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WHY CARE ABOUT THE HALL OF FAME?
It’s easy not to care about the Baseball Hall of Fame. Founded upon a long-debunked myth regarding the sport’s creation by a future Civil War general in a cow pasture, the museum—the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, to use its full name—is tucked away in central New York, roughly 200 miles from the nearest big league ballpark, Yankee Stadium. You could live your whole life without stumbling upon it.
From its origin in 1936, the Hall’s selection processes have been arcane, resulting in confusion among voters as well as mistakes in who has been recognized and who has been bypassed. Via the myopia of the Baseball Writers Association of America and the cronyism of the Veterans Committee—the two primary voting bodies—numerous so-called “greats” have been inducted despite having not been so great, many of them hailing from the shameful period when baseball excluded black players.
More recently, the process has become cloaked in sanctimony. A sizable faction of writers who failed to recognize and report the infiltration of performance-enhancing drugs into the game has attempted to negate the accomplishments of some of its top players from the last quarter-century, players whose desire to gain a competitive edge by any means wouldn’t have been out of place 50 or 100 years ago. Suddenly, these voters are biochemistry experts, able to extrapolate from scant scientific studies the impact of those drugs on player performance, and its connections to the changes the game saw in the 1990s and 2000s.
Meanwhile, a culture war that has raged within the game for more than a decade has spilled over onto this front, as an army of stat nerds who have changed the way baseball is managed, viewed, and consumed attempt to revise history, and to bury the authority of expert voters in an avalanche of spreadsheets and formulas that even some proponents don’t fully understand. Thanks to the 24/7 coverage on the Internet that gives everybody with an opinion a megaphone, the annual election cycle has become inescapable, if not unbearable, at least for the six or seven weeks between the ballot’s unveiling in November and the announcement of the voting results in January.
A stuffy private institution that predominantly honors dead white males, some of them virulent racists from over a century ago? That lacks intellectual consistency with regards to whom it honors? That’s cloaked in a morality seemingly lifted from the 1950s, and has found ways to exclude both the all-time hits leader (Pete Rose) and the all-time home run leader (Barry Bonds)? That congratulates itself for memorializing a sport that long ago lost its hold on the American public? It might be easier to root for somebody to bulldoze the Hall of Fame out of existence, or at least to acknowledge its irrelevance, and move on.
Indeed, whether you’re a traditionalist or a revisionist, it’s tempting to walk away from this train wreck—or sprint at Rickey Henderson–like speed. You have no need of crusty old men telling you things were better back in their day. You know greatness when you see it, and you have the power to define it on your own terms, in your own personal pantheon. You don’t need a clunky bronze plaque hanging in a remote museum to validate what you hold dear.
I can’t say I blame you if you feel that way. Having spent 15 years studying the Hall’s contradictions and byzantine ways, I’ve thrown my hands up in despair more often than the average Cubs fan (pre-2016, at least), sworn at those who have held power over the institution and its voting processes, driven the people around me crazy while railing against the wrongheadedness that seems to predominate, and empathized with players crushed by the cruelty of the proceedings.
Yet in spite of the litany above, I do care. Well beyond the 350,000 people who annually visit the seven buildings and 50,000 square feet of the museum in Cooperstown, the Hall is a place that millions of fans flock to in their mind’s eye every time they take stock of excellence or steep themselves in history—to a degree that’s unparalleled in other sports. Would Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb succeed in today’s game? Does Roger Clemens belong there given the allegations regarding the chemicals he may have ingested? Will Alan Trammell ever get in? Has Mike Trout already sealed the deal? Seemingly every fan and media member has an opinion on such questions, one that they’ll happily advance via barstool, blog, broadcast, or ballot. No sports hall of fame’s membership is so hallowed, nor its qualifications so debated, or its voting process so dissected. When has anyone cared to connect a particular voter to a candidate for the Pro Football or Basketball Halls of Fame?
The universality of that passion is why I believe that the Hall still matters, and so long as enough of us who love baseball believe that it does, it can remain relevant. Don’t get me wrong; the tens of thousands of fans who flock to Cooperstown for induction weekend each year may feel that the place suits their needs just fine, oblivious to the aforementioned complaints. Even so, the vast majority of fans and media has some beef with the Hall of Fame, some wrong that they would right if given a chance. You think two-time MVP Dale Murphy belongs, I swear Edgar Martinez’s greatness transcends the limitations of the designated hitter role, and the guy at the end of the bar still thinks Pete Rose got a raw deal.
Like ghastly insects trapped in amber, the mistakes preserved within the Hall of Fame aren’t going away. As convenient as it may be to wish that we could pack the plaques of some of the least-deserving honorees in the Hall’s dusty basement, however, I prefer to focus on improving the institution, primarily by ensuring that the right players are recognized, both from the recent past and from further back. To do that requires acknowledging that many of the Hall’s mistakes owed to the primitive quality of information available at the time.
In the decades before television, baseball carved its spot in the sport’s fan’s psyche thanks to the attraction of those daily parcels of numbers, the box scores. Fans might not get more than a static glimpse of their favorite player via the occasional newspaper photograph, but they could follow along with their exploits on a daily basis, and compare their tallied achievements to those of others in the Sunday papers. Beyond that, even the supposedly well-informed voter found detailed statistical information harder to come by. Annual publications such as the Spalding and Reach guides, Who’s Who in Baseball (est. 1912), The Little Red Book of Baseball (est. 1926), and The Sporting News Baseball Register (est. 1940) contained year-by-year stats of active players as well as key major league records, but they were subject to errors, and far from comprehensive. The cover of the 1920 issue of Who’s Who featured Ruth, whose record-setting, paradigm-shifting 29 homers in 1919 went completely unmentioned in its pages, which did report his unremarkable total of seven stolen bases. Even the 1935 edition, on the eve of the Bambino’s last lap around the majors, lacked a column for home runs.
The sport’s first attempt at an encyclopedia, George Moreland’s Balldom: The Britannica of Baseball, was published in 1914; it covered rosters and records for teams from 1871 through 1913, seasonal leaders, and lifetime statistics for the game’s greats, but wasn’t updated again until 1927. In 1922, BBWAA founding member Ernest Lanigan—who played a role in in popularizing the RBI and other statistics, and who became the Hall’s historian in 1948—broke new ground with his The Baseball Cyclopedia, which alphabetically listed the name, position, teams, and years played for over 3,500 major leaguers as well as annual league leaders, World Series records, and so on; it was updated annually for 12 years. The Official Baseball Encyclopedia, first published in 1951, expanded upon Lanigan’s work by including birth and death dates of players, but still contained only games played and batting average for hitters, and won-loss records for pitchers. Not until 1969 did the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia, encompassing every player in major league history, arrive with a fuller body of pitching and hitting statistics.
Thus, early Hall of Fame voters did not have it easy in comparing players to their predecessors on statistical grounds; they didn’t even have home/road splits in order to take full measure of which players were helped or hurt by their surroundings, nor could they quickly compare the scoring context of two players separated by history.
Thanks to the wonders of the Internet and the diligence of many people, today we can do all of that with a few clicks. But even then, as comfortably familiar as batting average, runs batted in, won-loss records, and earned run averages may be, they’re not descriptive enough to be very useful for the cross-era comparisons that are the stuff of Hall debates. After all, it makes no more sense to compare hitters and pitchers from 1930 (when teams scored 5.55 runs per game and collectively hit .296) directly against those from 1968 (when teams scored 3.42 runs per game and collectively hit .237) than to compare mile times for a Model T Ford and a Ferrari Testarossa. While those two years constitute the twentieth century’s extremes, dramatic fluctuations in scoring levels—driven by changing rules and conditions—have been the norm throughout baseball history, not the exception.
To keep the Hall of Fame relevant in the twenty-first century, we need to pull it out of the twentieth. The election process needs reconsideration and reform, expansions of the ballot beyond the current 10-slot maximum, which has been in place since 1936, when the majors were roughly half their current size, and of the voting body beyond the BBWAA writers and assorted codgers who sit on the smaller committees (the Veterans Committee has evolved into four era-based committees as of 2016). As I’ll show in Chapter 7, when measured against the level of player representation from the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth, the various voting bodies have been particularly stingy in honoring players not only from the 1990s, but from the 1980s and 1970s as well. Much of the Hall’s foot traffic and revenue depends on the patronage of fans who visit to see their favorites celebrated. Ruth, Willie Mays, and Mickey Mantle won’t drive attendance forever; failure to keep pace by equitably representing recent eras will doom the Hall to obsolescence.
One key part of a twenty-first-century approach means employing twenty-first-century tools to take the measure of candidates. Tools such as on-base percentage, Adjusted ERA (ERA+), Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), or Wins Above Replacement (WAR) may not have existed during the careers in question, but at this point, they permeate the game. Via WAR and other tools, we can better estimate the impact of every player both current and past—not only on offense, but on defense as well. To do so means embracing a statistical lexicon that goes beyond the numbers traditionally found on the back of baseball cards, and often involves strange new acronyms. That lexicon and the information it conveys may fuel the old school’s derision amid debates over the annual Most Valuable Player and Cy Young awards—call it “The War on WAR,” a subject I’ll take up in Chapter 6. But to one degree or another, such concepts are now in every major league front office, deployed when teams build their rosters or place dollar values on player performance. Hell, as of 2014, WAR is on the back of Topps baseball cards.
The foundation of my approach to comparing players for their suitability as Hall of Fame candidates is my JAWS system, a self-consciously christened acronym for the Jaffe WAR Score, which I introduced at Baseball Prospectus during the 2004 election cycle and have refined over the years. JAWS uses WAR to estimate a player’s total hitting, pitching, and defensive contribution while accounting for the wide variations in scoring levels from era to era and ballpark to ballpark. Via JAWS, each candidate can be objectively compared on the basis of career or peak value to the players at his position who are already in the Hall.
In addition to getting people to scream at the first hint of its approach—wait, that’s Jaws—the stated goal of my system is to improve or at least maintain the institution’s standards by identifying and endorsing for election those players who are at least as good as the average Hall of Famer at the position. That applies not just to recently retired players hailing from a particularly offense-friendly era, but to long-retired players slighted by the process and in danger of slipping through the cracks of history. More than anything, the idea is to bring intellectual consistency to an often disorganized debate. Because of its utility, JAWS has gained mainstream exposure in recent years, cited by actual voters—some as an aid in filling out their ballots, others as a target to rail against, like those teenagers doing donuts on their lawn—and included within the coverage at MLB Network’s MLB Now show.
The idea of deploying WAR and other advanced statistics for use in Hall of Fame debates owes much to Bill James, who in the late 1970s defined the search for objective knowledge about baseball as “sabermetrics,” a neologism arising out of the acronym for the Society for American Baseball Research, SABR. While James’s annual Baseball Abstracts made bestseller lists as he reached for a mass audience, his ideas struggled to get mainstream acceptance in the last quarter of the twentieth century, particularly inside the game. His work did find enough of an audience to fuel a whole lot of the statistical advances of the twenty-first, and eventually the game found room for him. That the Boston Red Sox hired James to join their front office in the winter of 2002–03 and went on to end their 86-year championship drought and win three World Series during his tenure was hardly a coincidence. In fact, it has helped to validate the application of sabermetrics, though such triumphs remain a sore subject among Luddite baseball scribes and fans.
In his 1985 and 2001 editions of The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstracts as well as his 1994 book The Politics of Glory (reissued in paperback the following year as Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?), James turned his attention to Cooperstown using tools that provided objective measurements, such as Similarity Scores, the Hall of Fame Monitor, the Hall of Fame Standards, and Win Shares to advance his arguments. While those tools may not have had much impact on actual voters, they helped build an audience increasingly attuned to the annual election cycle. The aging of those tools and the influx of new knowledge into the field—starting with better all-encompassing value metrics than Win Shares—spurred my own efforts to analyze the annual BBWAA and Veterans Committee ballots, first for Baseball Prospectus, and then for Sports Illustrated.
I’ll explain more about the basics of the Hall of Fame, JAWS, and other sabermetrics concepts relevant to this book in the next few chapters, but before we leave this one, I should lay something out.
This book covers players inside and outside the Hall whose careers generally exist on the spectrum between very good and truly great. I couldn’t stand in the box against the worst of them, and as I was born in 1969, I wasn’t fortunate enough to witness most of them, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate their abilities or their accomplishments any more than a student of American history can’t appreciate those of Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt. Baseball players and presidents both leave mountains of data in their wake, data that we can sift through to help make sense of their careers—data that informs stories, and can even tell them.
My focus on that data should not be taken to mean that I don’t appreciate the more visceral thrills of watching a game: the awe of seeing the bottom drop out of a perfect curveball, the grace of an acrobatic defensive play, the pent-up excitement unleashed by a towering home run, the day-to-day tension of a great playoff race. I love all of those things, but my waxing poetic to differentiate those thrills will be only so helpful in making sense of the continuum along which the players in this book sit.
Whether you’re a stathead already at home with JAWS, WAR, DRS, and so on, or a newcomer to this strange land of acronyms and decimal points, I’m hopeful that The Cooperstown Casebook will help you gain a new appreciation for the Hall of Fame even amid its more frustrating aspects. I’m optimistic that as you read these essays and survey the landscape at each position in Chapters 9 through 18, you’ll find new reasons to care about who’s in, who’s out, and how that happened. For many fans and even voters, the numbers crunched herein have already helped to illuminate the greatness not only of familiar icons but also crucially underappreciated players who deserve their days in the sun. Sometimes those numbers jibe with what we think we know, and sometimes they challenge long-standing beliefs (spoiler alert: I love Sandy Koufax, but JAWS does not; if you destroy the binding of this book while tossing it across the room, please consider buying a new copy).
Beyond those numbers is a story of an institution and its gatekeepers, both of which are far from perfect. But rather than give up on this unholy mess, I’m a firm believer that there’s more value in appreciating what’s there, with an eye toward ensuring the Hall’s continued relevance in the twenty-first century.
So away we go …
Copyright © 2017 by Jay Jaffe
Foreword copyright © 2017 by Peter Gammons
Copyright © 2012–2016 Time Inc.