Undervalued, Overlooked, but Far From Forgotten
By DAN ROSENHECK
For most baseball fans, the Hall of Fame debate season runs about a month, from the mailing of the ballots in late November to the announcement of the inductees on Jan. 8. But for me and about 54 other aficionados of the sport’s history, scrutinizing the records of the game’s great and good has been a nonstop affair for five years.
In 2002, a group of posters at the Web site baseballthinkfactory.org decided to select an alternative Hall of Fame, choosing its inductees with the benefit of three decades of advances in baseball statistics that were unavailable for most of the actual Hall’s existence. We called the project the Hall of Merit, and set up a voting system to mimic the Hall of Fame’s annual elections. The first ballot was pegged to 1898, with eligibility limited to players who had retired before 1893. Since then, each election (held every two or three weeks, and selecting one to three players) moved the clock forward by a year in baseball history.
Tomorrow, we will hold our 111th and final regularly scheduled vote. After that election, we will have inducted 234 players, the same total as the actual Hall of Fame if it adds a member this year. We hope our results will enhance the public’s understanding and appreciation of the game’s history, and encourage the real Hall to revisit its missteps.
The debates in the Hall of Merit discussion forums have been exhaustive and illuminating. To comply with our mandate to be fair to all players in all eras, we have investigated overlooked parts of the game’s history, like its origins in the 1860s and ’70s and the disorganized early years of the Negro leagues.
We have disputed whether to give credit for wartime service, for being stuck in the minor leagues too long and for holding out for a more lucrative contract. We have struggled to evaluate players’ values in their own context (How important were pitchers in the days when batters could call for a high or low pitch, thrown underhand?) as well as to assess the quality of competition over time (How strong was baseball during World War II?).
We have torn into the minutiae of complex quantitative metrics, like Bill James’s Win Shares, as well as pondered the relevance of traditional statistics, like wins for pitchers. And we have tussled over the definition of merit itself: is it more important to be a superstar, if only briefly, or to be consistently above average over a long career?
There are no right answers to these questions, but the Hall of Fame voters have not done a terrible job. We concur with a little more than three-quarters of their selections. In particular, the writers have shown astute judgment: of the 55 Hall of Fame “mistakes,” 10 came through the “front door,” while 39 were chosen by the Veterans Committee and 6 were Negro leaguers. Yet both voting groups’ errors fit into a few recognizable patterns.
First, the Hall has neglected the game’s infancy. Fully one-third of the uninducted players we believe are deserving played before 1900. They include Ross Barnes, a second baseman whose mastery of the “fair-foul bunt” made him the dominant player of the 1870s, and Bill Dahlen, a shortstop from the turn of the 20th century who fielded like Ozzie Smith and hit like Robin Yount. The Hall owes these pioneers recognition.
Second, the voters have been too kind to complementary players on dynastic teams. The Yankees won pennants in the 1920s and ’30s because of superstars like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio. Their supporting cast — Earle Combs, Herb Pennock, Waite Hoyt, Tony Lazzeri and Lefty Gomez — is not Hall-worthy. The same is true of many players from the Giants and the Cardinals from that period, including George Kelly and Jesse Haines.
Third, the Hall of Fame has given too much credit to pitchers that rightly belongs to fielders. It has seen fit to honor hurlers like Vic Willis and Catfish Hunter, who benefited from strong defenses, while failing to enshrine fielders like Ron Santo and Bobby Grich, who made their pitchers look good.
Finally, the institution places too much emphasis on batting average at the expense of on-base percentage. Prolific walkers like Jimmy Sheckard, Darrell Evans and Stan Hack have been left out, while owners of “empty” batting averages, unaccompanied by walks or power, like Lloyd Waner and Lou Brock, have coasted in. A walk is not as good as a hit, but it’s more valuable than the voters have recognized.
The list of Hall of Merit inductees, along with our archived discussions, is available at