A Veterans Committee overload

Rob responds to a slew of e-mail on the continuing hot topic of the Veterans Committee.

Originally Published: February 28, 2003
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

All anybody wants to talk about this week is the new Veterans Committee, so let's talk.

    Hi Rob,

    I suppose I know the answer is yes, but is it just a coincidence that the first names mentioned as far as guys who aren't in the HoF but should be are former Chicago players? I mean, Andre Dawson, Bruce Sutter, Lee Smith, Ryne Sandberg and Ron Santo are at the top of the list of players who are not in and who are perceived (incorrectly or not) as deserving. (And weren't Sandberg and Santo on the top of your personal list of best players not in the HoF? -- couldn't find the link to that list) Minnie Minoso and Dick Allen were both South Siders, too, come to think of it. I realize that the baseball history of this town is less than glorious, but it sure looks like the heartbreak and inherent injustice of being a Chicago Cubs fan doesn't end on the playing field.

    I suppose this could all be some cosmic retribution for the admission of Tinkers, Evers, and Chance by virtue of poetry more-so than playing ability, but the paranoid Cub fan in me suspects something more nefarious, probably stemming from the New York City vicinity.

    Thanks for letting me vent.

    CR

My pleasure, Chuck. And I actually think it is something more than coincidence, though I haven't come up with a way to blame New York yet (I'll keep working on that).

The problem, I think, is that the White Sox and the Cubs have, for the most part, not been very good. You know what all those players you listed have in common? Not one of them ever played in a World Series for a Chicago team. That's not to suggest that Dick Allen, for instance, would be in the Hall of Fame if only the White Sox had won the American League pennant. But there is a halo effect that comes with playing on a great team, and there's little doubt in my mind but that Santo would already be in the Hall if the Cubs had reached the World Series (and playing for a great team also helps out your RBI totals, as you'll see if you ever look at Gil Hodges' career with any sort of sophistication or objectivity).

Speaking of whom,

    I was thinking today while cooking dinner, isn't Gil Hodges sort of like Mark Grace?

    Looking at their career numbers, Grace is a .305 hitter with a .385 OBP and a .444 slugging percentage. Not a lot of pop, but did hit some doubles and had really sure hands at first.

    Hodges was a .273 hitter with a .359 OBP and .487 slugging. More home-run power than Grace, and also an excellent fielder.

    However, Grace's career OPS is 829 versus a league average of 757, which makes Grace 10 percent better than the league over his career. Hodges' OPS is 846 with a league average of 765, which makes him about 10 percent better than his league.

    Is this a good way to think of Hodges? A pretty good hitter, like Grace, but not awesome? Which would you rather have for your team, a 30-year-old Grace or a 30-year-old Hodges?

    Thanks for your time,

    Eric Brown

Wow, I'd never thought of them like that, but it makes some sense. Interestingly enough, people make the same Hall of Fame arguments for both of them. Mark Grace had more hits in the 1990s than anybody else -- the "thinking" goes -- so he belongs in the Hall of Fame. Gil Hodges had more RBI in the 1950s than anybody except Duke Snider, so he belongs in the Hall of Fame, too.

That's reductionism at its worst, but unfortunately we don't teach our children that the world is a complicated place that doesn't always succumb to simplistic analysis.

As for who I'd rather have, I suppose it depends on my home ballpark. If I play in a bandbox like Ebbets Field, I'll take Hodges. If I play in Pac Bell Park, I'll take Grace. And either way, I'll be thankful to have such a fine first baseman in my lineup.

If you haven't already guessed, I'm not convinced that Hodges belongs in the Hall of Fame. He probably will make it in two years, though. He came fairly close this time, which will cause the guys who didn't vote for him to take a closer look. And if he can pick up 11 votes, he's in. Then again, Tony Oliva and Ron Santo weren't far behind, so maybe one of them will get lucky.

Then again, maybe they won't. I was looking at the Hall of Fame's Web site, and ran across the following in a list of the ways in which the Veterans Committee rules have recently changed ...

    PREVIOUS RULE: Those receiving less than 5 percent of BBWAA votes in an election were forever ineligible for consideration again.

    NEW RULE: Every player with 10 or more years experience -- excluding those on Major League Baseball's ineligible list and those currently under consideration by the BBWAA -- is eligible forever, providing eternal hope for the player, his family and fans.

I can't help but wonder, is "eternal hope" really a good thing? Is there really something gained from Maury Wills sitting around every other winter, wondering if this will finally be his year?

To gain election as a player this time around, you had to be named on 61 of the 81 ballots cast. Of the 26 players on the ballot, only six managed even 20 votes:

Gil Hodges   50
Tony Oliva   48
Ron Santo    46
Joe Torre    29 
Maury Wills  24
Vada Pinson  21

The only thing that surprised me was Oliva's showing, as he spent his entire career in the American League. Clearly, though, at least a few ex-National Leaguers voted for him.

The 26-man ballot accomplishes only two things that I can see. One, it provides false hope to a bunch of guys who deserve better. And two, it splits the vote so much that nobody can get elected.

So it'll be changed. The question isn't if, but when and how? The easy thing would be to lower the percentage necessary for election, from 75 percent to 65 or even 60 percent. The slightly less easy thing would be to have a runoff. You'd have the first ballot with all of those candidates, and then have a second ballot that included only the players who received at least 25 percent support the first time around.

Either of these would probably accomplish the goal, if the goal is to actually see somebody get elected every couple of years.

There's another problem with the current system, and it's a problem that won't be so easily solved.

    Rob:

    What's your feeling about the non-players on the Veterans Committee ballot? Personally I'd say Marvin Miller was a no-brainer, and I wouldn't have guessed Walter O'Malley wasn't in until Joe Sheehan pointed it out (and expressed his incredulity) in his newsletter. Whitey Herzog's probably the best eligible manager who's not in (unless I'm forgetting someone), and I'd vote for him, too.

    -- Alan Rittner

Alan, the so-called "Composite Ballot" was a complete disaster.

Now, you might consider the Player Ballot a failure, whether because 1) no player got elected, or 2) Hodges kinda sorta almost got elected, and Santo didn't. That's my basic take on the thing. On the other hand, 1) somebody's going to get elected eventually, even if they don't change the rules, and 2) at least nobody who would lower the standards got elected.

Clearly, the system is flawed. Mike Schmidt claims that he didn't vote for anybody, but he's certainly part of a small minority, because the average ballot contained votes for 5.4 players. It's clear that most voters supported a number of candidates ... but there were so many candidates that nobody could get the requisite votes for election.

It's easy to blame the voters, to accuse them of carelessness or laziness or just plain ignorance. I'm not sure that's fair, though. Is it realistic for us to expect a bunch of famous people to spend hours and hours studying the careers of 26 candidates when they'd rather be playing golf or signing autographs or frolicking with their grandchildren? Should we really expect Mike Schmidt to verse himself in the careers of Ken Williams and Minnie Minoso, when he could instead meet with Commissioner Bud to plead Pete Rose's case?

Yes, I do think that Schmidt and his peers should know that Minoso probably lost at least two or three seasons to segregation. But if you're going to educate the voters about Minoso, then you have to educate them about everybody else? And how, exactly, do you do that? I mean, I'd love to convince the voters that walks really are important, and then inform each and every voter that Ron Santo led the National League four times in that important category. But how do you do that?

The answer is that you can't. The voters enjoy the privilege of voting, but learning everything you should know before you vote is hard work. Thanks to a few enthusiastic readers, I've lately been getting a long lesson about Gil Hodges. Hundreds and hundreds of words. And he's just one player. The Hall of Fame could, of course, commission a team of historians to compile in-depth reports on each candidate, and then distribute these reports to each voter. But how many reports would actually be read?

Not many. Most Hall of Famers, I suspect, would say, "I don't need somebody who never played the game telling me what a Hall of Famer is. Hell, I am one!"

And they'd have a point. If you assume that the Hall of Fame isn't for truly great players, but is instead for players who fit with the players already in the Hall of Fame, then suddenly yesterday's balloting makes more sense. While it's true that Ron Santo is one of the 10 greatest third basemen who ever played, it's also true that he finished his career with a .277 batting average, and every third baseman in the Hall did better except for the two guys with 500 homers and the one guy with 500 Gold Gloves.

I happen to think it's a sloppy system that doesn't serve anybody but the inmates of the asylum, but at least there's a certain sort of crazy logic involved.

Meanwhile, there's zero logic involved when it comes to the Composite Ballot. If we don't expect the players to study the Hall of Fame credentials of players, then how on earth can we expect players to study the Hall of Fame credentials of umpires and managers and executives?

Doug Harvey finished 12 votes short of election, and did better than anybody else. Harvey is generally considered the greatest umpire of the last half-century or so. But he spent his entire 31-year career in the National League. Should we be surprised that he (apparently) didn't draw a lot of support from American League players?

Walter O'Malley finished 22 votes short of election, and did better than anybody else not named Doug Harvey. O'Malley is generally considered the most influential owner of the last half-century or so, at least until the Big Stein and Commissioner Bud came along. But O'Malley owned a National League team for 20 years and an American League team for zero years, so should we be surprised that he (apparently) didn't draw a lot of support from American League players? Actually, the problem goes beyond just that. Owners and players are, for the most part, enemies. O'Malley took great pleasure in paying his players as little as humanly possible, but you really can't hold that against him, because that's generally what owners do.

I'll be honest with you: I don't have any idea what the solution is. If the Hall of Fame doesn't want any more owners or managers or umpires elected, fine. It's their house. And anyway, nobody makes the trek to Cooperstown to genuflect beneath the hallowed plaques of Will Harridge and Happy Chandler. But if the Hall is going to bother with a Composite Ballot, then they simply have to at least make it possible for somebody to get elected. Especially when you consider how many worthy candidates are on the ballot, and how many more -- Joe Torre, Tony La Russa and, yes, the Big Stein -- will be on the ballot within the next decade or so, joining Harvey and O'Malley, along with Marvin Miller, Bowie Kuhn, Billy Martin, Whitey Herzog, and Dick Williams (not to mention Billy Southworth, who should be on the ballot but wasn't).

But we're only going to consider all these guys every four years, and the considering will nearly always be fruitless?

I applaud the custodians of the Hall of Fame for trying something different -- the old Veterans Committee was a real travesty -- and of course it'll look bad if they change the rules after just one election. But folks, this just ain't working and it's not going to work. We've all learned quite a lot, but now it's time to head back to the drawing board.

Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season and irregularly in the offseason. His e-mail address is rob.neyer@dig.com.

ALSO SEE