Hall of Fame manifesto

Publish date:

So, the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot arrived in the mail on Tuesday ... and brilliant readers already know that this time of year makes me crazy. Here we are, back at the beginning, back with the Jack Morris and Jim Rice arguments, back wondering why more people don't see how good Alan Trammell was, back rooting for Bert Blyleven, back standing up for Tim Raines, back with the Mark McGwire hand-wringing.

Well, next post we'll run down the ballot entirely, if we can get to that. This time, I'm going to try something different -- I'm going to try and break down the Hall of Fame.*

*I've read ahead: I never should have tried.

See, the thing is, I think that as much as people TALK about the Baseball Hall of Fame, very few have a real and total grip of what it really is. I say this because ... I don't think I have a real and total grip of what it is. The Baseball Hall of Fame is a 286-inductee monstrosity with more than 70 years of triumphs, failures, trials, errors, experiments that flopped, risks that soared, political gambits and good old fashioned baseball love. It's the Hall of Fame that matters for any number of reasons, including the hard-work that people have put into it, and the fact that baseball history jumps off the page. But because it's the Hall of Fame that matters, its quirks and cracks are more visible to the public.*

*Nobody seems to know or care thatOtis Taylor is not in the Football Hall of Fame. But EVERYBODY knows Bert Blyleven is not. It's a different animal.

So, this is a Hall of Fame breakdown that will hopefully offer up a little bit better idea of what the standards have been and how the players that are in the Hall of Fame got there. Let's see where it goes ...

* * *

OK, first thing, we need to shave the Hall of Fame down so we get down to the essence: the modern Major League players who are in there. Let's get this out there: OBVIOUSLY, I am not suggesting that the non-modern Major League Players are in any way less deserving to be there. In numerous cases, I think they are far, far MORE deserving. But that's not what we're going for here. We're trying to get at the question: What's makes up a Hall of Fame baseball player? And while few are as deserving of being in the Hall as, say, Alexander Cartwright, who did more to invent baseball as we know it than anyone, well, he's not what we are targeting here.

So, we'll start cutting them down. As mentioned, there are 286 people inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. That's a huge number, and among those we have:

These include Cartwright and also Candy Cummings, who is in the Hall of Fame for inventing/discovering the curveball (inspired, the legend goes, by throwing clam shells). That's his whole case really -- he pitched for two years in the National League* and had a losing record. So it's the curveball, that's the whole story, and man to get in the Hall you would think he didn't just invent the curveball, he traveled around the country barefoot and taught it to small children like Johnny Curveball-seed or something. Trouble is, it's pretty likely that Candy Cummings DID NOT invent the curveball -- I was once working on a book about the history of the curveball (don't ask) and I did some light research on the subject, and there are probably at least a half dozen other men who have as good a claim as Cummings, and two or three who have a significantly better claim. Putting him in the Hall for inventing the curve is like putting Romy and Michele in the Inventor's Hall of Fame for dreaming up Post-It Notes. And yes, that's my obscure pop-culture reference for today.

*To be perfectly fair, Cummings did have a good year in 1865, when he won 35 games, though to put it in context Dick McBride won 44 that year and I had never heard of him.**

**McBride also managed the Philadelphia Athletics that year, which might explain why he completed 59 of the 60 games he started.

OK, so now six pioneers down, we're at 280 Hall of Famers.

Here are all your owners, your commissioners, your Tom Yawkeys, your Effa Manleys, your Bowie Kuhns. You might know, I've been doing quite a lot of research about 1975 baseball -- 09/09/09 -- and I have to tell you, I have yet to find anything good that Bowie Kuhn did for baseball. I mean ANYTHING. Every quote from the guy was like a little molotov cocktail of stupidity -- one minute he's predicting that teams are going to fold, the next minute he's talking about having a Western Division that would include teams in Hawaii, the Phillipines and Japan. One minute he's talking about assigning a team to Seattle because expansion isn't going to happen, the next minute he's fighting for his job. People will talk about the worst players in the Hall of Fame ... I have to tell you that the worst player in the Hall of Fame and the 500 players he just beat out for that spot are all INFINITELY more qualified for the Hall of Fame than Bowie Kuhn.

Now, with the executives out, we're down to 255 Hall of Famers.

If you ever want to wow 'em at a party, just say something like this: "Did you know that there are eight umpires in the Hall of Fame and not one of them has called a Major League game since 1978. So that's 30 years -- no Hall of Fame umpires.*" Oh believe me, that fact will be a hit at any party, seriously, you'll get dates galore. Trust me. And, should anyone ask -- and you know they will -- It was Hall of Famer Nestor Chylak who umpired a game in '78 at the end of a 25-year career.

*I should say that I've been semi-involved with a group trying to get my friend Steve Palermo some Hall of Fame recognition. He was a fabulous umpire by all accounts I've picked up -- a ball-and-strike savant -- and you certainly know he had his career taken from him when he was struck by a bullet and paralyzed when he tried to help strangers who were getting mugged. I'm not entirely sure what makes a Hall of Fame umpire, but Stevie's a remarkable guy and a credit to the game.

Now we're down to 247 Hall of Famers.

OK, we've finally pruned out all the people who are not in the Hall of Fame primarily (or entirely) for their playing. And we have 228 Hall of Famers. But we've still got some more cutting to do.

Everyone, i suspect, knows how much I love the Negro Leagues and how much I appreciate what the Baseball Hall of Fame has done to honor those great players who excelled on rock hard diamonds and little towns while America turned away. Everyone, in the end, must believe what they believe, but I have no doubt in my mind that Oscar Charleston, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Martin Dihigo, Cool Papa Bell, Buck Leonard and others were as great as anyone who came before or since. But the point of this exercise, again, is to get at the heart of the Hall of Fame, and realistically knowing some great Turkey Stearnes stories is fun, but doesn't help much in the process. We just don't have enough information about those players.

OK, 198 players left, and we have one more cut.

Again, this is not to knock the quality of those players, but they're not what we're talking about here. Sure, it's fascinating that Bid McPhee played without a glove, but let's just move on.

* * *

So, that's it. We are now at the juicy center of the Hall of Fame -- we are down to 174 players, all of them Major League baseball players and all of them voted into the Hall of Fame primarily for what they did after 1900.

Just for your amusement: On that list of 174, we have:

First basemen: 14

Second basemen: 16

Shortstops: 19

Third basemen: 20

Leftfielders: 14

Centerfielders: 16

Rightfielders: 19

Catchers: 13

Pitchers: 52

Designated hitter: 1

And now ... we can start categorizing. The first group on the list I call, "The Willie Mays Hall of Famers." You will appreciate that one of the things that happens anytime I suggest that, say, Alan Trammell is a Hall of Famer is that some people will angrily write in to say that I am trying to water down the Hall of Fame with mediocrity. They will inevitably say, "Alan Trammell? Come one. That's not a Hall of Famer. Willie Mays, that's a Hall of Famer. Babe Ruth. Guys like that. ..."

Well, of course, there aren't ANY OTHER guys like that -- if Willie Mays and Babe Ruth were the standard for the Hall of Fame ... the Hall of Fame would have ... Willie Mays and Babe Ruth in it. Maybe Mickey Mantle. Ty Cobb.

But I do appreciate the point ... and I'm going to say that there are exactly 52 Willie Mays Hall of Famers. That would be the number of players who, I suspect, the casual fan thinks are in the Hall of Fame. The might not be thinking about THESE 52 players, exactly, but this would be the inner circle, the slam-dunk choice, the no-doubt Hall of Famers.

I didn't just choose these 52. There are the 45 first-ballot Hall of Famers -- including Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente, who were inducted before the five-year waiting period because they died -- and then another seven I think who were not first-ballot Hall of Famers only because of timing or some odd quirk in the voting. Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Grover Cleveland "Old Pete" Alexander and Cy Young were all on the first Hall of Fame ballot and sort of had to wait for the monsters of the game to get in first. Rogers Hornsby was on the ballot three times, but there was already this sense that a player should wait until five years after he retired -- five years after Hornsby retired he was voted in. Lefty Grove was on the ballot during World War II which held him up. And the Joe DiMaggio Hall of Fame balloting was a mess they put him on the ballot just two years after he retired, nobody was quite ready for him, it didn't go the way anyone wanted.

So your 52 Willie Mays Hall of Famers are (the non-first ballot Hall of Famers are in italics):

1B (3): Lou Gehrig; Eddie Murray; Willie McCovey.

2B (5): Rod Carew; Joe Morgan; Jackie Robinson; Rogers Hornsby; Nap Lajoie.

SS (5): Cal Ripken; Honus Wagner; Ozzie Smith; Ernie Banks; Robin Yount.

3B (4): George Brett; Mike Schmidt; Wade Boggs; Brooks Robinson.

RF (8): Hank Aaron; Tony Gwynn; Babe Ruth; Reggie Jackson; Roberto Clemente; Frank Robinson; Al Kaline; Dave Winfield.

CF (6): Ty Cobb; Willie Mays; Mickey Mantle; Kirby Puckett; Tris Speaker; Joe DiMaggio.

LF (5): Carl Yastrzemski; Ted Williams; Stan Musial; Willie Stargell; Lou Brock.

C (1): Johnny Bench.

DH (1): Paul Molitor.

RHP (10): Tom Seaver; Nolan Ryan; Bob Feller; Jim Palmer; Christy Mathewson; Bob Gibson; Walter Johnson; Dennis Eckersley; Pete Alexander; Cy Young.*

LHP (4): Steve Carlton; Sandy Koufax; Warren Spahn; Lefty Grove.

*Think about this again: In the history of baseball only eight right-handed pitchers have been elected first ballot into the Hall of Fame and ... Dennis Eckersley is one of them? Really? How did he get elected first ballot? In retrospect Kirby Puckett looks out of place too.

* * *

So that leaves us with 122 players who were not automatic, slam-dunk, no doubt Willie Mays type choices. Of these:

54 were voted in by the Baseball Writers Association

68 were voted in by the Veteran's Committee

So, let's break 'em down.

* * *

First, the baseball writer's choices, and for those I'll break them down by number of years it took for the writers to vote them in:

Yogi Berra, Rollie Fingers, Carlton Fisk, Whitey Ford.

It seems impossible to me that Yogi Berra did not get inducted in his first year. In many ways, that baffles me more than any voting quirk in Hall of Fame history. Here you have: Beloved figure, New York Yankee, dominant player, three-time MVP, veteran of 18 All-Star games, World Series titan, had to be viewed then (as he is often viewed now) as the greatest catcher in the history of Major League Baseball or CERTAINLY right there in the photograph.

And what's even stranger is Berra did get the MOST votes for anyone in the 1971 election ... he just didn't get enough. He got 242 of 360 votes -- and he wasn't even that close, it was 67.2% of the vote and left him 28 votes short of induction. I went back to the papers of the time to see if there could be any explanation for Berra not getting in. There were none. Yogi was Yogi. "Well," he said. "DiMag didn't get in his first year either." There was actually some worry that Berra would struggle again in '72 because Sandy Koufax was added to the ballot. But in fact the next year, Berras got almost a hundred more votes, pulled down an 85.6% (about 1 percent less than Koufax). I don't know. Something really weird happened in '71.

Carl Hubbell, Catfish Hunter, Fergie Jenkins, Willie Keeler, Juan Marichal, Mel Ott, Gaylord Perry, Ryne Sandberg.

Man, the voters just loved Catfish Hunter. He's generally regarded as one of the weaker Baseball Writers choices ever -- one of the weaker pitchers in the Hall of Fame. That 104 ERA+ just SCREAMS out at you. Of course, the writers didn't have ERA+ back in 1987 and even if they did I suspect most of them wouldn't have used it -- something about Catfish, his aura, his nickname, his quick moving games, something spoke to them. I like what Bill James wrote about him: Yankees owner George Steinbrenner had said that Catfish brought respectability back to the Yankees, even though he only had one good year for them -- and in that one good year, the Yankees lost six more games than they had the year before. "He was Catfish," Bill wrote. "The Yankees were glad to have him anyway."

Eddie Collins, Harmon Killebrew, Robin Roberts, George Sisler, Early Wynn.

Wynn was actually on the remarkable 1971 Yogi ballot. That was his third time on the ballot, and unlike Yogi he did not handle the disappointment well or privately. "It's a damn shame," he grumbled to reporters. The weird thing is, the next year -- even with Koufax added to the ballot -- he, like, Yogi got enough votes for induction.

Robin Roberts, I must always say when his name comes up, is an extremely nice man and undoubtedly the only Hall of Famer to ever call me up cold and ask me to give him a tour of a museum (he said, "Hi, my name is Robin Roberts. I'm a former baseball player ...")

Roy Campanella, Frankie Frisch, Eddie Mathews, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Paul Waner.

Luis Aparicio, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Jimmie Foxx, Charlie Gehringer, Billy Williams.

Great catchers have just had a very hard time getting into the Hall of Fame. Johnny Bench remains the only first-ballot Hall of Fame catcher ever, and while I do believe that Bench is the greatest all-around catcher in baseball history -- 09/09/09 -- I think Berra certainly has a counter-claim, and I think that Carlton Fisk, Gary Carter, Roy Campanella, Mickey Cochrane -- these guys were only slightly lesser gems, and not one of them went first ballot. I suspect Mike Piazza will go first ballot; Pudge Rodriguez certainly will.

Pie Traynor

Luke Appling; Hank Greenberg; Joe Medwick; Herb Pennock, Al Simmons; Hoyt Wilhelm.

I should say here that the early years of voting were so baffling and such a free-for-all that some of these years-on-the-ballot totals are a bit misleading. For instance, Ducky Medwick appeared on one ballot in 1948, his last year as a player. So, really, he was on nine ballots, but do you count that one? He did not appear again on the ballot until 1956. And he did not get elected until 1968 -- twenty years after he had retired. Many of the players of his era had similarly strange routes to 75% and the Hall.

Lou Boudreau; Bill Dickey; Goose Gossage; Ted Lyons; Tony Perez.

Joe Cronin; Dizzy Dean; Don Drysdale.

We are now getting into some of the more controversial Hall of Fame choices -- and it only figures. These players who have been on the ballot eight, nine, ten years and more ... I've never fully understood the phenomenon. Don Drysdale hovered between 50 and 65% for seven years, going back and forth, and then suddenly in '84 seventy more voters decided all at once that ... what, he had waited long enough? His career looked better from the distance? More people came to know him as the affable announcer and that helped his cause? I don't know. But it's a common story, told over and over again in the late years of Hall of Fame voting.

Gabby Hartnett; Harry Heilmann; Duke Snider.

I know that it has been written about over and over and over again in books and poems and songs and magazine odes and whatever else ... but think about a time in New York when they had these three centerfielders playing for three teams: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle and Duke Snider. It's no wonder people from New York cannot stop talking about that time ... it's absolutely extraordinary. And I have to believe that's the reason the Duke had to wait 11 years for induction. He is, I suspect, one of the seven best centerfielders in baseball history, but he was clearly third best in his own city while he played. He did not even break 50% in the voting until 1977, well after Boys of Summer had glorified him and his team.

Bob Lemon

Ralph Kiner; Bruce Sutter; Bill Terry.

Can't let a chance go by: Sutter won the '79 Cy Young, (though it could have gone to J.R. Richard who threw about three times as many innings and struck out 313). Dan Quisenberry lost the '82 and '83 Cy Young Awards to inferior starting pitchers. Sutter had only one good year in his last four, but because of his situation he picked up 85 late-career saves. Quiz pitched as well or, often, better than Sutter his last four years, but because of his situation only picked up 27 late-career saves. Sutter played a role in popularizing the split-fingered fastball, I guess. Quiz just said lots of funny and wise things.

After years of study, these three differences seem to be the reason why Bruce Sutter stayed on the ballot for 13 years and was eventually inducted into the Hall of Fame while Quiz stayed on the ballot for one year, picking up only 18 votes (3.8%). It's one of the quirks of the Hall of Fame voting and a real shame. The voters simply fell asleep on Dan Quisenberry, who was every bit the pitcher that Sutter was and maybe a touch better. Now it's too late to fix it. Maybe the new Veteran's Committee will revisit.

Rabbit Maranville

Red Ruffing, Dazzy Vance

Red Ruffing was a guy that Bob Feller pushed hard for the Hall of Fame ... and it seems he made a difference. Up until 1962, Ruffing had only once gotten half the votes, and most of the time he was way below 50%. then Feller wrote in an article that Ruffing deserved to go to the Hall of Fame, and in '64 Ruffing got 70.1% of the vote. His 3.80 ERA suggests he was a fairly weak choice, though Bill James did rank him the 51st best pitcher in baseball history back in the New Historical Baseball Abstract ... I guess it depends if you think there should be 51 pitchers in the Hall of Fame.

Vance probably deserved to go earlier but he only had 197 career victories. His 1924 season, when he went 28-6 with a 2.16 ERA and had 127 more strikeouts than any other pitcher in the league is one of the all-time great seasons and he might have been even better in 1928 (and maybe even in 1930). He led the league in strikeouts six other times, ERA twice more, shutouts four times. He was a truly dominant pitcher who had to wait forever because he just didn't have enough wins.

OK, whew, so now we're left with the most controversial 68 in the Hall ... the 68 players selected by the Veteran's Committee. Truth is, the Vet's Committee righted quite a few wrongs and did quite a few good things. They also inducted Jesse Haines. I'm breaking these up by position and by the Bill James Historical Abstract ranking, which might give us a decent idea about the Veteran's choices.

Johnny Mize (6th); Orlando Cepeda (17th); Frank Chance (25th); Jim Bottomley (36th); George Kelly (65th).

Mize was a pretty clear miss by the Baseball Writers ... I think he's among the most underrated players in baseball history. Look, he led the league in runs created and extra base hits in '38; he led the league in hitting in '39; he was almost certainly the best player in the league in '40 (led the league in homers, RBIs, OPS+, runs created, total bases, you name it); he had a slightly down year in '41 but still had a 156 OPS+ and led the league in doubles; he was back to leading the league in slugging percentage in 1942. So that's five straight years when he led the league in something major. He was almost certainly the best player in the National League over those five season. Then ... he went to war for three years. He only played in 101 games in '46, the year he came back, but he was a dominant force -- he hit .337/.437/.576. And then he hit 51 homers in 1947 and was probably the league's best player again. He hit 40 more homers in 1948 when Musial had his monster year. Then, at the end of his career, Mize played part time for Casey Stengel's Yankees and was part of five World Series winners in a row. Seems like a pretty clear Hall of Fame career to me.

Billy Herman (14); Nellie Fox (15); Bobby Doerr (18); Tony Lazzeri (19); Johnny Evers (25); Red Schoendienst (28); Bill Mazeroski (29).

Mazeroski, of course, is the man who sort of became the symbol for Veteran's Committee cronyism -- the committee was broken up the year after he was elected. I've never been quite sure that's fair. I mean, Maz was probably the best defensive second baseman in baseball history. I'm a Frank White man myself, but there were undoubtedly defensive things Maz could do better than anyone ever (like turn the double play). Point is: Is it really so tragic to have the greatest defensive second baseman ever in the Hall of Fame even if he didn't hit all that well? I'm just asking. And he did hit a pretty important World Series homer ...

Arky Vaughan (2); Pee Wee Reese (10); George Davis (14); Phil Rizzuto (16); Hughie Jennings (18); Joe Sewell (23); Dave Bancroft (28); Joe Tinker (33); Bobby Wallace (36); Travis Jackson (40).

The Baseball Writers did not exactly cover themselves in glory by missing Arky Vaughan and Pee Wee Reese in my opinion. Vaughan was an especially awful miss -- he never got more than 29% of the voting despite being a dominant presence (from 1932-41 he punched up a .415 on-base percentage and a 141 OPS+, and he was a good to excellent defensive shortstop) until his career was shut down by World War II. Reese was a good offensive player (he walked a lot), a great defensive player and the core for the Boys of Summer. I'm just not sure why the writers missed him.

So the Veteran's Committee really did make the Hall of Fame a LOT better. On the other hand, they put in Tinker, Evers AND Chance, so you'd have to call it a mixed result.

Home Run Baker (5); Jimmy Collins (17); George Kell (30); Freddie Lindstrom (43).

A mixed bag again. Home Run Baker had been a major oversight but they put in "Better than" Freddie Lindstrom. I'm sure you know how that nickname words. Let's say you are a huge Matt Williams fan and would like to see him go to the Hall of Fame. You probably don't have a great case. But, you can always say this: "He was better than Freddie Lindstrom."

Sam Crawford (10); Enos Slaughter (12); Elmer Flick (23); Sam Rice (33); Kiki Cuyler (39); Chuck Klein (40); Harry Hooper (43); Ross Youngs (46).

What percentage of baseball fans out there would know that Ross Youngs is in the Hall of Fame? What percentage of baseball fans could NAME Ross Youngs? It can't be 5%, right?

Larry Doby (11); Earl Averill (14); Edd Roush (15); Richie Asburn (16); Hack Wilson (19); Max Carey (23); Earle Combs (34); Lloyd Waner (50).

In a way you almost have to admire the utterly cold, callous and unsentimental way the BBWAA has voted when it comes to certain important things. They gave Larry Doby seven votes in 1966, 10 votes in 1967. And that's it. First black player in the American League. He was a seven time All-Star, two -time home run champ, one-time RBI king, brilliant defensive center fielder -- I mean, he was a legitimately outstanding baseball player. And, again, he was the first black player in the American League, which it should be pointed out was the MUCH more racist league. It wasn't until the mid-50s that the Yankees added their first black player and it wasn't until 1958 that Detroit added its first black player, 1959 that the Red Sox added their first black player -- this was the environment Larry Doby had to thrive in. And he did thrive. He was the first black All-Star in the league (1949, same year as Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella). He was the first black man to START an All-Star game in the league (1950, cracked two hits, including a double). He was a truly great player and an inspiring figure.

Seven votes in 1966. Ten votes in 1967.

Goose Goslin (16); Fred Clarke (22); Zack Wheat (23); Heinie Manush (30); Chick Hafey (59).

Heinie Manush has always been one of my favorite names. Fred Clarke is also in because of his managing talents. Chick Hafey is another candidate for worst player in the Hall of Fame -- he did lead the National League in slugging in 1927 and in batting average in 1931.

Ed Walsh (19); Three Finger Brown (20); Jim Bunning (30); Eddie Plank (34); Hal Newhouser (36); Joe McGinnity (41); Rube Waddell (53); Red Faber (56); Burleigh Grimes (62); Eppa Rixey (75); Waite Hoyte (78); Addie Joss (80); Vic Willis (84); Chief Bender (NR); Stan Coveleski (NR); Jesse Haines (NR): Rube Marquard (NR).

Not sure how the writers missed Three Finger Brown, who was an utterly dominant deadball era force (26-6, 1.04 ERA in 1906 stands out, but he had four or five other seasons only slightly below). Eddie Plank was a pretty dreadul miss too, as was in my opinion Hal Newhouser, who seemingly just got ignored because he'd been so dominant during World War II with the stars away (though he proved in '46, when the stars returned, that he was just pretty darned good). But the bulk of the Veteran's Committee pitching choices are pretty suspect.

And, whew, we are through the Hall of Fame. What did we learn from this 4,800 word extravaganza? I think it's pretty clear: We learned that the Hall of Fame is anything you want it to be ... there's a case to be made for almost anybody. More, though, I think we learned to never again attempt to start blog posts while on serious medication.