A baseball Hall of Fame post, because I haven’t written about baseball in a while, and that needs to change…
In 1994, Bill James published a book called The Politics of Glory (the title was later changed to Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?). It is, in my opinion, the best book ever written about baseball’s Hall of Fame.
I was rereading it the other day and came across his list of predictions for future Hall of Famers. James wrote:
I could give you long lists of totals for active players, but they all change every year. History suggests that there are probably now about 30 or 40 players in the major leagues who will eventually be in the Hall of Fame, but it will be at least 70 years until we have a firm total, and in that time the Veterans Committee could be abolished and reinstituted several times. Here’s the way I see the BBWAA votes for the next quarter of a century. I wouldn’t even try to guess what the Veterans Committee will do (other than they’ll have to elect Bunning and Fox).
James then made a list for the years 1995 to 2019, picking two players to be enshrined each year.
First, James was correct on several of the points he made in the above paragraph. Jim Bunning and Nellie Fox were both indeed elected by the Veterans Committee, and the VC has changed in multiple ways over the past twenty years.
Here is how James saw things going forward. Players actually enshrined in Cooperstown are in bold.
1995 — Mike Schmidt, Jim Rice
1996 — Don Sutton, Pete Rose
1997 — Steve Garvey, Phil Niekro
1998 — Gary Carter, Al Oliver
1999 — Nolan Ryan, George Brett
2000 — Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk
2001 — Andre Dawson, Dave Winfield
2002 — Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith
2003 — Dave Parker, Jim Kaat
2004 — Dennis Eckersley, Ted Simmons
2005 — Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr.
2006 — Rickey Henderson, Paul Molitor
2007 — Tony Gwynn, Roger Clemens
2008 — Kirby Puckett, Dale Murphy
2009 — Jack Morris, Lee Smith
2010 — Tim Raines, Ryne Sandberg
2011 — Barry Bonds, Joe Carter
2012 — Brett Butler, David Cone
2013 — Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker
2014 — Goose Gossage, Don Mattingly
2015 — Jack McDowell, Greg Maddux
2016 — Fred McGriff, Dwight Gooden
2017 — Frank Thomas, Ruben Sierra
2018 — Ken Griffey Jr., Roberto Alomar
2019 — Jeff Bagwell, Juan Gonzalez
Of course, James had no idea when the careers of most of these players would end, so the years themselves were pure guesses. Some of the players retired earlier than he had anticipated (like Puckett, Alomar, and Sandberg), while others hung on longer than expected (Rickey Henderson).
The PEDs debate/debacle also wasn’t an issue (at least, in terms of mainstream knowledge) in 1994; otherwise, his choices of Bonds and Clemens would be right on target. Pete Rose’s exclusion from the Hall needs no explanation.
All in all, though, it’s not a bad projection at all.
Let’s review the cases of some of those listed who have not been elected:
– Steve Garvey: James doesn’t seem to have actually favored Garvey’s candidacy, despite this projection (James rated Garvey the 31st-best first baseman of all time in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, released in 2001). Garvey would remain on the ballot for the full 15 years without ever coming close to election (peaking at 42.6% of the vote).
When James wrote The Politics of Glory, Garvey’s public “clean” image had largely dissipated due to some well-chronicled personal issues. Garvey was at one time an extremely popular player; without those off-the-field foibles, I suspect he would have come much closer to election and probably would have been a serious contender to gain election via the Veterans Committee. I could see arguments for/against him developing along lines similar to what we have seen with the candidacy of Jack Morris.
– Al Oliver: I’m not sure why James picked Oliver for this list. Oliver was only on the BBWAA ballot once, in 1991, and dropped off after only getting 4.3% of the vote.
Having said that, Oliver was a really good player. He could flat-out rake, leading the league in doubles twice and RBI once while compiling over 2700 career hits (.303 career batting average). In votes by two recent iterations of the Veterans Committee (2008 and 2010), Oliver has received some support (but not a lot) for enshrinement.
– Dave Parker, Jim Kaat, Dale Murphy: These three guys stayed on the BBWAA ballot for 15 years, but none of them ever got as much as 30% of the vote.
I think all three stand a decent chance of future enshrinement by some version of the Veterans Committee, particularly Kaat (who won 283 games and has had a significant career in the broadcast booth). I have always supported Murphy’s candidacy, though most of the BBWAA voters certainly didn’t agree with me. Parker had some peaks and valleys in his career, but no matter what will always have the 1979 All-Star game.
– Ted Simmons: In 1994, Simmons appeared on the BBWAA ballot for the first time — and the last, as he received only 3.7% of the vote.
In the Historical Abstract, James rates Simmons as the 10th-best catcher in baseball history, though by this point Simmons will have been passed by Ivan Rodriguez. I’m guessing that Simmons will be elected some day; that day, however, may be in the distant future.
– Brett Butler, David Cone, Joe Carter, Jack McDowell, Ruben Sierra: You’ve got to give James a little credit for listing Cone, even if he didn’t wind up a Hall of Famer. Entering the 1994 season, Cone was in the middle of a nice career (95-65, 3.14 ERA), but projecting the then 30-year-old Cone as a Cooperstown candidate might have been a stretch. Of course, in 1994 Cone proceeded to win the AL Cy Young Award. He would win 99 games after James published the book.
Brett Butler and Joe Carter are good examples of well-known players who had long, successful careers that didn’t quite rise to Hall of Fame quality. Carter was very prominent at the time The Politics of Glory was released, thanks to his walk-off homer to win the 1993 World Series.
As I mentioned, David Cone won the 1994 Cy Young Award. Jack McDowell had won the award the previous year, winning 22 games.
McDowell was 27 years old. He would only win 46 more games for the rest of his career, and was finished as a major league pitcher by the age of 33.
Ruben Sierra was the AL MVP runner-up in 1989, when he was 23 years old. That turned out to be his career year. Sierra played for nine different clubs between 1994 and 2006, his last season in MLB.
– Lou Whitaker: In 2001, Lou Whitaker debuted on the BBWAA ballot. He received only 2.9% of the vote.
Whitaker’s one-and-done BBWAA vote has been scrutinized (and criticized) for the past decade. Bill James rated Whitaker the 13th-best second baseman of all time, ahead of Hall of Famers Billy Herman, Nellie Fox, Joe Gordon, Bobby Doerr, Tony Lazzeri, Johnny Evers, Red Schoendienst, Bill Mazeroski, and Bid McPhee. (Two other second basemen rated behind Whitaker, Miller Huggins and Bucky Harris, are in the Hall for their managerial careers.)
All of the Hall of Fame second basemen named in the preceding paragraph were Veterans Committee selections. I suspect that Whitaker will ultimately join them as a VC pick.
Of the 12 second basemen James rated ahead of Whitaker, all but two are in the Hall. Craig Biggio is one of them, and he will probably be elected this year. The other, Bobby Grich, would be a worthy choice for the Hall as well.
– Dwight Gooden: From 1984 through 1993: 154-81, 3.04 ERA, 2128 1/3 IP, 1.169 WHIP
From 1994 until his career ended in 2000: 40-31, 4.99 ERA, 672 1/2 IP, 1.532 WHIP
What might have been…
– Juan Gonzalez: He actually won two MVP awards after James’ projection. Gonzalez lasted for all of two BBWAA ballots, which arguably was one more appearance on the ballot than he deserved. Igor only had 781 plate appearances in the majors after his age 31 season.
Then there are the players James didn’t list who are now serious Hall of Fame candidates (or who have been elected). Here are a few of them:
– Bert Blyleven: James only mentioned Blyleven once in The Politics of Glory, and even that was only in passing. In the Historical Abstract, however, he rated Blyleven the 39th-best pitcher in baseball history (as of 2000, the year he rated pitchers). That is basically right on the border of the Hall of Fame.
Only one pitcher rated ahead of Blyleven (Carl Mays) is not in the Hall, and there are many behind him who have been enshrined. Some of the guys rated lower than Blyleven should not have been elected, honestly, but quite a few of them are deserving. In other words, Blyleven is definitely not out of place as a Hall of Famer, a conclusion James had already reached.
– Craig Biggio: James initially rated Biggio the 5th-best second baseman of all time in the Historical Abstract, which he later acknowledged was probably a mistake. Still, there is no doubt that James is on board with Biggio’s Hall of Fame case (calling him “the greatest underappreciated player of my lifetime”).
James had no way of knowing in 1994 that Biggio still had over 2000 games to play in his career. Through the 1993 campaign, Biggio had played in exactly 800 games, having converted from a catcher to a second baseman in 1992. His career OPS+ following the 1993 season was 113. His OPS+ when his career finally ended? 112.
I think it’s interesting that Bill James listed Biggio’s Houston teammate, Jeff Bagwell, in his Hall of Fame projections despite Bagwell having only played three MLB seasons at the time.
– Tom Glavine: It’s a little surprising that Glavine didn’t get the nod from James. As I mentioned above, at the time of the publication of The Politics of Glory, David Cone was 95-65. Glavine was 95-66, with three consecutive top-3 Cy Young Award finishes (including winning the award in 1991). Glavine did have a significantly higher career ERA through the 1993 season (3.53 to Cone’s 3.14). Cone was three years older than Glavine, though.
In closing, let me quote Bill James one more time:
…the effect of [Hall of Fame] discussion is to create confusion, and in general this is how the Hall of Fame argument progresses: cacophony, leading to confusion.
It’s been 20 years since James’ book made order out of some of that confusion. Given the current controversies surrounding the process, however, the topic remains one of bewilderment…