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Baseball HOF Discourse

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Reds at Orioles June 25, 2011

I was fascinated by the discourse around the election of Scott Rolen to the Hall of Fame, including the comments to Paul’s post shortly after the election. So many people found this so outrageous, even though he was an awesome player who fits perfectly into the Hall with a lot of historical players. According to Baseball Reference’s JAWS stat, he’s the 10th best third baseman of all time and the only person above him not in the HOF will be next year in Adrian Beltre. The arguments are typical–he wasn’t seen as one of the great players at the time, he didn’t have that many All Star game appearances (the most worthless metric possible), etc. Interestingly, you can make the same argument about Beltre, who only made 4 ASGs, and if you go down the list of third basemen in the JAWS stat, among players who played when there were ASGs, you have to go down to Sal Bando at 16th to find someone who only made it to 4 of them. But Beltre stuck around long enough to get 3,000 hits, which is still seen as a magical number by some baseball commenters. So I doubt he will get much opposition. I grant you that Rolen is not an “inner circle” guy, but who cares?

The whole idea of a Hall of Fame is pretty dumb. It’s dumb for rock and roll and it’s dumb for baseball. But if you are going to have them, you have to remember that they exist for entertainment purposes, not as objective standards. Meanwhile, among the three big sports, the only HOF process that receives this kind of rendering of garments is that of baseball. Why?

The problem is Boomers.

Basically, a generation grew up watching Mays and Mantle as kids and those are the only “real” HOFers for a lot of people. This isn’t just for the average blog commenter, let’s say. It’s also with the HOF voters, which is why so many of them are old cranks would who prefer to not elect anyone. It also says A LOT about why the Hall process in baseball is totally broken, with Bonds, Clemens, and A-Rod, three of the best 50 players and maybe the best 20 players to every play the game, will not be elected until the entire Boomer generation is gone. Those Boomer voters, they are cool with their own kind of cheating–spitballs, greenies, pine tar, sign stealing if it’s not too sophisticated (sorry Carlos Beltran, you aren’t pure enough now either to get elected)–but not with the kind of cheating they don’t like. And it comes down to what sort of cheating was OK in 1957 when they were 9 and what sort of cheating is done now.

This might not come down as strictly generational, but it’s pretty generational.

Meanwhile, these debates simply do not exist in football and basketball. There aren’t debates about appropriate behavior for qualification and there aren’t debates about people not being “inner circle” HOFers. Football simply mandates the number of people to be elected each year, which is great because it ends these silly debates up front. Basketball, other than being quite inclusive of women, contributors, and European players, brings in 2 or 3 NBA players a year that often include not Jordan or Kareem. In September, Manu Ginoblli and Tim Hardaway were inducted. Good solid choices. But not all time greats. No one cared. Last year, the NFL brought in players such Sam Mills, Richard Seymour, and LeRoy Butler. Again, well deserving players in my view, but not Lawrence Taylor or Walter Payton or Peyton Manning. No one cared.

But God forbid baseball elect someone not at the level of the childhood heroes of people today who are in their 60s and 70s.

If the Baseball Hall of Fame is only supposed to be made up of 50 players and they all have to have lived up to the precise moral standards of people who were 10 in 1961, that’s not an entertainment museum. It’s a shrine to aging whites and their values. No one wants that, or at least no one is not one of those people.

Meanwhile, who are the top eligible unelected players by position, again, using the JAWS metric:

3B–Graig Nettles, Ken Boyer, Buddy Bell, Sal Bando, Dick Allen

LF–Barry Bonds, Pete Rose, Manny Ramirez, Sherry Magee, Bob Johnson (if we take out the never to be elected Bonds and Rose, we add Lance Berkman and Jose Cruz)

CF–Carlos Beltran, Kenny Lofton, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Willie Davis

RF–Dwight Evans, Reggie Smith, Sammy Sosa, Bobby Abreu, Bobby Bonds (if we disqualify Sosa, we add Gary Sheffield)

SS–Alex Rodriguez, Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock, Bert Campaneris, Jim Fregosi (if we disqualify A-Rod, we add Nomar Garciaparra)

1B–Rafael Palmeiro, Todd Helton, Mark McGwire, Keith Hernandez, John Olerud (if we disqualify Rafy and McGwire, we add Jason Giambi and Will Clark)

2B–Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph, Jeff Kent, Tony Phillips

C–Thurman Munson, Gene Tenace, Bill Freehan, Wally Schang, Jorge Posada

P (and we’ll go 10 deep here)–Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Rick Reuschel, Kevin Brown, Jim McCormick, Wes Ferrell, Luis Tiant, David Cone, Bret Saberhagen, Urban Shocker (if we disqualify Clemens and Schilling, we add Tony Mullane and Dave Stieb).

There are two points to this little exercise. First, there are lots of players at EVERY ONE of these positions who are in the Hall and are below all these guys. Usually, they are the nostalgia picks that is the point of this post–nostalgia, whether of players for their teammates on the Veterans Committee or of voters thinking certain players were better than they are because they ticked off a particular memory box, is no good way to do this process. Second, there are a LOT of great players unjustly not in the Hall for these same reasons except that they don’t do those things for those voters. There is no justifiable reason for Fred McGriff and not Kenny Lofton, except that McGriff represented A SLUGGER WHO DIDN’T JUICE to voters who think that’s the most important issue, so he becomes an object lesson to that evil Rafael Palmeiro despite not really being as good. I wouldn’t argue that all these players on these lists deserve to be in–but Lofton, Grich, and Whitaker are a travesty. Should we give Dave Stieb and Bret Saberhagen far more serious consideration? Yes. Should we reconsider Nettles and Allen and Munson? Yes, I think that’s a conversation worth having. Does Rick Reuschel have a very serious Hall of Fame case? You bet.

But for that matter, you can’t have a functional Hall of Fame when the same people who cheered for the home runs and the old man winning all the Cy Youngs turn on them for “destroying the innocence of the game” or whatever, even though everyone already knew there were some sketchy things going on there. It doesn’t help that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are terrible people. But then why is Ty Cobb in the Hall of Fame?

So yeah, it’s pretty broken. A couple of strategies to move the Hall beyond Boomer Nostalgia Country. First, require that at least one player be elected each year, even if they don’t reach the 75 percent threshold. That would turn off the voters who don’t want anyone to be in there because they don’t matter anymore. Someone’s getting in whether they like it or not. Second, require that every voter tick off a certain number of players each year. It can even be like 3. Doesn’t have to be 10. But if you can’t find anyone you think deserves to be in the Hall, you lose your vote.

But I’m sure this post will cause outrage from those who just loved their heroes back in 1961, even though said heroes were taking greenies to get high for the game and slapping their women around behind the scenes when they were wasted at night. The good ol’ days.

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