Cooperstown Confidential: Small vs. big, and the Hall of Fame Vote

Over at Baseball Think Factory, writers and contributors often refer to the argument of the “small hall” vs. the “big hall.” Advocates of the “small hall” believe the Hall of Fame should be reserved for a select few, the absolute immortals of the game, such as the Ruths, the Aarons, the Wagners, the Groves, and the like. Advocates of the “big hall” believe that the Cooperstown shrine should be more inclusive, so as to include greats from a second and third tier of distinction, making room for players like Harmon Killebrew, Billy Williams and Phil Niekro.

There’s no question in my mind that I fall into the latter category, both for reasons of history and personal preference. First, Hall of Fame elections have never really been devoted exclusively to the absolute immortals of the game. Yes, it’s true that the first election of 1936 produced five all-time greats in Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson. But immediately subsequent elections included players from lower tiers of greatness, along with lesser known executives and pioneers. The elections of the late ’30s included Cap Anson, Morgan Bulkeley, Ban Johnson, Wee Willie Keeler, Ole Hoss Radbourn and George Wright, none of whom would be called an all-time baseball immortal.

The concept of the big hall is also better for baseball. Hall of Fame elections in which no one receives the necessary 75 per cent of the vote are generally treated with disappointment by both the media and fans. There is a natural letdown that accompanies that disappointment, a feeling that all of the buildup leading to the election was an exercise in futility. As a baseball fan, I find it hard to become excited when hearing the words, “No one was elected.” But elections in which two or three players receive the nod to Cooperstown create legitimate and actual news for the sports media, while energizing both general and specific fan bases.

In this year’s election, we observed an in-between situation. Just one player made the cut from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, in a year when three players had theoretical chances of making Cooperstown. Still, this qualifies as a big hall election rather than a small hall election, since Andre Dawson is not a player to be put on the same pedestal as Aaron, Mays or even Henderson. Putting aside the argument of whether Dawson legitimately deserves to be a member of the Hall of Fame, this much is undeniable: If you’re a fan of the Chicago Cubs, you’re feeling a bit charged about Dawson entering the Hall of Fame. Heck, if you’re one of those surviving followers of the now departed Montreal Expos, you can take some special pride in knowing that Dawson, one of the most important parts of the defunct franchise, will be celebrated in Cooperstown throughout the spring and summer.

As a citizen of Cooperstown, I’m perfectly willing to admit that a big hall is better for the economy of the village and the surrounding area. Fans will not flock to Cooperstown to see managers (Whitey Herzog) or umpires (Doug Harvey). But with a player like Dawson on this year’s docket, we can expect fans from Chicago and Montreal, who otherwise would have little incentive to come here in 2010, to visit either before or during Induction Weekend. On a less direct level, an increased pool of brand name inductees also will bring more national media to town, thereby helping to spread the word of the village and what it has to offer during the summer months. For an area of the country that is feeling the economic pinch as heavily as just about anyone, the impact of “word of mouth” publicity can only help matters in the long term.

In addition to the small hall/big hall debate, this year’s ballot offers some continuing reminders about how the BBWAA really works. Obtaining 75 per cent of the ballot isn’t about being the best player—if it were, Roberto Alomar, Barry Larkin, Alan Trammell and Tim Raines would have made it over Dawson. It’s about having a flashy baseball resume that is clear of “incidents.” If not for Alomar’s spitting incident (since forgiven by umpire John Hirschbeck), he would have sailed into the Hall on the first ballot, at something over 80 per cent of the vote. A similar situation affected Juan Marichal years ago. If not for the John Roseboro bat-bashing affair, Marichal easily would have gained election in his inaugural try instead of being made to wait until his fifth year on the ballot.

The other key word to remember in studying the ballot is “momentum.” For players who lack the headline splash that makes them slam-dunk candidates, the key to election success is the ability to gain a few percentage points each year. The BBWAA follows a herd mentality. When voters see totals for players start to rise, they re-examine their own selections and throw their support in the direction of the risers. That phenomenon explains how Dawson went from 67 per cent of the vote in 2009 to nearly 78 per cent this year—an increase of more than 10 per cent.

That trend also manifests itself in the 70 per cent threshold. Once a player cracks 70 per cent, assuming that he doesn’t wait until his 15th and final year on the ballot to do so, history indicates that he will almost certainly break 75 per cent the following year. Only two such players failed to make that final jump, Nellie Fox and Jim Bunning. Fox had the misfortune of peaking in his final year on the ballot, while Bunning rather mysteriously lost support after his peak. Both, however, eventually made the Hall of Fame through the Veterans Committee.

That kind of historical trend makes Alomar (73 per cent) and Bert Blyleven (74 per cent) almost locks for next year’s election. Blyleven fell just five votes short of election; Alomar fell eight votes short. As long as they avoid controversy and making enemies of the writers in the next 12 months, they will both pick up those needed votes and officially enter Cooperstown in 2011.

While top of the ballot rightly produced the major story lines of the Hall of Fame election, the bottom of the ballot featured its usual share of voting shenanigans. Rather obviously, many of the writers did not take park effects into account; how else to explain the fact that ex-Rockie Andres Galarraga received 22 votes while Robin Ventura, a more valued player by the Sabermetric community, received only seven? Even more ludicrous was David Segui, a slightly above-average player who has been linked to steroids, actually receiving a vote. Presumably that voter also threw his support behind Mark McGwire.

Perhaps the most stunning development at the bottom of the ballot involved Eric Karros, who somehow received two votes from apparent friends in the BBWAA. Perhaps those two writers are big fans of his broadcasting skills with FOX. Then again, maybe not. Here’s what I would like to know. Did the two writers who voted for Karros simultaneously leave either Blyleven or Alomar off their ballot? If so, they have some substantial explaining to do with regard to their throwaway votes.

Finally, the election of Andre Dawson brings us to the issue of his Hall of Fame plaque. The Hall has not announced whether his bronze plaque will feature the logo of the Expos or the Cubs. Given the Hall of Fame’s recent history on this matter, the answer is clear: it will be the Expos. Ever since the Hall of Fame took away the player’s right to chose his logo, the Hall has leaned in the direction of the team with which the player had the longest service time.

Dawson played 10 full years in Montreal, but only six in Chicago. To further cement the argument, the peak of Dawson’s career came in Montreal, when he was still a center fielder, still a premier defender, and still capable of stealing 25 to 35 bases a season. As such, Dawson will join Gary Carter as full-fledged Montreal Expos in the Hall of Fame.

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  1. Bob Rittner said...

    I am curious why you do not consider Cap Anson one of baseball’s all-time immortals. Considering only his on-field performance, wasn’t he perceived as the greatest player of the 19th century, or at least in the argument, and also one of the most popular?

    His role in implementing segregated baseball casts a malevolent shadow over his career, but on the field I think he was considered a superstar in his day, a perception that holds up when looking at his numbers.

  2. Bill Rubinstein said...

    It’s nonsense to say that Anson, Radbourn, and the other players you name above were not “immortals of the game.” You are confusing them with players of a distinctly lower calibre like say Tommy McCarthy, who were added by the Veterans’ Committee in the 1940s- a selection committee which didn’t have a modern baseball encyclopedia to use, only their memories. Anson (above comment)- how did he implement segrgation?
    He played in the National League- it was the other league, the American Association, which used
    two black players. He had no authority over the AA. Baseball was segregated for nearly 50 years after he left baseball, as were virtually all other American institutions.

  3. lieiam said...

    interesting article… and to throw my two cents in regarding anson and radbourn: i agree that radbourn is not an “inner circle hall of famer” but am not so sure about anson. he was a great player for a long time, although he is hurt by both connor and brouthers playing at the same time who were better except for their shorter careers… i guess the argument comes down to how big your inner circle hall of fame is.

    as for segregation, isn’t the story that anson refused to participate in an exhibition game against a team with black players and that this generated drama over the black players that helped lead to long term banning? anyway, time to do some research!

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    Bill, I am not sure if it is you or I who is not being clear on the issue of Anson and segregation. But to try to clarify, Anson did refuse to have his team play a game in which a black man was on the other team. Shortly thereafter the “gentleman’s agreement” was established by which no black player was to be permitted to play in the National League, a practice that was extended to the American League as well when the two made peace.

    It is pretty much a consensus that part of the reason for the exclusion of black players from major league baseball was Anson’s opposition to their presence. There had been a few black players in organized “white” baseball before his boycott of that game but none after until Jackie Robinson, although there were some instances of managers claiming that dark skinned players were Indian or Cuban in an effort to sign them. John McGraw in particular made such an effort, although he was forced to back down.

    As I reread your post, I wonder if you did not misread my use of the word “segregation” as “integration”.

  5. Eric R said...

    Not to beat a dead horse, but the Rally dB has Anson as currently the 20th best positiuon player ever [soon to be #21 when A-Rod adds 0.2 WAR].

    Radbourn is sitting at #25 among pitchers with noone due to pass him for a while [Halladay is like 4-5 years away from that…]

  6. Paul Moehringer said...

    I had a big problem with the way the Hall of Fame vote went this year.  I would complain but I think alot of these writers got there heads stuck so far up you know where, they wouldn’t be able to hear me.

    Everyone talks about 1st timers shold only be for the games great, yet does anyone actually memorize how many times it took for players to get in?  I mean I know a few but for the vast majority I don’t care.  All that matters to me and most people is whether or not their in.

    To me a Hall of Fame player has to be able to answer two questions?  1. Did he dominate his position for an extensive period of time?  (I set my minimum at five years)  2. Did he have a good career outside of those five years?  If the answer is yes to both of those questions then he’s in.

    I’m glad Andre got in, he does answer both of these questions in my book, but I lost alot of respect for the Hall of Fame as an institution this week, and this is a vote I’m not going to forget about tomorrow.

    As for Cap Anson being an all-time great or not, I tend to think of any player that played before the 1890’s as in a category of their own.  If you actually read the rules of that era, you’ll find that it’s almost a completely different game.  I don’t know how you can rate a guy like Anson farily against any modern player with the game being that different.  I tend to just not include him in any rankings.  To me he’s a pioneer, and certainly had a major impact on the game, but baseball was still developing when he played.  We really don’t get the finished product we have today until the turn of the century.

  7. Bill Rubinstein said...

    Concerning the above posting about Cap Anson, of course I know of Anson’s reputation and the incident involved, and have read probably everything written on the Negro Leagues. The Anson incident took place in 1884, when there were three major leagues with 32 teams. Anson was a 32-year old player/manager, and the game was an exhibition game with the Toledo AA Club. Anson left baseball in 1897 and died in 1926. Tell me he was the man responsible for baseball segregation, which of course lasted until 1945/47. You- and many others- are not looking at this with common sense eyes.

  8. Jim C said...

    As to the issue of what cap Dawson should have on his bust, the Hall could quickly kill this whole issue if they just announce that players’ busts will no longer have caps. Every fan who cares enough to go to the Hall knows about the players, and the teams they played for are listed right on the plaque.
    As to this year’s vote, I think that any voter who sends in a blank ballot should not get a ballot the next year. I find it incomprehensible that Dawson was not good enough last year, but is good enough this year. Jim Rice’s case was a travesty. Somehow, despite the fact that his career numbers remained unchanged, for 14 years he wasn’t good enough, then suddenly he was. There needs to be a different system. Perhaps take the vote away from the writers and give it to a large group of retired players and managers.
    Last, as to people coming to Cooperstown to see Whitey Herzog inducted, you can count on seeing hundreds of Cardinal fans in town for him. He was hugely popular there and remains so, and Cardinal fans are the most loyal in baseball.

  9. Wrencis said...

    I find it interesting that the writer states who is “better” without any attempt to define “better” or make a case for the players he thinks are “better”. It’s easy to make assertions with no evidence.

  10. Paul Moehringer said...

    What scares me about all of this is where this is going.  To me someone like Jason Kendall can make a very good case for why he should be included, but he doesen’t even have a prayer if someone like Barry Larkin can’t even get in.

    The entire argument of a inclusive Hall of Fame is completely contradictory one considering some of the guys you have in.  If they are really serious about doing that, then throw people out, otherwise they should forget about Andre Dawson being a borderline Hall of Famer (he should be in without even as much as a question).  Sherm Lollar should be a borderline Hall of Famer.

    I really don’t know what these writers are thinking by doing this.  I don’t know what point they’re trying to prove.  I can understand somebody maybe changing their mind about somebody, I’ll move guys up and down on where I have them ranked, but how does somebody like Jim Rice go from not being a Hall of Famer to being one according to over 200 people in a ten year time span?

    I just don’t get it.

  11. Bob Rittner said...

    But Anson had an OPS+ of 141 which takes into account park factors and league averages. I am not sure the accounting can be as accurate for the 19th century as it is today, but it appears that he was among the best of his day.

    Bill, I doubt we can resolve the issue here, but I don’t see how common sense would discount Anson’s role in the establishment of segregation in professional baseball. He was a very popular and powerful figure in the game at that time. I do not say he caused or was the primary factor in segregating the game, only that he is one of the factors. Obviously the era itself sponsored Jim Crow, but to the extent that one player/manager/part owner could contribute to the practice, Anson did so. Refusing to play against an integrated team was certainly a dramatic statement from such a high profile figure, and the subsequent “gentlemen’s agreement”, while not necessarily his doing or even his inspiration, was nonetheless partly a consequence of attitudes such as he expressed publicly.

  12. Bruce Markusen said...

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone put Cap Anson or Ole Hoss Radbourn into the category of “baseball immortal” with Ruth, Aaron, Mays, Johnson, or the like. Honestly, have you ever heard of any naming an all-time team and putting either Anson or Radbourn on it? Furthermore, the 19th century game was so completely different than baseball in the modern era that it is hard to consider most of the 1800s greats in the same breath as the 20th century legends.

    Perhaps the one exception is Cy Young, partly because his career overlapped the two centuries and many of the corresponding changes in the rules and the styles of play. Young is sometimes mentioned with the Johnsons and the Groves, certainly moreso than Radbourn.

    Wrencis, the point of the article wasn’t to get into a discussion of how Dawson was inferior to so many other players on the ballot. (If I went off into that tangent, this could have been a 2000-word article.) But I think the consensus among Sabermetric types is that Alomar, Larkin, Trammell, and Raines were all better players than Dawson. Some of that is because of positional value, some of it is because of how those other players were superior in terms of their ability to get on base.

  13. wrencis said...

    I tend to draw distinctions between outside baseball sabermetric types and insiders. Which sabermatrician inside a successful baseball front office rates Trammell as a superior *player* to Dawson? Better *value* based on their salary structure and position needs maybe. Better player? I’d be very interested to learn which front office believes that.

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