I don’t remember where I was when I learned that Santa Claus wasn’t real, but I remember where I was when I learned that Catfish Hunter’s given name was Jim. It was a 1978 Topps with rounded corners, and I tossed it in a common box. My friend yelled at me and grabbed it out.
“That guy’s in the Hall of Fame, you idiot.”
The Hall of ... how could I not have heard of him? The card wasn’t even 10 years old, so there was no way I could have missed the entire career of a recent Hall of Famer. Several hours, chalkboard diagrams, and microfiches later, I realized that was Catfish Hunter. Yeah, I’d heard of Catfish Hunter. Everyone has. It’s one of the first classic sports names a kid from my generation latched onto, along with Al Kaline (batteries) and Dick Butkus (initials are shorthand for “decibel”).
There was something so poetic and badass about the name. James Augustus Hunter is a fine name, and Catfish Kowalczyk has a ring to it, but Catfish Hunter was a damned novel you didn’t even have to read. No, a series of novels. Catfish Hunter, Return of Catfish Hunter, Revenge of Catfish Hunter.
As I got older and learned more about baseball history, I realized that Hunter was, statistically, one of the weaker Hall of Fame pitchers. He had three unambiguously great seasons. He had six or seven OK-to-good seasons. He threw more than 200 innings from 1967 through 1976, and he made eight MLB All-Star teams. He got extra credit for winning five World Series (even if he didn’t do a lot in the last two), and he was one of the most famous early free agents.
His career ERA+, however, was 104. To put it another way, if Tim Lincecum comes back and pitches for five seasons at an Ervin Santana level, he’s basically the modern day Catfish Hunter. Yet, there’s no way Lincecum would get the same kind of Hall of Fame support that Hunter did. What’s the difference?
My theory is that Catfish Hunter was one of the best baseball names ever, and it added to the mystique whenever he came to town and blew your team away. Scott Kazmir (who also has a career 104 ERA+) is too ... too Scott. But Catfish Hunter was an imposing fella before he even threw a pitch. Right there in the name, it is.
This allows us to introduce the Catfish Theory Equation of Hall of Fame Qualifications:
Good player + High visibility + Badass Name = Hall of Fame player
You can call the Kirby Puckett Theory if it will help your cause more. Use Harmon Killebrew if you need. I’m not selfish. Badass names make the world go ‘round.
With this in mind, we need to go back in time, and rename some very good players to get them into the Hall of Fame. Some of these players are borderline candidates, at best, but they’re all comparable to Hunter in career value. It’s time to give them a PR makeover that starts with a really cool name.
Evans had two truly great years, 1973 and 1974, and several good ones. The biggest argument in his favor is that third basemen are under-represented in the Hall of Fame, and it’s a legitimate point. Remember that when Scott Rolen falls off the first ballot next year.
I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t have voted for Evans. His 11 seasons with an OPS+ between 105 and 119 is an argument both for and against him. He was pretty good for a long time, which is damning with moderate praise.
However, I’ve decided that his new name is Emerald Falconeer, and that he played with the Reds throughout the ‘70s. He was elected on his fourth ballot.
Ugh, the name is a curse. It also didn’t help that the two players played together. When someone said, “Man, Catfish sure pitched a great game,” you didn’t ask which one. But if you heard Evans hit a homer, you moved on before you realized you might have been thinking about the wrong one.
Evans posted a WAR of three or better in 14 different seasons. That’s remarkable consistency.
Person from 1978: What’s a WAR?
Well, that’s the problem, see.
Person from 1978: Wait, I’d like to change my response to, “WAR, what is it
No, we’re moving on. Evans wasn’t appreciated as much as he would have been today because it was easy to focus on what he didn’t do well. He was never a .300 hitter, and he topped 30 homers twice, and one of those seasons was in the Rabbit Ball Year. It’s hard to get into the Hall of Fame with consistent 30-double seasons and a solidly above-average on-base percentage, even if you do it for a decade-plus.
It’s hard to get into the Hall of Fame like that ... unless your name is Pullbank Vision. Which is Evans’ name now. He sticks with the Red Sox, just like in his original career, and he’s voted in on the second ballot. Hard to keep someone who made 12 All-Star Games out of the Hall, and that’s what Vision would have done.
It’s hard to express to the younger folks just how good Murphy was at his peak, but I’ll try. For about 1,000 games, he was just about the best player in baseball. It wasn’t like there was a Rickey Henderson tier and then a Murphy tier; they were peers, just dominating in different ways. Murphy won back-to-back MVPs, and neither of the awards were his best career season (1987).
It takes a long time to play 1,000 games, really. It’s a long time to be thought of on the short list of “best players in baseball.” I understand why he didn’t make the Hall — his decline was immediate and perilous — and I’m not about to rail against his exclusion. He needed about two or three more really good seasons to be unambiguously qualified.
Unless his name is retroactively Spark Cutlass. Which it is. When Dale Murphy was winning five straight Gold Gloves, that was fantastic, but when Spark Cutlass did it, it was something you wanted to stop the world to watch.
Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell
Now that we’ve looked at some players who are on my mental fence, let’s end with two clear Hall of Famers, players whose exclusion drives me up the wall. Lou Whitaker and Alan Trammell were the best double-play combination of a generation. Of almost any generation. They stuck together for 19 years. They combined for 145 WAR, and it was pretty much split down the middle. They combined for a bunch of All-Star appearances, a bunch of Gold Gloves and MVP votes, and they won a title together.
For about 15 years, the Tigers got to assume that they were better than the other teams when it came to two of the hardest positions in baseball to fill. That’s absurdly rare and special.
What happened? Alan Trammell played in the same era as Cal Ripken, and Whitaker shared the glory and credit with Trammell. It was a one-two punch of underappreciation, and it led to Whitaker falling off the ballot after one appearance, which still makes me want to set a boat on fire.
This is tricky. We don’t just want to give them cutesy paired names, like Buff Talcum and Hank Powder. They’re a double-play combo, but they’re not Garbage Pail Kids. We need some nuance.
No, Alan Trammell is retroactively London Crooner and Lou Whitaker is now Granch Tumble. If you think those names are laying it on a bit thick, my response is simple: Catfish Hunter. That is a real name that we got used to, and it helped get a very good pitcher into the Hall of Fame.
Remember this, future parents. One day, your son or daughter might be an exceptional athlete, great enough to get into a hall of fame somewhere. And you’re sitting there, about to name him or her Ethan or Sophia. Which is fine. Those are respectable, pleasant names.
But this will affect everything, and we have proof.
Number of Ethans in the National Baseball Hall of Fame: 0
Number of Catfish: 1
Think about it and react accordingly.
Also, please ignore my stupid name when leaving a comment. Thank you.