Keith Hernandez

November 23, 2009

This is what it looks like to want the ball to be hit to you. I have never been able to strike a similar attitude of passionate readiness and willingness to engage, either in baseball or any other sport or life itself. I do come to the desk pretty much every day to write or try to write, but even a good writing day starts out with me taking my position with trepidation, afraid that the ball is going to take a bad bounce and punch me in the mouth.

This photo is no fluke, either. Keith Hernandez played first base as well as anyone ever has, and a key part of that excellence was his unusually aggressive style of manning what has for most of baseball history been the most passive position on the field, the place where large, slow sluggers are pastured to stand around until it’s time to lumber a few feet to their left to catch throws from other more able fielders. By contrast, Hernandez, as can be seen here, played first with an itchy impatience, as if he wanted to sprint forward and throw himself on line drives fresh off the bat like a Green Beret hurling himself on the barrel of a grenade launcher.

The odd thing about this card is that, absent the crackling aura of intense attack-readiness, I’d be tempted to theorize that the Topps people put the wrong player photo on Keith Hernandez’ card. The iconically mustachioed future household figure (“I’m Keith Hernandez”) seems to have nothing to do with the lean-faced thin-lipped mouth-breather here. If his shoulder-length hair and vaguely neanderthalic features had been presented in a pose less suggestive of the spectacular fielding talents of Keith Hernandez, I would have wondered if the otherwise drab mid-1970s Cardinals had embarked on some sort of experiment to clone their top player, Ted Simmons, the lank-haired catcher who throughout the 1970s looked like he’d come for his Topps baseball card photo shoot directly from huffing carbona and listening to Black Sabbath eight-tracks out by the abandoned paper mill, if not from killing a saber tooth tiger with a spear.

If the Cardinals did try such an ungodly experiment, they abandoned it by the early 1980s, not only ridding themselves of the thick-browed (but highly able and surprisingly erudite) Simmons and his somewhat suspect glove but also stripping Keith Hernandez and the rest of the team of any physical attributes that would have made them seem at home in animal-skin togas in a natural history museum diorama. Thusly purged, the Cardinals became one of the great fielding teams of all time, anchored by the man shown here.

Would it be stretching things too much to say that Hernandez was an innovator at first base? My sense is that some other earlier players manned the position with great quickness and agility (Hal Chase, Vic Power, Wes Parker, etc.), and they may have even shared Hernandez’ aggressive strategy of attacking grounders. But since I’ve been paying attention, Hernandez certainly stands out (though during Hernandez’ career Don Mattingly eventually joined him as a slick, attacking first baseman).

I think that a lot of the greatest fielders have been innovators, playing the position a different way than it had been previously played. The innovation most often seems to be to play the position less passively than whatever norm was current. To charge forward and attack rather than waiting and reacting. I can think of three other all-time great fielders who also are considered to have brought something unusual to the playing of their position, and the innovation was always aimed at getting to the action quicker. Anybody got any thoughts about these initial choices for the all-innovator team? Anybody got any other choices for other positions? Think of somebody who not only played the position better than most, but played it differently than it had previously been played. (Players in italics have been suggested by readers in the comments below.)

C-Johnny Bench; Tony Pena
1B-Keith Hernandez
2B-Frank White
SS-Dave Concepcion; Cal Ripken; Rey Ordonez
3B-Jimmy Collins. Regarded as the first guy to start charging bunts; Brooks Robinson; Graig Nettles
LF-Carl Yastrzemski. Before him, it was unusual for an outfielder to charge in and grab grounders with just the glove (i.e., not with two hands).
CF-Tris Speaker. Positioned himself very shallow, daring hitters to try to hit it over his head; Willie Mays


  1. If you need a decent backup CFer, I believe that Willie Mays was the first OFer to routinely catch flies with just his glove.

  2. Johnny Bench – first catcher to keep his un-gloved hand behind his back and catch with one hand.

  3. Good call on Bench. I’ll add him to the roster.

    I wonder who was the first second baseman to leap, pivot, and throw all in one motion during a double play.

    I also wonder who was the first shortstop to do the pop slide move while backhanding a grounder. Rey Ordonez, maybe?

  4. Wow, it probably was Ordonez. That seems so long ago. I guess it was.

    Wasn’t Tony Pena the first catcher to do that extended leg out to the side thing insead of always crouching?

  5. Perhaps Dave Concepcion at SS for his 1-hop throws on the artificial turf?

    Awesome blog, by the way! I look forward to the new entries all the time.

  6. I was thinking of Keith Hernandez’s defense just yesterday, oddly, and how he is considered the first first baseman to act like one of the other infielders. I, too, had a tough time reconciliating this card with the image of Hernandez all these years.

    I remember reading that in the time of Nap Lajoie, second basemen were more like shortstops than today’s 2B. I believe Bill James’s “Historical Abstract” found that 2B’s range back then was either uniformly incredible, or the position had other demands. Maybe there is an anti-innovator at that position.

  7. Josh,

    First of all, I’ve been reading your blog for more than a year now, stumbling onto your page when I was looking up the inprecedented walk-to-strikeout-to-batting average statistics of Jimmy Wynn, and I have thoroughly enjoyed it, and look forward to purchasing your book.

    There have been several posts that have almost caused me to get an account and join into the discussion fray, but before now I have always hesitated, fearing that my comments would expose a certain lack of baseball acumen that would cause your faithful followers to pummel me. This particular post has made me jump in feet-first without testing the waters because it is of particular interest to me.

    I would like to suggest that Cal Ripken Jr. be nominated for the position of shortstop innovator. At 6-feet-4 – or whatever height the baseball encyclopedia lists him – Cal was the first to prove that a man of larger stature could handle the position in the Major Leagues, and led to the likes of Alex Rodriguez excelling in the position. When Cal came up in the early eighties, it would have been typical for some old-school baseball coach to move him to third base, first base or the outfield, overlooking his God-given agility for the sake of sheer size and power. Earl Weaver, despite his proclivities, never bought into that nonsense – perhaps because of his close relationship with the senior Ripken – and Cal payed dividends almost immediately with a Rookie of the Year Award and a MVP season in leading Baltimore to a World Series title in his second full season.

  8. blankemon:
    Good thinking with Pena. I’d forgotten that cool style of his.

    Thanks for the kind words, and good point about Concepcion.

    Thanks chiming in. That’s an interesting point about Ripken. There have been relatively big shortstops before him (Marty Marion and Ernie Banks come to mind), but he definitely ushered in a new era.

  9. My personal favorite at 2B, Frank White. He was the first true turf second basemen. He played deeper than I had ever seen any other fielder play, and with his range and his arm, he routinely turned balls hit past the arc into outs.

  10. Ripken revolutionary? Ya, maybe only because he was a first baseman playing short. One of the most-overrated players of all-time. He is a lifetime .276 hitter. He averaged about 20 home runs a season. Yawn.
    He grounded into more double plays than any other player in major league history. Nice work yoeman. People will argue about his incredible fielding. This is a joke. He covered as much real estate at short-stop as Cecil Fielder could. His range was tiny. The gold glove is another arbitrary award handed out on reputation, and Ripken just had a few after playing for many seasons and established his running consecutive game streak. Oh ya, and he showed up for work every day for 16 seasons. He worked about 3 hours, for 161 times a year. Approximately 480 hours a year. Whipty diddle. Jeff Feagles holds the record in the NFL . . . no one calls him Iron Man.

  11. Not that I’m particularly a big Ripken fan, but how do you reconcile your assertion that his range was “tiny” with the fact that he holds the AL shortstop record for assists in a season with 583, and that he topped 500 three other times in his career?

  12. 64cardinals:
    Nice call on Frank White

    I’ll leave the arguing about Ripken’s fielding worth to people who either watched him more regularly than I did or have a better grasp of fielding stats than I do, but I always thought the general idea with his fielding was that he made up for his relative lack of range with canny positioning, sure hands, and a cannon arm. (For what it’s worth, his strat-o-matic rating in the Back to the ’80s game is a good–but not Ozzie Smith/Alan Trammel great–2e17).

  13. Ripken’s range stats by game when compared to league averages over shortstops’ best 5-year run, Ripken is outdone by the likes of:
    1980-84 Ozzie Smith
    1891-2,4-6 Hugh Jennings
    1978-82 Robin Yount
    1977-81 Rick Burleson
    1884-88 Germany Smith
    1893-97 Bill Dahlen
    1916-20 Dave Bancroft
    1914-17,19 Rabbit Maranville
    1977-81 Gary Templeton
    1976-80 Roy Smalley Jr.
    1934-38 Dick Bartell
    1911-15 Donie Bush
    1897-1901 George Davis
    1884-88 Jack Glasscock
    1987-91 Ozzie Guillen
    1991-95 Jay Bell

  14. There’s no pitcher spot on your team, but I remember a guy named Jack Lazorko being featured on This Week In Baseball for his diving plays. I don’t know if having a pitcher dive for what would probably be a routine grounder to second or short is a good thing, but it was unique enough that I remember Jack Lazorko’s name.

    Also, Steve Sax was an innovator at second. He inspired Chuck Knoblauch’s style of defense.

  15. When I think of great fielders, here are the names that jump to my mind first (no data for support) (as is evident, I’m a child of the 70’s):

    c – Bench
    1B – Garvey, Hernandez
    2B – Morgan
    ss – Ozzie and Belanger
    3B – Brooks Robinson, Graig Nettles
    LF – Yaz
    CF – Griffey Jr., Fred Lynn
    RF – Barfield
    P – Jim Kaat

  16. Maybe Dewey Evans in RF . . .

  17. Hey Guys,

    “long time listener first time caller”…I’d like to add Brooks Robinson & Graig Nettles. The 1970’s showed how a gold glove at third was an integral part of any time. The days were numbered for guys like Killebrew and other lumbering home run hitters. they would soon be full time Dh’s. As was said for first and short, you just couldn’t hide a “4” (strat-o-matic term)anymore. Remember Nettles domination at 3rd in game three of the 78 series? As for outfielders, how about Rickey “Snatch Catch” Henderson. Not much innovation in terms of “doing things the right way” but he got style points.

  18. It’s kind of an odd card in that it doesn’t even look like Hernandez. No moustache, long hair? I kind of like that shadow going across his face, kind of cool.

  19. Since you’re looking for a right fielder, I’ll nominate Ichiro.

    When he came into the league in 2001, he was just a completely different kind of cat from what we had seen before in every way. I was at the game where he made his defensive presence known with “The Throw” that nailed Terrence Long. Not only the stadium, but the entire country did a collective “Whoa!” after that play.

  20. Ichiro’s throw is Play #2 here:

    Also, Bill Mazeroski might should probably be under consideration at 2B.

  21. Oops, that was a bad link. Try this instead:


  22. My own copy of this 1976 Keith Hernandez card came to me with a printing error. So it’s very deeply imprinted in my memory, as I studied it long and hard in my baseball-nut infancy, attempting to plumb the game’s essence from between its skewed borders. This, and Kurt Bevacqua’s bubble-bum blowing card.

    Yessiree, got me a “review” copy of the book, absolutely savoring it, can’t wait to get a full-color copy. Amazing work, Josh, thank you for dragging yourself to the desk day after day, it was definitely not in vain!

  23. Catfish, God bless ya, I love seeing someone tell it like it is about Cal. Most over rated player ever. Cecil had a pretty slick glove for such a big man, not sure what the stats say on it, but from watching all the tigers games in his prime, he’d make some plays that would make your jaw drop.

  24. If I might add a follow-up comment – I’m afraid I must have misunderstood Josh’s original post. I thought he was looking for “innovators” at each position, not necessarily the “best fielders.” That’s why I nominated Ripken.

    To me, an innovator is someone like Steve Yeager, who, after catching a foul ball with his thorax in the on-deck circle, devised the piece of equipment that hung loosely from the catcher’s masks to protect the throat until the hockey-style masks came into vogue. I wouldn’t put Yeager up there as the greatest catcher in the world, but I do consider him an innovator.

  25. It wasn’t the clearest post on my part, but I was indeed trying to think about innovators, rather than fielding excellence, though (as with Keith Hernandez) the presence of the first element seems to be intertwined with the presence of the second.

    It gets a little murky (or even murkier) when you start bringing innovative equipment into the conversation, since there have been a lot of innovations along those lines over the years in gloves, bats, helmets, protective padding, etc. I guess I was thinking more about players who were athletically/stylistically innovative.

  26. “I’d be tempted to theorize that the Topps people put the wrong player photo on Keith Hernandez’ card….”

    I was just thinking that myself. I actually went from “Hmmm,… so that’s what ‘Spoon’ looks like without a moustache?” to “Are we absolutely, positively sure that’s not Ken Reitz?”

  27. I love the inclusion of the one-handed fielders in this discussion. Most of us were taught as Little Leaguers to catch the ball with two hands whenever possible — the problem is that to do so can put you in an inferior throwing position, because you often have to square up your shoulders to make the catch, then pivot before beginning your throwing motion. The one-handers catch the ball in position to throw.

    I remember Deion Sanders receiving accolades for catching with two hands, almost as though announcers were surprised at Neon Deion’s grasp of baseball fundamentals. But it’s a fundamentally unsound play once you’re at the highest level.

    I’d call Kent Hrbek a fielding innovator for inventing the play where you lift the runner off the bag and then tag him out. But I’d hate to sound bitter.

    The Lazorko reference is great — he had been a hockey player, and had a game where he made multiple “kick saves” of ground balls back to the box. I can’t find the video, but it’s truly remarkable.

  28. I’d add Benito Santiago at the Catcher position. I’d never seen a catcher throw out a runner trying to steal 2nd base from his knees. It wasn’t a one time thing either.

  29. From the looks of this card I would guess Keith’s life changing moment was when he got a gander at the Village People and started smoking.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: