Forget Mark McGwire Other Snubs the Real Hall of Fame Story

Mordecai BrownerAnalyst IJanuary 18, 2007

Yes, I speak of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Over the last thirty years, this sad clique of increasingly irrelevant men has desperately tried to make itself matter—at the expense of the institution it's supposed to serve.
Now, my problem isn't with the "statement" the writers made on the Steroid Era, or with the two idiots who submitted blank ballots, or even with the seven votes cast for Bret Saberhagen. No, my problem with the members of the BBWAA is that they stubbornly refuse to evaluate players according to the precedent set by the Hall of Fame itself—and instead choose, snobbishly, hubristically, to invent their own requirements.
Imagine two players, A and B.

Player A had 369 home runs and a .279 batting average in a career that spanned the 1940s and 1950s. A mostly one-dimensional corner outfielder, he appeared in six All-Star games, never finished higher than fourth in the MVP voting, and never played on a team that finished better than fourth in an eight-club league.

Player B, on the other hand, hit 382 home runs and had a .298 career average in the 70s and 80s. Also a corner outfielder, he appeared in eight All-Star games and won an MVP award (and finished in the top five five other times). He was an integral part of two pennant-winners, and only once did his team finish in the lower half of the standings. He had 1415 RBI to Player A's 1015.

Player A is Ralph Kiner, who was voted into the Hall of Fame by the writers in 1975. Player B is Jim Rice, who received 63.5 percent of the vote this year (it's 75 percent to get in) and has only two more years on the ballot. The error, for the record, is in keeping Rice out, not in enshrining Kiner—because both of them easily meet the standards set by the Hall's own precedent.

In 1970, the voters elected Lou Boudreau, who like Rice was an eight-time All-Star and an MVP winner—and whose numbers were nothing to write home about (his "Most Similar Batters" using Bill James' method are Edgar Renteria and Mark Grudzielanek). Before Boudreau, Ted Lyons, Dizzy Dean, Al Simmons, and Joe Cronin all got the nod—a quartet that by itself should automatically qualify Bert Blyleven, Rich Gossage, Andre Dawson, and Dave Concepcion for induction.

But the real historical precedent today's voters need to consider is that set by Rabbit Maranville. Playing in the 1910s and 1920s' an era when 2B Rogers Hornsby was routinely hitting .380—Maranville compiled a lifetime .258 BA and .318 a leadoff hitter. The only thing he ever led the league in was outs—three times. Still, he picked up 83 percent of the vote in 1954, a higher percentage than that earned by Ryne Sandberg, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, Phil Niekro, Joe Morgan, Willie McCovey, Lou Brock, and a whole host of other (better) players in the years after the writers started to take themselves too seriously.

In 1954, the Hall of Fame was a mere 18 years old. In many respects, the voters were still hashing out the standards for induction. Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s, the writers and the Veterans Committee had laid out a fairly clear rubric: The Hall wasn't just a place for the Ruths and Gehrigs of baseball; it was also created for the Ray Schalks and Bobby Wallaces of the world. Any notion of Cooperstown as a shrine reserved for the elite of the elite was one manufactured entirely by the BBWAA long after the Hall had established a far more populist identity.

My whole point here is this: If Chief Bender and his utterly unimpressive 212 wins get a Hall of Fame plaque the same size as the one belonging to Willie Mays, why exactly did Tommy John only get 23 percent of the vote this year? If Pie Traynor's middling power, subpar fielding, and failure to ever finish in the top five in the MVP voting earn him a spot in Cooperstown, why has Ron Santo been waiting by the phone for twenty-five years?

What's worse is that the writers' artificial standards have started to rub off on the rest of the country. In a recent ESPN poll, Tony Gwynn didn't even win induction. That's madness. And what about today's Veterans Committee? For the first forty-plus years of the Hall's existence, the veterans ensured that players like Joe Kelley and Lloyd Waner got the recognition they deserved. Now, the Committee seems to share the elitist standards of the BBWAA, which is saddening news for players like Santo and Tony Oliva.

The truth is that, under the real Hall of Fame standards, Gossage, Rice, John, Dawson, Blyleven, Concepcion, Lee Smith, and Jack Morris should have all gotten in on this year's ballot. I would also strongly argue for Don Mattingly, Steve Garvey, Dave Parker, Alan Tramell, and Dale Murphy. Albert Belle would be very close. Unless you're prepared to go to Cooperstown and take down a third of the plaques, each one of those guys belongs there.

And so forget about Mark McGwire and the Steroid Era—the real story of the 2007 Hall of Fame election is that Orel Hershiser with his 204 wins and his .576 career winning percentage is now off the ballot for good after receiving only 4.4 percent of the vote...and that Bob Welch with his 211 and .591 never had a prayer...but that Jesse Haines, a career number-three starter with 210 wins and a .571 winning percentage, has a permanent place among the game's greats.

I'd like that little curiosity explained to me before I hear so much as another word about Big Mac.