If we torched the National Baseball Hall of Fame, leaving only the odor of singed egos and scorched earth, then how should we go about rebuilding it into an elite institution worthy of the sport it aspires to honor? The answer, shouted loudly in “The Fray,” seems obvious: Dismantle the Veterans Committee and entrust the duty to the writers.
Not so fast. True, the veterans spent the better part of six decades larding the hall with mediocre ballplayers who, not coincidentally, happened to be former teammates, friends, and acquaintances. But for one brief, shining moment, the committee actually did what it was supposed to—that is, enshrine truly great ballplayers who had been lost to history—and understanding how and why points the way toward a superior method of selection. It starts with Lee Allen.
Allen enjoyed the kind of free and easy life that adult sports fans only dream of. He cut class to watch the Reds play at Crosley Field; wormed his way into a job with the team’s radio play-by-play crew; wrote a handful of books about baseball and a widely read column in the Sporting News; and, in 1959, became the Hall of Fame’s second historian. In that post, Allen became baseball’s resident scholar, unearthing the statistics of forgotten players and slowly molding the hall into a serious research institution. (Indeed, Allen’s findings, with those of many others, led to the publication of Macmillan’s first Baseball Encyclopedia in 1969.)
More important, Allen became an unofficial adviser to the Veterans Committee. During its first two decades, the Veterans Committee drew on incomplete statistical records of the baseball past, making it understandable that the old-timers relied on their memories or deferred to their friends when ensconcing new players in the hall. Beginning in ‘61, however, Allen supplied them with new statistical information and biographical data on several neglected 19th-century players. The veterans elected almost all of them. Bill James dubbed these players, among the best veteran picks, the “Lee Allen selections”: Billy Hamilton, John Clarkson, Tim Keefe, John Ward, and Pud Galvin, among them. When Allen died of a heart attack in 1969, the committee returned to its anecdotal selection methods.
Election. If you measure greatness objectively, it shouldn’t matter whether you turn the formal selection of Hall of Famers over to sportswriters, Veterans Committees, or packs of feral dogs. I’m not proposing that a computer program separate Hall of Fame stats from those that are merely very good. That’s impossible. Even Total Baseball’s admirable ranking system places a good player like Bobby Grich ahead of a spectacular player like Roberto Clemente. But we can establish a few objective measures of hall aptitude by slightly adjusting baseball’s career milestones. First, grant automatic admission to every player who records 300 wins, gathers 2,873 hits (Babe Ruth’s total), or hits 493 homeruns (Lou Gehrig’s total). Excepting players who are still active or have retired and aren’t yet eligible, those metrics qualify 59 players for automatic admission.
That leaves us with a lot of empty wall space in the new hall. But embracing any other objective measure of offensive excellence would excessively punish legendary hitters, such as Home Run Baker, who played in the pre-1919 Dead Ball Era, excessively reward those average batters, such as Heinie Manush who played in the Live Ball Era, and harm brilliant fielders who had so-so offensive numbers, such as Rabbit Maranville. Because the nature of the game has changed so drastically, the same applies to the pitchers. A couple of fellas who won 225 games in the early days shouldn’t be allowed to touch Sandy Koufax’s rosin bag. Of the 188 members of the old Hall of Fame (excluding Negro Leaguers), I’ve,, and who were robbed in the first place.
The old hall was a bottomless pit of mediocrity. As I argued earlier, the hall steadily defined excellence down to the point where the unholy trinity of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance are in the hall. The new hall will establish a minimum standard for entry: Roy Campanella for hitters and Don Drysdale for pitchers. All those better than Campanella or Drysdale earn admission; all those worse do not. Deciding who is as good as Campanella or Drysdale, of course, will require dispassionate analysis and passionate argument at the other end. There’s not enough space even on the Internet to provide an elaborate justification for each player enrolled in my Reformed Hall of Fame, but I’ll happily enter The Fray and defend each and every selection with Slate’s readers. (I’ll collect the best exchanges for a subsequent column.)
Ideally, the hall’s selection committee should look a lot like the Federal Reserve Board: seven members, all of them baseball historians or mathematicians, nominated by the hall’s president and confirmed by both the owners and the players union. (One could argue that if the Fed can effectively manage the nation’s monetary policy, then seven men shouldn’t have any trouble stocking the Hall of Fame.) The rest of the rules remain more or less the same: The committee meets once each year, players become eligible five years after retirement, and election comes by winning a simple majority of committee votes (not the 75 percent required by the veterans and the writers). This effectively ends baseball’s two-tiered selection system, with one procedure for the “best” players and another for lesser players, Negro Leaguers, managers, executives, and pioneers; every Hall of Famer is elected by the same committee and is equal in the eyes of the institution. To better inform its decisions, the new selection committee may accept amicus curiae briefs from other historians, fans, or even the players themselves, all of which has been common practice with the Veterans Committee for years.
Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson. The Pete Rose argument always follows a familiar course: Rose has more hits than anyone who ever played the game, but … in 1989, the commissioner’s office banned him for life because he might or might not have wagered on major-league games. This second fact, at least in terms of hall eligibility, is essentially meaningless. The Hall of Fame is not owned or operated by Major League Baseball; it chooses to consider only eligible players because it wants to, not because it has to. For that reason, the new selection committee should ignore baseball’s life sentence and elect Rose to the hall on its own choosing. If Major League Baseball doesn’t want Pete Rose to serve as a manager or an executive, fine. But why should that affect his status with an institution that baseball doesn’t govern?
Jackson, banned from the game in 1920, faces the same dilemma and the same solution. An article in the 1998 edition of the Baseball Research Journal argued that while Jackson sports the third-highest batting average in baseball history, behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby, he doesn’t, according to the author’s mathematical formula, have “Hall of Fame numbers.” Either way, he had a longer career and better numbers than Campanella, so he’s in, too.
Managers, executives, and pioneers. The committee re-enshrines all 16 of the previous hall’s managers and adds two new ones: Billy Martin, who took the Yankees to three World Series, and Whitey Herzog, who took the Cardinals to three. Both lag behind only Sparky Anderson and Tommy Lasorda, both already in the hall, as the best eligible managers of the last quarter-century. The omission of Marvin Miller, the labor leader who brought free agency to baseball in 1977, from the pioneer category, is as mystifying as it is stupid. For his work on behalf of players, the committee adds him to the hall, too.
The Negro Leagues. In 1971, a specially appointed committee selected nine Negro League players, including Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and Cool Papa Bell, for induction, and then disbanded and turned the responsibility over to the veterans. Without adequate statistics, the enshrinement of Negro League players underscores the need to have competent historians at the helm of any selection committee. Who should the hall add next? Keith Olbermann suggests Bizz Mackey, a switch-hitting catcher who played from 1919 to 1950—a career longer than Pudge Rodriguez is old. In the league’s first all-star game, Mackey started ahead of Josh Gibson.
What’s left? Only the current and retired players who, based on their career numbers to date, warrant. Yes, it even includes Cal Ripken.