Tossing a no-hitter at the Hall of Fame

April 17, 1994|By Dan Gutman | Dan Gutman,Newsday

Bill James is a man with a mission. His latest baseball epic isn't a truckload of stats, obscure facts or funny anecdotes. It's an argument. He is out to tear down the Baseball Hall of Fame -- or its selection process, anyway -- and replace it with a radically different one.

Cooperstown, N.Y., like the rest of the country, was taking a beating from the Depression in 1934 when townspeople thought of building a baseball museum to draw visitors. The baseball establishment went for the idea, and the first election was held in 1936, three years before the doors opened.

The method of choosing Hall-of-Famers, Mr. James argues, was askew from the start, when the founders were more interested in getting the building finished than in determining which players would be enshrined inside it. They never had a firm idea of what qualified a player for the pantheon, and over the years the rules would change every time public opinion swayed one way or another. Moreover, he asserts, the electors have used poor judgment, bad interpretation of statistics, and blatant favoritism to decide who gets in and who stays out.

Many factors have influenced Hall of Fame voting unfairly. If you had a few big years (Don Drysdale), you're more likely to get in than if you're a consistent performer with a similar record (former Oriole Milt Pappas). If you played right field, it helps your chances (there are 21 in the Hall), but if you played third base it hurts (seven). If you played center field in the same era as Mickey, Willie and the Duke, forget it (Richie Ashburn). Ditto if you're a great glove man (Bill Mazeroski).

If somebody wrote a poem about you, that helps (Tinker, Evers, )) Chance). If you were a crony of John McGraw, that helps (seven members of the 1894 Baltimore Orioles are in). If your team sold out to gamblers but you didn't, that helps, too (Ray Schalk of the Black Sox).

If people hated you, you're out (Carl Mays), or you have to wait until you're dead (Leo Durocher). Living a long life helps (Bobby Doerr), while dying hurts (Joe Gordon). But if you die while they're voting for you, that helps (Roger Bresnahan).

Mr. James believes that there are 40 players in the Hall of Fame who are undeserving (Bresnahan, Hack Wilson, Jim Bottomley, Lloyd Waner, Earle Combs, Rube Marquard, Harry Hooper, to name a few). He also names those who should be enshrined but aren't (Nellie Fox, Richie Ashburn, Ron Santo, Ken Boyer, Joe Torre, Phil Niekro).

As always, Mr. James does magical things with statistics. Running every major leaguer in history through his computer, he comes up with 150 cases in which a player is in the Hall of Fame (Catfish Hunter) when a player with a similar record (Luis Tiant) is not.

The worst mistake the Hall of Fame ever made was in 1946, when the Permanent Committee inducted 11 old-timers, many of whom were undeserving (Tom McCarthy, Joe Tinker, Jack Chesbro). This decision created a second-tier Hall of Fame. It damaged the credibility of the institution for all time, because if Joe Inferior Player is in the Hall of Fame, then Bobby Marginal Candidate deserves to be in, too.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is supposed to separate the good players from the great ones, and it has failed, he says. "If the Hall of Fame's administrators don't take seriously their problems," Mr. James warns ominously, "something else will come along and push them aside."

I'm not about to argue with Bill James about who should or shouldn't be in the Hall of Fame. He is, after all, the kind of guy who devotes six pages to arguing that Don Drysdale belongs in the Hall, and then the next 24 pages proving persuasively that Drysdale was a California pretty boy who made it to Cooperstown on charisma. Mr. James' purpose in this exercise is toexamine the process by which Hall of Famers are chosen, and he carries it out brilliantly.

Mr. James also dives into related issues: Whether the quality of play has improved over the decades (yes), whether Joe Jackson should be reinstated (no), whether Pete Rose should have been banned from the Hall (yes), and whether he should be allowed back into baseball (yes). He states his opinions strongly, and is not above calling someone a jerk (Dick Allen), a doofus (John Dowd), a sleaze bag (Durocher), or barely human (Ty Cobb).

"The Politics of Glory" reminds me of a great movie that's 20 minutes too long. Mr. James has made the Phil Rizzuto controversy central to the book, and I counted at least 50 pages devoted to whether the Scooter should be in the Hall of Fame.

I would have expected that Mr. James might devote some space to the issue of whether players already in the Hall should be booted out, either for "character" reasons or because they shouldn't have been in there in the first place. Also, he barely addresses the myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown, which is one big reason the Hall of Fame is located there.

Mr. James' solution to the Hall of Fame's problems is a radical proposal to open the selection process to millions of people instead of a few hundred cranky old newspaper writers and their ball-playing peers. Five separate groups would make nominations and vote on them: media, fans, players, baseball executives and baseball scholars. Instead of selections bestowed upon the baseball world from above, we would all be involved in the process.

It's a good idea, but I've got a simpler one. Let's just let Bill James decide who belongs in the Hall of Fame. He's proven that he knows more about baseball than anybody in the world, he seems impartial (though he admits to rooting for the Royals), he knows his way around a computer, and he's given this issue more thought than anyone ever has.

Title: "The Politics of Glory: How Baseball's Hall of Fame Really Works"

Author: Bill James

Publisher: Macmillan

Length, price: 384 pages, $23

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