Baseball Embarces Its Specialists…But Not Football

Kickers and punters remain forgotten by Canton

It took a while for the Baseball Hall of Fame to warm up to relief pitchers.

It’s taking even longer for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to warm up to kickers.

Relief pitchers have been part of baseball for more than a century. When a starter falters, a reliever gets summoned. But it wasn’t until 1985 that the Baseball Hall of Fame finally recognized a player who made his primary mark as a relief pitcher. The Hall enshrined knuckleballer Hoyt Wilhelm that year. He played 21 years, winning 143 games and saving 228 others. Wilhelm was in his eighth year of eligibility.

Baseball didn’t enshrine a second relief “ace” until seven years later when the doors opened for Rollie Fingers. A third reliever got the call in 2004 when Dennis Eckersley was enshrined, then the floodgates opened. Bruce Sutter, Rich Gossage, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera and Lee Smith were all enshrined over a 14-year period from 2006-19.

Baseball is a nine-inning game — and the historians were having a difficult time coming to grips with Hall-of-Fame candidates who played maybe half the games in a season and whose participation was often limited to an inning or two. Baseball was reluctant to embrace those “specialists.”

But the impact relievers were having could not be denied.

In 1959, Roy Face didn’t start a game for the Pittsburgh Pirates but appeared in 57 of them. He went 18-1 and saved 10 other games. In 1974, Mike Marshall also didn’t start any games for the Los Angeles Dodgers. He appeared in a record 106 games and finished 83 of them, winning 15 and saving 21 others in claiming the National League Cy Young Award. Fingers and Eckersley both became American League MVPs, Fingers in 1972 and Eckersley in 1992.

The Hall-of-Fame voters finally stopped looking at the limited innings relievers worked and started to recognize the outsized contributions they were making. Rivera set a record with 652 career saves, helping the New York Yankees win five World Series. He became the first player at any position elected to the Hall by unanimous acclaim in 2019.

Kickers are still waiting for Pro Football Hall of Fame voters to look past the limited minutes they play on Sundays and recognize the outsized contributions they are making.

In the 52 years since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, a placekicker has led the NFL in scoring 43 times. The game’s Top 40 scorers in NFL history are all kickers. Jim O’Brien and Adam Vinatieri both won Super Bowls with field goals on the final play of the game. Morten Andersen kicked a record 35 game-winning field goals in his career. Mark Moseley converted 20 of his 21 field-goal opportunities to win NFL MVP honors in 1982 and propel the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl championship.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame opened in 1963 and it took 23 years to enshrine the first placekicker, Jan Stenerud. There was an even longer wait for the first punter – 51 years, in fact — for Ray Guy to get his bust. He remains the only pure punter in Canton. Stenerud is now one of two pure placekickers, having been joined in Canton by Andersen. Even though he was the game’s all-time leading scorer with 2,544 points, Anderson had to wait until his fifth year of eligibility to collect his bust in 2017.

No other pure kicker or punter has ever even been discussed as a finalist for the Hall of Fame. The light bulb moment that went on for baseball in 2006 hasn’t illuminated football yet. So there’s a plethora of Hall-of-Fame “specialists” whose candidacies remain in the dark.

Sean Landeta photo courtesy of the New York Giants

Start with these three names – Gary Anderson, Sean Landeta and Jerrel Wilson. All were two-time all-decade selections. Anderson was a second-team all-decade kicker in both the 1980s and 1980s. Landeta was a first-team all-decade selection at punter in the 1980s and second-team in the 1990s. Wilson was named the punter on the all-time AFL team in the 1960s and then made second-team all-decade in the 1970s.

Two-time NFL all-decade selections are unique. There have been only 21 of them in history – and 19 have already been enshrined in Canton. Only Anderson and Landeta have been left behind. Wilson with his AFL/NFL double-decade combo also awaits a call from Canton that likely will never come.

Anderson is the NFL’s third all-time leading scorer with 2,434 points. He had 12 100-point seasons and went to three Pro Bowls. Landeta ranks fourth all-time with 1.401 punts. Add the 204 punts from his USFL days and Landeta would vault to second all-time. He averaged 43.3 yards per punt and went to three Pro Bowls. Wilson also is in the 1,000-punt club (1,072). He led the league in punting a record-tying four times – twice in the AFL and twice in the NFL – and also went to three Pro Bowls.

Jim Bakken deserves discussion as well. He was named the all-decade placekicker for the 1960s. Garo Yepremian was the first-team all-decade placekicker for the 1970s. He also deserves to be discussed, as does Moseley, the only kicker ever named the league’s MVP. Bakken and Moseley would likely be the last straight-on kickers ever considered.

1 Comment
  1. Robert Polk says

    Enjoyed reading as always. Jim O’Brien’s game-winner came with five seconds remaining, time enough for a kickoff and one desperate Craig Morton pass which was intercepted.

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