To be a baseball Hall of Famer — the 2008 ballots (Part 1)

This year there are three separate elections for enshrinement in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Three distinct voting groups will vote on the following:  a list of 10 players whose careers began in 1942 or earlier; a list of 10 players whose career began in 1943 or later; and a list of players still eligible for election by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).  The first two groups are what we think of as “veterans” committee picks, although in this case the makeup of the committees making the selections (if there are any selections) will be quite different.

In this post I’m going to take a look at the pre-1942 veterans ballot.  Subsequent posts will feature a brief analysis of the post-1943 veterans ballot and the BBWAA ballot (which has 23 players on it).

The ten men on the pre-1942 ballot are the finalists of a process that began with a group of BBWAA appointees winnowing the field from the many thousands of major leaguers who predated 1942.  Two of those involved in the initial phase, Bill Madden of the New York Daily News and Steve Hirdt of the Elias Sports Bureau, are on the 12-person selection committee.  They are joined on the committee by Hall of Famers Duke Snider, Bobby Doerr, Robin Roberts, Ralph Kiner, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, and Dick Williams, longtime baseball executive Roland Hemond, retired Atlanta Journal-Constitution sportswriter Furman Bisher, and Claire Smith, who currently works as a “news editor” for ESPN, but who previously covered baseball for a variety of newspapers, including The New York Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

That’s an interesting committee to say the least.  Incidentally, Bobby Doerr was a teammate of one of the ten men on the ballot, Junior Stephens.

Okay, now to the ballot itself.  There is one player on it who absolutely should be in the Hall of Fame.  That player is “Bad Bill” Dahlen.

Dahlen is not in the Hall already in part because he played about half of his career in the nineteenth century, and the other half in the twentieth.  He actually started his major league career before the pitcher’s mound was moved back.  He wasn’t really known as “Bad Bill” until his managerial career (he was ejected 65 times in only 606 games as a skipper).  As a manager, he wasn’t so hot — but as a shortstop, he was tremendous.

Dahlen played in 2443 games, mostly at shortstop, and had a career OPS+ of 109.  He finished in the top ten in slugging three times, runs batted in four times (winning the RBI title in 1904), walks five times, doubles six times, triples four times, and homers five times.  In 1894 Dahlen had a 42-game hit streak, went hitless in the next game, and then started a 28-game hit streak.

He was considered an outstanding fielder for much of his career (despite a high error total).  John McGraw once traded for him in what he called “the most successful deal I ever made…just what I wanted – a great defensive shortstop.”

Dahlen had a drinking problem at the beginning of his career, got it under control, and then returned to the bottle in a major way after his career ended.  McGraw managed to get him a job as a night watchman at the Polo Grounds, which was standard operating procedure for McGraw faves who had lost their way (Dan Brouthers and Amos Rusie were also night watchmen).

If he is elected to the Hall of Fame, perhaps he could be in line for a marked gravestone…

None of the other players on the ballot are guys I feel strongly should be in the Hall of Fame, although most of them have pretty good cases.  It’s a good ballot overall.

Sherry Magee was a Deadball-era outfielder who played mostly for the Phillies, finishing his career with the Braves and Reds.  If they had given out an MVP award in the National League in 1910, he almost certainly would have won it.  Alas, the first NL MVP award was handed out in 1911.  Magee had a career OPS+ of 136 (in 2087 games), with six top 10s in batting (one title) and eleven Top 10s in slugging (first twice).  He finished in the top 5 in hits on six occasions and was in the top 10 in runs seven times.  He led the league in doubles in 1914 and finished second in that category five times in a row from 1906-10 (four times beaten out by Honus Wagner).  He finished in the top 5 in stolen bases six times.  Did I mention his four RBI titles yet?  He ranked among the league leaders in triples and homers too.  He was also a solid defensive outfielder.

On the other hand, he was a hothead, had bullying tendencies, and was by nature a bit of a crab, and was also occasionally accused of being more interested in his personal stats than the team’s success.  He was suspended for over a month in 1911 for punching an umpire.  He was traded from the Phillies to the World Champion Braves after the 1914 season, and the Phillies won their first pennant the next year.  1915 was also the year Magee stepped in a hole during spring training, fell, and broke his collarbone.  He was never the same, and his play declined substantially until Boston waived him in 1917 to the Reds.  In a mini-comeback of sorts, he batted .321 for Cincinnati during his stint with the Reds that year, and then led the league in runs batted in in 1918.  That was about it for Magee, although he did play for the Reds when they won it all in 1919, pinch-hitting twice in that much-discussed World Series.  Magee, rather amusingly, would later become an umpire, but he died of pneumonia at age 44 in 1929.

Bill James, in The Politics of Glory, wrote extensively about both Joe Gordon and Vern Stephens.  I’m not going to rehash all of that here, but there is one particular passage that I would like to quote:

I am not advocating that Junior Stephens should be in the Hall of Fame — but I wonder if we aren’t in danger of honoring exactly the wrong combination…we’ve got one from Boston (Doerr), one from New York [Phil Rizzuto], one second baseman, one shortstop.  I wonder if we…have the wrong one in all four categories — the wrong one from New York, the wrong one from Boston, the wrong second baseman, the wrong shortstop.

At the time James’ book was published, Rizzuto was on the cusp of being elected to the Hall.  He was, of course, eventually enshrined.

Both Gordon and Stephens had relatively short careers, and you could be justified in not supporting either’s candidacy.  Stephens does have eye-popping offensive numbers, especially for a shortstop (career OPS+ of 119).  His raw numbers for the 1949 season were outrageous, and he could easily have been the MVP for the Browns in 1944, the only time the Browns ever won the pennant (albeit in a war year).  I would not necessarily vote for him, but if he were elected I wouldn’t question it.  I will say, though, that it would be curious for him to be elected after never receiving a Hall of Fame vote from the BBWAA.  Not one.  Even assuming that some  of the voters of the time weren’t all that bright, it’s awfully hard to go against essentially the entire electorate of that era.

I would rate Joe Gordon slightly ahead of Stephens, although his career was even shorter.  However, Gordon missed two years due to World War II.  Gordon is famous (or infamous, I guess) for winning the MVP award in a year (1942) in which Ted Williams won the Triple Crown.  That was a poor selection, of course, but I think it may have hurt Gordon a little in the eyes of people who only remember the bogus MVP award and not the rest of what was an outstanding career.  Gordon was the best second baseman in baseball for much of the 1940s, an outstanding defensive player who was an integral part of several championship teams, mostly for the Yankees but also for the 1948 Cleveland Indians.  In 1948 Gordon led the Tribe in homers and runs batted in.  Gordon had a career OPS+ of 120.

When Gordon came back from the war in 1946, he had a poor year, and thinking he might be through, the Yankees traded him to Cleveland for Allie Reynolds.  Guess who’s on the ballot with Gordon?  Yes, Allie Reynolds.

Reynolds is not one of the better candidates on the ballot, though.  He did pitch for six championship teams, including five in a row (1949-53).  Reynolds generally pitched well in the Series (7-2, 4 saves, 2.79 ERA).  He had a career ERA+ of 110, however, and if you’re going to be a Hall of Famer with an ERA + of 110, you better have had a really really long career.  For example, one of the members of the committee, Don Sutton, had a career ERA+ of 108.  However, Sutton pitched 5292 innings in his career.  Reynolds pitched less than 2500.  Another panelist, Phil Niekro, pitched even more innings than Sutton and had a better ERA+ (115).

In fact, many of those under consideration had relatively short careers for Hall of Fame candidates.  Stephens, Gordon, Reynolds, Wes Ferrell, Bucky Walters, and Carl Mays all fall into this category.  The first three I’ve already discussed.  Let’s look at the other three.

Wes Ferrell was a better player than his brother, who is in the Hall.  Of course, Rick Ferrell is one of the worst selections for enshrinement ever made, so that doesn’t say much.  Ferrell is often cited as the best-hitting pitcher ever (non-Ruth division), although I think a case could be made that Bob Caruthers deserves that title.  Wes Ferrell was a very good pitcher, and indeed a solid hitter, but for a limited amount of time (2623 innings).  He did have six 20-win seasons.  Ferrell (and his brother) were the subjects of a book by noted baseball researcher Dick Thompson.  Thompson (who is now deceased) suggested that Ferrell’s pitching career was actually better than his numbers indicate because he pitched more often against the league’s better teams.  However, this claim has been challenged by another researcher.

Bucky Walters won the 1939 MVP award after a 27-win season.  His effort helped push the Reds into the Series for the first time since 1919.  The next year, Walters won 22 more games, and the Reds won the world championship.  Walters got off to a late start in his pitching career because he came up as a third baseman (who couldn’t hit).  He still logged more innings than Ferrell, Mays, or Reynolds, but I think he needs a bit more heft in his resume to be a Hall of Famer.

Carl Mays has slightly better career statistics than Walters.  He also killed a guy with a pitch.  That shouldn’t automatically disqualify him from consideration for the Hall, of course.  Mays was a submariner who could throw hard (think B.K. Kim when he was actually good).  He won 20+ games five times.

He was also tremendously unpopular.  He was known as a headhunter (this was long before the Ray Chapman incident).  He couldn’t get along with anybody, including teammates.  Many baseball people also believed that Mays threw at least one, if not two, World Series games.  Basically, he was a nasty bit of goods (who despite that found work as a scout in later years).  His statistical record as a pitcher (who was not a bad hitter, either) is probably close to the border for a legitimate Hall of Famer.  His “extracurriculars”, if you will, have kept him out of the Hall, and in my opinion, deservedly so.

The final two players on the ballot are Mickey Vernon, who debuted in 1939, later than any of the other nominees, and Deacon White, whose major league career ended in 1890, before any of the other nominees had debuted.

Vernon was a first baseman who in a long, Mark Grace-like career won two batting titles and the enduring support of many fans, as he was extremely popular.  Vernon was an outstanding defensive first baseman and a seven-time All Star.  A native of Pennsylvania, he would be the first Villanova alum to be enshrined in Cooperstown.  Vernon was still alive when he was named as a Hall of Fame nominee (in August 2008), but he died last September at age 90.

Deacon White was a third baseman and catcher at the dawn of the National League.  He was already 28 when the league was founded, so a lot of his best years were already behind him, but he still fashioned a lengthy career in the NL, playing until age 41 in that league (and adding a season in the Players League at age 42).  He was the oldest player in the majors for the last four seasons of his career.

White won the RBI title in the first two years in the new league, and won the batting title in 1877.  That year he was primarily a first baseman; in 1876 he had been a catcher.  It would not be until Roy Campanella in 1953 that another catcher would win the RBI title in the National League.

White’s candidacy, I think, hinges on whether or not he should get credit for his time in the “pre-majors” era.  He was a big star in the National Association, the forerunner to the National League.  If you count those years (particularly the last three), then I think he’s a Hall of Famer.  I would count them –it’s not White’s fault there wasn’t an established major league (or what we now consider a major league).  White also gets bonus points for being a solid citizen; he was called “Deacon” because he was one.  Maybe you would take away bonus points because White believed the world was flat…

His younger brother Will was a fine pitcher, by the way.

If I voted, I would definitely vote for Dahlen, and I would be inclined to vote for White as well.  I would seriously consider both Magee and Gordon.  I wouldn’t vote for Stephens, but I could understand why someone would.

Vernon, in my view, is not of the same quality (in terms of on-field value) as the other nine candidates, and I see no reason to honor Mays.  Reynolds, Ferrell, and Walters are fairly similar candidates who don’t quite measure up to the standard (such as it is).

As to who I think the committee will elect (if anyone):  I have no idea.  I suspect that Reynolds will get a lot of support, and the very fact Dahlen and White are on the ballot may suggest that they have supporters from among those on the committee who were on the panel formulating the ballot.  Vernon’s appearance on the ballot troubles me a little.  I wouldn’t be shocked if he were elected.

We’ll see on December 8.

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