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September 29, 2006
You Could Look It Up
The Definition of Insanity
Since 2003, the group of living Hall of Famers that now comprises the Hall of Fame Committee on Veterans has been engaged in a masturbatory ritual of holding elections for the Hall of Fame, only to fail to vote anyone in. The new VC ballot has just been released, and it shouldn't surprise you that they're about to do it again.
HOW IT WORKS
Every two years a collection of 200 candidates is drawn up by the "Historical Overview Committee," whose meetings are undoubtedly catered with the very best tea and cookies. This list is then whittled down to a manageable 25 by a "BBWAA-appointed screening committee" of 60. More tea and cookies consumed and old grudges over who didn't give interviews to whom are rehashed. A six-member screening committee of Hall of Famers then chucks in up to five additional names. These are ceremoniously voted on by the living Hall of Famers, Spink, and Frick award recipients. This august body then elects none of the named.
Every four years, the Committee (hereafter "HOC") throws in 60 umpires, managers and executives. The BBWAA screening committee, using an elaborate system of pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, nibbles away at this list until just 15 names remain on that list. These too are debated and voted on, and again, none are elected.
BIGOTS AND OTHER REPROBATES WELCOMED HERE
It's hard to fathom what qualifications the HOC is using to come up with its initial list. Questionable character traits, especially in regard to what is still the game's signature moment, apparently don't figure. Left fielder Jeff Heath was a great hitter (.293/.370/.509 lifetime, .308 Equivalent Average) but was impossible to get along with, liked things segregated, and tended to land on the DL about every three games or so, playing just 1383 in a career that lasted from 1936 through 1949. If Heath someday gets into the Hall of Fame, Cliff Floyd will have the precedent he needs. Heath had more power than Floyd, but otherwise the comparison is good in terms of general results, frequency of breakdowns and the Canadian connection, Heath having been born north of the border, Floyd beginning his career there.
Dixie Walker was a very good player too, and the popular "People's Cherce" during his nine years in Brooklyn, but he also vehemently objected to playing with Jackie Robinson and was traded at his request after the 1947 season (to Pittsburgh, in a brilliant deal authored by Branch Rickey; the Dodgers got Billy Cox, Preacher Roe and Gene Mauch). Mostly a singles and doubles hitter, if Walker were around today he'd probably resemble Paul O'Neill, albeit with better contact rates.
Ben Chapman was pretty good as a leadoff man for the Ruth/Gehrig Yankees in the early 1930s, scoring a lot of runs and stealing more bases than was common in that station-to-station era. At his best he was probably about the same kind of hitter as Hanley Ramirez, though he wasn't at that level for very long, and he was finished as a regular at 31. As a converted infielder he never was set at any of the outfield positions, and he was very difficult to get along with; in 1936, when Chapman was just 27, the Yankees traded him to the Senators for an inferior player, Jake Powell, in a my-nutcase-for-your-nutcase swap. The Yankees were so sick of dealing with Chapman they thought they might have better luck with Powell, a violent bigot. Chapman, of course, was a bigot too, and infamously did what he could to make life hard on Jackie Robinson as manager of the Phillies, acts which played a part in ending his managerial career.
Fortunately, Heath, Walker and Chapman were dropped from the final ballot, but they never should have been included. Nor should the ballot have included the first Frank Thomas, with his own questionable racial incidents, or Denny McLain, one of the most immoral people to ever play the game. Those are just some of the questionable character guys. There are also a number of players who are stretches just because they weren't very good. A selection: center fielder Doc Cramer piled up 2705 career hits and a .296 career average, but "Flit" had no power and no patience despite playing in the 1930s, which made him one of the misunderstood hitters of his era. His relative lack of value is reflected in his career EqA of .247--imagine Juan Pierre playing with a ball and chain on both ankles. George Case stole a lot of bases in the 1940s, when no one was stealing them, but he did little else of value in a short career. Shortstops Don Kessinger and Larry Bowa couldn't hit, and had vastly overstated defensive reputations.
These too were dropped, as were a number of players who might actually be deserving, or at least were quality players who could be said to have helped their teams. One of several possible All-Star teams: first baseman Norm Cash; second baseman Larry Doyle (1912 NL MVP and one of several early Giants on the HOC list); shortstop Bad Bill Dahlen (he was a fighter and a drinker who would get put out of games on purpose so he could head for the bar or the track, but John McGraw thought that his acquisition in 1904 was the turning point for the Giants franchise); third baseman Bob Elliott (1947 NL MVP and one of several neglected third basemen); catcher Elston Howard (the 1963 AL MVP was only a great player for a few years, but also lost time to the Yankees' perpetuation of the color line); left fielder George J. Burns (the early Giants leadoff man, not the cheesy American League first baseman who was his contemporary and namesake); center fielder Wally Berger (because he played in the cold, windy, cavernous Braves Field, his Davenport Translations feature two 60-home run seasons); outfielder Reggie Smith; starting pitcher Mel Harder and relief pioneer Firpo Marberry.
The initial composite ballot of executives, managers, and owners included George W. Bush. Other initial selections included Calvin "I moved the Senators to Minnesota because you have fewer blacks here" Griffith (he didn't use the word "blacks"), Jake Ruppert (dropped, though he shouldn't have been), Davey Johnson (dropped), Billy Southworth (dropped), and two of the more obtuse managers of recent years, Chuck Tanner and Don Zimmer.
THE 2007 BALLOT
The final 2007 ballot looks a lot like the 2005 ballot, which strongly resembled the 2003 ballot. This is as good a reason as any why no one has been elected; the repetition of candidates turns the voting process into a farce resembling Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham, with the various screening committees saying to the voters, "Try some Roger Maris! You'll like him!" and the voters replying, "No, we do not like Roger Maris. We do not like Roger Maris in a plane, we do not like him on a train…" And then the screeners come right back with more Roger Maris.
Twenty of 27 players on the 2007 regular ballot were on the 2003 ballot. The 2007 composite ballot is identical to the 2003 ballot, making one wonder if these committees are actually meeting (and if they're more focused on the tea and cookies if they do).
Twenty-six players were considered in 2003. After that election, Ken Williams, Allie Reynolds, Bob Meusel and Mike Marshall (the reliever, not the injury-prone Dodgers first baseman/outfielder) were dropped. Marshall received the fewest votes, three, out of a possible total of 81. Meusel received six to Bobby Bonds' five, but he left and Bonds stayed. Reynolds received 16 votes, putting him ahead of Dick Allen, Wes Ferrell, Don Newcombe, Ken Boyer and Curt Flood, all of whom have remained on the ballot for all three elections.
Jim Kaat, Sparky Lyle, Luis Tiant and Smokey Joe Wood were added for 2005. Wood was part of the Ty Cobb/Tris Speaker betting scandal, but hey--they were all cleared, even if that absolution was motivated as much by politics as evidence.
This year, Elston Howard and Joe Wood (who received only two votes, the same number as Thurman Munson, who stayed on), were dropped. Lefty O'Doul, Al Oliver, Cecil Travis and Mickey Vernon were added to the list. It's a good year if you're a Washington Senators fan. Travis was a Senators shortstop, and sort of a B- version of Derek Jeter, with the crucial difference being that he was very slow. Through age 27 he had hit .327/.381/.436 in a very tough park, but then he went off to war and missed all of 1942 through 1944, and all but 15 games of 1945. When he returned he was more like a statue than a shortstop, and his career quickly ended.
Vernon, a first baseman, had a long career, playing from age 21 to 42 (he lost two years to the war). His career EqA was .283, which doesn't sound all that impressive, but sometimes he was a lot better than that and sometimes a lot worse. In 1946 he hit .353/.403/.508 and won the AL batting title. The next year he slumped to .265/.320/.388. After sliding still further, to .242/.310/.332, he bounced back and hit .289/.363/.425 for a few years, which wasn't bad for a period without a lot of great first basemen. He dropped to .251/.353/.394, then rebounded to win his second batting title at .337/.403/.518. He wasn't a Hall of Famer, but his career was certainly interesting.
O'Doul had a relatively brief career during which he failed as a pitcher, came back in his thirties as an outfielder, hit quite well during an inflationary era, and retired to become a very well-liked minor-league manager. He was also one of the first Americans to bring baseball to Japan; he could reasonably be enshrined under the "general contributions" banner. Al Oliver was a first baseman/center fielder/right fielder/DH who played on a whole bunch of division winners and one world champion. His career rates of .303/.344/.451 were suppressed a bit by the years (1968-1985) in which he played. He was a seven-time All-Star and made cameo appearances on nine MVP ballots without ever getting serious consideration for the award. In 1982, his best season, he batted .331/.393/.514 for the Expos, winning the batting title.
GREEN EGGS AND HAM
In the first election, candidates needed to be named on 61 of 81 (75%) ballots to secure election. None of them came close. The three top vote-getters were Gil Hodges (50), Tony Oliva (48), and Ron Santo (46), after which there was a substantial drop off to Joe Torre (29) and the rest of the field. With the number of voters increased by two for the 2005 election (Paul Molitor and Dennis Eckersley), the successful candidate required 60 of 83 votes. With a nigh-identical ballot, the top three finishers were the same, though the order had changed. Hodges and Santo tied for first with 52 votes (65%), while Oliva, having somehow lost support (what had he done in the interim to become less appealing?) was third with 45. Newcomer Kaat, Oliva's teammate on some excellent Twins teams, tallied 43 votes, and then it was back down to Torre again at 36.
The 2003 composite vote also failed to produce a winner. Umpire Doug Harvey received 48 votes. Walter O'Malley, betrayer of Brooklyn, was second with 38, and pioneering union chief Marvin Miller was third with 35.
In both elections, no player whose career ended more than 50 years before the vote received even 20 votes. Hodges retired as a player in 1963 but remained in the public eye as a manager until his death in 1972; Oliva retired in 1976; Santo in 1974; Torre in 1977, but he's more famous than ever now; Maury Wills in 1972; Vada Pinson in 1975. Joe Gordon, who played until 1950, but managed until 1969 was next, followed by Roger Maris (1968) and Marty Marion (played until 1953, managed until 1956). Carl Mays, who pitched until 1929, finally shows up in a three-way tie for 10th with Minnie Minoso and Allie Reynolds. In 2005 he was again the highest-polling really old old-timer, tying with Minoso again at #13.
No contemporary of Mays, referred to as the most hated man in baseball in his day, would have voted him into the Hall of Fame. While sometimes modern analysis allows us to correct the misunderstandings of history, sometimes they lead us away from essential truths too. Mays was a great pitcher but a rotten human being. Not everything is about numbers, and not every idea they had about a guy in the old days is wrong.
The vote for Mays, along with the strong slant in favor of players from the 1960s and '70s, strongly suggests that the majority of the voters don't know who the heck they're being asked to vote for. They vote for their contemporaries because they remember them. The rest cast a smattering of votes for the others because of their numbers.
It's not that there aren't candidates who can make a solid case. Hodges and Torre were close to the borderline as players; their managerial careers pushed them across that border. Torre is one of just five managers with four or more championships, and should be a no-brainer. Perhaps the voters are waiting for him to retire, or win a fifth championship, or be moved from the players ballot to the composite. It doesn't really matter. He's 66 now. Maybe they're waiting for him to die, an all too common difference-maker with Hall voters. As countless widows and orphans have discovered, according to Hall of Fame voters, being dead makes you better.
Whitey Herzog and Dick Williams were among the most successful and innovative managers of their day. Harry Dalton was the general manager who built the great Earl Weaver Orioles teams, then went to Milwaukee and oversaw the only truly successful years that organization has ever had. Marvin Miller changed everything about the game of baseball. He made the players more than property, and he is the most obvious candidate in the ballot.
The players are a weaker lot, though all of them were quite good. Joe Gordon was the best second baseman of his time, both with the bat and the glove. Dick Allen was dominating--when he felt like playing. Luis Tiant was creative, crafty, fun and, at his best, an unhittable pitcher. Jim Kaat was a durable workhorse who won 16 Gold Gloves. Ron Santo was a great player, probably the best eligible player not in. Think of Scott Rolen--Santo might have been a bit better.
But the qualifications really don't matter because the current system is dysfunctional. What really needs to be done is the HOC and various screening committees should be repopulated, because their selections are quite random. The resultant candidates should then be resubmitted to the general population of BBWAA voters to be reconsidered in a separate election from the regular Hall of Fame voting. In that election, they would be joined by those lovable old coots, the living Hall of Famers. While the BBWAA has not in itself been without fault in the voting, enlarging the voting pool would wash out the disproportionate weight wielded by sharing contemporary status with the voters.
Until this or some other solution is enacted, the Veterans Committee will continue wasting their time and ours. Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. are eligible in the general election this year. They'll be in Cooperstown accepting their plaques next July 29. They may not be alone at the podium, but no one from the 2007 VC list will be with them.