Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Free Preview: "On the Veterans Committee"

This is an excerpt from the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for more than 20 years.

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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. IV, No. 139
January 8, 2013

I'm well aware that there's some Hall of Fame fatigue among even devoted baseball fans. However, there are a few points still worth making, which I'll continue to do this week before letting the topic go for 11 months while getting back to baseball.

Whatever happens Wednesday, there will be an induction ceremony next July. Three long-dead people, represented by descendants, will be inducted into the Hall: player Deacon White, umpire Hank O'Day, and owner Jacob Ruppert. It is fair to say that these inductions will not drive tens of thousands of people to Cooperstown this summer. The last time the BBWAA failed to cough up an inductee, the burg was saved by the Veterans Committee, who put Jim Bunning -- nearly a BBWAA Hall of Famer -- and the enormously popular Earl Weaver into the shrine. Should there be no one elected by the BBWAA (I think either Jack Morris or Craig Biggio will be announced tomorrow), there will be no such saving grace for the tourist town, and we will be headed for the most poorly attended ceremony in decades. People will show up, but in small numbers, perhaps even embarrassing ones.

It's funny when you think of it. Right now, we have the Veterans Committee saying that the Mike LaValliere of the Reconstruction is a Hall of Famer, while the BBWAA is saying that Jeff Bagwell isn't good enough. If you do no timelining at all, it's a little silly; once you start doing any, it's a farce. Deacon White played half his career before pitchers could try and miss bats, and whatever skill he displayed at that game, he's being inducted for being good more at proto-baseball than at anything anyone alive has ever seen. The Veterans Committee, a necessary tool at one time, has outlived its usefulness and needs to be eliminated in its current form.

When the Hall of Fame came to be in 1930s, there wasn't much thought given to who would be inducted. A larger problem was that you were starting a process that had to pick from 60 years of baseball history at that point. Significant mistakes were made in the first 20 years of the Hall's existence, usually a cycle of a glut of candidates and too-infrequent elections leading the BBWAA to elect no one, followed by special committees gathering to correct this by putting in a crop of players willy-nilly. (I again strongly recommend reading The Politics of Glory for a detailed explanation of the history of Hall voting.) Over time, the combination of a front door -- the BBWAA -- electing modern players and a Veterans Committee tasked with picking up some mistakes and inducting players from prehistory, combined to give us the Hall we have today. The debut of the MacMillan Encyclopedia in 1969 helped move along the discussion, as did the work of historians and sabermetricians such as Lee Allen and Cliff Kachline and Pete Palmer and Bill James, who helped put the performances of both modern and historical players into a single context.

There was a problem, though. Take 1927, just as an example. Per the Play Index, in an eight-team league, there were 52 Hall of Famers playing that year, in a 16-team league. That's more than three per team. (Heck, go back to 1895: there were 22 Hall of Famers in a 12-team league (23, but Clark Griffith isn't really in as a player), just 20 years into the history of organized baseball.) In 1965, a time I think we'd all agree featured a tremendous density of stars as African-American players continued to make inroads and change the game, there were 38 Hall of Famers active in a 20-team league -- about two per team. So despite the addition of a class of stars heretofore separate, two generations of improvement in physical development, playing skill and the scouting and development of baseball talent -- including the first wave of Latin stars -- there were fewer Hall of Famers playing baseball, in an absolute sense and per team, than there had been in 1927. Take it out to 1985 -- a year before Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro made their debuts -- and you have 30 Hall of Famers on 26 teams.

The profligacy of the Veterans Committees didn't just lower the standards of the Hall, but they created the myth that exists to this day: that players of old were better than players of now. Baseball is, I believe literally, the only sport in which this is actually an argument, where people will tell you that modern players are worse than the generation before and the generation before. The BBWAA has always had higher standards than the various Veterans Committees, and not always to its credit. The combination of those higher standards and the mistakes of the Veterans Committees has created an imbalance for the Hall that will come to life in seven months, when Deacon White's great-grandchildren stand on a stage while Curt Schilling spends the day with his family.

Inducting people whose kids are long dead does absolutely nothing for the Hall, and it only goes to perpetuate the myth that the baseball played a century ago was somehow comparable to what is played today. The Hall of Fame has actually reversed what should be: there should be more Hall of Famers as time goes on, due to expansion and the progress of the game. The Hall is telling you that you were more likely to see a Hall of Fame-caliber baseball player in 1927 than in 1965. The Hall is telling you that you were more likely to see a Hall of Fame-caliber baseball player in 1895 than in 1985.

The very first thing the Hall of Fame needs to do is shut the back door. While the Veterans Committee has picked up some of the BBWAA's mistakes -- Ron Santo and Joe Gordon among them -- from a process standpoint there is no longer any reason to keep the door open for these players from multiple generations ago.

Take, as an example, Gil Hodges, a popular Hall candidate in some quarters. Hodges was a good player for the Brooklyn, then Los Angeles, Dodgers in the 1950s, gaining notoriety for high RBI counts (but middling MVP finishes) and for being part of the greatest run of success the Brooklyn team ever had. Hodges played his last game in 1963, then became a manager, first for the Washington Senators, then the New York Mets -- leading the latter to the 1969 World Championship. Less than three years later, Hodges died at 47. Hodges first appeared on a Hall ballot in 1969, and garnered a healthy 24.1% of the vote. After managing the Miracle Mets, he jumped to 48.3% of the vote, and in the winter of 1970, it must have seemed he was on his way to election. Hodges' vote totals stalled the next two years, then spiked after his early death to 57.4% in 1973. As with his first jump, it seems to have been less about any consideration of Hodges' career and more about an attention effect. Hodges would bounce around the high 50s and low 60s, before reaching a peak of 63.4% in his final season on the ballot in 1983.

After '83, Hodges was considered by the then-active edition of the Veterans Committee and subsequent committees as the rules have changed, and he has never been elected. It's 2013, fifty years after he last played a game, more than 40 years after his death, and anyone who feels passionately about Gil Hodges is collecting Social Security. It's not just about Hodges; it's about going back and trying to find Hall of Famers among a class that has been evaluated and evaluated and evaluated. There was a need for the Veterans Committee when the sheer number of players and seasons to be mined required a second path to the Hall to account for the backlog. There was even a need during a time when the rapid development of information and evaluative tools allowed for better looks at players who might have been misjudged by the writers the first time through.

Those periods are over. Everyone who could be considered a Hall of Famer from the first 100 or so years of baseball history has had their hearing, has had many hearings, and they have been found wanting. If there are mistakes of omission, then we need to allow them and move on, because continuing to induct players from that period of baseball history is going perpetuate an imbalance that is indefensible. That's half the change that needs to be made, and I would make it with one rule: All players whose careers ended prior to 1970 are ineligible for Hall of Fame consideration. All non-player candidates born prior to 1946 are ineligible for Hall of Fame consideration.

There's something else that needs to be done. Joe Posnanski wrote a blog post today that looked at players' vote totals and vote percentages in their first year on the ballot. You can read the whole thing for yourself -- it's Joe Posnanski, you should be reading him anyway -- but the reason I bring it up is that Joe pointed out that Ralph Kiner got three votes in his first year, and went on to be elected by the BBWAA in his 13th year on the ballot. If you go through the voting history, particularly back into the ballots from the 1940s and 1950s, you get a lot of this, players getting almost nothing at first and then eventually getting elected. Well, starting in 1985, that path to the Hall was cut off. Beginning in that election, players who received fewer than five percent of the vote were dropped from the ballot. This has led to a number of players, some of them qualified for the Hall, others qualified at least for a discussion of their chances, to be dropped from the ballot before you even noticed they were there. This is one significant reason why there are nearly as many Hall of Famers from 1895 as 1985 -- despite twice as many teams and a century's worth of development.

Let's fix that. Rather than have a Veterans Committee adding to the imbalance, let's have one that corrects it. The new Committee would be empowered to consider the case of any player who 1) played at least one game after 1969 and 2) appeared on fewer than five Hall of Fame ballots. This makes eligible Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker and Ted Simmons and countless other players who simply never got the chance that Kiner -- or, more to the point, Jack Morris and Jim Rice -- got, to see their cases debated over time. This Committee will have no set minimum number of players it can elect in a given year, with a maximum of two in a year. It will exist for twenty years or until it goes consecutive years without electing someone, whichever comes first. How it is comprised is a complicated detail, but it should be the first Hall committee to reach out to people who don't remember what their draft number was -- people who have a complete understanding of both the history of the game and modern performance analysis.

Maybe this won't work, but a Committee such as this will serve both the tourism function -- electing players whose fans can attend the induction ceremonies without need of walkers -- and the historical function -- making the game's highest honor better reflect the reality of baseball history. It will sunset when the ravages of the 5% rule -- which should be modified, and we'll get to that tomorrow -- are repaired. My honest guess is that there aren't a dozen players who should be elected by this committee, but they're an important dozen, because a Hall that includes the players put in by the 1946 committee needs a corrective measure that balances the mistakes not by raising the standards on future generations, but by keeping them the same.

Look, it's the Hall of Fame. They once created The Committee to Elect Buck O'Neil and watched it put in 17 people while failing to elect Buck O'Neil. Its cowardice on the current ballot controversies is shameful, and perhaps expecting leadership from a largely rudderless group is too much to ask. However, the Hall's place in the consciousness of baseball fans is slipping -- not rapidly, but it is slipping -- and the way to arrest that is to make it more relevant to baseball fans. Living ones. Due respect to the good men who will no longer be eligible, but it's time the Hall stops pretending that guys who got to call for "high" or "low" pitches were somehow on a par with ones who came five generations later. Turning the Veterans Committee into a vehicle for that goal will be the first step in keeping the Hall relevant.