The “Other Hank” . . . and Ian

Somewhere in the back of every fan’s mind is a list of baseball injustices. For Cubs fans it’s that Ron Santo isn’t yet in the Hall of Fame, for Pirate’s fans it’s that Roberto Clemente wasn’t named the NL MVP in 1960. There’s an argument on the net about whether Tim Raines, one of baseball’s great on base players should be in the hall, whether Jeffrey Maier or Steve Bartman should have been called for interference, whether Satchell Paige was justified in being irritated that Branch Rickey chose Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier. But in terms of pure injustice, few can top the unstated but embarrassing slight suffered by Texas Rangers fans who saw perhaps the game’s best second baseman (who came up as a shortstop in ’04) held out of the all star game. Even Boston Red Sox fans were upset.

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It’s not any easier to talk about the Kinsler slight now that the game is over. Not only is Kinsler a possible AL MVP, the American League went into the St. Louis “Midsummer Classic” with (count ‘em) one second baseman – the well-deserving Aaron Hill (who’s an institution on my list of baseball’s most underrated players). Hill became a starter after Dustin Pedroia (here he is, in case you’ve forgotten) decided to spend time with his wife, who’s enduring a difficult pregnancy. To take Pedroia’s place, Hill was made a starter and Tampa Bay Ray Carlos Pena was named to the team. The naming of Pena meant that the AL might have fielded an all-Tampa Bay infield, particularly after Ray’s coach Joe Maddon named hometown favorite Ben Zobrist as a possible second baseman. Zobrist is a hell of a hitter, but Tampa Bay fans look at him as a “super-uilityman” — and he’s played nearly half his games in the outfield and shortstop. And since when does a “super-utility-man” get named to the all star game? Still, there was a chance that Kinsler might appear after Evan Longoria decided not to play, the result of an infection his throwing hand. But AL manager Joe Maddon picked Angels’ third baseman Chone Figgins to take Longoria’s place. Who knows, maybe there’s something about Kinsler that Maddon doesn’t like, but it certainly can’t be his qualifications: he’s hitting .337 with 14 home runs, 58 RBIs, 84 runs and 23 stolen bases — better numbers than any other AL player at the position. Not bad for a guy who finished second in fan voting and got to spend the all star break at a Starbucks in Dallas.

The slight of Ian Kinsler has rightly angered Ranger fans, but this isn’t the first time that a great player and potential MVP was overlooked in “the Midsummer Classic.” In 1954, feared Cubs hitter Hank Sauer was given three days off during the all star break, despite the fact that he was having a phenomenal year. Baseball’s older veterans still talk about the Sauer slight, noting that he’d won the rain-shortened 1952 classic with a home run — a year in which he’d led the league in homers and RBIs — and was one of the game’s most-feared hitters. In 1954, they note, he was having a career year and single-handedly carrying a bad team. Sauer (nicknamed “the Honker” for his big nose) was hardly a defensive whiz (he once misplayed a fly ball during a night game and explained that “I lost it in the moon”) and might have been the slowest outfielder in the National League. But his Wrigley Field blasts were the stuff of baseball lore and Cubs fans loved him: whenever he hit a homer, Cubs fans in the rightfield bleachers showered him with packets of tobacco. On Hank Sauer Day, a celebration of his career, there was so much tobacco on the field that it took five wheelbarrows to remove it. ”I loved playing in Wrigley Field,” Sauer remembered during his retirement. “Fans would throw tobacco to me. What I couldn’t put in my pocket, I’d store in the vines. I supplied the whole club with tobacco.”

The Sauer injustice remained unmentioned by the Cubs outfielder throughout his career and into his retirement. When asked about it he dismissed it with a shrug, adding that a lot of people in the league that year were more focused on Chicago’s new rookie phenom — shortstop Ernie Banks. Then too, as Sauer himself would have admitted, he hardly deserved to be on the starting nine in ’54. The NL outfield was packed: with Stan Musial, Duke Snyder and Jackie Robinson, a veritable murderers’ row, named as the league starters. But that Sauer should have been on the team is not in question. The same holds true for Kinsler.

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