If you’re upset about the results of the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot released on Wednesday, don’t worry: there are at least six future Hall of Fame statues on that ballot. If you tilt your head the right way, you might find more than 12. While most news sites and opinion pieces focused on the fact that the 2013 ballot is the first since 1996 to not feature a player voted into the Hall of Fame, they neglected to note that even that 1996 ballot featured six future Hall of Famers. That’s right; Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Don Sutton, Ron Santo, Jim Rice, and Bruce Sutter. Sutter and Rice both received less than 36% of the votes in 1996, and Santo eventually made the Hall of Fame thanks to a special committee.
You’re probably saying, “that’s not the point!” Of course, most of us know that Hall of Fame voting is typically a drawn out process for most players enshrined in Cooperstown. If you’re like me, you’re upset that the Baseball Writers of America missed an opportunity to elect two clear cut, first ballot Hall of Famers, or missed an opportunity to place some fine players in the Hall that had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the Steroids Era.
“I think what it really comes down to is there is such an enormous split in standards being used by the various voters. For a period of about 20 years, people in the sport knew this was going on. That’s why I voted in context. Everyone had a sense. Maybe not exactly what was going on but this might have involved thousands of players in the minor leagues and major leagues. I don’t know exactly who did what – I just know this is what the history was. This is what baseball was in this 20-year period. I feel like my vote should reflect history and not dictate legacy.” –Buster Olney
First Year Ballot
It is the moral inflection of the 2013 ballot that makes it different from the 1996 ballot. In 1996, who can blame the writers for not electing anyone? They were probably tired! From 1988 to 1995, the writers elected TEN first ballot Hall of Famers:
1988: Willie Stargell
1989: Johnny Bench
1989: Carl Yastrzemski
1990: Jim Palmer
1990: Joe Morgan
1991: Rod Carew
1992: Tom Seaver
1993: Reggie Jackson
1994: Steve Carlton
1995: Mike Schmidt
Following that list of players, can you blame the writers for not jumping on the bandwagons of Niekro, Perez, Santo, Sutton, Rice, or Sutter? That list of six players that were headed to Cooperstown — but temporarily blocked in 1996 — were a fine group of stars that were feared hitters, some of the strongest players of their respective eras, or even cornerstones for some of the strongest teams in their decades (or history). But they weren’t as good as that list of First Ballot players from ’88-to-’95. This gets us to the Willie Stargell Hall of Fame versus the Jim Rice Hall of Fame argument; before morals, before whatever drugs favored by players in their days are considered, that big ‘ol question of whether the Hall of Fame should extend to very good players that played a long time, or only apply to the elite, always rages.
Surefire Hall of Famers
This is what angers me about the 2013 ballot — it’s full of players that match the strength of those 1988 through 1995 first ballot Hall of Famers. You thought Rod Carew was good enough to make Cooperstown on the First Ballot? How about Craig Biggio? Jim Palmer? Forget it, I got Roger Clemens. That group features the formidable Reggie Jackson and Carl Yastrzemski — easily two of the top players of their respective eras. What, then, do we say of Barry Bonds or Jeff Bagwell? We could go through that entire set of First Ballot HOFers and compare them to the players on the 2013 ballot; undoubtedly, we’d go back and forth, but the point is, the type of “elite” class exhibited by that 1988-to-1995 class matches the type of elite players found in this ballot.
You might say that six players sounds like an awful lot of Hall of Fame players from one ballot. I’d agree, if it wasn’t for the recent ballots cast by the Baseball Writers. This is one of the reasons I think fans are upset with the 2013 ballot — it’s not simply that they didn’t vote in anyone from the 2013 ballot, it’s that they didn’t vote Roberto Alomar or Barry Larkin in on the first ballot. This group of of writers made their job in the coming years immensely more difficult for themselves by not voting the very best Hall of Fame candidates into Cooperstown as early as possible. Certainly, there are groups of strong players on each and every ballot, but the recent inductions for Andre Dawson (2010), Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven (2011), and Barry Larkin (2012) jammed up the coming ballots with more quality names. I think that’s part of the fans’ anger — don’t spend three years telling us Dawson and Blyleven belong in Cooperstown, but then say Bonds and Clemens don’t. In many ways, the seeds for the blank 2013 class were planted several years ago.
Classes of First Ballots
It might be difficult to think about lots of players making the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Certainly, it is no one’s right to get in the first time; however, the fewer players that get in the first time, the more tough decisions writers need to make in the future, and, the more players that require special committees to get into the Hall. Furthermore, the quality Hall of Fame first ballot classes shift over time, which should make it easier for voters to immediately enshrine the very best players. For instance, look at the group of players the writers voted in after their string of 1996, 1997, and 1998 ballots:
1999: Nolan Ryan
1999: George Brett
1999: Robin Yount
2001: Dave Winfield
2001: Kirby Puckett
2002: Ozzie Smith
2003: Eddie Murray
2004: Paul Molitor
2004: Dennis Eckersley
2005: Wade Boggs
2007: Cal Ripken
2007: Tony Gwynn
2009: Rickey Henderson
Or, consider the decade prior to the 1987 ballot (which did not feature a first ballot HOFer):
1977: Ernie Banks
1979: Willie Mays
1980: Al Kaline
1981: Bob Gibson
1982: Hank Aaron
1982: Frank Robinson
1983: Brooks Robinson
1985: Lou Brock
1986: Willie McCovey
Again, these players keep great company with one another. Yet, if we scrutinize these lists against the 1988–1995 first balloteers, we can find some discrepancies. For example, Brock was a great player, but he was no Boggs; Boggs was great, too, but he was no Frank Robinson, and Robinson wasn’t quite as good as Aaron. We can do the same with the fielding-oriented players on this list, as well as the pitchers, or we could judge the classes within each fielding position. Although we can debate the specifics forever, the basic point is that there are levels within these classes of First Ballot Hall of Famers. Yet, they all entered Cooperstown on the First Ballot, which allows us to build a specific narrative about the type of player that makes the Hall of Fame; certainly, there was room in that list for Roberto Alomar or Bagwell or Larkin, and there’s certainly room in that class for Bonds, Clemens, Biggio, and others. Certainly, many of those players fall short of the ideal of the mid-1960s and early-1970s first ballot players:
1966: Ted Williams
1969: Stan Musial
1972: Sandy Koufax
1973: Warren Spahn
1974: Mickey Mantle
The Common First Balloteer
Overall, approximately 1/3 of players that entered Cooperstown thanks to the Baseball Writers entered Cooperstown on the first ballot. Which leads me to ask, why do some writers so vocally uphold this ideal standard of which players deserve entrance on the First Ballot? Frankly, the idea of First Ballot enshrinement is not all that rare, and it’s obviously not reserved only for the most elite players. Once enshrined as a First Ballot Hall of Famer, whether Lou Brock deserves it as much as Willie Mays, Brock and Mays are both part of the same class in that regard; we can use these classes and variations to form our opinions about future Hall of Fame votes. In this regard, Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Biggio, and others still, are clear cut Hall of Famers.
“I did not for any of the steroid users or suspected steroid users. It’s a judgment call, obviously, which more than 60 percent of my brethren agreed on Bonds and Clemens. I don’t think this is necessarily a dark day for baseball. We’ve had times when nobody has gotten in. We’ve had decades where very few have gotten in. This is just part of the process. I suspect next year both sides will agree on at least three names being Frank Thomas, Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine. I don’t think there will be any discussion on those. I think next year we’ll be celebrating.” –Pedro Gomez
After the First Year
One of the interesting reactions in comments sections came from “fans” that were excited about the lack of new inductees. These comments (a) focused specifically on the steroids issues (ignoring completely cases like Jack Morris or Bagwell or Edgar Martinez or Tim Raines or Trammell), and (b) frequently argued that now the writers need to remember to keep these players off the ballots in the future. Beyond the strong percentage of players that enter Cooperstown on the first ballot, another misunderstood area of voting is the progression from low first vote percentages to hall enshrinement.
Take a look at this list of players:
Harmon Killebrew (1981, 1st): First ballot 59.6%, currently in HOF
Juan Marichal (1981, 1st): First ballot 58.1%, currently in HOF
Don Sutton (1994, 1st): First ballot 56.8%, currently in HOF
Robin Roberts (1973, 1st): First ballot 56.1%, currently in HOF
Catfish Hunter (1985, 1st): First ballot 53.7%, currently in HOF
Fergie Jenkins (1989, 1st): First ballot 52.3%, currently in HOF
Tony Perez (1992, 1st): First ballot 50.0%, currently in HOF
Ryne Sandberg (2003, 1st): First ballot 49.2%, currently in HOF
Andre Dawson (2002, 1st): First ballot 45.3%, currently in HOF
Gary Carter (1998, 1st): First ballot 42.3%, currently in HOF
Hoyt Wilhelm (1978, 1st): First ballot 41.7%, currently in HOF
Rich Gossage (2000, 1st): First ballot 33.3%, currently in HOF
Eddie Mathews (1974, 1st): First ballot 32.3%, currently in HOF
Jim Rice (1995, 1st): First ballot 29.8%, currently in HOF
Early Winn (1969, 1st): First ballot 27.9%, currently in HOF
Luis Aparicio (1979, 1st): First ballot 27.8%, currently in HOF
Bruce Sutter (1994, 1st): First ballot 23.9%, currently in HOF
Billy Williams (1982, 1st): First ballot 23.4%, currently in HOF
Don Drysdale (1975, 1st): First ballot 21.0%, currently in HOF
Bert Blyleven (1998, 1st): First ballot 17.5%, currently in HOF
Duke Snider (1970, 1st): First ballot 17.0%, currently in HOF
I tried to only keep players on this list that entered Cooperstown via the Writers vote, and not Committees, but overall, this list should show the diversity of First Ballot fates suffered by Cooperstown-worthy players. Certainly, there is a whole new round of arguments we can make, perhaps noting that Eddie Mathews was better than Brooks Robinson and therefore more deserving of First Ballot enshrinement, or that Harmon Killebrew was better than Brock. Those arguments miss the overall point that a player is not always defined by his first vote for Cooperstown, and some extremely highly regarded players suffered low first ballot totals. My favorite example is a guy like Don Drysdale, who in retrospect seems fondly regarded as one of his era’s most dominant pitchers; he hardly cracked 20% in his first shot with the Baseball Writers. I feel the narrative with relievers has also completely been rewritten, with Rich Gossage and Bruce Sutter looking like obvious choices for Cooperstown as our familiarity with relievers advances.
As much as moralists would like to believe that the writers spoke shortly and swiftly of Bonds and Clemens, remember that they’ll both be back for another 14 years or so (I’ll place a future bet with someone that my student loans are paid off before they enter the Hall of Fame thanks to the voters). This takes us back to the earlier point about the writers dealing with jammed up ballots due to their sudden refusal to vote players in on their first try. If you thought the moralizing and arguments about the Steroids Era were obnoxious this year, think about how those arguments will pile up in year after year after year. While this might do some good — look at the way that we came to understand and appreciate what Blyleven accomplished in his career, for instance — it does not make Bonds, Bagwell, Clemens, Biggio, and Piazza more or less great.
Future votes won’t make the best players from the Steroids Era more great, but one might argue that we’ll be able to more fully understand that there are levels of players within the Steroids Era. The only problem with this argument is that we can already accomplish this with the 2013 ballot; certainly, we can already see that there are levels of players between Sammy Sosa to Mark McGwire to Barry Bonds (and in between, too). Clearly, we can look at players like Bernie Williams and Jeff Cirillo and Royce Clayton and know that there were players that were better than others over the last twenty years. We obviously don’t know if Cirillo, Clayton, or Williams used PEDs during their respective careers, just like we don’t know in the cases of the elite players, either; the performance-based vote for Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Biggio, etc. should be as easy as the performance-based vote for Cirillo, Clayton, and Williams.
The Steroids Slope
One common flaw is to make sweeping arguments like, “Voting for suspected steroids users is a slippery slope because once one is in, they’ll all get in.” To which we can all reply, NO! Just, no. I don’t care what flowed through their veins, we can say, “Barry Bonds is better and more deserving of the Hall of Fame than Sammy Sosa.” We can do the same with a lot of these players; we can find very clear ways to say, “this player did these things well, and for that reason, he’s a Hall of Famer.” It’s rather simple, and we don’t need to take decades to figure it out.
One of the downfalls of figuring out what to do with loads more steroids era players as they jump onto future ballots is that the worthy players from those eras could end up keeping others from the Hall of Fame. This is my biggest problem with the “moral” celebrations of the blank 2013 Hall of Fame:
Tim Raines (2008, 1st): First ballot 24.3%, currently at 52.2% (on 6th ballot)
Lee Smith (2003, 1st): First ballot 42.3%, currently at 47.8% (on 11th)
Alan Trammell (2002, 1st): First ballot 15.7%, currently at 33.6% (on 12th)
Don Mattingly (2001, 1st): First ballot 28.2%, currently at 13.2% (on 13th)
Jack Morris (2000, 1st): First ballot 22.2%, currently at 68.7% (on 14th)
Dale Murphy (1999, 1st): First ballot 19.3%, currently at 18.6% (on 15th)
These are the guys that the writers truly failed. Forget about the worthy first ballot HOFers, or the true greats on this ballot; take a look at this group of players and compare their fate with the fate of those noisy steroids era first timers. While each of these players might not be worthy of the Hall — in fact, you might think that none of these guys deserve Cooperstown — these players were truly hurt by blank ballots cast due to the steroids era players. While I’m not saying that a protest vote — say, a vote for these players instead of Bonds, Clemens, etc. — would be more acceptable than a blank ballot, at least it would directly address the issue of whether or not these players belong in the Hall of Fame (or, could make further strides to get there). A completely blank ballot punishes Bonds and Clemens, indeed, but it also leaves uncertainty about the merits of these players. Are Bonds and Clemens better than each and every player on this list? You’d better believe it. Does that mean that these players deserve to be punished with blank ballots? No way. If you don’t want to vote for Raines or Morris or Mattingly or whoever, that’s great, but don’t do it at the cost of not voting for Bonds or Clemens or Bagwell or Biggio or anyone else. SOMEONE is a better, deserving HOF candidate on this ballot.
While great players such as Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas will appear on the 2014 ballot, and appear to be favored by the writers, the questions of the Steroids Era will not go away. Glavine, Maddux, and Thomas are not typically connected to the winds of cheating alongside that era, but they were a part of that era and their performances define some bounds of greatness in that era (shouldn’t they, too, be punished for not addressing the suspected issues of their peers? Were not they complicit with the steroids era by not reporting teammates?). One of the interesting questions is how a Hall of Fame can include Glavine, Maddux, and Thomas, but not Bonds, Bagwell, Biggio, and Clemens (among others). There is a potential for Glavine, Maddux, and Thomas to define performance parameters for this era; perhaps they define an elite class that will allow voters to determine which players from the steroids era deserve enshrinement.
Of course, while these votes occur, there will be players that stick around the ballots for years. Completing all 15 cycles of balloting without enshrinement is not as rare as one might suspect. Here are some notable players that spent 15 years on the ballot after the Baseball Writers once again began voting regularly in the mid-1960s:
Dave Parker (1997, 1st): First ballot 17.5%, finished balloting in 2011 with 15.3%
Tommy John (1996, 1st): First ballot 21.3%, finished balloting in 2009 with 31.7%
Dave Concepcion (1995, 1st): First ballot 6.8%, finished balloting in 2008 with 16.2%
Steve Garvey (1993, 1st): First ballot 41.6%, finished balloting in 2007 with 21.1%
Jim Kaat (1989, 1st): First ballot 19.5%, finished balloting in 2003 with 26.2%
Luis Tiant (1988, 1st): First ballot 30.9%, finished balloting in 2002 with 18.0%
Tony Oliva (1982, 1st): First ballot 15.2%, finished balloting in 1996 with 36.2%
Thurman Munson (1981, 1st) First ballot 15.5%, finished balloting in 1995 with 6.5%
Maury Wills (1978, 1st): First ballot 30.3%, finished balloting in 1992 with 25.6%
Harvey Kuehn (1977, 1st): First ballot 14.9%, Finished balloting in 1991 with 22.6%
Roy Face (1976, 1st): First ballot 5.9%, Finished balloting in 1990 with 11.3%
Roger Maris (1974, 1st): First ballot 21.4%, finished balloting in 1988 with 43.1%
Lew Burdette (1973, 1st): First ballot 3.2%, finished balloting in 1987 with 23.2%
Ted Kluszewski (1967, 1st): First ballot 3.1%, finished balloting in 1981 with 14.0%
The Committee Hall
Of course, finishing all 15 ballots without enshrinement does not always keep a player from the Hall of Fame. Notable players that completed balloting without enshrinement, but nevertheless entered Cooperstown, include:
Enos Slaughter (1985)
Red Schoendienst (1989)
Richie Ashburn (1995)
Jim Bunning (1996)
Nellie Fox (1997)
Orlando Cepeda (1999)
Bill Masers (2001)
Do Bagwell, Biggio, Bonds, Clemens, Martinez, Morris, Piazza, Schilling, Smith, Trammell make the Slaughter / Bunning Hall of Fame?
Part of me wonders if this is the fate that awaits Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Piazza, and numerous other players that excelled during the Steroids Era. Which brings us back to the short-sightedness about moralizing this 2013 ballot; it’s one thing to have the writers make a statement about how their voting will progress for players that worked during the Steroids Era, but it’s quite another to actually keep players from the Hall of Fame. In this regard, I am willing to bet that the desired sense of morality that some feel about this ballot will be overruled by a committee in the next 20-30 years (I wouldn’t be surprised if the same thing happened to players like Morris and Raines, as a “1980s Committee” or something).
“I hear TV and radio announcers call a player “a surefire Hall of Famer” and I have no idea what universe they reside in that permits their mouths to form these words. There is no such thing as a surefire Hall of Famer any more.
Greg Maddux will be on the ballot next year. Frank Thomas will, too. If either of them fails, I will eat my cap. I will never, ever, ever refer to either as “a surefire Hall of Famer,” however, because that ship has sailed.
The voters have spoken, as politicians have put it. I know there are millions of you who hate the way it came out. I do, too. Baseball is not supposed to be a game in which nobody wins.” –Mike Downey
In the meantime, my last argument requires the eyeball test. As a baseball stats fanatic, I frequently hear counterarguments that implore me to trust what I see over the data. For instance, forget that the data shows that Rickie Weeks swings at fewer pitches outside the zone and walks at a higher rate than just about every member of the Brewers; we’re supposed to discern that he’s not a good hitter just by looking at him. In this regard, I favor statistical analysis because our memories are formed by what we want to believe and what we have experienced, and what we see cannot always be recalled perfectly by our minds.
On this occasion, though, I can say: I was there, baseball writers. I was in the stands while you were working in the box. I wasn’t questioning any of the players about what was in their veins, and for the most part, neither were you. I know Bonds was probably the best ever because I saw it — with two outs in an inning, I saw the way fans booed their own pitchers’ strikes when Bonds stood on deck (and then booed the intentional balls), longing for one extra chance to see him hit a home run. I saw the way fans tripped over themselves to catch one of his sacred homers. I know that Bonds was the best not only because of his statistics, but also because of the way everyone treated him. You, the media, are held to that standard, too. You’re the reason he’s the best, too. Same with Clemens, same with Biggio, same with a few others on the 2013 ballot.
I ultimately disagree with the 2013 ballot because I was there, right along side everyone, and I saw that these players were great. I saw that greatness that is one of a kind, regardless of what’s in anyone’s veins (which we don’t truly know, anyway). To punish these greats after the fact is deplorable, and it doesn’t match up with reality. Thankfully, fans have special committees to depend on, because frankly, some of us are losing any faith we had in the BBWAA voters reflecting what occurred on the field.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC. 2000-2013.
News researched from MLB.com. New York Times online, and Washington Post online. Articles from CNN and ESPN cited with links where quoted.
The recent work of Joe Posnanski, and the book, Politics of Glory by Bill James have also helped to form my understanding of the Hall of Fame.