we have is yet another Yankees inductee into the Hall of the Very Good.