Cooperstown Confidential: Small vs. big, and the Hall of Fame Voteby Bruce Markusen
January 08, 2010
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.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.