Enigmatic Pinson Sporadically Sensational by thad mumau

In the last three blogs, I have discussed players whom I feel should be in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. The basis of my argument is how 

Tony Oliva, Tommy John, Jim Kaat, Luis Tiant and Lee Smith stack up statistically against Cooperstown residents with comparable numbers.

This column deals with someone who, like Oliva, appeared headed for the Hall. Unlike Oliva, he was not derailed by injuries but by a dropoff in production when he was still a young man.

We’re talking about the enigmatic Vada Pinson. He burst onto the big league scene with such flash and dash that he was instantly mentioned in the same conversations with a couple of iconic all-time greats.

His 3.3 speed to first base brought comparisons to Mickey Mantle and the way he glided across the outfield grass reminded folks of Willie Mays. A center fielder, just as they were, he could hit for average and power, just as they did.

Pinso had considered a career playing the trumpet and was pretty good at it. But his coach at McClymonds High Schooin Oakland, California, convinced the speedster that he was even better at baseball.

That coach, the legendary George Powles, knew what he was talking about, having also worked with Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and Curt Flood, still another standout big league center fielder.

After signing with Cincinnati at the age of 17, Pinson spent just two years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors. He played in only 27 games with the Reds in 1958, but enough to accumulate too many plate appearances to warrant rookie classification the following season.

Too bad, because Pinson was hotter than a pepper sprout throughout 1959, and had he made a handful fewer trips to the plate the previous season, he likely would have been the choice as National League Rookie of the Year. (an award that went to Willie McCovey).

Pinson’s dazzling ’59 numbers included 205 base hits, 131 runs scored, 47 doubles, nine triples, 20 home runs, 21 stolen bases and a .316 batting average. Plus 76 extra-base hits and 330 total bases. And he didn’t turn 21 until August of that season.

In his first five full seasons, Pinson amassed 985 base hits – more than Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson during that period.

His first season was his best, but then again, such spectacular numbers are hard to duplicate. Strangely, the years in which he had at least 200 hits and batted over .300 did not occur consecutively. And, although the “off” seasons were not really bad, they paled in comparison to the brilliant ones.

Take a look:

Year   Runs  Hits    2B      3B      HR     RBI    SB     Average

1959  131    205    47      9        20      84      21      .316

1960  107    187    37      12      20      61      32      .287

1961  101    208    34      8        16      87      23      .343

1962  107    181    31      7        23      100    26      .292

1963    96    204    37      14      22      106    27      .313

1964    99    166    23      11      23      84        8      .266

1965    97    204    34      10      22      94      21      .305

1966    70    178    35      6        16      76      18      ,288

1967    90    187    28      13      18      66      26      ,288

Pinson played eight more years after the ’67 season, ending his career in 1975 when he was 36. His final season in a Reds uniform was 1968. He also played for the Cardinals, Indians, Angels and Royals.

Although he had seasons to rival the superstar center fielders of his time, Pinson did not do that consistently. He did not hit .300 after his 28th birthday. After ’67, his best year was 1970 when he smacked 24 homers, drove in 82 runs and batted .286, and he never managed a batting average as high as .280 after that.

The highlight of his career was 1961, when he joined Frank Robinson to form a dynamic one-two punch that led Cincinnati to the National League pennant. Frank Robby won the MVP award and Pinson placed third in the voting.

Four years later, following the ’65 season, the Reds swapped Robinson to Baltimore in one of the worst trades in baseball history. In addition to hurting the ballclub, the deal hurt Pinson.

Robinson had been his best friend on the team, his roommate and his mentor. Not a particularly outgoing guy, the 27-year-old Pinson never had another really big season, losing star status just when he should have been reaching his prime. Robinson’s absence certainly was not the only reason, however.

There were hamstring injuries that slowed Pinson, but nothing which kept him out of the lineup for long stretches or drained his skills. His disappearance from the major league red carpet was a mystery.

Still, Pinson’s total landscape earns star status. He is one of only two players in National League history to finish their careers with at least 2,700 hits, 250 home runs, 450 doubles, 100 triples, and 300 steals. The other is Willie Mays.

Pinson finished with 2,757 hits, 256 home runs, 1,169 RBIs, 305 stolen bases and a .286 batting average.

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