Baseball's gone statue crazy

It's adulation inflation as Harold Baines gets one and Orlando Cepeda's is on the way.

Published July 23, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

It's probably not possible to say this without sounding like a misanthropic chump, but we're in a period of runaway statue inflation in major league baseball.

Last week the Chicago White Sox unveiled a statue of Harold Baines at U.S. Cellular Field, and the San Francisco Giants announced plans to honor Orlando Cepeda at AT&T Park.

Nothing against Baines or Cepeda, fine ballplayers and much loved in their respective cities, though both were traded away during their prime. Baines, in fact, was sent packing twice by the White Sox. But the team has always loved him. The Sox retired his number 3 after that first trade, in 1989, when he was all of 30 years old. So he's long been a subject of adulation inflation. They unretired it both times he came back.

Baines and Cepeda just don't seem like statue types. If they were presidents they'd be Martin Van Buren or Chester Arthur. It's a hell of a thing even to be an obscure or bad president, but Chester Arthur wasn't exactly on the short list for Mount Rushmore.

Cepeda's statue will join those of Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey outside AT&T Park. McCovey, who came up with Cepeda and lost playing time to him, though he ended up having a better career, might even be stretching things a bit, pardon the nickname pun, especially considering they named the cove outside the stadium after him.

This is a guy Bill James rated as the ninth-best first baseman of all time in his "New Historical Abstract," and that was before Albert Pujols got going. The Baseball Page ranks him eighth, with Pujols 25th and climbing.

Top 10 of all time at any position is really something, don't get me wrong. But we're talking about building statues here. Monuments. Baseball has a tradition of building statues that other sports don't have, but imagine if there weren't just a statue of Michael Jordan outside the United Center in Chicago, but also one of Scottie Pippen. And one of Bob Love. And Horace Grant. That's where baseball's going.

Still, OK, McCovey played 17 years with the Giants, more than twice as many as Cepeda played, and he was a genuine face of the franchise, especially after Mays was traded away. And he stuck around in town and nobody ever said a bad word about the guy without having pitched to him.

Cepeda, the 23rd-best first baseman according to the Baseball Page, No. 17 according to James, has a better case for a statue than Baines. A borderline Hall of Famer but a Hall of Famer just the same, his career got off to a Pujols-like start. By the time he was 26 he had more than 1,200 hits, and he was averaging 32 home runs and 109 RBIs a year through seven seasons.

He tore up his knee in 1965 and was only intermittently great after that. An All-Star six times in his first seven years, he was chosen just once after the knee injury, though in that year, '67, he was the National League MVP as he led his new team, the St. Louis Cardinals, to the title. He was elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee after a long public relations campaign by the Giants.

It's not like a statue of the Baby Bull is somehow offensive, but if he gets a statue, why doesn't Will Clark? More likable and he lives in town and is close to the franchise, but the point is, if Orlando Cepeda is statue-worthy, then there are a lot of statues that need to get made around baseball.

And that's what's happening, which is how Baines got one. He was Bill James' 42nd-best right fielder of all time and the Baseball Page's fifth-best designated hitter, though that's drawing from a dramatically smaller pool of players.

He played forever plus about five minutes, including all or parts of 14 seasons with the White Sox. And, as noted, the team, most notably owner Jerry Reinsdorf, simply loves the guy. And the Sox love erecting statues. Baines' likeness joins those of Charles Comiskey, Minnie Minoso, Billy Pierce, Carlton Fisk, Nellie Fox and Luis Aparicio. Who's next, Wilbur Wood? Bill Melton?

Why not? Erecting statues is a good time. You make an event of it, have a nice ceremony, make the player feel good, make the fans feel good. You add to the net good feeling in the universe. The only cost is that if you keep at it long enough, you have to start building statues of guys you put on waivers.

They're nowhere near that point in Kansas City yet, but outside of the misspelled Kauffman Stadium there's a statue of Frank White. Good player, but seriously, a Frank White statue? How is that Davey Lopes doesn't have a statue somewhere? They've got one of Jay Buhner in Seattle.

Just kidding, but at this rate, it wouldn't be shocking.

Three new statues are planned outside the Nationals' new park in Washington: Walter Johnson, Josh Gibson and ... Frank Howard.

Johnson pitched for the Senators from 1907 to 1927 and was one of the greatest ever. Gibson played in the Negro Leagues with the Homestead Grays, a Washington team for most of his career, and he's arguably the greatest catcher of all time.

Two towering figures. No problems there. If you're just going to build a few statues of baseball players nationwide, Johnson and Gibson would be good candidates to get one.

But Howard? He was a big-time player, a mammoth slugger who won the Rookie of the Year award as a Los Angeles Dodger in 1960 and had his best years in a Senators uniform. He played only seven years in Washington, 1965-71, but during that stretch he started in three All-Star games and played in a fourth, and he led the league in home runs twice, RBIs and slugging percentage once each.

He was a big man and a big star, but -- even in Washington, which hasn't had an overly rich history of baseball heroes thanks to a lot of bad teams and a recent 33-year period without one -- he just shouldn't be a statue kind of guy.

Look at the list of most similar hitters on Howard's Baseball-Reference page: In order, the top five are Rocky Colavito, Joe Adcock, Norm Cash, Greg Luzinski and Andruw Jones. Not a Hall of Famer in the bunch, and not a statue either as far as I know. Well, not counting statues too small for a bird to sit on.

Sit, I said. Sit.

The next five aren't any more Cooperstowny, but you can look up the list yourself. It's a veritable who's who of the Hall of Good. George Foster, the seventh most similar, got closer to election than any of the others, with 6.9 percent of the vote. You need 75 percent to get in.

It's not a list with a lot of statues on it. Jones is still active, of course, but he'd have to come out of a two-year slump and have a spectacular run in his 30s to have a realistic shot at Cooperstown.

Or a statue, I was going to say. But these days, maybe not.

By King Kaufman

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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