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The Hall of Fame vote: Getting it done by committee

Posted by Andy
I'm pleased to post this guest article by Graham Womack of Baseball: Past and Present.

As of this writing, there are 295 people enshrined in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, with that number sure to grow in the next couple of months with voting season once again upon us. Of the honorees in Cooperstown, 109 were inducted by the Baseball Writers Association of America. Two others, Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente got into the Hall of Fame through special elections. Everyone else was put in Cooperstown through some kind of committee.

Dating back to the first vote for the Hall of Fame in 1936, committees have wielded enormous influence in selections, from a Centennial Committee in 1937 that got legendary A's manager Connie Mack his plaque to a special meeting of the Negro League Committee that enshrined 17 black baseball greats in 2006. And that says nothing of all the men inducted over the years by the Veterans Committee, by far the most active of the groups save for the writers since its founding in 1953. All this being said, a few more commitees might be in order.

I write often about the Hall of Fame for my Web site, and I'm currently conducting a project having people vote on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame (voting goes through December 1, and please feel free to email me at thewomack@gmail.com for a ballot.) Back before I regularly wrote about Cooperstown, I would have classified myself as a "small Hall" person, someone who believed in limited enshrinement for only the most elite of players. But focusing on all the men in baseball history who aren't enshrined has been eye-opening.

With over 17,000 players in major league history, baseball may have one of the most exclusive Halls of Fame in professional sports, and scores of notable players aren't enshrined from Smoky Joe Wood to Gil Hodges to Dick Allen, and so many others. From a career statistical standpoint, there aren't a huge number of worthy, eligible players left out of Cooperstown, but then, that's not what the Hall of Fame is chiefly about. It's a museum that celebrates fame, memorable characters in baseball history, moments of glory.

At the moment, there's a backlog of non-enshrined players, and that backlog might get worse in the years to come with more and more players from the Steroid Era becoming eligible for Cooperstown. As such, some more committees could help clear this backlog.

Here are a few possibilities:

Labor Pioneers: Former Major League Baseball Players Association executive director Marvin Miller and Reserve Clause combatant Curt Flood have been two prominent Cooperstown snubs for years. One argument I've heard against Flood is that he didn't do enough as a player to merit enshrinement and that his labor contributions are irrelevant to the Hall of Fame. But there are enough of these guys in baseball history to form their own wing from pitchers Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally who played without contracts in 1975 to force a hearing on the Reserve Clasue to arbitrator Peter Seitz who subsequently abrogated it. Their contributions seem worth something in a historical sense.

Steroids: At some point, the writers or the Veterans Committee will be damned if they do or damned if they don't when it comes to enshrining a player like Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. Maybe it won't be an issue as more time passes. Still, a special committee for known users of performance enhancing drugs could at least set a clear standard for examining these players, determining what's permissible for enshrinement and what isn't. Right now, there is no standard, and writers seem to be judging each on a case-by-case basis. It's fine while questionable candidates like Mark McGwire, Juan Gonzalez, or even Rafael Palmeiro come before them, but Bonds' arrival on the ballot next year might create chaos.

Overlooked 19th Century Greats: The Internet seems to be revolutionizing baseball research, particularly with Baseball-Reference.com which has highlighted scores of stars from the 1800s and helped with the creation of advanced metrics like Wins Above Replacement. The last mass induction for 19th century players was in the late 1940s through an Old Timers Committee, and I wonder if there'd have been a greater number of honorees if the Web had been around to note Bill Dahlen's WAR, Tony Mullane's 284 wins, or Lip Pike's .322 lifetime batting average (Pike could also qualify in the Labor Pioneers category, since he was the first man to sign a contract: $20 to play for Philadelphia in 1866.) 

Even candidates who got attention in the '40s like Pete Browning could benefit from a modern look at his stats, seeing as his 162 OPS+ is tied for 12th best all-time. And Bill James-ian numerical comparisons make it so that if George Van Haltren-- another player considered by the Old Timers-- is finally enshrined, his statistical doppelganger and fellow 19th century great Jimmy Ryan might deserve a plaque as well.  

Wartime Heroes: I'm intrigued by players who may have sacrificed a chance at the Hall of Fame to serve in wartime. The most famous of these cases is perhaps Cecil Travis, who hit .314 in 12 seasons and .359 in 1941. Bob Feller called Travis one of the toughest hitters he ever faced. But Travis went off to WWII, saw combat, and was never the same player thereafter. The popular story is that he permanently injured his feet at the Battle of the Bulge, though Travis said later in life that the long absence from the majors merely wrecked his timing at the plate. 

There aren't a huge number of players like Travis throughout baseball history, though Yankee hurler Vic Raschi lost three possible seasons with World War II and perhaps a minimum number of wins that could have gotten him enshrined by the Veterans Committee. Deadball Era catcher Hank Gowdy gave up part of his career as well to serve in World War I, the first active player to enlist. Years later, he enlisted in World War II, also, serving as a chaplain. Former New York Giants captain Eddie Grant even gave his life, one of three big league veterans killed in World War I. One of my readers suggests the idea of a name plate or plaque, which seems apt as well.

Groups: A couple of my readers have suggested the idea of enshrining Raschi, Allie Reynolds, and Eddie Lopat as a group, being that they collectively pitched the Yankees to glory in the late 1940s and early '50s but perhaps didn't do enough on their own to merit individual plaques. My readers' idea is that Raschi, Reynolds, and Lopat would share a plaque. I think that could potentially lead to a whole host of underqualified players being enshrined, but it could also help guys like Alan Trammell and Lou Whitaker get their due.

Classic minor leaguers: This also came from a reader. It used to be in the era before the majors came West or the introduction of huge salaries that a ballplayer could forge a lucrative career outside of the big leagues. Some like Ollie Carnegie never even made it to the majors, Carnegie a Depression Era factory worker who played most of his career after turning 32, hitting .309 with 297 home runs over 15 seasons in the bush. Then there were old Pacific Coast League legends like Jigger Statz who had 3,356 hits over 18 years or Tony Freitas who pitched for a time in the bigs during the '30s, then played a couple more decades on the West Coast, racking up 348 wins in all.

Dynasties: Still another reader-suggested idea, this would be about honoring one or two iconic teams from every decade in baseball history. I don't know if these teams need plaques necessarily, or if it could just be a cool exhibit in Cooperstown, but imagine a section of the museum featuring the Murderers Row Yankees, Big Red Machine, Homestead Grays, and many others. It's the kind of thing I could see a father pointing out to his wide-eyed son (the kind of kid I was at Cooperstown) and that to me is what the museum is all about.

Graham Womack is founder and editor of Baseball: Past and Present. Email him atthewomack@gmail.com.

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