Year Inducted: 1978 (BBWAA, ballot #5, 301/379)
To borrow a phrase from the Bible, it might be easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle than the BBWAA elect a third baseman to the Hall of Fame. At least, that was true until the 1970’s. From the opening of the Hall of Fame until 1977, the BBWAA had elected a total of one third baseman into the Hall of Fame, Pie Traynor in 1948. During that timespan, even the Veterans Committee didn’t elect many third baseman. The only ones to make it were Jimmy Collins (1945), Frank Baker (1955) and Freddie Lindstrom (1976). That all changed with the emergence of one man-Eddie Mathews.
Mathews was a revolutionary player at third base. In 17 campaigns, all but two with the Braves organization, Mathews put up a line of .271/.376/.509 with a wRC+ of 143. Mathews crushed the baseball better than any third baseman ever had until Mike Schmidt came along. Mathews belted 512 homers, 354 doubles and 72 triples in his career, totals that were unthinkable to come from the hot corner until he came along. Mathews teamed with the great Hank Aaron for a long time, forming one of the best 3/4 hitter combos the world had ever seen. Aaron may have gotten a lot of the glory, but Mathews was also an impressive run producer, driving in 1453 runs and scoring 1509 runs in his illustrious career. Mathews was a big man, so running the bases was not his forte. However, he was able to steal 68 bases and was a slight positive on the bases.
Although overshadowed by his bat, Mathews’ defensive abilities were very good in their own right. Mathews was worth 62.8 runs defensively as a third baseman, an impressive total. Mathews wasn’t Brooks Robinson defensively, but he held his own.
It’s tough to think about from a modern perspective because Mathews retired back in 1968 (after a brief two year decline period), but there indeed was a time when Eddie Mathews was the best third baseman in the history of the game. Upon his 1968 retirement, Mathews was first among all third basemen in the following categories: fWAR, HR, wRC+, RBI and Runs. For most of those categories there was a very wide gap between Mathews and the second place player. Mathews stood alone for many years as the best third baseman in the game’s history.
With all that said, it would make sense for Mathews to be a first ballot inductee, right? Apparently not, as the BBWAA didn’t induct him until his fifth year on the ballot. Why the wait? Most likely because he was overshadowed by Aaron, as well as other players like Ernie Banks and Willie Mays. For whatever reason, the BBWAA was loathe to induct a third baseman, and are just starting to ease up on that with recent inductions of Robinson, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Wade Boggs and Paul Molitor on first ballot. Mathews was, for a time, king of third basemen and will always hold a place among the immortals in the Hall of Fame.
Stay tuned for the next updates.
On deck 12/5/16:
#31- The Big Unit