This day in baseball history

Fifty years ago, on this day in baseball history, fans were awaiting the beginning of the 1960 World Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the New York Yankees. The Pirates had led the National League nearly wire-to-wire. By contrast, the Yankees didn’t put away the defending AL champion Chicago White Sox and the upstart Baltimore Orioles until mid-September.
The single most important factor in Yankees’ bounce-back from their third place finish in 1959 was the acquisition of Roger Maris. And, although Mickey Mantle had as good a 1960 season as Maris did, I don’t recall much controversy surrounding the selection of Maris as American League MVP.
The selection of Dick Groat as National League MVP was another story. Fifty years later, this award remains controversial, with many fans of a certain age convinced that Groat was undeserving and was named MVP, ahead of teammate Roberto Clemente, for reasons of race and ethnicity. That certainly was Clemente’s well-publicized view and seems to be the view of Clemente’s influential biographer Dave Maraniss.
This view is half right. Groat did not deserve to be the MVP, in my opinion, but neither did Clemente.
Dick Groat was a great athlete – a two-time All American in both baseball and basketball and Duke University – and a superb major league shortstop from the mid-1950s through the mid-1960s. 1960 was one of his best years. He led the National League in batting average (.325) and had the most total fielding chances per game of any NL shortstop, though not by a significant margin.
But Groat did not hit for power (his slugging average in 1960 was .394) and nor did he walk much (39 times in 1960). Thus his OPS (on-base average plus slugging percentage) was a modest .765.
Groat may well have brought leadership skills and other intangibles to the Pirates. But it is also the case that he missed three weeks during the September stretch run. During that period, as I noted here, the Pirates prospered thanks to fine play of reserve infielder Dick Schofield.
In sum, Groat’s statistics, plus the fact that he played only 138 games, make him a dubious choice for MVP.
Roberto Clemente, however, would have been at least as dubious a choice. To be sure, his OPS (.815) was better than Groat’s. But an outfielder like Clemente is expected to outslug an infielder like Groat. Clemente’s OPS is more relevantly compared to those of fellow outfielders Willie Mays (.936) and Hank Aaron (.918). And both Mays and Aaron scored and drove in more runs than Clemente did in 1960. To add insult to injury, Clemente was also outpaced in all of these statistical categories (OPS, runs, and RBI) by infielders Eddie Mathews, Ken Boyer, and Ernie Banks.
I believe, therefore, that neither Groat nor Clemente deserved the 1960 National League MVP. In my view, the award should have gone to Mays or Mathews, with Groat and Clemente probably both outside of the top five (Clemente was – he finished eighth).
Why did Groat win the award? It was not because of his race – the sportswriters who did the voting rejected a highly deserving white in Mathews. And the previous two years they had selected Ernie Banks, a black. Nor was it because of ethnicity – the top two NL Hispanics, Clemente and Orlando Cepeda, were not deserving.
My theory is that Groat profited mostly from an entirely baseball related bias – the bias in favor of middle infielders from pennant winning teams. The previous year, Nellie Fox, a second baseman with stats pretty similar to Groat’s 1960 numbers, won the AL MVP playing for the pennant winning White Sox. And in 1965, shortstop Zolio Versalles, a shortstop with the pennant winning Minnesota Twins, would win the AL MVP with numbers somewhat comparable to Groat’s. Versalles, considered by some to be the least deserving MVP ever, is Hispanic.
But at least Fox played in nearly every game and Versalles hit with excellent power for a shortstop. Thus, Groat may have needed another bias to put him over the top – the overrating of batting average. In 1960, many (probably most) sportswriters considered that stat the most important indicator of batting prowess. Today, batting average is considered incidental.
The way batting stats are analyzed today, I doubt that Groat would receive serious MVP consideration for his 1960 season. And, in light of the fact that Derek Jeter has never won an MVP, I’m quite sure that Groat would not win the 1960 MVP under today’s criteria. But neither would Clemente.


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