Top Candidates for 2023 American Association Hall of Fame Class
American Association Daily provides insights, features, and recaps of the action from around the American Association of Professional Baseball League, as well as player and coaching profiles and transactions. In today’s edition, Robert Pannier looks at who should be considered for the second class of inductees for the American Association Hall of Fame which will be named later this year.
Hall of Fame Built on a Solid Foundation
Last year, American Association Commissioner Joshua Schaub announced that the league would begin naming a Hall of Fame, a list of players, executives, broadcasters, coaches, and managers who have left their mark on the league, helping to build it into the best independent/partner league baseball league on the planet.
In its first year, only one person found his way into the Hall of Fame – Miles Wolff. He was the perfect choice. After all, not did Wolff help to make the American Association a reality, but he was one of the pioneers of independent baseball in the first place. There would not be an American Association had it not been for the work of Wolff.
Not only was the former Commissioner selected as the first member of the Hall of Fame, but the championship trophy was named in his honor. He was truly the perfect selection upon which the Hall of Fame would be built.
The 2023 Choices Are Incredible
This year, the American Association looks to build upon its Hall of Fame. According to Commissioner Schaub, the league intends to Induct three members each year but, looking to honor those who have played a pivotal role in the success of the league, explained that they may have additional members for this year.
It is understandable that the league would want to expand the number. After all, there have been some names, including players, owners, executives, and managers, who have made this the premier independent baseball league.
While not all 10 are likely to make the Hall of Fame in year two, here are a group who definitely deserves to be immortalized.
The best place to begin is with players. After all, this is a league about players wanting to continue to pursue their dream of playing Major League Baseball. Some of the greatest in the league had reached the top of the baseball world, but there were others who played several years in the minors, never reaching the top, but still recorded numbers that deserve to be recognized.
Note: No active players were considered for the Hall of Fame in this analysis, meaning that players like Nate Samson and Kevin McGovern were not eligible for this list.
Reggie Abercrombie, Sioux Falls Canaries, Winnipeg Goldeyes
Reggie Abercrombie is the greatest American Association baseball player in history. There is no debate. Some may want to make a case for other players, but Abercrombie not only had an outstanding professional baseball career, playing parts of three seasons in the Majors (2006-2008), but he is the holder of several offensive records in the league.
Abercrombie is the all-time leader in hits (936), runs scored (563), homeruns (146), and RBI (606) and is third all-time in stolen bases (174). He also shined when it mattered most, earning MVP honors when he helped lead the Goldeyes to the 2016 American Association championship title. In his 10 seasons in independent baseball, Abercrombie hit .294.
David Espinosa, Grand Prairie AirHogs, Lincoln Saltdogs, Kansas City T-Bones, Wichita Wingnuts, St. Paul Saints
David Espinosa was a first-round draft pick of the Cincinnati Reds back in 2001 and reached AAA-Toledo (Detroit Tigers) in 2005. He spent three years in Toledo, never reaching his ultimate goal of playing Major League Baseball.
However, Espinosa joined Grand Prairie in 2008 and spent the next eight seasons as one of the star players in the American Association. He finished with a career .306 batting average in his eight seasons and ranks near the top in several offensive categories, including second in hits (801), second in runs scored (529), first in triples (46), and sixth in RBI (349). Espinosa is a two-time American Association champion, winning with the AirHogs (2011) and Wingnuts (2014).
Curt Smith, Lincoln Saltdogs
It is very rare that a player spends eight seasons playing in the league and only played for one club, but that was one of the great aspects of Curt Smith. He not only became a star with the Lincoln Saltdogs, but was as much a part of the community as the Haymarket District and Memorial Stadium where the Nebraska Cornhuskers play.
Curt Smith finished with a career .309 average for Lincoln and ranks among the American Association leaders in several offensive categories as well, including third in hits (794), sixth in runs scored (389), third in doubles (151), third in homeruns (96), and fourth in RBI (441). Smith never won a title in the American Association but did reach the championship series in 2014.
John Allen, Fort Worth Cats, Laredo Lemurs
John Allen is definitely one who should be in the Hall of Fame. After all, he put up spectacular numbers in the American Association, but never found his way onto into an affiliate organization. His legacy should be one of honoring the player who continued to battle despite being snubbed.
His numbers deserve a shot. After all, he hit over .300 in each of his last six seasons and finished sixth all-time in hits (734), first in doubles (164), fourth in homeruns (87), and third in runs batted in (445). Allen won a title with Fort Worth in 2007.
Ben Moore, Sioux Falls Canaries
Arguably the greatest pitcher in American Association history definitely deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. Ben Moore is the holder of several league records, including most wins (55) and most innings pitched (797.1), and is second all-time in strikeouts (701).
Moore had pitched for the Winnipeg Goldeyes when they were still in the Northern League, but joined Sioux Falls the season they joined the American Association. He helped the team win the championship trophy in their first year in the league, winning 10 games that year. He posted four 10-plus win seasons in his time in Sioux Falls.
Mark Hamburger, St. Paul Saints
Mark Hamburger appeared in just five games in the Majors, but he was a fan favorite everywhere he went. He started his career in the Texas Rangers organization, and was even on the roster that reached the World Series in 2012, but found his way to St. Paul in 2013. He spent just one season there before the Minnesota Twins acquired his contract, and he would spend the next two years in the Twins organization, playing at AAA-Rochester both seasons. In 2016, Hamburger returned to St. Paul and pitched for the Saints the next two years, going a combined 25-12.
Hamburger was an absolute workhorse, setting a league record for innings pitched when he tossed 172.0 innings in 2017.
Some of the greatest to ever put on a uniform managed in the American Association. In fact, there are just seven men who have over 1000 victories in their managerial careers and five of those managed in the American Association. Four of those skippers (Greg Tagert, Butch Hobson, Joe Calfapietra, and George Tsamis) are still managing in the league now, and were not considered as a result.
Doug Simunic is the other, and he has had an outstanding managerial career. However, his record with the Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks was not as successful after the team joined the American Association than it was prior to them joining. No doubt he will be in the Hall of Fame one day, but not in the first group.
Kevin Hooper, Wichita Wingnuts
That leaves one name that needs to be considered for the Hall of Fame, and that is Kevin Hooper. Hooper reached the Majors in 2005 with the Tigers and three years later was playing for the Wingnuts, hitting .373 in 88 games.
It was an impressive performance and Hooper clearly could have continued to play, but he took over as a manager in 2009 and helped lead the team to seven straight appearances in the playoffs, including winning the title in 2014 when the club set a record at that time for victories in a season with 73. His .610 winning percentage is the best in league history among managers with at least five seasons. Hooper is currently a minor league instructor for the San Diego Padres.
An often-overlooked aspect of the league is the great broadcasters who have owned the mic for their teams over the years. Two of the greatest broadcasters are no longer in the league – Dan Vaughan and Sean Aronson – at least not at this time, but they have Hall of Fame credentials and will likely join the list of broadcasters who are inducted in the future.
Names like Connor Ryan, Steve Schuster, Brad Allred, Sam Brief, and Michael Dixon have spent the better part of the last five years bringing American Association baseball into the cars and living rooms of fans. There is truly an incredible list of men, but two names definitely deserve consideration.
Note: Winnipeg Goldeyes broadcaster Steve Schuster is definitely going to be a Hall of Famer one day. He holds the all-time record for games broadcast in the league, but is still broadcasting for Winnipeg, so he was not considered for this analysis.
Jack Michaels, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks
There may be no more beloved broadcaster in the American Association then Jack Michaels. There is no doubt that fans would tune in to just listen to Jack even if a baseball game was not being played (and they do, as he has a daily radio program as well). Jack has proven that American Association broadcasters are as good as they get, as he has demonstrated his talents and versatility in calling North Dakota State football and basketball.
Dave Nitz, Shreveport Bossier Captains, Sioux City Explorers
Dave Nitz is another who should be recognized because of his incredible talents. For the first decade after the American Association formed, and for the first 20 years of independent baseball, not many gave respect to broadcasters from independent leagues. Nitz was not only a star broadcaster in the league, but is doing a great job for Louisiana Tech football as well. Nitz and Michaels prove that there is an incredible amount of talent at every level in this league.
One must consider that it is not just the talent on the field, the guys leading the team in the dugout, or the men and women in the broadcast booth who have made this league what it is. Without incredible ownership and outstanding executives, the American Association would have failed years ago. That is why it is important to recognize some who have played a role in making the league what it is today.
There are several owners who should be considered for the Hall of Fame, and they will likely be in one day. This includes men like Sam Katz, Marv Goldklang, Mike Veeck, Pat Salvi, Brad Thom, John Roost, and Jim Abel not only had the vision to make the American Association a reality, but have helped to keep it thriving, even through some challenging times.
Josh Buchholz, Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, American Association Deputy Commissioner
There have also been some incredible general managers and presidents of teams. One name that stands out is Josh Buchholz. He not only helped to turn the RedHawks into one of the premier names in independent baseball, but has done an outstanding job in helping to build the American Association into the best independent baseball league.
Buchholz worked his way through the RedHawks organization, starting as club manager and eventually taking over as Vice-President and General Manager in 2005. Three times he was named as the Executive of the Year and has been honored by communities in North Dakota, South Dakota, and Minnesota.
In 2018, with Wolff looking to step down, Buchholz was selected as the Deputy Commissioner. There was no such position at the time, but he seamlessly stepped in, helping the league to transition from the past Commissioner to the current one, and has continued to serve in a way that has bolstered the league and its profile.
Who Would You Choose?
This summer, the American Association will name their Hall of Fame class for 2023. It will likely include at least three names from this list. Regardless of who is selected, there will be some who will feel that a player or two was snubbed.
So, that begs the question: who is your Hall of Fame class for 2023?
By Robert Pannier