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Mike Rendos on baseball: National Baseball Hall of Fame lost 7 members last year

National Baseball’s Hall of Fame endured a particularly hard time in 2020, as seven living members passed on to the big diamond in the sky. All seven were legendary “boys of summer,” their common thread being durability and consistency over a long period of time. Local longtime baseball fans such as Wayne Allison, Len Shepherd, and Tom Elling will readily recall the names.

For younger fans, trust that these players were as good as the baseball gods have ever produced, including today’s stable of MLB All Stars.

LOU BROCK

Known as the “Base Burglar,” the speedy outfielder came to St. Louis in 1964 via a trade with the Chicago Cubs. Brock brought a new dimension to the Cardinals as a leadoff hitter who set the table for the power hitters in the Cardinal lineup. His career 938 stolen bases, including 118 in 1974, is a National League record. Brock had a simple philosophy on base stealing, once saying, “First base is useless and most of the time it is useless to stay there. On the other hand, second base is the safest place on the field. When I steal second, I practically eliminate the double play, and I can score on any ball hit past the infield.”

In World Series play, Brock absolutely embraced the stage and amped up to a higher level of performance. In three World Series appearances (21 games) with the Cardinals (1964, ’67, ’68), he was a superstar in all three, hitting .391, 34 hits, 16 runs, 14 stolen bases. His World Series on-base slugging percentage of 1.079 trails only Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth and Reggie Jackson, as elite hitting company one could possibly find.

WHITEY FORD

Born and raised in Queens, the southpaw pitcher spent his entire 16-year career as a New York Yankee, helping the Bronx Bombers to eleven American League pennants and six World Series championships along the way. The ten-time all-star shined best in October, holding the record for most World Series starts (22), wins (10), innings pitched (146) and strikeouts (94). Former Ole Miss football legend Jake Gibbs — who went from the gridiron to catching for the Yankees — believes that Ford was the greatest left-handed who ever lived. Gibbs notes that Ford was a “pitcher” not a “thrower.” His fastball rarely exceeding 85 mph, and what made him so great was excellent location and command. During the Yankees’ baseball reign in the 1950s, it was often said that rooting for the Yankees was like rooting for General Motors or U.S. Steel, as all three consistently won. To that end, New York City sports columnist Jim Murray dubbed Whitey Ford “Chairman of the Board.”

BOB GIBSON

No less an authority on hitting than MLB’s all-time hits leader, Pete Rose was once asked to name the toughest pitcher he faced during his three decade playing career. With no hesitation whatsoever Rose replied, “Bob Gibson.”

Graduating from Creighton University in 1954, the highly athletic Gibson signed two professional contracts, one with baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals and the other with the Harlem Globetrotters. Gibson’s dominance was never more evident than his performances in the 1964, ’67 and ’68 World Series, when he pitched eight consecutive complete games, the winning pitcher in seven of the eight. The highlight of that streak was a 17-strikeout performance against the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the 1968 World Series. A complete game in MLB today is as rare as seeing Bigfoot, yet Gibson logged an incredible 255 complete games over his 17-year career with the Cardinals. In Cardinal Nation, Gibson is considered the best pitcher ever to step on the mound.

AL KALINE

Known as “Mr. Tiger,” Kaline played his entire 22-season career with the Detroit Tigers, playing in more games than anyone else in club history and compiling a batting average second only to former Tiger Ty Cobb. Absolutely gentlemanly and graceful both on and off the field Kaline is revered to this day by legions of Tiger fans.

A product of Baltimore’s Southern High School, he signed with the Tigers the morning after graduation and made his MLB debut a week later and never played an inning in the minor leagues. Incredibly, two years later at the age 20, he hit .340 to become the youngest player in history to win an MLB batting title. Along the way he smacked 399 home runs, 3,007 hits, 1,583 RBIs and played in 15 all-star games. As a right fielder he won 10 Gold Gloves and was considered to have the best outfield throwing arm in the AL.

Baltimore pitching ace Jim Palmer once said, “The thing about Al Kaline is that he blisters not only your mistakes, but he drives your good pitches just as hard.”

JOE MORGAN

A key spark plug of Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” of the 1970s, the diminutive Morgan was considered by many as the greatest second baseman to ever don a Major League uniform. Morgan possessed the baseball tools of speed, arm strength, fielding, hitting and hitting with power, and combined those skills with an unrelenting desire and commitment to be the best player he could possibly be.

On a Reds roster stocked with greats such as Johnny Bench, Rose and Tony Perez, Morgan proceeded to be a National League All-Star in eight consecutive seasons from 1972-79. The 5-foot-7 Morgan played in four World Series, leading the Reds to back-to-back Series championships in 1975-76. He was the NL’s MVP in both of those title seasons.

Morgan’s manager — the late Sparky Anderson — gave the ultimate compliment when he once remarked, “Success is the person who year after year reaches the highest limits in his field of work. If you need an example, look no farther than Joe Morgan.”

PHIL NIEKRO

Called “Knucksie” by his teammates, Niekro was the king of the floating butterfly pitch, using it to win 318 games during a career spanning 24 seasons — 21 of those years with the Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves. Age was no barrier to Niekro, as he won 121 games after he turned 40, and pitched in the major leagues until he was 48 years old. No pitcher in the past 100 years threw more than Niekro’s 5,404 innings.

The knuckleball led him to five all-star games, three 20-win seasons, and membership in the 300-win club. The fluttering knuckler put little strain on his arm, enabling him to be an absolute workhorse for the Braves and become the last pitcher to post back-to-back 300-plus inning seasons. Former Braves catcher Bob Uecker spent some time trying to corral Niekro’s dancing pitches, many of them getting by him and bouncing to the backstop. Uecker once quipped,” I loved catching Knucksie because I got to meet a lot of important people. They all sit behind home plate.”

TOM SEAVER

One of baseball’s greatest right-handed power pitchers who won 311 games over a 20-year MLB career, Seaver drove so hard through his pitching motion that his right knee would touch the mound as he released the pitch. Signed out of USC in the spring of 1966 by the recently expansion team New York Mets, “Tom Terrific” became the force who led the laughable Mets from the depths of the National League cellar to the “Amazin Mets” World Series title in 1969.

His accomplishments include five 20-game winning seasons, 1967 NL Rookie of the Year, three Cy Young awards, 3,640 strikeouts and 61 shutouts. Additionally, Seaver was a 12-time all-star, logged nine straight 200 strikeout seasons (an MLB record) and is the only pitcher in MLB history to strike out 10 consecutive batters.

During his time with the Mets, he thrived on the demanding New York City sports stage. Former Mets catcher Jerry Grote once observed, “Tom Seaver goes out to win every game, not just pitch his turn. When he is on the mound everyone around him works a little harder.”

Mike Rendos is a retired public school educator and athletic director.

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