By Glen Sparks
Steve Garvey boasted Popeye-like forearms and a compact swing.
No. 6 smacked 272 home runs over a 19-year career. He batted .294 with 1,308 RBI and collected at least 200 hits in six seasons. Garvey drove in 100 or more runs five times and made 10 All-Star teams.
Fans voted him as the starting first baseman on the 1974 All-Star team as a write-in candidate; writers voted him the National League MVP that year as a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Tampa native hit .338 in 55 post-season games and smashed a memorable walk-off home run in Game 4 of the 1984 N.L. Championship Series for the San Diego Padres.
Baseball people recall Garvey as an ironman. He once played in 1,207 consecutive games—Sept. 3, 1975, to July 29, 1983. The streak still stands as the fourth longest in baseball history and the longest in N.L. history.
Steve Garvey packs quite a baseball resume. He also won two All-Star game MVPs and four Gold Gloves. But. Garvey’s legacy still seems a bit muddled. Some fans, especially of the Dodgers (1969-82) and Padres (1983-87), figured that one of Garvey’s post-career stops would be Cooperstown, N.Y., for his Hall of Fame induction.
It never happened. Garvey peaked at 42.6 percent of the vote in his third year on the ballot (1995). He is not a Hall of Fame inductee; he is an argument. The argument starts here with Bill James, the esteemed sabermatrician.
In his Baseball Abstract 1982 edition, James rated Garvey as the game’s 12th best first baseman following the 1981 campaign (admittedly, not Garvey’s best). That bugged me. I guess it still does. I grew up in southern California during the era of Garvey, Lopes, Russell and Cey. The Dodgers played in four World Series from 1974-81. Garvey, more than anyone, was the team’s marquee player. He needed to rated higher than No. 12, at least in my mind.
A guy like Garvey tends to be overrated, James wrote. He played most of his career in a big market, he played on good teams that saw lots of t.v. time, etc. James wrote several paragraphs and then concluded that Garvey is not in fact overrated. Garvey, James concluded, is one of a handful of players who “you absolutely know will give you that good year.”
James rated Garvey the No. 14 first baseman in his 1984 Abstract. That was near the end of Garvey’s career, though. It didn’t bother me that much. I think. (The 1982 Abstract was the first one to get mass distribution. Be interesting to know how James would have rated Garvey during the mid-1970s.)
The 2002 Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranked Garvey as the 31st best first baseman of all-time (just behind Gil Hodges, anotherformer Dodger and another HOF argument). Once again, James offered some mixed messages. Garvey was a “good” player, James wrote, but a “selfish” one. He was an “odd” player, but one who finished the season with 200 hits more often than not. He basically “never” went into a slump and was a “fine” first baseman, but “he couldn’t throw.” Plus, he drove in 100 runs during an era when that meant something, and while playing his home games at a pitcher’s park.
Tom Boswell, the Washington Post columnist, also didn’t care for Garvey, as I recall. Boswell created something called Total Average, a stat everyone loved for a few years and was especially popular during Garvey’s playing days. Basically, TA attempts to determine a player’s overall effectiveness on offense.
The problem with Garvey, the critics concluded, is that he hit into too many double plays, and he didn’t walk very much. The stats due back this up. He led the lead in GIDP twice, in 1979 (25) and 1984 (25 again). Some baseball fans ripped Jim Rice, a Hall of Famer, for the same thing. My thought on this is that both Rice and Garvey hit the ball hard with men on base.
Garvey’s career on-base percentage was just .329. He set his career in walks with 50 in 1976. Six years later, Garvey recorded 625 official at-bats. He walked just 20 times. Of course, that meant he didn’t get on base at a high rate. Garvey never scored 100 runs in a season (topping out at 95 in 1974).
A typical Steve Garvey season was close to 90 runs scored, 35 doubles, 25 homers, 110 RBI, .315 batting average, .350 on-base percentage, .485 slugging percentage.
Paul Haddad makes the best HOF case for Garvey. A Dodger fan, Haddad wrote High Fives, Pennant Drives and Fernandomania. In the book, he offers a bit of background on one of his favorite childhood ballplayers. Born Dec. 22, 1948, Garvey grew up in Florida. His dad drove the Dodger team bus during spring training. Yes, Garvey was a Dodger from way back.
He attended Michigan State on a football scholarship and busted up his shoulder. That’s why he couldn’t throw. He could, however, scoop up just about any ball that a fellow L.A. infielder could throw his way.
The Dodgers drafted Garvey in the first round of the secondary phase in June 1968. He made his major league debut late in the ’69 campaign and played on-and-off for the next few years, usually at third base despite his bad shoulder.
Walt Alston put Garvey over at first base to stay in 1974. By the end of the season, or thereabouts, he was a “future Hall of Famer.” In addition to the aforementioned stats, Haddad points out that Garvey retired with 2,599 base hits, hit .393 in those 10 All-Star games, was named the MVP of the NLCS both in 1978 (as a Dodger) and 1984 (as a Padre). He led the league in fielding percentage five times and once played 193 straight games without making an error.
When he retired, Garvey held the NLCS record for most career home runs (eight) and RBI (21) in 22 games. Interestingly, Garvey is the only player in baseball history to collect six 200-hit seasons, five 100-RBI seasons and four Gold Gloves.
Yes, Haddad brings up Garvey’s low walk totals. In the age of sabermetrics, on-base percentage trumps batting average every time. Haddad also points out that Garvey committed so few errors because of his lack of range and his reluctance to throw the ball due to his bad arm.
Hadded then brings us back to Bill James. James has another formula, the Hall of Fame monitor. He assigns a set number of points for 100 RBI seasons, .300 batting averages, 200-hit seasons, etc. According to the formula, a score of 100 makes a player worthy of HOF induction. Garvey’s score is 130.
I don’t know whether Garvey is a worthy Hall of Famer or not. I’d like to think he is. Under the current line of thinking, he is not. The great things that he did (and he did plenty of great things) don’t seem to make up for what he did not do. For now, he seems relegated to the Hall of Very Good. And, that’s still very good.