History will be made on January 20, 2009 when Barack Obama becomes President—but eight days earlier, the world will have come to an end.
Why? The Hall of Fame voting results will appear, and that day (January 12) is odds-on to be seen (in these here parts, at least) as “Black Monday.”
How? Oh, come on, now. I’ve been ducking this one for three winters already, while the sabermetrically-inclined have been tirelessly lobbing grenades.
Obviously we are talking about that stathead anathema, that pariah of low OBP and inflated RBI, the man whom regression-lovers find regressive, passé and ideologically incorrect. In short, the favored four-letter epithet in the ongoing Hall of Fame wars. Or—if this were any 007 film other than the current one—that would be:
Rice. Jim Rice.
The sometimes-feared Boston slugger received 72 percent of the vote from the BBWAA in 2008. The upcoming vote is the fifteent15th and final ballot for him. Only one man has had a higher percentage of the BBWAA vote with remaining eligibility via the “front-door” election process and not been elected. (You can guess who that is for now; the answer can be found further below.)
Part two of this essay will look at a prediction tool for Hall of Fame voting, similar to Chris Jaffe’s, and we’ll see how Rice and the other candidates on the ballot—Rickey Henderson, Tim Raines, Bert Blyeven (“the Anti-Rice”), Tommy John, and a dozen or so others—are projected to do.
First, though, it’s time to duck under all that flying fur. Let’s examine the history of the “front-door” Hall of Fame voting process from a perspective that’s a bit different from the prevailing view.
BBWAA Voting Inside Out
The Politics of Glory is Bill James’s most maddening work, a giant airbag of contrary motion that tends to deploy itself on the reader even when there has been no collision. Written in the “fallow” years between the Abstract series and the next wave of James’s research, it’s a curious mixture of muckraking, moralizing, and mathematics, containing James’s all-too-influential salvo against the BBWAA’s rejection of statistics (pp. 319-21).
That interpretation of the BBWAA contains more than a germ of truth, but its influence on subsequent work in the field of sabermetrics (particularly the tone of that work) has been as daunting as it has been widespread. The more measured aspects of James’s critique were quickly set aside by the next generation of stat-influenced writers, and this translated into a level of vitriol that continues today.
The dilemma about the Hall of Fame voting process that has gotten lost in the haste to tar the BBWAA is one that James acknowledges in passing as he exposes every wart. It was a simple, but monumental problem: in 1936 you had 60 years of baseball history to assess, and a ballot with every possible player from the 19th century to the present day on the ballot.
In today’s terms, that would be akin to us voting for all the players in the game for the past 60 years. For the sake of simplicity, let’s use 1955, when Joe DiMaggio was enshrined, as a cutoff point.
There have been 81 players (including DiMaggio) voted in the “front door” since then.
If you had to start with that accumulated talent pool, and you could vote for only 10 players, what do you think those results would look like? Who would you pick?
The 10 best players over what really amounts to a 70-year period (since players who began in the late 30s, like DiMaggio, are eligible)?
Quite a task, to say the least.
That’s what the BBWAA faced in 1936. Their first nine picks—Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, Johnson, Young, Speaker, Lajoie, and Alexander—are right on the money.
But who are the obvious choices now?
Let’s just see to whom the BBWAA gave its highest percentage of votes in the elections since 1955:
Tom Seaver (99%, 1992); Nolan Ryan (99%, 1999), Cal Ripken, Jr. (99%, 2007), Hank Aaron (98%, 1982), George Brett (98%, 1999), Tony Gwynn (98%, 2007), Mike Schmidt (97%, 1995), Johnny Bench (96%, 1989), Steve Carlton (96%, 1994), Willie Mays (95%, 1979), Carl Yastrzemski (95%, 1989), Bob Feller (94%, 1962), Reggie Jackson (94%, 1993), Ted Williams (93%, 1966), Stan Musial (93%, 1969), Brooks Robinson (92%, 1983), Jim Palmer (92%, 1990), Ozzie Smith (92%, 2002), Wade Boggs (92%, 2005), Rod Carew (91%, 1991)
That’s everyone (aside from Roberto Clemente, elected via a special ballot in 1973) with higher than 90 percent of the vote. Frank Robinson, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle are the next three on the list (88-89 percent).
It would be an interesting exercise for an aggregation like BTF’s Hall of Merit to tackle as a side project.
I think the only player missing from a top 10 emerging from such a vote (not counting ineligibles such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Greg Maddux) would be Joe Morgan, who received only 82 percent of the vote in 1990.
All in all, the BBWAA vote results, despite the perturbations of individual election years, seem rather solid.
It’s the gray areas, the less-than-obvious choices, that drive the controversy, the derision, the endless discussion that presumes that this subtler turf has been mangled.
And it is one of the strengths of James’s operatically dyspeptic Politics of Glory that we can see that there is no other way that it could have been—until, possibly, right now.
Veterans Committee Voting Inside Out
The Veterans Committee is now at its lowest ebb, and badly needs a revised approach. A correlation of their selections with the previous BBWAA voting, however, shows a consistent pattern that has, as far as I can tell, never surfaced in any of the endless discussions of this topic.
What is that pattern? Let’s permit it to evolve through a look at the correlations themselves, organized by decade.
The 1940s had three Vet Committee votes (‘45, ‘46, ‘49). Let’s look at those players selected by the VC, and their highest BBWAA vote percentages.
1949—Three Finger Brown (27).
It’s a clear and obvious pattern for this voting phase: the VC is putting in the players with the highest BBWAA vote totals. The only exception to the pattern is Miller Huggins, whose peak vote percentage was 54 percent in 1945 but was passed over until 1964.
It is possible, as James does, to criticize several of these selections, But aside from Billy Hamilton and Sam Crawford, there is no one that the two voting processes missed—and a lot of the reason for that, as James notes several times, is that there was no statistical encyclopedia available to those involved in the decision-making at the time.
The Vets Committee selections, at their peak of BBWAA support in the initial balloting, received an average peak vote of 38 percent. This was the highest such percentage until the decade of the 1990s.
The 1950s and 1960s was a time of instability in the HoF voting process, but the general pattern of following the BBWAA’s lead held in the Vet Committee selections.
Schalk is considered by everyone to be a bad pick, but the VC was simply following the lead of the BBWAA here. Another catcher, Hank Gowdy, peaked at 36% of the BBWAA vote in 1957, but hasn’t gotten the call yet. Voters with more support than Wallace (a dubious choice) and Crawford (a BBWAA oversight that VC should get credit for) included: Pepper Martin (16%), Duffy Lewis (14%), Babe Adams (10%), Lefty O’Doul (8%).
The average peak vote for the 50s VC picks: 28 percent.
60s—Edd Roush (54%, VC 1962), Miller Huggins (54%, VC 1964), Eppa Rixey (53%, VC 1963), Sam Rice (51%, 1963), Max Carey (51%, VC 1961), Kiki Cuyler (34%, VC 1968), Burleigh Grimes (34%, VC 1964), Red Faber (31%, VC 1964), Lloyd Waner (23%, VC 1967), Casey Stengel (23%, VC 1966), Waite Hoyt (19%, VC 1969), Goose Goslin (14%, VC 1969), Stan Coveleski (13%, 1969), Heinie Manush (9%, VC 1964), Billy Hamilton (<1%, VC 1961), Elmer Flick (<1%, VC 1964)
The VC starts to founder in the mid-60s, as there is a gap in players with strong BBWAA voting records that shows up at this time. Instead of slowing the process down, however, the VC starts to select players with very little prior BBWAA support. Elmer Flick (actually a good pick) and Heinie Manush (dubious at best) are the tipping point for a series of picks that go against the grain. This trend will metastasize in the next decade.
The average BBWAA support for VC picks declined in these two decades: 25 percent in the 50s, 28 percent in the 60s. It was about to bottom out, however.
The 1970s brought forth an explosion of VC selections, including the infamous “Frisch picks” that Bill James (for the most part) rightfully rails against in The Politics of Glory. Cronyism completely trumped BBWAA voting percentages.
We’ll break this into two parts, 1970-74 and 1975-79:
70-74—Lefty Gomez (46%, VC 1972), Ross Youngs (22%, VC 1972), Jim Bottomley (22%, VC 1974), Earle Combs (16%, VC 1970), Dave Bancroft (16%, VC 1971), Chick Hafey (11%, VC 1971), Rube Marquard (11%, VC 1971), Jesse Haines (8%, VC 1970), Harry Hooper (3%, VC 1971), George Kelly (2%, VC 1973), Jake Beckley (1%, VC 1971)
75-79—Al Lopez (39%, VC 1977), Hack Wilson (38%, VC 1979), Billy Herman (20%, VC 1975), Addie Joss (14%, 1978), Joe Sewell (9%, VC 1977), Earl Averill (5%, VC 1975), Fred Lindstrom (4%, VC 1976), Amos Rusie (2%, VC 1978)
As in previous decades, there are a couple of good selections amongst those who received low BBWAA percentages (Averill and Rusie), but for the most part this decade can be summed up with the phrase “…and you thought Lloyd Waner was a bad pick.”
The two 70s inductees with consistent support from the BBWAA over a nearly 20-year period were Lefty Gomez and Ross Youngs (much lower than Gomez, but in a tougher vote pool). Both have a more legitimate case than is generally acknowledged.
The average BBWAA support for VC picks in the 1970s: a whopping 15 percent. Four players with single-digit support got the nod in each half-decade.
The 1980s began what we can now see as an epic retrenchment. The VC actually had a year where they didn’t select someone (1988), a pattern that would soon escalate asymptotically. But, as we’ll see, the correlation to BBWAA voting percentages would start to rise again.
80s—Enos Slaughter (69%, VC 1989), Pee Wee Reese (48%, VC 1984), Johnny Mize (44%, VC 1981), Red Schoendienst (43%, VC 1989), Arky Vaughan (29%, VC 1985), Rick Ferrell (29%, VC 1984), Chuck Klein (28%, VC 1980), Ernie Lombardi (15%, VC 1986), Travis Jackson (7%, VC 1982)
Travis Jackson is a throwback to the “Frisch pick” debacle, where most of the inductees were throwbacks in a different sense of the word. All things considered, this is a much better list, and is more consistent with the results up to 1963.
Gil Hodges is the player with the highest BBWAA support who has not been put into the HoF.
The average BBWAA support for VC picks in the 1980s: 31 percent.
The 1990s brought us to the peak of what an unrepentant phrase-mangler such as yours truly would call “the BBWAA-to-VC PC.” Average BBWAA support for candidates put into the HoF by the VC reach an all-time high at 47 percent. The selections may or may not be correct, but the politics? Flawless.
Some of this, however, is due to a phenomenon that the “24-hour media age” made possible—highly effective bandwagon campaigns. As in politics, so in baseball—except that it takes 75% to be elected, which meant that even the best-organized bandwagon campaign could manage to fall just short of the goal.
This has happened three times in the BBWAA voting—in 1985, 1988, and 1994. Nellie Fox was cruising in the low 40s when a “get-him-in-the-Hall” campaign was organized during his final two years of eligibility. He wound up with 74.7% of the vote in 1985, his final year on the ballot.
The next of these incidents occurred in 1988, and it happened to a pitcher turned…yes, a pitcher turned politician—Jim Bunning.
Making what seemed like an orderly rise toward enshrinement, Bunning hit 74 percent of the BBWAA vote in ’88, and had three more tries to get over the line, but fell short, timing out in 1991 with 64 percent.
In 1992, a campaign to enshrine Orlando Cepeda geared up. After having been languishing in the 30s and 40s for nearly a decade, the Baby Bull shot up to 57 percent, then 60 percent in ’93. The “big push” fell short in ’94, making Cepeda the third member of the “so near, yet so far” BBWAA fraternity.
All three were enshrined by the VC in the late 1990s.
The 2000s has brought us into the VC’s “age of molasses.” Conquered by division, the VC has been stymied in its attempt to select a player whose career occurred since 1950. Managers, executives and Negro League players have been selected, which has masked this paralysis somewhat—but only to those with blinders on.
Wrapped To Go
The VC’s checkered history, as shaken and stirred by Bill James, looks like a series of random disasters, but it’s not. It has, with the exception of the 1964-82 time frame, followed the lead of the BBWAA and selected players with the highest percentage of votes in the qualifying elections.
Such a discovery won’t satisfy the sabermetric klatsch, of course. But it’s clear that, for the most part, the BBWAA and the VC selections have been reasonable. Not anywhere close to perfect, of course, but better than advertised by James and those who’ve bonded with his sardonic take on “insider world.”
That said, it’s clear that the current VC desperately needs more structural change, but we’ll save that topic for Part II. We’ll also examine the current crop of BBWAA eligibles, feature that prediction system, and return to the Great Jim Rice Conflagration.
Hold on to your heads, kiddies: January 12 is almost upon us.
References & Resources
Highest BBWAA support (vote %) for players not yet in Hall of Fame: Jim Rice (72), Andre Dawson (66), Gil Hodges (63), Bert Blyleven (62), Tony Oliva (47), Lee Smith (45), Roger Maris (43), Steve Garvey (43), Ron Santo (43), Jack Morris (43).
Highest BBWAA support (vote %) for HoF members selected by Veterans Committee:
Nellie Fox (74), Jim Bunning (74), Orlando Cepeda (74), Frank Chance (73), Enos Slaughter (69), Rube Waddell (63), Ed Walsh (56), Johnny Evers (54), Edd Roush (54), Ed Delahanty (53), Eppa Rixey (53), Max Carey (51), Sam Rice (51).
Lowest BBWAA support (vote %) for HoF members selected by Veterans Committee:
Elmer Flick (<1), Billy Hamilton (<1), Jake Beckley (1), George Kelly (2), Amos Rusie (2), Larry Doby (3), Bobby Wallace (3), Harry Hooper (3), Sam Crawford (3), Fred Lindstrom (4), Earl Averill (5), Travis Jackson (7), Jesse Haines (8), Heinie Manush (9), Joe Sewell (9), Chick Hafey (11), Rube Marquard (11).
(1970s VC picks in bold type.)
Average BBWAA support (vote %) for HoF members selected by Veterans Committee, summarized by decade: 1940s (38), 1950s (25), 1960s (28), 1970s (15), 1980s (31), 1990s (47), 2000s (41).