It’s all well and good to say that the next three baseball Hall of Fame ballots will be “unprecedented.” I’ve written that a few times, and it sounds good.
Next year’s ballot will include: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Craig Biggio, Sammy Sosa, Mike Piazza and Kenny Lofton.
The 2014 ballot will include: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina and Jeff Kent.
The 2015 ballot will include: Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Gary Sheffield.
Yes, that flood of talent and controversy FEELS unprecedented — and in some ways that’s true. It certainly is a deep run of great players, and a few of them — especially Bonds and Clemens — are connected to PEDs in a way that unquestionably will affect the way the voters judge their careers. I have written before that in many ways the voters — and I am one of them — will be trying to determine the soul of the Hall of Fame.
But, I realize now I fell victim to one of the classic blunders. I overlooked history.
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You probably know, if you are a fan of baseball history, that in February, 1936 the Baseball Writers voted five players to start the Hall of Fame: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth*, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Up to that point, nobody really knew what the Hall of Fame was supposed to be — the idea was only to build a museum that would celebrate the game and the best players in it. Much of the reaction to the 1936 ballot was: “That’s it? Just five players? What is this?” John Kieran of the New York Times was probably the first to express how the writers viewed the Hall of Fame:
“The fact that only five players received enough votes to qualify them for inclusion in the Baseball Hall of Fame is a good thing,” he wrote. “A Hall of Fame for any field should not be filled too hastily.”
*I found something interesting about the balloting that I did not know — apparently when the first 100 votes were counted, both Cobb and Ruth were unanimous. Then, the first ballot without Ruth came up and the counting committee actually stopped to wonder how anyone could leave off Ruth. Before it was all done (there were 226 total votes) they would find four ballots without Cobb, and eleven ballots without Ruth.
OK, you know about 1936. And you might know about 1937 — that year Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Cy Young were voted in by the writers. In 1938, Pete Alexander — known officially as Grover Cleveland Alexander — was voted in. In 1939 (the year the Hall of Fame officially opened), three more players — George Sisler, Eddie Collins and Wee Willie Keeler — were voted into the Hall of Fame by the writers. At the end of that year, the writers decided to have a special vote to put in Lou Gehrig immediately, something they would do again later for Roberto Clemente.
What you might not know (I didn’t) is at that point — during that 1939 meeting — the writers just stopped.
Stopped? Well: Yes. Technically speaking, they STOPPED THEMSELVES. In December, 1939 the writers decided that they would have an election every THREE YEARS instead of every year. I’m not entirely sure why they did this, but I have a pretty good guess. I think it comes from a phenomenon I sometimes call “Parking Lot Power Trip.”
You may have noticed this too: Often, it seems to me, people will lose their minds when they are given a little area to protect. You will see it best, perhaps, in the parking lots of sporting events, especially the biggest ones. Every single year at events like the Indianapolis 500 or the Super Bowl or the World Series (but also at particularly busy high school football game) you see people in orange vests running around the parking lots — people who, just the day before, were as friendly and generous as anyone else — only they have suddenly and temporarily turned into mini-tyrants. Hey, watch it buddy. You can’t go there. You’ve got to turn around. I don’t care who you know. You are not allowed in here. That’s not my problem. Your parking pass isn’t being displayed properly. You are not welcome here. And so on. They say power corrupts — well, I suspect even a tiny jolt of power can do it.
That, I think, is how some writers get when it comes to the Hall of Fame — they may not see themselves exactly as part of a fun process to celebrate the greatest players in the history of the game. Instead, they may see themselves as the GUARDIANS of the Hall, the orange vests who make sure that the unworthy and unclean, the players without the proper parking passes, are kept out. I know this is true because I have often felt those emotions bubbling inside, too often thought, “Jack Morris? He’s not a Hall of Famer. Jim Rice? He’s not a Hall of Famer.” And so on.
Well, that’s our job isn’t it? To only vote for the players we believe are Hall of Fame worthy? Yes, of course it is, and that means making difficult decisions and drawling lines and all of that. But it’s so easy to lose your head, to start seeing yourself as more than just someone who decides which baseball players were awesome. You can start to see yourself as protector of baseball history, judge and jury against those who might sully this great institution, champion of the National Pastime, watchdog and guardian and defender of the crown. This, I believe, is why the 11 writers left Babe Ruth off that first ballot. This is why Jackie Robinson was barely voted in on first ballot, why several writers didn’t vote for Willie Mays and Stan Musial and Hank Aaron and Ted Williams and Bob Feller, why writers are so adamant against voting for anyone who did (or may) have used steroids. We are not just Hall of Famer voters. We start to think of ourselves as the keeper of the keys.
This is not a new phenomenon. In 1939, with the world going into war, the writers en masse made that critical decision that forever shaped the Hall of Fame — they decided that players were getting into the Hall of Fame much too quickly. I suspect they were worried that if they kept voting in players EVERY YEAR, well, they couldn’t trust themselves to keep the pristine standards of the Hall of Fame that they had just invented. They feared that the Hall of Fame could become watered down, filled with mediocrities, men unworthy of being in the same room as the Iron Horse and the Georgia Peach. No, they didn’t want the unexceptional in their Hall of Fame — I’m pretty sure that’s how they saw it. Their Hall of Fame. A place with only — ONLY — the true immortals.
Well, you know how such efforts usually end up — by having precisely the opposite happen. The writers did hold to the “true immortal standard” — from 1940-1946, they elected exactly ONE player into the Hall of Fame. One. Rogers Hornsby. That was it. I’ve been calling the 2013-2015 ballots unprecedented — I was a bit off. Take a look at just some of the players on the 1946 ballot:
— Jimmie Foxx
— Lefty Grove
— Charlie Gehringer
— Frank Chance
— Frankie Frisch
— Paul Waner
— Home Run Baker
— Carl Hubbell
— Three Fingers Brown
— Bill Terry
— Bill Dickey
— Kid Nichols
— Dizzy Dean
— Dazzy Vance
— Eddie Plank
— Wahoo Sam Crawford
— Harry Heillmann
— Al Simmons
On and on and on — in total there were FORTY SIX players on the nominating ballot in 1946 who would end up in the Hall of Fame. And do you know how many the writers voted in that year? None. Nada. Zilch. It could be that the ballot was so overwhelming, with so many great-to-legendary players backed up, that the writers could not come up with any consensus. It seems obvious from some of the vote totals that many writers were just trying to go in order — to honor the older players first — which would be the only reasonable explanation how Lefty Grove received just 35% of the vote. LEFTY GROVE. He has an argument as the greatest pitcher of all time. Jimmie Foxx (just two years retired — this was before the five-year wait) got just 26 votes. No player got more than 57% of the vote on the final ballot. The writers had legislated themselves into oblivion.
But here’s the thing — and we writers should be aware of this now too: The Hall of Fame didn’t just stand still while the writers put on their shining armor and attempted to bar the doors. No, it doesn’t work that way. Nobody wants a stagnant Hall of Fame. Nobody wants a Hall of Fame so exclusive that LEFTY FREAKING GROVE isn’t good enough to get in. Starting in 1940, visitors to the Hall of Fame dropped dramatically. Obviously, World War II was by far the biggest reason, but the with the writers locked in righteous inaction, the Hall of Fame stopped moving.
And that couldn’t last. People LIKE the Hall of Fame. People LIKE when new players get inducted. Here’s what happened: The various veteran’s committees swung into action. They had different names — Centennial Commission and Old-Timers Committee and Permanent Committee — but they were essentially a handful of people, several of them hand-chosen by Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis*, to elect old-time players into the Hall of Fame.
*And the committee did well by Landis — they elected him into the Hall of Fame just two weeks after he died in 1944.
Well, these committees — being much smaller and much more interested in celebrating their personal favorites than protecting some impossible standard of purity — elected TWENTY SEVEN men into the Hall of Fame between 1939 and 1946. Yep. Twenty seven. And some of them were absolute doozies. They elected:
— Candy Cummings, who was credited with inventing the curveball though he probably did not.
— Roger Bresnahan, a light-hitting catcher who is generally listed among the worst players in the Hall of Fame.
— Hughie Jennings, a middle infielder with a very short career whose exceptional skills included good defense and a knack for getting hit by pitches.
— Tinker, Evers and Chance — all three players from Franklin P. Adams famous poem.
— Tommy McCarthy, an 1890s speedster who I can, pretty confidently, say three things about:
1. He had a short career.
2. He had a pretty undistinguished career — he hit .292, led the league in steals once, he did score 100-plus runs even times, but that was a particularly high scoring era (Bill James ranked him as the 88th best RIGHT FIELDER).
3. You had no idea that he was in the Hall of Fame.
There were other questionable choices, but the point is this: The Baseball Writers’ plan to make the Hall of Fame MORE exclusive, predictably, made it much, much, much less exclusive. There are, no exaggeration, probably 700 every day players in baseball history who were better than Tommy McCarthy, and more all the time.
Along the way, these Veteran Committees did put in some very good players the writers had MEANT to get to but couldn’t muster the strength — Frank Chance, Rube Waddell, Ed Walsh, Ed Delahanty and others. But this bit of good work only empowered those committees even more (“Hey, if the writers aren’t going to do it …”) and they were basically free to put in whoever the heck they wanted. Do you realize that six of the eight everyday players on the 1894 Baltimore Orioles are in the Hall of Fame? For a while, they voted in just about anybody who John McGraw had ever known. The Baseball Writers had barely given JIMMIE FOXX consideration up to 1946, while the Veteran’s Committee happily voted in Jim O’Rourke, who was virtually indistinguishable from at least a half dozen outfielders of his time except for the fact that he would recite Hamlet’s soliloquy before every game.*
*Earning him the nickname “Orator Jim.”
Well, this led to the obvious — the writers had to act. They had allowed the Hall of Fame to get away from them — they no longer had any real say in determining what the Hall of Fame was all about. Something had to be done. In 1947, it was decided — not by the writers themselves but by the Hall of Fame — that the BBWAA needed to vote every year. The writers responded by finally voting in four overqualified players in 1947 — Carl Hubbell, Frankie Frisch, Mickey Cochrane and, yes, Lefty Grove.
But then, the writers did something odd. The next year, they voted in Herb Pennock and Pie Traynor. Many people thought Traynor was the best third baseman up to that point and time, so that was not a huge surprise (though Traynor as a Hall of Famer does not hold up well through history). But Pennock was immediately a strange choice. Up to this point, the BBWAA had only voted in 17 players, and there really wasn’t a marginal pick among them. They had only voted the best of the best of the best, as had been their mission.
But Pennock wasn’t the best of the best of the best — he is certainly one of the weaker pitchers in the Hall of Fame and was the day they put him in. Pennock was, instead, a sportswriter favorite. Pennock was dying, and the writers loved him, and this was probably the first time that the writers allowed emotion to push them into voting in a player who did not meet the sky-high standards that they supposedly believed in. It would not be the last.
By now, nobody had any idea what the Hall of Fame was supposed to be about. The writers started putting in the players they had passed on before — Foxx and Ott went in in 1951, Waner and Heilmann in 1952, Simmons and Dizzy Dean in 1953, Terry and Dickey and Vance in 1954 and so on. At the same time, the veteran’s committee kept putting in players they felt had been overlooked, some of them well-deserved (Three-Fingers Brown, Kid Nichols, Home Run Baker), some more questionable (Ray Schalk, Chief Bender). But the BBWAA was all over the place too — electing Dizzy Dean and Rabbit Maranville among other more controversial choices.
When the writers elected Hank Greenberg in 1956 — with a short career largely because of almost 4 1/2 years missed for World War II — there was once again this feeling that the Hall of Fame standard was getting too low. It’s amazing that after all of the shaky candidates who were elected that it was Hank Greenberg — a truly great player — who triggered that backlash. But the rules were changed again. Now the writers would vote every TWO years. And the writers again retreated. For five years, 1957-61, the writers again did not induct a single player. The veteran’s committee, meanwhile, put five more people in.
By the 1960s and 1970s, the Hall of Fame was mess. The writers had become bizarrely intractable. In 1962, ten of 160 voters passed on Bob Feller, and another 36 did not vote for Jackie Robinson. At least they both got in. Nobody made it in 1964 — not Roy Campanella, not Arky Vaughan, not Johnny Mize or Joe Medwick or Ralph Kiner or Bob Lemon. In 1966, Ted Williams was voted in, but 20 people did not vote for him. The BBWAA went back to the year-by-year voting after that.
Meanwhile, the Veteran’s Committee kept putting players in. It should be said that from the mid 1950s to the mid-1960s, the Veteran’s Committee did a great service for the Hall — supplying overlooked great players time after time while the writers held to some utopian standard that had long been shattered. After the Ray Schalk reach, the BBWAA put in Home Run Baker, Zack Wheat, Billy Hamilton, Wahoo Sam Crawford, Eppa Rixey and others who, I think, are a credit to the Hall of Fame.
But then, to be blunt about it, they lost their minds and ran roughshod over the Hall. In the late 1960s and early 1970s they put in Lloyd Waner, Waite Hoyt, Earle Combs, Harry Hooper, Jesse Haines, Dave Bancroft, Chick Hafey, Rube Marquard, Lefty Gomez, High Pockets Kelly, Jim Bottomley and Freddie Lindstrom in a span of less than a decade.
In other words, one door to the Hall of Fame was guarded by a alligator-filled moat — the other was guarded by Ed Rooney from “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.”
In many ways, this pattern has repeated ever since. The writers have held to their ridiculous standards in some cases — passing on Yogi Berra one year, not voting for undeniably great players for uncertain reasons*, passing on Jim Bunning and Ron Santo — while in other cases just voting in their favorites like Kirby Puckett and Catfish Hunter, despite some serious questions.
*Number of writers who did not for for: Bob Gibson, 64; Juan Marichal 71; Willie McCovey 79.
The veteran’s committee, as usual, has shape-shifted and changed form a few times, but has still managed to both lift (Larry Doby) and muddy (Vic Willis) the Hall of Fame standards.
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I wrote all this because I think it’s interesting … but more because I think the writers can learn a lesson here. I am not here to argue here about whether or not great players who used steroids pre-testing deserve to go into the Hall of Fame. I don’t think we can even hear each other on that subject any more.
But I will say here that it’s at least possible that not voting in Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro and numerous others who dominated the era could inspire a different ending than we voters might expect. The writers in the late 1930s thought they were serving the Hall of Fame by creating a supreme standard … but what happened instead is that while the writers sat around, the veterans committees created a Hall of Fame with mystifying and bewildering standards, putting in players no better, and in many cases considerably worse, than ones the writers had barely considered.
And now, while writers may think we are keeping the Hall of Fame pure by keeping out the steroid heathens … we may find that we are doing something else entirely. What? Well, time will tell. Maybe we will find that the standards of the Hall of Fame will crash again — players deemed “clean” will get elected even though they were not great players. How often already do you hear the, “Well, he doesn’t have the career, but he did this without steroids,” argument?
Maybe we will find that the writers have already voted in someone who used steroids, someone great, someone beloved. Then what? What if there are five players in the Hall of Fame who used steroids? What if there are 10? Is this so unlikely? Steroids were not invented in 1994, you know. The first public steroid scandal, as far as I can tell, happened in 1954. And, the idea of increasing testosterone for better sports performance goes back MUCH, MUCH longer — perhaps even to the ancient Olympics around 776 BC.
So what if we found out about others? Then what? We know baseball players have long cheated in other ways. Ruth probably corked his bat. Whitey Ford probably cut baseballs with his wedding ring. John McGraw talked about grabbing players as they were trying to round the bases. Don Sutton was legendary all around the game for scuffing balls, Gaylord Perry wrote a book about his spitter, and we don’t even want to begin to guess how many players took greenies when they were against the law.
Listen: I’m not comparing that kind of cheating to steroid use. As mentioned, I’m not here to argue FOR steroid users. What I’m saying is that it isn’t just possible, it’s quite likely, that since players have long tried to find any and every edge that a player or two or 10 or many more used steroids to recover from injury or get stronger long before the steroid era supposedly began. We KNOW football players used steroids in football going back to the 1960s. Are we still naive enough to think that baseball players from that era would not?
Isn’t it that kind of naiveté that made this thing so jolting in the first place?
Bob Costas has been a leading voice against steroids in baseball, and if I understand Bob correctly — and we have talked about it on several occasions — he is not especially concerned about the MORALITY of steroid use. He doesn’t like that players used steroids, but he knows that players throughout history have hardly been angels, and it disappoints him when people say he romanticizes past players. “Do people really think I’m unaware of Mickey Mantle’s flaws?” he asks.
Costas’ problem with steroids in baseball is not moral, no, it’s a baseball problem. He thinks the use of steroids made those players unnaturally strong and made their BASEBALL FEATS inauthentic. I asked him if thinks Mark McGwire would have been a Hall of Fame player without steroids — and he says that, yes, if McGwire could have stayed healthy he would have had a chance to have a Harmon Killebrew type of career. But Costas doesn’t know if he could have stayed healthy and doesn’t think he would have had ANY shot to hit 70 homers followed by 65. To him, that’s just inauthentic.
He thinks Barry Bonds was certainly a Hall of Fame player before using steroids — assuming he was clean before 1999 or 2000 — but the seasons he put up after that are synthetic and unworthy of praise or acceptance.
I may not agree with everything Bob says on the subject, but I think he has a sensible approach here — he looks at the FEAT being inauthentic rather than the PLAYER being evil and unworthy. If we look at it that way, it’s back in the realm of sports where sportswriters should probably try to stay. Some people have drawn the line here: If they believe the steroids made the difference between a player being a Hall of Famer and not being one, they do not vote for him. And if they believe the player would have been a Hall of Famer anyway, they would vote for him.
That, at least, seems reasonable to me. Judgment call? Sure. But isn’t all of it a judgment call?
Many, though, have determined that if a player used steroids and we know it they are unworthy of the Hall of Fame. Again, I’m not here to argue the point. But I will say: Looking at history, I would bet that a a blanket refusal to vote for anyone suspected of using steroids on moral grounds probably won’t get the expected result. There seems a reasonable PERFORMANCE argument to be made on the difference between steroids and greenies, but the MORAL argument doesn’t feel all that different. And when you start breaking down the ethical differences between one kind of cheating and another, you might not be on particularly stable ground.
More to the point: The Hall of Fame won’t just stand still. It never does. The Hall of Fame won’t just stop inducting players. Right now, the good folks who run the Hall of Fame seem in relative agreement with the BBWAA — at least publicly — but they don’t want a static building filled with ghosts. They could change the rules anytime; they have many, many times before. And so maybe the Hall of Fame would change the rules so that fans and players vote along with writers (I’m not saying this would be bad — just not the result the writers are going after). The Hall of Fame could disassociate itself from the BBWAA entirely and have its own panel of experts for all votes. Even more likely, writers could overconfidently vote in “clean” players who end up being not so clean, leading to all sorts of confusion and calls of hypocrisy and who knows what else.
More than anything, it could (and probably would) lead to something utterly unexpected.
In the end, people don’t want a Hall of Fame that just lays there. Who wants that? The writers of the 1930s thought that they knew what was best for the Hall, that they could create a baseball utopia with only the best of the best of the best. And before long the Hall of Fame baseline was Tommy McCarthy and Roger Bresnahan. The writers now may think that it’s our job to protect the Hall of Fame from the steroid stain of the Selig Era. Lord only knows where that will lead.