You know how crazy I am when it comes to writing about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Well, this is Hall of Fame week — the ballots are due by Dec. 31. And I have been writing … and writing … and writing. I really need to see a doctor or something. In any case, I have written so much about it, that I have decided it’s probably best to just split up the writing throughout the week.
So that’s what I’m doing.
Today: The Intro
Tuesday: The Easy Nos
Wednesday: The Close But Not Quites
Thursday: The Definitive Hall of Famers
Friday: The Borderlines Guys Who Keep Me Up At Night
I don’t imagine you will be rushing to the computer at 6 a.m. and constantly refreshing this blog in anticipation … but at least this way you know what is coming.
Bill James told me something a few years ago, and I have never been entirely sure if he was serious or not. That’s the thing about Bill: You can never been sure. He told me that if he was voting for the Hall of Fame he would always prefer to max out his vote every year … that is he would always at least try to vote for 10. Ten is the most you are a voter is allowed to choose.
Bill said this for the very sensible reason that if everybody votes for 10, only two or three will be elected (since election takes 75%) but if people leave spaces empty, the expectation goes down dramatically. Bill says he doesn’t like it years when nobody gets elected. He likes it when there’s a steady stream of new players coming into the Hall to keep it alive and current and vibrant.
Now, I should say that I have never voted for 10 players before. I have never come especially close to 10 before. I think this is because I have bit of an inner conflict about the Hall of Fame. What I mean is this: If you asked me if I am a Big Hall or Small Hall kind of person — am I more inclusive or exclusive when it comes to the Hall of Fame? — I would undoubtedly say “Big Hall.” I think the Hall of Fame (in some ways) has become too exclusive the last 40 or so years.
Here’s what I mean: Take a look at the percentage of every day players who got into the Hall of Fame (among those who got at least 5,000 plate appearances):
Players whose careers ended before 1920: 9 out of 44 (20.4%)
In the 1920s: 9 out of 49 (18.4%)
In the 1930s: 27 out of 54 (50%)
In the 1940s: 19 out of 66 (28.8%)
In the 1950s: 13 out of 40 (32.5%)
In the 1960s: 9 out of 64 (14.1%)
In the 1970s: 13 out of 72 (18.1%)
In the 1980s: 10 out of 116 (8.6%)
In the 1990s: 12 out of 93 (12.9%)
The stunning takeaway is that half of the sturdy everyday players who retired sometime in the 1930s are in the Hall of Fame. This, of course, is absolutely ridiculous. If you raise the bar to 8,000 plate appearances, an almost unbelievable 17 out of 20 are in the Hall of Fame. In the 1980s, only 10 out of the 40 players who retired with 8,000 or more plate appearances are in the Hall, and this leaves out some very good players who will likely never get any more consideration for the Hall of Fame, players like Ted Simmons, Dave Concepcion, Graig Nettles, Bobby Grich and, of course, Pete Rose.
Now, some of this is simply time. And some of this is because of the ever-changing Hall of Fame veteran’s committee. Truth is, there used to be a very active veteran’s committee that put 91 players in the Hall of Fame. The structure and standards of the committee changed so that in the last 10 or more years the Veteran’s Committee has turned into a grumpy bunch of scrooges who seemed to come out once a year for the expressed purpose of not voting for Ron Santo or Marvin Miller. They’ve only put in one player since 2001,* tough they did manage to get Bowie Kuhn in there. So that’s a big part of things.
*That was Joe Gordon, who retired in 1950.
But there’s something else. I also think that baseball fans, more than fans of any other American sport, worship history to the point of distraction. Babe Ruth will probably never be transcended as the greatest player of all time in the minds of most, no matter that he played ball in a dramatically different era, under vastly different circumstances, in an all white league. Maybe Ruth was the greatest ever. Maybe he wasn’t even the greatest of his time with Oscar Charleston and Josh Gibson being banned from the Major Leagues. Either way, there’s a tendency in baseball to believe that the best baseball was the stuff played years and years and years ago, and the Hall of Fame reflects that belief. I don’t know too many people who would want to argue that Pie Traynor was a better third baseman than Ron Santo or Ken Boyer or even Graig Nettles, but the writers voted Traynor into the Hall of Fame pretty quickly while Santo (topped out at 43.1%), Boyer (topped out at 25.5%) and Nettles (topped out at 8.3%) never even got close in the writer’s vote.
I’m not saying that the standards of the Hall should stay the same. Obviously when Pie Traynor was voted into the Hall of Fame, there were not many great third baseman to choose from. Some people actually argued in the 1940s and 1950s that Traynor was the best third baseman ever. Then Brooks Robinson came along, and Santo, and Boyer. And after that George Brett and Mike Schmidt completely redefined what a “great” third baseman even looked like. Standards change and grow as the game gets older, and that’s how it should be. I fully appreciate that Pie Traynor (and Freddie Lindstrom and George Kell and Jimmy Collins) are in the Hall of Fame as much for WHEN they played as HOW WELL they played. Timing, as we will discuss throughout this Hall of Fame series, plays a big role in things.
Still, I can’t help but think that we have lost some of our generosity through the years. I can’t help but think we have failed to appreciate just how good, historically, Lou Whitaker was as a second baseman, or Bert Blyleven was as a pitcher, or Dale Murphy was an outfielder. You will hear people say all the time that someone doesn’t FEEL like a Hall of Famer. But where does that feeling come from? Is it something lacking in the player? Is it the power of hype in today’s sports world? Or is it that we have grown more cynical and less open to wonder?
If Alan Trammell had played shortstop in the big leagues the 1920s and 1930s he would have gone into the Hall of Fame first ballot, almost unanimously, and would have been ranked just behind Honus Wagner as the greatest shortstop who ever lived. He could do it all. He hit. He fielded. He could run. He hit with some power. He played smart. He led.
But because he played in the 1980s and 1990s, and he didn’t field quite as well as Ozzie, didn’t hit with quite as much power as Ripken, didn’t run quite as well as Larkin, he has garnered stunningly little Hall of Fame support. He was in my mind a better player than more than half of the 19 shortstops in the Hall of Fame, but it seems he is destined to play out his 15 years on the ballot and then land on that list of players the veteran’s committee annually turns down.
All of which is to say that, by philosophy, I’m a big Hall guy. I think the Hall of Fame should be a living and breathing thing and it should celebrate the great players from every era, and I think there are quite a few great players from my era who are not in the Hall of Fame and are remembered wearily rather than being remembered as marvelous players.
But, I mentioned the inner conflict: I fully realize that my votes have not been consistent with my “Big Hall of Fame” belief. I have never maxed out my ballot, or anything even close. I also have found myself on the no side on three of the most celebrated borderline Hall of Fame cases of the last decade — Bruce Sutter, Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. So, I say I’m a Big Hall guy, but I suppose I vote more like a Small Hall guy.
Well, this year, I did max out my ballot. I didn’t do it to prove any point — I happen to think there are at least 10 guys on this year’s ballot who were Hall of Fame caliber players, and I think there are two or three or four more who have compelling Hall of Fame arguments. We’ll get to all that as the week progresses.
As far as predictions go, I’ll make those now. I think Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven will get elected this year, I think Jeff Bagwell will have a strong first year showing, but will probably fall short for reasons that few people will want to say out loud. I think Barry Larkin will take a nice step forward and perhaps put himself on the brink of election in 2012. And I think that once Bert Blyleven gets in, Jack Morris will put himself in position to get elected in the next two years.
I don’t know what will happen with Tim Raines, but I’m hopeful that people will begin to see just how great a player he really was. If there had never been a Rickey Henderson, I think Tim Raines might be remembered as the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.