Tom assesses two baseball Hall of Fame ballots; the honorees, if any are selected, will be announced tonight.
Each year at this time we at BTRTN turn our attention away from politics and towards the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF) selection process. We rather immodestly claim that we are the very best forecasters of which players will achieve lasting baseball immortality, an admittedly exceedingly narrow niche!
We will soon unveil our projections for the annual Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) ballot, which will be announced on January 25, 2022. Today, we focus our attention on the more sporadic selections of what used to be known as the “Veteran’s Committee,” which would seek to redress potential oversights of worthy players by the BBWAA process. The Veteran’s Committee has been morphed into a set of different committees that consider different eras, rather than the whole pool of no-longer-eligible players.
We are hopeful this little analysis (and the one that will follow soon) will provide a welcome baseball diversion as the lockout continues.
This year two such committees are meeting today, Sunday, December 5, the Early Baseball Era Committee (with a focus on players before 1950) and the Golden Days Era Committee (which considers players from 1950-1969). This year the Early Baseball Era committee has a particular focus on the Negro Leagues, where most (but not quite all) of the candidates being considered played.
I am actually not going to predict who these committees will select for the HOF (as I do with the BBWAA ballot). Instead I will simply identify which players I think are worthy of enshrinement (which I also do for the BBWAA ballot).
There are 20 players across the two sets of ballots – eleven players (only) from the traditional major leagues, two who were both players (one an All-Star, the other a journeyman) and managers, and seven players from the Negro Leagues. For this exercise, which is predominantly, though not completely, based on statistical analysis, I am going to pass on assessing the HOF-worthiness of the Negro League players. I have looked at their stats from the Negro League and it seems clear, given the incompleteness of the stats, that they do not necessarily convey the true impact of those players. The Early Era Committee is packed with Negro League experts, and I will completely defer to them. Out of deep respect for the players in question, I have re-printed their biographies at the end of this article as they appeared in the press release.
TRADITIONAL MLB PLAYERS
Based on my analysis of the eleven players, I conclude that five are worthy of enshrinement in the MLB Hall of Fame: Dick Allen, Ken Boyer, Bill Dahlen, Gil Hodges and Minnie Minoso. (Again, this is not a prediction of who will actually be selected.)
To guide my assessments, I compare the vital statistics for candidates against others who played their positions, broken into four groups: the “top half” of the HOF’ers at their position (ranked by WAR), the “average” HOF’er at their position, the “lowest” half, and the “next ten” best players who were not selected for the HOF. You will note that at times the “next ten” group outshines the “lowest half” group, which tends to reflect that the Hall includes some notable mistakes.
My standard is usually quite tough, for that reason; I like to see a player generally achieve a level that, if not quite up to an average HOF player, at least exceeds that of the lower half HOF’ers and the “next ten” who were shut out. Occasionally such a borderline candidate merits selection based on other factors, such as postseason play, prowess as a manager, or some unquantifiable positive impact on the game. The pool that these era committees address are often full of these type players, and the 20 under consideration have a bevy of them.
On to the position analysis:
Dick Allen was a terrorizing hitter in the National League in the 1960s and 1970s, and a controversial player as well. That he died in 2020 (just about a year ago) without achieving Hall of Fame recognition is one of the great HOF crimes. Allen’s 156 OPS stands among the first base greats (the same, roughly, as Frank Thomas, Hank Greenberg and Johnny Mize) and much higher than legends such as Willie McCovey (148) and Willie Stargell (147). And while Allen’s WAR of 61 is below the average of HOF first baseman, it is well above the bottom half HOF group and the “next 10.” A long overdue thumbs up for Dick Allen.
Gil Hodges is a classic borderline candidate based on his playing career; only his 370 homers really standout as a HOF-worthy stat among first basemen. But Hodges was a terrific fielder and an 8-time All Star, so his multi-faceted talents were widely recognized in his time. Even with his disastrous 1952 World Series (0-21), he batted .267 overall with five homers in seven Fall Classics (he batted .318 in the other six). But I think what puts him over the top in my book is his all-too-brief managerial career, especially guiding a young and undertalented group of Miracle Mets in 1969 to a shocking World Series win over an overpowering Oriole squad. Less well known is that he took a terrible Senators team from 42 to 76 wins in 5 years without the benefit of free agency. A thumbs up for a man we lost way too early, in 1972 at age 47, before he had a chance to build on that record and erase any doubts.
Danny Murtaugh is kind of the opposite of Hodges, noted far more for his long managerial career (four separate stints with the Pirates for a total of 15 years between 1957 and 1976) than his rather modest playing career. I only include his player comparison to other second baseman to make that point, although it should be noted that he did indeed have one Top 10 MVP finish, coming in 9th in 1948, batting .290 on a decent Pirates’ team. I don’t think his managerial career, while notable for two World Series titles, quite elevates him to the pantheon – a full 54 other managers recorded more wins than his total of 1,115, and the few managers in the HOF with fewer wins than Murtaugh are in the HOF because of their playing careers (except for Billy Southworth, who won three World Series managing the Cardinals in the WWII years). Thumbs down for Danny Murtaugh.
Maury Wills was the MVP in 1962 when he set the standard for steals in a single season, that held until first Lou Brock and then Rickey Henderson came along. But his stats across the board are below both the lower group of HOF shortstops as well as the next-ten who have been shut out. He did make seven All-Star teams and had four Top 10 MVP finishes, but all in all, he remains a clear borderline candidate. Thumbs down for Maury.
Bill Dahlen, on the other hand, put up exceptional stats in his time. The problem is, his time was at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries (he is on the Early Era ballot), so no one alive today saw him play. But he was certainly a big production player for his position, and his stats stack up well with the greats at his position, particularly that 76 WAR, which is more or less automatic HOF territory at any position. I have long wondered why he was never enshrined, so thumps up to Bill Dahlen.
Ken Boyer was a difficult call. He falls enough over the bottom half/next ten third baseman to rate serious consideration, and what put me over the top was his 11 All-Star game selections; clearly Boyer and Ron Santo of the Cubs, who came along a little later, were the premier National league third sackers of their era. Third base is underrepresented in the HOF, with its demand for both a strong bat and good glove seeming to doom its occupants to “not quite” status. A Ken Boyer thumbs up would, as Santo’s overdue enshrinement in 2012, help redress that imbalance.
Tony Oliva was a fine player, but nearly across the board he falls short on HOF statistical credentials, save for five Top 10 MVP voting appearances, which is an achievement. But it is pretty tough to make the HOF as an outfielder with less than 1,000 RBIs, and plenty who check that box are not in – I stopped counting after I hit 50! Thumbs down for Tony O.
One stat worth contemplating is that, apart from catchers, there are no players in the HOF who did not manage at least 1,500 base hits. Neither Roger Maris (1,325) nor Lefty O’Doul (1,140) came close. Even accounting for Maris’ two transcendent MVP seasons in 1960 and 1961, and O’Doul’s long managerial career in the Pacific Coast League and pioneering outreach to Japan, neither quite clears the bar. Thumbs down to Roger and Lefty.
Minnie Minoso was the toughest call on the ballot, and I am leaning forward to give him a thumbs up. His stats are now augmented by his three years in the Negro Leagues at the start of his career, but even those additions really do not get him above either the lower half group or the next ten. But he was a demon on the base paths (though hardly in Wills’ class), a three-time Gold Glover, and a five time MVP Top 10 vote getter. Statistically, he is just ahead of Oliva, and given his trailblazing status from Cuba, and his many contributions to the game, I give him a thumbs up, by a nose.
Jim Kaat is the poster child for a “stat compiler”, accumulating 283 wins over an amazing 25-year career. His first and last first baseman teammates were Roy Sievers on the old Washington Senators (who became the Twins), who began his career in 1949, and Don Mattingly with the Yankees, who ended his in 1995. Along the way Kaat was a very solid pitcher, but he only made three All-Star teams, only once cracked the Top Ten in Cy Young voting, and put up a set of stats that fail to reach either the bottom half or next 10’s levels. Thumbs down to Kitty Kaat.
Allie Reynolds (also on the Early Era ballot) once threw two no-hitters in a single season, and also put in a fine, if less lengthy career (than Kaat). There was no Cy Young Award in his time, but he was good enough to record two Top Ten finishes in MVP voting and was a sterling 7-2 in World Series action for those great late 1940’s/early 1950’s Yankee teams. But every single one of the key stats falls short of the comparison group, so thumbs down to Allie Reynolds.
Billy Pierce actually presents the most compelling HOF case among these three pitchers, lining up very similarly to the bottom half group, and seven All-Star selections speak for themselves. But borderline is borderline, and Pierce has no other distinguishing elements to get him to thumbs up status.
NEGRO LEAGUE PLAYERS
Here are the bios of the Negro League candidates, which offer compelling cases for their induction, that were included in the press release announcing their candidacies..
John Donaldson pitched in the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues for more than 30 years, earning a reputation as one of the best pitchers in the game. Also playing the outfield and managing, Donaldson helped establish the barnstorming business model that was profitable for Black teams for decades.
Bud Fowler is often acknowledged as the first Black professional baseball player, having pitched and played second base for teams in more than a dozen leagues throughout his career. After spending part of his youth in Cooperstown, Fowler grew up to excel on the diamond and later helped form the successful Page Fence Giants barnstorming team.
Vic Harris played 18 seasons in the Negro Leagues, primarily as a left fielder for the legendary Homestead Grays. He compiled a .305 career batting average and was known as one of the most aggressive base runners in the Negro National League. Harris also managed the Grays for 11 seasons, winning seven Negro National League pennants and the 1948 World Series.
Grant “Home Run” Johnson was a shortstop and second baseman in the pre-Negro Leagues era who helped form the Page Fence Giants barnstorming team. A powerful hitter and occasional pitcher, Johnson played for early powerhouse teams like the Brooklyn Royal Giants and New York Lincoln Giants.
Buck O’Neil played 10 seasons with the Memphis Red Sox and Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro American League and was named to three All-Star Games. Following his playing career, O’Neil became a scout for the Chicago Cubs and later became the first Black coach in AL or NL history with Chicago. Scouting for teams for much of the rest of his career, O’Neil became a beloved ambassador for the game who helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City.
Dick “Cannonball” Redding was regarded as perhaps the fastest pitcher in Negro Leagues history, hurling for teams such as the Lincoln Giants, Chicago American Giants and the Brooklyn Royal Giants. Credited with multiple no-hitters, Redding was also a successful manager with the Royal Giants.
George “Tubby” Scales played 20 seasons in the Negro Leagues as an infielder, compiling a .319 batting average and .421 on-base percentage. He also managed for six seasons in the Negro Leagues and 12 seasons in the Puerto Rican Winter League, leading the Santurce Cangrejeros to the Caribbean World Series title in 1951.