Seaver’s career did not end up the way it should have; the way he would have planned it out. He should have been with the 1986 Mets. After winning the World Series at Shea Stadium, he should have been given a last ticker tape parade through Manhattan. He could have announced his retirement while still on top. Instead he finished in renegade manner; absent fanfare or glory. Few athletes ever go out on top. Seaver was not one of them. However, this did not in any way detract from his place in history.
In trying to understand where Tom Seaver ranks, as a pitcher, as a New York sports icon, as part of the myth and lore of the hallowed pantheon of American athletics, one must first address the 1969 Mets. Historians have tried to give meaning to the Amazin’ Mets. All in all, it probably was the greatest, most wonderful sporting moment – and one of the most upbeat overall events – in American or even world history. The most significant sports events since the 1969 Mets include the:
1974 Hank Aaron’s breaking of Babe Ruth’s homer record.
1977 Reggie Jackson’s five-homer Yankees-Dodgers World Series.
1978 Ron Guidry vs. Jim Rice Yankees-Red Sox play-off.
1985 Pete Rose’s breaking of Ty Cobb’s all-time hits record.
1986 Bill Buckner’s error gives Mets World Series.
1988 Orel Hershiser’s breaking of Don Drysdale’s consecutive scoreless innings record.
2001 Barry Bonds’s breaking of Mark McGwire’s homer record.
2001 Curt Schilling vs. Derek Jeter 9/11 Diamondbacks-Yankees World Series.
2003 Derek Jeter vs. Pedro Martinez Yankees-Red Sox A.L. Championship Series.
2004 Curt Schilling vs. Alex Rodriguez Red Sox-Yankees A.L. Championship Series.
2007 Barry Bonds’s breaking of Hank Aaron’s homer record.
1973 O.J. Simpson’s breaking of Jim Brown’s season rushing record, passing 2,000
1979 Terry Bradshaw vs. Roger Staubach Steelers-Cowboys Super Bowl.
1982 Joe Montana-to-Dwight Clark “The Catch” 49ers-Cowboys NFC championship
1985 Joe Montana vs. Dan Marino 49ers-Dolphins Super Bowl.
1991 Bill Parcells vs. Marv Levy Giants-Bills Super Bowl.
1994 Jerry Rice’s breaking of the all-time career record with 14,005 receiving yards.
2000 Kurt Warner vs. Steve McNair Rams-Titans Super Bowl.
1969 Texas-Arkansas game.
1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game.
1973 Notre Dame-Alabama Sugar Bowl.
1974 Anthony Davis USC-Notre Dame game.
1984 Miami-Nebraska Orange Bowl.
1986 Joe Paterno vs. Jimmie Johnson Penn State-Miami Fiesta Bowl.
1988 “Catholics vs. convicts” Notre-Dame-Miami game.
1993 Notre Dame-Florida State game.
2000 Chris Weinke vs. Michael Vick Florida State-Virginia Tech Sugar Bowl.
2003 Ohio State-Miami BCS Fiesta Bowl.
2006 Vince Young vs. Matt Leinart Texas-USC BCS Rose Bowl.
1970 Willis Reed vs. Jerry West Knickerbockers-Lakers NBA Finals.
1972 Lakers 33-game winning streak NBA championship.
1984 Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson Celtics-Lakers NBA Finals.
1987 Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals.
1995 Michael Jordan Bulls 73-win NBA championship.
1974 Notre Dame’s ending UCLA’s 88-game winning streak.
1974 David “Skywalker” Thompson vs. Bill Walton North Carolina State-UCLA
NCAA Final Four.
1979 Magic Johnson vs. Larry Bird Michigan State-Indiana State NCAA Final Four.
1983 Jim Valvano vs. Hakeem Olajuwon North Carolina State-Houston NCAA Final
1985 Villanova’s NCAA basketball championship.
1992 Christian Laettner/Duke NCAA championship.
1971 Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier at Madison Square Garden.
1974 Muhammad Ali vs. George Foreman “rumble in the jungle.”
1975 Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier “thrilla in Manila.”
1972 Munich’s “terror in the Olympic Village.”
1976 Bruce Jenner’s decathlon Gold medal in Montreal.
1980 “miracle on ice” U.S.-Soviet Union hockey match at Lake Placid, New York.
1984 Carl Lewis’s four Gold medals in Los Angeles.
1992 Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding ice skating controversy in Lillehammer, Norway.
2008 Michael Phelps’s ’s eight swimming Gold medals in Beijing.
1980 Bjorn Borg vs. John McEnroe Wimbledon championship.
1999 Lance Armstrong overcoming cancer to win the Tour de France.
2003 Tiger Woods sets all-time PGA records.
2007 David Beckham’s soccer celebrity.
Many argue the 1980 U.S. “miracle on ice” Olympic hockey victory over the Soviets rates as the all-time moment. Perhaps it is. Ranking such things is subjective and opinionated. However, in examining these carefully, along with all great, significant sporting events prior to the 1969 World Series, it may be argued but cannot be completely disputed that the Amazin’ Mets remains the greatest, most improbable, all-around sports story of ever. Few events had the kind of:
· Season-long build-up and series of climaxes.
· Sense of redemption after years of defeat.
· Sheer against-the-odds upset and impact.
· Seemingly miraculous, actual-hand-of-God serendipity, coincidence and sweet irony.
· Good guys vs. bad guys, heroes and goats, match-ups of teams, players, pitchers, managers, cities and regions.
· Feel good effect on the sport and the nation.
· While occurring in New York City.
One man more than anybody else symbolizes that entire magical season. That man is George Thomas “Tom Terrific” Seaver, otherwise known as the Franchise and a true New York Sports icon. Considering this, Seaver must be rated with some extra “points” on his lifetime “scorecard.” His record is more than mere wins, strikeouts and earned run average. His heroic role with the 1969 New York Mets enhances his place in the game more so than, for instance, Roger Clemens’s role with the 2000 New York Yankees, or even such dominating performances as Bob Gibson of the 1967 St. Louis Cardinals, or Randy Johnson of the 2001 Arizona Diamondbacks, just to name a few fellow pitchers.
“I played in the Major Leagues for 20 years for four different teams, but my association with the New York Mets will certainly dominate the history of my career, even though I played for them for just over half of those 20 years,” Seaver recalled.
Seaver the fan and historian understood what the 1969 Mets meant because he studied the importance of such things, but he was not always an accurate prognosticator. In 1992 he wrote Great Moments in Baseball. Of Aaron’s all-time career home run record he wrote, “Nobody who picks up this tome in a dusty old used book shop sometime in the 21st Century is welcome to have a laugh on me if someone has already passed Aaron. You see, we didn’t think the home record would fall, either.” He included Jose Canseco, Darryl Strawberry, Mark McGwire, Kevin Mitchell, and Cecil Fielder - not Barry Bonds - as the players with the greatest potential to break the mark.
Seaver’s top 10 greatest moments in baseball history (he did not count the 1969 Mets no doubt due to modesty) were Babe Ruth’s 60 homers (1927); Jackie Robinson’s integration of the game (1947); Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak (1941); Walter Johnson’s 110 career shutouts; Sandy Koufax’s five straight ERA titles (1962-66); Pete Rose breaking Ty Cobb’s hit record (1985); Henry Aaron breaking Babe Ruth’s career home run record (1974); Lou Gehrig’s 2,130th consecutive game (1939); Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters; and Roger Maris’s 61 homers (1961).
Tom Seaver and Jim Palmer, the two pre-eminent right-handed aces of baseball in the 1970s, saw each other many times over the years. They had much in common aside from both being Baseball Hall of Famers. Each had good looks, extraordinary intelligence, a sense for history, while experiencing graceful retirements. But Palmer lamented for years what might have been in 1969. Over and over, he came up with scenarios whereby the Orioles might have pulled it out. Seaver finally had to say, “Jim, it’s been a long time. You’ve got to get over it.”
Seaver’s number was retired before 46,057 at Shea during a special Tom Seaver Day ceremony in 1988. He told the crowd, “I came to the decision a long time ago, if my number was retired, there was one way I wanted to say thank you. If you will allow me one moment, I want to say thank you in a very special way. If you know me and ho much I love pitching, you’ll know what this means to me.”
Wearing a business suit on the mound he bowed to all sections of the stadium, blowing kisses, then joined his wife and family to drive the convertible they gave him through the center field gate.
As of 2011, Seaver remains the only Met player to have his uniform number retired. Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges had their numbers retired as Met managers, and Jackie Robinson had his number retired by all teams. Their numbers - 14 (Hodges), 37 (Stengel), 41 (Seaver), and 42 (Jackie Robinson) - were posted in large numerals on the outfield fence at Shea Stadium, and are posted on the left field corner wall at Citi Field. Seaver is unquestionably the greatest player in Mets history.
He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on January 7, 1992. He received the highest-ever percentage of votes with 98.84 percent (on 425 of 430 ballots), higher than Nolan Ryan's 98.79 percent (491 of 497), and Ty Cobb's 98.23 percent (222 of 226). Reportedly, three of the five ballots that had omitted Seaver were blank, cast by writers protesting the Hall's decision to make Pete Rose ineligible for consideration. Seaver is the only player enshrined in the Hall of Fame with a Mets cap on his plaque.
“There are moments in an individual’s life that he will take with him forever,” Seaver said when told he was in. “This is one . . . I don’t suppose this is really going to hit me until I walk the halls of Cooperstown next August to look at the plaque of Christy Mathewson. My children will be able to take their children to the Hall of Fame and say, ‘There’s your grandfather. In his day he was pretty good.’ It’s a wonderful thing to think about.”
Seaver invited Russ Scheidt to the ceremony on August 3. During his induction he said of Hodges that he “taught me how to really be a pro,” and finished his speech, calling it “the last beautiful flower in a perfect bouquet.”
“The Hall of Fame was an experience . . .” he said, catching his voice in recalling the event. “It’s not just everyday stuff; it’s forever. You’re there forever. It’s your whole life in a moment.”
“The most memorable day that I spent as a talk show host at WFAN, which is something I did for eight years, was an hour that I spent on the air with Tom the night after he was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Mets broadcaster Howie Rose recalled. “I built an entire five-hour show around Seaver’s career by bringing in guests who had played with him, or in some case against him. People who had been important parts of his career. And he was the centerpiece. We had him on for an hour; it was only supposed to be a half-hour. It just kept going, and he was more than gracious to double the amount of time he could spend with us. It was just a phenomenal night.”
He was also inducted into the New York Mets Hall of Fame in 1988, the Marine Corps Sports Hall of Fame in 2003 and the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame in 2006.
When Seaver officially called it quits in 1987, there was a very strong argument that he was the greatest pitcher since World War II, and if he was the greatest pitcher since World War II, then there was no reason he might not be the greatest pitcher of all time. Since 1987, a handful of pitching greats have made their marks. One or two of them have compiled statistics, records and honors arguably placing them above Tom Seaver in the pantheon. However, these records, as with so many records of the past 20 years, must be viewed with suspicion, for this has been the infamous “steroid era.” At first many believed steroids favored only the hitters. Pitchers faced greater disadvantages. Aside from performance-enhanced hitters, the balls were said to be “juiced,” too, and the new ballparks downsized to make it easier to “go yard.” However, at least one of the pitchers who might be considered “greater” than Seaver is viewed by most – despite his own objections – to have achieved much of his success as so many other players in large measure because of steroids. In 2011, with the “steroid era” finally, seemingly, under control, it is time to look back at Seaver and judge his record in the light of all we now know.
His statistics must be examined closely, in the full glare of the times he pitched in; the post-war “golden age” (1946-87); and compared with other eras in baseball history: the “dead ball” period (pre-1920), the pre-war years (1920-46); and the “steroid era” (1988-2007). The golden age, ushered in by the end of World War II, saw the influx of African-American and Latino players. By Seaver’s day, these players were fully inculcated into the framework of the game in both leagues.
Many view the 1971 All-Star game at Detroit as the single greatest confluence of baseball talent ever. This can be argued, as can so many things, but unquestionably Tom Seaver competed with, against and during the overlapping careers of some of the most mythic, Rushmore legends of the game, including Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Johnny Bench, Mickey Mantle, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Barry Bonds, Ernie Banks, Greg Maddux, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Roger Clemens, Whitey Ford, George Brett, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Eddie Mathews, Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Kaline, Eddie Murray, Cal Ripken, Jr., Brooks Robinson, Willie Stargell, Kirby Puckett, Ozzie Smith, Mark McGwire, Ken Griffey, Jr., Dave Winfield, Wade Boggs, Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry, Dennis Eckersley, and Paul Molitor (all of whom were voted in this order to The Sporting News’ list of Baseball’s Greatest Players near the turn of the century; 19 of 100 were native Californians).
Seaver and his teams did battle against some of the greatest clubs and dynasties the National Pastime has ever known, including Bob Gibson’s Cardinals of the 1960s, the 1969 Orioles, the A’s dynasty of the 1970s, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine, great Dodgers clubs, Pittsburgh’s Lumber Company, Steve Carlton’s Phillies of the 1970s and early ‘80s, and the 1986 Mets.
Seaver gave as well as he got, challenging great sluggers with his fastball, engaging in vicious bean ball wars with the toughest competitors, fighting it out in pitching duels with the best of the best, sometimes on the biggest September-October stages over two of the best decades ever.
After the 1981 season Seaver’s career ERA (2.55) established the National League career record among pitchers with 200 or more games won. At the time of his retirement Seaver was third on the all-time strikeout list (3,640), trailing only Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton. His lifetime ERA of 2.86 was third among starting pitchers in the post "live-ball" era, behind only Whitey Ford and Sandy Koufax. Seaver also holds the record for consecutive 200-strikeout seasons with nine (1968–1976).
He was the first pitcher to have 10 200-strikeout seasons. Seaver set the record for consecutive strikeouts with 10 against San Diego on April 22, 1970, a game in which he tied Steve Carlton’s record for most strikeouts in a game with 19. He set the National League mark for strikeouts by a right-hander in 1970 with 283, then broke his own mark in 1971 with 289.
He retired with a .603 career winning percentage, the highest of any 300-game winner in the past half-century (311-205). Had Seaver not chosen to pitch in his last season (1986), his lifetime record would have been 304-192. This would have put him in a very unique category; 300 wins and less than 200 loses. Instead, as with Mickey Mantle when he played long enough to see his lifetime batting average drop below .300 in 1968, it was most unfortunate that he did not achieve this mark.
Seaver was named the right-handed pitcher on The Sporting News’ National League All-Star team four times (1969, 1973, 1975, 1981), and was the The Sporting News’ National League Pitcher of the Year three times (1969, 1973, 1975). Named Rookie of the Year in 1967, Seaver was Sports Illsutrated’s Sportsman of the Year and winner of the Hickock Belt as Professional Athlete of the Year in 1969. He was named to 12 All-Star Games, striking out 16 hitters in 13 innings. Seaver named Comeback Player of the Year in 1975 and 1981.
Seaver pitched in the 1969, 1973 and 1979 National League Championship Series, compiling a 2-1 record with a 2.84 ERA with 24 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings. In the 1969 and 1973 World Series Seaver was 1-2, striking out 27 in 30 innings, with a 2.70 earned run average. He pitched one no-hitter and five one-hitters.
It is not an exaggeration to state that Seaver was every bit as dominant in both 1969 and 1971 as Cy Young (1901), Christy Mathewson (1905), Walter Johnson (1913), Joe Wood (1912), Grover Cleveland Alexander (1915), Lefty Grove (1931), Dizzy Dean (1934), Bob Feller (1946), Warren Spahn (1953), Sandy Koufax (1965), Bob Gibson or Denny McLain (1968), Steve Carlton (1972), Ron Guidry (1978), Roger Clemens (1986), Orel Hershiser (1988), Greg Maddux (1995), Pedro Martinez (1999) or Randy Johnson (2001).
Seaver ranked 32nd on The Sporting News' list of Baseball’s 100 Greatest Players, which came out towards the end of the 20th Century around the time baseball announced its All-Century Team. He was the only player on the list to have spent a majority of his career with the Mets. Babe Ruth was number one, followed by Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, and Christy Mathewson. Johnson, at number four, was the highest-rated pitcher.
Other pitchers ranked ahead of Seaver were Grover Cleveland Alexander (12th), Cy Young (14th), Satchel Paige (19th), Warren Spahn (21st), Lefty Grove (23rd), Sandy Koufax (26th), Steve Carlton (30th), and Bob Gibson (31st). Pitchers ranked after Seaver at that time were Bob Feller (36th), Greg Maddux (39th), Nolan Ryan (41st), Carl Hubbell (45th), Whitey Ford (52nd), Roger Clemens (53rd), Jim Palmer (64th), Eddie Plank (68th), Juan Marichal (71st), Lefty Gomez (73rd), Robin Roberts (74th), Ed Walsh (82nd), Dizzy Dean (85th), Rollie Fingers (96th), Gaylord Perry (97th), Dennis Eckersley (98th), and Early Wynn (100th).
This list was released long before the true impact of steroids was understood; indeed, there was still little evidence or even suspicion that steroids spread in any appreciable way. Barry Bonds was ranked 34th, and Mark McGwire was 91st. Perhaps the position players whose place in history should be judged most comparably with Seaver, based on what is now known, are Ken Griffey, Jr., who in 1999 had been in the big leagues about a decade and was then ranked number 93; and Reggie Jackson (48th). These are two hitters whose records, like Seaver, deserve to be re-evaluated because players on steroids surpassed them.
Among pitchers not ranked among the 100 greatest players in 1999 who would be today are Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera. Curt Schilling, Pedro Martinez, and Roy Halladay possibly would ascend to the list, although “unranking” the likes of Rollie Fingers, Gaylord Perry, Dennis Eckersley and Early Wynn would be problematic. In 2008, Forbes magazine ranked Seaver seventh behind Walter Johnson, Roger Clemens, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Randy Johnson, and Greg Maddux. He was rated ahead of Warren Spahn, Pedro Martinez, Christy Mathewson, and Steve Carlton. It was a very well researched list, but some major notables such as Cy Young, Bob Feller and Sandy Koufax were not included.
Baseball purists often compare Seaver to Christy Mathewson for his combination of raw power, pinpoint control, intelligence, and intense scrutiny of his performance. Seaver was the foremost latter-day exponent of a "drop and drive" overhand delivery utilitizing his powerful legs, taking strain off of his arm, which helped ensure his longevity. He was a proficient bunter who also hit 12 home runs during his career.
When Seaver approached Hank Aaron before his first All-Star Game in 1967 and introduced himself to Aaron, "Hammerin' Hank" replied, "Kid, I know who you are, and before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too." When it was all said and done, Aaron stated Seaver was the toughest pitcher he ever faced.
In an ESPN poll among his peers, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Steve Carlton, Bert Blyleven, and Don Sutton all agreed Seaver was "the best" of their generation of pitchers.
But just how good was he? Was he better than the 11th best pitcher of all time, the 32nd best player ever (The Sporting News, 1999) or the seventh best pitcher in history (Forbes, 2008)? When Clemens, Johnson and Maddux broke some of his records, did they ascend to a placer greater than he? How much does one factor in the “dead ball” and “steroid eras”? What about a pitcher like Satchel Paige, who toiled in obscurity in the old Negro Leagues, or Bob Feller, who missed enough years in World War II to cost him around 100 wins? How relevant is it to take into consideration the considerable lack of offensive support Seaver received for some 70 or 80 percent of his career? What about the size of the stadiums? How about the fact the mound was lowered in 1969, or the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973?
Notable comparisons with all-time great pitchers
Walter Johnson (1907-27): 417-279 (33-12 in ’12, 36-7 in ’13, 23-7 in ’24) . . . .599 percentage . . . 2.17 ERA . . . 110 shutouts . . . 3,509 strikeouts . . . two MVP awards (1913, 1924) . . . one World Championship (1924 Washington Senators).
Christy Mathewson (1900-16): 378-188 (33-12 in ‘04, 31-9 in ’05, 37-11 in ’08) . . . .665 percentage . . . 2.13 ERA . . . 79 shutouts . . . 2,507 strikeouts . . . three shutouts (1905 World Series) . . . one World Championship (1905 New York Giants).
Grover Cleveland Alexander (1911-30): 373-208 (31-10 in ’15, 33-12 in ’16, 30-13 in ’17) . . . .642 percentage . . . 2.56 ERA . . . 90 shutouts . . . 2,198 strikeouts . . . one World Championship (1926 St. Louis Cardinals).
Cy Young (1890-1911): 511-316 (33-10 in ’01, 32-11 in ’02, 28-9 in ‘03) . . . .618 percentage . . . 2.63 ERA . . . 76 shutouts . . . 2,803 strikeouts . . . one perfect game . . . one World Championship (1903 Boston Pilgrims).
Satchel Paige (1948-49, 1951-53, 1965): One world championship (1948 Indians) . . . compiled remarkable record in the Negro Leagues, but statistics can only be estimated; considered equal of all contemporaries (Bob Feller, Carl Hubbell, Lefty Grove), perhaps best ever.
Warren Spahn (1942, 1947-65): 363-245 (23-7 in ’53, 21-11 in ’57, 23-7 in ’63) . . . .597 percentage . . . 3.09 ERA . . . 63 shutouts . . . 2,583 strikeouts . . . one Cy Young Award (1957) . . . one World Championship (1957 Milwaukee Braves).
Lefty Grove (1925-41): 300-141 (28-5 in ’30, 31-4 in ’30, 24-8 in ’33) . . . .680 percentage . . . 3.06 ERA . . . 35 shutouts . . . 2,266 strikeouts . . . one MVP award (1931) . . . one World Championship (1929).
Sandy Koufax (1955-66): 165-87 (25-5 in ’63, 26-8 in ’65, 27-9 in ’66) . . . .655 percentage . . . 2.76 ERA . . . 40 shutouts . . . 2,396 strikeouts . . . set record, 18 strikeouts, single game . . . set record, strikeouts, World Series game, 15 (1963) . . . four no-hitters, one perfect game . . . one MVP award (1963) . . . three Cy Young Awards (1963, 1965-66) . . . four World Championships (1955 Brooklyn Dodgers, 1959, 1963, 1965 Los Angeles Dodgers).
Steve Carlton (1965-88): 329-144 (27-10 in ’72, 23-10 in ’77, 24-9 in ’80) . . . .574 percentage . . . 3.22 ERA . . . 55 shutouts . . . 4,136 strikeouts . . . set/tied record, 19 strikeouts, single game . . . four Cy Young Awards (1972, 1977, 1980, 1982) . . . three World Championships (1967 St. Louis Cardinals, 1980 Philadelphia Phillies, 1987 Minnesota Twins).
Bob Gibson (1959-75): 251-174 (22-9 in ’68, 20-13 in ’69, 23-7 in ’70) . . . .591 percentage . . . 2.91 ERA . . . 56 shutouts . . . 3,117 strikeouts . . . set record, 1.12 ERA (1968) . . . set record, strikeouts, World Series game, 17 (1968) . . . one MVP award
(1968) . . . two Cy Young Awards (1968, 1970) . . . two World Championships (1964, 1967 St. Louis Cardinals).
Bob Feller (1936-41, 1946-56): 266-162 (27-11 in ’40, 25-13 in ’41, 26-15 in ’46) . . . .621 percentage . . . 3.25 ERA . . . 44 shutouts . . . 2,581 strikeouts . . . three no-hitters . . . missed 1942-45, World War II service . . . one World Championship (1948 Cleveland Indians).
Greg Maddux (1986-2008): 355-227 (20-12 in ’92, 16-6 in ’94, 19-2 in ’95) . . . .610 percentage . . . 3.16 ERA . . . 35 shutouts . . . 3,371 strikeouts . . . four Cy Young Awards (1992-95) . . . one World Championship (1995 Atlanta Braves).
Nolan Ryan (1966, 1968-93) . . . 324-292 (21-16 in ’73, 22-16 in ’74, 11-5 in ’81) . . . .526 percentage . . . 3.19 ERA . . . 61 shutouts . . . 6,714 strikeouts . . . threw seven no-hitters . . . one World Championship (1969 New York Mets).
Carl Hubbell (1928-43): 253-154 (23-12 in ’33, 26-6 in ’36, 22-8 in ’37) . . . .622 percentage . . . 2.98 ERA . . . 36 shutouts . . . one MVP award (1933) . . . one World Championship (1933 New York Giants).
Whitey Ford (1950, 1953-67): 236-106 (19-6 in ’56, 25-4 in ’61, 24-7 in ’63) . . . .690 percentage . . . 2.75 ERA . . . 45 shutouts . . . one Cy Young Award (1961) . . . six World Championships (1950, 1953, 1956, 1958, 1960-61 New York Yankees).
Roger Clemens (1984-2007): 354-184 (24-4 in ’86, 21-6 in ’90, 20-3 in ’01) . . . .658 percentage . . . 46 shutouts . . . 3.12 ERA . . . 4,672 strikeouts . . . twice set/tied record, strikeouts, single game, 20 . . . one MVP award (1986) . . . seven Cy Young Awards (1987-87, 1991, 1997-98, 2001, 2004) . . . two World Championships (1999, 2000).
Jim Palmer (1965-67, 1969-84): 268-152 (22-9 in ’73, 23-11 in ’75, 22-13 in ’76) . . . .638 percentage . . . 2.86 ERA . . . 53 shutouts . . . 2,212 strikeouts . . . three Cy Young Awards (1973, 1975-76) . . . one World Championship (1970 Baltimore Orioles).
Eddie Plank (1901-17): 326-194 (26-17 in ’04, 23-8 in ’11, 26-6 in ’12) . . . .627 percentage . . . 2.35 ERA . . . 69 shutouts . . . 2,246 strikeouts . . . three World Championships (1910-11, 1913 Philadelphia Athletics).
Juan Marichal (1960-75): 243-142 (25-8 in ’63, 25-6 in ’66, 26-9 in ’68) . . . .631 percentage . . . 2.89 ERA . . . 52 shutouts . . . 2,303 strikeouts.
Lefty Gomez (1930-43): 189-102 (21-9 in ’31, 26-5 in ’34, 21-11 in ’37) . . . .649 percentage . . . 3.34 ERA . . . 28 shutouts . . . 1,468 strikeouts . . . Six World Championships (1932, 1936-39, 1941 New York Yankees).
Robin Roberts (1948-66): 286-245 (20-11 in ’50, 28-7 in ’52, 23-16 in ’53) . . . .539 percentage . . . 3.41 ERA . . . 45 shutouts . . . 2,357 strikeouts.
Ed Walsh (1904-17): 195-126 (40-15 in ’08, 27-18 in ’11, 27-17 in ’12) . . . 1.82 ERA . . . 57 shutouts . . . 1,736 strikeouts . . . one World Championship (1906 Chicago White Sox).
Dizzy Dean (1930, 1932-41, 1947): 150-83 (30-7 in ’34, 28-12 in ’35, 24-13 in ’36) . . . .644 percentage . . . 3.02 ERA . . . 26 shutouts . . . 1,163 strikeouts . . . one World Championship (1934 St. Louis Cardinals).
Rollie Fingers (1968-82, 1984-85): 341 saves (22 saves in ’73, 37 saves in ’78, 28 saves in ’81) . . . 2.90 ERA . . . one MVP award (1981) . . . one Cy Young Award (1981) . . . three World Championships (1972-74 Oakland Athletics).
Gaylord Perry (1962-83): 314-265 (21-8 in ’66, 24-16 in ’72, 21-6 in ’78) . . . .542 percentage . . . 3.11 ERA . . . 53 shutouts . . . 3,534 strikeouts . . . two Cy Young Awards (1972, 1978).
Dennis Eckersley (1975-98): 191-171, 390 saves (20-8 in ’78, 33 saves in ’88, 51 saves in ’92) . . . 3.50 ERA . . . 2,401 strikeouts . . . one MVP award (1992) . . . one Cy Young Award (1992) . . .. . . one World Championship (1989 Oakland Athletics).
Early Wynn (1939, 1941-44, 1946-63): 300-244 (23-12 in ’52, 23-11 in ’54, 22-10 in ’59) . . . .551 percentage . . . 3.54 ERA . . . 49 shutouts . . . 2,334 strikeouts . . . one Cy Young Award (1959).
Randy Johnson (1988-2009): 303-166 (18-2 in ’95, 21-6 in ’01, 24-5 in ’02) . . . .646 percentage . . . 3.29 ERA . . . 37 shutouts . . . 4,875 strikeouts . . . five Cy Young Awards (1995, 1999-2002) . . . one World Championship (2001 Arizona Diamondbacks).
Pedro Martinez (1992-2009): 219-100 (17-8 in ’97, 23-4 in ’99, 20-4 in ’02) . . . 2.93 ERA . . . 17 shutouts . . . 3.154 strikeouts . . . three Cy Young Awards . . . one World Championship (2004 Boston Red Sox).
Mariano Rivera (1995-2010/present): 559 saves (36 saves in ’98, 45 saves in ’99, 53 saves in ’04) . . . 2.23 ERA . . . five World Championships (1996, 1998-2000, 2010 New York Yankees).
Curt Schilling and Roy Halladay are two pitchers of recent vintage that arguably could be on the list. It is also worth noting that among these pitchers – those selected from among the 100 best at the turn of the century in 1999, plus several who have made their marks in succeeding years – six (including Seaver) are from the state of California. Aside from Seaver (Fresno), Walter Johnson is from Fullerton, Randy Johnson is from Livermore, Lefty Gomez from El Rodeo, Rollie Fingers from Upland, and Dennis Eckersley from Fremont. Seaver and Johnson are both products of USC. None of the others went to college.
As of the beginning of the 2011 Major League season, Seaver is 18th with 311 victories. Several of the pitchers ahead of him are part of a time period that is so old their records, while Cooperstown-worthy, must be tempered by the times they pitched in. These include Jim Galvin (365 wins, 1875-92), Kid Nichols (342 wins, 1890-1906), Tim Keefe (342 wins, 1880-1893), and John Clarkson (328 wins, 1882-94). Comparing Tom Seaver with these pitchers is like comparing the 1972 USC Trojan football team with the 1894 Yale Bulldogs. There is no comparison.
Baseball allows a greater statistical analysis and ability to compare the past with the present than any other sport. Uniformity of games, rules, and dimensions are part of this. It was certainly a more advanced game than football or basketball, and obviously records in sports like track and swimming bear no resemblance then and now.
No basketball player lived before World War II whose name is mentioned with any who played afterwards. The first (and only) football player before World War I whose name is ever mentioned is Jim Thorpe. It was not until the 1920s and 1930s that famed grid stars came along who pundits conceive might be able to compete today, yet we are to presume that the stars of the 1900s and 1910s – Johnson, Mathewson, Young, Alexander – are representative of their statistics. The sheer gaudiness of their records compared to current statistics tells us that they must be judged with a wide variance, giving the modern star a tremendous edge in which 19 or 20 wins today is as impressive as 28 or 29 wins in 1910, 24 or 25 wins worthy of 30-plus-win seasons in the old days.
Seaver offers 311 career wins. A review of his career reveals he should have won 20 in 1967 (four more than 16), 24 in 1968 (eight more than 16), 30 in 1971 (10 more than 20), 25 in 1973 (six more than 19), 20 in 1976 (six more than 14), 20 in both 1978 and 1979 (four more than 16 each year), and 21 in 1981 (seven more than 14 in a strike-shortened campaign). This probably modest estimation adds 49 wins to his record, giving him 360. If he were only three shy of Warren Spahn and 13 shy of both Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander, he probably would have moved Heaven and Earth to catch them (although the move to the American League in 1984 would have denied him the National League record held by Mathewson and Alexander). It also would have had a tremendous attendant affect on his career winning percentage, cutting perhaps 25 losses at least from his 205.
Seaver might have finished 373-180, a record he pitched well enough to achieve. As it stands, only Christy Mathewson (373-188), Roger Clemens (354-185), John Clarkson (328-178), Eddie Plank (326-194), Charley Radbourne (309-195), Randy Johnson (303-166), and Lefty Grove (300-144) won more than 300 and lost less than 200. It is quite unfortunate that Seaver chose to pitch that last 7-13 season in 1986.
Had he joined this most elite group, not to mention adding Cy Young Awards in 1971, 1978, and 1981 to his resume, giving him at least six, there would be little discussion regarding his ultimate ranking. This does not include 1967, when Mike McCormick of San Francisco won the award in a down year in which Seaver, a mere rookie, was better on a bad club; or 1970, when he was steaming towards 30 wins and the Cy Young in August before inexplicably hitting a wall he never hit before or after!
At 2.86 Seaver ranks 63rd in earned run average, but this is more of a joke than the list for all-time wins, which includes a bunch of guys who more resembled softball or beer league heroes. He is tied with Andy Messersmith (a truly under-rated pitcher) and his contemporary rival, Jim Palmer. Of pitchers who toiled after the “dead ball era” ended in 1920, only Ford (2.75) and Koufax (2.76) are ahead of him. Reliever Hoyt Wilhelm sported an impressive 2.56 ERA, but a reliever’s ERA is not the “same” as starters.
Ford’s and Koufax’s lifetime ERAs are both skewed statistics. Manager Casey Stengel mainly used Ford at cavernous Yankee Stadium in the 1950s. Sluggers powered long drives that Mickey Mantle routinely ran down in left-center field’s “death valley.” Ford was held out of many games in order to effectuate key match-ups (especially in World Series play when, without play-offs, Stengel positioned him to full advantage in the rotation). This strategy also cost him many 20-win seasons until manager Ralph Houk replaced Stengel in 1961.
Koufax was as good between 1962 (or possibly 1961) and 1966 as any pitcher ever was at any time, but this is a very short period (even this time includes injuries keeping him off the mound the second half in ’62, the last month-and-a-half in ’64). From the standpoint of sheer dominance reflecting ERA and strikeouts, Seaver’s record between 1969 and 1975, or more expansively between 1968 and 1977 (at least) is comparable and sometimes even favorable. As great as Koufax was, it is hard to imagine he or anybody was better than Seaver down the stretch in 1969, for the first four-and-a-half months of 1970, all of 1971, or most of 1973. The one area where Koufax cannot be beaten, however, is consideration of the victories he won with little run support. Whereby Seaver often lost five or more wins a season due to poor offense, Koufax managed to win most of his 1-0 and 2-1 games, especially in 1965 and 1966 when he was at his peak. But Koufax’s career 2.76 ERA is barely better than Seaver’s 2.86, was accomplished with far fewer innings, and is not burdened by bad years when he was past his prime. He retired at age 30 after winning 27 games in 1966. Had he hung on his ERA would have inevitably rose. His lifetime wins and strikeouts are not close to Seaver’s marks.
Many of the others on the all-time ERA list are anomalies of history; the likes of Addie Joss, Al Spalding, Tommy Bond and such unheard-ofs as Hooks Wiltse. The all-time greats ranked ahead of Seaver in ERA are impressive, but Ed Walsh’s 1.82 lifetime earned run average (not to mention his outrageous 40 wins in 1906) are inflated beyond any useful comparison. Christy Mathewson’s 2.13 ERA can reasonably be re-configured, using logic and common sense, to the 2.70 to 2.80 range had he pitched in Seaver’s time, higher in the “steroid era” (not to mention the psychological shock these men would have undergone had they found themselves facing behemoths like Mark McGwire or Barry Bonds).
Seaver’s ERA was equal or better than all his contemporaries, including Juan Marichal (2.89), Rollie Fingers (2.90), Bob Gibson (2.91), Don Drysdale (2.95), Gaylord Perry (3.11), Nolan Ryan (3.19), Don Sutton (3.26), Steve Carlton (3.29), and Dennis Eckersley (3.50). He was also superior to Pedro Martinez (2.93), Carl Hubbell (2.98), Lefty Grove (3.06), Warren Spahn (3.09), Roger Clemens (3.12), Greg Maddux (3.16), Bob Feller (3.25), and Randy Johnson (3.29). One modern pitcher does stand out in his own way. That is Mariano Rivera, whose ERA entering 2011 stood at an amazing 2.23. Comparing the ERAs of the aforementioned superstars and Hall of Famers with so many “dead ball era” hurlers, whose ERAs are as much as a run or more lower, yet are forgotten to history, is all one needs to know when logically analyzing the meaning of the statistic.
Seaver featured a 1.76 earned run average in 1971, which ridiculously is not rated among baseball’s top 50 (almost all the names are ancient, many from the 19th Century). For what it’s worth, Seaver’s 1973 earned run average was well below 2.00 until the last couple weeks of the season when, overworked, he became fatigued and finished at 2.08. The formula for determining ERA was not finalized until the early 1910s, although baseball re-configured stats prior to that. Dutch Leonard of the Red Sox featured a 0.96 ERA in 1914, followed by Mordecai “Three Fingered” Brown of the Cubs (1.04, 1906). Bob Gibson is credited with the “modern” record at 1.12 in 1968. Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson each featured 1.14 ERAs in a single year. Aside from Gibson, strike-shortened seasons (a very telling factor) produced three of the greatest modern single-season earned run averages: Greg Maddux (1.56, 1994 and 1.63, 1995) and Nolan Ryan (1.69, 1981).
1968 also stands out as an anomaly, for various reasons, some of which are not explainable. Nevertheless, that season (in addition to Bob Gibson) Cleveland’s Luis Tiant (1.60) and Sam McDowell (1.80), Baltimore’s Dave McNally (1.95), Detroit’s Denny McLain (1.96), San Francisco’s Bob Bolin (1.99), and Tommy John of the White Sox (1.98) all featured sub-2.00 earned run averages. Dean Chance of the Los Angeles Angels (like Andy Messersmith an under-rated Angel who is not in Cooperstown) featured a 1.65 ERA in 1964. Carl Hubbell’s 1.66 earned run average for the 1933 World Champion Giants remains one of the most impressive, since it came during the height of an offensive era in baseball. Prior to the lowering of the pitcher’s mound after 1968, Sandy Koufax three times posted ERAs under 2.00; in 1963 (1.88), 1964 (1.74, injury shortened) and 1966 (1.74).
Seaver’s 1971 earned run average suddenly materializes as, arguably, the greatest in baseball history along with the 1.74 ERA posted by Boston’s Pedro Martinez in 2000. These two are lower than all other earned run average outside of the “dead ball era,” after the lowering of the mound, or in a non-strike season. The other “lively ball” pitchers to post earned run averages below 2.00 include Oakland’s Vida Blue (1.81 in 1971) Atlanta’s Phil Niekro (1.87 in 1967), Houston’s Roger Clemens (1.87 in 2005), Florida’s Kevin Brown (1.89 in 1996), Montreal’s Pedro Martinez (1.90 in 1997), Boston’s Luis Tiant (1.91 in a strike-shortened 1972), Wilbur Wood, White Sox (1.91 in 1971), Cleveland’s Gaylord Perry (1.91 in 1972), Boston’s Roger Clemens (1.93 in 1990), Cincinnati’s Gary Nolan (1.94 in a strike-shortened 1972), the White Sox’s Billy Pierce (1.96 in 1955) and Gary Peters (1.98 in 1966), and Philadelphia’s Steve Carlton (1.98 in 1972).
While Seaver’s mark is incredible, credit must also be given to pitchers who posted sub-2.00 ERAs in seasons marked by the “steroid era”; Maddux twice posting ERAs under 1.70 (1994-95), Clemens’s 1990 and 2005 performances, Brown’s 1996 bravura season, and Martinez’s remarkable run highlighted by 1997 and 2000.
The one statistic favoring the modern player is strikeouts. During the “dead ball era,” hitters shortened up and tried to punch the ball, or often bunted. As hard as Cy Young or Walter Johnson threw, it was difficult to strike hitters out. Still, Johnson’s 3,509 seemed insurmountable until Seaver, Ryan and Carlton came along. At sixth (3,640) Seaver has no complaint. Ryan is so far ahead of everybody as to be beyond comprehension (5,714). Randy Johnson (4,875) and Clemens (4,672) are almost as impressive, although both pitchers benefited from training regimens unavailable to Seaver. Clemens almost surely used steroids that kept him pumped up when older players of past decades were long done. Randy Johnson has avoided this scrutiny, but if tomorrow it were revealed he “juiced” for a decade, nobody would express surprise (while it is considered a given that Maddux and Curt Schilling never did). Carlton is fourth (4,136). Bert Blyleven (3,640) just barely snuck past Tom Terrific, but Don Sutton (3,574) was not able to catch him.
Seaver never struck out 300 batters in a single season. His twice-set National League strikeout record for right-handers in a single season (283 in 1970, 289 in 1971) was subsequently broken. Clemens never struck out 300 in season, either. Ryan did it six times, Randy Johnson five times, Koufax three times, Walter Johnson twice, Rube Waddell twice, Feller and Carlton once each, among others. The single-season strikeout record was once held by Rube Waddell (349, 1904), then “broken” by Bob Feller (348, 1946; some statisticians say he passed Waddell). Koufax broke both marks with 382 in 1965. Ryan holds the current record with 383 in 1973.
Ryan broke Seaver’s record for most 200-strikeout seasons (10), reaching 200 strikeouts 15 times. In 2001 Roger Clemens recorded his 11th 200-strikeout campaign. Seaver record for most consecutive strikeouts (10) against San Diego in 1970 has never been challenged. Clemens subsequently broke his record of 19 strikeouts in a game, twice striking out 20 in a game, as did Kerry Wood of the Cubs in 1998. Randy Johnson twice struck out 19. David Cone and Nolan Ryan also struck out 19 in a game. Feller, Koufax, Clemens, Johnson, and Ryan (among others) all struck out 18 in a game, as well.
Seaver’s 61 career shutouts are tied with Nolan Ryan for seventh all time. The only modern, or “lively ball” pitcher ranked ahead of them is Warren Spahn (63). Walter Johnson (110), Grover Cleveland Alexander (90), Christy Mathewson (79), and Eddie Plank (69) are all “dead ball” pitchers. This statistic, with the exception of Johnson, must be seen as skewed by the times, just as their ERA records are. The game has changed remarkably. Standards are even different today from Seaver’s career. Many a starter is now removed with a shutout after eight innings, turning it over to a closer, particularly if the opponent is within three or four runs. Clemens, for instance, only has 46 shutouts, Randy Johnson 37, while Maddux finished with 35.
Seaver had more career shutouts than contemporaries Bert Blyleven (60), Don Sutton (58), Bob Gibson (56), Steve Carlton (55), Jim Palmer (53), Gaylord Perry (53), Juan Marichal (52), Don Drysdale (49), Ferguson Jenkins (49), Luis Tiant (49), Tommy John (46), Phil Niekro (46), and Catfish Hunter (42).
Seaver had seven shutouts in 1977. The all-time record is 16, held by Alexander (1916). Bob Gibson threw 13 in 1968. Sandy Koufax tossed 11 in 1963. Babe Ruth threw nine in 1916. Ron Guidry had nine in 1978.
Seaver of course pitched one no-hitter and missed a perfect game with one out in the ninth vs. Chicago in 1969. Koufax had four no-hitters and a perfect game. Ryan pitched seven no-hitters. Bob Feller had three. Catfish Hunter and Randy Johnson pitched perfect games.
Seaver never won 30, a record once routinely accomplished but after Dizzy Dean (1934) duplicated only by Denny McLain in 1968. He appeared to be on his way to 30 before faltering badly in 1970, and probably deserved to win 32 or 33 of his 35 starts in 1971.
He earned three Cy Young Awards while Roger Clemens won it seven times, Randy Johnson five, Greg Maddux and Steve Carlton four each. Koufax, of course, won three when the award was granted to only one pitcher in baseball, not for each league. The award did not exist prior to 1956. Pedro Martinez and Jim Palmer also won it three times. Undoubtedly Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Bob Feller and others would have won the award several times. Seaver was robbed of the 1971 and 1981 awards. Better support and better teams might have awarded him the trophy in 1977 and possibly 1978.
Clemens won the Most Valuable Player award in 1986. Koufax was the MVP (1963), Gibson the recipient for 1968. Hubbell won it in 1933, and Walter Johnson was named MVP twice. The failure of the BBWAA to award Seaver the National League Most Valuable Player award for 1969 was a crime.
Seaver was never named MVP of an All-Star Game, a play-off series or a World Series. Koufax was the hero of both the 1963 and 1965 World Series. Gibson was the star in 1964, 1967 and in a losing cause (1968). Randy Johnson was the co-MVP with Curt Schilling of the 2001 World Series. A number of pitchers might be considered greater post-season pitchers than Seaver, among them Whitey Ford, Catfish Hunter, and John Smoltz.
The great pitchers of the early 20th Century must be judged in retrospect, and despite their greatness, to state that they are as great as the moderns requires the same comparison of Bronco Nagurski, Red Grange and Sammy Baugh with O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton and Joe Montana. Some are willing to make this favorable comparison; many are not.
At the time of Seaver’s retirement, he was probably the greatest pitcher of the post-World War II era. His competition was Cleveland’s Bob Feller, Milwaukee’s Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax of the Dodgers, and Steve Carlton (St. Louis, Philadelphia).
“You know, he missed those years at the peak of his career, and he might have won 350 games if he hadn’t,” Seaver wrote. Feller was once Tom’s guest on Greatest Sports Legends. “We spent the whole day together and got to know each other well. But the thing I always remember is asking him to talk about how he threw his curveball, and his description was, ‘You throw it like you’re throwing a buggy whip.’ ”
Feller could well be the best pitcher who ever lived. The only negative working against him was his Navy service, which is not fair, but neither is life. His career victory total (266) was reduced by World War II. His ERA of 3.25 was significantly higher than Seaver, and his strikeout record of 2,581 significantly lower.
For that matter, many claim Satchel Paige to be the best of the best, but this is very hard to verify beyond myth and lore from the old Negro Leagues. Again, life simply is not fair. Lefty Grove’s career is hard to match, but probably surpassed by Spahn, Steve Carlton and Randy Johnson. Grove, Feller and Carl Hubbell pitched in the “juiced ball” era of their day, a factor worth taking into consideration. Offensive statistics of the late 1920s until the 1940s were incredible, a period comparable to the 1990s and the 2000s.
Warren Spahn sports some of the most amazing statistics ever. Spahn had more 20-win seasons and lifetime wins than Seaver, but he was backed by great Milwaukee offenses, led by Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews. His ERA of 3.08 was higher and his 2,583 strikeouts were not comparable.
Koufax’s situation requires special mention, but longevity needs to be given its due. In so doing, Koufax loses points. While he may have been the most dominant during a relatively short period, his lifetime records are not in the same league with Seaver.
Many people associate Bob Gibson as the dominant pitcher of their respective eras. Gibby was better in October, but all his career records fall well short of Seaver: 251 wins, 3,117 strikeouts, 56 shutouts and a 2.91 ERA. He captured two Cy Young Awards and was not the Rookie of the Year. He did pitch on two World Championship clubs. Despite The Sporting News’ 1999 ranking, which placed Bob Gibson ahead of Seaver, there is no logical reason to rank him higher, and most of their peers call Seaver better.
Jim Palmer’s lifetime ERA of 2.86 was identically incredible to Seaver’s. His 268 career wins fell far short of the Mets’ ace, as did his 2,212 strikeouts and 53 shutouts. Juan Marichal never won the Cy Young Award, finished with 243 wins, 52 shutouts, 2,303 strikeouts and a 2.91 ERA (all bettered by Seaver). He never won the Cy Young or Rookie of the Year awards, as Seaver did.
Gaylord Perry won 314 games with a 3.10 ERA, 3,534 strikeouts, and 53 shutouts. His .542 winning percentage was significantly below that of Seaver’s. He did win two Cy Young Awards, no Rookie of the Year award, but never pitched in a World Series and only one Championship Series.
Many people who do not really know baseball were duped into believing that Nolan Ryan, who may have been the hardest-throwing pitcher of all time, was therefore the best ever. Ryan finished with 324 wins, but his .526 percentage came with 292 defeats. His ERA was 3.19. Ryan’s 61 shutouts tied Seaver’s mark, and of course he set every possible no-hit and strikeout record, finishing with an unreal 5,714. Ryan never led a team to the World Series; his one appearance was 2 1/3 innings in the 1969 Fall Classic. He won neither a Cy Young nor a Rookie of the Year award.
“Of course, none of us ever expected, back there in the late ‘60s, that Nolan would still be performing sleight of hand in the 1990s . . .” Seaver wrote. “But we knew the raw talent was there . . .
“He has simply been one of the most remarkable American athletes ever, at the end of his career seemingly reaching immortal status, right there with Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, and Sandy Koufax.”
Catfish Hunter was considered the greater October pitcher, twice besting Seaver in head-to-head matches in the 1973 Series. He finished with 224 wins and a 3.26 ERA, won the 1974 Cy Young Award, and was a key figure on five World Champions. He was not a strikeout artist; a great hurler, but a notch below Seaver on the all-time pantheon.
Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton and Phil Niekro were all wonderful contemporaries of Seaver, but nobody mentions them in the same breath with Tom. Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Lee Smith were great relievers, but not considered Seaver’s equal.
Carlton makes a strong case that he was better than Seaver. “Lefty,” whose records with St. Louis and Philadelphia are a plain marvel, came up under Bob Gibson’s shadow, but his body of work well surpassed Gibby. It was Carlton who set the all-time record with 19 strikeouts in a single-game loss to the Mets in 1969.
Carlton won four Cy Youngs (1972, 1977, 1980, 1982) to Seaver’s three. Carlton never won the MVP award, either. Carlton did not win the Rookie of the Year award. Carlton benefited from excellent offensive support in St. Louis and strong Philadelphia clubs of the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, he had his best year (27-10, 1.97 ERA, 310 strikeouts, eight shutouts). On paper, it may have been better than any year Seaver ever had, but all things considered it was a close call, since Seaver was just as dominant in 1969, 1971, and for the most part in 1973. Carlton did it on a last-place club, but in one of the most startling turn of events ever, the Phillies scored and defended brilliantly when Lefty took the hill.
Carlton was a key member of two World Champions (1967, 1980); the dominant ace of the second one, but he played with the great Mike Schmidt and never had to carry a club in the manner Seaver carried the 1969 or 1973 Mets.
Carlton surpassed Seaver with 329 wins, but his percentage of .574, loss total (244), ERA (3.22) and shutouts (55) fell short of the great right-hander. Where Carlton makes strong claim is in the strikeout department. He and Ryan dueled each other, each trading off on the all-time mark previously held by Walter Johnson. Carlton finished with 4,136, but Ryan passed that mark and then some.
All in all, the argument as to who was better, Seaver or Carlton, is a very close, subjective one. It could go either way. Two factors sway the comparison to Seaver. Carlton was 10-19 in 1970 and 13-20 in 1973, right in the middle of his prime. He also pitched many years after he should have retired. Perhaps Seaver’s more heroic stature as a person and role model compared to the taciturn, conspiracy theorist Carlton, gives a further slight edge to Tom Terrific.
Since Seaver’s 1987 retirement, three hurlers have had astonishing careers that challenge if not surpass Seaver’s record. Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson have in many ways broken new ground. Steroid suspicions have dogged Clemens and Johnson. The longevity and effectiveness of the modern athlete is absolutely extraordinary.
Clemens, a teammate of Seaver’s on the 1986 Red Sox, has compiled records that, on paper at least, place him in a position to possibly even claim that he is the best pitcher in baseball history. In Ken Burns’s 2010 documentary Tenth Inning, historian John Thorn claims Clemens is “the greatest pitcher of all time.” It is very possible that, throwing all steroid accusations aside, Clemens is. His combination of total lifetime wins, strikeouts, single-game strikeouts, longevity, seven Cy Young Awards, one MVP, and two World Championships, are very difficult to top (although he was not a great post-season pitcher with Boston).
He has, to use a phrase, “punched every ticket.” Seaver pitched 20 years. 2007 marked Clemens’s 24th. His 354-184 record challenged but fell short of Warren Spahn’s 363 wins and the unheard-of 373 that both Christy Mathewson and Grover Cleveland Alexander won, tied for the National League record and trailing only Cy Young (511) and Walter Johnson (417) on the all-time list. Clemens’s .658 percentage bests Seaver’s .606. He compiled 4,672 strikeouts and a 3.12 ERA in a steroid-induced hitter’s era.
Clemens played when play-offs went seven games as well as Divisional Series. He was 14-9 in post-season play. Roger was a pivotal member of two New York Yankees World Championship teams, but did not carry either as Seaver had the 1969 Mets. Where Clemens appears to separate himself from the pack is in his extraordinary seven Cy Young awards. He also won the 1986 American League Most Valuable Player and Major League Player of the Year awards, both honors that eluded Seaver. Clemens was not the Rookie of the Year.
“As for his place in history, I have a big problem with cheating,” said Bill Bordley of Clemens. Bordley was a “bonus baby” out of USC who beat Tom Seaver in 1980 before his career was derailed by injuries. He was also a pitching coach at USC when Randy Johnson and Mark McGwire played there against Arizona State’s Barry Bonds.
“Nobody can match Clemens for domination and longevity, but he did it artificially. You can’t tell me Barry Bonds was the home run champion, that he was a better power hitter than Mark McGwire. I saw them both in college and there was no comparison. So I rate Seaver the better pitcher in my era at least.”
In 22 seasons ending in 2009, Randy Johnson – like Seaver a USC Trojan – was 303-166 for a .646 percentage. Johnson had 4,875 strikeouts and a 3.29 ERA. His bona fides include pitching Arizona to the 2001 World Championship, earning co-MVP honors in the Series with teammate Curt Schilling (when he was an October master). Johnson also won five Cy Young Awards, and pitched a perfect game. In this respect, he and Seaver are part of a remarkable group of Trojan pitchers (including Barry Zito of Oakland, 2002) who have a combined nine Cy Youngs. Johnson was not Rookie of the Year.
Johnson somehow amassed records that are in some ways unmatched, yet historians are only recently really giving him his due. Johnson can arguably lay claim to a better career than such stalwarts as Lefty Grove, Warren Spahn, Sandy Koufax and Steve Carlton . . . and Tom Seaver!
Greg Maddux was not a strikeout artist like Seaver, Carlton, Clemens or Johnson. His 355-227 record averages to a .610 percentage along with a sterling 3.16 earned run average. Maddux won four Cy Youngs, numerous Gold Gloves (no Rookie of the Year), and played on the Braves’ 1995 World Series winners. That was his best year. He missed 20 because the strike cut a few games off the schedule, but finished 19-2 with a 1.63 ERA. Greg Maddux is viewed as slightly below Clemens, but possibly on par with Randy Johnson. He never threw a no-hitter. He pitched on one World Series champion but was not a great post-season pitcher. If any subtraction can be attributed to Maddux’s career portfolio, it would be the fact he was not a strikeout pitcher, which may or may not be a valid factor.
His teammates Tom Glavine and John Smoltz are considered a notch below him. Glavine is a sure Hall of Famer; Smoltz a likely inductee but less a lock than the other two. Great relief pitchers of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s have included Dennis Eckersley, Mariano Rivera and the Mets’ own John Franco.
Not factoring in steroids, an honest assessment of Seaver probably ranks him second or third among all post-World War II pitchers, behind Clemens, maybe Johnson, “tied” with Carlton, but ahead of Spahn and Maddux. There are a numbers of factors that can be used to argue on behalf of Seaver as being number one, but Clemens’s Cy Young awards, total wins, percentage, strikeouts, two World Championships, and MVP award put him in front. Gibson, Marichal, Koufax, Perry, Hunter, Palmer, Don Drysdale, Jim Bunning and others each lack some important ingredients that would let them challenge Seaver’s place in the pantheon.
This leaves the baseball historian with the task of assessing Seaver’s place not just among pitchers after World War II, but of all time. One cannot completely discount the possibility that had Red Grange been born in 1966, given training methods, diet and lifestyle advantages of the era, by 1988 he would have been as good as Barry Sanders. By that measure, one must assume that Walter Johnson or Satchel Paige, given every modern advantage of training and equality, would be the equal of Seaver or Clemens.
In the last decade, the fact old-timers did not play against blacks is used as the biggest diminishment of their greatness. What is required is a skillful, knowledgeable ability to factor in all the factors, this being a major one. The offensive statistics of the old timers – Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Honus Wagner, Napoleon Lajoie, “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, George Sisler, Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and others – are equally, wildly skewed. It is ridiculous to contemplate that Ty Cobb would have hit .367 in the modern era. It is not ridiculous to contemplate that he may have hit .303, as Pete Rose did.
Therefore, one must consider all the variables when discussing the great pitchers; modern vs. old-timer. Logic tells us that if Christy Mathewson would have been transformed by time machine from 1905 to 1969 and asked to pitch in the Major Leagues, he probably would have been effective. He might have been an All-Star. He would not have won 31 games and almost surely would not have thrown three shutouts in the World Series.
Had Mathewson been born in 1944, raised in Fresno, played at USC on a scholarship, and broken into the big leagues in 1967, he may well have been a fine pitcher. He was 6-1 1/2 and weighed 195 pounds. With a modern diet and weight training he may have been an inch taller, 15 or so pounds heavier, and thrown five or seven miles per hour harder.
Baseball, as has been mentioned, is resistant to the notion that the Mathewson’s and Cobb’s are not as great as the Tony Gwynn’s and Tom Seaver’s. Despite all the factors used against him, it is still apparent that Ruth was the greatest of all baseball players, if not all athletes. His pitching, sheer dominant chasm between his statistics and the rest of baseball, particularly in the early 1920s, and revolutionary shadow he cast over American sports and society, cannot be denied.
In Great Moments in Baseball (1992), Seaver ranked in order the 10 greatest pitchers of all time Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Sandy Koufax, Lefty Grove, Cy Young, Bob Feller, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Warren Spahn, and Nolan Ryan.
“I would have loved to see Johnson, Matty, Grove, and Young pitch, and I never saw Feller at his peak,” he wrote.
The old baseball era is “a reflection of the advantage of pitching so long ago that poor outings or bad seasons are long forgotten and only the legend remains. The more modern pitchers are more human to me. I saw them have slumps or weaknesses, and it is difficult to stand that against the mystique of the all-time greats.
“Johnson is at the top of my list because, to my mind, he must certainly have possessed skills unlike any of his rivals. We are told he was basically a one-pitch pitcher, a man who relied on a fastball, and won time and again with little hitting support. Mathewson mastered a breaking pitch when such pitches were still in development, and how baffling that must have made him. Koufax makes my top five because although I saw him and he was of my time, he remains to me virtually flawless. When you win five consecutive ERA titles, you are in an extraordinary zone.”
Seaver, who modestly did not include his name on his all-time list, also wrote, “You invent a lot of games to pass the idle hours during a baseball season.” Seaver would pick all-time teams, or top home run hitters of alphabet. Of arguments that inevitably ensued, Seaver said “that’s fine, because I love a good argument, and baseball’s had a long history of thriving on disagreement.”
The attempt to rank Seaver, as well as Carlton, Koufax, Clemens and even Bob Feller, with those 37-game winners of the 1900s is just too subjective. Suffice to say Seaver and his fellow moderns deserve mention with Cy Young, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, and Lefty Grove, the dominant pitching aces of The Glory of Their Times and the pre-World War II era.
The average sportswriter never played baseball, or at least not very well. Most were lucky to have made it past the high school junior varsity, which is what spurred them on to a sports writing career in the first place. Never having competed at a high level, to be “in the arena,” as Teddy Roosevelt put it, they often fail to grasp just what all-time greatness in sports truly is.
To consider all the millions of kids worldwide who started playing ball at age five, six, eight; and the winnowing-out process that follows: the move to the big diamond, actual cuts in high school, scholarships, the draft, the minors, the “dog eat dog” process of ascending to the Majors . . .
Then, the separation of all those fine athletes into the stars, the superstars, then the Hall of Famers, and finally the most elite names of all. There is luck, timing, hard work, but most of all a God-given talent that is awe-inspiring when viewed in the overall context of things. Tom Seaver is among that elite group; in fact, he is very near the top of the list.
“Rating Seaver, as a left-handed hitter I have to say guys like Steve Carlton posed big problems for me, so I look at them differently,” assessed Fred Lynn. “I’d not faced him as much in his hey day, but I saw him briefly. He’s gotta be in the top three of the ace pitchers of the era I played. I never faced Bob Gibson or Sandy Koufax. I would have loved facing those guys. Tommie’s gotta be in the top two or three. I’d put him right there with Carlton, Gibson, Koufax; they were all inter-changeable.
“All I can say is that if I’m, building a team, putting a staff together, I’m partial anyway because he’s a Trojan who played for Rod, but I start with Seaver.”
In the end, there is no real “proof” that Tom Seaver was the best pitcher since World War II, the best right-hander since the war, or the best pitcher ever. There is, however, enough statistical and anecdotal evidence to make a good argument on his behalf. This is all it is, an argument, a bar room discussion no more possible to settle than the question as to who the greatest President was; the best movie actor or film; the best general or writer or scientist or astronaut. Tom Seaver is part of the conversation, and in this he is in rare company.
While Tom Seaver’s place, or “ranking” among the greatest baseball players, pitchers and athletes in history, is a fun and even lavish exercise in hyperbole, perhaps his greatest mark comes when discussing his place in a far more provincial, yet possibly even more influential discussion: his July 9, 1969 entrance into and lifetime membership within the rarefied air of the true New York sports icon.
Who is this creature of history? What are the parameters? His true iconic stature must proudly be made and acknowledged while he is on the field during his prime years, unlike a Ted Williams, oft-vilified yet admired mostly in retrospect. He must be held in high esteem long after his career ends, unlike an O.J. Simpson, who had a free lunch complete with harem from one end of America to the other only to fall from grace in the most despicable manner possible.
Ultimately, the contenders are these: Christy Mathewson, “Iron Joe” McGinnity, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Carl Hubbell, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Joe McCarthy, Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Leo Durocher, Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, Whitey Ford, Billy Martin, Thurman Munson Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Joe Torre (baseball); Frank Gifford, Joe Namath, Bill Parcells, Lawrence Taylor, Phil Simms, Eli Manning (football); Walt Frazier, Red Holzman, Patrick Ewing (basketball); Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali (boxing); John McEnroe (tennis) . . . and Tom Seaver.
The list of those left off tells the story of the greatness of those who are on it. Weaning the truest of the New York sports icons from this list is a difficult chore. Managers and coaches such as Joe McCarthy, Leo Durocher, Red Holzman and Joe Torre presided over moments of supreme joy, but somehow they do not quite make the cut of this ultra-competitive “team.”
Bill Dickey was at one time considered the greatest catcher in baseball history, or certainly on the short list with Mickey Cochrane; at least until the next generation of backstops came along to eclipse his star. Keeping a Hall of Famer like “Iron Joe” McGinnity (who starred for both the early Giants and Dodgers, then known as the Superbas) off a list like this is subjective, but then again so is omitting such mound stalwarts as Rube Marquard, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Dazzy Vance, Lefty Gomez, Red Ruffing, Don Newcombe, Sal Maglie, Allie Reynolds, Catfish Hunter, Sparky Lyle and Goose Gossage.
Roger Maris and Billy Martin fall short for various reasons. Maris of course is best known for doing just that; falling short, in the eyes of the New York sporting press and public, and in 1961 of Babe Ruth’s home run record within the 154-game schedule that would have saved him a big fat *. He was not a Hall of Famer. Martin was beloved, but he was not a great player. Personality is what keeps Maris out of the club and what is not enough to put Martin in it.
Thurman Munson was a guy who was difficult to like. He comes very close to inclusion on the list but ultimately is not viewed as being as great as Yogi Berra or Roy Campanella. Dave Winfield, Don Mattingly, Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter, Phil Simms and Patrick Ewing are “I love the ‘80s” characters that were part of great moments in New York sports history, but for various reasons must be left out.
What about the ice hockey stars? New York Rangers’ goalie Ed Giacomin was a fan favorite, to be sure. So was Denis Potvin of the Islanders, a team that went on a sustained run of excellence. Ultimately, however, inclusion in this exclusive fraternity means that the athlete or coach in question must not merely be a big name in New York, but a transcendent figure beyond the city, in some cases beyond his sport.
John McEnroe is by no means the greatest tennis player who ever lived. Jack Kramer, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzalez, Rod Laver, Bjorn Borg, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are all players who are better or probably at least his equals. But McEnroe was a New York kid who made good in the U.S. Open, the biggest of American tennis stages and of course the annual Big Apple spectacle. More to the point, he had the unique swagger of a New Yorker, took pride in rooting for other New York sports teams, and played matches against another “street hustler,” Jimmy Connors, and the silent Swede, Bjorn Borg, that were for the ages. He is one the cusp, not quite part of the team.
While New York fancies itself the “basketball capital of the world,” its fans the most passionate and knowledgeable, not even Walt Frazier of the Knicks makes the cut on the hardwood. The greatest New York City high school player ever, Lew Alcindor, became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and engendered animosity from the people in his hometown for the “treachery” of going all the way out to UCLA. “Clyde” Frazier was the epitome of Big Apple cool with his fedora, mink coat; a penchant for ladies and nightlife.
So who are the true New York sports Icons?
Start with the boxers. Joe Louis was from Detroit, Rocky Marciano from Brockton, Massachusetts, and Muhammad Ali from Louisville. However, the city of New York is inextricably tied to the “sweet science,” sometimes nefariously (Mob connections). But all three of these champions won in epic bouts at Madison Square Garden, the Mecca of the boxing game.
Two of the football stars on the list are there as much for image and off-field activities as for what they did on the green plains, although both Frank Gifford and Joe Willie Namath were all-time greats. Gifford is undoubtedly a true New York sports icon, and perhaps his inclusion demonstrates the unfairness of it. He was a terrific player, an All-American out of the University of Southern California (like Seaver), and a golden boy. He had every conceivable gift. As a player, he was great but many have surpassed him. Contemporaries Jim Brown and Johnny Unitas would be considered greater in the overall pantheon. But Gifford embodied Manhattan polish, a sex appeal that implies some sense of racial identity that, fair or not, made him a bigger name in the Big Apple in his heyday than even Willie Mays. Gifford’s career on Monday Night Football and place in the upper echelons of café society weigh as heavily in his favor as his on-field statistics, by a long shot.
Joe Namath’s place in the club is as indicative of the selective nature of this fraternity as any. Fairness has little to do with it. Namath, like Mickey Mantle, was damaged goods. His performance at the University of Alabama prior to a knee injury in 1964 conjured images of athleticism beyond mere quarterbacking skills, but he was hurt all the time, and it did reduce his career effectiveness. There is a long list of pro quarterbacks who are rated ahead of him. Nobody would offer Namath as quite equal with his contemporaries, Roger Staubach or Terry Bradshaw. But, oh, the times he presided over, the place of his exploits, and herein is the essence of what makes the true New York sports icon such a great figure in American society. He did it in New York!
The New York superstar is a special breed. He is elevated above all others. It is a combination of New York historical sports greatness and the special nature of the cities’ fishbowl lifestyle. In many ways it cannot be adequately explained, but it is there, it is palpable and it is undeniable. He is bigger, more substantial than any other. Only histories’ largest figures, the greatest Presidents, the most noble astronauts and world-saving war heroes, ascend above them.
Above and beyond all other athletic heroes, New York reserves its greatest worship for the baseball stars. This is Our National Pastime, and it is on the hallowed fields of New York where the game’s legend was forged, its popularity branded upon the conscience of a young nation. It was in Cooperstown where the game was mythologized, on the Elysian Fields of New York where the rules and foundations set forth. In two world wars, Americans determined that other Americans were not German spies more often than not by asking who won the previous year’s World Series, who led the American and National League in batting, how many home runs Babe Ruth hit. The answers more often than not engendered passionate battlefield discussions expressing pride or dissatisfaction in the doings of the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees. Japanese kamikaze pilots shouted vain expletives, using the name of Babe Ruth – not Red Grange or Bronco Nagurski – as they met their Maker in the smokestacks of our ships.
Ultimately, the baseball men are Christy Mathewson, John McGraw, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Carl Hubbell, Bill Terry, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, Duke Snider, Roy Campanella, Willie Mays, Casey Stengel, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Tom Seaver.
Arguing over such things, “In baseball,” Seaver wrote, “more than in any other sport, that’s half the fun.”
Causes Steven Travers Supports
Conservative, Christian, USC, American patriotism