Bert Campaneris-Forgotten Yankee

On May 22nd, 1983 I went to a Yankees game. I was a high school student in San Francisco at the time, so only got to see the Yankees when they came to play the A’s in Oakland. I had gone to both the previous games of the three-game weekend set as well. That Sunday’s game was a fun one for a teenage Yankee fan. Ron Guidry and Goose Gossage held the A’s to two runs as the Yankees rallied for two of their own in the top of the 9th to win 4-2.

The crowd of 40,000 was more or less evenly split between Yankees and A’s fans. However, the whole crowd cheered together when the number eight hitter for the Yankees was announced. He was playing second base that day, but the A’s fans still remembered the shortstop who had been such an important part of those 1972-4 championship teams. I was surprised to see Bert Campaneris in the lineup. He had played a few games already that season, but had been out of the big leagues for all of 1982.

At 41, Campy seemed like a player from another era. He had started his career with the A’s when they were still in Kansas City and called the Athletics. He had gone on to a long career and was the solid fielding shortstop and frequent leadoff hitter on the A’s from 1971-5 when the team won five straight divisions and three World Series. Campaneris was not quite as well known as Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson or Vida Blue, but he was just behind them. He signed with the Rangers as a free agent following the 1976 season, but while continuing to play well faded from the baseball spotlight pretty quickly.

Today, Campy is probably best known for being the first player to play all nine positions in one game, a stunt he did in September of 1965, but he was also a pretty fantastic player. Campy was a slick fielding, speedy shortstop who led the league in stolen bases six times and stole 649 bases in his career. He played at a time when players like that weren’t expected to hit much-and he didn’t. His career OPS+ of 89 was not great, but it was good enough to make him a key part of three World Series teams and a six-time all-star. Because of his speed, limited value at the plate and strong defense, Campy accumulated 53 career WAR, of which 20.8 was for his defense.

While older A’s fans remember him very fondly, few other baseball people give Campy much thought. Most Yankee fans, even those who were old enough to be paying attention in 1983, probably don’t remember that Campaneris was ever a Yankee. However, he is now one of several Yankees, including Ron Guidry, Thurman Munson and Bernie Williams who have received strikingly little support for the Hall of Fame. None of these players were obvious Hall of Famers, but they all did very poorly on the BBWAA ballots. Guidry never exceeded ten percent of the vote. Munson only met that threshold once. Wiliams lasted two years on the ballot, Campaneris only one.

This year one shortstop, Alan Trammel, who was clearly better than Campaneris, was elected to the Hall of Fame. Another, Omar Vizquel, will likely get the support of more than 20 percent of the voters and is already the subject of the kind of Hall of Fame campaign that ends in election from one voting body or another. Another shortstop whose career overlapped with Campaneris, and who was also a key player on a great team of the 1970s, Davey Concepcion is also the subject of occasional Hall of Fame advocacy.

Campaneris, who never said much and who once threw his bat at an opposing pitcher in the ALCS, remains almost entirely overlooked in these discussions. Campaneris was a top defender, accumulating 20.8 dWAR, 0.1 fewer than Concepcion and about eight fewer than Vizquel, but due to Luis Aparicio in the early years of Campy’s career and Mark Belanger in the 1970s, Campy never won a Gold Glove. However, Campy's career OPS+ was a point higher than Concepcion and seven points higher than Vizquel. Of these three shortstops, only one was able to consistently bat at the top of the order for a championship team. Due to his speed and, for the time, respectable on-base abilities, Campy did it three years in a row.

Concepcion was a very good player, but was never the offensive force that Campy was. Vizquel was a clearly better defender, but not by enough to balance out his very limited value with the bat. A major plank of the Vizquel for Cooperstown argument is that he almost got 3,000 hits, ultimately falling 123 short. The problem with this argument is that it is a reflection of what he could not do. Vizquel was a .272 hitter with no power. If he had been a .283 hitter with no power, he would have got 3,000 hits. Vizquel played for a long time and didn’t walk all that much, so it is not a surprise he got a lot of hits particularly given the high offense era in which he spent most of his career, but that is not really a persuasive Hall of Fame argument.

Bert Campaneris is not really a Hall of Famer, but he would by no means be the worst shortstop in Cooperstown if he were elected. However, he has receded almost entirely from baseball memory. A forgotten great player who spent his best years on a strangely overlooked great team. Somehow his role on that 1983 Yankee team for whom I saw him play was a fitting end to his career. He was overshadowed by more famous Yankees like Dave Winfield, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage and Don Baylor, but spent that season filling in for frequently injured second baseman Willie Randolph and third baseman Graig Nettles, two great Yankees of that era, while hitting .322, the highest batting average of his career, before retiring for good at the end of the year.

Photo: cc/John Telleria