Let’s begin with a complaint: I really don’t like Hall of Fame ballots that feature different kinds of candidates. Take the Today’s Game Ballot. This is the newest incarnation of the Hall of Fame Veteran’s Committee — these days it is a 16-person panel, and they will vote on a ballot with 10 people on it. Any of the nominees that get 12 votes (or 75%) will get elected to the Hall of Fame. It seems straightforward enough.
Only, it isn’t. As I’ve written before, the math doesn’t really add up.
But there’s something else going on here, something that I think the Hall of Fame might want to think about.
Let’s start with the reasons why the Veteran’s Committees have existed through the years. I think it comes down to two:
1. They are supposed to fix the “mistakes” made by the Baseball Writers Association of America. That is to say they are supposed to give overlooked players like Arky Vaughan a second look. Through the years, the Veteran’s Committee has put in 69 players the BBWAA rejected for one reason or another. Some, like Ron Santo and Jim Bunning just missed in the BBWAA voting. Some, like Ron Santo and Pee Wee Reese and Phil Rizzuto, were longtime arguments. And some like Travis Jackson, George Kelly, Rick Ferrell, Jim Bottomley, Rube Marquard, Jesse Haines, on and on, are kind of inexplicable.
In any case, this is the first job of the Veteran’s Committee — to right perceived wrongs.
2. The Committee is supposed to induct all those baseball contributors who are beyond the purview of the BBWAA. Through the years, this has included players before 1900 and Negro Leagues players, managers, owners, front office members, umpires and various other sorts like Candy Cummings, who may or may not have invented the curveball (not) or Henry Chadwick who was so influential as a baseball writer.
These are both noble aims. The trouble comes, I think, when you mix up the two.
And that’s what the Today’s Game ballot does. On the ballot are five players, two managers, a general manager, an owner and Bud Selig. This puts the Committee in the somewhat preposterous position of determining whether George Steinbrenner or Mark McGwire was better at his job, whether Will Clark was better at playing baseball than Davey Johnson was at managing it, whether Orel Hershiser, John Schuerholz or Bud Selig contributed more to the game. It’s kind of ridiculous.
But more: It utterly diminishes the PLAYERS’ contribution to baseball.
Why the players? Well, it’s because we have stats to judge players. We have eyes to judge players. We have context to judge players. Knowing you as I do , I can tell that you have a strong opinion about Al Kaline vs. Roberto Clemente or Greg Maddux vs. Roger Clemens. You probably don’t care quite as much about Hank O’Day vs. Doug Harvey.
And so when you put together a ballot like this, the players suddenly seem less interesting and less important. I mean, other than Mark McGwire, who has his own issues, who on this ballot can stand up to the titanic presence of Selig or Steinbrenner or Lou Piniella as a fiery manager. You have Harold Baines, Albert Belle, Will Clark, Orel Hershiser, all of them fine players … but on a ballot with Selig and Steinbrenner and Schuerholz and Davey Johnson, why even bother?
This is not a theoretical question either. Since 2000, the Veteran’s Committees have put in seven Major League managers, three owners, two umpires, one general manager, one commissioner … and three 20th century Major League baseball players (Bill Mazeroski, Ron Santo and Joe Gordon). That’s 14 contributors, three players. And none of the three players played in the last 40 years.
As long as you give the panel easy and relatively uncontroversial choices like Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa a couple of years ago, they will avoid voting in tougher calls like Dick Allen or Minnie Minoso or Tony Oliva or even a contentious but obvious contributor like Marvin Miller. This year, I think it’s a pretty good guess that the players will again fall short — probably significantly short — while Selig, Schuerholz and Steinbrenner dominate the voting. I’m not saying those three are undeserving. I’m just saying they should be on their own ballot and keep players out of it.
Now, for the breakdown:
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Definitely won’t make it
— Harold Baines. Someday, if we are lucky, the Hall of Fame will open up a Professional Hitters wing, and it will be named for Harold Baines.
— Albert Belle. Injuries forced Belle into retirement at age 33; it’s reasonable to believe that if he had stayed healthy until 40 he would have hit 500 or 550 home runs and, assuming he avoided the PED blacklist, would have had a real chance for the Hall.
— Orel Hershiser. There was a stamina problem in the 1980s. You look at the greatest pitchers of the 1970s (Seaver, Ryan, Niekro, Perry, Blyleven, Carlton, Palmer, Jenkins) and they all had massively long careers with huge win and strikeout totals.
You look at the greatest pitchers of the 1990s (Clemens, Maddux, Johnson, Pedro, Smoltz, Glavine, Mussina) and they took had long careers with big career numbers.
And then you look at the 1980s. Dave Stieb. Dwight Gooden. Bret Saberhagen. Teddy Higuera. Frank Viola. Mike Scott. Fernando Valenzuela. Orel Hershiser. None of them could last. None came close to 3,000 strikeouts. Hershiser was the only one of the group to win 200 games, and he just barely did. This undoubtedly is why Jack Morris stands out among the 1980s pitchers — he was the one guy who could stay healthy and put up those Hall of Fame looking numbers at the end.
Hershiser was an absolute Hall of Famer from 1984 to 1989. Those six seasons he went 98-64 with a 2.68 ERA, 1000-plus strikeouts, a 132 ERA+ and so on. If he could have had six more seasons like those and then rounded it out with two or three filler years, he’d be a Hall of Famer without question. But after age 30, he just wasn’t the same and so the career falls just a touch short.
— Will Clark. One more terrific player whose career did not last long enough. Will Clark was one of my favorite players. I used to emulate his bat wave whenever I would go to the batting cage with friends (where I, of course, tried to hit left-handed). His rate stats are exceptional — .303/.384/.497 — and he was a good all around player, good fielder, good baserunner, good teammate, good everything. He needed four more years.
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Probably will not get elected
— Lou Piniella (Manager). Here’s a little thought experiment: Let’s say every team in Major League Baseball was exactly the same. You might call this the NASCAR ideal. Let’s say that every single team has the same players having the same types of years. They face the same injuries. They make the same trades.
The ony difference is the manager.
OK, now imagine they play 10 seasons like that. What happens?
A. You get 10 different champions, 20 different World Series matchups, etc.
B. You get some overlap, but it’s marginal overlap, meaning that maybe a couple of teams win two championships, maybe someone gets three but generally speaking it’s pretty balanced.
C. One or two teams dominate and win a bunch of World Series because they have the best managers.
There are obviously other scenarios, but what do you think? Is there enough difference in manager impact that a Joe Maddon or Terry Francona or Bruce Bochy would dominate this kind of league? Or would we find that manager impact is relatively small and that it does not trump randomness and luck and other forces?
I don’t know the answer to that, obviously. I suspect that the teams with better managers WOULD win more often. But I also suspect that we might find the better managers are not always the people we expect.
In other words: I have no idea if Lou Piniella was a great manager. He did manage those 1990 Reds to the World Championship, and that was impressive because that Reds team seemed lacking on paper. He did manage the Seattle Mariners to three division titles, including a 116-year season, but I mean the guy had Griffey and A-Rod and Unit and Edgar and Buhner and a handful of other good players. You could argue that those Mariners teams underachieved, not the other way around.
Then there were three dreadful years in Tampa Bay, and finally he won a couple of division titles in Chicago though neither of those teams won a playoff game.
All in all, it’s certainly a fine career. But in the NASCAR scenario, would I bet on Lou Piniella winning my team the most pennants? Probably not.
— Davey Johnson. I think his case is a little better than Piniella’s. He also won just one pennant and one World Series, so it’s not THAT much better than Piniella’s, but he has a better career record, and he managed five different teams and won with all five. He also had the extreme bad luck of managing for, um, characters. In Cincinnati, Marge Schott sent him packing apparently because of his live-in relationship with his girlfriend. In Baltimore, he was canned on the day that he won the Manager of the Year award. In Los Angeles and Washington, it was more craziness. All in all, he was fired five times — all five after winning seasons.
I think I would bet on Davey Johnson getting my team at least a couple of pennants in the NASCAR scenario. But I don’t think he has the votes (“You don’t have the votes, huh-huh-huh”).
— Mark McGwire. I probably could have saved time and put McGwire in the “Definitely won’t make it” collection, but I suppose there’s a one in a hundred chance that this committee will want to make a statement about PEDs in the Selig Era. OK, maybe one in a thousand.
Someday, I hope, people will consider Mark McGwire singularly rather than lumping him in with all the rest. As far as I know, he remains the only star player from the 1990s to come out voluntarily to admit using PEDs, to apologize for using them and to explain, best he could, why he did it.
Now, people will say it wasn’t voluntary — he HAD to come clean or he would not have been allowed to work in baseball. That may or may not be true. Barry Bonds works in baseball and few believe that he’s come clean. Lots of players who may have used PEDs before there was testing or any real impediment to using PEDs are working in baseball now. McGwire knew full well he was putting his Hall of Fame chances on ice and knew full well that he would be losing many fans. He did it anyway. Because he loves baseball.
McGwire grew up in a culture that promoted steroid abuse. He came to a point in his career where PEDs seemed his only chance to keep playing the game. And he used, he absused, he became the greatest home run hitter the game has ever seen. He made the game fun again after a few dismal years after the strike. He brought in millions of people — literally millions of people — just to watch him take batting practice.
And when the bill came due, when everyone tired of the home runs and began to feel duped, when the steroid stories began to leak, when Congress began looking hard at baseball lassez faire PED policies, McGwired retired and he took the fifth in lieu of lying and then admitted what he had done. No, it’s not admirable, of course it isn’t. But it’s more than any other player of his time did.
Is he a Hall of Famer? For me he is. But I think it’s a borderline case, and I would not argue with anyone who thinks he definitely is not a Hall of Famer. Bob Costas’ thought on McGwire is that his numbers, his home runs, are not AUTHENTIC … and I can see that. My biggest thought is that he should not be lumped in with anyone else. He deserves his own argument.
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— George Steinbrenner. He has been on the ballot twice, and both times he did not come close to election. But this ballot seems a better fit for him because I don’t think any of the players, including McGwire, will garner much support. And I think Steinbrenner will appeal to the voters more than either manager. I don’t think he will quite get 12 voites, but I would not be surprised to see him come close.
There’s an argument you sometimes hear that the Hall of Fame should induct people like George Steinbrenner because you can’t tell the story of baseball without him. I probably have made an argument or two like that myself. But the more I think about it, the less convincing that argument becomes. The Plaque Room at the Hall of Fame does a lot of things. But it most certainly DOES NOT tell the story of baseball. It’s a sprawling, weird, inconsistent mishmash of great players, good players, successful managers, early day pioneers, owners who did very little good for the game, owners who did a lot of good for the game, umpires …
The story of baseball might be in there somewhere but it’s like reading Sanskrit. You need a baseball Rosetta Stone to follow the story at all.
The rest of the Hall of Fame DOES tell the story of baseball, through exhibits, movies, art, music, relics, whatever. George Steinbrenner, like Pete Rose, like Shoeless Joe Jackson, like all the biggest figures in the game, are in the HALL OF FAME. They have just not been inducted. I’m not sure that really matters for the storytelling.
As mentioned above, I wish George Steinbrenner would be on a ballot of 10 baseball owners. Hey, if you’re going to induct owners, fine, give them their own ballot every so often. Then you have context. In such a scenario, with Steinbrenner on the ballot with Charley O Finley, who was mad like Steinbrenner and won three pennants. Ted Turner is in that mix too. Put him on there with a modest innovator like Ewing Kauffman and the first woman owner Joan Payson (and the most famous one, perhaps, Marge Schott) and the flamboyant Harry Frazee and the not-so-flamboyant Calvin Griffith and Edward Bennett Williams and so on, yes, then you can make a determination. Was Steinbrenner more influential than any of them? Maybe and maybe not. Was he better for the game than any of them? Maybe and maybe not.
Comparing him with players and managers, though, and Steinbrenner’s sheer force of personality (and regular appearances on Seinfeld) make him bigger than life.
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Will get elected
— John Schuerholz (general manager). I mentioned Ewing Kauffman in the section about Steinbrenner; it is AMAZING what Kauffman did when he brought baseball back to Kansas City. He was a quiet man, modest to a fault, and so no one ever saw him as the great showman that, say, Bill Veeck or Steinbrenner were.
But he basically reinvented baseball in Kansas City. He was personally involved in designing Royals Stadium, which essentially became the model for the stadium of the future. He came up with the Baseball Academy, one of the most innovative ideas in recent baseball history and a forerunner of the academies that every single team now has in the Dominican Republic and other countries. He believed in the fan experience, developed all sorts of interesting sales techniques, he brought the fountains to baseball (every stadium now has something) and his teams won year after year after year because he had a knack for hiring good people, from the front office to the scouting department down to George Toma, the best groundskeeper in the world.
Along the way, he hired a 29-year-old John Schuerholz. In time, Schuerholz became general manager and led the Royals to their first World Series championship. He went on to Atlanta and everyone knows how that turned out — 15 division titles, four pennants, one World Series championship. Schuerholz is about as good as anybody who has ever done the job, and he should get elected.
— Bud Selig. Ah, Bud. I suppose I should save all these things I’d like to say about my friend Bud for election day, but for our purpose here let’s just say this: He had a vision for the game, a vision where smaller markets would compete, where more teams would have hope on Opening Day, where some of the traditional walls (like the one between the American and National Leagues) were broken down, where the All-Star Game mattered again, where more teams made it to October and where owners and players stopped fighting.
You can argue about the costs of such things — and argue about their value in the first place — but the reality is that Bud Selig saw through his vision. He’s the most influential baseball commissioner since Happy Chandler, who was commissioner when the color line was finally broken (Chandler had little to do with it but he was supportive). Bowie Kuhn is in the Hall of Fame. Bowie bleepin’ Kuhn. Of course Bud Selig has to be elected.