The final word of the year goes to the Pirate great.
This article is one in a series which analyzes the candidates on the 2002 BBWAA ballot
for the Hall of Fame, using Bill James’s “Keltner List”, a series of questions designed to
bring into greater focus the arguments for and against a player’s enshrinement in the Hall
of Fame .
Dave Parker, a right fielder with a powerful throwing arm, won three Gold Gloves, two
NL batting titles and the 1978 NL MVP with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the late 1970s.
After the Pirates’ triumph in the 1979 World Series Parker signed a five-year contract that
called for $1 million per season, the first MLB contract to do so. The signing made
Parker into a target; his subsequent struggles made him the most unpopular player ever to
wear a Pirates uniform. Parker was the target not only of relentless abuse, but even of
missiles thrown from the stands. It was not known at the time that Parker’s struggles
were partially due to cocaine use, which Parker ceased in 1982. As Parker’s severe knee
problems came under control, he had a second productive phase to his career as the
cleanup hitter for Pete Rose’s Cincinnati Reds and enjoyed his last years as a cleanup-hitting DH in Oakland (winning a second World Series ring in 1989) and Milwaukee,
before a final swansong in 1991 with the Angels and Blue Jays.
Parker played 2466 major league games, batting .290 with 339 home runs, scoring 1272
runs and driving in 1493. He had 2712 career hits. His career adjusted OPS+ is 121.
All-time, Parker stands 50th in games played, 51st in hits, 38th in total bases, 27th in
doubles, and 41st in RBI. He is also in the top 100 in several other categories. But
Parker was never very well defined by the numbers, making the Keltner list in his case
very interesting indeed.
1. Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Did anybody, while he was
active, ever suggest that he was the best player in baseball?
Yes. It was frequently suggested during the late 1970s that Parker was the best player in
baseball, this idea gaining momentum after Parker won the 1978 National League MVP award in a walk over Steve Garvey.
It began to swell with his All-Star Game appearance in
1979, where he had two memorable assists in right, including the famous gunning-down
of Brian Downing at the plate, to keep the game tied at 6-6 in the bottom of the eighth. It
crested with his postseason performance in 1979 when he hit .345 to help the Pirates to
the World Series crown. If you had conducted a poll (of fans or of writers) before, during
or after the 1979 season and asked who was the best player in baseball, Parker would
probably have led that poll.
Was Parker ever actually the best player in baseball? His main competition during 1977-79 (in my view) was Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Jim Palmer, Ken Singleton, Ted
Simmons, George Foster, Dave Winfield, Fred Lynn, and Jim Rice. There are good
reasons for preferring Parker to any of them, but on later evidence we might reasonably
prefer Schmidt. Rod Carew and Joe Morgan had slipped in ‘78 and ‘79 to the point they
were really no longer in the running. He is at least close to being the best player, and is a
very reasonable choice for the best player in baseball in ‘78 and ‘79. By that I mean the
actual best player as opposed to the guy having the best year.
Bill James named Parker as his “best player in the major leagues” for 1978, but this is
simply due to Parker’s 37 WS leading the majors. It’s not really a serious list of who the
best player actually was.
2. Was he the best player on his team?
He was the best player on the Pirates from 1975 through 1979, although Willie Stargell is
1A through this time. He was also the best player on the 1980 Pirates although Mike
Easler had a clearly better season. He was the best player on the ‘85 Reds as well, and
there is a good argument that he was also the best in 1986, although by the end of that
year it was clear that Eric Davis was their best player. At 39 years of age, he had a claim
at being the best player on a bad Brewer team in 1990, although he would have to duel with
Teddy Higuera, Gary Sheffield, Paul Molitor, and Robin Yount for that honor. All in all,
he was the best player on his team in six to seven seasons.
Parker led his team in win shares in 1975, 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1985. In 1984 he led all
Reds position players in WS and was second by one to Mario Soto. In 1976, Richie Zisk
had a good year and edged Parker by one win share.
3. Was he the best player in baseball at his position? Was he the best player in the
league at his position?
Yes and yes, but not for a long period. He was the best right fielder in baseball from
1977-79, ahead of Ken Singleton, as well as Jim Rice and Dave Winfield. He was the
best right fielder in the NL from 1975 to 1979. When he rose to prominence again in the
mid-80s, he was no longer the NL’s best right fielder as Tony Gwynn and Darryl
Strawberry had come into the league. In his years as a DH, Parker may have been the
best (against inferior competition) but never led DHs in win shares in any year.
4. Did he have an impact on a number of pennant races?
Yes. His Pirates won a tight NL East race ‘74 with the young Parker playing an important
bench role as the fourth outfielder late in the season, essentially usurping the role of Gene
Clines. In ‘75, they won again, with Parker now taking Richie Zisk’s place in right while
Zisk moved to left to cover Willie Stargell’s move to first base. Parker led the team in
home runs and RBI, came third in MVP voting, and they won the division by 6.5 games.
In ‘76, the Pirates eventually came a distant second to Philadelphia, but a Pirates team that
had been 10.5 out at the end of August caught fire, going 13-4 to start September. They
closed to within three games of the Phillies, but that was as close as they got. Parker
again played a pivotal role, leading the Pirates in RBI with 90.
In ‘77, the Pirates finished second again, five games behind the Phillies. This was
Parker’s first great year; he won the batting title, led the Pirates in everything except home
runs and RBI (Bill Robinson), and won his first Gold Glove. He was third in the MVP
voting again. In ‘78, they came second again, squeezed out by 1.5 games by Philadelphia.
Especially notable is a momentous Friday doubleheader on September 29, with the
Pirates trailing the Phils by 3.5 games and needing to sweep the Phillies in a four-game
series at home to take the division. The Pirates beat the Phillies 5-1 and 2-1, with Parker
going 2-for-4 and scoring a run in each game. On Saturday, he went 2-for-5 with two
runs scored and two RBI, but the Pirates lost 10-8 in a legendary game; Phillies starter
Randy Lerch got the win and hit two home runs in his own cause. During September, as
the Pirates struggled to keep in touch with the streaking Phils, Parker hit a phenomenal
415/478/720. In August and September, Parker had 60 RBI in 60 games.
‘79 was We Are Family… one of the most legendary pennant and World Series winners of
all time. Stargell won the MVP, but Parker was the team’s best player and had a monster
September (365/451/538). The race was a very close one over the Expos.
I recount all of these years in detail, because they exemplify Parker’s case, which I will
discuss in the conclusion. He was so central, and so valuable, in so many interesting
Parker still had considerable involvement in pennant races over the next decade. In 1980,
the Pirates actually led the league into September, but fell apart to finish third and Parker
had a disappointing season. After a bad start, though, he was a terror in August to keep
the team in first place. The ‘81 Pirates, falling apart, never challenged. The ‘82 team
finished fourth but only eight games out in a tightly bunched race; Parker, playing
intermittently, was not a factor. The ‘83 team was involved in a good race, but the Pirates
finished six back of the Phillies, largely due to an indifferent August and September.
Parker had a very disappointing year, and though he was better in the stretch drive he did
not play to his previous standard.
The trade that brought Parker to Cincinnati in ‘84 meant that he was part of both ends of
one of the 80s’ better turnaround teams; the Pete Rose Reds. Rose took over a struggling
Redlegs club from Vern Rapp at the tail end of the ‘84 season, in which Parker had largely
repeated his moribund ‘83 year. In ‘85, the Reds (having gone 70-92 the year before, in
fifth place in the NL West and 22 games out) rode a huge comeback season from Parker
and a 20-win rookie in Tom Browning, and were 7 games over .500, but 7.5 games out of
first, on the morning of September 1st. Parker once again had a monster stretch drive. In
September, he hit 386/435/667 and drove in 33 runs; the Reds went 19-9, and made a run
at the Dodgers that fell short.
In ‘86, the Reds finished second again, ten games back of the Mike Scott/Nolan Ryan
Astros. Parker, who played all 162 games, hit well but the Reds never mounted a
sustained challenge. In ‘87, the Reds came second again, this time to the Giants. Parker
played a great deal, but after a good start he had a poor summer; a better September was
too little, too late. Parker’s move to Oakland in 1988 put him back in with another
pennant winner. The A’s won going away, finishing 13 ahead of the Twins and winning
the ALCS before losing to the Dodgers. Parker played some left field and DHed a lot for
the A’s, and managed over 400 plate appearances, managing a solid contribution to a team
with little power at the bottom of the order. Parker took over as the primary DH in 1989,
and the A’s won the pennant again, as Parker was second on the club in home runs and
led in RBI with 97. This time, the A’s won the World Series over the Giants, netting
Parker a second ring. In 1990, Parker played for just the third bad team of his career in
Milwaukee, but in 1991 after a late-season trade from California he had a bit part in the
Blue Jays’ drive to the AL East crown, hitting .333 in 13 games. The Jays were not
threatened in September; so Parker’s contribution to that team is minimal.
Throwing out that brief Toronto appearance, Parker played for five pennant-winners and
seven second-place clubs, and two other clubs that finished below second in tight pennant
races. Fourteen is a very large number of pennant races to have been involved in. He
was pivotal in the greater number of those fourteen pennant races, and his record in
September in pennant races is superb.
5. Was he good enough that he could play regularly after passing his prime?
Yes. Parker was a regular (and a pretty good one) at 38 and 39, and even had 541 PA at
the age of 40. However, this was all as a DH. He did play the outfield every day until he
6. Is he the very best baseball player in history who is not in the Hall of Fame?
No, since Eddie Murray is also eligible this year. There are other players with better
claims than Parker (Santo, Gary Carter, probably Bert Blyleven, possibly many others).
7. Are most players who have comparable statistics in the Hall of Fame?
Using Bill James’ similarity scores, the two most similar players to Parker are in the Hall
of Fame - Tony Perez and Billy Williams. None of the next eight are in, but several are
currently on the ballot or are not yet eligible. The other eight are Harold Baines, Andre
Dawson, Al Oliver, Jim Rice, Rusty Staub, Chili Davis, Dwight Evans, and Vada Pinson.
All are candidates, although only Dawson seems more likely than not to go in.
Parker is quite similar to Perez, whose selection was and is widely debated. Billy
Williams, who was elected by the Writers, was probably a small step ahead of Parker as a
player due to his greater consistency.
Parker had 327 career win shares. Other players with 322-332 win shares are Ernie
Banks, Will Clark, Richie Ashburn, Bobby Grich, Tommy Leach, Sam Rice, Gabby
Hartnett, Ozzie Smith, Reggie Smith, Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Enos Slaughter, Willie
Davis, and Red Ruffing. There are fourteen men in this group (Parker makes 15) and
thirteen are eligible (Clark is not yet eligible). Of those 13, eight (Banks, Ashburn, Rice,
Hartnett, Ozzie, Jenkins, Slaughter, and Ruffing) are in the Hall of Fame, while Santo and
Grich are popular candidates. The 327 win shares put Parker 118th all-time as of 2001.
8. Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards?
A qualified “yes.” Parker scores 41.1 on the “Hall of Fame Standards” test; the average
HOFer scores 50.
Parker scores 125.5 points on the “Hall of Fame Monitor” test; a score over 100 is a
“likely Hall of Famer.”
Parker scores 26 points on the Black Ink Test and 145 points on the Gray Ink test; both
put him almost right at the average for a Hall of Famer (27 and 144, respectively)
9. Is there any evidence to suggest that the player was significantly better or worse
than is suggested by his statistics?
There is some slight evidence. Park effects are minor, but important. Over his career,
Parker’s run environment was perhaps 3% higher than average, perhaps slightly more in
his best years.
Parker defensively was never quite as good as his reputation; he had a tremendous
throwing arm but was prone to over-using it, resulting in high error totals. His three Gold
Gloves were probably not all deserved, although he was a very good right fielder in those
days (James has him as being worthy of one Gold Glove, in 1978). His fearsome
reputation may have resulted in him being a deterrent to baserunners; I can’t really be
10. Is he the best player at his position who is eligible for the Hall of Fame?
Among the right fielders who were/are eligible for the Hall but not yet inducted are Andre
Dawson, Tony Oliva, Dwight Evans, Bobby Bonds, Ken Singleton, Reggie Smith, Bobby
Murcer, Rusty Staub, Rocky Colavito, Roger Maris, Gavy Cravath, Tommy Henrich, and
Harold Baines. Jose Canseco isn’t eligible yet.
Parker is ranked by Bill James (in the New Historical Abstract) as the best out of all of
these players. He trails Dawson by 13 career win shares, is 20 behind Smith, and 31
behind Staub, and ahead of all other eligibles. He trails only Singleton in his top 5
seasons by win shares.
On the weight of evidence, I think he is the best right fielder eligible. I think this will
draw howls of derision, since there are excellent candidates to choose from, particularly
Oliva and Dawson, but also Evans, Staub, and Singleton. I tend to be generous to two of
Parker’s traits; the player who has a long career, and the player with a high peak.
11. How many MVP-type seasons did he have? Did he ever win an MVP award? If
not, how many times was he close?
Parker won the 1978 NL MVP, and was in the top 10 six times. He really only had three
seasons (77-79) where he would have been a defensible MVP, but managed to come third
and second on two additional occasions. Six top 10 finishes is a very respectable total.
12. How many All-Star-type seasons did he have? How many All-Star games did he
play in? Did most of the players who played in this many All-Star games go into the
Hall of Fame?
Parker made seven All-Star appearances, and managed in 1978 to win the MVP without
having been selected to the All-Star team. He had one other season, 1975, where he
deserved to make the team, and probably did not deserve his 1980 berth. Seven
appearances is not an unusual number for a Hall of Famer, nor is it unusual for a non-Hall
13. If this man were the best player on his team, would it be likely that the team
could win the pennant?
Yes, it happened in 1975 and 1979 and nearly happened another four times (1976-78 and
14. What impact did the player have on baseball history? Was he responsible for
any rule changes? Did he introduce any new equipment? Did he change the game in
Parker signed the first-ever contract that called for one million dollars per year, breaking
an important psychological barrier. The contract was a sensation, and caused something
of a furor with traditionalists, who predicted the imminent financial death of baseball…
something that happens every time a player signs a record contract, but entertaining
Parker’s problems with substance abuse, and his later testimony at the trial of Curtis
Strong, did help to change the game by putting the drug issue front and center. That trial
gave Peter Ueberroth the excuse he needed to tear up the agreement MLB had made in
1984 with the MLBPA on drug policy, and led to the punitive, cat-and-mouse, MLB drug
policy that failed Darryl Strawberrry, Dwight Gooden and Steve Howe and fit in perfectly
with the political tenor of the times. Essentially, Ueberroth scared off the union by
insisting on mandatory testing, and wound up with an antagonistic relationship over drugs
that continued right up to 2002.
Parker also had the first personalized and recognizable home-run trot. Parker would
begin his trot by heading towards the dugout, taking a very wide turn around first base.
(Parker himself says that the home-run trot is not intended to be showboating, but rather a
celebration like a touchdown dance or spiking the ball in football.) Parker was also the
first player to wear an earring, which is not really “equipment” but is an accessory almost
ubiquitous in the modern game. The earring led to a denunciation (in hindsight) of a later
owner, Marge Schott, who legendarily said that “only fruits wear earrings”. Parker was,
in part, indirectly responsible for Schott’s first suspension from baseball when it became
known thanks to a 1992 court case that Schott, amongst other sins, had referred to Parker
and Eric Davis as her “million-dollar n***ers”.
Parker himself, true to form, is not shy about letting his influence be known. As he said
in 2000 to a Cincinnati Enquirer reporter, “My mark is on the game. I revolutionized the
salary in baseball. From the home-run trot to the earring, my mark is on baseball.” In the
end, though, while Parker had much more effect on the game than most star players, there
is nothing of great significance that would amount to a reason to vote for him.
15. Did the player uphold the standards of sportsmanship and character that the
Hall of Fame, in its written guidelines, instructs us to consider?
I want to say “yes,” but I think I have to say “maybe no.”
I am very conflicted about this. Parker has an awful reputation, that much is certain. Bill
James in the New Historical Abstract named Parker as his choice for “A Better Ballplayer
than a Human Being” in his “The 1980s in a Box” section, and that is against some
serious competition. Was Parker actually guilty of a lack of sportsmanship or character?
There are, essentially, two main pillars on which his critics can support their argument -
substance abuse and awful media and fan relations. Parker almost ruined his career due
to recreational cocaine use, which he stopped in 1982 when he realized the negative
consequences to his play.
Dave Parker wasn’t a drug pusher like Willie Stargell, and he didn’t enable teammates and
others like Keith Hernandez, both of whom are much-beloved players. He didn’t destroy
his career like Darryl Strawberry, either. Parker was tough as nails, too, which is
something that people choose not to remember since it doesn’t fit their profile of what
Dave Parker was. He played hurt, and he played hard even when he was hurt; he had a
badly broken jaw through that marvelous stretch drive in 1978 where he slugged .720 in
September. When he finally started missing time in 1981, it was due to bad knees… not
your garden-variety knee injuries, which had bothered him during the 1979 and 1980
seasons, but a knee that, one story says, would swell up until it was larger than a
He did, though, cause problems for his own career. Those bad knees didn’t happen all by
accident; Parker had gained a lot of weight and his cocaine use had become a self-admitted problem. The cocaine apparently interfered with his ability to rehabilitate
properly, and the lifestyle wasn’t making it any easier for him to keep his weight under
control. The way I see it, that is the extent of Dave Parker’s “character problem.” It is
related totally to his performance on the field (Parker was a recreational user, but nothing
more) and is fully reflected in his numbers; we shouldn’t need to punish him further than
the damage he already did to his career.
I found a record of another incident which shows Parker to be less than a gentleman. In
the early part of the 1980 season, Bill Madlock was taunting a Pirates farmhand - Jess
Zaske - challenging him to throw harder in batting practice. Parker and some other
players, who were waiting their turn in the cage, shouted to Zaske to “hit him.” Zaske
came inside and Madlock charged Zaske and punched him. Oddly enough, despite an
incident like this, Parker was apparently much-beloved by his teammates, particularly
during the Cincinnati years as he grew into a type of elder statesman, and a leader of
various ballclubs during his travels.
It’s easy to look at the words and actions of others, twenty years after the fact, and cry
“racism,” but a lot of people have pointed to Parker as a victim of racial animus. When
he was the “Cobra,” early in his career, he was truly loved by the Pittsburgh fans, who
remembered Clemente with fondness and hoped Parker would duplicate his feats. Then
Parker signed a million-dollar contract before the 1980 season, and all hell broke loose.
Parker donned a gold earring, the first player to wear one, and fans and media took this as
the action of a self-aggrandizing jerk. People took his deliberate and unique home-run
trot to be showboating egomania. Suddenly, Parker was the fall guy for “selfish
ballplayer,” especially when he had a poor 1980 as the cocaine, and serious knee
problems, started to interfere with his play. His home fans began to boo him
unmercifully, even throwing things at him - this was not a good era to take your kids to
the park - and a triangle of antagonism developed between the media, the fans, and Parker
himself. A lot has been written about Barry Bonds, another superlative black player who
incurred the wrath of Pittsburgh, and frequently people have wondered whether the hand-wringing with regard to his clubhouse armchair, his muscled physique, and his taciturn
disposition toward the press would have the same prominence if Bonds were white.
Some of the same analysis would have applied to Parker, and it was all the more vicious
for Parker’s struggles to recapture his form. Bonds, though, never ripped the fans at every
turn, something Parker became noted for. His hurt at being booed turned to anger, and he
lashed out at his tormentors in the press, then lashed out at the press, leading to more
negative stories, leading to more booing, whence the cycle would be repeated. All this
made Parker seem even more unpleasant, self-absorbed and egomaniacal at every turn.
It’s not that Parker wasn’t a self-aggrandizing jerk, but the million dollar contract, the
earring, and the weight gain and substance abuse problems (which were not revealed until
later) weren’t connected to that. Parker wasn’t ever shy about telling you how great he
was, and even today he thinks it’s ridiculous that he is out of the Hall of Fame, and he will
tell you in no uncertain terms, even belittling the candidacies of more deserving players
(Gary Carter, for one) in doing so. This tends to rub people the wrong way, but while it
may point to a certain lack of character, I do not like to judge Parker as a player based on
what he may have said to the media, or how the fans may have envied or despised him.
That does not seem to be relevant to me. But it cannot be denied that Parker is hard to
vote for, not least because of his avowed contempt for the voters.
In my view, Parker is a tough case. Parker himself believes that the numbers make his
case obvious, but in fact the raw totals show exactly the opposite; a player who is not
notably better than many of the other players he competed against, who are now listed
with him on the Hall of Fame ballot. But even on a hard, numbers-based standard, Dave
Parker is clearly a very reasonable choice for the Hall, as his raw Win Shares total of 327
Parker has scored better on the Keltner list than I would have anticipated. Of the fifteen
questions, nine (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 8, 11, 13, and 14) provide convincingly positive reasons to
vote for Parker. Three questions (7, 10, and 12) could provide support either way. Only
three of the questions (the toughest one, number 6, plus 9 and, unfortunately, 15) can
provide meaningful support for an argument against inducting Parker. Parker’s superb
score underlines a weakness of the Keltner List; it works best for players with a normal
(or relatively normal) career shape. A player like Parker, who is a slightly above-average
player for a very long time, but who also spends five years as one of the three of four best
players in the game, will score very well because they get a lot of the “peak” questions
and a lot of the “career” questions, while still not sustaining overwhelming numbers.
Why doesn’t he receive stronger support? Aside from the fact that question number 15
tends to take over somewhat during these debates, Parker had the misfortune of suffering
a steep decline in performance immediately after his biggest successes, and immediately
after signing a groundbreaking contract. Parker was one of the first players since the
bonus babies of the 1950s and 1960s whose position in the public eye was dominated by
his contract rather than his play. The Dave Parker we tend to remember now, is the 250-pound outfielder struggling with his weight, or the later Cincinnati Red, rather than “the
Cobra,” baseball’s most feared player.
I have, in previous years, both included Parker and left him off of my mock ballot
depending on the competition and other irrelevant factors. Having gone through this
exercise, I will probably not leave him off again. The main reason is that, while Parker’s
season and career totals put him at the cusp of the Hall of Fame, his perennial
involvement in pennant races puts him over the edge for me. Not only is Parker’s career
record in September superb (Parker has an 810 OPS for his career, but his career OPS in
September is 843) but also, his involvement in fourteen pennant races over his nineteen
seasons (fifteen races if you count his Toronto cup of coffee) shows that those September,
more often than not, were important games. Parker had a long career, that included five
straight seasons that are the equal of any five seasons of anyone on the 2002 ballot. I
think Dave Parker belongs in the Hall of Fame, but if Parker ever gets what he thinks is
his due, it will probably not come soon.
J. Lowenstein Apathy Club
Posted: December 31, 2002 at 05:00 AM | 34 comment(s)
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