The best player in baseball history turns 90 today, Willie Mays, the Say Hey Kid, the player who blended speed and power and joy and poetry and enthusiasm like no one else. A few years ago — well, wow, it’s probably a decade ago now — I wrote something I called “The Willie Mays Hall of Fame.” People still mention it to me pretty often. So in honor of the man and his 90th birthday, I thought it might be a good idea to update and rerun it here today.
Happy birthday, Say Hey Kid.
I cannot tell you how many times in my life I have received an email or text or tweet or actual conversation starter that goes something like: "Willie Mays -- now THAT is a Hall of Famer.”
This usually follows when I make a pitch for someone — say, Luis Tiant or Minnie Miñoso or Lou Whitaker or Dwight Evans or Dan Quisenberry or any number of others — to be considered for the Hall of Fame. The reflex response from many is that those people do not FEEL like Hall of Famers somehow. The Hall of Fame, they insist, is Willie Mays! Was Scott Rolen as good as Willie Mays? Obviously not. Case closed.
The reality, of course, is very different. I imagine that the average baseball fan — even people who would consider themselves to be somewhat passionate baseball fans — would know barely half of the people in the Hall of Fame. For every Ruth there is a Kelly, for every Mantle there’s a Lindstrom, for every Collins you’ve heard of there’s a Collins you have not heard of, for every Aaron there’s a Schalk, for every Satchel there’s a Bancroft.
But it is is no crime to romanticize the Hall of Fame. In fact, it’s almost required. People want to believe in a Hall of Fame where the standard is Willie Mays.
So that’s my mission: To create the Willie Mays Hall of Fame.
To get in, a player:
1. Has to achieve a consensus of greatness. I like those words. Could make for a good book title: "Consensus of Greatness." The player had to be viewed as an all-time great by the majority of people, more, the VAST majority of people. This is by far our No. 1 goal here, to find those people who are viewed as legends.
2. Has to be so good that there's no one precisely comparable. This is very important. One of the most annoying parts of the Hall of Fame to those people who want it reduced to the core is that people keep saying: "Well if Bill Mazeroski is in the Hall of Fame the n Frank White has a case to be in there" or "Well if Catfish Hunter is in the Hall of Fame then Luis Tiant has a case to be in there." The truth of these statements seems to annoy the hell out of them. They would rather Maz and Catfish were OUT rather than putting other people IN. So, we need players without annoying comps.
3. Should pass what Tom Verducci calls "the eyeball" test. We're talking gut feeling here.
4. Had to be in the same league with Willie Mays as an all-around ballplayer.
And here we go.
First thing we do is eliminate everyone who was not a first-ballot Hall of Famer. There officially have been 57 first-ballot Hall of Famers. This does not include Joe DiMaggio, Mel Ott, Rogers Hornsby or Carl Hubbell who, were not voted in on their first ballot appearance. The voting rules were different then. I’ll include those four to make it 61 players who we are considering here.
Now, it should be said that this list of 61 excludes many, many, many great players -- including a great player like Arky Vaughn who was actually NEVER voted in by the writers. Vaughan might be the second-greatest hitting shortstop in baseball history, behind only Honus Wagner. His omission by the writers -- he never got more than 29% -- is one of the real black marks on our voting record (I say "our record" though Vaughan was off the ballot the year after I was born — like it’s MY fault.
Lefty Grove is another black mark -- guy has a powerful case as the greatest pitcher who ever lived, and he got in on fourth ballot . There were some extenuating circumstances but this is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame so he’s out. So is Yogi Berra — more on him in a minute -- did not get in first ballot either.
Remember, we're not exactly trying to build a Hall of Fame of the BEST players by any statistical measure or any historical standard. We're trying to build a consensus Hall of Fame, a Hall where every member in it would be widely viewed as a true Hall of Famer. We're shooting for a 90 to 95% approval rating here. For that, we can only have the first-ballot Hall of Famers.
So we start with those 61 players (a list that does not include Roberto Alomar since the voters had to get in their "tsk tsk" for the spitting incident and not vote him in until the second ballot). That means we have already cut out 243 people! We are off to a roaring start.
But 61, I would say, is WAY too many for this kind of Hall of Fame. The 61, for instance, includes Kirby Puckett. And there's way too much controversy about Puckett because of his short career and because some view him as pretty wildly overrated and because he inspires way too many Don Mattingly comparisons. He's obviously out.
So, there are a couple of ways to cut out all the Pucketts. One is to not only choose first ballot Hall of Famers, but resounding first-ballot Hall of Famers. That is to say, we're looking for those players who received a vast majority of the vote. Let's say minimum 85-90%. We'll have to massage this a little bit, as you will see, but this is a good way to start cutting out some people.
Mel Ott is already out -- his first ballot credentials were shaky to start with. He didn't get in until his third ballot. Not good enough. Robin Yount is out. More than 100 writers did not vote for him. Can't have it. Lou Brock (80 no-votes) is out. Ivan Rodriguez (106 no-votes), Roy Halladay (99), John Smoltz (94), Frank Thomas (93), Kirby Puckett (92), Dennis Eckersley (85), Roy Halladay Dave Winfield (80), Willie McCovey (79), Paul Molitor (75), Willie Stargell (75), Eddie Murray (73), they are all out.
But by eliminating players who did not get resounding vote totals, we have a few challenges.
-- Jackie Robinson received only 77.5% of the vote. I'm going to assume that most of the 36 people who did not vote for him were, let’s just say, not worldly baseball scholars.
-- Eighty-one people did not vote for Joe Morgan. I'm not exactly sure why Morgan should get an exemption that the players above did not get ... but I also have this gut feeling (and this is the Hall for gut feeling) that people DO consider Morgan an inner-circle, no-doubter, 95% approval rating Hall of Famer. I think the reason he didn't get a higher percentage of the vote is because voters then put way too much stock in batting average and looked at his .271 career batting average and said: "I don’t care that he walked a billion times" Plus I wrote a book about the 1975 Reds, so maybe I’m just going soft. I'm going to keep Morgan on the list for now, but he's teetering.
-- Rogers Hornsby is widely viewed now as one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game, but he had a very shaky Hall of Fame election experience. He did not make it until his fifth ballot, though admittedly he was still playing (barely) for the first two votes, and had only just retired the second two (which is why I still qualify him as a first-ballot guy). HOWEVER, the thing I cannot overlook is that he still only got 78.1% of the vote when he actually made it in. Fifty-one of the 233 writers did not vote for him.
I don't know about you -- but I never saw Rogers Hornsby play. I take his greatness on faith, based on the remarkable statistics I've seen and the stories I've read and the research I've done. But more than 20% of the people who saw Hornsby play did not vote him into the Hall of Fame his FIFTH TIME ON THE BALLOT. Rogers is out. And, anyway, he was a jerk.
-- There are four others players who did not get 85% of the vote. I want to keep all four of them on for the same reason I want to keep Morgan on because I have this gut feeling that people do view them as all-time, inner circle guys. They are:
Bob Gibson (84%) Walter Johnson (83.6%) Ernie Banks (83.8%) Warren Spahn (83.2%)
Unfortunately, I can't keep on all four. We still have some trimming to do, and this is basic stuff getting a massive majority of the writer's vote. Walter Johnson gets to stay because his 83.6% was actually achieved in the first year of Hall of Fame voting, when -- as you might imagine -- there was a rather crowded ballot. And for now, Bob Gibson gets to stay too because I suspect none of the 64 people who did not vote for him would publicly admit it. Banks and Spahn, sadly, don't make the cut because I can't think of a good enough reason to keep them on. Hey, you want a Willie Mays Hall of Fame, you have to make some vicious choices.
So now we're down to 48.
Now, we try to eliminate the comps problem. What we want to do here is drop all the players who create comparison player headaches. For instance: Tony Gwynn is one of our 48. Well, Gwynn's contemporary Tim Raines reached base more times than Gwynn in almost precisely the same number of at-bats, and he was one of the two or three greatest base stealers in baseball history. When it comes to value, Raines' peak was probably higher and even over a career it was about as high. Well, you can see the chart for yourself.
In the old days, you could argue: "Yeah but Gwynn hit .338 for his career while Raines only hit .294" but even the most stubborn and crotchety "The Hall is way too big" zealots are beginning to understand the absurdity of measuring a player by batting average. There just seems very little separating Gwynn and Raines as players. This means Tony Gwynn has to go.
Ozzie Smith may have been the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball history. But he already is encouraging too many Omar Vizquel fans, and so he's out.
Brooks Robinson is a very tricky case. Everyone loves Brooks Robinson, as well they should. He's one of my fathers two or three favorite players, and so one of mine. But, let's not kid anybody: He really was a subpar hitter for much of his career. His career numbers of .267/.322/.401 are kind of an eyesore as is his career 104 OPS+. Of course, he was a marvelous defensive third baseman -- most would argue he was the greatest defensive third baseman ever. But we can't have all the great defensive third baseman lobbyists -- the Graig Nettles lobbyists, the Clete Boyer lobbyists, the Billy Cox lobbyists -- hammering on our door. Brooks is out.
Carl Hubbell has kind of been holding on for dear life for a little while now. He did not, technically, make it into Cooperstown on his first ballot. He survived that round because we were being very liberal with our definition of "first ballot," but, no, I don't think he's going to make it this round. His career record was 253-154 with a 2.98 ERA. He had three great years, three or four more very good years. He finished out the career 83-60 with a 3.45 ERA his last seven years. But here's the big problem: His No. 1 comps are Juan Marichal (who did not get in first ballot), someone named Charlie Buffington and a deadball era pitcher called Iron Joe McGinnity. Sorry Carl.
Jim Palmer's No. 1 comp? The barely survived Bob Gibson. Bob Gibson's No. 1 comp? Jim Palmer. Are these two trying to sneak into the Willie Mays Hall of Fame together? Gibson's No. 2 comp is Jack Morris, and Morris appears on Palmer's comp list as well, and though Morris has a bizarre level of support among the supposed "Willie Mays Hall" type people, it's not anywhere near the level of support that we are talking about here. If Jack Morris is on your comp list, you are out. That means Palmer and Gibson are out*. And alas they’re going to have to take Tom Glavine with them, which is a shame because Glavine is one of my all-time favorite players and people.
*There is an exception to this rule -- the War Exemption. Because Jack Morris also appears on Bob Feller's comp list. But Feller missed three years during World War II and so remains on our list.
Eddie Mathews is causing us some major problems here. Here's why: Mathews is not on our list. The writers did not vote him in until his fifth ballot -- that means he clearly falls way, way, way below our standard of entry. But Mathews is the highest-rated comp on three of our remaining players: Mike Schmidt (a 920 similarity score), George Brett (an 854 similarity score) and Mickey Mantle (also an 854 similarity -- shouldn't this make Brett and Mantle, like identical twins?). This is problematic because we do not want Eddie Mathews fans shouting about how he belongs in our Hall when we so clearly know he does not. So ... Schmidt and Brett are out. We hate to lose 'em -- because if they’re out then Chipper Jones is out too. This means we will not have a third baseman in our Hall. But you know, third base is kind of a minor position anyway, right? I mean, if they could play defense, they'd be shortstops.
Sammy Sosa is causing equally difficult conundrums. Obviously, Sammy Sosa is not in the Hall of Fame, certainly not in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and yet he is the No. 1 comp of Jim Thome. He’s also on the comp list with Ken Griffey Jr. We’ll keep Junior on here for now, but Thome, alas, is gone.
Christy Mathewson's 905 similarity score to the Pete Alexander disqualifies him -- Alexander did not get into Cooperstown until third ballot and he was an alcoholic and if he threw anything like Ronald Reagan, who played him in the movie, then he couldn't have been very good at all. Christy Mathewson is out.
What to do about Sandy Koufax? His No. 1 comp is Ron Guidry who is CLEARLY not going into the Willie Mays Hall of Fame since he's not even in the liberal Hall of Fame. But it's also true that Koufax's peak was much higher than Guidry's, and was, in fact, one of the best peaks in baseball history. And Koufax scores like a 1,048,384 on the gut factor, many people would argue he's the greatest pitcher of all time. But that Guidry comp makes it tough. And while some see his retirement at 30 because of arm troubles as sad, another way to look at it is that he didn't last long enough. He's out.
But if Koufax is out, then what do we do with Pedro Martinez? He was the greatest pitcher I ever saw, but isn’t his Hall of Fame case basically the Sand Koufax case, that he was dominant for a too-short period of time? Remembering that this is the Willie Mays Hall of Fame, and one of the things that Willie Mays WILLIE MAYS is that he was so good for so long. I guess Pedro’s out too.
Reggie Jackson has the three-homer World Series game, and he was undoubtedly one of the bright lights of his era, and he had the candy bar named for him. But his No. 1 comp is Gary Sheffield. I don't think I need to say anything more. He's out.
I have no idea how Steve Carlton lasted this long, by the way. His No. 1 comp is Don Sutton which, obviously, means immediate banishment.
Al Kaline's No. 1 comp? Harold Baines. Gone. ... Carl Yastrzemski's No. 1 comp? Dave Winfield. Didn't we just eliminate Dave Winfield? I can’t even remember anymore. Yaz gone. And take Cal Ripken with you since his No. 1 comp is also Dave Winfield. ... Joe Morgan, I stayed with you as long as I could. I really wanted you in there. But your No. 1 comp? Lou Whitaker? Do you know what Lou Whitaker did on his one Hall of Fame ballot? Sorry. Gone. ...
Joe DiMaggio is lucky he has the war exemption because he was not elected first-ballot AND his No. 1 comp is Larry Walker. He’s just begging to be booted.
Robert Clemente. Oh, man, this is a tough one. Clemente obviously was not only a great player, but he was also a hero and one of the great forces for good in baseball history. On the other hand his No. 1 comp is the so-clearly-not-Willie-Mays-great Zack Wheat. There is a great debate about Roberto Clemente and Al Kaline, which one was the better player. I suppose that argument should be held outside the Willie Mays Hall of Fame because Kaline has already been pushed out. Sorry Roberto. Usted esta fuera.*
*Four years of Spanish talking ... there is absolutely NO DOUBT I got that wrong.
One more -- this is the trickiest one of all, I think. Johnny Bench. He is similar to Yogi Berra, who did not make it into Cooperstown on his first ballot which suggests that the writers did not see Yogi as a slam-dunk, no-doubt Hall of Famer. Of course, this could just be because the writers had lost their minds. Many people -- Bill James included -- think Yogi Berra was actually the greatest catcher of all time, and he's one of the two or three most famous wordsmiths in the history of the game. So having Yogi Berra as a comp shouldn't mean immediate expulsion. That said, if Yogi Berra is out -- as he must be -- then I don't see how we can keep Johnny Bench in.
OK, the players remaining are unique enough, I think, that we can generally avoid the "Well, if he's in, then he should be in" kind of arguments. Now comes the second-toughest test of all -- the gut test. I can tell you that right away Rod Carew and Wade Boggs are out. Fine players. But there is no way that the gut has them as Willie Mays Hall of Famers. Out.
I've got to be honest with you ... I'm not too comfortable with Honus Wagner being in the Willie Mays Hall. Sure, he was an amazing player in his time, and a great person, and all that. But the guy began his career in the 1890s. Baseball wasn't even baseball then. He began playing before shinguards, before the sacrifice fly, before the baseball had a cork center, when baseball gloves were about as useful as raw steaks. Sure, he dominated his time, but baseball's nothing like that now. Put up an exhibit of him in the museum. But as for Willie Mays Hall? He's out.
And, you know, Walter Johnson has similar issues. He started in 1907 and pitched most of his time in the Deadball Era which, well, look at the name of the era: "Deadball." He was super great for his time. So was Johnny Weissmuller. He's out.
I don't know what to do with Nolan Ryan because no one knows what to do with Ryan -- he was great fun to watch, and he undoubtedly threw a ball as hard as anyone, and he had all those strikeouts and no-hitters and all. But he also had all those walks and wild pitches. He's the most unhittable pitcher who ever lived, and his ERA was a bland 3.12 and his .526 winning percentage is kind of brutal and, back to the walks, he walked almost ONE THOUSAND more batters than any man who ever lived. He is, I feel certain, the most unique pitcher of all-time. But is he truly one of the best? There's too much static here. He's out.
Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson. They were nothing alike, and yet you look at their careers and see kind of a mirror-imagine thing going. Both 300-game winners. Both won many, many Cy Youngs. Both led the league in ERA and wins many times. Both dominated in a great offensive era. But you know what? I think you could argue that Roger Clemens is better than both of them.
Roger Clemens is not in the Hall of Fame and we don’t need that sort of mess around the WIllie Mays Hall of Fame.
They’re both out.
Now, we have to look hard at the war guys -- lower case "war" -- Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller. There is no question they were both great when they played. And then they served our country with distinction during World War II -- during which time they lost prime years of their careers. Had Feller pitched, he might have won 100 more games. Had DIMaggio played, he might have reached 3,000 hits and won a total of five or six MVP awards. But we are dealing with the world of imagination now. They also might have gotten hurt and not been able to complete their careers. If we are to assume one thing, what is to prevent us from assuming the other? It hurts to say it but we must judge their careers on what they did and their careers were not very long and ... they're both out.
And then ... Jackie Robinson. He's the most important figure in baseball history. He's one of the most important American figures of the 20th Century, I believe. Former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson used to include a quote on the bottom of his emails from Martin Luther King Jr.: "Jackie Robinson made it possible for me in the first place. Without him, I would never have been able to do what I did."
That said, the Willie Mays Hall of Fame is more interested in finding players who were as great as Willie Mays. And while I overlooked Robinson's low Hall of Fame vote total and overlooked that his No. 1 comp was someone named George Grantham and tried to give him as much credit as I could being, you know, one of the most important reasons Willie Mays got to play in the Major Leagues, well, he was not quite as good as Joe Morgan or Rogers Hornsby, and neither of them is in. So Jackie Robinson is out.
OK, has been fun and ... oh, wait. We just knocked Bob Feller out, didn't we? Well, Tom Seaver's No. 1 comp is Bob Feller -- and not only that, they have a stunning 988 similarity score. They're almost identical. If Feller is out, Seaver has to be out too.
So, finally, we are down to the 11 players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame. And they are ...
Hold on. I forgot something. Let me go back up and look ... oh yeah. I forgot the fourth qualification for the Willie Mays Hall. They have to be in Willie Mays' league as players. Well, that's going to be tough, isn't it?
Ted Williams couldn't field or run with Willie. He's out.
Stan Musial couldn't field or run with Willie. He's out.
Ken Griffey Jr. was great at his peak, no question, but after age 30 he hit .262/.355/.493 and had to be moved from center field. That’s not Willie Mays.
Frank Robinson was a terrific player. But he wasn't quite as good as Willie Mays in just about anything.
Lou Gehrig. Iron Horse. Great player. Great man. But the standard is Willie Mays. Gehrig played first base, and he wasn't fast.
Mickey Mantle ... how did he get through with Eddie Mathews as his No. 1 comp? Oh yeah: The Seinfeld Exemption — the fact that George wanted to name a baby “Seven” after Mantle. Also Bob Costas still carries a Mickey Mantle baseball card with him. Mantle was the fastest thing anyone had ever seen before he hurt his knee. But he did hurt his knee, and after that he could not run or field with Willie Mays. He also did not endure like Mays, who was still a great player at 37 and 38. Those late nights got him. He’s out.
Rickey Henderson had a different kind of greatness from Mays. But different, in this case, doesn't help him. He didn't have Mays' power or his batting ability and he certainly didn't play centerfield like Mays.
And we are down to four. The four players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...
Babe Ruth ... though now that you mention it, there are persuasive reports that Ruth corked his bat throughout his career. It is true that some science has shown that corking the bat does not really make any kind of difference. But ... cheating is cheating.
OK, so, make it three. The three players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...
Ty Cobb ... oh, come on, how did he get in here? Are you kidding me? We're really going to have a controversial guy like Ty Cobb who at one point in his career was charged with being involved in a gambling scandal in the WILLIE MAYS HALL OF FAME? No. We're not.
OK, so, make it two. The two players in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame are ...
Henry Aaron. He was, as the line goes, Willie Mays without having his cap fly off. Of course, he also did not play center field like Mays. And, now that you mention it, he has actually admitted using amphetamines once when they were vaguely against the rules of baseball and …
Well, it ends where it had to end. The one player in the Willie Mays Hall of Fame is ...
So, congratulations to Willie for ... what's that? Willie also may have used amphetamines? But there's no real proof and ... what's that you say? Mays was once suspended from baseball after his playing days for his involvement at a casino? And Mays was on the 1951 Giants team that, it has been proven, rigged up some sort of sign-stealing system that undoubtedly helped them come back and win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant, the Giants win the pennant? And he didn't turn himself in? He didn't turn in any of his teammates?
Ah well. Come visit the Willie Mays Baseball Hall of Fame. It is in a desk drawer in my office.