Since Paul O’Neill is included, for the first time, on the 2007 baseball writers’ Hall of Fame ballot (that was just released), I have decided to share an excerpt of my book, The Baseball Same Game, where O’Neill is highlighted. Those who are wondering about what player(s) in baseball history were like O’Neill may find this information helpful. If you like this excerpt, there are 64 additional ones that can be found in the book, if you want to pick up a copy for yourself.
There are many New York Yankees fans, born between the years 1960 and 1989, who strongly believe that their favorite team should retire Paul O’Neill’s uniform number (21) in his honor – and that someday O’Neill should receive consideration regarding a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I know this to be true because I have debated with many of these fans at various times in sundry places – taking the position that such consideration towards O’Neill is unwarranted. This does not mean that I am not an admirer of the effort and play that Paul O’Neill put forth in the pinstripes during his tour in the Bronx. Actually, as a Yankees fan, if I had to name my all-time five favorite Yankees, Paul O’Neill would rank somewhere in that group. My position with these aforementioned fans was based on the fact that I thought it was a reach to grant O’Neill the same stature of some of the all-time Yankee greats and the members of the Hall of Fame.
On the other hand, along came The Baseball Same Game, and now I have to wonder if I was correct to take the position that I initially chose in the O’Neill debate.
Paul O’Neill was a sure-handed and strong-armed outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds and New York Yankees from 1985 through 2001. He was a member of an All-Star team five times during his career. His best season was 1994 when he won the American League batting title – albeit in a season shortened due to work stoppage. He joined the Yankees prior to the 1993 season – and is best known as a Yankee as his teams in New York made the post-season the last seven years of his career (in a row). In that stretch, the Yankees won four World Championships and just missed a fifth in 2001. (Some O’Neill trivia: He played on three World Champion teams – the 1990 Reds and the 1998-99 Yankees – that won the World Series in a sweep. Only Lou Gehrig has ever been on four “sweep” champs.)
Many members of those O’Neill Yankees teams have expressed that Paul O’Neill was the ‘heart and soul’ of those squads because of the intensity in which he played the game. The media has picked up on this many times as well. This is one of the reasons why O’Neill was such a fan favorite. (And, if you need to know “How big of a favorite?” just watch the highlights from Game Five of the 2001 World Series where the entire Stadium chanted Paul-Oh-Nee-Eel near the end of the game when they suspected that they would never see him play there again. It was an incredibly moving moment.)
And, who matches up just about perfectly to O’Neill in terms of career offensive performance data results? Entertainingly, it is Gil Hodges.
Hodges was a first baseman with the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers from 1943 through 1961. In 1962 he joined the New York Mets where he would play in just a few games over the course of two seasons. He was a member of an All-Star team eight times in his career. He was a very good fielding first baseman. And, he was absolutely beloved by many in Brooklyn when he played there (from 1943 through 1957). While with the Dodgers, his teams won five pennants and two World Series. After his playing days, he went on to manage – and, in 1969, he led the New York Mets to a much-unexpected World Series championship. Sadly, Gil Hodges died of heart attack just days before his 48th birthday. During the 1980’s and 1990’s there was strong sentiment among baseball fans and writers that Hodges should be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. The push was never strong enough to get him elected. But, the debate was durable enough to remain on the radar of the baseball public for over twenty years.
Therefore, since it has been acceptable to consider whether or not Gil Hodges should be a member of the Hall of Fame, should anyone be shot down for considering Paul O’Neill for the Hall? Both were All-Stars several times and they were important players on teams that repeatedly won. Both players were cherished by the fans of their team. And, their performance data as batters is within points (here and there) of being equal.
Granted, Hodges appeared in a Dodgers uniform for 16 seasons and O’Neill split his time between Cincinnati (8 seasons) and New York (9 seasons). But, does that matter? It should not – at all. There is no reason why it should be acceptable to debate Hodges for the Hall of Fame and then unacceptable to debate O’Neill for there as well. (For the record, I must stress that I am not saying either should be in – just that it is reasonable to consider their worthiness rather than say “no” to either right off the bat.)
This just leaves the last loose-end regarding O’Neill’s number (21) in New York. The Yankees did not issue that number to any player in the first three years following O’Neill’s retirement. It is possible that the Yankees may consider retiring the number in Paul’s honor. If they do retire the number, it will be the sixteenth one that New York has taken out of circulation. There could be as many as four more Yankees (Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Mo Rivera and Joe Torre) worthy of that honor soon as well. At this rate, the Yankees will run out of numbers and have to start wearing letters on the backs of their uniforms. But, that will be Yankees owner George Steinbrenner’s problem, not mine.
The above is from ~~