Pre-Integration Era vote again shows flaws in Hall of Fame's process
NASHVILLE—For the second year in a row, a Hall of Fame era-based committee has pitched a shutout. But that's not the biggest problem with the Pre-Integration Committee, whose 10 candidates failed to garner the necessary 75% of the vote from its 16-member panel, which voted on Sunday. Once again, it's abundantly clear that it's yet again time to overhaul the process by which candidates outside the purview of the BBWAA—which only votes on recently retired players—are chosen.
The results of the vote were announced at the winter meetings in Nashville on Monday morning and concerned 10 candidates, all of whose primary contributions to the game came before 1946 and all of whom are now deceased—all but one of them died before '92. Of that group, pioneer Doc Adams—whose credentials include the creation of the shortstop position, the standardization of the 90-foot distance between bases and the advocacy for the fly rule (balls caught on one bounce could no longer produce outs)—came closest with 10 votes, two short of election. Bill Dahlen, a standout turn-of-the-century shortstop, and Harry Stovey, a 19th-century slugger who set single-season and all-time home run records, each received eight votes. The totals for the other candidates were not released; instead, the Hall announced that pitchers Wes Ferrell and Bucky Walters, first baseman Frank McCormick, shortstop Marty Marion, owners Sam Breadon and Chis von der Ahe, and executive August “Garry” Herrmann "received three or fewer votes each."
"The discussions yesterday of the 10 candidates were extensive, they were forthright, and each candidate was given a most thorough review by members of this committee," said Hall of Fame Chairman of the Board Jane Forbes Clark, who served as the non-voting committee chair. "Unfortunately, no one received those necessary 12 votes.… The results of this committee's work and their voting are a reminder that Hall of Fame election remains the highest and most difficult honor to attain in baseball."
The era-based committees were created back in 2010, when the Hall split the Veterans Committee—which had been expanded to include living Hall of Famers as well as writers and broadcasters honored by the institution—into three, to be voted upon on a triennial basis. The 2012 Golden Era Committee, covering candidates whose primary contributions occurred between 1947 and '72, elected Ron Santo. The 2013 Pre-Integration Committee elected umpire Hank O'Day, owner Jacob Ruppert and third baseman Deacon White. The 2014 Expansion Era Committee, covering 1973 onward (except for players with BBWAA eligibility remaining), tabbed managers Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre but bypassed the player-candidates, as well as union head Marvin Miller. No one was elected from the 2015 Golden Era Committee slate, with Dick Allen and Tony Oliva each falling one vote short.
The lack of living candidates on the Pre-Integration Committee ballot makes this outcome less disappointing than last year's, if only because the majority of those candidates were still alive to receive the bad news. Individually, each Pre-Integration candidate has his merits and flaws. As I evaluated them at length last week, for these purposes, it will suffice to say that with the exception of Dahlen, the aforementioned players generally had shorter careers than the vast majority of those already enshrined due to the 19th century's shorter schedules or played in leagues perceived as relatively weak; that devalues their accomplishments to some extent. Meanwhile, the non-players' contributions have often been blurred by their associations with other historical figures; for example, some of the changes that Adams solidified or introduced have been credited to Alexander Cartwright, while those of Breadon bear the substantial imprint of already-enshrined general manager Branch Rickey, who created the modern farm system during his run with the Cardinals.
Beyond that, the era has already been picked over numerous times by both the Veterans Committee and the BBWAA, with the best candidates (and some who were far from the best) enshrined, but the most glaring problem is its demarcation. "Pre-Integration" is a rather Orwellian euphemism for the shameful period of segregation, which didn't end until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947. You might reasonably expect that candidates barred from participation in the major leagues by their skin color would at least receive consideration in this format, but that's not the case.
"When we had our last Negro Leagues election in 2006, it was a special election which resulted in 16 [actually 17] members from the Negro Leagues community being elected," said Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, referring to the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues. "At that time, we indicated that the books were closed on the Negro Leagues pending more information that came forth from the research community." That was in response to my question as to why Negro Leagues candidates were not considered on either this ballot or the 2013 one. "That's something that we addressed 10 years ago, so it's not unusual that they're not part of this slate."
At a time when Major League Baseball is justifiably coming under fire for its lack of diversity among managers and general managers, that's a troublesome answer. Given that the majors were closed to such players for too long, at the very least, it's unseemly to prevent them from consideration in this context alongside their historical contemporaries, most of whom have already had numerous chances to attain the game's "highest and most difficult honor."
Note that no candidate of color who slipped through the cracks of the BBWAA's imperfect process has been voted in since 1999, when Orlando Cepeda was elected by the Veterans Committee; Negro Leaguers Turkey Stearnes and Hilton Smith were elected by the VC in 2000 and '01, respectively. Allen and Oliva came close, and both former stars, now well into their 70s, may live long enough to receive the honor when the committee votes again in 2017. Minnie Minoso, who fell four votes short in 2015 and who was denied by the '06 committee as well, did not. When he died in March, well past his 90th birthday, historian Adrian Burgos Jr. (an expert in Latino baseball history) wrote that the 2006 committee (on which he served) was prevented from considering the totality of his contributions in that context:
Minoso’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame, as much as his candidacy, has always been hampered by arcane rules established by the Hall’s Board of Directors and the Baseball Writers' Association of America’s missteps in considering his case decades ago.… The Hall of Fame has long enforced its rule that individuals could only be considered for the Hall of Fame as either a player in the major leagues or in Negro Leagues, an umpire or team/league executive. This has meant that Miñoso would either be considered as a Negro Leaguer or as a major leaguer, but voters could not take into consideration what he accomplished in the other circuit in casting one’s vote.
Burgos also cited Don Newcombe as similarly victimized by the rule. Newcombe pitched in the Negro Leagues, then, like Minoso, was forced to spend time in the minors after Robinson broke in before being brought to the majors, where he starred with the Dodgers starting in 1949; he lost '52 and '53, his age-26 and -27 seasons, to military service. Buck O'Neil—easily the most popular candidate on the Special Committee's slate, though not the strongest—also fell short because his unique combination of contributions in both the Negro Leagues and the majors could not be considered as a whole.
While many have suggested the abolition of the various VC-like processes, the Hall of Fame will always need to consider candidates beyond those who come in front of the BBWAA, which only votes on players who have been out of the majors from between five and 15 years prior (previously 20, and before that 25 or 30). Managers, executives, umpires and pioneers have no other route to election. The game will continue to produce worthy candidates in the first three of those categories, and as official MLB historian John Thorn's work regarding Adams has shown, researchers may yet make a strong case for the occasional pioneer as well.
Grouping the candidates by era is a reasonable approach; as Idelson told me, you can't reasonably compare Cito Gaston to John McGraw (to use a hypothetical he offered). But for the process to be viewed with pride by the institution, the industry and the game's fans, it has to be reformed. There's simply no good reason not to incorporate Negro Leagues and even pre-Negro Leagues black players back into the process. Bud Fowler, who played organized baseball in the 1870s and 1880s before the so-called "gentlemens agreement" established the color line in 1887, is one whom Thorn and others have cited as worthy of induction, and the candidacies of Negro Leagues stars such as Spottswood Poles and Quincy Trouppe can certainly bear additional looks, just as Ferrell, Marion and Breadon have received. Beyond that, it makes far more sense to evaluate candidates who crossed into the majors in the early days of the game's integration on the basis of their contributions as a whole, and to find a schedule that strikes a balance between "closed books" and a triennial slog to nowhere.
The Hall has been down this road before. The expanded VC didn't elect a single new member in 2003, '05 or '07, after which it was retooled again. From 2008 to '10, the "new new VC" tabbed three managers (Billy Southworth, Dick Williams, and Whitey Herzog), three executives (Barney Dreyfuss, Bowie Kuhn, and Walter O'Malley) and one umpire (Doug Harvey) but just one player (Joe Gordon) via smaller panels appointed by the board, not via the larger body. Gordon fell into the category of pre-1943 players, separate from those whose careers began after that year.
Whether it's World War II or the game's 1960 expansion or another date, better lines can be drawn than yet another one that pokes at baseball's sorest spot, and a better process can be implemented that honors players who have been overlooked. Clark, Idelson and Hall's board have the power to fix this, and they most certainly should.