How Athletes Ensure Immortality

Not all greats make the Hall of Fame. Not all Hall of Famers are remembered. But a player who forges a personal connection with fans will live on.
Royals pitcher Dan Quisenberry, an almost great (Lennox McLendon)

It’s getting tougher and tougher to become immortal.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame last weekend announced stricter voting rules for recently retired players, reducing the maximum time they can stay on the ballot from 15 to 10 years. Not every ballplayer can get a plaque in Cooperstown, of course. As Syndrome, the villain in the Disney-Pixar film The Incredibles puts it, “When everyone’s super, no one will be.”

This new rule would have booted such late bloomer Hall of Famers as Ralph Kiner (15 year wait), Duke Snider (11 years), Bruce Sutter (13 years), Jim Rice (15 years), and Bert Blyleven (14 years). But perhaps their supporters would have voted for them during Year Nine if the deadlines had been different then.

As it attempts to slam the door on future borderline candidates, the Baseball Hall of Fame will still face the same level of second guessing as the judges for Olympic skiing or figure skating. What separates the Great from the Almost-Great?

On Sunday, while Cooperstown enshrined one of its largest induction classes in recent memory, I was thinking about one of my childhood favorites who didn’t make it—a guy whose name sounds more like a Cap’n Crunch cereal flavor than a ballplayer. Kansas City Royals reliever Dan Quisenberry was one of the most dominant closers of the 1980s, being the first pitcher in history to rack up two 40-save seasons and who finished second or third in the Cy Young voting for four straight years (1982-85). 

But that’s not why I liked him. I was a Quisenberry fan because he threw underhand—the same way my dad pitched Whiffleball to me when I was six years old. Quisenberry had magic powers. Instead of blowing the ball by hitters, he continuously tricked them into weakly grounding out. His deceptive submarine delivery helped the Royals reach the World Series in 1980 and 1985.

Quisenberry, who died of brain cancer in 1998, had an outside chance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame this year by the Expansion Era committee, which examines overlooked contributions from 1973-present. He was passed over in favor of former managers Bobby Cox, Tony LaRussa, and Joe Torre.

I was primarily rooting for him because he was my pen pal. Well, sort of. He only wrote me once, but it was a two-page handwritten letter—the equivalent of at least two dozen personal Tweets in current-day player-fan correspondence.

“Dear Darren,” he wrote during the middle of the strike-shortened 1981 season. “Thank you for your letter. I get hundreds of letters and never write back, but I am this time because your letter was so creative.”

As a 13-year-old, I would rather have been praised for my fastball over my prose, but in retrospect, I’m smitten by an athlete who even bothered to notice a kid’s writing skills. (Quisenberry, incidentally, later published two volumes of poetry.)

I never made a copy of my fan letter to Quiz, but I do remember spelling out his name vertically and listing positive adjectives as if I were writing a Valentine. Something like:

Quick

Underrated

Indispensible

Sharp

Effective

Never Gives Up

Bold

Energetic

Royal

Really Awesome

Young (as in Cy Young)

Quisenberry’s letter to me focused on three questions I asked about how I, too, could become a professional ballplayer. He shared that he used to frequently throw a tennis ball against a wall and practiced his batting swing or pitching delivery in front of a mirror when no one was around to play catch. He wrote that he developed his stamina from throwing alone and not from lifting weights, adding “or else God just made it that way because I don’t think I am strong compared to other teammates.”

Darren Garrick

Surprisingly, the Royals star also told me that running would be important for my general health when I get older, but “if you are a young teenager, I don’t think you would need it.” I took his advice and spent a lot of time playing video games.

For this, he remains immortal to me. Quisenberry will have another chance to be considered by the Expansion Era committee in 2017.

Perhaps no one thinks about the fuzzy line between immortal and almost immortal more than Shawn Anderson, creator of the “Hall of Very Good” baseball blog dedicated to players who fall just short of Cooperstown. So far, the selective HOVG has “inducted” Tommy John, Dale Murphy, Steve Blass, Luis Tiant, Tony Oliva, and the San Diego Chicken into the imaginary shrine.

"A guy like Quisenberry definitely fits the bill for us,” Anderson says. “I mean, here's a guy who led the league in saves five out of six years, was top three in Cy Young Award voting in four of those years, yet gets virtually no love from anyone. His story should be told and contributions to the game celebrated—not shoved aside."

Sports on Earth writer Joe Posnanski has passionately argued in his blog that Quisenberry’s stats are equal to—“and were much better in the heat of pennant races”—than Hall of Fame reliever Bruce Sutter. “They pitched almost exactly the same number of innings and Quisenberry gave up fewer runs in the designated hitter league,” Ponsnanski writes. “I wouldn’t tell you that Dan was better than Sutter, but I will tell you that no matter how you break it down, it is at best a wash, and if Sutter was a Hall of Famer then, in my mind, so was Quiz.”

Debating whether a player is plaque-worthy will probably go on as long as baseball itself. Although ego is certainly a factor in an athlete’s joy or disappointment over their Hall of Fame status, inevitably it taps into a much deeper human need. The Cooperstown stamp-of-approval is reassurance to a player that he will not be soon forgotten like hundreds of his peers.

About year after I received the Quisenberry letter, I also heard back from Joe Sewell, an infielder for the Indians and Yankees (1920-1933) who remarkably only struck out 114 times over 1,903 games in his career (the Orioles’ Chris Davis and Braves’ B.J. Upton each have already whiffed more times this season with two months to go). So why was a kid in the 1980s contacting a “forgotten” player from the 1920s? Because I had read his bio in a book about the Hall of Fame.

Darren Garnick

Sewell, who was once Lou Gehrig’s roommate, told me that the 1982 fifth-place Yankees needed to be “revamped from (owner George) Steinbrenner down to the batboy.”  And in a bit of unintentional humor fermented by time, he declared “there is no ballplayer worth a million a year.”

More poignantly, the Hall of Famer ended his letter with “Thanks for remembering me.” I was thrilled to receive more than a scribble from one of the game’s immortals, and he was the one thanking me.

Being a nice guy who answers fan mail is certainly not grounds for getting into the National Baseball Hall of Fame or even the Hall of Very Good. But current players should take notice: Just taking a few moments to be kind to your fans will ensure that you’ll be remembered for life. That’s an honor that’s not guaranteed—even if you’re bronzed in Cooperstown.

Presented by

Darren Garnick is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and journalist based in New Hampshire. He is currently writing  Why Can't I Be President?, a comic book about history's "Oval Office Underdogs," and blogs about politics and pop culture at CultureSchlock.com.

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