Throughout baseball history, there have been players who have been overrated and players who have been underrated. The Baseball Hall of Fame has some of the overrated variety in it and there are a few players, given today’s new way of measuring performance, who are still on the outside looking in.
Look at these three players: all outfielders who hit, ran the bases, and fielded pretty well. There are some differences of course: Player B has more games, at-bats, doubles, RBI, walks, and home runs, while Player C has more hits, triples, and the highest OPS+. Player A, though not a leader in any category, is right there with B and C.
Player A came in second in hits, doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases. He was right there in most categories.
Player C, of course, is Roberto Clemente. 3,000 hits right on the nose. Player B is Carlos Beltran. Clemente is in the Hall. Beltran should be there, eventually. Player A on the other hand is not. Player A is Vada Pinson, one of the most underrated and underappreciated players not just of his era, but of all time.
Pinson was born in Memphis, Tennessee and when he was a child, moved with his family to Oakland. He attended McClymonds High School. McClymonds was an amazing place in that era, first turning out NBA superstar Bill Russell, who was teammates with baseball Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. Robinson in turn, was later baseball teammates with Curt Flood and Vada Pinson, who were born just a few months apart. Flood has his own argument for being in the Hall of Fame, but that’s for another team’s website to cover. What are the odds of four athletes of that caliber coming out of one high school in a four-year time frame?
Pinson was not a one-trick pony. He was also an excellent trumpet player. He loved playing the trumpet so much that he seriously considered it as a career. McClymond’s baseball coach, George Powles, convinced Pinson to give baseball a try.
After graduating at 17, Pinson signed with the Cincinnati Redlegs (the team wouldn’t change their name back to the Reds until 1959). He played two seasons in the minors, first with the Wausau Lumberjacks then with the Visalia Redlegs, where he hit a cool .367.
In 1958, he made the Reds out of spring training as a 19-year-old. He hit his first home run, a grand slam no less, on April 18th in his second game. A slump in May prompted a demotion to the Reds AAA team in Seattle, the Rainiers, where he cranked out a .343/.399/.505 slash in 124 games. He hit .412 over the last 12 games in Cincy and never saw the minor leagues again. Pinson was often mistaken for a Latin player. He related a story that involved former Kansas City Athletic coach Jimmy Dykes. ”Every time I would reach first base, coach Dykes would speak to me in broken English and give me a bunch of hand signals. I thought maybe he didn’t speak English, so I just let it go. Then one day I overheard him talking to a group of players and I must have given him a puzzled look. He started motioning to me, saying “comprende?”
I said, “Mr. Dykes, you must have me wrong. I was born in Memphis and raised in Oakland.”
“He looked at me for a minute then walked off. It must have been two weeks before he spoke to me again!”
His 1959 season was a thing of beauty. Just 20 years old, he logged 706 plate appearances and led the league in runs (131) and doubles (47) while collecting 205 hits and making his first All-Star team. That 1959 season was the first of a fabulous ten-year run which saw Pinson collect 1,855 hits. He covered a lot of ground in center field, leading the league in putouts for three consecutive seasons and winning his only Gold Glove in 1961.
Just before the Big Red Machine started peaking, Cincy traded Pinson to St. Louis for pitcher Wayne Granger and outfielder Bobby Tolan. At the time of his departure, Pinson was the Reds all-time leader in hits, games played, at-bats, and doubles.
During his time in Cincy, Pinson often clashed with Cincinnati Post sportswriter Earl Lawson. On one occasion, the dispute turned physical with Pinson shoving Lawson against a wall. Pinson was arrested for assault and the charges were later dropped. Pinson said that Lawson “always criticizes us when we’re on the road, hoping we won’t get to read it.” Despite their personal differences, Lawson was always appreciative of Pinson’s abilities. “He was one of those rare talents who combined speed with power. Like Mantle, too, Pinson is one of the most graceful runners ever to put on a baseball uniform. he gave the appearance of gliding across the ground, his feet barely touching the surface.” said Lawson.
Pinson only played one season in St. Louis, and statistically, it was one of the worst years of his career. That September, he did collect his 2,000th career hit. At that point he was only 30 and it looked like he had a real shot at getting to 3,000 hits. Coincidentally, his 1,000th and 2,000th hits were both home runs.
For some reason, his career started to resemble musical chairs. He was traded to Cleveland, where he spent two seasons. Cleveland, a great city with a storied baseball history, was a bit of a baseball purgatory at the time. He added another 313 hits as a member of the Tribe. Pinson’s arrival in Cleveland also gave fans in the American League a chance to see a National League star. In those days, there was no inter-league play and star players rarely switched leagues. In that era, Frank Robinson comes to mind, as well as Nolan Ryan and at the tail end of his career, Henry Aaron. And Pinson. There were probably more, but you’ll have to help me with that.
After two productive years, Cleveland traded him to California, where he spent the next two seasons, adding another 254 hits to his resume. In February of 1974, the Angels traded Pinson to Kansas City for pitcher Barry Raziano and some cash. At this point, Pinson was 35 years old and sitting on 2,574 hits. Pinson only played two seasons in Kansas City, 1974 and 1975, but he filled a need, bridging the gap in right field before Al Cowens and later, Clint Hurdle, showed up.
He was excellent in 1974, appearing in 115 games and slashing .276/.312/.374. He even stole 21 bases. Between all three outfield slots and a few games at first base, he handled 161 chances and only committed one error. The Royals brought him back in 1975, but at age 36, the end was near. In 319 at-bats, Pinson only hit .223. Even though his glove work was still excellent, his power and speed were gone. The last hit of his storied career came on September 27th, 1975, when he laced a seventh-inning single off another Hall of Famer, Gaylord Perry. The next night, Pinson entered the game in the third inning as a replacement for Amos Otis. He got one more at-bat and hit a ground out to first base.
Kansas City released him after the season ended. He signed on with Milwaukee but didn’t make the team out of spring training. At the time of his retirement, Pinson was one of just three players to accumulate 2,500 hits, 250 home runs and 250 steals over their career. The other two were Willie Mays and Joe Morgan, both Hall of Famers. Since then, there have been seven more players who have achieved that milestone. Four of those are in the Hall of Fame, two might make it eventually and one has no chance. Those players are Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Rickey Henderson, Craig Biggio, Robin Yount, Andre Dawson, and Steve Finley. Finley surprised me. Of that group of ten, Pinson and Finley are the only two who haven’t received any serious HOF buzz.
Pinson’s quest for 3,000 hits was hampered by his inability to stay healthy. He hadn’t played more than 150 games in a season since 1967. Over the last eight seasons of his career, Pinson missed 259 games. He ended up 243 hits shy of 3,000. 1963 was the last season he played a full slate. Had he been more durable, there’s a chance he might have gotten to 3,000. In terms of skill, Pinson is most often compared to his contemporary, Clemente.
Like any star, Pinson wanted to get to 3,000. During his time with Kansas City, he said, “Jackie Robinson paved the way for all of us blacks and I appreciate it with all of my heart. If and when I get my 3,000 hit, I’ll take off my cap, look up in the sky and thank Jackie for making all of this possible.” It’s a shame he never got there. During and after his career, Pinson was particularly sensitive to the needs of the black community. He was never shy about expressing his admiration for Robinson. ”It bothers me that a lot of young players don’t know history, black and white.” Pinson was quoted as saying.
After his playing career ended, Pinson coached for the Mariners, White Sox, Tigers and Marlins. Miami’s former director of communications, Bonnie Lundquist, said that Pinson made more public appearances than any other uniformed Marlin. He became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1981, but never garnered more than 16% of the vote. On October 5, 1995, Pinson suffered a stroke. He died a little over two weeks later, on October 21st, leaving behind daughters Valerie, Rene, and Kimberly and his son, Vada III. He was only 57.
”There wasn’t a classier person as a player or a coach.” said former Marlins manager Rene Lachemann.