In Defense of the Hall of Fame
[Editor's Note: As always, the views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Baseball Analysts and/or its writers.]
Over the holidays, I spent a lot of time poring over issues of The Sporting News from the 1960s. Typically distracted by stories that have nothing to do with my task, I came across many discussions about who should be in the Hall of Fame. This was 45 years ago, so the articles were about guys like Sam Rice, George Kelly, Elmer Flick, or Jim Bottomley, written by Shirley Povich, Fred Lieb, Lee Allen, or Taylor Spink, with testimony from Branch Rickey, Joe McCarthy, or Casey Stengel, old men who knew a thing or two about talent. There were stories like this every off-season, largely anecdotal, well-written, and fascinating. My reading has been like a refresher course in early 20th century baseball.
What was missing from these newspapers were all of the “No” votes. Back in the day, a writer would pull out his typewriter to support some old ballplayer, but there were no stories about why someone was overrated or unqualified. Had baseball blogs existed in 1962, some modern expert could have lectured Povich about Sam Rice’s WARP score, or blasted Rickey for his silly misevaluation of George Kelly. But we missed out on all of that good fun, and eventually all these guys, and others like them, got in.
The argument for George Kelly, as I recall it, went something like this: starred on offense and defense for the only National League team ever to win four consecutive pennants (still true), won multiple HR and RBI titles, credited by John McGraw with getting more important hits than any man who ever played for him, and had a cool nickname (“Highpockets”). Using the standards of the time, that’s a decent argument. Not perfect, insufficient even, but not a bad resume. Kelly was a fine player.
There are very few people around anymore who think George Kelly should be in the Hall of Fame (Bill James has suggested he is the worst player in the Hall), though there are also few people around who know anything about him—what teams he played for, his impact on those teams, what his great manager thought of him, how he played the game. All we know about him, or think we know about him, is how good his statistics were. Not good enough, apparently.
I am not suggesting that George Kelly “deserves” his plaque—whatever that means. Rather, I am saying that the man and his accomplishments and his stories have been buried by the avalanche of his Hall of Fame case. The memories and opinions of Fred Lieb and Branch Rickey have been replaced with … what exactly? Is there anyone out there that has anything to say about any of these players besides their statistics? Forget George Kelly, does anyone have any colorful stories about Bert Blyleven or Andre Dawson to help me get through the winter? Even Joe Posnanski, one of our best bloggers, has felt a need to serve up endless “How Good Was He?” columns this winter. Say it ain’t so, Joe.
Having read dozens of Hall of Fame arguments on the web in the past few weeks, by good people, some of them my friends, I find several problems with them in the main. Walking timidly into the lion’s den, let me summarize.
Recently there has been some debate on various internet sites, including this one, about who deserves to vote in Hall of Fame elections. Let me tell you what I think. If I were in charge of the process, I would require that all voters understand what the Hall of Fame actually is before gaining the privilege. I would make every voter take a history test. There are 200 members of the Hall of Fame who were chosen based on their play in the major leagues, and I would expect each of the voters to understand (at the very least) the careers and qualifications of all of those men—the highlights, great moments, opinions of contemporaries.
Does this mean that the correct 200 players are in the Hall of Fame? No, of course not. Does this mean that 200 is the right size? No. However, I suggest that whatever standards you come up should be “reasonably” consistent with the current membership list. If you want to say that the voters overvalue the players of the 1930s, or that 3B is underrepresented, or there are not enough Yankees, you must do so while not dynamiting a 70-year-old institution. You want to ignore the bottom 10% of the Hall, we can live with that.
Jay Jaffe, a fine writer and analyst over at Baseball Prospectus, invented a measure called JAWS (which uses WARP as its basis) and compares new candidates to the JAWS score of the average HOF player at his position. Actually, if I have this right, he first removes the worst inductee at each position (and four pitchers) and then uses the average of the rest. This process might suggest that Jay believes that half of the Hall of Fame is unqualified, or at least suspect. My bright friend Rob Neyer uses Win Shares, but has a similarly strict standard, recently writing, "I believe that if a player is among the best dozen or so at his position, he belongs in the Hall of Fame; or, alternatively, that if he's better than half the players at his position already in the Hall, he belongs in the Hall of Fame." When considering that there are about 18 HOFers per position now, and that there are several non-inductees that Rob supports, he is implying that about 40% of the current members are unqualified.
I mention Jay and Rob because they are two of the more talented and visible writers on this subject, and I suspect most people reading this agree with them on this issue. With all due respect, and writing as a product of the same general community of thought, I have a different view.
Look, I am down with the idea that the Hall of Fame contains several questionable players. (Not bad players—there are no players even remotely “bad” in the Hall of Fame.) But, I am sorry, if you want to impose standards that 40% or 50% of the current Hall does not reach, then, in my opinion, you should not get to vote. You are ignoring what the Hall of Fame actually is. You can’t wave away 40% of the Hall and claim to be interested in helping. And there are no “tiers” in the Hall of Fame either—every member is honored equally.
Parenthetically, if every voter was like Rob and Jay, and only voted on, for example, the best 12 players at each position, the actual HOF bar would be even higher than that. All voters are not going to agree on who these 12 guys are, and you need 75% of the vote. The effective standard becomes that 75% of the voters have to put you in the top 12. Which I suspect would leave you with something like 8 guys per position. We will reach the point where we only elect superstars and relief pitchers. Oh look, here we are.
Another problem with the analytical arguments is that they are so … strident. The current message from the stat community to the Hall of Fame and its voters goes something like this: “Your institution is riddled with poor selections, and most of the current voting writers are morons. P.S. Please find enclosed my application to join your fine group.” It’s a bit like saying, “I don’t like your wife, but if you have me over for dinner I can give her a few tips on her attitude.”
Every time some poor writer released their Hall of Fame ballot last month, unless it had the “right” guys on it, the voter was deemed not smart enough, unthinking. I don’t really want to quote examples because I am in enough trouble already, but, trust me, if you voted for Jack Morris you were mocked. (Sure, Morris had more Win Shares and the same WARP as Rich Gossage, and no GM in their right mind would prefer Gossage to Morris, even before considering Morris’s epic post-season performances. Apparently “relief pitcher” is a separate position now. Coming soon: the top 12 “seventh-place hitters”. But I digress…)
Jim Rice received 72% of the vote on Tuesday, an overwhelming consensus of support, 12% more than Franklin Roosevelt’s 1936 landslide over Alf Landon. Are these 72% all just not smart enough? Four hundred journalists, many of whom saw Rice play hundreds of time, just need to think this through properly? How did we all get so confident? I submit, sheepishly, that perhaps it is we who need to open our minds.
Me? Sure, I have argued for all the “smart” guys—Ron Santo and Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines—at cocktail parties. Even Tony Oliva, which is a big hit, believe me. But I suggest we all could use a little humility. The idea that we can confidently separate Dale Murphy and Andre Dawson statistically is nuts—who you prefer is basically a matter of taste. Defense, adjusting for eras, quality of competition, integration, position, post-season play, intangibles? If you are approached by someone who claims to have unraveled these issues statistically—I strongly urge you to run.
My final problem with all of the analytical Hall of Fame arguments: there are too many of them, and they all say the same thing. Once you have decided to use Win Shares, or WARP, or JAWS, there is really no need for a lengthy explanation. If you want to explain the internals of Win Shares and make the case for why you are using it as opposed to something else, go right ahead. But once you have defined the parameters of the debate on your terms, there is nowhere to go unless you typed some of the numbers incorrectly. The reason people come up with a different answer is that you confidently co-opted the question.
The only way one can add to the conversation is to supply some sort of color or nuance—a description of performances in big games, quotes from opponents or managers, a great World Series catch, your own personal memories. Does this matter? I suggest it matters in one sense at least: without it, you don’t really have an article that hasn’t been written before. Are you all really going to write the same Jim Rice stories again next year?
When I was about 12 years old, I received a little book for Christmas about the Hall of Fame, written by Ken Smith (who was the librarian at the Hall for many years), containing biographies of all of the current members. It was not great literature by any means, but I must have read that paperback three or four times, and it played its small part in my baseball education. Reading about Hugh Duffy and Tommy McCarthy got me curious about the great Boston Beaneater teams of the 1890s, just as Frankie Frisch and Dizzy Dean brought me to the Gas House Gang, and Eddie Collins and Frank Baker to the powerhouse Athletics teams of the early 1910s. Although the book focused on the players, it was the great teams that made the stories interesting. The teams, it seemed to me, were what baseball history was really all about.
I think we all agree that if George Kelly had played for the Phillies in the 1920s instead of the Giants, he would not be in the Hall of Fame. (He would actually be more respected than he is, since instead of being a “joke Hall of Famer” he would be an “unappreciated star”.) However, he *did* play for the Giants, and this seems wholly relevant to the conversation. John McGraw somehow won ten pennants with Christy Mathewson (who was only around for five of them) and a bunch of players like George Kelly—great defenders who could hit a little. The only NL team ever to win four straight flags, the 1921-24 Giants, had four Hall of Famers: Frankie Frisch, George Kelly, Ross Youngs, and the shortstop (Dave Bancroft, giving way to Travis Jackson), all but Frisch considered “mistakes” by today’s experts. How many Hall of Famers should be on this great team? It is consistent with the purpose of the Hall of Fame, in my view, to honor baseball’s champions.
If you begin with the premise that the 200 guys in the Hall of Fame should be the 200 statistically-best careers in history, a premise all analysts have rallied around, then George Kelly does not have a case. If you modify this premise, if you believe that being on this great Giants team gets him extra points, that the word of John McGraw carries additional weight, that first base defense was more important at that time and place than it is today, that career length is less important to you, we start inching along and suddenly his case seems less ridiculous. This is not a case I would make, but this is the case that the people who lived and watched those teams made about George Kelly. If the guy who John McGraw thought was the best player on a four-time champion—if this is the worst guy in the place, how bad can it really be?
Don’t worry, I am not asking for your support for George Kelly, although I do suggest you pause at his plaque the next time you are in that great museum in Cooperstown. He’s got a nice story. Jack Morris and Jim Rice have nice stories too, and the smart people advocating their candidacies are worth a listen.
Mark Armour writes baseball from his home in Corvallis, Oregon. He was the co-author, with Dan Levitt, of the award-winning book Paths to Glory, the editor of Rain Check: Baseball in the Pacific Northwest, and the director of SABR's Baseball Biography Project. His next large project is the life of Joe Cronin. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.