Ken Griffey Jr. was the transcendent superstar of his generation, the guy that so many of today's players and fans idolized while growing up.He wore his cap backwards, and soon it seemed like everyone else did, too. He hit 630 home runs with a beautiful swing that became as much
Ken Griffey Jr. was the transcendent superstar of his generation, the guy that so many of today's players and fans idolized while growing up.
He wore his cap backwards, and soon it seemed like everyone else did, too. He hit 630 home runs with a beautiful swing that became as much his trademark as the megawatt smile that caused both fans and advertising executives to swoon. When he was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this year, he received the highest percentage of the vote ever.
And yet he never played in the World Series.
Baseball is a team game. No one player, no matter how gifted, is guaranteed an opportunity to participate in the Fall Classic.
Ernie Banks may be the best known of the immortals for missing out on that singular experience. It became as much a part of his persona as his famous "Let's play two" catchphrase. When he retired, nobody had played more games -- 2,528 -- without a chance to showcase his skills on baseball's biggest stage.
Mr. Cub and Junior are hardly alone, though. Nineteen players who entered the Hall of Fame since 1903 never got a chance to play in the World Series. Rod Carew. Frank Thomas. Ryne Sandberg. Gaylord Perry. Billy Williams. Ron Santo. Andre Dawson. Ferguson Jenkins. And that doesn't include Negro League stars like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell.
Ichiro reached the esteemed 3,000 hits mark this year before ever having the honor of making an appearance. All-Stars like Rafael Palmeiro, Julio Franco, Bobby Abreu, Mickey Vernon, Buddy Bell, Torii Hunter and Sammy Sosa had long, distinguished careers that did not include that experience, either.
Banks talked about that singular gap in his resume frequently. In the foreword to Few and Chosen, a book that discussed the top Cubs player in history at each position, he wrote: "People say it's a pity I played 19 Major League seasons (all of them with the Cubs, by the way) and never got into the World Series and never won anything, but I don't agree. I won a lot. I won the respect of my fans, my family and my friends. That's the kind of winning that lasts a lifetime."
But he also once admitted to ESPN that missing out "has always left me with an empty feeling inside."
"I loved the game so much," Banks said. "To not ever play in the World Series, let alone win it, still hurts. It's the ultimate achievement for a player. I really thought we were going to get there in 1969."
That was the year that the Cubs were in first place for 156 days and had a nine-game lead as late as Aug. 16, before losing 17 of their last 25 to finish behind the surging Mets. In the first year of division play, the Mets not only got past the Braves to make it to the World Series, but they then beat the Orioles to win it all.
Incredibly, Banks played alongside Santo, Jenkins and Williams on that team. Of that Hall-of-Fame quartet, only Williams would go on to make a playoff appearance of any sort. That came with the A's in 1975, when Oakland fell to Boston in the ALCS.
"That  was a bittersweet year," Jenkins would later write in his autobiography. "It did feel like the one that got away. It could have been us in the Series instead of the Mets. … There was a lot of feeling that if we had won it in 1969, we would have kept on winning."
The reality is that, while there are a lot of great players who never made it to the World Series, many came achingly close.
Sandberg made it to the NLCS twice, but never came so close to advancing as he did in 1984, when the Cubs beat the Padres in the first two games of what was then a best-of-five series. San Diego evened the series, but the Cubs had a 3-0 lead going into the bottom of the sixth of the final game with ace Rick Sutcliffe on the mound. The Padres, though, rallied to win.
"It never entered my mind that we might not go to the World Series," Sandberg wrote in his 1995 autobiography, Second to Home. "I was devastated. I had never suffered such a defeat."
Looking back on his career, he added. "The one regret I have is not being able to play in the World Series. I wish I could have felt what it was like to be there and the feeling of winning it. I loved the feeling of winning as a team, and the World Series has to be the ultimate in that."
Carew had a similar, frustrating experience. He advanced to the ALCS with the Twins in both 1969 and '70, and with the Angels in 1979 and '82. His last postseason game was the most gut-wrenching. The Angels had a 3-2 lead over the Brewers going into the bottom of the seventh inning in the decisive Game 5 and were just nine outs away from advancing to the World Series. Then, Cecil Cooper's bases-loaded single put Milwaukee ahead for good.
But a loss isn't the only way to miss out on World Series glory. Take Thomas, for example. He was the White Sox's first-round pick in the 1989 Draft. A year later, he made it to the Big Leagues. It wasn't until 2005, though, his last season with the club, that the Sox stormed through the postseason and won the franchise's first world championship since the deadball era.
Except that the Big Hurt was hurt. He'd been sidelined with a broken foot since July and couldn't play when his opportunity finally came.
At least he got a ring. Gaylord Perry won more than 300 games in his career. But when the Giants played the Yankees in the 1962 World Series, the rookie reliever wasn't on the postseason roster. The only other time his team appeared in the postseason, in 1971, San Francisco lost three out of four to the Pirates in the NLCS.
Griffey didn't reflect on his World Series absence during his emotional induction speech in Cooperstown on July 24. But he mentioned that he had a front-row seat when his father, Ken Griffey Sr., won it all with Cincinnati's Big Red Machine in 1975 and '76. And he made it clear what he had learned about team versus individual success. "My dad would have bopped me on the head when I was a kid if I came home bragging about what I did on the field," Griffey said. "He only wanted to know what the team did."
Banks emphasized what the elusive World Series meant to him with a poignant gesture. He and Al Kaline both debuted in 1953 and made their first All-Star appearances two years later. In 1968, Kaline got his only chance to play on baseball's biggest stage. After the Tigers won, he received a telegram from Banks.
"He knew he was running out of time to get to the World Series," Kaline recalled years later. "I didn't know him well then, but he understood what it meant to get there later in your career."
Unfortunately, Banks and the baseball world never got the chance to see what he could have done on such a grand stage -- a true miss, indeed.
This article appears in the MLB Official World Series Program. To purchase a copy, visit mlbshop.com.
Paul Hagen has covered MLB for more than 40 years.