Gates Brown, Bill Buckner and a Closer Look at Hall of Fame Balloting
The Baseball Hall of Fame—holy ground for America’s national pastime. Within Cooperstown’s pantheon are honored 296 of the diamond’s royalty. Some are gods; some many have never heard of. A few don’t truly belong; others, having received the sport’s ultimate reward, remain under-appreciated.
Each of them was immortalized by vote, a process vulnerable to an array of human foibles. Whereas most Hall of Famers fully deserve their honor, more than a few waited for enshrinement long after their achievements warranted such recognition (sometimes for decades), or, occasionally in the case of the Veterans Committee, wormed their way in via cronyism, inflated reputation or voter incompetence.
Because (since 1958) the ballot permits—but does not require—voting for up to 10 selections, some very mediocre players garner votes. Often, this safeguard prohibits too many candidates from making the cut—lest the Hall grow even more overpopulated than it already is—although it occasionally detracts votes from worthy players who should make it in but wait many unnecessary years, or never make it at all.
In 1981, Gates Brown received a vote. A talented batsman who, at his retirement, stood third all-time in pinch hits, Gates enjoyed a superlative year as a sub during the Detroit Tigers championship season of 1968.
Coming off the bench and delivering key hits time and again, Brown contributed mightily to Detroit’s pennant run. A career total of 582 hits, however, stands as far from the stuff of legend as the 119-loss Tigers of 2003 stood from first place. Yet Brown shared 27th spot in the voting with five other nondescript players.
This means that some voter penciled Brown as a selection over 17 far more Hall-worthy players. If the top nine vote-getters are excluded, which any sane person—including, presumably, the voter in question—would when making Gates one of the picks on the ballot, then Brown received a vote instead of later inductees Luis Aparicio, Bill Mazeroski, Orlando Cepeda and Richie Ashburn, as well as Roger Maris and Maury Wills.
Remember, electors are chosen for their expert knowledge of the game.
Poor Bill Buckner. Never mind that he won a batting crown, seven times hit .300, and came within a season and a half of the elite 3,000-hit club—his outstanding career is forever lost in the glare of a single gaffe that didn't send the Boston Red Sox to another cursed World Series defeat (it merely enabled the hard-luck Bosox to drop the Series the next evening).
Buckner isn’t Hall of Fame material, but his numbers—including, ironically, a solid fielding record (and the penultimate mark for assists in a season by a first baseman)—exceed that of many Hall of Famers. Yet he qualified for the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) ballot only once, earning a paltry 10 votes, which permanently dropped him from eligibility.
Considering the ballot’s hangers-on who collect comparable numbers over multiple elections, it’s obvious that voters ignored Buckner’s 22 seasons because of one unfortunate occurrence.
Case-in-point: one-trick pony Don Larsen. Yes, that lone trick, a perfect game in the 1956 World Series, amounted to one of the most fantastic feats in baseball history. But the Hall isn’t permitted to enshrine players for a single event.
Yet Larsen received no fewer than 22 votes for 15 consecutive years. Not big numbers, but far more generous than his career totals: an 81-91 record (including a 3-21 season), a solitary 100-strikeout year, and an ERA often topping 4.00.
Even so, Larsen’s relatively hefty vote totals—entirely attributable to a spectacular moment in a lackluster 14-year career—left in the dust such terrific, if not Hall-caliber, hurlers as Jim Perry, Billy Pierce and Dave McNally.
A voter shows himself more misguided to reward a player for one triumphant effort than to punish a player for one catastrophic incident.
Such specious voting extends to Johnny Vander Meer, who was just as liable to walk a batter as strike him out. Vandy’s wildness culminated in a meer 119-121 career record—yet, thanks to his consecutive no-hitters, he polled twice as many votes in 1966 as Arky Vaughan, one of the best shortstops ever (not to mention further outdistancing Ernie Lombardi, Hal Newhouser, Billy Herman and Bob Lemon—each eminently more deserving than he).
In fact, Vander Meer, who consistently finished higher than at least half a dozen future Hall of Famers during his years of eligibility, outpaced Newhouser all eight years that they appeared together on the ballot.
Whether or not one views Newhouser as a bona fide Hall of Famer, he did win back-to-back MVPs—and nearly a third—whereas Vander Meer never finished higher than 18th in MVP polling (incidentally, the very season he tossed his no-nos—so how could writers rank Vander Meer so highly for his career when they didn't even rank him highly for his season of glory?).
Averaging 72 votes a year, Vander Meer’s claim to fame was taken too literally by some writers.
Whether the BBWAA has always known what’s it’s doing when it comes to casting Hall of Fame ballots is debatable (it’s done a largely admirable job in recent decades). However, one can peruse the vote totals of virtually any year and drop a jaw at who scored higher than whom.
As in 1949, for example, when Pepper Martin—a scrappy hitter and, for the time, terror on the base paths—parlayed a pair of heroic World Series performances that made him a legend of the Depressed Midwest into more votes than 25 future Hall of Famers. And even though quite a few of those eventual entrants likely didn’t merit enshrinement, they undoubtedly enjoyed more laudable careers than Pepper. (Certainly Goose Goslin, Sam Rice and Zack Wheat—absolutely deserving—should have scored higher than Martin.)
But that’s the human element of the Hall of Fame, and it’s still preferable to some statistically based program like the college BCS—heaven forbid, some egghead ever devises something similar for Cooperstown…
The 2012 election likely will usher into Cooperstown several great players from among 27 candidates. And if Barry Larkin and Jack Morris, the two favorites, ascend to Baseball Heaven—or even Tim Raines and several borderline candidates—then the BBWAA surely will have done its job.
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