The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Creating a Hall of Fame Mythology

On Wednesday of this week, the results of this year’s Hall of Fame balloting by the Baseball Writers of America (BBWA) will be announced.  No matter what the results turn out to be, lots of people will complain loudly about who did or did not make it into baseball’s Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 2010.

And they will all be right.

The problem, of course, is that there are no objective standards by which any player can be evaluated as to whether or not they are a true HOF’er.  The bigger problem, though, is that there can NEVER BE any objective standards to determine baseball’s most fundamental question.

Here’s why.

You want to argue that a player should have 3,000 hits to be a HOF’er?  Fine, then we need to remove Ted Williams, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx from The Hall.

How about 500 home runs?  Obviously, you can eliminate the majority of hitters in The Hall, especially all those pesky middle infielders.  How about 400 homers? Well, now you have added Dave Kingman to the Hall of Fame, but you have eliminated Rickey Henderson, Yogi Berra, George Brett and Charlie Gehringer.

How about a .3oo career batting average?  Oooh, don’t go there.  Not only will you eliminate many fan favorites (Cal Ripkin, Ernie Banks, Willie McCovey), but don’t you know that batting average is no longer a cool stat?  These days, it’s all about On-Base Percentage.  Batting average is so 1977.

Well, how about the currently most-cool stat, OPS (On-Base plus Slugging Percentage)?  Let’s set the base-line at, say, .875.  Now you’ve eliminated Wade Boggs, Roy Campanella and, uhm, Honus Wagner.  But, hey, you’ve added Tim Salmon, David Justice and Kevin Mitchell.

O.K., let’s forget about hitters for a second and focus on pitchers.  Can’t we agree that 300 wins is the magic number?  Well, yes, if you combine Sandy Koufax with Addie Joss, you get 320 wins.

Uhm, how about 3,000 strike-outs? But if strike-outs are an extremely important counting stat, then Nolan Ryan was twice as good as Christy Mathewson, right? (2,502  K’s to 5, 715  K’s).  Except that, of course, he wasn’t.  Actually, you would have to eliminate all but nine pitchers from The Hall, including Cy Young.

Then, dammit, let’s use a cold, hard stat like Batting Average Against, because if a guy was extremely hard to hit, then he was probably a HOF’er.

Except that now you have just inducted former Mets pitcher Sid Fernandez into The Hall, since El Sid had the 3rd best BA Against in MLB history, behind only Nolan Ryan and Sandy Koufax.

Sure, if you try hard enough, you might be able to come up with some kind of Gordian Knot of a statistical system, perhaps even a matrix of purely objective data, tabulated by a computer hidden deep in a bunker under Cooperstown, that could identify HOF’ers in under a minute.

The problem is, however, that identifying who is or is not a HOF’er is, at its root, an emotional question that revolves around the subjective memories of people who grew up cheering for, even worshiping, their hometown hero.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

Anyone who has spent time arguing with a Mariners fan about whether or not Edgar Martinez is truly worthy of induction into the HOF will come to understand that these arguments are not primarily based on objective data analysis, although that will appear to be the primary mode of argument.

As I stated in my first blog post, baseball is all about memory.  And baseball’s two essential questions are: 1) Who deserves to be remembered and 2) How do they deserve to be remembered.

The magic of baseball is that this is where history and mythology intertwine, creating memories cherished from one generation to another.

And the Hall of Fame is the one place in baseball where everyone comes together to pay their dutiful respect to America’s greatest game.

The induction of Alan Trammel will not undermine the integrity of this institution.  Nor will The Hall be tarnished if Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, Edgar Martinez or Bert Blyleven are called up to the podium to make the speech of a lifetime.

The Hall of Fame has long since evolved into an institution somewhat like the Union Army during the Civil War;  designate enough men to be generals, and some of them are bound to work out.

The Hall of Fame voting process is, then, a kind of archaic caucus system, an irrationally democratic institution uniquely American in its vulgar imperfections, even as it strives to create an air of nobility.

Thus the Hall of Fame itself, and the electoral process currently in use to designate future HOF’ers, is a satisfactory representation of America at this time and place in our history.

So, once the final ballots are announced for the Class of 2010 this Wednesday, let the arguments begin.  Because through baseball, we are adding to the rich tradition of creating our own unique American mythology.

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