Crowd the Hall

About two decades before the birth of Jesus Christ, construction began on what some historians have called the first Hall of Fame. It was conceived of by the Roman Emperor Augustus as a way to honor his gods, his ancestors, and himself. Hardly discerning when it came to his statuary, Augustus loaded his personal Hall of Fame with 108 busts, some hauled back to Rome from far-off lands, others commissioned by Augustus himself, others yet commemorating military triumphs.

Earlier this month, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown elected its 293rd member in Andre Dawson. He will have to make due with a bronze plaque instead of a full-on marble statue. At initial glance, 293 seems like a lot of members. After all, the history of baseball in America pales in comparison with that of conquests in Rome, and Cooperstown is in many ways more notable for the players it leaves out than the ones it admits.

This year, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar found themselves on the cusp of entry, scraping in vain at the impregnable golden fences of Cooperstown. Next year, they should be admitted. But what makes the Hall of Fame dynamic – as an institution more than as an actual building – is the list of men left on the outside. The Hall of Fame is defined by that invisible line that separates the worthy from the unworthy. It is the line over which celebrated men like Marvin Miller and Buck O’Neill, Gil Hodges and Ron Santo can never cross.

The location of this line, this threshold, is hard to place. Once upon a time, it sat squarely between numbers. It sat between 499 and 500, between 299 and 300, between 2,999 and 3,000. Only certain circumstances – misdeeds, injuries, intangibles – could compromise the landmarks of greatness. But these are different times. Belief systems, like home run records, have been crushed beneath a type of deceit. Traditional statistics, once considered infallible measurements of performance, have been proven inadequate.

There are 539 Hall of Fame voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Aside from the broad and broadly-covered schism between old-school skeptics and sabermetric believers, that means 539 unique definitions of what merits Hall of Fame induction. Induction requires 75% approval, or 405 votes. Once eligible, players can remain on the ballot for up to fifteen years. This means time for voters to consider the legacy of a candidate as his career fades further into the rear-view mirror. For guys like Blyleven, who seems to be gaining momentum at the pace of a baseball rolling across a flat surface, it means annual near-misses, an extended human drama that feels destined to play out like the final scenes of an ancient tragedy.

This is why there needs to be some level of Hall of Fame voting reform. Not just for poor Blyleven, for whom induction would mean so much at this point, but for all of us. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be a celebration. It’s supposed to be nostalgic and it’s supposed to make us happy. We want to see our heroes in tears on that podium for their final moments of glory. We want to remember what it felt like to watch them play and win and lose.

I don’t know what I’d prescribe to fix the Hall of Fame voting process, but I know this. I would let more people in. I would ease the restrictions. I would welcome more players and more managers and more executives and more ambassadors. Not a lot more, but a few more; some of those legacies stranded right outside the gates would be granted admission.

As it stands now, the voting process is entirely subjective. There are no statistical requirements for entry, no thresholds that need to be reached. There are just those 539 writers and the meager check and balance of the Veterans Committee (an essay for another time). If it were otherwise, if this were a Hall of Greatness or Hall of Merit, then Bert Blyleven would have already been admitted, and the whole conversation would be moot.

But it’s a Hall of Fame. And that’s a different thing. With a Hall of Fame, the stakes are basically non-existent. Is Mickey Mantle’s presence in Cooperstown really soiled by Bill Mazeroski’s? There need be no statistical formula for inclusion. We have our hearts and our imaginations and the whole point of the institution is to please us, the baseball fans who trek to upstate New York, and pass hours arguing about it. So why not ease the standards, ease the frigid self-righteous shrieking over whether an excellent player (anybody whose even part of the conversation is an excellent player) is or isn’t quite deserving enough?

How could this be accomplished without creating a Hall of Mediocrity, or a Hall of Cora Brothers? There are a few possibilities that immediately come to mind. One option is to simply lower the 75% threshold used by the BBWAA, perhaps even to a more sane 70%. Another would be to introduce an element of controlled fan voting. I realize that some fans hate All Star voting because they believe average folks aren’t smart enough to know who the best second baseman in the NL in a given year is, but the fans are what powers baseball. As a single component of a larger formula, fan voting could bring a new dynamism to the process. A third option would be to introduce appeals processes, so certain candidacies could be resurrected.

I don’t know how much thought Augustus put into the statues in his forum. It is very possible that he argued for hours with advisors over whether to include a 109th statue, or whether a certain ancestor or general was being unjustly excluded. But honor and glory are not finite substances of which we could run out. Even with a slightly-expanded Hall of Fame, there will be emotional induction ceremonies and heated arguments over who deserves admission. It’s just that if we open the gates to Cooperstown just an inch or two wider, there will be more joy, and isn’t that the whole point?

12 Responses to “Crowd the Hall”

  • I am no baseball aficionado, nor am I a fan, but it seems to me the standards for induction into all Halls of Fame are, conversely, too lax. The point of such Halls should be to honor the giants of a sport; those men (or women) whose teams and fans relied on them and they delivered. While personal numbers and statistics are important, team statistics are vital. I am talking about wins and championships. Hall of Famers should not just be great players, but great leaders who pull and push their club to achieve a greatness beyond the sum of their constituents. That carry the hopes of whole cities on their shoulders. This is intangible greatness.

    While there should be certain Patrick-Ewing-like exceptions (sorry for a basketball analog) for lack of rings, it should be an important part of the argument.

    Each player in the Hall should be on a short list for who you’d have in a dugout. No offense to Eddie Murray, but he can cheer for my team from the stands.

  • Frank "Wildfire" Schulte

    The thing that I love about the Hall of Fame is the debates, the arguments over who gets in. You do not get that in any other sport, why? because everyone gets in. In football it is more of just when and what mediocre players from the 60’s will get in.

    In baseball there is impassioned debate, drama over years, great players on the outside looking in and really heartfelt speeches because some of these guys never knew if they were going to get in. I remember Bill Mazeroski crying as he was inducted, while I tried to swallow the vomit in my mouth. Why? Because he never thought he would get in. Why? Because he shouldn’t have.

    Anyways there is a problem with the Hall of Fame process and it is because it is not consistent with the way it used to be. It is because after Bill Mazeroski and his .260 BA with 138 homeruns got in, the Hall of Fame eliminated the Veterans Committee. People tell me something called that still votes on things but when they actually do something please tell me.

    Basically my fix bring the Veterans Committee back and make it more stringent so that players like Bill Mazeroski don’t get in and one of the best 3rd basemen of all-time gets in while he is still alive.

  • I’m with you on every point. The fact is, the damage has already been done. There are plenty of borderline guys in the Hall of Fame, and not only are they not leaving, but they’re wedging the door open for more and more borderline guys. The successful argument for Kirby Puckett makes the argument against Don Mattingly that much less persuasive, to cite one of dozens of examples. Why keep pretending that the Hall contains only the very brightest of baseball’s stars?

    I think the joy and fun issue is something that the curmudgeonly voters of the Baseball Writers Association rarely, if ever, acknowledge. The Houston Astros have never won a World Series, and they’re not consistently competitive. But they have had great players, and it would mean the world for that fan base to see their beloved Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell make it into the Hall on the first ballot. Ditto for Cleveland fans, who have been suffering for decades: would it have killed the voters to let Robby Alomar in on the first go-around? In the meantime, I think even the average baseball fan can process that Babe Ruth ≠ Jim Rice, although both players are Hall of Famers. Open those doors!

  • “standards”? I am not aware there are any standards for inclusion in the HOF. Obviously any significant change to the process (70% votes, fan voting) would taint everything that has happened in the past. My view of all fan voting is it should be confined to slecting the best pizza, beer or SI swimming suit models.

    Fans should be limited to buying tickets and watching games. As hallowed as the HOF is and always will be, exclusion takes nothing form our most revered players. Many of us hope for the day Edgar gives his acceptance speech. If it never happens he will remain in the Mariners fans hearts forever. “Edgar”, his career and “the double” need no validation from an institution.

  • Oh please, you well know how much pissing and groaning goes on about Edgar and his HOF chances in Seattle. Mariner fans are absolutely desperate for that validation.

    Also, I like the idea of a better veterans committee, and I think Eddie Murray was totally deserving of his HOFness.

  • Pursuant to the laws of entropy, I have to agree that the Hall can only get more lax moving forward, so we either cling to the fantasy that it’s only the true gods of the sport, or we move forward into Eric’s Obama-esque Yes We Can drum circle HOF love-parade (I watched the Woodstock documentary last night).

    @Timmy, I dig your point but I can’t help but suggest that the Astros were one of the better teams of the late 90s and early 00s, so your comment about them not being consistently competitive clouded anything that followed it, no matter how prescient. With that for logic, it looks like I’m qualified to vote for the Hall of Fame, now! Bada-bing!

  • Actually, I tend to disagree. I think, on the whole, the Hall is too lax. I would let fewer players in rather than more. I agree some sort of standard needs to be set up—have no idea what they should be—but I think sometimes very good passes for great in our society (watch the Grammy’s and you’ll see what I mean). I’m sorry, but Andre Dawson, for me, shouldn’t make it. Yes, he was a very good, very complete player. But .279 with 27 HRs a year, a nice, but not overwhelming 119 OPS+ just doesn’t cut it. (Mantle had +172, Mays had 156+. Frank Thomas had a 156+. Heck Danny Tqrtabull had a 133+.) Did he dominate his era? Or was he a nice player when you think of players from that era. “Oh yeah, Dawson was good too.”

  • I agree that the Hall should open its doors a bit wider. I believe that the Hall should be a celebration of the history of the game rather than an elitist club. How “elite” or “sacred” of a place is this when you have: Jim Rice, Andre Dawson, Phil Rizzuto, and a whole host of older players who were snuck in the back door by the Veterans Committee before their voting process became more transparent.

    When I eventually visit the Hall of Fame (hopefully for an Edgar induction’s speech) I am not going to turn my nose in disapproval when I walk by Bill Mazeroski’s plaque. I will be happy to stop and read about his accomplishments and history, and I would hope that most who visit the Hall would do the same.

    My suggestion to future voters is to weigh players’ accomplishments WITHIN their era much more heavily than to players from other eras. It becomes quite a mess when we try to control for all of the variables for players 40 years apart(pool of talent (quantity, quality, foreign/racial player exclusion), specialized relief pitchers, height of the mound, ballparks, etc. etc. etc.). So to make things simpler in the future let’s just analyze Bert Blyleven’s resume under the lens of 1970-1992. How did he stack up to other pitchers within this time frame? Do this before comparing pitchers across generations. After that is where it gets tricky with the various arbitrary thresholds voters establish. But I enjoy these debates a lot because I’m exposed to many perspectives.

  • @Harry—
    I can respect that you would like to see a smaller Hall of Fame but one problem with MLB is that there will be too many “Patrick Ewing-like exceptions”, even under your restricted standards. The amount of impact one player can possibly have in a baseball game pales in comparison to say 2009 Lebron James or 1992 Michael Jordan. The elite players in baseball usually contribute 8-10 wins above a replacement-level player over the course of 162 games, while in Basketball Lebron and Kobe have been estimated to contribute 15-18 to their teams’ 55-60 wins. This makes because of how much control an NBA player has over a game. I’d argue that “team chemistry” is much more important in the NBA. So, I guess my point is that postseason success in baseball should be factored into the debate in the form of “brownie points” here and there. Off the field accomplishments/anecdotes should also be handled in the same way.

    Re: basketball. I just finished The Book of Basketball by Bill Simmons and thought his Hall of Fame Pyramid concept was awesome. I think this idea would be fun to apply to the Baseball Hall as well. I suppose we already have enough of a problem trying to decide get WHO gets in; what level they would be on would cause too many riots.

    Edgar deserves national recognition and acceptance and I’d hope that all Mariners fans would be disappointed if he were to fail to make the Hall of Fame in all 15 tries.

  • For me, the HOF should be a little more like getting into heaven in the 15th century. Some people will obviously make it on their own merits by having a long career of devout success. Other cusp players might need to prove their merit due to less than overwhelming numbers or some damning indiscretion. These players must pay indulgence by boosting their “ambassador of the game” status.

    The point is that baseball and the HOF can move into the 21st century by acknowledging players’ repentance. (see Mr. 3,000 (2004))

    Eric, I’m glad you wrote this because it has forced me to explore the dissonance resulting from my indifference toward the idea of the Hall of Fame and my strong desire to eventually visit the edifice.

  • That brings up a good question. What exactly would be the baseball equivalent of buying indulgences? (Besides just paying people off, which would spread things pretty thin.)

  • Having been nice to the media during one’s career and succeeding in simplistic (and overrated) statistical categories?

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