There’s much debate raging the last few years on whether or not Jim Rice is a legitimate Hall of Famer. There’s every reason for the debate to exist – Rice is not a Group A Hall of Fame player – he’s not a Babe Ruth or Ted Williams or Henry Aaron. The next group, what I’ll call Group B, consists of Al Kaline and Roberto Clemente and Mel Ott (to stick with outfielders). These are players who had long, stellar careers where it’s obvious they were great players, but they aren’t in the “inner circle” of all-time greats. Then comes Group C: players who had short careers with great peak performance. I have no problem with Group C players getting plaques in Cooperstown, but I recognize that I may be in the minority. In my mind, Rice deserves his place in Group C. If you were an observer of baseball from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Jim Rice was in the discussion as one of the best sluggers in baseball, period.
By the way, in regards to the Baseball Hall of Fame, there’s also a Group D: those are the players who had long careers and accumulated career value, guys like Lou Brock, Sam Rice, and Billy Williams. You can drum up support for players who fit into any of those categories and make a decent argument for your favorite candidate in many cases.
In his first 12 seasons, Rice received MVP votes in eight of them and was in the top five six times. He was one of the most feared, if not the most feared right-handed hitter in his league for about a decade. There was Don Baylor and Dave Winfield and to some extent Robin Yount, but Rice was very good for a long enough stretch to earn his place among the greats of that era. Yes, he benefited from playing his home games at Fenway (920 vs. 789 OPS for his home/road split), but so did most everyone who was a lifelong member of the Sox. Winfield was an exact contemporary, though he and Rice competed against each other in the same league for just eight seasons. Winfield was the superior player, but Rice was still very good, and Big Dave wasn’t as good as Rice at his peak, in my opinion.
Highest Batting Average in the American League, 1970-1979
1. Rod Carew … .343
2. Jim Rice … .310
3. George Brett … .310
4. Fred Lynn … .309
5. Tony Oliva … .299
6. Ken Singleton … .299
7. Ron LeFlore … .297
8. Mike Hargrove … .297
9. Cecil Cooper … .296
10. Hal McRae … .294
(Minimum 700 games played)
On July 2, 1975, in the first game of a doubleheader between the Red Sox and Brewers, Rice hit probably the longest home run of his career. It was a blast to deep left-center field at County Stadium off Bill Castro. The ball landed in the last row of the bleachers, narrowly missing going all the way out of County Stadium. It was just the 13th career homer for Rice, who was in his rookie season.
It was pretty handy for the Red Sox that Rice had his best performances against the Yankees and Orioles, Boston’s two chief rivals during his career. Rice hit .330 with a .582 SLG against the Yankees and .324 with a .563 SLG off O’s pitching, including 38 homers, his most against any opponent.