So close, yet so far from historic mark

Near miss: Frank Robinson is among the notable players who ended their careers within sight of 3,000

April 17, 2000|By Peter Schmuck

It didn't seem like such a big deal at the time, but Hall of Famer Frank Robinson wishes now that he had remained active long enough to join the exclusive 3,000-hit club.

Robinson fell 57 hits short after limiting his own playing time in 1975 and 1976 while acting as player-manager for the Cleveland Indians. If he had put himself in the lineup more during those final two seasons, he likely would have finished his career as one of only three players with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs.

"Sure, I wish I had now, but there wasn't as much emphasis on that as there is today," Robinson said. "It just wasn't as big a deal back then. If I had played regularly those last two years, I probably would have gotten there in 1975 or early '76."

He could have remained active another year, but he had written his own name in the lineup so sparingly in 1976 that the Indians asked him to concentrate solely on managing the club in 1977.

"They didn't want to pay me to be both a player and manager the next year," Robinson said. "I only got $20,000 to be the manager. I got most of my salary for playing."

Maybe it would be different now, in an era when baseball trumpets every statistic and milestone, but Robinson had to choose between hanging on as a player or focusing all his attention on his historic role as major-league baseball's first black manager. Even in retrospect, it was not a difficult choice.

"I could have tried to sign with someone else, but I was 41 years old," he said. "A lot of people still ask me about that. `You were so close. Why didn't you stay around?' But the number wasn't as important then."

Robinson isn't the only one to come up just short. There are several players who came closer than he did. Washington Senators great Sam Rice fell shy by just 13 hits during a career in which he played until he was 44 years old. He probably would have made it if he had cracked the Senators' starting lineup before he turned 27.

Outfielder Sam Crawford, who played for the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers from 1899 to 1917, finished his career at 37 still needing 39 hits to reach 3,000, and former Oriole Willie Keeler came up 68 hits short. But the significance of that plateau probably was lost on those early players, since only three players - Cap Anson (since booted out), Nap Lajoie and Honus Wagner - had reached that milestone before 1920.

"I remember the first time I ever even thought about it was when Al Kaline got his 3,000th hit [in 1974]," Robinson said. "I thought about it, but more because I wanted to get 3,000 hits and 600 home runs, which only [Hank] Aaron and [Willie] Mays had done."

There were 11 members of the 3,000-hit club when Robinson retired. Pete Rose would join it the following season. Lou Brock and Carl Yastrzemski would arrive in 1979. Rod Carew would become the 15th member in 1985. The other eight - more than a third of the entire membership - have joined in the past nine years, perhaps the clearest indication of the generational shift in favor of the hitters that took place after the mound was lowered in 1969.

"I think that just shows where the pitching has gone," Robinson said, "but I think it's more a case of players staying in the game longer. When I was playing, you were considered to be passing your prime when you reached 30."

Three other players - Rogers Hornsby, Jake Beckley and Al Simmons - reached 2,900 and failed to make it to 3,000, but not for lack of trying. Hornsby remained active for eight years after he ceased to be a full-time player, and Simmons spent five years in decline before retiring. Beckley, a turn-of-the-century first baseman, was productive into his late 30s, only to see his numbers drop off precipitously in 1906 and 1907.

He, of all the players who came close and missed, probably had no inkling that 3,000 was of any significance, since Anson was the only player to that time to reach the plateau. (Anson's total has since been revised down to 2,996 by Total Baseball, baseball's official encyclopedia.)

There has been only one notable near-miss at baseball's other major offensive milestone. Hall of Famer Lou Gehrig fell seven short of 500 home runs when a fatal disease brought his spectacular career to a sudden end, but - as in the case of Beckley - the statistical significance of his shortfall probably went largely unnoticed.

To that point, longtime teammate Babe Ruth was the only player to hit more - and he already had retired with 714 career homers - so there was little reason for anyone to focus on what would later become the standard for baseball's greatest power hitters.

Gehrig, incidentally, also fell just five RBIs short of 2,000, a plateau that has been achieved only by Ruth and all-time leader Hank Aaron.

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