The second Hall of Fame argument adds the degree of greatness to the mix. The first argument – the “in” or “out” argument – hands out invitations. The second argument sorts the invited guests into clubs.
Bill James published an essay about a 4-tier system in The Bill James Historical Abstract (cite) and Bill Simmons suggested a 7-tier system for the National Basketball Association (NBA) in The Book of Basketball. (Cite) James’ essay provided loose definitions for how he would separate players into categories based on their suitability for the Hall of Fame, while Simmons mostly argued about where the players would rank. I found inspiration in both.
First, building a tiered Hall of Fame requires a framework to house the tiers. My theoretical Hall of Fame club will have five floors.
The top floor will house the private “Pantheon club” of 30 original members, with one new member elected every few years. Downton Abbey’s waitstaff will serve corked wine out of dusty bottles and hors d’ oeuvres made out of snails and fish eggs on crystal platters. The napkins will be made of silk, the chairs crushed velvet.
The VIP club’s original 60 can add a new member roughly every other year. Former White House staffers will serve the best craft beers with seafood appetizers on the good China. The napkins will be linen, the chairs aged leather.
The restaurant will seat the All-Star Club’s 180 original members, with plenty of space to accommodate the one new member brought in each year. The waitstaff of retired flight attendants will serve capped wine and ice cold light beer to wash down artichoke pizza bagels and deep fried zuccini, served on Martha Stewart commemorative plates. The napkins, like the chairs, will be made out of cloth recycled from unsold Pete Rose game-worn uniforms.
The cafeteria will have room for several hundred members, but they will only be allowed to seat new people by permission of a special committee. The servers will be lunch ladies who were let go by the New York Public Schools system, and every Tuesday will be meatloaf day. Members are encouraged to wear long sleeves and thick pants; the benches have splinters and somebody keeps stealing the napkins out of the bathroom. New members will be required to bring boxed wine and do the dishes after each meal.
The rest of the candidates can wait in the bar next to the lobby (there’s a 2-drink minimum) or stand in line outside, behind a velvet rope. We encourage hopeful candidates to bring food for the doorman. It won’t get anyone in, but he gets surly when his blood sugar tanks.
Once the place is built, we will need a way to sort the members into the appropriate clubs. After years of experimenting with tarot cards, tea leaves and Ouija boards (don’t ask) I settled on the same scholastic ABCD system that James used.
The Hall of Fame club has 5 floors, so I designed a system with 6 grades. The A grades can follow Babe Ruth’s entourage to the Pantheon while the B grades are escorted to the VIP club. A guide can lead the C grades to the All-Star club, and directions to the Old Timers Cafeteria are prominently posted in the lobby. The E grades can loiter, but they have to wait at the back of the line. F grade stragglers should be chased off with a hose.
Now that we know where they go, who are they? How do we tell them apart? What makes a grade A Hall of Famer an A, and a grade D Hall of Famer a D?
First, the system works on a grading curve. Baseball itself is one giant curved grading system, if you think about it. There is only one champion each year, and there is a champion every year. Teams are sorted from top to bottom no matter how they compare to the teams outside their grading curve. The top half of each subset, whether it’s a league or a division, is called the first division -and last place is always last place.
Second, the system is designed to have vertical and horizontal integrity. If you go off the grading rails it’s fairly simple to see where you digressed, and how you can get back to the Test-ational superhighway.
The Test works vertically for individual players. Running a player through the Test generates a grade-point average that corresponds with the ABCD grading system. If the GPA you come up with is too far off the general consensus, the Discussion will consider your grade an outlier. That doesn’t mean you have to agree with the Discussion, though. It simply means your grade will get laughed out of the room unless you can back it up with some convincing evidence.
The Test works horizontally for groups of players. If you run a pool of players through the Test, you need to wind up with the right number of players for each grade. If, for example, you run a pool of candidates through one of the subjective questions and you have 9 A’s, 12 B’s, 135 C’s and 62 D’s, you should probably make some adjustments.
Your Test, your rules, though. If you think there are 9 A’s and 135 C’s, that’s up to you. As always, though, opinions are worthless without convincing evidence to back them up. If you want to convince anyone that there were 9 grade A players, 12 grade B players, 135 grade C players and 62 grade D players in your pool, you are going to have to present compelling evidence.
Keep in mind that you need to maintain vertical and horizontal integrity. Your subjective grade breakdowns need to match the objective breakdowns, so if you adjust one you have to adjust the other.
A. One of the top 30 players ever. A grade A player was a winner he was the best of the best. He was the MVP favorite every spring, and either the MVP or the guy who got shafted in the MVP voting in the fall. He lasted long enough to rank near the top of the counting category lists, and his rate stats were as impressive as his counting stats. He reached the top of the game and he stayed there for years. He was a household name and the face of the game. No history of baseball could be told without him. When he became eligible for the Hall of Fame he was voted in immediately by virtual acclimation, and every sports magazine got flooded with angry letters demanding to know why he wasn’t unanimously elected. Baseball spits out a grade A player about once every five years.
B. One of the top 90 players ever. The grade B grade player owned the playground if there wasn’t a grade A player around. He was a grade A player, but with a weakness. He was the wise guy pick to knock off the reigning grade A player (Frank Robinson), or he was a grade A player with a short career (Sandy Koufax), or he dominated a weak group of players (Hal Newhouser). He wasn’t a household name, but he was universally known within the sporting world. The Hall of Fame voted him in quickly, usually within 2-3 years. Nobody would picket Cooperstown if he wasn’t elected right away, but there would be letters. Baseball spits out a grade B player every couple of years.
C. One of the top 180 players ever. The grade C player might have been the star on a bad team, like Richie Ashburn with the 1950s Phillies, or just one of the guys on a great team, like Tony Perez with the Big Red Machine in the 1970s. A grade C player can’t win without help from an A or B player. A grade C player was a perennial all-star who could win an MVP in a career year, but not a consistent MVP contender. He was a big name in the baseball universe, but anonymous elsewhere. The BBWAA voted him into the Hall of Fame, but it took a while. Grade C Hall of Fame bandwagons generally start out slow, and gain steam towards the end of the player’s eligibility.
D. One of the top 400 players ever. The D players can be sorted into 3 groups: grade C producers who had really short careers, grade E producers who had really long careers, or star players with an obvious weakness. The grade D might have never put up that one big year, or the one big second year to “prove” the first one. His career might have been interrupted by a rash of injuries, or truncated by substance abuse issues. He might have been a grade C offensive player but a terrible defender, or a tremendous defender but a god-awful hitter. A grade D player would have been known to hometown fans, hard-core fans and fantasy baseball fans. Baseball spit out about 1 grade D player per year before expansion, or about 1 per 16 teams. With 30 teams, the number is up to about 2 per year.
E. The E players are the rest of the regular players. If a player survived for 10 years and played regularly for 5 years he was an E player. A total of 741 pitchers have thrown at least 1,500 innings and 1,548 position players have played at least 1,000 games since the National Association opened for business in 1871. I set my parameters a little lower, to catch players who would have a fighting chance of landing on a positional top 100 list or a top 300 pitcher list, but
F. According to BaseballReference.com, 16,982 players have gotten into a major league baseball game. Out of that pool 2,579 position players played at least 600 games, 958 starting pitchers took the ball for at least 125 games and 796 relief pitchers got into at least 250 games. That’s 4,331 out of 16,982, a little over 25 percent. I’m sure the other 75 percent were kind to their mothers and rarely kicked stray dogs, but we’ll make sure to padlock the entryway.
Just in case.
Baseball spit out about one grade A, B or C player per year until expansion began in 1961. Since then the number of teams has nearly doubled, and the number of viable Hall of Fame candidates has also nearly doubled. If there were 90 A,B and C players between 1871 and 1960, then there have been another 90 between 1961 and 2017. The increases are not proportional; there are not as many additional A and B players as there are additional C and D players. The number of teams has nearly doubled but there are still just two leagues and one champion.
Doing the math:
1871-1900 – average of about 12 teams
1901-1960 – 16 teams – 960 teams
1961-1968 – 20 teams* – 158 (1961 NL only 8 teams)
1969-1976 – 24 teams – 192 teams
1977-1992 – 26 teams: 416 teams
1993-1996 – 28 teams: 112 teams
1997-2016 – 30 teams: 600 teams