Conservatives rightly like to complain about the establishment media’s political bias. What’s less well known, but just as obvious, is the “big market” bias of sportswriters. It shows up most annoyingly in Hall of Fame selections in football and baseball — and some recent choices are so unfair that they’ve been galling me all year. So forgive another excursion out of politics into sports — but with the NFL Hall of Fame having just announced last weekend its list of 131 “preliminary nominees” (from which between four and seven winners will be chosen), now seems as good a time as any to scratch this persistent itch.
In football, the aggrieved party is longtime Saints linebacker Rickey Jackson, who is quite literally the very first defensive player I would choose, from all of NFL history, around whom to build a team. In baseball, the most unfairly ignored player is former Expos and Cubs slugger Andre Dawson — although pitcher Bert “Be Home” Blyleven can make almost as strong a case.
Start with Jackson. He went unchosen again this past year while his contemporary, New England linebacker Andre Tippett, was inducted into the Hall at Canton, Ohio. In fact, Jackson has never even been a finalist for the honor. But as good as Tippett was, Jackson was better by all measurable indices, and (I would argue) by intangibles too. (Attribution note: I am taking some of these stats from a similar column by John DeShazier of the Times-Picayune on Aug. 5, as a time-saver, so credit is due him; but I’ve been planning to write on this very comparison of Jackson and Tippett since last winter.)
Jackson had more sacks than Tippett, 128 to 100 — and that doesn’t even include Jackson’s eight unofficial sacks in his rookie year, 1981, because the league started counting sacks as an official statistic only in Tippett’s rookie year of 1982. Jackson is second all-time in league history with 28 fumble recoveries. Tippett had just 17. Jackson was selected to six Pro Bowls, Tippett only five. (And Jackson arguably should have been elected to more; he suffered in six seasons in his prime from being on the same team as fellow linebacker Pro Bowlers Sam Mills, Vaughan Johnson, and Pat Swilling, and voters were often loath to vote for so many at the same position on the same team. Jackson still was selected twice in those years — and anybody who watched those teams every week knew that Jackson was the only indispensable member.)
Jackson was the toughest son of a gun you’ve ever seen: Playing a brutal position, he missed only two games to injury during his entire 15-year career (and those were after a car accident, not an on-field injury); in 11 seasons, Tippett played just 151 games of a total possible of 169. They each were starters in one Super Bowl. Jackson’s team (he played his final two years for the 49ers) won his Super Bowl; Tippett’s Patriots were blown out in theirs. And Jackson was still good enough to be a starter on that Super Bowl team in his 14th season — and, arguably, the Niners would not have made it that year without him. That was in the mid-1990s, when for several years running the NFC was by far the stronger conference and the only question was whether the Niners or the Cowboys would win the conference. As it happened, the conference winner was determined each year by who had home-field advantage — and in Jackson’s year, home-field advantage came down to the regular season match against the Cowboys. Jackson was a monster in that game, coming up with multiple tackles and the game’s two biggest plays, a sack and an interception.
(This was par for the course during Jackson’s career: He always came up biggest in the clutch. I well remember one crucial Saints game against the Rams, with the Rams inside the Saints 10 on the last play of the game. I turned to my father and said something like: “No problem; we’re fine. Rickey will find a way to make a play.” Sure enough, he did, ending the game with a monster tackle.)
If Jackson was so good as to be a key cog on a Super Bowl-winning team while he was on his proverbial last legs professionally, you can just imagine how good he was in his prime when he was the only mainstay bridging Saints teams that featured great defenses for about 12 years running, first for Bum Phillips and then for Jim Mora. It is no coincidence that Saints defenses started failing the minute Jackson left the team.
Another thing to consider: Jackson also played the run incredibly well — indeed, unlike other pass-rushing specialists who garnered sacks at the expense of run stuffing or pass defense, Jackson was also good in pass coverage (eight career interceptions vs. just one for Tippett) and, if anything, even better against the run than against the pass. Even in the last five years of his career, he almost never let the corner be turned against him — even when he didn’t shed a blocker, he had a way of pushing the blocker in such a way that it sealed off the corner on sweeps, forcing the runner back inside where others could make the tackle. In short, Jackson was an every-down player, not a one-trick pony. John Madden, who knows football like few others, regularly put Jackson on his All-Madden team, year in and year out, above Swilling and the rest, for just that reason: Jackson was a rock.
The only reason, indeed, that Jackson never got the Lawrence Taylor treatment was because he played in small-market New Orleans rather than in the Big Apple — and, further, because Jackson never “talked big” off the field, unlike the loquacious braggart Taylor whose mouth got louder still when he fed his drug habit. As it was, Taylor was credited with just 4.5 more sacks during his career than Jackson was, and Taylor recovered only 10 fumbles compared to Jackson’s 28. Finally, one last statistic: Jackson made 1,173 total tackles during his career, compared to Taylor’s 1,088 and Tippett’s mere 778.
It is, in short, a rank injustice for Rickey Jackson not to be in the Hall of Fame.
THEN WE MOVE TO BASEBALL, where statistics (at least before the steroid era) always tell the tale. This past year, Jim Rice was inducted into the Hall in Cooperstown. Andre Dawson wasn’t. Rice and Dawson were, roughly, contemporaries. Rice played his whole career in the hitter-friendly Fenway Park, in the much more hitter-friendly American League, compared to Dawson’s tougher National League and tougher (for part of his career) stadium in Montreal. But compare their stats. Dawson 438 home runs, Rice 382. Dawson 1,591 RBIs, Rice 1,451. Dawson 1,373 runs, Rice 1,249. Dawson 314 stolen bases, Rice 58. 503 doubles vs. 373. Near-identical best single power year: 49 HR, 137 RBI vs. 46 HR, 139 RBI. (Rice did have a better batting average overall, .298 vs. .279. But he had better “protection” in terms of better hitters around him than “the Hawk” did, which meant opposing teams couldn’t pitch around him.) They each played in eight all-star games, Dawson starting seven compared to Rice starting only four. They each won one league MVP Award.
Then there’s defense. Jim Rice was merely decent, Hawk was superb. Rice won zero Gold Glove Awards; Dawson won 8. Dawson recorded 51,58 putouts, Rice just 3,103. Even taking into account the fewer opportunities for putouts for Rice in Fenway’s narrow confines, that difference is astonishing.
In sum, there is no way on God’s green Earth that Jim Rice deserves to be in the Hall of Fame before Andre Dawson.
And lest I be accused of a fan’s bias, the truth is in the other direction. I live and die with the Red Sox; I became hooked for good on the Sox during the splendid rookie years of Rice and Fred Lynn, in part specifically because of the excitement caused by rookies Rice and Lynn. I cheered for Rice his whole career; I was utterly indifferent to Dawson. But pre-steroid statistics don’t lie: Dawson was slightly but consistently the better all-around player, and he kept his skills at a high level longer than Rice did.
Finally, by reputation at least, Dawson was a better teammate, gregarious and generous, while Rice was by reputation surly and perhaps selfish. It was passing strange that the Sox made so few playoff appearances during Rice’s tenure, despite an abundance of talent; the word always was that its clubhouse was almost never a happy one. Last I checked, baseball remains a team game.
The only thing that argues in Rice’s favor is the luck of playing in one of the highest-profile markets in sports, while Dawson was stuck for more than half his career in a whole other country, Canada, where the United States media had far fewer ties (and where no literary types like John Updike ever waxed poetic about the game being played in a “lyric little bandbox”).
So, for Dawson as for Rickey Jackson, here’s a message to the two games’ respective hall of Fame voters: Wake up, drop your prejudices and your absurd haughtiness and preconceptions, and look at the indisputable evidence. Rickey Jackson and Andre Dawson belongs in their Halls of Fame.
(Mr. Hillyer started his journalism career as a sports writer in New Orleans for the Times-Picayune.)