Harold Baines wasn't 'sitting around thinking about' Hall of Fame nod

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Tuesday, December 11, 2018

LAS VEGAS -- In many ways, Harold Baines was the quintessential quiet star who let his bat do the talking. As Tony La Russa, who managed Baines with the Chicago White Sox and Oakland A's, said about his former player on Monday, "He's not one to make a lot of noise about himself."

So maybe it's apropos that the most memorable moment from Monday's Hall of Fame news conference at the winter meetings were tears and not words.

Baines and Lee Smith were asked who would be proudest of them for being elected to the Hall of Fame. Baines spoke first. "My wife and my four kids. My mother," he said. Then he choked up and paused. "My father's not here. He was my hero. That's the only thing I miss is him not being here." He wiped away a few years and let the more loquacious Smith take over.

That Baines was up on the podium was unexpected and one of the most shocking Hall of Fame selections in decades. He had appeared on six BBWAA ballots and never received more than 6.1 percent of the vote, when 75 percent is needed for election. He appeared on the Today's Game ballot in 2016 and received fewer than five votes from the 16 committee members. He received 12 votes on Sunday, the minimum required for selection, no doubt helped by having supporters such as La Russa and Jerry Reinsdorf, his owner when he played with White Sox, on the committee.

Baines admitted that he didn't expect to get the phone call Sunday night. "I wasn't sitting around thinking about it, to be honest," he said. "It's a very special day. A lot of my friends are here. I'm honored to be part of this great fraternity I'm joining. ... [But] I wasn't sitting around for it, to get a call. Because I didn't play the game for the Hall of Fame. I played to have a job and try to win championships."

Baines told The Associated Press that he knows there are fans questioning whether his credentials are worthy of the Hall of Fame.

"Well, they can't take it away from me now, even if they don't think I should be there,'' he told The AP.

Baines hit .289 in his career with 384 home runs and 2,866 hits. He ranks 34th all time with 1,628 RBIs, but his selection was greeted with controversy, as he never finished higher than ninth in MVP voting, and his 38.7 career WAR pales in comparison to that of other position players elected in recent years. His highest percentage in the BBWAA balloting is the second-lowest for a post-World War II player elected to the Hall of Fame (only Larry Doby, who peaked at 3.4 percent, had a lower percentage).

Even La Russa admitted, "There were some very candid discussions" during the voting process.

La Russa compared Baines to Alan Trammell as a player who flew under the radar. "If you ask the guys in uniform, if you ask the guys upstairs ... Harold probably dodged the attention, but like Alan, his record can't be denied."

The longtime manager hinted at some of the factors that might have won over the committee that included Hall of Fame players Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan and Ozzie Smith; Joe Torre; executives Pat Gillick, Jerry Reinsdorf, Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail and Al Avila; and media members Tim Kurkjian and Claire Smith of ESPN and Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau. "If it wasn't for the strikes, he would have had 3,000 hits," La Russa said.

La Russa was referring to the 1981 and 1994-95 strikes that cost Baines 125 games or so -- enough that he might indeed have gotten those extra 134 hits and certainly would have increased his totals in the BBWAA voting. La Russa also argued that if you ran through the leaders of the 1980s and 1990s, Baines ranks as one of the top four or five guys in several categories. From 1980 to 1999, Baines ranked fifth in hits, second in RBIs and ninth in home runs. However, his best 10-year stretch in WAR was 24.7, which barely cracks the top 1,000 all time. Hence, the controversy: longevity and counting stats versus peak value.

Baines works for Reinsdorf as a special ambassador for the White Sox and admitted that having Reinsdorf and La Russa advocating for him might have helped. "They know what I feel about them," Baines said. "They're very special to me. It probably helped me, to be honest. But our friendship goes further than the game of baseball."

La Russa's first managing job was in Double-A with the White Sox, and a young Baines was on that club. Baines was the No. 1 overall pick in 1977, and the White Sox's general manager at the time, an old baseball warhorse named Paul Richards, called him a future Hall of Famer.

La Russa said you could see Baines' talent. "His stroke was so pure and so beautiful in terms of high average, high productivity, extra-base hits. He could run. He really was an outstanding outfielder before he hurt his knee," he said. "You knew if he worked at it, it could all come together, and Harold had all those intangibles. ... What I learned in Chicago is the great players slow the game down. Harold slowed the game down. Harold always had the ability to drive in the big run. I saw it in Chicago, and I saw it in Oakland. ... He's a clutch, clutch hitter."

Maybe all the numbers don't add up to a Hall of Famer, but as Baines sat up there and let the tears flow, you had to feel happy for him. He talked about the fans in Chicago.

"They treat me like a Chicagoan," he said. "I'm not. But they've always treated me with a lot of love."