Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Why I Don’t Care About the HOF, Pt. 2

The last post had some facts in it; this one has a lot of opinions. If you are not interested in my opinion, or don’t think that I should dare comment on your blessed Hall of Fame, then save yourself the aggravation and don’t read it. It’s not worth getting your blood pressure up.

First I will attempt to explain the viewpoint expressed in the title. Why don’t I care about the Hall of Fame? First, it should be noted that a better title would have been “Why I Don’t Care About the HOF as it is Currently Constituted” or “Why I Don’t Care Who the HOF Elects, Only Why It is Broken”, as writing a couple thousand words about something is generally inconsistent with not caring about it at all. Touche. Also, by HOF I am referring to the player inductions, not to the other functions of the institution (museum, research library, etc.)

I should really make this a permanent disclaimer for every post on this blog, but again, let it be noted that: the opinions and ideas expressed in this post are not necessarily new, I do not claim to have thought of them independently of reading the work of others, and even if I don’t explicitly state that something was proposed by someone else, it very well may have been.

One of the issues I have with the Hall of Fame, albeit not one that diminishes it for modern players, is the overlook of nineteenth century players, particularly from the 1870s, 1880s, and the pre-professional days. The HOF recently had a committee of knowledgeable people empowered to elect Negro League candidates; I believe that they need a similar initiative to honor the great stars of the nineteenth century.

In saying this, I realize that the VC is taking a vote on ten pre-1943 players, including Bill Dahlen and Deacon White. However, I do not expect that the volume of nineteenth century players that will eventually be picked is sufficient, nor does it result in the candidates being evaluated by those best suited for the task.

However, the primary reason I view the HOF as I do is that I believe it is incapable of truly honoring great players. This viewpoint is somewhat patronizing, as the Hall of Famers pretty much universally put on a good face, and talk about how honored they are to have been elected and about what a great honor it is.

However, I think that the Hall of Famers themselves, as well as the casual baseball fan, do not fully understand the number of players who are in the HOF who simply did not have the impressive careers that one would expect.. They are trusting, and assume that every body that has been empowered to induct players has done so responsibly.

Perhaps I am off base. Perhaps they know more about the players than I am giving them credit for. I doubt it, but I am open to being persuaded otherwise.

The fact that Lloyd Waner is in the Hall of Fame is not in and of itself damning to the ability of the institution to honor great players any more than that Jeff Burroughs won the AL MVP award means that Alex Rodriguez was unable to be sufficiently honored last year. However, the HOF is a perpetual institution; once Waner is there, he’s there forever. No one except Burroughs and whoever deserved the MVP award really cares that he was given it. It could set a precedent, but it seems to me as if those are wiped out from one generation to the next (at one time middle infielders were popular picks; now RBI men on contenders are in vogue). A HOF mistake like Waner is permanent, and while it doesn’t have to, it can permanently affect the standards to which other players are held.

To belabor the MVP comparison a bit (and this was actually discussed a bit in the BTF thread linked in the comments for the last post--although I had written the preceding paragraph before that discussion), while a poor MVP selection can indeed set a precedent and lead to more selections in the same vein, at least each year’s crop is not being compared to Jeff Burroughs. The selection of Justin Morneau in 2006 may have been similar in some way to that of Burroughs, but at least he was not being compared directly to Burroughs--he was being compared to Jeter, Ortiz, Hafner, Mauer, etc. In the case of the Hall of Fame, the most important comparison is not between the candidates on the ballot (after all, you can choose up to ten of them), but between the candidates and the precedent that has been set by those inducted before them. Thus the mistakes made by the HOF have much more potential for perpetuation than do those for the yearly awards.

Furthermore, if Lloyd Waner was the only questionable player in Cooperstown, it would be no big deal. Mistakes happen, and the world goes on. But it’s not just Lloyd Waner--it's Tommy McCarthy, and Harry Hooper, and Ross Youngs, and Chick Hafey, and Heinie Manush, and Earle Combs, and Edd Roush, and we’ve only touched on the outfielders (you may not consider each of those guys to be big mistakes, but I bet there are others that I do not include that you might). These guys make up a significant proportion of the Hall membership, to the point where I think a Rickey Henderson or a Tony Gwynn would be completely justified in saying, “What, you expect me to be honored by being included with Heine Manush and Ross Youngs?”

One thing that was misunderstood in the last post was my comment that the primary standard I am interested in is career value. I did not mean to (nor did I) suggest that any other viewpoint was invalid, only that the discussion was grounded in that perspective. The relevance here is that I don’t believe that Sandy Koufax belongs in the Hall of Fame. However, if you come from a peak-centric viewpoint, Koufax is very much a defensible choice, maybe even an inner circle HOFer. Selections like Koufax, which are defensible from one point of view but questionable from another, are not the problem. The problem is those choices that make very little sense from any point of view. If there is a rational, fair definition of what a Hall of Famer should be that would include Rube Marquard, I am not aware of it.

Getting back to Hooper, Hafey, et al., I don’t even mean to suggest that those guys shouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. Maybe they should be. After all, the Hall of Fame has done very little to formally define what the standards should be, so everyone is free to make their own judgments. And if you feel that there should be 300 or 500 Hall of Famers, who am I to tell you you’re wrong?

However, at that point, I believe that the ability to honor the great players is gone. A Hall of Fame with Waner, Combs, and company can honor Kenny Lofton, Brett Butler, or Tim Salmon, but it cannot truly honor Tony Gwynn or Gary Sheffield, at least for my money.

Of course, if Gwynn chooses to be honored by it, that’s fine. Some people are naturally humble and will take any sort of accolade as an honor, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, I personally do not celebrate (nor condemn) false modesty or condemn realism about one’s accomplishments.

Some people, in defending the ability of the Hall of Fame to honor players, point out that the writers have enforced a much higher standard than the Veterans Committee has. The data presented in the last post demonstrates that this is the case. However, any distinction between which body votes you in is solely in the eyes of an observer. All of the inductees have their plaques hanging on the same wall. The only real difference that it makes is that the probability of a vets choice being present and able to enjoy their accolades is lower.

Therefore, I don’t see any good argument for the writers continuing to uphold a higher standard, independent of the inherent problem of having two groups choosing from the same players at different times. If there is a player, let’s call him Alan Trammell, who for whatever reason has been rejected by the writers, but is a very good bet to be chosen by the vets down the line, what good does it do to deny him the honor now? The only good reason for the BBWAA to reject eventual Hall of Famers is to prevent a further decay of the HOF standards.

If the BBWAA selects Trammel, then the Vets Committee might induct a lesser player like Omar Vizquel in thirty years, since they can’t induct Trammell. If the BBWAA lowers its standards, and the Vets maintain a mandate to elect somebody, then eventually the Vets’ standards will probably become lower as well, and the standards will be trapped in a downward spiral.

However, this is a problem that is irrelevant to the question of whether Trammell himself does or does not deserve to be in Cooperstown. It is a problem only when the scope is expanded to multiple players over many years. In the individual case, it just causes Trammell to wait needlessly. (If you don’t think Trammell is worthy of induction at any rate, substitute the candidate of your choice who has been passed over by the writers; my intention is not to advocate for Trammell or anyone else).

How does the Hall of Fame get out of this mess, and escape the mistakes of the past? I believe that it could be done very easily by adding tiers to the Hall (obviously not a unique suggestion on my part). Some would argue that the writers/vets breakdown already constitutes a tiered Hall, but again, to the extent that there is, it is in perception only and not reflected in how members of the two groups are treated by the Hall.

I would propose a three-tiered Hall, for players only. The managers, executives, pioneers, etc. would remain in just one group which would be independent of the player tiers.

I would envision the tiers being voted on in a way not unlike what the Hall of Merit at BTF does. Instead of setting a minimum percentage of votes for a player to be elected, there would be timed elections that would result in a fixed number of honorees.

For an example of how this might work, the players currently in the Hall would all begin in the first tier. The second tier could be filled by an initial election of some sort that would put in 25 players (it doesn’t have to be 25). Then, every year there would be a second-tier vote for which all first-tier members would be eligible in perpetuity. One player would be selected per year. The third tier could be started with five of the second tier members, with an additional player chosen every three, five, or ten years depending on just how exclusive one wants this level to be.

I don’t have a proposal for the precise format of the elections, because 1) that’s not as important to me as the concept and 2) it’s not like it’s going to happen anyway, so what use is there in getting into specifics? I would like to think that the voting for the higher tiers could be done by a group of experts rather than the BBWAA or the former players (I do not mean to imply that writers or players could not be “experts”, just that qualified people are by no means limited to those two groups). Perhaps there would be a run off vote, or a MVP-style rank order ballot.

A not necessarily obvious positive about a tiered Hall would be that it would keep debates about past players in the forefront of baseball news for one day a year, rather than being the sole domain of small groups on message boards. It might serve to educate casual fans about baseball history and players of the past. If you consider the precedent of the All-Century Team, in which a special panel had to be added in order to honor obvious selections like Musial and Wagner, the historical knowledge of that voting base (which admittedly may not be reflective of casual fans at large) is quite poor. I doubt that the one day of coverage would lead to any sort of sea change, but it couldn’t hurt.

Do I expect that such a scheme will ever be adopted? Of course not. The Hall has changed its procedures a number of times throughout its history, but these changes have been mainly cosmetic and have done precious little to address the underlying flaws in the process. Am I saying that they must adopt the ideas here? No. What I am saying is that they should do something to correct the fundamental flaws in the system, and this is just a potential remedy that I would find palatable. However, since I doubt the Hall will reform its election process, I will continue to be disinterested in the debates about who should be inducted.

6 comments:

  1. The most apt observation I have ever seen about the Hall of Fame came from King Kaufman, the sports columnist at Salon. He notes that the room with the plaques is the least interesting part of the place. This nicely sums up why I don't care about the HoF either. It's a great museum (though with a disappointing bookstore). Who does or does not have a plaque is pretty much irrelevant.

    Putting on my 19th century history hat, the mere fact that it is in Cooperstown pretty much says it all. But there's more. Alexander Cartwright really shouldn't be there, and the fact set presented on his plaque is very nearly entirely wrong.

    My favorite tidbit, though, is that George Wright was inducted in 1937 as a pioneer, while his brother Harry wasn't inducted until 1953. The thing is, counting George as a pioneer is a real stretch. He was a very good player, arguably the best short stop of the late 1860s. If someone wants to argue for him as a player, I would have no problem. But what did he pioneer? Harry, on the other hand, is a slam dunk. If you have a category of "pioneer" then Harry clearly should be in it.

    Call me cynical, but I have a strong suspicion that back in 1937 they were a bit confused about which brother was which, and didn't bother to check even the histories which were readily available at that time.

    This, to me, exemplifies the Hall of Fame, in the narrow sense of who gets a plaque. The museum and library have developed into fine institutions, but this is quite independant of the plaque question.

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  2. Good points on the 19th century.

    Your observation about the sloppiness present at the beginning of the Hall as exemplified by the Wright brothers' case also brings to mind the case of Morgan Bulkeley. Despite having a very limited/meaningless role as NL president, he was chosen in 1937 while William Hulbert was not honored until the 1990s.

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  3. Richard HershbergerSeptember 9, 2008 at 2:05 PM

    Bulkeley doesn't make me twitch in the same way. He obviously was inducted to balance Ban Johnson. Presumably they decided to induct Johnson, felt the need to match this with the parallel NL president, someone looked up who that was, and in he went. Bulkeley was also a prominent politician in the early 20th century, so this would look like a good choice. I don't agree with the conclusion, but there is a clear logic to it.

    Hulbert not being inducted until so much later is another matter. He was a rat bastard, but clearly a vital player in the development of professional baseball, and arguably even its savior.

    Bulkeley gets a bad rap, as a do-nothing NL president. He regarded the NL presidency as being like the NA presidency before, and acted accordingly: he presided over the league convention and that was that. This was a perfectly reasonable approach. The idea of a strong league president running affairs day-to-day originates with Hulbert. I don't blame Bulkeley for not being ahead of his time. Indeed, Bulkeley wasn't in a position to do this anyway. Hulbert only got away with it because professional baseball was sinking fast in the late 1870s, and the Chicago club was keeping the entire league afloat. This allowed him to call the shots.

    Not that this means Bulkeley should necessarily be in the Hall, but he receives undeserved criticism.

    When I do indulge in playing "Who should be in the Hall?" I advocate Daniel "Doc" Adams. He was instrumental in getting the bound game replaced by the fly game, and lays a plausible claim to having invented the position of short stop. No one invented baseball, but Adams is the earliest identifiable person to have such an important role in influencing its development.

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  4. Interesting perspective on Bulkeley, and I certainly won't argue. For me, from the perspective of the HOF, the problem with the Johnson balancing act is that while Hulbert may not have been the first president, he was the closest thing the NL had to a Johnson in terms of organizing the league.

    Trading Cartwright for Adams would be a good deal.

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  5. http://www.hardballtimes.com/main/article/the-grand-national-conversation/

    Quoting from Chris Jaffe at the Hardball Times:

    This is why I love Hall of Fame voting. It's a debate where those with a real say can be affected by the rest of us. I don't always agree with their choices--far from it--but I can't stand the anti-Hall attitude some have. For me, to remove yourself from interest in the Hall of Fame is to turn your back on the wider world of baseball fans.

    Upfront: I don’t think that this is aimed at me in particular--I don’t have any delusions that I’m big enough to warrant that kind of attention. However, I obviously fall into the group that has removed themselves from interest, and so I will respond as a member of this group.

    For one thing, I’m not concerned about whether I turn my back on the wider world of fans or not. I’m not a baseball evangelist. I have no desire to convert the masses to my position. If they change their minds, great. I’m not going to go out of my way to encourage it. Sure, I’ll state my opinion on something (as I did here on the HOF), but that’s it. No special appeals or any such thing.

    Years ago I took part in an organization called the Hall of Merit at the Baseball Think Factory. It taught me a valuable lesson. A huge difference exists between picks that I disagree with and mistakes. Each of us has to decide how much to weigh peak, prime, career, offense, defense, special considerations, and other factors. You can recognize others disagree with you without denigrating their thought process. Differences in opinion can be respected.

    I agree with this, and there’s nothing in my posts that denigrates anyone else’s though process (again, I am writing this as if Jaffe was responding to me directly, even though he wasn't). I simply said that the frame of reference for what followed was a career value perspective, and then discussed the HOF inductees in that light. I did not make a list of “mistake players”, except in the second post when I ticked off some outfielders that I don’t think make sterling company for a player like Tim Raines. And that list was fairly conventional, and not based solely on my idiosyncratic preferences--I'm not aware of any point of view that’s firmly pro-Harry Hooper or Lloyd Waner. Those are the players that a large number of informed people, of all various personal preferences, look at askance.

    There's something elitist about refusing to deal with an organization unless it only makes decisions you agree with. Frankly, it's rather immature. There's no moral virtue in taking your ball and going home. Just because the process won't listen to you all the time is no reason to go off in a huff. Hence my interest in the BBWAA.

    It’s not because they don’t “only make decisions I agree with”. It’s because I feel that the process itself is fundamentally flawed and is already beyond the point of being fixed. You of course are free to disagree with that viewpoint, free to think it’s 100% dead wrong, but it’s not elitist.

    In fact, if there is any elitism on display, it’s when Jaffe praises the BBWAA for being a better gateway than the “fans”, who he asserts would have put Roger Maris in the Hall. I don’t disagree with him, mind you--I myself brought up the All-Century team as an example of just how uninformed about baseball history the “fans” as group are. But if you want elitism, that’s the closest thing in either of our articles to it.

    I also don’t think there’s any moral virtue in tilting at windmills about matters that are really pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things. If you have some quixotic political position, then you might feel some moral virtue in fighting the good fight. But the baseball Hall of Fame?

    If you care deeply about the HOF, fine. If you care enough about to explain why you feel the selections they make really aren’t worth getting up in arms about (that would be me), fine. If you don’t care at all, fine. There is no moral virtue (or lack thereof) in any of these positions.

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  6. This comes a few years late, but...

    "If there is a rational, fair definition of what a Hall of Famer should be that would include Rube Marquard, I am not aware of it."

    The argument has to do with the context of his era. Besides the impressive feat of winning 19 decisions in a row, Marquard held the career strikeout record for NL left handers until Carl Hubbell came along. And he did win 201 games. It's very borderline, but I submit to you that it is at least rational.

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