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A while ago, I did a post called The Willie Mays Hall of Fame, which had a very different point from this post. The point there was to say that when people start picking apart candidates over every little thing and saying things like, “Well, this guy’s not a Hall of Famer — Willie Mays, now, THAT is a Hall of Famer” they are really creating an impossible standard that no player, not even Willie Mays himself, can live up to. There has never been a perfect ballplayer. There has never been a ballplayer who did not have some failing — as a player, as a teammate, as a man.
This post is trying for something entirely different. It seems to me that when people talk about the Baseball Hall of Fame, they talk about it as if it’s one thing. But it isn’t. The Hall of Fame is a museum, it’s a gift shop, it’s a research center, it’s a plaque room and many other things.
But even the plaque room itself is not one thing. The Hall of Fame has honored major league players, Negro leagues players, old-time players, managers, umpires, pioneers, writers and so on. These people have been elected to the Hall by baseball writers, by historians, by expert panels, by living Hall of Famers, by special vote. The Hall of Fame is a mishmash of many ideas and thoughts and campaigns, it clashes with itself. To say that a Hall of Fame with Candy Cummings but without Barry Bonds is ridiculous might be true … but it doesn’t really mean anything. Candy Cummings and Barry Bonds were not voted on the same way. Marvin Miller and Tom Yawkey were not voted on the same way.
So, what I’m trying to do here is simply break down the Hall of Fame so that it’s more manageable, easier to understand and get your arms around. You already know that Bill Simmons came up with what he called the Hall of Fame Basketball Pyramid, which breaks up the best basketball players in his view into different levels, with the best level being the Pantheon — that is the level with Michael, Russell, Kareem, Magic, Larry, Wilt, Duncan, Kobe, West, Oscar, Hakeem, Shaq and Moses. You could argue emphatically, of course, that Cousy and Dr. J and Elgin Baylor and Havlicek and Stockton and Malone and some more recent guys already belong in the Pantheon, but that’s good, that’s at the heart of this, emphatic arguments are the reason for such endeavors. It’s a beautiful concept.
I wanted to do something a little bit different here. Yes, I have my own view on baseball players and levels … but what I really wanted to do here was break down the Hall of Fame into different levels based on the actual Hall of Fame voting and rhythms. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, but I hope it will as we go along. At the end, I’ll have an Inner Circle Hall of Fame we can argue about.
There are 27 “executives” in the Hall of Fame. That word, executives, is in quotes because these are not all executives. There are owners here, such as Tom Yawkey, who I can never mention without pointing out: His team never won a World Series and was the last to integrate. Commissioners like Bowie Kuhn, Happy Chandler and Kenesaw Mountain Landis are in as executives. General managers are in as executives. Various people who played a role in baseball early days are in as executives. Anyway: There are 27 of them. A 28th, former Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, will be added this coming year.
There are 21 managers in the Hall of Fame.
There are four pioneers in the Hall of Fame — this includes players such as Alexander Cartwright and a writer who really helped build the game, Henry Chadwick.
There are nine umpires in the Hall of Fame, and a 10th will be added this year.
So, in total, 61 of the 297 people in the Hall of aflame fall under this category. It should be noted that Marvin Miller is not one of them.
Now we are left with 236 players who are in the Hall of Fame.
Next group: The Negro Leaguers.
It would be a lot more fun and much fairer overall to NOT separate the Negro leaguers from the rest. But I really don’t see how we can avoid it. The good people at Seamheads are doing amazing work uncovering and compiling Negro leagues stats. But these players, for the most part, simply did not compete with major leaguers in official games. And while you can certainly come up with some thoughtful and even educated comparisons, the truth is that we simply don’t know how good Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston would have been had they played in the major leagues.
Since you asked: My honest guess is that all three would be among the Top 10 major leaguers ever, and might be top five, with Babe Ruth and Willie Mays and Walter Johnson and Greg Maddux and others in the mix. But comparing Gibson and Ruth is still not like comparing Gehrig and Ruth or even Bonds and Ruth. The Negro leagues seasons were shorter (and longer, if you include the barnstorming), the competition spottier, the records less complete.
In total, there have been 29 Negro leagues players inducted into the Hall of Fame largely, almost entirely, on their Negro league performance and contribution. It should be noted here that Buck O’Neil is not one of them.
We are down to 207 players in the Hall of Fame.
Next group: Pre-1900 players.
The pre-1900s are their own group for basically the same reason that the Negro leaguers are their own group — because they are sort of self-contained in their time and place. They played under various different rules that were constantly shifting, there was no American League then, you can’t really compare a barehanded catcher’s defensive skills to Mike Piazza’s (even if it sometimes seemed that way).
You really could argue that this group should include all Deadball Era players, meaning all players before 1920 … but I opted against that. I think that while there were a lot of differences in the game in, say, 1917 and 2007, I think they were playing fundamentally the same game. You might disagree. You’re more than welcome to try this at home.
I’m putting 25 players in the Pre-1900 group, though some (like Cy Young and Wee Willie Keeler) are judgment calls because they played on both sides of 1900 — I did not put either in this group).
That leaves us with 182 players in the Hall of Fame.
Next group: Veterans Committee Dissent
These are the Veterans Committee choices that break hard against the Baseball Writers votes. That is to say, none of the players in this group came even close to getting into the Hall of Fame in BBWAA votes. Not one of them ever got even 30% of the vote.
The BBWAA was well aware of these players. They made the firm and unequivocal decision that they were not Hall of Famers. In 1962, Heine Manush got 15 of the 160 BBWAA votes — his best showing. Two years later, the VC put him in the Hall of Fame. The writers saw Jesse Haines pitch. They never gave him more than 8.3% of the vote. The VC put him in. So it goes: Ross Youngs, Bobby Wallace, Travis Jackson, Rick Ferrell, Elmer Flick, Chick Hafey, Red Faber, Fred Clarke — you might not even be aware that these players are in the Baseball Hall of Fame. If it was up to the writers, they would not be.
There are two players who I think best represent this group of Veteran’s Committee Dissent. The first is Freddie LIndstrom, a 13-year veteran who played third base and outfield. He was a bit of a phenom, reaching the big leagues at 18. He had had a sensational year when he was 21 — he hit .358 with a league-leading 232 hits. Two years later, he hit .379 which, believe it or not, was only good for FIFTH in the National League (Bill Terry hit .401, Billy Herman, Chuck Klein and Lefty O’Doul all hit better than .380). Those, really, were his only two good seasons and the BBWAA responded accordingly by giving him a token 1, 3, 5, 6 and 7 votes the five years his name was on the ballot. Nice career, Freddie. But it’s not quite Hall of Fame-worthy.
Lindstrom, though, had the fortune of playing briefly on the same team as Hall of Famer Frankie Frisch. And Frisch was a power broker on the old Veteran’s Committee. He was so beloved, respected and revered by the other committee members, that even though he died in 1973, the committee worked hard after he was gone to get Frisch’s personal choices into the Hall. Lindstrom, who was elected in 1976, was the last of those choices.
So this is one side of the coin — cronyism, favoritism, lots of isms. But there’s another side. Take Larry Doby. He, like the rest of the players in this group, got almost no support at all from the BBWAA. He was on the ballot in 1966 and 1967, got 7 and 10 votes, and was pushed off the ballot, never to be voted on again. In this case, it seems clear to me, that the BBWAA simply was on the wrong side of history (not the first time, not the last).
Doby, as the first black player in the American League, went through the very same taunts and threats and pains that Jackie Robinson endured — some would say he endured even more. He was a pivotal figure in the game overcoming its shameful racism. And he was, from 1948 to 1957, one hell of a player, posting a 139 OPS+, making seven consecutive All-Star teams and leading the league, at various times, in runs, home runs, RBIs, on-base percentage and slugging percentage. In my view, the BBWAA whiffed on Larry Doby. It took the VC 30 years, but in 1998 they rightfully and finally inducted him into the Hall of Fame.
In all there are 42 players in the Veterans Committee Dissent Group.
That leaves us with 140 in the Hall of Fame.
Next Group: Veterans Committee Supplements
These are the players whom the BBWAA seriously considered — and in several cases ALMOST voted into the Hall of Fame — but in the end the player just could not quite muster enough support. The two most famous of these are Nellie Fox (who received 74.7% of the vote in 1985, but they didn’t round up for him) and Jim Bunning (who received 74.2% of the vote in 1987, but they went backward in support the next three years).
Most of the players in this group did not come THAT close to election by the BBWAA, but they did get serious support, and the Veteran’s Committee eventually put them in. Most of the cases are like that of Ron Santo, who was on the ballot for the full 15 years and got as much as 43% of the BBWAA vote.*
*More on the 15-year ballot players coming up in next HOF post … in honor of Dale Murphy.
There are 28 players in the Veterans Committee Supplements group.
And we are down to 112 in the Hall of Fame.
Next Group: The Survivors
We only have those voted in by the BBWAA now … but this group must be split up too.
First you have the survivors … the ones who were on the ballot five or more times before getting elected into the Hall of Fame. There are 40 of these, ranging from Don Sutton, Phil Niekro, Eddie Mathews, Roy Campanella and Rogers Hornsby (who were all on various ballots five times) to Jim Rice (15 times) and Dazzy Vance (16 times).
This whole concept of players being on the Hall of Fame ballot for many years has been argued about for years. The main gripe goes something like this: Why was Bruce Sutter so much better a Hall of Fame candidate in 2006 (his 13th year on the ballot, when he received 76.9% of the vote) than he was in 1994 (his first year on the ballot when he received just 23.9%)? He didn’t throw one pitch, earn one save or contribute in any way in that time period.
The big counterargument is that, over time, the writers get a more in-depth view of the player’s career. With time, they gain more information and they gain perspective. But, counterargument to the counterargument, sometimes with time they also lose the immediacy of watching the player play. I find it pretty fascinating.
Look: Sixteen of the 40 in this group were on the ballot for 10 years or more. When a player first retires, there are many narratives about the player, some of them fair and some of them, perhaps, not so fair. The narrative about Bert Blyleven when he retired was that he was merely a good pitcher who happened to compile certain Hall of Fame statistics (such as 3,701 strikeouts, 60 shutouts and so on). He only appeared in two All-Star Games, he never won or came especially close to winning a Cy Young Award, he was almost never referred to as “future Hall of Famer” during his playing days, even after he got his 3,000th strikeout. At his low ebb, he was only getting 14.1% of the vote.
And then — in large part because of an Internet campaign spearheaded by Rich Lederer — a strong case was made for Blyleven being a truly great pitcher whose best years — 1971, 1973, 1974, 1976, 1981 and 1984 among them — were blunted by mediocre or bad offenses, a players’ strike, being traded mid-season and so on. His career was broken down, built back up, compared to those of the greatest pitchers of all time. He compared well. There was lots of thrashing about, lots of angry exchanges, lots of people calling out other people, but in time Blyleven’s case proved compelling enough that he was elected and inducted.
Other times, though, it is not the player himself but outside influences that change the voting. I think that’s true of Jim Rice. In his first year on the ballot, Rice received less than 30% of the vote. This was striking because Rice’s narratives as an active player were strikingly different from Blyleven’s. He won an MVP. He played in eight All-Star Games. He WAS often called a future Hall of Famer while still playing. But when Rice came on the ballot in 1995, the voters could not help but notice that he fell short of many of the round-number Hall of Fame standards — no 3,000 hits (or even 2,500), no 500 homers (or even 400), no .300 batting average. In Rice’s first year, believe it or not, Steve Garvey got more votes.
What’s more, Rice didn’t really gain any momentum for five years. In 1999, he got only 24.4% of the vote — Garvey again finished ahead of him.
But in 2000, Rice suddenly jumped the 50% barrier. Why? Well, there are a powerful campaign for him coming out of Boston and that probably shifted some thinking. But also, I’ve long thought, the steroid scandal helped him. It was right around then, 2000 and 2001, that people started to get queasy about PEDs in baseball. The wonder of that home run summer of 1998 was fading. McGwire and Sosa had each broken Maris’ 61 again in 1999, 13 players hit 40-plus homers (more than the entire 1980s) and there was this growing realization that something not too kosher was happening.
And there was Jim Rice … representing the 1970s. He was what a power hitter used to look like, before the huge muscles, before pop-ups carried out of parks, back when opposite-field home runs were wonderful rarities. I’m not arguing here whether or not Jim Rice belongs in the Hall of Fame; the point is that because of the way the game had changed, he became a more interesting Hall of Fame candidate in 2001 than he had been in 1995. And he was even more interesting in 2005, when the full blowback of the steroid era unleashed. His voting percentage jumped into the high 50s, then the low 60s, then the low 70s and then finally, in his 15th year, he was inducted.
Something similar, I believe, is happening with Jack Morris … who has become a stand-in for 1980s pitching, when starters threw nine innings and yelled at managers who even tried to take them out.
The survivors group is 40 strong.
And there are 72 left in the Hall of Fame.
Next group: The Stars.
The stars are the players who were unquestionably going into the Hall of Fame … but were not slam dunk, no doubt, almost unanimous Hall of Famers. These include the players inducted in their second, third and fourth years and the first-ballot guys who received 85% of the vote or less.
This is a bit of a tricky group because there were numerous quirks in the voting in the early years. For instance, Joe DiMaggio is in this group because he did not make it until his fourth ballot. But the voting was different then — DiMaggio appeared on one ballot when he was still active, and ballots just two and three years after he retired. The same is true for guys like Lefty Grove and Carl Hubbell and Mel Ott and Cy Young and so on … but facts are facts. They were not first-ballot guys.
There are also a bunch of first-ballot megastars like Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan, Jackie Robinson and others who did not receive 85% of the vote. Well, that’s how it goes. I have no idea who did not vote for Bob Gibson, and I would imagine that they wouldn’t want to stand in the batters’ box against him even now. But this is based entirely on the voting … and there were more than a handful of voters who did not vote for those players.
Anyway, that leaves us 32 players. They are the inner circle. You can find them here at Sports On Earth.