The burden of great expectations
Pinson's stellar career weighed down by early comparisons
As a teenager, Vada Pinson was compared to Mickey Mantle. In his early 20s, experts predicted he would become baseball's next .400 hitter. Those unfair comparisons set an impossible standard that Pinson fell short of. But the final career numbers for Pinson: more than 2,700 hits, 200 homers and 200 stolen bases and more than 1,000 runs and RBIs, still leave him in rarified air and have led to him being on the 2007 Veterans Committee Ballot for the Hall of Fame.
A talented outfielder and hitter, Pinson was often overshadowed by teammates and other players in his league, and those spectacular expectations haunted him throughout his 18-year big-league career.
A five-tool player (blessed with the ability to run, throw, field, hit for average and power), Pinson was an All-Star at the age of 20 in 1959, leading the National League with 131 runs scored and 47 doubles in his first full season for the Cincinnati Reds. Both marks were franchise records. The speedy left-handed batter also hit .316 with 20 homers and 205 hits while swiping 21 bases. Several veteran baseball observers, including former manager Leo Durocher and Braves manager Fred Haney, compared Vada to Hank Aaron and Willie Mays.
From 1960-1965, Pinson followed sensational seasons with disappointing ones, at least by his standards and those of the pundits. Over those six seasons, Pinson hit .300 and collected at least 200 hits every other season, winning a Gold Glove in center field along the way. When Stan Musial, who retired following the 1963 season, was asked to name the player most likely to succeed him as a perennial batting champion in the National League, he named Pinson.
But already, Pinson was showing signs of the stubborn pride that occasionally led to controversy throughout his career. As one of the fastest runners in the league, the Reds prodded Pinson to bunt more, but Vada resisted, explaining that he didn't like to lay the ball down.
"If the guy could perfect the bunt and use it, he could hit .400," Reds coach Pete Whisenant theorized.
Throughout his career, which included four All-Star nods, Pinson was often judged by what he was not, instead of what he was.
August Busch Jr.
In 1961, Pinson hit a career-high .343 with 208 hits, 87 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. He helped the Reds to their first pennant in more than two decades and finished third in MVP voting, behind his roommate and best friend, Frank Robinson, and Orlando Cepeda. That season he finished second in the NL batting race to Roberto Clemente. At 22 years old, Pinson's future was bright, but a series of unfortunate events helped precipitate his exit from Cincinnati.
In 1962, Pinson was involved in a fight with a Cincinnati newspaper writer that led to a court hearing, and a nagging hamstring injury also contributed to his up-and-down pattern. He continued to clash with the Reds' brass, and after Robinson was traded to Baltimore in 1966, Vada sulked.
Just as the Reds were replenishing their team with young stars, Pinson was dealt to the Cardinals after St. Louis fell in the 1968 World Series. It was a case of poor timing. Pinson joined the two-time defending NL champs in hopes of getting back to the Fall Classic and missed Cincinnati's Big Red Machine years of the '70s.
Still, Pinson was racking up impressive career numbers. In his first season with the Cardinals, he collected his 2,000th hit, at the still relatively young age of 30. He slugged his 200th homer in 1970, and with more than 200 stolen bases already on his ledger, he became just the fourth player to reach that mark in both homers and steals (joining Aaron, Mays and Robinson).
Pinson continued to be a valuable player into his 30s, hitting 24 homers for Cleveland in 1970 and stealing 21 bases for the Royals in 1974 at the age of 35. His legs finally abandoned him, and he retired after the '75 season with a career average of .286 in 2,469 games.
In his first year on the Hall of Fame ballot, he received 18 votes. He appeared on the writers' ballot a total of 15 times, earning 67 votes in 1988, his highest total. 2007 marks his third time on the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee ballot.
In some ways, the lofty expectations that were pinned to Pinson at a young age have served to overshadow his tremendous accomplishments. Early in his career, Pinson shunned the personal accolades, hoping to deflect those expectations.
"Sure, I'd like to win the batting title. I guess there isn't any player who wouldn't," Pinson said in 1962. "It's something, though, I don't think about all the time. Winning games is more important."
Pinson served as a batting coach for the Mariners and Tigers before his death in 1995.
Dan Holmes is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.