Billy Pierce Sings The Blues

Last week, Billy Pierce, a hall of fame-worthy retired left-handed pitcher who played for the Chicago White Sox for most of his baseball career, died at a good old age from gallbladder cancer. Although I do not write a series of “Why Aren’t They In The Baseball Hall of Fame” for those worthy but snubbed baseball players, if I did, he would be high ranking among such players as I would write about. Being someone who generally likes to stand up for those who are unfairly snubbed or ignored, regardless of the particular realm of culture that they happen to be from, and because in general I wish to honor the dead, at least those who are worthy of appreciation, I figured it would be worthwhile to draw at least some attention to the career of Billy Pierce, late left-handed pitcher, and also to use his particular story as a case study for how someone like myself goes about making a case for recognition for an obviously worthy candidate. Since Billy Pierce had such a great career, his particular story offers a wide variety of grounds for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and the same principles apply for Hall of Fames in general, so the discussion will be applicable far beyond this case alone.

The first area of determining whether someone belongs in a Hall of Fame is to look at comparables. In the case of Billy Pierce, the comparables are clear: Of the top ten strikeout leaders among left-handed pitchers who had pitched either at or before his time, Billy Pierce is the only one not inducted, and he ranks at #7 on the all-time list for left-handed pitchers [1]. Among the 24 pitchers who had at least 1,750 strikeouts during the time he was a pitcher, only three of them have not been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame [2]. Among those pitchers not in the Baseball Hall of Fame, his All Star game selections (seven, including three starts) are tied for first. When comparing Pierce with the 13 left-handed pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame, Pierce consistently ranks in the middle of those inducted already in all categories: ninth in wins, seventh in strikeouts, seventh in games pitched, seventh in starts, seventh in shutouts, and eighth in innings. Within his particular era, he had the highest rate of strikeouts per inning, and ranked third in the number of hits per inning and ERA (with an ERA of only 3.06 during the entire decade of the 1950’s). So far several pitchers from his era have been inducted: most notably Whitey Ford, Jim Bunning, and Don Drysdale, and in a wide variety of metrics Pierce excels them all, especially Bunning and Drysdale. When comparing Pierce’s record over his total career against currently inducted Hall of Fame Pitchers, he had a career record of 24-24 in 54 regular season starts against 12 pitchers (Whitey Ford, Early Wynn, Bob Lemon, Bob Feller, Hal Newhouser, Jim Bunning, Don Drysdale, Sandy Koufax, Hoyt Wilhelm, Satchel Paige, Warren Spahn, and Robin Roberts). Given these comparables, Pierce obviously belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame, because he’s clearly in the same neighborhood as these illustrious peers.

After one looks at comparables, then one can do advanced statistical analysis. According to Baseball historian Bill Deane, for example [3], Pierce would have been the best candidate for the American League Cy Young Award (the most prestigious award for a pitcher) in both 1953 and 1956 had it been given at the time. Also, baseball historian and noted sabremetrician Bill James considers Pierce as having the tenth best statistical value among left-handed pitchers all time, ahead of six Hall of Fame pitchers [4]. Whether one looks at raw numbers, or the more exotic numbers calculated by statisticians, Pierce comes off looking well in most comparisons, again, a sign that he belongs in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Given this career record, the fact that he never got more than 2% of the ballots of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for the Baseball Hall of Fame is immensely puzzling.

Although Pierce’s case, as we have already demonstrated, is sufficiently robust on statistical grounds alone, at times it is useful and beneficial to argue a case with a narrative, and to look for extenuating factors that allow someone to be worthy of induction even if their statistical record is not as impressive as others. Despite having no shortage of numbers in favor of his induction, Pierce’s case is even stronger when one looks at various extenuating factors, including the fact that his excellent record (211-169 with somewhere around 35 saves on top of that) was obtained with a team that featured unimpressive offense, that he often lacked run support, and that in one year alone, 1960, he lost three wins because of blown saves by his team’s “closer,” an incompetent named Gerry Staley who blew 14 of his 24 save opportunities that year. Also, he was a small pitcher, under 6’0” and under 200 pounds during his playing days, which meant that he pitched under a lot of handicaps ranging from his own build to the glaring offensive weaknesses of his team. Despite these handicaps, he managed to pitch a stellar career against far better teams, leading his league in complete games three years in a row despite his slight build, and he still managed to be a major reason for two pennants for his otherwise unimpressive team. This narrative only makes his impressive record all the more notable, since the other pitchers from his era who have been inducted played for teams with a much better supporting cast in terms of offense and relief pitching.

Again, regardless of the way one looks at his case, Pierce was a pitcher who was certainly at the same level as the handful of other Hall of Fame pitchers of his time, even above them in certain measures, and he did so despite the fact that he was a part of an inferior team. Yet his total absence of support from baseball writers for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame is immensely puzzling. He is the Janet Jackson [5] of his era, one suspects. Given that he was a “pin-up boy” (?!) for the White Six at least twice in his career [6], one is left to wonder if there is some kind of nipplegate-like scandal in mind. Yet Pierce’s career was clean—he married a high school sweetheart, lived a decent life for all we know, and was a loyal fan of the White Sox after his retirement, even having his jersey retired and throwing ceremonial pitches and the like. Yet he has never come even close to induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, below the levels of marginal candidates like Rafael Palmeiro. This makes no sense at all, part of the reason many Hall of Fames resemble the construction of cool kids who are forever snubbing the worthy without any kind of reason or justification, just like a high school that never ends.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_top_100_Major_League_Baseball_strikeout_pitchers

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Billy_Pierce

[3] Thorn, John; Pete Palmer, eds (1989). “Awards and Honors”. Total Baseball. New York: Warner Books. pp. 510–11. ISBN 0-446-51389-X.

[4] James, Bill. The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2nd ed.). New York: Villard Books. p. 439. ISBN 0-394-75805-6.

[5] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2013/08/11/why-arent-they-in-the-rock-roll-hall-of-fame-janet-jackson/

[6] Burns, Ed (May 19, 1954). “Pierce Again Pale Hose Pin-Up Boy”. The Sporting News. p. 10.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, History, Sports and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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