Posted by: Mike Cornelius | December 13, 2018

The Hall Of Fame Will Survive Harold Baines

Oh, the humanity! One could not help but think of radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s anguished cry as he witnessed the 1937 Hindenburg disaster earlier this week, when news came that the National Baseball Hall of Fame had exploded in a conflagration every bit as dramatic and devastating as the one that brought down the great German dirigible as it attempted to dock with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst all those decades ago. The accelerant for the Hall of Fame catastrophe was not hydrogen, but the election of Harold Baines to Hall membership by the Today’s Game Era committee, one of four variants of the revamped Veterans Committee, charged with considering candidates no longer eligible for election by the regular balloting by members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America.

Or at least it sure seemed like the Hall and perhaps much of the upstate New York village of Cooperstown must have been destroyed based on the reaction of many sportswriters to the announcement of Baines’s election. In the Washington Post, Neil Greenburg wrote “while this is a time to celebrate for Baines, it’s also a time to mourn for the standards of the Hall of Fame.” Kyle Koster used his column inches in USA Today to dismiss the vote as “a joke,” and suggested that the committee members had used their ballots to say “’screw you’ to the analytical community or any other sane person.” The Boston Globe’s Chad Finn added “I don’t want to diminish Baines, but it’s unavoidable. He passes no Hall of Fame tests.” And Sports Illustrated’s Michael Rosenberg admitted that “I feel a bit for Baines, who earned the ultimate compliment only to be told he didn’t remotely deserve it,” before adding “This is because he didn’t remotely deserve it.”

Showing somewhat more restraint as befits a writer at the newspaper of record, the New York Times’ Tyler Kepner suggested that the induction of Baines might open the Hall to a far wider range of candidates. Citing a long list of names from the reasonably well-known like Don Mattingly and Dwight Evans to the more obscure like Bobby Grich and Andy Van Slyke, all of whom had either modern metrics like WAR or OPS+, or in Mattingly’s case traditional statistics such as batting average and both offensive and defensive awards far greater than Baines, Kepner was left to wonder, “where the line for induction now sits.”

The answer of course, is that it sits exactly where it always has, namely wherever the requisite number of voters decide that it does on any given ballot. By most standards, Harold Baines does not measure up as a Hall of Famer. While he started out as a right fielder, Baines played exclusively in the American League and his 22-year career was made possible by the junior circuit’s designated hitter rule. From 1987 through his retirement after the 2001 season he played defense in just 82 games, barely half a season in total. Historically designated hitters have had difficulty winning support from the BBWAA voters. That may explain in part why Baines topped out at 6.1% of the vote while on the regular Hall ballot, from which he was dropped after just five years when his total fell below the 5% threshold to remain.

But his one-dimensional play was not the only reason Baines drew so little support. His career batting average was a respectable but hardly dynamic .289, and while he recorded nearly 2,900 career hits, that number was more about longevity than anything else. Baines didn’t have a single 200-hit season. He received MVP votes just four times and never finished higher than ninth in the voting for the game’s top award. He led the league in any traditional statistical field exactly once, when his .541 slugging percentage was the AL’s best in 1984. The average Hall of Famer was a league leader in one or more important stats nine times.

But the Veterans Committee process is very different from the regular balloting by writers. Each year’s committee, which is charged with considering candidates from a specific period of the Great Game, is made up of a mix of Hall of Famers, baseball executives, and journalists. Just as with the regular balloting, a candidate must receive 75% of the vote, but that means twelve out of sixteen votes rather than three-quarters of several hundred. While the BBWAA members may have some interaction, they cast their votes largely in isolation. In contrast, the Veterans Committee members meet together to consider and discuss each year’s list of candidates before eventually casting their ballots.

Baines received twelve of the sixteen votes from this year’s committee, exactly the number needed. He began his career with the Chicago White Sox, whose owner Jerry Reinsdorf was one of the committee members. Another member was the Hall of Fame manager Tony LaRussa, who managed Baines in both Chicago and Oakland. The committee also included Pat Gillick, voted into the Hall for his success as a general manager, including time in Baltimore which happened to coincide with the years Baines wore an Orioles uniform.

Was there cronyism in the result, after some lobbying in the privacy of a closed-door meeting by one or two or three people who knew Baines well during his career? LaRussa’s angry, bitter, and repeated denunciations of the very idea in the days since the committee’s decision was announced sure sound like that suggestion may have struck the proverbial chord. If that were the case, history shows quite clearly that 2018 was not the first such time the Veterans Committee demonstrated a bit of favoritism.

But in the end, so what? The Great Game’s Hall has always been an imperfect assembly, and the criteria for election have always been fluid. The famed character clause meant nothing at all when it came to elevating a rabid racist like Ty Cobb, but at least so far, it bars the door to the hitter with the most career home runs and the pitcher with the most career Cy Young Awards. And there are fans who suggest that a Hall of Fame without Pete Rose is not worthy of the name. But Cooperstown will survive all this, because in full it still reminds us of the best of the Great Game, and its imperfections also remind that it is the exceedingly rare nine innings, in sports or in life, that become a perfect game.

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