Jim Henneman: Searching For One Word That Defines A Hall Of Famer … Even Those In The Back Row

Any discussion of the Baseball Hall of Fame, an occasional diversion to the Super Bowl and eventual start of spring training, usually leads to a complex question that unfortunately doesn’t have a simple answer.

It usually follows a couple of opening inquiries such as “how come so-and-so isn’t in?” or “how can so-and-so be in if so-and-so isn’t?” Intriguing questions for sure, ones begging for ensuing debate. And ultimately leading to THE question.

How do you define a Hall of Famer? The answer, of course, is you don’t. Some have tried, all have failed.

It would be nice if identifying a Hall of Famer fell into the category of “I don’t know what it takes, but I’d know if I saw one.” Sorry, it doesn’t work that way, which I once tried to explain to Connie Robinson, who knows a thing or two about Hall of Famers.

“Why isn’t Boog Powell in the Hall of Fame?” Connie asked, voicing support for the former O’s slugger, who batted behind her husband in the lineup and provided a big target for his throws to first base. “Boog doesn’t make the cut,” was my easiest, and gentlest, explanation, something of an irony considering a conversation I’ll get to later.

It’s a lot like trying to explain greatness, brilliance, excellence or beauty — you might have an idea, but you can’t explain it. For simplicity’s sake, let’s go with great — we can probably agree that you have to be great to be elected to a Hall of Fame.

But if there can be six degrees of separation, then surely there can be three separations of greatness, right? OK, you might be a little skeptical. Just try to keep an open mind.

We’re just talking all baseball here, and in that regard I think there are three kinds of greatness — the obvious, no-brainer type (think Willie, Mickey, Hank, the Babe, etc.); the experienced kind, displayed throughout time (you can put Brooks, Frank and Cal in this group), and the learned kind, where the track record of time and maybe the educational influence of peers (both theirs and yours) plays a role (this would be the spot where some of those “so-and-sos” fit, those who are in and those who aren’t).

Perhaps nobody represents that “third stage of greatness” better than Jim Kaat, the left-hander who pitched for 25 years and was elected to the Hall of Fame by a Veterans Committee two months ago. One of his many qualities is humility, never more on display than when he learned of his induction.

Acknowledging his candidacy depended as much on his longevity as his ability and that he might be something of a controversial selection, Kaat said he was “very happy to take a seat in the back row.” Those words say a lot about him — and the Hall of Fame.

Being in the room is all that matters. There isn’t a back row at the Hall of Fame, but if there was it would be crowded. That’s how I gauge the three stages of greatness when it comes to the Hall of Fame. There may be separation between the front and back of the class, but make no mistake, there is a lot of greatness in between.

One thing needs to be understood in this conversation. There are no inferior players in the major leagues, and I believe no undeserving Hall of Famers. Some are better than others, but there is no such thing as a “bad” player — or phony inductee. If you disagree with that assumption, shame on you, go to the corner and stay there until you come to your senses and then we can talk.

And it needs to be emphasized that there are no weak candidates for the Hall of Fame. Players must have 10 years on their big-league resume, more than enough qualification and double the average career, to even be considered. And then there is a screening committee. Just getting onto a ballot is reward enough for the overwhelming majority.

As a comparison, I checked with my contact at Loyola and learned that 10.8 percent of the 2021 graduating class earned summa cum laude honors. The number startled me enough to make me wonder if my old school was easier than when I was there, which I seriously doubt, or just had more intelligent students, which I don’t. And when I checked with ever-available Alexa, she told me one-third of University of Maryland graduates earned magna cum laude or summa cum laude honors.

I’m going to cut to the chase here in an effort to put it into perspective. Major League Baseball has been in operation for more than a century and a half. There have been more than 22,000 players, 268 of whom are in the Hall of Fame, both figures including Negro League players, now included in MLB records.

Of those numbers, 183 (of 18,918) have been elected by voting members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America during their initial stage of eligibility. Those numbers equate to less than one percent (.00967, to be precise). I think that qualifies as summa cum laude. No fringe benefits here.

But, while a 4.0 might qualify for summa honors, there aren’t any automatics here. Career totals for Wins Above Replacement have become something of a guide lately, but there’s still much room for debate. It’s somewhat accepted that the average Hall of Famer has between 50 and 70, kind of a wide range, and I’ve seen 53.3 as a more precise number. But there’s plenty of room for speculation here — if that number is average there have to be more than a few on the low end. And so the debate goes on.

Years ago I asked a veteran BBWAA member for whom I have great respect and who is noted as a “tough” voter about what he looked for in a Hall of Fame candidate. After a thoughtful pause his response was: “Dominant player at his position over a 10-year period, multiple All-Star selections, significant presence in MVP voting — and postseason numbers as a bonus.”

After letting those qualifications register, my response was “Boog Powell checks all those boxes,” which would’ve gotten Connie Robinson’s approval, but only served to prove the point that this is an extremely selective process. Boog did get five votes in the same 1983 vote that resulted in Brooks Robinson’s induction, the first one in which I participated, but I feel obliged to tell Boog, with I’m sure no apology needed, that I wasn’t one of the five.

As one of those Hall of Fame voters for the last 40 years, I’m admittedly sensitive and defensive of the process. I’m also bothered by occasional rants from disbelievers that the Hall of Fame houses hordes of underachievers — or, in rare cases, a “bunch of rowdy, drunken racists and cheaters.”

And, believe it or not, I believe I’ve come up with a word that defines a Hall of Famer.

Rare.

Even those in the back row.

Jim Henneman can be contacted at JimH@pressboxonline.com

Photo Credit: Milo Stewart/National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

Issue 273: February/March 2022

Originally published Feb. 16, 2022