The St. Louis Cardinals have announced the choices for fans to vote on for the team’s Hall of Fame and once again, first baseman Keith Hernandez is on the ballot. Should he enter the hallowed shrine?
Well, before getting to that, let’s lay out the arguments pro and con for Keith Hernandez‘ selection into the St. Louis Cardinals HOF, and then I’ll offer up my own view about the former St. Louis Cardinal.
Just the Facts
Keith Hernandez was drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 42nd round of the 1971 amateur draft out of his San Bruno, California high school. That such a low-level prospect made it to The Show at all is impressive; that he made it by age 20 is downright sick.
Yet there he was for his first cuppa Joe in the 1974 season, followed up by a bigger shot in ’75 and about three-quarters playing time in ’76. There was no turning back as other than injury, nothing kept him from regular playing time for the remainder of his St. Louis Cardinals tenure.
Between ’77 and his mid-season trade in ’83, Hernandez turned in four and a half seasons of OBP of .396 or better and OPS+es of 108-151, three times surging over 140 . While not a prolific power hitter at the time, he averaged about 37 doubles in that stretch. And he won the 1979 National League batting title with a .344 average.
Hernandez was recognized as one of the top-tier defensive first basemen of his era. Exactly half of the left-hander’s career 11 Gold Gloves (with 1983 split between two teams) came while at Busch II.
The pinnacle of his personal success came in 1979, when Hernandez won the NL Most Valuable Player award, or should I say, he shared it with the Pittsburgh Pirates future Hall of Famer, Willie Stargell. His team high point was of course the Cardinals’ 1982 World Series victory over the then-American League Milwaukee Brewers.
Hernandez was dealt in the middle of the 1983 season to the New York Mets under inauspicious circumstances. He had clashed with manager Whitey Herzog since the latter came to St. Louis a few years earlier. Herzog didn’t like Hernandez’s attitude, and thought he loafed on offense.
The trade was criticized because of the mediocre return the Cardinals received in pitchers Neil Allen and Rick Ownbey. But it later came out that Hernandez had a cocaine habit for the last three years of his Cardinal tenure. Many speculated that’s why Herzog and owners Anheuser-Busch made the fire-sale deal.
Interestingly, Hernandez had, according to him, broken his coke addiction right before the trade. And Herzog contended that while he suspected the drug issue, he didn’t know for sure until later.
As many well know, Hernandez went on to a fabulous continuation of his career with the Mets, helping them to a 1986 World Series title over the Boston Red Sox (the miraculous Bill Buckner “ball through the legs” series). He is in the Mets Hall of Fame, and has at least twice been voted the top first baseman in Mets’ history.
Hernandez fell off the MLB Hall of Fame ballot when he fell below five percent of ballots. For those interested in the business of baseball, Hernandez had Scott Boras as an agent.
Hernandez was a stud of a player, there is no question about that. He had strong offensive skills and amazing defensive prowess. He was a student of the game and seemed to be able to analyze and solve pitchers.
His game played well to the attributes of Busch II; the spacious outfield and Astroturf gave him access to gaps galore. Not a man of preternatural speed, his ability to drive balls into left- and right-center made him a middle-of-the-order threat for a team that in that era was rarely known for its outright power.
There are really only three bad things to say about Hernandez as a Cardinal.
First is that he let the team down with his doping and his demeanor. Second is that he was dealt, largely as a result of the first. And third, he didn’t display the power normally expected of the position.
No one should compare Hernandez to Albert Pujols or Stan the Man (who played first base for six seasons along with his decade-and-a-half of outfielding). That may also apply to the great MLB HOFer Johnny Mize, and the 1920s-30s HOFer Jim Bottomley, who was in four World Series and won two.
Does Hernandez hold his own with the other top Redbirds at the position?
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Maybe the best comparison is the famous, and in some corners infamous, Mark McGwire. His four-and-a-half years in St. Louis were prodigious, to say the least. He averaged almost 50 homers and over 100 RBIs per year, and a ridiculous 1.111 OPS which translated to a 180 OPS+.
But Hernandez has something that McGwire did not, which is world class defense. What other first baseman has eleven Gold Gloves? No one, and half of Keith’s total came with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Then we come to drugs and related matters. Of course, we all know the McGwire story. PEDs. Shame. Rejection by the MLB HOF. But — and this is key — acceptance by St. Louis fans for the Cardinals HOF.
So many choices for the MLB HOF in this era have turned on drug usage and concealment of that usage. Hernandez certainly falls in that category when thinking about his inclusion in the Cardinals HOF.
But Cardinal fans, in my opinion, have already determined that they are willing to overlook the drug thang by voting McGwire into the local hall. Sure, you can argue that McGwire’s PEDs might not have been illegal at the time, and the testing regimen wasn’t what it is today.
It’s hard for me to keep out one of the all-time greatest defensive players at his position who led the team to a title, won an MVP, and was in his own right an outstanding offensive player. So at the risk of being subjected to cries of “Pond Scum,” I’ll say that Keith belongs in the Cardinals HOF. What about you?