My Own Little Hall of Fame: Midway

The selection of the Class of 1917 marks the mid-point of the My Own Little Hall of Fame project. I began it last year in March and intend to go through this year and finish in December next year with the 1934 class. Here’s a summary of some of the things I’ve discovered.

1. I have a much greater appreciation of how hard it is to be a Hall of Fame voter. I fully expected I would be able to simply look through some newspapers, a few journals, the contemporary guides, and come up with a quite obvious Hall. Oops. It actually takes a lot to make the determinations necessary to elect a Hall of Fame. If you do it right, or at least attempt to do it right (which is all I’ll admit to) it gets complicated fast. What stats are available? Which matter? Why? I’ve been very critical of the Hall of Fame voters on a number of occasions. I’ve discovered that it’s harder than it looks (which doesn’t mean the actual voters haven’t made mistakes). I have a new respect for those voters who are trying to get it right (which is different from all voters).

2. So far I’ve elected 52 members, or about 3 a year. By contrast the real Hall of Fame elected 62 members in its first 17 years (about 3.6 per year). So I’m actually being a bit more conservative than the real Hall voters. That kind of surprises me. I thought I’d probably end up adding more than the real Hall.

3. The number of people added each year has dropped. That makes sense. Any newly established institution like the Hall of Fame is going to begin with a backlog of quality candidates for membership. It takes a few years to clear that backlog, but once it’s gone, then the number of newly eligible quality candidates should, in most years, be considerably fewer. In my case that’s been absolutely true.

4. I’ve made it a point of  doing two things that the real Hall doesn’t do. First, I elect at least one for each class. There is no requirement the real Hall do so. Second, I’ve added three Negro League players already (Bud Fowler, Frank Grant, and George Stovey). I know that probably wouldn’t happen in 1917 and with the rise of racial tensions after World War I  it certainly wouldn’t happen between 1920 and 1934. However, I still intend to buck that and add Negro League players as I feel appropriate. It just seems like the right thing to do.

5. I was initially concerned with the number of “Contributors” I was adding. These are people added because of something they did for baseball other than play the game (William Hulbert, founder of the National League, is an example). Then I got to looking over the real Hall’s inductees in the first several years and noted they also added quite a number of “contributors” early. The number of contributors elected by Cooperstown has decreased in the last 40 or so years (although there are still several). As I look at my preliminary list of contributors going out to 1934, I note that I’ll probably be electing fewer also because the first couple of generations of contributors will be pretty much gone and the new group is, as a whole, less impressive (which does figure).

6. It’s interesting, and frankly obvious, how uneven the quality of players available in a given year becomes. Some years there are an entire list of quality candidates, not all of which will make it, but all of which will deserve study. Other years I simply want to say, “Yuck.” Of course that was destined to be true, because all the good players don’t retire at once and not every year has a bunch of good players leave the game. It does help to clear some of the backlog, but I’ve found it too tempting to simply add someone because he’s the best available guy not because he’s truly a Hall of Fame caliber player. I’m sure I’ve slipped up a time or two and let someone in based on that, but I try to watch it closely.

7. I knew that statistics were going to vary, but, frankly, was surprised by how much. From a preliminary look forward, that seems to start changing in the 1920s, especially with the Elias Sports Bureau’s arrival (maybe I should look at Al Munro Elias a bit more closely as a Hall of Famer). It does make it difficult to determine exactly who should get in my Hall because every time I look to hang my hat on a particular stat it changes. For instance, RBIs aren’t yet an official statistic and what I find concerning RBIs changes. I have to admit I sometimes go to Baseball Reference.com to determine which number is the one I should use. It’s not quite fair, but it does make it easier for me. When I do, I have to resist the temptation to look at the newer stats (OPS+, WAR, etc.). They weren’t even thought of yet and I don’t want to be influenced by them.

8. It has been an education for me to do this. I’ve had to read stuff I didn’t know existed, had to sort through things that sometimes were contradictory, had to almost flip a coin occasionally as to what do I believe. And it’s astounding how quickly the pioneers (pre-1876) guys have disappeared.

9. Perhaps most importantly, I’ve had to determine how much “fame” mattered over “greatness”. I’m still not sure I know the answer to that last. Go back a couple of months and look at my comments on John McGraw and you’ll get a feel for the structure of the question itself. It first manifested itself in trying to determine why Bill Lange, a 19th Century outfielder with Chicago, was so utterly famous (he’s now very obscure). I looked at his numbers and they were good (I even fiddled around with his newer SABR-style numbers, which aren’t bad–123 OPS+, five years of 3.5 or more WAR in a seven year career) and he came off as a very good player, but I wasn’t sure he was great. It began to dawn on me that the two things (famous and greatness) were not interchangeable and that came to a head in the John McGraw problem. That may be the most profound observation I’ve discovered on this project (and profundity from this site should scare you to death). If I ever figure out the complete answer, I’ll have a book (and a number of you telling me I got it wrong).

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6 Responses to “My Own Little Hall of Fame: Midway”

  1. Miller Says:

    Very much looking forward to your McGraw discoveries. The famous/greatness line is an interesting one. Lloyd Waner and Bill Mazeroski are two guys who come to mind. I’m also interested in the greatness/value line straddled by guys like Rollie Fingers.

    However, my takeaway from this post is how you seem to forgive Hall voters. What you are doing is incredibly hard. What early Hall voters had to do was similarly difficult. But today? I think being a Hall voter, save the steroid issue, is relatively easy. No, I think it’s very easy. Tim Raines? Curt Schilling? Alan Trammell? No PED taint on any. Greatness for all. Historic, Hall of Fame greatness, yet not enough voters see it. When you deprive yourself access to information, as you should in this really cool project, that’s one thing. And it’s the very thing that makes your work difficult. But when the BBWAA members of today deprive themselves of information, that’s akin to malpractice.

    Keep up the great work!

  2. glenrussellslater Says:

    V, I didn’t realize how much thought and effort you’ve expended in making your decisions on your Own Little Hall of Fame. I’m impressed. You are actually conflicted. It’s a great hobby and a noble undertaking.

    And speaking of your last sentence, maybe you ought to think of making this into a book (and then a Broadway play based on the book, a Broadway musical based on the Broadway play, and then a major motion picture musical, in Technicolor, based on he Broadway musical. Just kidding about the movie, of course!) But seriously, take my wife, please.

    I think that a book would be an excellent idea based on your interesting writing and one that you should look into. If you need any assistance in this area, I have a friend who lives in northern California who might be able to give you some advice, a really nice person who knows the ins and outs of publishing baseball books, who has already written and had published five or six books about baseball and baseball history (including one about the glory days of the Pacific Coast League, specifically concentrating on the old San Francisco Seals). This writer is also a member of SABRE, just as you are. (You might even know this writer!) He’s a retired teacher. So if you’d like, I’ll ask for permission to give you his business e-mail address. (If he agrees to it, I would send it to you on your e-mail, of course, not on here.)

    Sincerely,
    Glen

  3. William Miller Says:

    Here’s a question: Is it O.K. to be in the Hall of Fame for being “merely” famous, even if a player wasn’t truly great (at least for not that long), but was just mostly very good? And how long does a player have to be great (what percentage of his entire career) to be Hall worthy? I’m not suggesting watering down the standards (though that’s already more or less been taken care of by some iterations of the Veterans’ Committee), but are we looking for numbers such as WAR, or legends that appeal to us on some emotional / psychological level?
    I realize that in many cases, that’s a false dichotomy. Aaron, Ruth, Mays, Mantle, Seaver, Williams, and many others were both great producers on the field, and were also legends (or gradually became so over time.)
    But what do we make of the fact that Roger Maris, to choose but one example, is not in the Hall of Fame? While I’m not necessarily arguing that he should be (he really had just two big years), but he’s still one of the most famous ballplayers who ever lived.
    An interesting case for me (though a different sort than Maris) will be when Joe Mauer of the Twins retires. Truly a great player for about a decade through age 30, (three batting titles for a catcher), but will his post-age 30 performance as a relatively light-hitting first baseman (which he appears to have become since then), undermine his previous reputation as one of the top catchers of all time?
    This is an excellent series, and I’m very impressed by how much time and effort you’ve put into it.
    -Bill

    • glenrussellslater Says:

      I’ve thought about the same thing, Bill, in cases such as Roger Maris’s. I realize that the hall of fame is for greatness over a career, but why not have a separate wing for greatness, as in an EVENT, such as the 61* home run thing for Maris.

      The problem with that, though, is that, before too long, we’d be putting Ron Swoboda in there for a great catch that saved the world series, or Tommie Agee for TWO great catches that saved the world series, or Jackie Hernandez for being a world series hero for the Pirates at shortstop in 1971, but otherwise didn’t do much.

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