The Baseball Hall of Fame celebrates the greatest players, managers and owners from our national pastime. Any of us who have watched major league baseball have inevitably seen some of these immortals practicing their craft. But we have also likely witnessed a sample of their opposite brethren, players who shouldn’t have been in the major leagues. Has there ever been a definitive source that “celebrates” the non-accomplishments of the worst that major league baseball has to offer?
There have been a scattering of writings on possible “Hall of Shame” prospects, but a new book by Filip Bondy, a columnist for the New York Daily News, puts them in their proper perspective. “Who’s On Worst? The Lousiest Players, Biggest Cheaters, Saddest Goats and Other Antiheroes in Baseball History” provides a summary of the worst in the game in several different categories and how they managed to leave a stain on the sport.
One likely misconception about this book is that it is funny. It is not. Most of the cases of disastrous play do not result in happy endings. A single bonehead play can mark a player for life. Just ask Bill Buckner. A lot of long-term flops were players who signed huge contracts and couldn’t live up to the hype. The pressure overwhelmed them and their lives often ended up in despair.
Usually the big-money busts are the fault of the owner or general manager who view average players through rose-colored glasses. What ballplayer is going to turn down a long-term, multi-million dollar contract even if deep down he knows he’s not worth it? Sometimes you wonder how some general managers ever keep their jobs considering their ineptitude when spending money.
Some teams are more trigger happy than others. The New York Yankees merited a chapter of their own on this subject. Their general manager, Brian Cashman, has a history of throwing gobs of money at underachieving players. He survived because the Yankees are a successful franchise and can afford to misspend their huge fortune. Cashman also worked for an owner, George Steinbrenner, who didn’t mind rolling the dice on a prospect.
I remember one Yankee disaster in particular because the pitcher in question, Ed Whitson, had once pitched for my team, the Giants, and I knew he was a journeyman at best. It didn’t stop Steinbrenner from lavishing a huge long-term contract on him. Whitson either didn’t know what he was getting into or his judgment was blinded by the money. He faced such abuse from the New York fans that he bought a gun and eventually pitched only on the road.
The steroid age comes under Bondy’s microscope as well. For every Barry Bonds and Roger Clemons who excelled before and after being linked to performance enhancing drugs, there are numerous players who improved just enough to get the big money contact and then tested positive or fell off the edge. Either way they became an embarrassment to themselves and the sport (although a lot richer).
There are the “legal” cheaters who managed to shortchange the game without the use of PEDs. These are the hitters who used corked bats or the pitchers that doctored the baseball. Most of them never admitted their transgressions even when caught red-handed. Gaylord Perry and Don Sutton managed to carve out Hall of Fame careers despite their reputations for scuffing up baseballs.
Not everything in the book is negative. There are the “clowns” that made the most of their mediocre reputations (e.g., Bob Uecker), the one-hit wonders who made history (e.g., Bucky Dent) and the successful managers who couldn’t make it as players (e.g., Tommy Lasorda). Sometimes the “worst” label can turn into something positive.
Bondy does a superb job of identifying the darker side of the game without denigrating it. The lesser lights remind us that baseball isn’t all peaches and cream. It all tells us that that the ones who do it right deserve the accolades and the honor that the National Baseball Hall of Fame provides them.
David Kent is the director of the Village Library of Cooperstown. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.