For as long as I can remember, at least as long as I’ve been a participant, the annual debate about baseball’s Hall of Fame has had its own sound of the season. And it’s not as warm and fuzzy as roasting chestnuts — more like that song you can’t get out of your head but can’t think of its name.
The debate has usually revolved around a simple question: “How many is too many?” That despite the fact that only roughly 1 percent of all those who have played have a plaque in Cooperstown, which would seem to make the Hall of Fame a rather exclusive fraternity.
So, while wrestling with the pandemic version of the debate and researching the 2020 ballot for the next induction class, it was a welcome distraction when longtime friend Scott Dance guided me to a column written by Mike Petriello on MLB.com that I had somehow missed. In his piece, featuring charts revealing data that goes beyond statistics, Petriello asks a much different question: “Is the Hall leaving out too many players?”
As is often the case in these debates, Petriello’s piece probably raises more questions than it answers, but it certainly brings another conversation to the table. But for purposes of this column I’m sticking to the version of, “How many (left out) is too many?”
In the interest of full disclosure, this will be the 38th time I’ve had a Hall of Fame vote. My ballots for the most part have left few of the 10 available spots empty, so it’s safe to say I do not fall into the category of voters who traditionally have left too many players out. If anything, I’ve more often been accused of not setting the bar high enough.
I don’t agree with or apologize for that, and I’ll try to explain why.
No doubt, you’ve often heard the rationale that “it doesn’t say the Hall of Very Good.” I don’t argue that. But neither does it say the “Hall of Greatness.” Nor the “Hall of Excellence.” It simply says the “Hall of Fame.”
We’re not talking Summa Cum Laude, Magna Cum Laude or Cum Laude here. There isn’t a quiz to get into the Hall of Fame. You do have to pass the eye test, however, and everyone’s vision is not the same. Somewhere in the equation there is paper-thin separation between the very best and the best … or the very good and the good. But no one has yet been able to define it and no one ever will.
There is, I believe, a relatively easy starting point. It can be said that anyone, everyone, who makes it to the big leagues is a good player. If you dispute that basic fact then it’s really the end of discussion. To those who occasionally use the phrase “he’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” my reply is a simple one — if he wasn’t good, you never would have seen him play.
From that point we can argue about good, average, very good, exceptional, excellent, great or whatever adjective flips your bat without coming to a universal conclusion. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t helpful parameters.
The first is the initial requirement just to get on the ballot — 10 years of service time in Major League Baseball. I can’t imagine anyone disputing that qualification and, in fact, would make the argument that anyone reaching that plateau automatically earns a spot on the ballot. If that would be setting the bar too low, so be it.
As it is, those with 10 years of service still have to survive a screening committee, admittedly much more lenient than the general electorate. After that it’s up to the individual voters to establish their own standard. A personal one begins with the question: “Was he a dominant player in his era?”
That still leaves wiggle room. I once asked a longtime, well-respected voter for his definition of a Hall of Famer, as if in fact there really was such a thing. After a few minutes of serious thought and discussion, the summation of his response was that a player needed to be dominant in his era and have been an All-Star and MVP sometime in his career. Under those admittedly strict guidelines Boog Powell would qualify, but someone like Eddie Murray would not, though the latter’s MVP vote totals throughout a 10-year period would easily carry the vote.
Still, you get the point. After all that, it still takes a 75 percent majority of the vote (412 ballots were mailed this year). A landslide by anyone’s definition.
Both sides of the “how many are too many?” debate are covered as I look at this year’s Hall of Fame ballot. I have eight carryovers from last year, when admittedly some borderline candidates were included as well as excluded. With two of the maximum number of 10 slots open, the first order of business is to determine if those eight — Curt Schilling, Omar Vizquel, Scott Rolen, Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield, Todd Helton, Jeff Kent and Bobby Abreu — are stronger candidates than the 11 players appearing on the ballot for the first time.
Notably missing, as they have been for each of the eight years they’ve been eligible, are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who have been the poster boys of the so-called steroid era. It was their debut on the ballot in 2013, when no one was elected, that helped create the logjam that has been broken during the last four years, with 13 players inducted in that span.
I have never felt that it was up to the voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America to determine eligibility and, in fact, voted for both Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro when they first appeared on the ballot. There have also been some players either inducted or still eligible for whom I have voted who were suspected and/or accused of having used performance enhancing drugs, but none with the kind of evidence I believe exists with Bonds and Clemens.
In the past I have not felt guilty refraining from voting for them at least in part because there were other qualified players who deserved a vote. It would be hard to make that point this year. However, with at least five other players associated with PED use on the ballot, it’s getting close to either all in or none in.
In other words, it’s complicated.
As for my ballot, I use the allotted time — the ballot must be mailed and postmarked by Dec. 31. But it’s pretty safe to say it’ll include too many — or two few. Or both.
We’ll make this reader/writer appreciation month and acknowledge Lee Lowenfish’s suggestion for a new name for the MVP honors awarded every year by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. From 1944-2019, the plaques bore the name of Kenesaw Mountain Landis, baseball’s first commissioner.
Landis was widely credited for saving baseball following the 1919 gambling scandal involving the Chicago White Sox, but as several recent winners of the award have pointed out, he was also instrumental during baseball’s long era of segregation.
The BBWAA dropped Landis’ name this year. Lowenfish’s suggestion is to rename the awards in honor of Frank Robinson, the only player to be named MVP in both the American and National leagues, as well as the first black manager in the major leagues — along with his numerous Hall of Fame credentials. It’s certainly worth consideration.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com
Photo Credit: Milo Stewart Jr./National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum
Originally published Dec. 16, 2020