José Cardenal?

In 2021, I had some things to say about the makeup of the revamped Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame. That’s part of the fun of any hall of fame, nitpicking about who was put in and who was left out. The most egregious decision, in my opinion, was including Bill Buckner. My ranking has him as the 127th greatest Cub, and that doesn’t seem to me like a hall of famer. But I eventually made peace with that decision, realizing that this list of Cubs had come together piece by piece over the years, and that Buckner had to be in the “new” hall of fame because he had been included in one of the previous versions. I even started using Buckner (instead of Steve Trachsel) as the new threshold for entering the All the Cubs list.

Regardless of any mistakes I think are present in this hall, I have become excited about it. I have designed my collection around recognizing the all-time great Cubs, from 1876 to 2022, and it seemed like the Cubs were beginning to take it seriously too. The annual conversation about who might get in this year (like Cooperstown on a small scale) seemed like a pleasant summer diversion, especially during those unheard-of seasons when the Cubs weren’t competing for the postseason. This season is such a season, and this summer needed such a diversion. Who might the Cubs bless with this honor? Mark Grace seemed like the easy choice. Long, productive career. Beloved by fans. Still alive, healthy, and able to enjoy the honor. Or might the Cubs finally welcome back Sammy Sosa? What a day at Wrigley that would be, watching a 53-year-old Sammy sprint to right field one more time as the Cubs enshrined him. And there are several yesteryear players that could be chosen, like 19th century pitcher Bill Hutchinson, or 1940s slugger Bill Nicholson, or Cooperstown-hopeful Bill Dahlen. So many Bills to choose from.

With these names before them, the panel of media members and former players chose José Cardenal. To be fair to them, they also chose two exceedingly worthy candidates in Buck O’Neil and Pat Hughes. But there is no explanation for Cardenal.

I like José Cardenal. It gives me no pleasure to talk about how he’s not good enough for something. He really was a good player in his short time with the Cubs, and I love reading stories about his temper and his run-ins against management. Apparently Eddie Vedder and Michelle Obama are big fans of his. All of that is great color, the kind of stuff that makes baseball fun. I’m not interested in talking about how bad Cardenal was, because he wasn’t, but there are many other players that deserve this more than him. I feel like their legacies need to be protected.

My ranking is based largely on WAR (Wins Above Replacement) and I know that is not everyone’s cup of tea. But you don’t need advanced stats to see how weird and inexplicable this is. Below are 6 hitters (not even considering the two controversial players, Cap Anson and Sammy Sosa) who I think are worthy of consideration for the Cubs hall, plus José Cardenal.

NameYearsGPARH2B3BHRRBISBBAOBPSLGMore
Mark Grace 1B1988-2000191082341057220145643148100470.303.383.442AS x3, GG x4, NL East x1
Bill Nicholson RF1939-19481349561573813232455320583326.272.368.471AS x5, NL Pennant x1
Ned Williamson 3B1879-1889106545227441050211806162285.260.338.397NL Pennant x5
Johnny Kling C1900-1911102538763979631565116438119.272.317.358NL Pennant x4, WS x2
Bill Dahlen SS1891-18989874521897117020310657561286.299.384.449
Aramis Ramírez 3B2003-2011112447056511246256142398068.294.356.531AS x2, NL Central x3
José Cardenal RF1972-197782132744338641591661343129.296.363.424

It’s not just about the stats. Baseball is dominated by statistics more than any other sport, but there are other things to consider. Defensive value, postseason success, all-star selections, awards, plus other intangible contributions to the team and city. Cardenal doesn’t check any of those boxes, nothing that would come close to making up the statistical gap between him and these other players. I try to consider other arguments as charitably as possible, always giving the benefit of the doubt and trying to see things from other perspectives. I can find no perspective that makes any sense of this, except for one rather cynical one: Cardenal was a teammate of both Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins, and he played in an era familiar to and remembered by all the members of the panel.

The panel comprises five former Cubs and eight current media members. Andre Dawson, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, and Billy Williams are the former players. David Haugh, Peggy Kusinski, Bruce Levine, Bruce Miles, Fred Mitchell, Carrie Muskat, Dan Roan and Barry Rozner are the media members. They were presented with a list of 14 candidates by Cubs historian Ed Hartig, and from it they chose Cardenal, Hughes, and O’Neil. (It’s possible O’Neil was an automatic inclusion because of his recent induction into the MLB Hall of Fame.) I would love to see that list of 14, and I would love to hear how the panel narrowed it down. (I will be denied these requests.) I am almost certain that Mark Grace and Bill Nicholson were on that list, if the considerations that Hartig supposedly follows are to be believed. How did they eliminate those names and land on Cardenal?

At some point I will have to accept what has happened and move on, but that day is not today. The list of fans who care deeply about the Chicago Cubs Hall of Fame is not long but I am wholeheartedly on it. I have spent a lot of time, energy, and money on curating a baseball card collection that chronicles the history of the Cubs. At the top is Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks, the greatest of all time. For a while, the back end of that collection was guarded by the very good Bill Buckner. As an active player’s accomplishments surpassed his own, Bill would welcome him into the All the Cubs family – most recently it was Ian Happ. Next will probably be Nico Hoerner. Shall I now take that responsibility from Buckner and hand it to Cardenal? I’m not emotionally prepared to make that decision today.

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