When Fred Lynn Won MVP and Rookie of the Year
In part 4 of his series on award-winning seasons, Graham Womack recalls Red Sox center fielder Fred Lynn, who played one of the finest rookie seasons in the history of the game in 1975 and was the first player to win both Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player in the same year.
In Fred Lynn’s three decade career he won four Gold Gloves which are his most prized awards.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database
Fred Lynn seemingly never lacked for confidence.
By 1975, he’d been a three-time collegiate World Series player at the University of Southern California, the best player on tournament teams in Japan and the 1971 Pan-American Games, and had shined during a September 1974 call-up.
“The handwriting was kind of on the wall,” Lynn said in a recent phone interview from his Southern California home.
It was just the rest of baseball that didn’t quite know what to make of Lynn as he embarked on one of the finest rookie seasons in the game’s history in 1975.
The Unheralded Star
Lynn remained somewhat unheralded into the middle of the season, making the All-Star team as a write-in choice by fans—though he received the second-most write-in votes ever to this point, at 1,082,482 behind Steve Garvey’s 1,415,968 in his 1974 National League MVP season, according to The Sporting News on August 2, 1975.
He’d been unheralded before. Originally a wide receiver and defensive back at USC, Lynn opted to concentrate on baseball after his freshman year. He soon became the best player on a powerhouse team loaded with future Major Leaguers like Steve Kemp, Roy Smalley, and Steve Busby. He nevertheless fell to the second round of the June 1973 draft.
“There was a rumor circulating among the scouts—and they had seen me since I was 15 years old—that I had trouble hitting left-handed pitching,” Lynn said.
The scouts had a somewhat fair assessment. Lynn had a lifetime .896 OPS versus right-handed pitchers and .710 OPS versus lefties. Still, this didn’t justify his draft slot.
Nineteen players picked in front of Lynn never played in the Majors. Of the men selected before Lynn, only future Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Dave Winfield had more WAR. Granted, Lynn wasn’t the most egregiously low selection in 1973. Eddie Murray, for one, went a round later to the Orioles.
Coming to Boston
Lynn went to spring training with the Red Sox in 1974, though he didn’t have much chance of starting the year in Boston. He’d signed late, in mid-July of 1973, because he played on an All Star team and spent just a brief time in the minors that year. Instead, Lynn started the 1974 season in the minors with future Red Sox mainstays Jim Rice and Rick Burleson.
Finally called up in September, Red Sox Manager Darrell Johnson sat Lynn on the bench for two weeks before putting him in. Lynn promptly went on a tear, posting a .419/.490/.698 slash in 51 plate appearances.
“It kind of stuck out like a sore thumb because the team had stopped hitting,” Lynn said.
Greater feats awaited Lynn the following year.
“I was a confident player and I really didn’t have any holes in my game,” Lynn said. “I just had to learn the ballparks. I had to learn how to play center field in Fenway and basically every other ballpark. Every stop was a new learning experience.”
He found an inviting home in Fenway, where he would post a .368/.451/.609 slash in 1975. Lynn also commandeered center field in baseball’s best young outfield, maybe ever, with 22-year-old Rice and 23-year-old Dwight Evans.
“We had some chinks in the armor early but we ironed those things out very quickly on who was going to do what,” Lynn said. “Once we figured all that stuff out, we were tough. We were really good as a defense.”
Jim Rice was honored with induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2009.
Courtesy: The Trading Card Database
The young Red Sox emerged as the class of the American League, never relinquishing possession of first place after late June and going on to lose a thrilling World Series to the Cincinnati Reds.
Boston thrived as one of baseball’s youngest teams, with an average age of 26.9. Veterans like Carl Yastrzemski, who hit one spot in front of Lynn for most of the season, welcomed the youth movement.
“I love it,” Yastrzemski told Peter Gammons of The Sporting News for an August 2 piece. “I’ve never liked being center stage. I never like being captain, the center of attention. I’m a private person.”
Yastrzemski added, “So nothing makes me happier than what’s happened with Freddie and Jim and these other kids on this team. It’s made the game much easier for me.”
Rice and Lynn battled for top billing throughout the year, with the famed sportswriter Bill Madden noting on June 4 that Lynn had overshadowed Rice somewhat in spring training as “a more polished all-around performer.” Rice would go on to hit .309 with 22 homers and 102 RBIs (though a curiously modest 3.0 Wins Above Replacement).
Late in the year, Johnson told Gammons there was no way Rice and Lynn couldn’t be The co-Rookies of the Year and co-MVPs.
“There’s no way you can choose one over the other and there’s no one who deserves the MVP over either one,” Johnson told Gammons.
Lynn finished with a .331 batting average, 21 homers, and 105 RBIs, with 7.4 WAR, sixth-best ever for a rookie behind Mike Trout, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Dick Allen, Benny Kauff, and Ichiro Suzuki—according to the Baseball-reference.com play index tool.
He won Rookie of the Year almost unanimously, with Rice getting one half vote. MVP was slightly closer, with Lynn prevailing over John Mayberry.
Legendary Los Angeles Times columnist Jim Murray had heralded Lynn as an instant Hall of Famer in an August 26, 1975, column:
He’s a guy who has been to bat less than 500 times in the major leagues,” Murray wrote. “But we are a nation of instant coffee, soup, pudding, housing and success and Frederic Michael Lynn is Instant Cooperstown, pre-fab Hall of Fame. He’s the first guy in a long time who’s made a career out of six months in the Bigs.
The Hall of Fame wasn’t to be ultimately, with Lynn battling injuries later in his career and struggling after a trade to the California Angels. Lynn, at least, had been smart enough not to promise too much after 1975.
“I tried to tell the writers in Boston, ‘I don’t know that I’m going to be MVP every year,’” Lynn said. “The bar was set pretty high.”
To this day, Suzuki is the only other player to win both Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season.
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