The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

The Baseball Hall of Fame Vote (Or, Rats Boarding a Sinking Ship)

Normally, when a ship is about to smash itself upon the craggy coast of, say, a nineteenth century New England village during a nor’easter, the black rats aboard would be wily enough to read the warning signs in time to jump ship and attempt to save themselves by swimming through the swells.

Not so, apparently, with the Baseball Writers of America (BBWAA), America’s last bastion of discomfiting morality.  Just as the S.S. Hall Ballot 2013 set sail, the BBWAA rats began to puncture holes in their own vessel, now listing dangerously to port-side before they’d even left port.  And more of them  continue to climb aboard,  though it should be obvious by now that their (nautical) position, (like Dave Kingman playing third base), is untenable.

How else to account for the inevitable shipwreck-of-a-ballot being buffeted around like a latter-day Pequod doing battle with the GREAT WHITE WHALE of our time, steroids?

Wait a minute.  Aren’t the writers — those sportswriters lucky enough to actually receive a ballot (in a newspaper industry, mind you, with about as much of a future as a harpooner) — simply supposed to vote for the best players of the past decade or so whose names now appear on ballot?  When did the baseball writers, an old-time boys club not to be mistaken for a boy’s choir, become the Maginot Line of virtue in our society?

Yet moralize they will once their ballots are submitted on January 9th.
Some of them will tell you it’s simply wrong to allow cheaters into The Hall of Fame even though plenty of cheaters are already in there.  They will argue that to let in a Barry Bonds or a Roger Clemens will turn the Hall’s Plaque Room into an atrocity, akin to burying Napoleon’s remains in Westminster Abbey (well, they probably won’t come up with that one, I suppose, though they’ll wish they had.)

Yet the Hall has withstood the induction of a KKK member, Tris Speaker, as well as the enshrinement of such other virulent racists as Cap Anson and Ty Cobb, to name just two of probably many.

Gaylord Perry was an admitted cheater.  He even wrote a popular book about cheating called, “Me and the Spitter.”

 Leo Durocher, while managing the Giants in ’51, had his players utilize a complex set of mirrors and a German-made telescope to steal the signs of opposing pitchers in the second half of the ’51 season, up to and including  the pennant deciding game in which Bobby Thomson probably knew what Ralph Branca was about to throw before he hit the legendary (probably tainted) home run.

Don Sutton and Whitey Ford were said by many to have regularly scuffed the ball.

And as for Performance Enhancing Drugs, “Greenies” don’t count?  Mike Schmidt and Hank Aaron were both admitted users of “Greenies” and Willie Mays probably used them as well.  “Greenies” have been specifically banned from baseball since 1971.  They might not have enabled a player to hit a ball further or to throw it harder, but they did allow the player to continue to perform at peak performance when their body otherwise might not have been able to.  That is the same purpose for which  Mark McGwire claims to have used PED’s.

Meanwhile, even if none of those reasons impress you very much or cause you to take a second look at PED use, consider this.  It’s probable that at least one or two PED users are already in The Hall.  The taint has probably already occurred.  If PED use really began to manifest itself in the Majors in the early to mid-1980’s, this means that for around twenty years now, the BBWAA has been inducting players who could conceivably have used PED’s.  Given the large number of stars who’ve now been linked to PED’s (either by leak, personal admission, or circumstantial evidence) over the past 20 years, is it inconceivable that some of their peers already in The Hall might also have been users?

Consider, as well, that the despite the “best” intentions of the BBWAA over the next decade, almost certainly at least a couple more PED users will be enshrined.  The alternative is that NO players will be enshrined, and despite the Baseball HOF’s best efforts at appearing Regal and Above the Fray on this issue, no organization will squawk louder than The Hall will when NO player is inducted into The Hall for several years running.

We’re talking big bucks on the line here for The Hall’s big, annual Induction Weekend.  No induction, no big crowds.  No big crowds, a lot less money coming into the town coffers.  (Current Hall Chairwoman Jane Forbes Clark, whose family owns just about all that is worth owning in Cooperstown, would not be happy about that.)

Finally, there is the long-term issue of the continued relevance and viability of a HOF which excludes virtually all of the significant record holders and award winners of an entire generation of players.  Consider List A and List B, for a moment:
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List A:

Tommy McCarthy
George “High Pockets” Kelly
Rick Ferrell
Lloyd Waner
Jesse Haines
Freddie Lindstrom
Chick Hafey
Herb Pennock
Jim Bottomley
Ray Schalk
Rube Marquard
Elmer Flick
Ross Youngs
Kiki Cuyler
Joe Kelley

That’s a list of 15 players who are actually in the HOF.
Now let’s take a look at List B:
Barry Bonds
Mike Piazza
Jeff Bagwell
Roger Clemens
Sammy Sosa
Larry Walker
Mark McGwire
Craig Biggio
Edgar Martinez
Tim Raines
Alan Trammell
Kenny Lofton
Curt Schilling
Fred McGriff
Lee Smith

Virtually every player on List B is better than every player on list A, yet there’s a very real chance that NONE of the players on List B will be elected this year, and that perhaps only 2 or 3 will be elected in coming years.  Granted, not all of these players suffer from the scarlet letter of Steroids.

Yet, from both a historical standpoint as well as from a perspective of pure entertainment, obviously far more fans (despite their misgivings about any particular player) would prefer to visit Hall Plaque Room B over Hall Plaque Room A.  And certainly the players on List B were both more talented and, therefore, more Hall-worthy than List A.  So, the question arises, how irrelevant do we want to allow The Hall of Fame to become?

Which players from List B (and let’s add Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, and Don Mattingly to round out our ballot) would you vote for?  Remember, you can vote for up to ten players.  Which ones would you choose not to vote for, and why?

Happy New Year,
Bill Miller
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20 thoughts on “The Baseball Hall of Fame Vote (Or, Rats Boarding a Sinking Ship)

  1. And happy new year, man!

  2. This is a tough issue for me. First of all, I agree that there are undoubtedly some undetected dopers in the Hall currently. Moreover, if I were a ballplayer trying to compete with other dudes who are using performance enhancing drugs in an apparently consequence-free environment, I imagine I probably would have used them, too.

    Having said that, there’s something about getting caught. Despite its prevalence in the culture, these things are against the rules (greenies, I understand, weren’t only against the rules–at first–but I understand they were actively encouraged; my impression is that there were few players of the era who DIDN’T take them). If people who are actually caught (and ‘caught’ itself is a sticky term–what defines it?—here I mean legally, as in Sir Bonds) aren’t punished, it makes a mockery of the rules. Even MORE of a mockery.

    Also, in defense of Tris Speaker (and I should say right up front that what follows is information I gleaned from Wikipedia a few minutes ago–I don’t want to present myself as an authority), it sounds like his involvement with the Klan was during the organization’s populist phase during the depression-era. W. Virginia’s recently-deceased favorite son Robert Byrd was also a member.

    • Your thoughts, as always, are very well considered. There’s really no “good” solution to this entire issue. What is needed is for The Hall itself to step forward and take the bull by the horns on this one. They need to send a clear message about who they find to be acceptable inductees, and who (if anyone) they would like kept out. Until that happens (and I wouldn’t hold my breath that it ever will), this confusion will reign over this debate for years to come.
      As for the Klan in the ’20’s and ’30’s, I’m pretty sure this populist phase (such an ironic term here!) saw the Klan morph from being primarily a southern, anti-black organization to being a national, anti-Catholic / anti- immigrant society.
      Lots of Mainers, where few blacks have ever lived, joined the KKK. Most of them did so out of prejudice aimed at the French-Canadians moving down into the mill-towns of Lewiston, Biddeford, Millinocket, and some of the other central Maine towns about that time.
      One thing I learned from the excellent book, “The First Fall Classic” is that there was a real cultural split on the ’12 Red Sox between the members of the team that were primarily northern Irish Catholics vs. those on the team (like Speaker and some others) who were primarily Protestants from the South. They appear to have gotten into a few fistfights with each other, even on the train taking them to the World Series vs. the Giants.
      Maybe there are no good guys in all of this, just winners and losers.
      Cheers, man.
      Bill

  3. Glen Russell Slater on said:

    Extremely well-written, Bill.

    As for who I would put in the Hall of Fame from that list that you provided, I ‘d put Trammell, Raines, and Lee Smith. Lots of people have suspicions about Piazza having taken steroids, and I’m one of them. I think he’s vastly overrated, as well.

    I would NEVER put a person proven to have taken steroids into the Hall of Fame.

    And I don’t care if Barry Bonds hit a thousand home runs. (I was a big fan of his father’s, though). Barry Bonds doesn’t belong. (Neither does McGuire, Clemens, and all the other cheaters.)

    As far as I’m concerned, Henry Aaron is still the home run champ at 755 home runs. He took greenies? So did every other athlete, from Aaron to Zisk (A to Z) during that era. It’s that’s quite a difference from steroids. If anything, greenies can only HURT an athlete’s game. (See hilarious scene from the 1977 movie, “One On One”, starring Robbie Benson, which illustrates how greenies can hurt an athlete’s game).

    Glen

  4. This is a sticky wicket. Thanks for the thoughtful post and the great discussion following.

    I think Joe Jackson and Pete Rose should be in the hall for their performance on the field.

    While I want to lash out at misanthropes like Bonds and Clemens for their steroids’ use, I figure there are other players who used but are not under a cloud of suspicion.

    In short, I’m not sure what I’d do if I had that ballot in my hand with the actual ability to influence the outcome in the BBWA (and I have friends and former colleagues who have that power).

    I’m tempted to propose some sort of deferral but I have no way of knowing how to determine who should be classified for such.

    So I guess I go back to my original point: How did they perform on the field in their own era? Steroid user, racist, gambler or snake handler, could he hit, throw, run and field?

    P.s. and let’s not go hating on Elmer Flick, OK?

    • Hi Dan, In my mind, much of the confusion surrounding this issue goes back to the question, What is the purpose of the Hall of Fame? Is it, as Bill James once said, simply a museum run by an accountant? Or is it something much more special, a place to honor (an ambiguous term in this context as well) the best of the best?
      Also, who is the HOF for? The players or the fans? If it’s for the fans, then Joe Jackson and Roger Maris, for example, should both be in their. Each of those two has thousands of dedicated fans, and baseball, when all is said and done, is still just entertainment.
      Flick really was a good player, with an OPS+ of 149 for his career, which is quite impressive. Still, Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith and Larry Walker all have a better case than he does for The Hall.
      Happy New Year, man.
      Bill

      • You’ve hit on the Hall’s central problem, the one that all other debates concerning the HOF seem to flow from–the Hall of Fame has failed to either define its mission or have some semblance of a set of criteria for induction. People debate who a Hall of Fame player is because there’s really no guideline, either formally or by the pattern of inductees, to say what a Hall of Famer is.

      • And, unfortunately, it doesn’t appear that it’s going to become clearer any time soon. If anything, this mess will just compound itself for some future generation to sort out, if they will still care enough to do so.

  5. Northern Narratives on said:

    Wow, I don’t recognize all the names on List A. I think that Bonds, Sosa, etc can get voted into the HOF and that there should be an explanation about the steriod era and the contoversy about the stats put up by these guys. It is a part of baseball history so that’s why I think it should be recorded in the hall.

    • Hi, I think you raise a good point about The Hall’s “other” role as an actual museum of baseball history. In that sense, how does a museum of baseball history not dedicate some space and time to the players who were most prominent in that era, and to the biggest issue in baseball history in fifty years?
      Thanks for the thoughtful comment, and for reading.
      Bill

  6. I understand what you’re saying here, Bill, and I could certainly vote for Bonds and Clemens if I had a ballot (and certainly Jeff Bagwell, who seems to be the victim of a wholly unsubstantiated whisper campaign), but I can see the other side of the coin, as well. There is an argument, and a somewhat compelling one at that, that Bonds and Clemens did significant damage to the game itself–not on the level of a Joe Jackson, certainly, but damage nonetheless. I can understand and (to a degree) agree with the idea that such damage is significant enough to outweigh their accomplishments. Granted, as you point out, that is a very slippery slope; the Hall has enshrined some players who were not nice people nor shining lights in terms of their character, and drawing a line between naughty and nice is a perilous one. I don’t think the Hall of Fame wants to or needs to become the Hall of Nice. To make a long story short, I’m OK if Bonds and Clemens are elected, and I’m equally OK if they stay on the outside.

    • Hello W.k., In a way, for all the (admittedly) one-sided bluster of my argument, I would feel the same way as you to a certain extent. Cheating has to be addressed somehow, doesn’t it? Yet we’ll never know exactly who all the cheaters were (and still are), so although I do understand the outrage, I’m just not sure keeping some of these guys out of The Hall is the right answer.
      I have to admit, though, that I never liked Clemens, and to the extent that personal animosity underscores some of this outrage on the part of voters (who, for example, always hated Barry Bonds even when his hat-size was considerably smaller), I would feel some satisfaction if Clemens was kept out for, say, the next 20 years.
      One other aspect of this whole situation I didn’t get to in my post is that there were so many other factors in play in the ’90’s and into the early 2000’s that could help account for the explosion of offense such as: cozier ballparks, The Incredible Shrinking Strike Zone, body armor, and, according to writer Jay Jaffe (who analyzed some studies done on this subject), perhaps an extra lively ball as well. So it’s not even particularly clear how much of an impact steroids had on the career of any particular player.
      But I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that no one makes it into the HOF this year. Then you’ll really see the sparks fly in this debate.
      Happy New Year,
      Bill

      • You make an interesting point here, Bill. There are a lot of people–and a lot of sportswriters–who didn’t like Clemens and Bonds at all; the PED issue provides them with a cover to not vote for them because they were assholes.

        I think Biggio gets in this year–the combination of 3,000 hits and scrappiness is a combination made in Heaven for the BBWAA.

      • I think Biggio is the most likely candidate as well. But given the unusually high number of highly qualified names on the ballot, and since the voters only get to vote for up to ten players, his name might be omitted from some writers who want to vote for him, but don’t have enough room on their ballots to do so. (And if no one is elected this time, that problem will only grow exponentially in years to come.) Bagwell and Piazza are two whom I’m most interested in. How far will unsubstantiated rumors of PED use continue to haunt their reputations, I wonder?
        Take care, Bill

  7. Kevin Graham on said:

    Call me Ishmael, but if I had a vote, I would not include:Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, Sosa , Palmiero or Rose….ever. I know there are a lot of players in the Hall that should probably not be there, but they’re in, and nothing should remove them.
    And if it was up to me, these guys would never get in.

    Kevin

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