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One of the best things about getting worked up about the Hall of Fame is how many ways one can go about it. It’s an infinite wellspring, a source of eternal frustration for the mathematicians and a constant delight for the artists, for those who prefer dialogue to proof. There’s no shame, I think, in either preference. The Hall of Fame is a silly institution within an already silly pastime, a trumpet fanfare played by kazoos. It is picaresque.

Three options present themselves: one can ignore the spectacle, secure in their own knowledge of what greatness is, and content in the isolation of certainty. Or one can enjoy the show as a passive observer, as we do with the games themselves, perhaps going so far as to wager on them. Or, finally, one can join the performance themselves, wade into the fray and willingly be Mad Online.

The most familiar avenue for getting upset is based on the election; after a primary season, fans distance themselves from their personal favorites, their Larry Walkers and Billy Wagners, to move toward the more electable, centrist candidates like Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez. The argument quickly resembles the standard political spectrum, with two sides jockeying for moral superiority, the Trammells versus the Morrises. A handful of single-issue voters chime in from the weeds. It’s the same mock battle waged for years now, though the conservatives of the baseball world have gotten a little more quiet.

When we argue about the Hall of Fame, we usually use the following archetypes:

Many Wins Above Replacement

Not as Many Wins Above Replacement

Made Hall of Fame

Warren Spahn, Rickey Henderson

Rabbit Maranville, Bruce Sutter

Didn’t make Hall of Fame

Roger Clemens, Alan Trammell

Jack Morris, Jerome Walton

It’s the bottom-left corner that most often concerns us, partially because the Hall of Fame tends to be smaller than the ideal of the average fan, and partially because there are so many different ways to keep a man out: steroids, character clauses, anti-compiling, statistical underappreciation. The top-right section also gets its share of hate, but usually only in comparison to one of the aforementioned un-invitees. Bill James, for example, centered his book The Politics of Glory around the tireless and ultimately rewarded ambition of Phil Rizzuto, and what Phil Rizzuto fandom came to represent: commitment to narrative over facts, a sort of world-building exercise by a flock of writer-priests.

There are hundreds of essays pleading the cases of a dozen players each year; I believe they are valuable, no matter how tiring, as the baseball community continues to understand what it values. This, however, is not one of those essays. Instead, I’d like to turn my attention to an entirely different set of variables, and look at another class of underappreciated souls. There are scads of players whose legacies, for whatever reason, never aligned with their quantitative production. The Hall of Fame, after all, is often caught up in celebrating men who were already celebrated, rather than reassessing them in the cold light of five years in the future. (See: Rice, Jim.)

Instead, consider this set of variables:

Famous During Career

Not Famous During Career

Made Hall of Fame

Whitey Ford, Ken Griffey Jr.

Everyone from the 19th Century

Didn’t make Hall of Fame

Dale Murphy, Bill Freehan

Bob Grich, Todd Van Poppel

This framework ignores justice and instead centers around rationality. We’re no longer comparing the values of a few hundred writers to a separate statistical evaluation of players; instead, we’re comparing the writers to themselves, through their voting habits during the careers of the players they’re voting on. (This isn’t obviously directly literal; 15-20 years might pass between a player’s peak and his Hall of Fame eligibility. But the fame a player accrues sticks to him.)

Again, it’s the bottom-left and top-right sections we’re interested in, but the dynamics have changed. The top-right section is the revisionist wing of the Hall, where the writers have sought to right past wrongs: from the inclusion of Negro League players to the plain forgotten names of the early days of baseball. But these are relatively few and far between; it’s the Hall of Fame, after all. They generally like players who have some fame.

So we’re back in the bottom-left, but this time it’s a different cast of characters: players who were famous but not quite Great. Again, we have several backstories: the same alleged cheaters as before, and also the Dale Murphy/Mark Fidrych types, of stories concluded too soon. But there’s a third type, the occasional player who looks like a Hall of Famer while he’s playing, and then five years later he just … isn’t.

As an example, please enjoy a table.

Player (* = HOF)

Years Active

rWAR

All-Star Games

1st Ballot HOF Vote

Vern Stephens

1941-1955

45.5

8

0.0%

Arky Vaughan*

1932-1948

72.9

9

0.4%

Joe Gordon*

1938-1950

41.4

9

0.4%

Bill Freehan

1961-1976

44.7

11

0.5%

Bob Johnson

1933-1945

55.5

8

0.5%

Rick Ferrell*

1929-1947

29.8

8

0.5%

Billy Herman*

1931-1947

54.7

10

1.0%

Darryl Strawberry

1983-1999

42.0

8

1.2%

Frank McCormick

1934-1948

34.8

9

1.6%

Lance Parrish

1977-1995

39.3

8

1.7%

Bobby Doerr*

1937-1951

51.2

9

2.6%

Walker Cooper

1940-1957

29.0

8

2.8%

Ted Simmons

1968-1988

50.1

8

3.7%

Ron Santo*

1960-1974

70.4

9

3.9%

Del Crandall

1949-1966

28.5

8

3.9%

Ernie Lombardi*

1931-1947

45.9

8

4.1%

Sixteen players have played in at least eight All-Star games and received less than five percent of the vote in their first year on the ballot. Seven of those 16 made the Hall of Fame through the Veteran’s Committee; two (Arky Vaughan and Ron Santo) were egregious oversights, one (Joe Gordon) a perfectly average member just lacking a decline phase, and the other four are acceptable, if not exciting, fill-ins. There are no cheap friends of friends on this list. The non-Hall of Famers, by contrast, are an interesting crew.

The story of Darryl Strawberry is well-known; ignore the drugs, and his career is similar to Dale Murphy’s, except that his early decline arrived just after a very lucrative free agent contract. Voters did not ignore the drugs, or the contract.

Bob Johnson is essentially unknown in our time; his own name (he’s the first of four to make the majors) certainly doesn’t help. He played for only two winning teams in 13 seasons, and failed to make the majors until he was 27 years old, despite slugging .562 and .572 in his previous two seasons in the PCL. It’s not quite an Edgar Martinez-level of neglect, but Johnson’s talent was wasted in the minors; from his rookie season to age 39, he never posted a sub-three WARP season his entire career, and his offensive lines were shockingly consistent. He eventually had to engineer a trade to the Washington Senators to get on a winning team. For younger readers: asking to be traded to the Senators to get some national respect is not a good sign.

Frank McCormick is kind of hard to understand by modern standards: a first baseman with middling power, like Johnson he was unable to crack the Reds’ starting lineup until his age-27 season. Imagine Wally Joyner with Steve Garvey’s charisma. He immediately led the league in hits three straight seasons at a time when hits meant something, although he also supplemented his offense with plenty of doubles. Those three seasons (and an MVP award in 1940) were enough to cement his legacy and earn him All-Star games for the rest of his career, despite hitting like Sean Casey from there on out. In this case, the writers got it right with their silence; those 200-hit seasons had long since faded away by the time the votes were cast, 15 years later.

Vern Stephens is the man compared to Yankees rival Rizzuto by Bill James. Stephens was the perfect example of a guy who, like Dick Allen, was never going to make the Hall: the press, particularly the local press, hated him. Rumors of heavy drinking and a difficult personality dogged him throughout his career, and it was easy to blame his later inconsistency and injury-shortened career on laziness and debauchery. His price tag when the Red Sox purchased him from the St. Louis Browns gave the papers even more reason to pile their complaints on him, and when Stephens very nearly jumped ship in 1946 to the Mexican League–a stunt that got a dozen major leaguers suspended from the game–the marker stuck.

And yet Stephens was a legitimately great player offensively and defensively, and still holds the record for most RBIs in a season by a shortstop (159). Not one writer voted for him to make the Hall of Fame. When the Veteran’s Committee considered him in 2009, he received support from less than three of the twelve voters: When you score that low, they don’t tell you if you got zero. He might have then, too. That leaves five players: Freehan, Parrish, Cooper, Simmons, and Crandall. They are all catchers. The two names that just missed the cut, earning 5.2 percent and 5.3 percent in their first year of eligibility: Elston Howard and Joe Torre.

The common wisdom is that third base is the most under-represented position in the Hall of Fame. It’s common because technically, it’s true: there are fewer of them than any other position. There are reasons for this. It was once treated as a defense-first job, akin to shortstop, having only recently transitioned to its current status as a power position. It’s also paradoxically treated as a dumping ground for former shortstops, like Stephens himself, meaning that there are fewer “true” third basemen from which to choose. But when you’re a catcher, you stay a catcher, until you become a first baseman and retire a year or two later.

One of the appeals of baseball’s Hall of Fame is how homogenous it is compared to other sports. Football essentially has seven or eight different Halls inside it, since it’s basically impossible to compare a quarterback to a cornerback. The understanding of defensive value, and the ability to compare its value to offensive production in terms of runs, allow us to put everyone into basically one of three buckets: starter, reliever, and hitter. It’s a system that works remarkably well, on the whole. But these catchers are a hint that something might be getting missed.

Writers have long understood, intellectually, that catching is a different beast than the other positions, not just in terms of its difficulty but the toll it takes. The common cliche, “the tools of ignorance,” gives the impression that catching is a last resort, the way that relieving is often considered a duty for failed starters. This, despite the broadening understanding of just how valuable catchers are to a team, and all the ways they contribute to winning. And yet when those five long years have passed, and all that remains are World Series highlights and rows of statistics, catchers can’t compare. Their offensive production withers like it had a sip from the wrong grail; their defensive production, vital as it might be, isn’t the sort of thing you can call up with a highlight reel.

In the old days there was a simple solution for this: narrative. Catchers who faded early could lean on their postseason successes, and the magical leadership abilities attributed them by copy-hungry writers. And given the propensity for talented players to find their way toward famous teams through the pre-war baseball economy, it wasn’t even actually a terrible system. It gave catchers like Bill Dickey a way to be famous, despite the anonymity brought on by the mask. But in the expansion era, postseason heroics grew harder to come by, and so did lore.

This is how you get a guy like Bill Freehan, All-Star 11 times in 12 seasons, done at age 34: clearly the greatest American League catcher for a decade, recipient of as many Hall of Fame votes as reliever Jim Brewer. Being the best player at your position in your league for a decade would be enough for any other position, but it isn’t for catchers, especially now: of the 17 in the Hall, only four played in the past 50 years (Bench, Carter, Fisk, and Piazza). Ivan Rodriguez will make it five, but given that Joe Mauer will probably suffer Joe Torre’s fate and Yadier Molina is no lock, we may have to wait for Buster Posey’s turn to make it a half-dozen.

The idea of Bill Freehan as a Hall of Famer is, to nearly everyone outside Detroit and retirement age, ludicrous. No one remembers him, no one remembers anything he did. He starred on a World Series team that proved to be less than a dynasty, a fate shared by many Tigers hopefuls after him. His indistinct smile symbolizes the generic and outdated optimism of the pre-Vietnam sixties. His career WARP, even after accounting for pitch framing, is a respectable 43.2, just a hair south of Mike Cameron, Amos Otis, Javy Lopez, and Matt Williams.

And depending on your personal, ideal Hall, he probably isn’t in it. If you want your Hall of Fame reserved for the truly famous, or for the prettiest of numbers, Freehan and his catching comrades are out. Unless their name is Carlton Fisk, it’s simply impossible for a regular catcher to maintain their peak long enough to compare to other hitters. So perhaps it’s time to stop comparing, and start treating catchers like specialized players when it comes to legacies, like running backs in football. Otherwise we run the risk of the worst mistake a Hall of Fame could possibly make: failing to fully appreciate its own sport.

Thank you for reading

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edwinblume
12/07
Freehan was a frequent All-Star. Which says more about the rest of the catchers in the AL during that time than it does about Freehan. Being the best of a bad lot does not give you HoF credentials. Simmons has a better case than Freehan. But there is something to be said for comparing position by position. I'm not saying that Freehan didn't deserve any consideration, but I don't think he's a HOFer. Simmons is the one in the group of Cs that I think should have gotten more consideration.
whichthat
12/07
I don't want to diss Freehan, who's in the Hall of Very Good, but really he was the best AL catcher between Berra-Howard and Fisk-Munson. It's like the Jack Morris fallacy. If you move the frame 3-4 years in either direction, he starts to look like a very good player who was a notch below the true superstars.
euqubudhp
12/07
I don't disagree with you; this is not so much an impassioned plea for Freehan as a study of what happened to him. If you like Simmons or Munson or Fury Tenace better, or even none of them, I'm okay with that.

It's just, here's the thing: Jack Morris received 111 votes in his first Hall ballot. Freehan got 2.
BarryR
12/07
Jack Morris had The Moment. The Moment is a big thing, because it separates the very good pitcher or player from the other very good pitcher or player.Why A and not B? A won game 7 of a World Series with a 1-0 shutout, B didn't. Sometimes A had that one fantastic season in an other wise very good career and B just had the very good career.
In Freehan's case, everything worked against him. He was in an era with a ton of great offensive players and even they were hurt by the era. If you go outside the era, .262/.340/.412 with 706 runs and 758 RBI doesn't exactly scream Hall of Famer. Maybe if he had won that MVP award the year he finished second behind McLain - hard to beat a 31 game winner. Or the year he finished behind Yaz and Killebrew. But he didn't. And going 2-24 in the 1968 World Series didn't either - the writers remember that stuff.
I would have no problem with his being in the Hall - along with others who have gotten no support at all, a couple of them Tigers middle infielders. Maybe the key is to not play your whole career in Detroit.
newsense
12/07
Of note is how many players on the last list were active during WWII. So either they were playing against weaker opposition or lost years to military service. Either of those could shade a HOF candidacy.