Wednesday, January 1, 2014

History and the Hall of Fame backlog

In the days since I returned from my visit to Cooperstown, I've poked around a bit in the Bill James history of the Hall of Fame, first published in 1994 as "The Politics of Glory" and later republished as "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?"

I really wish, in retrospect, that I had thought to re-read the book before the trip.

As we await the announcement this week of the results of this year's BBWAA election -- an election in which the writers are confronted with a massive backlog of highly qualified candidates, and an election in which it's entirely possible that only one player will be selected -- one of James' points seems particularly relevant.

When the voters face a backlog, it splinters the voting sufficiently that they have difficulty electing anybody. And when that happens, the Hall's powers-that-be respond by opening a backdoor that ultimately results in a watering down of the quality of the inductees.

This happened at the beginning of the Hall, when the electorate was confronted with some 65 years of players to pick from. When the process snarled, the "Permanent Committee" responded by unilaterally installing 21 people in two years (1945-46). Many were legitimate selections (Ed Walsh, Eddie Plank, Ed Delahanty -- and that's just the ones with my first name), some were debatable (the en masse induction of Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance), some were just plain bad picks (Tommy McCarthy, Jack Chesbro).

This at least cleared the decks and made it easier for the writers to focus on the remainders -- at least until somebody had the lousy idea in the mid '50s to cut the voting back to every other year. And bam, the writers failed to elect anybody between 1956 (Hank Greenberg and Joe Cronin) and 1962 (Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson). The result of that drought: a revamping of the Veterans Committee that generated a wave of selections, many of them mediocre picks apparently chosen in large part for being old teammates and cronies of the members of the committee.

The writers failed last year to elect anybody. Bill Deane, who has a very good record at predicting the Hall votes, predicted earlier in December that only Greg Maddux will get in this year -- that fellow 300-game winner Tom Glavine will be left out, that 3,000-hit man Craig Biggio will be left out, that Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell will be left out ...

There are at least 18 players on this year's ballot who are, by the statistical record and the existing standards of the Hall, worthy of votes. The backlog is only going to grow.

And if the writers don't figure out a way to whittle it down, the Hall will inevitably do it for them.


  1. Very worthy candidates not being granted HOF status is just as bogus as too many being honored. Maybe first year election is rare but among a pool of 30 teams, someone must be good enoughl every year.

  2. History doesn't always repeat itself, and early returns suggest that the voting pattern this year will NOT reflect past ones by a long shot. The calculus of psychology is trumping all the math/stat/history underlying Bill Deane's predictions. Don't feel bad, Bill; the stock market can't be predicted either.