Imagine, for a minute, that you make it to the major leagues and you’re just 19 years old.
Imagine you hit a grand slam home run in your second game. Imagine you win a starting position as a 20-year old and put together a WAR of 6.5 and only one other player in baseball history — Mike Trout — has accomplished that particular feat.
That’s how Vada Pinson broke in with the Cincinnati Reds. At 19, he was the Reds Opening Day centerfielder on April 17, 1958. He went 1 for 4 that day, getting his first hit off Philadelphia’s Robin Roberts in the third inning. The next day in Pittsburgh, he hit a grand slam off Ron Kleine to give Bob Purkey a 4-1 win over the Pirates.
Vada Pinson. The name is still magic to a generation of baseball fans that followed his career with the Reds from 1958 to 1968.
Vada Pinson, just one of two baseball players in history to have 2700 hits, 250 home runs, 300 stolen bases, 450 doubles and 100 triples, The other one is Willie Mays. And in the 149 year history of the Cincinnati Reds, not another player has matched that.
Vada Pinson, who patrolled centerfield for a decade at Crosley Field. A Gold Glover, a four-time All-Star, arguably one of the best players in baseball from 1961-1963 who combined speed with power while anchoring a critical defensive position for a decade in Cincinnati.
Vada Pinson is in the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame. He never came close to making it into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, despite borderline numbers. The highest percentage of votes he ever received was 15.7% in 1988; 75 percent is needed for induction.
There are theories as to why Pinson never came close to getting selected. He was overshadowed by Frank Robinson. He was overshadowed by a glut of great outfielders of his era. He didn’t have 3000 hits. He didn’t hit more home runs. He had a skirmish with sportswriter Earl Lawson (although Lawson voted for him to make the HOF). His only post-season World Series was a bad one against the Yankees in 1961 (two hits in five games.) His statistics aren’t SABR-friendly.
I can effectively counter most of these arguments. Vada Pinson was a pure centerfielder. He was a much better defensive outfielder than say, Robinson, Hank Aaron or Al Kaline. He was faster and stole more bases than Orlando Cepeda, Joe Torre, Willie Stargell or Willie McCovey. He was durable.
But this article isn’t about Vada Pinson’s Hall of Fame credentials. Being realistic, that’s not going to happen. I think Pinson should be in the Hall, but I also believe Dave Concepcion should be in there as well. And neither, unfortunately, are going to make it.
However, I’d like to see the Cincinnati Reds honor Vada Pinson by retiring his number 28.
The Reds organization is inherently resistant to retiring numbers. I get that. I understand that it shouldn’t be done haphazardly, that a lot of thought should go into it. The Reds only have retired ten numbers (I omit the 11th, Jackie Robinson, as mandated by MLB).
Of the ten retired numbers, none belonged to a pitcher. Of the ten, the player going furthest back in Reds history is Ted Kluszewski. Of the ten, all are in the National Baseball Hall of Fame except for Kluszewski and Dave Concepcion. Of the 10, three never played or managed for a Reds World Championship team (Fred Hutchinson, Kluszewski, Frank Robinson– although Big Klu was a coach when the Big Red Machine won two World Championships.)
But of all these players, not one of them put together the all-around offensive numbers that Vada Pinson did– 2700 hits, 250 home runs, 300 stolen bases, 450 doubles and 100 triples. Not a single one. Not Johnny Bench (the best catcher of all-time), Pete Rose (the all-time leader in hits), Tony Perez, Barry Larkin, Joe Morgan (the best second baseman of all time), or Ken Griffey Junior.
Not even Frank Robinson, the best player I ever saw play for the Cincinnati Reds.
I could use quotes from dozens of baseball people on Vada Pinson’s character, ability, and playing career. But I’ll use just one. Vada coached for Sparky Anderson at Detroit for seven seasons. This is what Sparky had to say about Vada Pinson. And he can say it a lot better than I ever could.
“He’s one of those guys who came up in the deal of the cards from the bottom of the deck. Vada never got the recognition, he never got any recognition at all. But not one time did I ever hear Vada badmouth anybody about it. He never said a bad word about it. . . . He would spit shine those shoes of his every day. And he was one of the nicest men I’ve ever known. I never heard Vada Pinson bad-mouth anyone.”
“He looked like his feet never touched the ground. He was so fast, had so many doubles, all his numbers, 2,700 hits, he was such a player. And a gentleman. If there is one word I’d use to describe him, it’s that: He was a gentleman.”
“Vada never got near the recognition he deserved. Whether it was from being on the same team as Robby and Big Klu. I don’t know.”
“But when it comes to retiring numbers, you have to now look at him. It’s too bad we wait until after he’s gone to do these things. But when you talk about what a player does for a city, for a franchise, he’s a Cincinnati Red. He obviously didn’t have the power of a guy like [Mickey] Mantle, but in every other way he was like Mantle. He was idolized by a generation of kids in Cincinnati.”
Now’s the time Mr. Castellini.
You can make this happen. You can do the right thing. We at Redleg Nation know that retiring a player’s number for the Cincinnati Reds is a big deal. It shouldn’t be done on a whim or in an emotional moment. But in this case, it should happen.
The numbers are there, plainly. History demands it. Include teammates Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, and Jim Maloney in the ceremony. They need to be there. So does Vada’s family.
Retire that classic, vested #28 worn by Vada Pinson during a special time in Cincinnati Reds history.
John lives in Galesburg, Illinois and has been a Reds fan all of his life. He is a retired firefighter and a Veteran who served for 32 years but stays active at the local Humane Society. His favorite Reds players include Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Tony Perez, Eric Davis, and Bronson Arroyo. While writing, he frequently listens to the music of Led Zeppelin and Steely Dan. He is flanked in the photo by ever-loyal “Reptar.”