“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
Dave Parker was maybe the best hitter in the National League in the late 1970s, a high-average hitter (winner of two batting titles) with 25-30 HR power (in a time when 35 might lead the league), some walks, fair speed. In a sense, he was what Jim Rice was supposed to be. Parker won the MVP in the NL in 1978, the same year Rice won it in the AL. Parker’s Pirates finished second that year. The next season, they won it all. Willie Stargell was the MVP but Parker, though he wasn’t as good as he was in ’78, was actually the Pirates’ best player that year as well. He finished tenth, a low rank for him; in other seasons he finished second and (twice) third. There’s a statistic (developed, I believe, by Bill James) to measure a player’s success in MVP (and Cy Young) voting over his career, called MVP Share. Parker, with 3.19 MVP shares, is tied for 27th all-time with Albert Pujols. Every eligible player ahead of Parker is already in the Hall of Fame. In fact, other than Rice (tied for 29th) the next eighteen eligible players in this ranking are in. (Dawson is 63rd and Murphy is 64th; these are respectable rankings considering they mostly played on losing teams. They’re in a bunch with Steve Garvey and a set of guys [George Foster, Pedro Guerrero, and Albert Belle] who burned even brighter but for a shorter period.)
So Parker, in his prime, was considered by the MVP voters (a subset of the BBWAA) to be a great player. I am fairly certain that he was. He was likely a better hitter at his peak than any eligible player not in the Hall of Fame. While he didn’t have the defensive value of a centerfielder like Murphy (or a third baseman like Santo or Boyer, the best players not in) he was a good defensive right fielder. He won three gold gloves from 1977-79; though he made a lot of errors he had a terrific throwing arm and ran well.
The problem with Parker’s candidacy is what came after that peak, the five years 1980-84. Dave Parker was a habitual cocaine user, and the Pirates’ clubhouse was taken over by drug dealers in this period. Parker was probably already using coke in his starring years, but the thing is that for a while you can get away with that. It might even improve performance. But in 1980 he hit the wall, showing an across-the-board plunge in all of his skills. He declined a little more in 1981, missing a third of that shortened season and more than half the next, and in 1983 he was actually a bad player, hitting .279/.311/.411. His defense fell apart as well, as he put up subpar range factors with few assists. He put on a bunch of weight, something the team was unable or unwilling to do anything about. The Pirates finally let him leave as a free agent then.
Parker rebounded with the Reds in 1985, finishing second in the MVP voting and leading the team to a second-place finish. He went into a pretty standard decline phase then, punctuated with feuds with Pete Rose about not wanting to play first base (the Reds came up with Eric Davis, Kal Daniels, and Paul O’Neill all about the same time) and wound up finishing his career as a DH with the A’s and Brewers. His final hit total of 2712 and HR total of 339, while both short of the magic numbers, are very high in combination for someone not in the Hall of Fame. I believe that Andre Dawson is the only player ahead of him on both lists who is eligble but not elected.
Dave Parker had a Hall of Fame career. I am more comfortable saying that about him than even Dawson, because his peak was higher; his career numbers are far better than Murphy’s or Rice’s. At the same time, there is a lot of off-field baggage here.
It is not simply the drug use. My guess is that at one time or another 90 percent of the players in baseball in the late seventies tried cocaine. That’s just what the late seventies were like. Parker let it take over his life, but that was just his bad luck. The problem is what that drug use did to his team.
The Pirates, in 1979, were a team with a long history of winning. They finished above .500 nine times in the seventies and 80-82 in the other season. They won six division titles and two World Series in that span, finished second three times and third once. The history of the Pirates’ franchise since then is probably known to you; with the exception of the Barry Bonds era they’ve been a bad team. Parker can’t take any blame for the post-Bonds debacle, but he has to take a lot of it for the collapse of the early eighties. He was the best player on the team, and still in his prime, and let it collapse around him while he was busy exploring other states of consciousness.
I mean, there are lots of guys in the Hall of Fame who broke the law. Like Babe Ruth and most every other player of the Prohibition era. But the guys who let alcohol (legal or not) take control of their lives… Well, they generally didn’t last long enough to make it. It’s hard to get behind Dave Parker’s candidacy, despite his qualifications. I’ll take the gentlemen (Dawson and Murphy) first and won’t have any qualms about it.
(ADDENDUM: Bledsoe may remember a long discussion I had with someone on the Compuserve sports forum many years ago about Rice vs. Parker as HOF candidates. At the time, I thought that Rice was the better candidate. Now, I’m pretty sure I was wrong. Oh, well.)