Baseball Hall of Fame president is wrong about how ‘very selective’ Cooperstown voting has been

1 02 2016

Baseball Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson is in denial about the history of the Hall and the players it has honored.

In an interview last month with Graham Womack for Sporting News, Idelson said:

A lot of fans, I believe, don’t realize that only one percent of those that played the game have a plaque in Cooperstown. So it’s very selective and very difficult to earn election.

Note that 1 percent figure; we’re going to come back to it. In the same interview, Idelson defended the Hall of Fame’s use of a Pre-Integration Era Committee that every three years schedules consideration of “major league” (which means white) players from before Jackie Robinson broke baseball’s color barrier in 1947. Consideration of Negro League players from the same era stopped in 2006. The Hall of Fame includes 29 Negro League players and more than 120 white players whose careers were all or mostly played before 1947.

That 1 percent figure is bogus, even if it’s accurate. “Of those who have played the game” includes everyone active in the past five years, when baseball has 30 teams, and none of those players is yet eligible for Hall of Fame voting. I don’t know the history of roster size in baseball, either for most of the season or when rosters can expand in September. But more than 50 players appeared for the Yankees in 2015 and 2005, compared with 40 each in 1965 and 1955, so the recent years, because of roster size and league expansion, have more players than seasons in the distant past, when all the players have been retired long enough to be eligible for Cooperstown consideration.

And the measure of how “selective” the Hall of Fame is or how difficult it is to “earn” election is not Ken Griffey Jr., this year’s first-ballot Hall of Famer, or Mike Piazza, elected this year on his fourth year on the writers’ ballot. The players who wait decades for their Cooperstown moments are the true measure of how “selective” the Hall is: Veterans Committee choices like Deacon White, a 19th-Century player elected in 2013; Ron Santo, elected in 2012; Joe Gordon in 2009.

No player who played in 1990 has yet been eligible for consideration by the Veterans Committee. So “those that played the game” includes thousands (a quarter-century’s worth of players) not eligible yet for that second-chance consideration that determines how selective the Hall of Fame truly is. That makes the 1-percent figure grossly misleading.

For instance, the 1998 Yankees team that won 114 games, swept the Padres in the World Series and generated some best-ever conversation has no players yet in the Hall of Fame. Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera are locks for Cooperstown, but they are not eligible yet. And the borderline players on that team are either still awaiting eligibility on the writers’ ballot (Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada), hoping for writers’ election in their last year eligible (Tim Raines) or were rejected by the writers and will never make the Hall or will wait years for Veterans Committee consideration (Bernie Williams, David Cone, David Wells).

1927 vs. 1961

To see how truly selective the Hall of Fame has been, and how its selectivity has changed through the years, you have to go back decades. I picked two years to figure what percentage of players from that year made the Hall of Fame. Both were years that were important in Yankee history: 1927, the year of Murderer’s Row, and 1961, the year Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle chased (and Maris broke) the home run record Babe Ruth set in ’27.

I choose those two years not just because they are notable in Yankee history, but because each illustrates a different era of baseball and how it’s been treated in Hall of Fame selections. Players from the 1920s probably had an easier time getting into the Hall of Fame than players from any decade. They illustrate how non-selective Hall of Fame voting has been for the Pre-Integration Era (which I mocked last year as the Jim Crow Era). So 1927 is a good illustration of that era.

The Hall of Fame calls the period from 1947 to 1973 the “Golden Era.” 1961 falls practically in the middle. All teams were integrated by then, and African American and Latino stars were excelling: Frank Robinson won the National League MVP, while Orlando Cepeda led the league in homers and RBI, Roberto Clemente in batting, Willie Mays in runs, Hank Aaron in doubles and Maury Wills in stolen bases. The American League expanded that year, the first expansion of the major leagues in the 20th Century and the start of eventual expansion from 16 teams to 30.

While the 1927 players have had 34 more years to get Hall of Fame consideration, the 1961 season was 54 years ago. Jim Kaat (briefly a Yankee in 1979-80) was probably the last 1961 player to retire (in 1983). Kaat finished his 15th and final year on the writers’ Hall of Fame ballot in 2003. He was turned down for Veterans Committee selections on the 2012 and 2015 Golden Era ballots. So every 1961 player has had more than a quarter-century of opportunities to get chosen to Cooperstown by writers or Veterans Committees. Barring huge changes in the selection process, the Hall of Fame has already enshrined the vast majority of players it will ever select from both the 1927 and 1961 seasons.

The only 1927 player chosen to the Hall of Fame since Kaat’s retirement 33 years ago was Yankee Tony Lazzeri, elected by the Veterans Committee in ’91, so it’s likely that only a handful of ’61 players who aren’t already in Cooperstown will make it there.

1927

And how selective was the Hall of Fame about admitting players from those two years? Major league rosters listed 541 players in 1927 and 51 of them are in the Hall of Fame. That’s 9.4 percent, nine times the 1 percent figure that Idelson cited. The A’s, Yankees, Cardinals, Giants, Pirates and Senators each had five or more future Hall of Famers playing for them that year (and I didn’t count managers or players, such as Bucky Harris of the ’27 Senators or Whitey Herzog of the ’61 Orioles, who would make the Hall of Fame as managers). I also didn’t count Ernie Nevers, a future member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame who pitched for the ’27 St. Louis Browns.

The Giants had a Hall of Fame infield that year (Bill Terry, Rogers Hornsby, Travis Jackson and Freddie Lindstrom). Three teams had Hall of Fame outfields in ’27: the A’s (Ty Cobb, Al Simmons and Zack Wheat), Senators (Tris Speaker, Goose Goslin and Sam Rice) and Pirates (brothers Paul and Lloyd Waner, plus Kiki Cuyler).

Four ’27 teams had two pitchers headed to the Hall of Fame: the Yankees (Herb Pennock and Waite Hoyt), Cardinals (Jesse Haines and Pete Alexander), White Sox (Ted Lyons and Red Faber) and Senators (Walter Johnson and Stan Coveleski).

I double-counted players from both years who played on more than one team, because I just took the total numbers of players listed for each team and added them up. If you eliminated the players I double-counted, I bet that 9.4 percent figure would grow enough that we’d round it up to 10 percent. With just 16 teams and only white players, about one in 10 major leaguers from 1927 was headed to the Hall of Fame.

1961

The major leagues had 698 players on 18 teams in 1961. The average roster had 39 players in ’61 and 34 in ’27. I suspect the rules governing roster size and expansion changed. The Yankees in ’27 had only 25 players, seven fewer than the smallest teams in ’61. At the other end, the A’s had 52 players in ’61, nine more than the Giants, the ’27 team with the most players.

Of those 698 players, only 34, or 4.9 percent, have made the Hall of Fame. Think about that: With all the standout African American and Latino players, 1961 produced 17 fewer Hall of Famers than all-white 1927.

No 1961 team had even three infielders bound for Cooperstown, let alone a Hall of Fame infield.

I’m doubtful any ’61 team ever fielded a Hall of Team outfield. The Cubs had three outfielders:

  1. Billy Williams, an everyday player who usually started in left field but played 26 games that year in right.
  2. Richie Ashburn, an aging reserve who played 76 games in the outfield, all year.
  3. Lou Brock played only three games in the outfield (four games total) in ’61, all in center field, Ashburn’s usual position.

The most games the Cubs could have fielded a Hall of Fame outfield would have been three (I didn’t bother going through the box scores to see if it ever happened).

The Giants had Mays anchoring center, and Cepeda splitting time among left and right fields and first base. Willie McCovey would play 275 games in the outfield in his career, but he played only first base and pinch-hit in ’61.

The only ’61 team with two Hall of Fame pitchers was the Dodgers, with Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

While six ’27 teams had five or more Hall of Famers, only the seventh-place Cubs had five in ’61 Ernie Banks and Santo, plus the outfielders. The Giants, with Juan Marichal plus the sluggers, were the only team with four. Only the Phillies had no future Hall of Famers in ’27, but the Indians, A’s, Angels and Senators all were without Hall of Famers in ’61.

If 1961 had produced as many Hall of Famers as 1927, most of these players probably would be honored in Cooperstown: Kaat, WillsMaris, Elston Howard, Minnie Miñoso, Matty Alou, Curt Flood, Bill Freehan, Roy Face, Rocky Colavito, Billy Pierce, Dick Groat, Lew Burdette, Tommy Davis, Vada Pinson, Gil Hodges. That’s 16, pushing the total to 50. To match ’27 with 51 Hall of Fame players, Joe Torre would have made the Hall as a player, rather than waiting to make it as a manager.

That just matches ’27 in total Hall of Famers. To match ’27 at 9.4 percent of players that year, ’61 would need to add 15 more players, maybe Norm Cash, Jim Perry, Sam McDowell, Wilbur Wood, Pete Runnels, Jackie Jensen, Vic Wertz, Camilo Pascual, Ted Kluszewski, Jim Fregosi, Willie Davis, Frank Howard, Bill White, Lindy McDaniel and Felipe Alou.

Now, you might move some players back and forth between my lists, and add some of your own. And I’m not suggesting that these players all belong in the Hall of Fame. I’d prefer higher standards for the Hall. But the standard of selectiveness was set by the committees that opened Cooperstown to nearly 10 percent of players from that all-white era.

Of course, baseball was mostly white still in 1961, and 20 of the 32 players I’ve mentioned as comparable to the players chosen from 1927 (and they truly are comparable) were white.

But one fact about Hall of Fame selection are undeniable, unless you’re as deeply in denial as Idelson: The “very selective” standards of Hall of Fame voting didn’t apply to players of the Jim Crow Era.

Postscript on the Yankees

My point in this post wasn’t to whine about anti-Yankee bias. But the bias is easy to see in the numbers from both years. I Googled “best baseball teams of all time” and the Cheatsheet list had the ’27 Yankees at No. 1 and the ’61 Yankees at No. 7. Bleacher Report agreed that the ’27 Yankees were best, with ’61 sixth. (Both lists also ranked the ’98 and ’39 Yankees between the two New York teams we’re examining here. I examined other lists that I won’t detail here, but both ’27 and ’61 make any best-ever list I could find.)

Here’s what’s interesting, though: Neither team had the most Hall of Famers of any team in the year it was so great. The ’61 Yankees had only three, two fewer than the Cubs, one fewer than the Giants and as many as the White Sox, Dodgers, Braves and Cardinals. The ’27 Yankees had six Hall of Famers, one behind the A’s and tied with the Cardinals and Giants. And, until Lazzeri became the last player from that year elected to Cooperstown, they were tied with the Pirates at five, in fourth place for Hall of Famers that year, though universally regarded as the best team ever.

Related post on The Buttry Diary

I hit a link from the Sporting News interview with Idelson and found an excellent column by NBC Sports’ Joe Posnanski. It makes some of the same points I made about the absurdity of baseball having a Pre-Integration Era Committee. I addressed the similarities between our two pieces in a separate post on my journalism blog, The Buttry Diary.

Source note: Unless stated otherwise, statistics cited here come from Baseball-Reference.com.

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5 responses

1 02 2016
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