I see the end in sight. We’ve got a Hall-of-Famer today, albeit a controversial one.
15. Paul O’Neill. New York Yankees. WAR: 38.9
Paul O’Neill is the son of a former minor league ballplayer from Columbus, Ohio. He grew up a fan of the “Big Red Machine” teams of the 1970s and signed with the Reds out of high school after Cincinnati took him in the fourth round of the 1981 Draft. He made his major league debut as a September call-up with the Reds in 1985. His manager was Pete Rose, a player he grew up idolizing. He then spent most of the 1986 season in the minor leagues before establishing himself in the majors for good in 1987.
O’Neill was a left-handed hitting right fielder with a line-drive hitting stroke. He didn’t hit left-handed pitching all that well early in his career so he was often platooned then. In fact, he always had a strong platoon difference, but hit lefties well enough to stay in the lineup later in his career with the Yankees.
Rose got banned from baseball for life in 1989 for gambling, and the Reds hired Lou Piniella to be their new manager for the 1990 season. The Reds and Piniella won the World Series in his first year. O’Neill had a strong year in 1990, hitting .270/.339/.421 with 16 home runs in 145 games as the Reds starting right fielder.
But the relationship between O’Neill and Piniella was always a tough one. Piniella thought that O’Neill could hit more home runs if he adjusted his swing and O’Neill resisted. On top of that, both Piniella and O’Neill could best be described as “intense.” O’Neill was the type of guy who demanded perfection of himself and Piniella was more than glad to demand that of him as well. The problem was that when O’Neill was beating himself up after a bad performance, Piniella would only make it worse.
O’Neill made his first All-Star Game in 1991 and he hit a career-high 28 home runs that season. But he only hit 14 home runs in 1992 and with free agency approaching, the Reds dealt the Ohio native to the Bronx for outfielder Roberto Kelly, who was coming off an All-Star season for the Yankees.
In New York, O’Neill quickly became a fan favorite. Owner George Steinbrenner nicknamed him “Warrior” because he loved the intensity he brought on to the field. It helped that manager Buck Showalter (and later, Joe Torre) left O’Neill’s swing alone and he responded by hitting .311 with 20 home runs in 1993. In the strike-shortened 1994 season, O’Neill won the AL batting title by hitting .359 with 21 home runs. He also walked more times that he struck out that year.
O’Neill became a regular .300 hitter in New York and would hit around 20 home runs and 30 to 40 doubles or so seemingly every season. He also “acted” in an episode of Seinfeld.
The Yankees won their first World Series title with O’Neill in 1996. They won another in 1998. Just a few hours before Game 4 of the 1999 World Series, O’Neill’s father died. O’Neill played in Game 4 and the Yankees finished off the four-game sweep of the Braves.
O’Neill considered retiring after that 1999 World Series, but he came back for another World Series title in 2000 and then ended his career after the Yankees lost the World Series in seven games to the Diamondbacks in 2001.
Over 17 seasons in the majors, O’Neill hit .288/.363/.470 with 281 home runs and 1269 RBI. He made five All-Star Teams and earned five World Series championship rings. He was often called the “Heart and Soul” of the last Yankees dynasty. The modern stats say that O’Neill was a below-average right fielder, but don’t tell a Yankees fan that. He also made this kick pass to the cutoff man in Cincinnati.
O’Neill joined the Yankees broadcast team shortly after retiring. In 2016, O’Neill was honored with a plaque in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.
14. Ken Singleton. New York Yankees. WAR: 41.8
One of the reasons that the Orioles won so much in the 1970s is that manager Earl Weaver was way ahead of everyone else of that time in understanding what we now call analytics. The best example was Ken Singleton. Everyone else thought Singleton was just a good player. Weaver knew he was one of the best hitters in the game.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Singleton grew up in the shadow of Yankee Stadium. Born in Manhattan and growing up in nearby Mt. Vernon, Singleton would often play baseball in the fields near Yankee Stadium. But he never actually played for the Yankees.
The Mets took the switch-hitting Singleton out of Hofstra University with the third pick of the January phase of the 1967 Draft. (There were drafts in both June and January back then.) Singleton made his major league debut in June of 1970.
In 1971, Singleton had established himself as the Mets starting right fielder, but he struggled to hit left-handed pitching and was not great defensively. He also only hit .245 with 13 home runs and 46 RBI, which were the only stats anyone paid attention to back then. It was probably lost on the Mets and the public that his on-base percentage was .374.
The Mets shipped Singleton to Montréal before the 1972 season as part of a package for Rusty Staub. With the Expos, Singleton blossomed into a quiet star. In 1973, Singleton hit .302 with 23 home runs. He also led the league with a .425 on-base percentage.
Singleton had a down year in 1974, only hitting nine home runs. But his OBP was still strong with .385 and the Orioles were one of the few teams that recognized that at the time. Baltimore traded a broken-down Dave McNally and light-hitting infielder Dave Coggins to the Expos for Singleton and pitcher Mike Torrez.
Singleton played almost every day for the Orioles from 1975 through the 1983 season. The only year he played in less than 149 games was the strike-shortened 1981 season. He was a quiet player who rarely called attention to himself. Mostly, he just hit around 20 home runs each season with an on-base percentage in the neighborhood of .400.
Singleton was an All-Star with the Orioles in 1977, 1979 and 1981. He hit a career-high 35 home runs with the pennant-winning Orioles in 1979 and finished second in MVP balloting that year.
Singleton’s one weakness was that he was slow, and that played out both in running the bases and on defense. He was never a good defender and played more games at DH once the 1980s rolled around. By 1982, he was a full-time DH. In 1983, the Orioles won the World Series. However, the DH was not used in that Series and Singleton was limited to only two pinch-hitting appearances.
Singleton played one more year in 1984, but at age 37, it was the only truly bad season of his career. He hit just six home runs and had an on-base percentage of .286. He retired after that.
Singleton started broadcasting for the Blue Jays immediately after retiring in 1985. He returned to Montréal to broadcast Expos games from 1987 to 1996. He returned home to New York for the 1997 season and has been there ever since.
Singleton has announced his retirement from broadcasting for both 2018 and 2019, but changed his mind both times. He’ll be back for the 2020 season on the YES Network.
Singleton retired as a player with a final line of .282/.388/.436 with 246 home runs over 2082 games in 15 seasons. He walked more times than he struck out in his career.
In the 2001 edition of the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, the godfather of sabermetrics named Singleton as the 18th-greatest right fielder of all-time. James also noted that in an earlier edition of the book, his wife had named Singleton as one of the best-looking ballplayers of the 1970s. Singleton sent James’ wife a thank-you card.
Our first Hall-of-Famer (as a player) on our countdown is also the only ballplayer who serves as a color analyst for two different teams in the same season. And I feel old that any of you who are younger than 35 can’t remember Game 7 of the 1991 World Series.
Morris, a native of St. Paul, Minnesota, was drafted by the Tigers out of Brigham Young in the fifth round of the 1976 Draft. He rocketed through the minor leagues and made the majors in July 1977 after only 32 minor league games.
Morris joined the Tigers rotation for good in 1979, when he made 27 starts, posted a 3.28 and went 17-7. He won another 16 games in 1980.
Until this time, Morris was a normal, low-90s fastball, slider and change-up pitcher. But in 1980, Morris started throwing a split-fingered fastball. The Tigers new pitching coach that year was split-fingered guru Roger Craig and although Morris said he actually learned the pitch from teammate Milt Wilcox (who had learned it from Bruce Sutter), certainly Craig helped Morris perfect the pitch. From then on, the splitter was Morris’ out pitch.
Morris tied for the American League lead in wins with 14 during the strike-shortened 1981 season. He made his first All-Star Game that year. Morris won 17 games again in 1982 (with a 4.06 ERA) and then won 20 games for the first time in 1983. He also
As noted before in this series, very little went wrong for the Tigers in 1984. The Tigers started 35-5 and in the fourth game of the season, Morris pitched a no-hitter against the White Sox. But off of the mound, there were problems for Morris. He was roundly criticized in the media and even by his teammates and coaches for his surly disposition and his regular temper tantrums. His battles with Craig became well-documented and Craig even publicly said that Morris needed to “stop acting like a baby.”
But Morris won 19 games that year, He pitched complete game wins in Games 1 and 4 of the World Series that the Tigers won in five games.
Morris was a free agent after the 1986 season, but despite wanting to sign with the Twins, the team did not make him an offer. With collusion among the major league owners in full bloom, Morris was forced to accept the only offer he had on the table from the Tigers.
Morris won 21 games in 1986 and 18 more in 1987 as the Tigers won the AL East again. Morris had been incredibly durable throughout his career, but he suffered an elbow injury in 1989 and he managed “just” 170 innings that year, his lowest total since 1978. He was also bad, going 6-14 with a 4.86 ERA. He was better in 1990 as he led the AL in starts and complete games, but he also led the league in earned runs allowed and posted a 4.51 ERA. (He still went 15-18.)
Morris became a free agent for real before the 1991 season and that gave him the opportunity to finally sign with his hometown Twins. Morris went 18-12 with a 3.43 ERA that year as the Twins returned to the World Series. Morris started Games 1, 4 and 7 for the Twins. He allowed two runs over seven innings in Game 1 as the Twins won. He allowed one run over six innings in Game 4 and left with a lead, although the Minnesota bullpen blew the lead.
Then there was Game 7, when Morris turned in one of the most famous pitching performances in baseball history. Morris threw ten shutout innings as the Twins won Game 7 1-0 on a Gene Larkin sac fly in the bottom of the tenth. Morris pitched out of a runners on second and third with no outs jam in the top of the eighth inning. (This was the famous inning when Chuck Knoblauch deked out Lonnie Smith, keeping him from scoring from first base on a double.) Morris was named MVP of the Series.
Morris activated an opt-out clause in his contract after that season and signed a two-year deal with the Blue Jays. In 1992, Morris went 21-6 with a 4.04 ERA. The Blue Jays won their first World Series title that year, but Morris started and lost both games that were won by Atlanta in that six-game series. The Blue Jays won another title in 1993, but Morris had a terrible year with a 6.19 ERA and he was left off the Blue Jays postseason roster.
Morris played one more season with Cleveland in 1994. He won ten games, but had a high ERA of 5.60. After the strike, Morris signed with the Reds, but they released him in Spring Training.
Still thinking he could pitch at age 41, Morris finished his playing days with the St. Paul Saints in independent ball in 1996. But no team signed him and he retired after that season.
Morris went 254-186 with a 3.90 ERA over 18 seasons. He was the subject of a raging Hall of Fame debate that can be fairly summed up as new stats versus old stats. The “old stats” people pointed to Morris’ 254 wins, his five All-Star Games and four World Series rings as a case for the Hall. (They also mentioned Game 7 of 1991 a lot.) The “new stats” people looked at his ERA and FIP and noted that Morris, while a good pitcher, was the beneficiary of some terrific hitting teams and pitcher-friendly Tiger Stadium. The debate ended when the Veterans’ Committee inducted Morris in 2018.
Morris worked radio for the Twins from 2005 to 2011. He joined the Blue Jays TV broadcast team for one year in 2013 and then returned to the Twins part-time on television in 2014. He also calls some games for the Tigers when he’s not calling Twins games.