The Baseball Hall of Fame: A Qualitative Analysis, Part 1
Many times over the past couple of weeks I’ve read the following comment regarding a player that someone doesn’t think should be inducted into the Hall of Fame:
“If he is elected, it will lower the standards of the Hall of Fame.”
Or, alternatively, “The Hall used to have very high standards, but they’ve been watered down over the years.”
I know you’ve heard or read these comments as well. Perhaps you’ve even uttered them.
I decided to take a look back at HOF elections going all the way back to the first one in 1936 to see if there really was a Golden Age when only the best of the best were inducted, and where the proverbial train went off the rails.
I didn’t have to search very far.
What follows is Part 1 of a multi-part series analyzing the year-by-year inductees (MLB players only) to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame, gratuitous commentary included. (BBWAA: Elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America; VC: Elected by the Veterans Committee):
1936 — BBWAA: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner.
So far, so good. Eleven writers left Ruth off their ballots, perhaps out of concern that his induction would “water down The Hall.”
1937 — BBWAA: Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker, Cy Young
Nice to see Cy Young just barely squeak in with 76% of the vote in his second year on the ballot.
1938 — BBWAA: Grover Cleveland Alexander
Career WAR of 104.9 is fifth best all-time for pitchers. Poor bastard suffered from epilepsy, shell-shock from WWI, and alcoholism. But boy, could he pitch. His 90 career shutouts are still the N.L. record.
1939 — BBWAA: Eddie Collins, Lou Gehrig, Willie Keeler, George Sisler. VC: Cap Anson, Candy Cummings, Buck Ewing, Hoss Radbourn
Keeler was a career .341 hitter, but a career WAR of 60.8 ties him with Buddy Bell for 103rd place among position players. Not a slam dunk.
Sisler hit over .400 twice, and set single-season hit record (257) later broken by Ichiro. A.L. MVP 1922. Yet career OPS+ 124 is the same as Sixto Lezcano and Bobby Bonilla. Career WAR of 50.4 is just 168th all-time.
Old Hoss Radbourne tossed 678 innings in 1884. Ouch.
Cummings pitched six years in the 1870’s, and allegedly invented the curveball. So is 1939 the year the HOF begins to lose its way? Much worse is on the way.
1942 — BBWAA: Rogers Hornsby.
The only player elected during the five years of the WWII era. The nation must have been rationing HOF votes along with everything else.
1945 — VC: Roger Bresnahan, Dan Brouthers, Fred Clarke, Jimmy Collins, Ed Delahanty, Hugh Jennings, King Kelly, Jim O’Rourke
Just nine years after The Hall’s initial Mount Rushmore election, the Veteran’s Committee apparently
got drunk and elected every 19th century Irish ball player they could think of. Maybe they were celebrating the end of WWII.
Bresnahan invented shin-guards, which is nice, but career WAR of 41.6 is pretty low. Brouthers and Delahanty definitely belong in The Hall.
Clarke is borderline, as is Jimmy Collins (a great defensive third-sacker.) Collins accumulated 1,999 hits. You would think he would have found a way to get just one more hit.
King Kelly was a legend in his own time. How do you objectively assess a legend? You don’t. We simply don’t abide his kind these days.
Hughie Jennings is interesting. He led his league in WAR four straight seasons (1895-98), which is pretty damned impressive. He accumulated 35.3 WAR in just those four years. But that represents fully 76% of his entire career value (46.4). So, do you prefer a player with a high peak, or a player who plays reasonably well over a long period of time?
Jim O’Rourke is one of my favorite players in The Hall because he hails from my hometown of Bridgeport, CT, and because he was known as Orator Jim. It was said of him, “Words of great length and thunderous sound simply flowed out of his mouth.” That is my all-time favorite quote about a ball player. If there is an orator’s HOF somewhere, he should be in it. As for the baseball HOF, well, perhaps not.
So by my count, the class of 1945 includes two definite HOF’ers, four borderline inductees, one poor choice, and King Kelly.
Tinkers to Evers to Chance wasn’t great poetry, and it wasn’t a great day for The Hall. Tinker was an excellent defensive shortstop but a poor hitter who doesn’t belong in The Hall. Evers won the 1914 MVP award, but also doesn’t belong. Chance was the best hitter of the three, had a short peak, and finished with less than 50 career WAR.
At age 30, in 1904, Jack Chesbro started 51 games for the N.Y. Highlanders, won a Major League record 41 of them, pitched 454 innings, and posted a WAR of 8.8. Also reached 20 wins four other times. But he won fewer than 200 games in his career, and his career WAR is less than 40. If he is in on the strength of one huge season and a few good ones, then a case can be made that Roger Maris also belongs in The Hall.
Jesse Burkett, one of the great hitters of the late 19th-early 20th centuries, belongs in The Hall, as does Gettysburg Eddie (326 wins) Plank.
Though he pitched just seven full seasons, Fordham University’s Ed Walsh won 40 games for the ’08 White Sox, and his career ERA of 1.82 is the lowest in MLB history. So you gotta give him a nudge into The Hall as well. Rube Waddell was one of the strangest, and one of the greatest, pitchers of all-time. He led the A.L. in strikeouts six consecutive years, but would go chase a passing fire truck in the middle of a game.
1947 — BBWAA: Mickey Cochrane, Frankie Frisch, Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell.
With the Old-Timers Gang out of town, the BBWAA reasserts itself with some classy picks.
1948 — BBWAA: Herb Pennock, Pie Traynor.
Pennock was a very poor choice; a case can be made that Pie Traynor belongs in the HOF, but not a very strong one.
1949 — BBWAA: Charlie Gehringer. VC: Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Kid Nichols.
Each of these three are fine choices. Gehringer was one of the all-time great second basemen. Brown and Nichols were among the very best pitchers in their respective eras.
Of the first 45 players elected to the Hall of Fame up to this point, approximately 28 were excellent choices, six were poor choices, and the other 11 were borderline or questionable picks. That means fully 38% if the picks were not of the highest quality.
That brings us up to the 1950’s, which I will tackle in Part 2 of this series. As you shall see, the questionable inductees continue unabated.
- Dear BBWAA: please lower your Hall of Fame voting standards (hardballtalk.nbcsports.com)
- Murray Chass’s Hall Of Fame Vote Is Based Partly On His Dinner Plans [Baseball Hall Of Fame] (deadspin.com)