Who's baseball's version of Harper Lee?

BY foxsports • February 7, 2015

There has been much excitement since it was announced that Harper Lee would finally be releasing a second book. Who wouldn’t be pumped to read more adventures with Scout, Atticus Finch, that one dude, and that other person? Ah, I love "To Kill a Mockingbird." The way they just [clenches fist] kill all those mockingbirds.

OK, truth time, I haven’t actually read "To Kill a Mockingbird." It’s on my to-do list, I swear, I just haven’t gotten to it yet. By all accounts, it’s quite wonderful, I’m sure I’ll love it when I finally get to it. I have fond memories of my brother doing pretty much every single book report he ever did as a child on that book. I mean, he bestowed the middle name Atticus upon one of his children, so yeah, he’s a fan.

Still, when I heard the news, my mind, as it tends to do no matter the subject, went to baseball. Is there a Harper Lee in the baseball world?

To figure this out we need a player who came into the league and immediately became award worthy. There are only three rookies who were good enough to win either an MVP or Cy Young: Fred Lynn, Ichiro Suzuki, and Fernando Valenzuela. All three played at a pretty high level for the rest of their careers (of course, Ichiro’s is still going, if only for a few more years), so they don’t really fit the profile for Lee.

What we’re looking for here is a player who was great in his first season, then never really matched that output. It isn’t a perfect fit for Lee, who essentially retired after a Hall of Fame-worthy rookie campaign, but that’s a high bar to clear in the baseball world.

Below are players who won Rookie of the Year, but never produced even half as much WARP as that rookie season in any following year.

Player

Year

  Rookie WARP   

   Next Highest WARP   

Joe Black           

 1952 

2.3

1.1

Pat Zachry

1976

2.4

0.8

Joe Charboneau

1980

2.2

-0.4

Pat Listach

1992

5.3

1.4

Bob Hamelin

1994

3.5

1.4

Eric Hinske

2002

3.3

1.3

Angel Berroa

2003

4.1

1.4

Off the bat, let’s eliminate Zachry. Lee is ingrained in all of our minds—even dopes like myself who haven’t taken the time to read her book know who she is and can acknowledge she accomplished great things. Zachry, while obviously showing promise early (hence that whole ROY award), never really lived up to his potential and was probably best known for being part of the package the Cincinnati Reds sent to the New York Mets to get Tom Seaver. Sorry, Zachry, you don’t really fit what we’re looking for here.

After his rookie season, Charboneau never managed to repeat the magic, playing just two more seasons, both below replacement level. His is a name many will remember due to his quirkiness, as he dyed his hair and used his eye socket as a beer-bottle opener. But we’re looking for the equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize winner, not a class clown. Charboneau has to go.

Hamelin had a real strong rookie year, slugging .599 (good for 10th in the strike-shortened 1994 season) and delivering a .327 TAv. That season he was one of the top offensive forces in the game, and many believed he was headed for a long and impressive career. Of course, we now know that wasn’t the case, as Hamelin lasted only four more seasons, none of which came close to matching that summer of ’94.

Berroa was similar to Hamelin in that it was a pretty strong first go around the bigs with not much after that, but how he went about it in the rookie season was quite different. Berroa was just around average with the bat in 2003 (.267 TAv), but he was a solid baserunner, stole 21 bags, and played a respectable shortstop. None of that ever happened again.

They’re both interesting comparisons to Lee in that they were legitimately good in their first years, but Lee continued to have an impact in her field after writing "To Kill a Mockingbird," both by assisting and inspiring Truman Capote and by indirectly influencing so many, not only with her lone novel, but a voice in support of literacy in general.

So we’re looking for a player who still impacts baseball in some way. According to Wikipedia, the last we heard from Berroa was that he was pursuing a career in professional soccer, so he doesn’t really qualify. Hamelin is a scout with the Boston Red Sox, and while he has a chance to continue to build his career, he’s not at the level we’re reaching for just yet.

Then there’s Listach and Hinske. Listach in particular had a monster rookie season, hitting for little power but getting on base at a solid .352 clip and providing most of his value playing a strong shortstop and stealing 54 bases. Listach suffered a knee injury following that season, and for someone whose significance was based on defense and speed the injury was a killer. He never came close to matching that rookie success. Hinske never provided the same on-paper value as in his inaugural campaign, but he did carve himself out a nice little niche in the big leagues. Toward the latter stages of his 12-year career, Hinske was often pointed to as a clubhouse leader, someone to whom youngsters could look as an example of how to work and prepare. That reputation almost certainly lengthened his time as a player.

Listach and Hinske continue to work in baseball, with the latter joining the Cubs organization (after a month-long stint as a scout with the Yankees) immediately after retiring following the 2013 season. After one year as the Cubs’ first-base coach, Hinske will serve as the team’s assistant hitting coach in 2015. Listach has held numerous roles around baseball since 2006 and will spend this season as the manager of the Seattle Mariners’ Triple-A affiliate.

Both are still involved in the game long after their memorable rookie seasons, but let’s take another gander at Lee’s resume. Pulitzer Prize, inspires an Academy Award-winning movie, appointed to the National Council of Arts, fights against the censorship of her book, awarded numerous honorary degrees, has her book named “Best Novel of the Century,” and perhaps most impressively, presented with both the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As important as coaches can be in baseball, we’re gonna need a little more impact than what we’ve seen thus far.

And that brings us to our final candidate: Joe Black. As is the theme with this group of players, Black’s career in the bigs after his rookie season isn’t all that memorable. In that first season, he tossed 142 1/3 innings, most of them in relief, delivering a 2.15 ERA. Despite mostly coming out of the ‘pen that year, Black started three games in seven days in the postseason, in the process becoming the first black pitcher to pick up the win in a World Series game. Prior to his time in the majors, he spent seven seasons in the Negro League, helping his team, the Baltimore Elite, win two championships. But what makes Black special isn’t what he did during his playing days. It’s how he continued to impact those in his field in a unique way long after that lone standout season.

From Scott Merkin’s profile of Black four years ago:

"Baseball was the least of what he did," said White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf of Black, who was his close friend for two decades. "He was a great, great guy. He had a great philosophy of life, where he really knew what was important and what wasn't important."

Black was a graduate of Morgan State University and received an honorary doctorate from Shaw University. He was an accomplished author, with a regular column in Ebony magazine and an autobiography. He was a teacher, earned All-Conference honors in football at Morgan State, and served in the army during World War II.

He was fluent in Spanish, and after a barnstorming tour in Cuba, befriended Fidel Castro and essentially became pen pals with the former Cuban president. Like Lee, Black was close with other greats in his field, at one time rooming with Jackie Robinson, was close with Jesse Owens, and was part of a ‘posse’ that included Frank Robinson, Lou Brock, and Don Baylor. He also appeared in an episode of "The Cosby Show" and had a hand in kick-starting the career of Sinbad. OK, so nobody’s perfect.

More from Merkin’s piece:

As for his baseball contributions, Black and Joe Garagiola served as the driving forces behind the inception of the ongoing Baseball Assistance Team program, which serves former players who need help dealing with financial, psychological or physical burdens. Black played an important role in helping Negro League players gain benefits and health insurance as extended by Major League Baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent and Commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig. His job was to determine who had played in the Negro Leagues, when and on what team.

--snip--

Reinsdorf invited Black to speak to the White Sox one Spring Training, mostly to the young players, about distractions they would face off the field. Serving as an unofficial ambassador for the game, Joe encouraged players to have a business plan for life.

I think it’s clear we have a winner in this contest. Black’s legacy is so much stronger than one very good season in the majors, and it’s apparent that his impact is still felt more than a decade after his passing in 2002. Lee is certainly an inspiration to many writers, and her work was a revelation during a time of extreme racial tension in our country. However, Black actually lived that life, and by all accounts, was an inspiration for many just by the way he lived his life. His is a story that needs no sequel.

If you want to read much, much more about Joe Black, there's a new book that reviews his remarkable life in great detail.

Player

Year

Rookie WARP

Next Highest WARP

Joe Black

1952

2.3

1.1

Pat Zachry

1976

2.4

0.8

Joe Charboneau

1980

2.2

-0.4

Pat Listach

1992

5.3

1.4

Bob Hamelin

1994

3.5

1.4

Eric Hinske

2002

3.3

1.3

Angel Berroa

2003

4.1

1.4

 

Player

Year

Rookie WARP

Next Highest WARP

Joe Black

1952

2.3

1.1

Pat Zachry

1976

2.4

0.8

Joe Charboneau

1980

2.2

-0.4

Pat Listach

1992

5.3

1.4

Bob Hamelin

1994

3.5

1.4

Eric Hinske

2002

3.3

1.3

Angel Berroa

2003

4.1

1.4

 

Player

Year

Rookie WARP

Next Highest WARP

Joe Black

1952

2.3

1.1

Pat Zachry

1976

2.4

0.8

Joe Charboneau

1980

2.2

-0.4

Pat Listach

1992

5.3

1.4

Bob Hamelin

1994

3.5

1.4

Eric Hinske

2002

3.3

1.3

Angel Berroa

2003

4.1

1.4

 

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