In spring training of 1991, Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe wrote a glowing profile of Jeff Bagwell, suggesting that the Red Sox would one day lament the trade of Bagwell for 37-year-old relief pitcher Larry Andersen.
"Bagwell could be big one that got away," read the headline.
The story appeared in March. Bagwell had yet to play a regular-season game in the major leagues, but the picture was already clear: Red Sox general manager Lou Gorman had made a mistake of potentially historic proportions.
"Jeff Bagwell owned New Britain," wrote Ryan. "He hit .333. He led the Eastern League in hits and doubles. Everybody said he was the best prospect in the league, maybe the best in all of Double-A. A year or so in Pawtucket, and then The Bigs."
Bill James raved about Bagwell, foreseeing him as a hitter capable of winning batting titles. "Gorman has heard it all," wrote Ryan, "and he is quite prepared to live with the consequences of the deal. 'In the seven years I've been here,' (Gorman) contends, 'I don't think any young player has come back to haunt me yet.'"
Last year, his first time on the Hall of Fame ballot, Bagwell received 41.7 percent of the vote. As Hall of Fame chances go, that isn’t necessarily a distressing starting point. Jim Rice got 29.8 percent his first year. Goose Gossage received 33.3 percent and Gary Carter 42.3 percent. Andre Dawson didn’t begin much higher, at 45.3 percent. Bert Blyleven notoriously started at just 17.8 percent. The writers would eventually vote all those players into the Hall.
The vote total, however, drew outrage across the Internet, and understandably so. For a player of Bagwell's abilities and accomplishments to receive such a low vote total was ... well, something of historic precedent.
Using Baseball-Reference's ranking of players via its Wins Above Replacement statistic, Bagwell rates as one most dominant players since World War II. Here are the position players ranked Nos. 11 through 30 and how many years it took them to get voted into the Hall of Fame:
11. Joe Morgan, 103.5 WAR (1)
12. Eddie Mathews, 98.3 (5)
13. Al Kaline, 91.0 (1)
14. Cal Ripken, 89.9 (1)
15. Albert Pujols, 89.1 (not eligible)
16. Wade Boggs, 89.0 (1)
17. Carl Yastrzemski, 88.7 (1)
18. George Brett, 85.0 (1)
19. Roberto Clemente, 83.8 (1)
20. Chipper Jones, 82.9 (not eligible)
21. JEFF BAGWELL, 79.9 (41.7 percent)
22. Rod Carew, 79.1 (1)
23. Ken Griffey Jr., 78.5 (not eligible)
24. Robin Yount, 76.9 (1)
25. Frank Thomas, 75.9 (not eligible)
26. Pete Rose, 75.3 (not eligible)
27. Paul Molitor, 74.8 (1)
28. Reggie Jackson, 74.6 (1)
29. Jim Thome, 71.4 (not eligible)
30. Johnny Bench, 71.3 (1)
Wins Above Replacement may not be a perfect statistic, but I don't think anyone can argue that the above list represents anything other than a list of the greatest players of the past 50-plus years. As you can see, other than Mathews, every eligible candidate cruised into Cooperstown in his first year of eligibility. Furthermore, the following players, all with a career WAR below 70, made it in their first year: Brooks Robinson, Tony Gwynn, Eddie Murray, Willie McCovey, Ozzie Smith, Ernie Banks, Dave Winfield, Willie Stargell and Kirby Puckett.
Yet Bagwell couldn't receive 50 percent of the vote, which indicates one of two things:
1. A large percentage of voters don't realize how great Bagwell was.
2. A large percentage of voters didn't vote for him because he had big muscles.
In 1990, the year Gorman traded him to the Astros, Bagwell played at Double-A New Britain (Conn.). While he hit .333 (second in the league) and led the league with 34 doubles, he also hit just four home runs. This fact has been cited as evidence that Bagwell must have turned himself into a slugger who mashed 449 career home runs with the help of steroids. After all, a year after hitting four home runs in Double-A, he hit 15 home runs for the Astros and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. He would end up topping 30 home runs nine times in the major leagues.
You know how many home runs the 1990 New Britain Red Sox hit? Thirty-one. Bagwell was second on the team; Eric Wedge hit five. The team featured eight position players who would reach the majors, including future Red Sox shortstop John Valentin. He hit .218 with two home runs in 351 plate appearances. New Britain was an impossible place to hit. Ryan suggested because of that, Bagwell wouldn't be intimidated by the Astrodome.
"It can't be worse in the gaps than New Britain," Ryan quotes Bagwell as saying. "The ball doesn't go anywhere down there."
The year before, New Britain hit 42 home runs. (Mo Vaughn hit just eight.) It hit 34 in 1988. Bagwell, who Ryan describes in the article as having "something approaching a hockey build," didn't lack power; he was just playing his minor league games in the Grand Canyon.
Bagwell has denied using steroids. He never tested positive once testing was initiated late in his career. He wasn't mentioned in the Mitchell report. He played 156 or more games in 10 of his 15 seasons. Other than his freakishly awesome 1994 season in which he hit .368 in the strike-shortened season, his career shows a rather normal curve of improvement, peak value and slow decline starting in his mid-30s.
But he had big muscles.
Since it would seem presumptuous to assume guilt without evidence, I'll assume the majority of voters somehow missed Bagwell's greatness, as they did with Mathews for a few years or with Blyleven for so long. These things happen, but fortunately they usually correct themselves. Bagwell didn't reach the magic 3,000-hit barrier, and he didn't even hit 500 home runs. Some of his value is tied into being an excellent baserunner and solid defensive first baseman, things that can be overlooked in Hall of Fame voting.
I assume the voters will eventually come around and realize Bagwell is just one of 22 players with 1,500 RBIs and 1,500 runs scored since World War II -- his 152 runs scored in 2000 are the most in one season since the 1930s. Of those 22, he ranks seventh in OPS and eighth in adjusted OPS (behind guys named Bonds, Mantle, Musial, Aaron, Mays, Ramirez and Robinson).
So, yes, Bagwell will eventually get elected to Cooperstown. Because he wouldn't be denied admittance because he had big muscles.