By Derek Rosenfeld
If you’ve followed Major League Baseball (MLB) over the past decade, you’ve probably heard this phrase used to describe the Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) more than a few times--the result of several, perhaps many, perceived very good to great players being regularly voted into American sports’ ultimate shrine generally reserved for its all-time elite. In the aftermath of last week’s latest HOF vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), so too began another round of debates by writers, commentators, fans, and armchair pundits (such as myself) alike on the merits of what exactly a “Hall of Famer” really looks like.
Located in Cooperstown, New York, the HOF was the brainchild of Stephen C. Clark, a local businessman who wanted to attract new economic interests to the struggling Depression-ravaged town, who devised a story with the help of the former major leaguer and budding sporting goods magnate A.G. Spaulding to concoct a story of how baseball originated in the tiny town located 200 miles north of New York City.1 The HOF officially opened its doors on June 12, 1939, with the induction of five of the greatest names the game ever produced: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner. It’s this first HOF class that seems to be at the crux of the argument about the legitimacy of HOF candidates. These five players represented the apex of the game’s history, which at the time was roughly 70 years old. So, were HOF inductees required to be legends like Ruth, Cobb, or Wagner? Or was there wiggle room for those players with less than icon status?
Over the course of the HOF’s 72-year history, it is not entirely unprecedented for those who are considered borderline or even sub-HOF-type players to receive the required 75 percent of votes from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) for induction, but the recent spate of players considered unworthy who have been given their Hall pass has irked purists; redeemed “statheads”; delighted “homers”; and drawn a considerable amount of attention, both positive and negative, to the entire election process. To understand how a player becomes eligible for HOF induction, let’s take a quick look at the basics of the election process.
For a player to be considered for the HOF, he must have played at least 10 consecutive major league baseball seasons and have been retired for five years. Once that five-year waiting period passes, that player’s name will appear on the BBWAA HOF ballot. In January 2011, the 581 members of the BBWAA voted on a list of 33 Hall-eligible players.2 To be inducted, a player’s name must appear on the aforementioned 75 percent of the votes cast; this year, the player’s name must appear on 436 of the ballots cast. If a player’s name does not appear on at least five percent or, this year, 29 of those ballots, then the player’s name is removed from any subsequent voting. Should a player continue to get the required five percent of these votes each year, he gets a maximum of 15 years, or tries, to receive the 75 percent of ballots needed for induction.
In addition to the BBWAA vote, there is also a 16-member Veteran’s Committee, which votes on other Hall nominees that include former managers; owners; executives; negro league players; umpires; and, most notably, a limited number of players who failed in their 15 attempts to make the Hall during the normal election process. This group is currently comprised of eight Hall of Fame players including Ozzie Smith, Johnny Bench, and Frank Robinson; four MLB executives including Jerry Reinsdorf and Andy McPhail; and four media members including Bob Elliott of the Toronto Sun and Tim Kurkjian of ESPN.3 This committee convenes during the Winter MLB meetings to vote and also requires nominees to garner a 75 percent total—12 of 16—votes for induction.
This committee’s election process has been revised and/or pared down several times after 2001 when it became embroiled in controversy after it elected Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski to the HOF; it was the eighth straight year it had elected at least one member. Mazeroski, who was highly regarded by his peers as a personality and who hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history—the Game 7 walk-off shot to win the 1960 World Series over the Yankees—yet whose great defensive prowess was grossly overshadowed by a noticeable lack of offense (a career .299 on-base percentage and a .367 slugging percentage), seemed to have set a new standard (or low, as some would come to think) for what constitutes a HOFer. His induction led Reggie Jackson and other HOFers to accuse the committee of cronyism, and which led to the first of several changes in its voting methods.
Just this past week, fans and the media once again voiced their opinions on the merits of the HOF’s standards when former pitcher Bert Blyleven, a current Minnesota Twins broadcaster, was elected after his 14th year on the ballot. Blyleven’s 22-year career showed signs of both domination, as evidenced by his 3,701 strikeouts (5th all time), 242 complete games, and 60 shutouts; and modest leaguewide success, such as his never winning a Cy Young award and being selected to just two All-Star teams. Was he a HOF pitcher? An all-time great? Or was he a very, very good starter who compiled an impressive statistical resume that teetered on being either good enough or just plain way above average? It’s examples of careers such as Blyleven’s that will lead anyone with a passing interest in the game to examine its historical fallacies and vast statistical ambiguities and the role perception plays.
In Parts 2 and 3 of our examination of the MLB HOF, we will look at past, present, and future borderline HOF candidates; the new era of statistical analysis ushered in by Bill James; how no two eras are created equally; and, of course, the steroid question.
Derek Rosenfeld is an associate editor for Fire Engineering. He is beginning his sixth season as the assistant baseball coach at Bergen Community College in Paramus, New Jersey. He is also an infielder for the semipro North Haledon (NJ) Reds. During the mid-90s, Rosenfeld was a three-year starter at second base for the Ramapo College baseball team in Mahwah, New Jersey, where he earned all-New Jersey Athletic Conference honors and was a two-time New Jersey Collegiate Baseball Association (NJCBA) all-star selection. He was named MVP of the 1997 NJCBA All-Star Game. He has a bachelor’s degree in communications from Ramapo College.