We like to debate.
We will debate about anything, too. Pick a subject, pick a side – and there’s a debate. Pick a side of your side – and there’s another debate. Good luck agreeing about that one, either. There’s always another side, another facet to the debate that will inspire another debate. We will debate about anything.
Name a hobby, and there are people who debate about it. Name a food group, there’s a debate. Name a food; hell, name any two things that are not exactly the same. Somebody, somewhere is debating about them. They might even be the same, for all intents and purposes. A Boolean Google search for “Which Olsen twin is better?” garnered 1,510 hits.
There are all kinds of unsettled debates. Ginger or Mary Ann? Paper or plastic? Tom Cruise or Johnny Depp? Peanut butter or chocolate? Are you a little bit country or a little bit rock-n-roll? To be, or not to be? I may be dating myself with all those old pop culture references, but the point is in there somewhere.
What is a county fair but a series of organized debates? Which tomato is the reddest? Which pie is the sweetest? Which soon-to-be-a-side-of-beef cow has the shiniest coat? Which one of you gullible yahoos can toss this 4-inch ring around this 5-inch spike? How dumb do you think I am? Would I rather have the plastic key chain or the little rubber ball, now that I wasted 40 dollars trying to toss a 4-inch ring around a 5-inch spike? We will debate the merits of a plastic ring versus a rubber ball – combined value 3 cents – and forget the 40 bucks we lost like it never happened. We are on to the next debate; don’t bother us with trifles.
We don’t need to know anything to get in on the debate, either I don’t follow Belgian comedians, but if I heard two of them I’d have an opinion about which one I liked, even though I didn’t understand a word either one said. I have no idea which cereal brand is most popular in Uzbekistan, but I know the difference between corn and wheat so I can weigh in on that debate. Gambling is just debating with money involved. If I sit down at a slot machine I can’t possibly control whether or not it is a winner or a loser, but I have heard people debate about which slots pay out and which slots don’t. And so have you.
We can debate about anything – and we often do – but most of us gravitate to the debates we find the most interesting. I lost my 40 dollars at the fair decades ago, and I ain’t going back to the ring-toss. Mary Ann ain’t coming to my birthday party, and peanut butter and chocolate make everything taste better except maybe cabbage. The Olsen twins have a little sister who is way hotter than either one of them, and the only coat that matters to a steak is made out of garlic, onions, mushrooms and bacon.
My locus of personal interest has narrowed over the years. Other than the occasional digression into a passing fancy – like spending half a decade obsessing over and writing 400,000 words (4 books worth) about American Idol – I have limited my strongest opinions to the big three. Yes, there are three great ongoing, perpetually unsettled discussions in American society: politics, religion, and baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Why do otherwise normal human beings – who really should have better things to do – care so much about baseball’s Hall of Fame? It’s just a list of names. Why do sports news outlets waste so much space on baseball’s Hall of Fame? It’s only in the news a couple of times a year. Why are so many people still yelling about Pete Rose not getting into baseball’s Hall of Fame? He hasn’t played a game in over 30 years. Why do they care?
Why do I care?
To answer that, I need to explain a couple of things. First, I need to explain what I mean when I say baseball’s Hall of Fame, or “the Hall.” Second, I need to explain how our little Hall of Fame discussions took on a life of their own, melded together and became the Discussion. Finally, once I convince you that there are no answers – that the Hall of Fame Discussion can never be settled – I’ll present you with a template you can use to settle it.
I’m just kidding. It really can’t be settled. Frankly, I don’t think it should be settled. But I designed a template you can use to organize your end of the Discussion. We are getting ahead of ourselves, though. Before we can organize the Discussion, we need to know what all the hubbub is about.
Cooperstown Village lies at the end of a two-lane road in upstate New York, nestled within the boundaries of Otsego County. Cooperstown lies partially in the town of Otsego, partially in the town of Middlefield. Otsego and Middlefield combined have a population of just over 6,000 people. Cooperstown village is home to a hair under 2,000.
The village, founded by the the family of noted author James Fenimore Cooper, has long been known for its historical attractions. The Clark family – half-owners of the Singer sewing machine patent – established their foundation in Cooperstown shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Clarks built most of the village’s attractions, including a museum of baseball history.
Cooperstown was home to Civil War general Abner Doubleday. Doubleday reportedly fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter and played a prominent role in the battle of Gettysburg. It was believed for several decades that Doubleday invented baseball in a cow pasture in Cooperstown in 1839. The myth was later debunked, but the Clark family opened the baseball museum in 1939 as part of a centennial celebration of Doubleday’s invention.
The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is home to the Hall of Fame library, research center, gift shop and theater. It is home to rooms full of baseball artifacts and memorabilia. And it is home to the baseball Hall of Fame.
It can be confusing, keeping the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Fame and Museum straight. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is the brick-and-mortar home of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The museum includes a gallery of plaques, one for each member of baseball’s Hall of Fame. The museum receives nearly 300,000 visitors each year. Baseball’s Hall of Fame and Museum is tangible, touchable, and visitable. Baseball’s Hall of Fame is none of those things. Baseball’s Hall of Fame is a roll call – a list with – at the moment – 315 names on it.
Why do we care so much about a list?
The United States Constitution is just a sheet of paper, too – and one apparently so boring that most the millions of people who read “50 Shades of Gray” and “The Scarsdale Diet” haven’t bothered to read it. It doesn’t keep them from arguing about it, though. American politics centers on the Constitution like American religion centers on the Bible, another bit of reading left to gather dust by most of the people who argue about it.
We don’t read the list, but we know the parts we need to know for our arguments.
We don’t care about the list, but we care about the battles over the list. We debate about who gets in now and who gets in later. We argue about how long the list should be. We fight about how the list should be sorted. We discuss the list. We care deeply about the discussion. The Discussion. Every argument, every debate, every fight about baseball’s Hall of Fame is part of one gigantic discussion.
That is what we care about. The Discussion.
The Hall of Fame Discussion sprang into being in 1939, about 15 minutes after the Hall of Fame list came into existence, and it has been resonating off the walls of barrooms, libraries, restaurants, construction sites, offices, convention halls and living rooms since then. Where baseball fans meet, the Discussion lives.
Here is an example:
“Hey, did you hear? The Veterans Committee just elected Joe Shlabotnik* to the Hall of Fame!”
“The honor is meaningless now, man. They’ll let anybody in.”
“Are you kidding? It’s harder than ever to get in. Look at Harold Baines – 2,866 hits and 384 homers and he hardly got a vote … Rusty Staub – La Grande Orange got almost 3,000 hits and he was a hero in the 1973 World Series for the Mets, and they laughed at him, too … Tommy John? They even named a surgery after him, and he won 288 games, played for 27 years, and he’s still not in.”
“The Hall of Fame ain’t for the good players like those guys, it’s for the great players. Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Stan the Man – those guys. You put Rusty Staub in with the Babe, you cheapen the honor.”
“So there should be what – ten players in the Hall of Fame?”
“No, maybe a hundred … we can elect guys like Harmon Killebrew and Gaylord Perry, but Don Drysdale? He only won 209 games. He shouldn’t be in.”
“So we should kick him out?”
“Well, I dunno about that … maybe they should have two rooms. They can put Stan the Man in a fancy room, guys like Drysdale and Tony Perez in another one, not so fancy.”
“What about the guys who got elected by the Veterans Committees? Some of those guys were bad picks. George Kelly, Freddy Lindstrom … maybe we need three rooms.”
“Maybe … how many should be in the main room? Should Stan the Man be in the same room with Killebrew? Killer’s career batting average was way lower than Musial’s average, and we haven’t even gotten to Ty Cobb. Cobb’s batting average was over a hundred points higher.”
“Fair enough, but do we put Killer in with Drysdale? He hit 573 homeruns and Major League Baseball modeled the logo after him.”
“Yeah, if he’s good enough for MLB’s logo, he shouldn’t be in the cattle car. Maybe we need four rooms.”
* – Joe Shlabotnik was Charlie Brown’s favorite player. He is not in the Hall of Fame.
Individual discussions like this one are united into one Discussion by a pair of basic questions:
- In or out?
- Big or small?
The in or our argument invariably flares into the argument about big or small. The small Hall advocates – the exclusivists – want the Hall of Fame to be limited to the greats of the game. They think the Hall of Fame is only for guys like Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle. They whine bitterly every time one of the old timer committees makes a selection.
The other side of the argument comes from the big-Hall advocates – the inclusivists – who want everyone to get in. The inclusivists want a cocktail party, with Norah Jones whispering her way through her latest album at the piano bar. The inclusivists want a luau, with six pigs in the ground and a Jimmy Buffet tribute band blaring from the main stage. The inclusivists whine bitterly every time one of the old timer committees fails to make a selection.
Like religion and politics, everybody picks a side of the argument and sticks to it. The inclusivists want Harold Baines and his 2,866 hits in. The exclusivists want Pud Galvin’s 361 wins out because he only led the league in ERA once. Inclusivists love Willie McGee; exclusivists laugh at Willie McGee. Inclusivists want Dodger great Steve Garvey in. Impact advocates want Curt Schilling’s bloody sock in, but Schilling’s bloody foot out.
It is impossible to satisfy everyone. The exclusivists are in a permanent state of depression because the old-timers committee elected Tommy McCarthy and Roger Bresnahan in 1946. I’m not making that up; it’s been 70 years and the curtains are still drawn. The inclusivists, tired of waiting for their favorites to be elected, want to replace the voters with rubber stamps and cattle cars.
To summarize, in order to satisfy everyone the Hall of Fame needed to be small but large, exclusive but inclusive, full of famous but underrated players held to demanding but forgiving standards. We had to elect several players ever year, as long as we never elected anyone. There was no possible way to satisfy all the arguments.
In an act of what can only be described as accidental genius, the Museum trustees handed the human resources aspect of the Hall of Fame – the list – to the Baseball Writers Association of America without any specific parameters. They told the BBWAA to elect 10 original members – 5 from the 19th century and 5 from the 20th century – and hold periodic elections to populate the list. They decided on 2 basic parameters: a player should have played at least 10 years, and at least 75 percent of an official BBWAA body should agree on his election.
I emphasis the word “should” for a reason. In the 80 years since the BBWAA was given the authority to hold Hall of Fame elections, the Museum trustees have never told the BBWAA who to elect. They have made periodic changes to control how many new members were elected, but they have never shown the slightest interest in who they were.
The confusion might seem annoying on the surface, but perfecting the selection process would kill the Discussion deader than a pigeon in a Cuisinart. The illogical, disorderly system is the magic potion that gives life to all the little discussions, turning them into the Discussion.
Barstool arguments about baseball are usually either “if I voted I sure wouldn’t have voted for that bozo” or “I think the Hall of Fame is missing …” – and every fan thinks he knows something the Hall is doing wrong. If the Hall of Fame’s parameters were clearly defined, those conversations would never happen – could never happen. There would be nothing to argue about.
Case in point … the barstool pundits might argue about whether the Supreme Court would work better with seven members – and take a shot every time somebody mentions Roe v. Wade – but the arguments never build up any steam because the Supreme Court has specific rules. It takes a lot of hubris to claim to know how to design the Supreme Court better than the Founding Fathers. The Hall, on the other hand, is a big herkin’ mess that every drunk knows how to fix – and they don’t mind sharing.
The Ladies Professional Golf Association’s Hall of Fame eligibility process has a list of 27 criteria that must be met before a player becomes eligible for the vote. The standards are so high that few players ever make the ballot, and every player who made the ballot has been immediately voted in. There has never been a discussion, let alone a Discussion about the LPGA Hall of Fame. There is nothing to discuss.
Subjectivity is the very lifeblood of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Without subjectivity, the arguments end. Without the arguments, the Hall of Fame’s lofty pop culture status goes up in smoke like a lazy mosquito on a barbecue grill. Without its overly subjective, endlessly confusing, perpetually annoying lack of definition, and the Hall would just be a list. And the Cooperstown museum would be nothing more than a dusty, out of the way storage bin for the game’s discarded past.
“All those religions … Is it possible that I was searching them the wrong way? Could it be that every one of all religions is true?”
“Point to the shortest direction around the universe. It doesn’t matter where you point, it’s the shortest … and you’re pointing back at yourself.”
– Valentine Michael Smith, “Stranger in a Strange Land”
All the arguments can be correct, just like all religions can be correct, because the Hall is whatever you want it to be. It’s your Hall. Because it is not defined, you get to make it up yourself. Every argument is its own Hall of Fame.
We have room for lots of lists. We can all have our own list. If you believe the Hall of Fame should only include 30 players, include 30. If you think the Hall of Fame should include a thousand players – well, you’ll need more paper but knock yourself out.
If you think Maury Wills was the greatest shortstop in history, put him at the top of your paper. If you think Ray Oyler was the greatest shortstop in history, you can – well, there are limits. But even if you aren’t always right, you always have the right to your opinion. I’m sure there can be a universe where Ray Oyler was the greatest shortstop ever. Maybe in yours. There are no stupid Halls, only stupid people who refuse to believe in your Ray Oyler-led vision.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Every Hall of Fame list needs a bottom line, whether it’s drawn under the 30th name or the 300th name. Your bottom line will be defined by the series of yes or no questions you ask yourself: is he in or is he out? As in “is he above the line, or below the line?”
There are as many ways to define the line as your imagination can hold. Here are a few samples:
- He should be in because he had more hits than that schmo that already got in.
- He should be out because he has a low WAR total.
- He should be in because when he was at his best, he was the best.
- He should be out because nobody thought he was as good as you think he is.
- He should be in because he had one of the highest batting averages ever.
- He should be out because other players at his position are more qualified.
- He should be in because his type always gets in.
- He should be out because nobody knew who he was.
- He should be in because he changed baseball history.
- He should be out because the Hall of Fame doesn’t need him.
If every argument is true, every one of these samples are real, valid samples. If we plotted every opinion on a grid – not just these ten, but all every single opinion about the Hall of Fame ever stated – it would eventually form a shape – a scatter plot galaxy of opinions.
If the first is a true/false question (in or out?), then the second question is multiple choice. The first question hands out invitations to the innies and puts the outies on a bus. The second question uses multiple choice to sort the innies 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?
I came up with a set of ten questions, a mix of the most popular Hall of Fame arguments:
- The baseball card: Where does he rank on the counting stat lists?
- The number crunch: Where does he rank according to the popular analytics?
- Peak value: How good was he at his best?
- Established value: Where was he in the pecking order during his prime years?
- Rate value: Where does he rank in the percentage stats?
- Position value: Where does he rank at his position?
- Respect: How did the Hall of Fame voters treat him?
- Prominence: How newsworthy was he?
- Impact: How will the history books treat him?
- Relevance: How would the Hall of Fame look without him?
Should Harold Baines be in because he had 2,866 hits and 384 homeruns? Question one is designed to give long career compilers like Baines a voice. Should Bobby Grich be in because he has a really high WAR total? Question two gives him a voice. Roger Maris? Questions three, seven and nine. Charlie Bennett? His voice is in there. Who is Charlie Bennett? Charlie Bennett was a 19th century catcher, known for his defensive wizardry, who lost his legs when he fell while trying to board a train. Bennett Park in Detroit was named for him, the only major league stadium ever named for a player. He gets his due in questions eight and nine.
The Test separates the men from the boys, but it also give the boys a chance to play. The greats of the game compete for the A and B grades, while the more rank and file stars compete for the C and D grades, and jostle for position in the Hall of Fame candidate pecking order. The Test can cover the line between in and out, but it doesn’t live there like so many other Hall of Fame arguments. It doesn’t have to spend all its time dealing with the borderline cases, leaving the innies to rot on dusty shelves while the outies get all the attention.
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.
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
Before we go over the individual questions, I need to explain the rules:
Rule one: it’s your Test, your rules.
Rule two: There is no second rule.
If you think Willie McGee was better than Willie McCovey, grade accordingly. If you think you can sell it (outside Willie McGee’s family) you are probably barking up the wrong mctree, but it’s your Test, your rules. If you want to argue that Roger Maris was more famous than Stan Musial, grade accordingly. If you want to argue that Ray Oyler was a better hitter than Ted Williams, grade accordingly. It’s your Test, your rules.
You may be thinking to yourself, “but what is the point in that? I can just give good grades to the players I like, and say screw you to everyone else?” Call it step one in the process. Give all your favorite players A grades, give all your sworn enemies F grades, and get it out of your system. Share your results with your friends and have a good laugh. It’s your Test, your rules.
If you want to argue your opinion, however, there is a catch: an opinion without backing evidence is worthless. You can say Eleanor Roosevelt was a beauty, but sooner or later somebody is going to produce a picture. You can claim the Pittsburgh Steelers won the 1936 World Series if you want, but it only takes a couple of mouse clicks to make you look foolish.
More esoterically, if you want to claim that Roger Maris was a B player you can, but you will have to find a way to explain away his short, oft-injured career and low career batting average. If you point at his two MVP trophies, skeptics will point to his
if you want your opinion to be accepted into evidence, you have to sell it to the judge. An opinion without supporting evidence is as worthless in a bar as it is in a courtroom. If you don’t have any evidence to back up your love of Ray Oyler, your argument will be as toothless as a band saw in a blast furnace. If you want to share your opinion, your opinio
The Test will help you sort the exhibits, but you need to get them into evidence and convince the jury of their importance. If you say Willie McGee was better than Willie McCovey, you will need to convince your skeptics that McGee’s superior speed and defensive value trumped McCovey’s ability to hit baseballs over Willie McGee’s head into McCovey Cove.
If your opinions are too far from reality they are worthless in a serious discussion, Test or no Test, but the Test can mold and refine your opinions into strong, defensible stances. If you can prove that Willie McGee was a better player than Willie McCovey you are wasting your time here – you should be arguing in front of the Supreme Court (or locked up somewhere you can never escape) – but the rest of us can use the Test to refine our loose intuition into cogent, fact-based opinion.
The Test is not the house, but the scaffolding. The 10 questions allow us to cover all the outside walls, and the 6 grades allow free movement up and down the sides. No matter how you feel about a player, a run through the Test will paint a more complete picture of your opinion than you can manage from the unTested ground of subjective guesswork and confusing analytics.
Fact-based opinion, mind you, not fact. It’s your Test, your rules – but their Test, their rules, too. The Test can’t tell you if Willie Mays was better than Mickey Mantle any more than a systematic grading system for music will tell you if Beethoven was better than Bon Jovi, or a systematic feminine allure scale will tell you if Raquel Welch was hotter than Kate Upton. The Test frames the argument, but it has no interest in settling the argument.
“Roger “Doc” Cramer played for 20 seasons … and had 2,705 lifetime hits. If he doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, I don’t know who does!” – Scott Lehman, Delta, Ohio in a letter to Baseball Digest, March 1981, published in The Politics of Glory.
- Baseball Card – Where do his career totals put him?
a. In the Top 25
b. In the top 75
c. In the top 150
d. In the top 300
e. In the top 1,000
f. In the Navy
The first question looks at cumulative numbers. Fangraphs, Baseball Reference and a number of other websites have elaborate statistical databases you can use, or you can use an Encyclopedia. Any reputable source works, including the back of a baseball card.
I like to look at everything and grade the players on a balance of statistical evidence. If your player ranks in the top 150 in most categories he’s a C, in the top 75 a B, and so on. Some players rank about the same in everything, but you have to strike a balance for the rest.
Doc Cramer ranks 67 in hits, 105 in runs scored and in the top 200 in doubles and triples. Most outsider arguments (“my guy should be in because”) focus on the player’s best feature. If a player has one attractive statistic, that’s the one that gets perfumed, buffed and presented in a low cut dress.
If the rest of Cramer’s statistical profile was as good as his hit total, he would have been put on the list decades ago. And if Phyllis Diller could sing she wouldn’t have owned so many ugly hats.
- Baseball Reference – According to the metrics, where is he?
In the Top 30
b. In the top 90
c. In the top 180
d. In the top 400
e. In the top 1,000
f. Standing next to Waldo
“Bobby Grich’s 125 OPS+ (OBP+SLG adjusted to his era and ballpark) is higher than eight second basemen who have plaques in Cooperstown.” – 10 most deserving players who are not in the Hall of Fame
“In a career that spanned from 1970-86, Grich compiled a 70.9 Wins Above Replacement score — per Baseball-Reference — that ranks eighth all time at his position. His .371 on-base percentage is higher than 12 other Hall of Fame second basemen. And his OPS-plus of 125, a stat that adjusts for league and park effects, is better than 15 second basemen in Cooperstown.” – MLB.com Grich article
Many of the so-called SABRmetric crowd (the Society of American Baseball Research, baseball’s version of Comic-Con) think this is the only question that really matters. Maybe they are right. Life would be pretty boring, though, if production was all that mattered.
“For a whole generation of fans and fantasy players, stats have begun to outstrip story and that seems to me a sad thing. Even the unverifiable hogwash that passed for fact or informed opinion in baseball circles not so long ago seems today wistfully enticing, for its energy if nothing else.” – John Thorn (cite)
- Peak – At his best, he was
- The best of the best
b. The best, other than that one guy who ruined the curve for everybody
c. One of the best for a while
d. One of the best for a moment
e. One of the best of the rest
f. One of the rest
“He was Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle and Albert Pujols all wrapped into a solid 5’11”, 185 lb frame.” About Pete Reiser, by Joseph Del Grippo
I made question three vague on purpose. Peak value is a slippery concept that can provoke good, lively discussions. Why ruin it by defining it? Established peak, or whatever you call “at his best,” is whatever you can prove it is. Your Test, your rules.
Pete Reiser had one of the all-time great what-if careers in the game’s history. He was a truly great player for a moment so short that he could be anything from an A to an E on this question depending on how you decide to deal with length.
- Prime – Pick one:
- He should have won the MVP award in every good year
b. He could have won the MVP award in every good year
c. He should have been an all-star in every good year
d. He could have been an all-star in every good year
e. He could have been an all-star in a career year
f. He could have saved a ton of money on his car insurance
A select few players over the years, have gotten screwed repeatedly in the MVP voting because the voters hated to vote for the same player every year. Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Henry Aaron, Mike Schmidt, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriquez, Barry Bonds and Mike Trout have all been the subject of countless articles, written about how the MVP should go to the best player but it rarely does. You can fill out the A tier with the players who actually won several MVP awards, like Barry Bonds (7) and the players not listed above who won 3 awards.
The B grade belongs to the players who should have won at least a couple and could have won a few if everything broke right. Frank Robinson (if he’s not an A) fits this bill, as do Joe Morgan, Hank Greenberg, George Brett, Napolean Lajoie and Ken Griffey, Jr. The C grade belongs to players who weren’t MVP contenders every year, but they were always on the all-star team and received a lot of down-ballot votes in the MVP elections.
- Rate – Ignoring volume, he is
- In the Top 30
b. In the top 90
c. In the top 180
d. In the top 400
e. In the top 1,000
f. Alarmingly concave
Question 5 is the counterpoint to question one, which rewards volume. By rate I mean the slash statistics: batting average, onbase percentage and slugging. Babe Ruth “slashed” .342-.474-.690 over his 22-year career. He ranks, respectively, tenth, second and first on the career lists. For contrast, Ray Oyler slashed .175-.258-.251 in his 6-year career. He ranks lower than Babe Ruth on the career lists. He doesn’t rank all that much higher than Doctor Ruth (Westheimer) on the career lists.
If you prefer you can use a version of adjusted onbase percentage+slugging percentage (ops) compared to league averages (usually listed as ops+). I’ll use all four categories when I run my guinea pigs through the Test.
- Position – He was in (or on) his position’s
b. Mt. Rushmore
c. Sweet 16
d. American Top 40
e. Hot 100
f. Do not resuscitate list
Question 6 – “Bid McPhee qualifies for Cooperstown ad nauseam. In just about everyone one of his eighteen years before 1900, he ranked as the best second baseman around. – Bob Carroll, “For the Hall of Fame: Twelve Good Men” – The National Pastime, Winter 1985 (POG)
There are a number of ways to sort the candidates for this category. You can use one of the various forms of WAR, the career methods from question one, or you can invent your own. You can lean on Pete Palmer’s linear weights formulas, or you can lean on the positional top-100 rankings published in The New Bill James Historical Abstract in 2001. You can rank them by shoe size, or you can rank them by salary adjusted to the stock market index.
As always it’s your Test, your rules. Be prepared for the inevitable blowback, though. Some outlets don’t consider shoe size an official statistic.
- Precedent – How did the Hall of Fame voters treat him?
They voted him in right away, and somebody complained because he wasn’t unanimous
b. They elected him within 2-3 years
c. The BBWAA elected him
d. An old-timers committee elected him
e. He got at least one vote from the BBWAA or an old-timers committee
f. Like a fool, mean and cruel
If you are grading an old timer you can simply use his own Hall of Fame voting history. It would be strange to claim a player like Johnny Mize deserves a B grade when it took the writers 25 years to get around to electing him to the Hall of Fame. Some players like him, and honestly no better than him, have been elected fairly quickly, though. If you want to argue that Mize was shafted in the voting and that he deserves a higher grade, you can certainly do that. I might make that argument myself.
If a player hasn’t been on the ballot yet, or has only been on it a short time, you need to find comparable players (comps) to argue his case. Some sites lists statistical comps, but if you want to use those comps be prepared for some resistance. Statistical comps on most of the big database websites are not adjusted for the myriad ways the game has changed over the years, and they often don’t adjust for position played.
For example, Baseball Reference lists Sammy Sosa as Mike Schmidt’s second closest comp. By the basic numbers they might be similar, but in real life they weren’t similar at all. Sosa was a right fielder. Schmidt was a third baseman. Sosa never won a gold glove award. Schmidt won 10. Sosa hit at least 60 homers 3 times without leading the league, while Schmidt led the league in homeruns 6 times with totals under 40. Schmidt led the major leagues in homeruns 8 times, Sosa twice.
It’s your Test, your rules – so make any argument you think you can win – but a losing argument is a pointless argument. To find the best comps, I recommend you compare league-adjusted statistics like ops+ and things that are naturally regulated, like the results of awards voting. Bill James has said on a number of occasions that one of the best indicators of greatness is uniqueness. The better the player is, the harder it is going to be to find a perfect comp.
- Prominence – What would this player have to do to make the news?
- Throw out his garbage
b. Throw out a runner
c. Throw out his wife
d. Throw out his back
e. Throw out his probation officer
f. Throw out a Kardashian
Don’t overthink it; remember ESPN camping on Bret Favre’s lawn, reporting several times a day about whether or not he looked like he was coming back, for the baseline on how famous a sports figure can get. The most famous players have regular beat writers following them around, shooting pictures of their cars as they drive away, and – in extreme cases – sorting through their trash cans.
The B players don’t get as much attention, but they are usually the first locker the writers stop by after the day’s game. The C and D players will get their share of postgame attention from the beat writers, but the C players will get the occasional magazine spread and a bigger sendoff when they retire.
- Impact – What would it take to explain him in a history book?
- A chapter
b. A chapter section
c. A page
d. A paragraph
e. A sentence
f. A bribe
Bill James calls them footprints (cite – I think it’s in the 1990 baseball book). Most players leave some sort of mark on the game; for most it’s a small mark – maybe a key hit in a pennant race or a running catch to cost another player a batting title – but a Hall of Fame contender will have left deep, permanent footprints on the game.
Take stock of a player’s regular season achievements – all-star games, gold gloves, larger awards, lead leading totals in high profile categories, etc. – and postseason achievements. A single homerun at just the right moment can be more important than several hundred that have been largely forgotten. Was the player responsible for rules changes, or equipment changes? Did he change how the game was played, or epitomize his era in some lasting way? Was he part of the game’s stories told, the lore of the game? Question 8 asks if a player was famous; question 9 asks if the player is (or should be) remembered.
- Relevance – If he isn’t in the Hall of Fame, the Hall of Fame is:
Again, don’t overthink it. If the Hall of Fame literally could not exist without him, he is probably an A. If the Hall of Fame couldn’t sleep for all the whining they heard from the media before he was elected, he smells like a B. If your neighborhood small-Hall advocates are the only people that hate him, he’s a C. If your neighborhood big-Hall advocates are the only ones that love him, he’s a D.
Add them together and divide by 10 to get his grade point average. A player’s GPA defines his level on the Hall of Fame scale – which bears a striking resemblance to the grading scale for the questions:
4.0 – A player
3.0 – B player
2.0 – C player
1.0 – D player
0.0 – thanks for coming
The decimal points allow for an extra layer of give and take. If a player grades out at 1.8 you can argue that he is better than another player who grades out at 1.9, or even 2.0 or 2.1. It might be a stretch to argue that your 1.8 graded player is better than another’s 2.8, but it’s your Test, your rules. All is fair in love and the Test.
THE TEST SUBJECTS
Adrian “Cap” Anson. The Cubs’ patriarch began his career with the birth of the National Association in 1871, and he didn’t hang ’em up until 1897. He played through the myriad rule changes and league upheavals of the 1880s and the war with the Player’s League in 1890. He was a controversial, larger-than-life force of baseball nature who played so long ago that the statistics are almost as fuzzy as the memories. His case is one of the most difficult to nail down, and he will help us grab a mental picture of the 19th century game.
Pete Rose. Like Anson, Rose was the most famous player of his time. Unlike Anson, Rose played recently; older fans can conjure up a detailed image of him, and YouTube can fill in the gaps for the younger generation. He played forever at a high level, but not the highest level, so while it will be easy to grade him on volume it will be tough to grade him on the height of his career (what I call peak value). His case will help us get a feel for how we weigh peak value (height) versus career value (volume).
Willie McGee. The two-time batting champ and 1985 MVP, McGee was a good player for a long time but not widely considered a great player. His case borders many of the lines drawn between grades – providing a glimpse at the lines – and seeing a player with an admirable resume come up short will remind us that the Hall of Fame isn’t just a gold watch, given out for good attendance.
Chuck Klein. The Depression-era Phillies star put up eye-popping numbers, won an MVP award and earned a triple crown during his years in the Baker Bowl – but became an ordinary player when he left. His case will allow me to address extreme splits between home and road statistics and high- and low- offensive eras. His short, dynamic career will also provide the yin to Rose’s yang in the volume versus rate stats discussion.
Willie McCovey. The Hall of Fame Giants first baseman played during one of the worst eras for his skillset, spent the first few years of his career competing with another Hall of Famer – Orlando Cepeda – and spent the last decade of his career fighting crippling foot injuries. Despite all that, he played for 22 years and retired with over 500 homeruns. His truncated, oft-interrupted yet brilliant career will straddle so many grading lines that we will all wish he had better feet.
Orlando Cepeda. The Baby Bull began his career like he was headed for the Pantheon – he was still on pace to match Henry Aaron’s career homerun total six years into his career – but he didn’t age well and he had some post-career problems. Still, he won the 1967 MVP award unanimously and managed to get into the Hall of Fame through the BBWAA on his final attempt. We will find him in the vicinity of the line between C and D on most questions.
My first table lists our six guinea pigs with their respective ranks in a few counting categories. The adjusted bases category is the only one you can’t get off of the mainstream websites. It’s a form of gross offensive production I like to play around with. I explain the formula in the footnotes here.(footnote)
Adrian “Cap” Anson. Anson’s career began in the first year of the National Association (NA) in 1871 and lasted until 1897. The NA played just 30 league games in 1871, and Anson did not play in a league with a schedule of at least 100 games until 1884, when he was 32 years old. He played 1,993 out of a possible 2,052 games in his first 22 years in the major leagues, riding to wooden, lightless stadiums in horse-drawn wagons and playing most of his career without a glove.
Pete Rose holds the major league record with 3,562 games played; had Anson played schedules of modern length he would have played in over 4,000 league games. He almost certainly played that many games overall. In the early years of professional baseball, teams played as many or more exhibition games as they played league games. Of the 50 players who played more official league games than Anson’s 2,524, the earliest one (A’s and White Sox great Eddie Collins) began his career in 1907 – 10 years after Anson retired.
Pete Rose. Rose played more games, went to the plate more often and accumulated more hits than any other major leaguer; he ranks near the top in most of the counting categories.
Orlando Cepeda. His counting stats show a clear bias toward the back end of the offensive equation where the sluggers reside, rather than the front end where the table setters live. He ranks comparatively low in runs scored, walks and times on base compared to homeruns, runs batted in and total bases. He ranks 147 in adjusted bases, near his ranking in hits. Hits is a run-neutral statistic.
Chuck Klein. Klein also leans to the back end, but not as much as Cha Cha. Cepeda was a slow, thick-legged player who lost his speed early in his career. Klein led the National League in stolen bases at 27 years old and he still ran well into his mid-30s. Klein was nearly 24 when he first came to the majors and his bat was dead by the time he was 35, so his counting stats are a little light in the seat.
Willie McCovey. Stretch started just 208 out of the Giants’ 473 games in his first 3 full seasons, 1960-62, because neither he nor Orlando Cepeda could play anywhere but first base without looking like a crippled tree sloth waddling off with Charlie Brown’s mitt. McCovey played 275 games in the outfield from 1962-64 to get both bats in the lineup. He led the National League in homeruns in 1963, but he was so bad in the field that the Giants had to carry three different Alou brothers to cover for him. In 1965 the Giants finally threw up their hands up, traded Cepeda away and planted McCovey at first base. He never played another inning in the outfield.
Willie McGee. McGee was a singles hitter who never walked, so his other ranks are way below his hit rank of 166. The ranks make McGee look like a balanced offensive player, but McGee was more a combination of self-cancelling peaks and valleys than a plateau.
I listed the two most prominent metrics in table 2. The first is wins above replacement, commonly known as WAR. The second, Winshares, is the brainchild of Bill James. James published the original formulas in The New Bill James Historical Abstract (Free Press 2001) and a detailed analysis and comprehensive listings in Win Shares (STATS 2002).
I used the version of WAR published on BaseballReference.com, but there a number of different versions available and more being invented all the time. Wins above replacement isn’t a formula but an idea for a formula, like a recipe for pie. WAR can be baked into as many forms as there are imaginations capable of tweaking the recipe. Sooner or later I’ll have my own version – come up with my own recipe – but for now I will rely on one of the precooked recipes available at the corner market.
Of all the new frontiers in the statistical analysis of baseball, the wildest frontier of all is not a new one, but an old one. Defensive statistics have been kept, or have been updated through herculean efforts like Project Scoresheet, since the beginning of organized professional baseball in 1871. Unfortunately, it took the statisticians over a hundred years to figure out what they needed to count – and by then it was too late to go back and ask the ghosts of Grantland Rice and Francis Richter to change their scorecards.
Offensive statistics can be subdivided into single bases, which allows for some remarkably accurate metric analysis. Defensive statistics, though – not so much. Because of this I prefer to deal with defense independently.
Winshares includes defense, so I separated it out where I could. The numbers in parenthesis are rankings with the defense removed. I could not remove defense from Klein or McGee because James only published breakdowns for the top 300.
* – estimated
Adrian “Cap” Anson. Anson makes the top 30 in WAR but he ranks quite a ways out of the top 25 according to Winshares. James put what he called a timeline adjustment into the Winshares formula that duns players from the distant past, plus Anson’s case has to be adjusted for all those missed games. Still, it’s a long way from 30 to 45, or even to his offense-only rank of 35.
Pete Rose. If the Test is a decathlon, Rose is dominating the early events that are his specialty. His was the longest career ever, so should be expected to do well on the volume-based questions.
Orlando Cepeda. I didn’t count defense, but defense counts. Without defense, Cepeda would be a borderline B according to Winshares.
Chuck Klein. Winshares lists include pitchers, so I had to separate pitchers out of all the rankings. In Klein’s case, since he didn’t make the top 300, I had to guess how many pitchers were ahead of him beyond the top 300. There were 72 pitchers in the top 300 (24 percent) and Klein was ranked 359, so I moved him up 24 percent of 359, or 86 spots. I did the same thing with McGee below, moving him up 101 spots.
Klein’s ranking includes defense – I couldn’t remove it since it wasn’t listed – and the timeline adjustment. Both measurements would move him up from his rank of 273, so I see no reason why he wouldn’t qualify for his D grade.
Willie McCovey. Without defense McCovey isn’t all that far from an A grade according to Winshares, but (1) defense counts and (2) stretching for a chair ain’t the same thing as sitting comfortably. An A grade would be a stretch – even for Stretch.
Willie McGee. McGee looks a little bit like E.T., the Extra Terrestrial. Who is his cellphone provider?
Adrian “Cap” Anson. Anson was the face of 19th century baseball and the biggest figure in the game, but he was not necessarily the best player in the game. There were no MVP awards in his time to define how his peers saw him, and the game was very different from the game we are used to seeing. It’s easy to figure out how famous Anson the public figure was, but it isn’t as easy to get a handle on how dominant Anson the player was.
Anson was a huge man for his time – BaseballReference lists him at 227 pounds and he was always in shape – and he likely would have hit a lot of homeruns in an era when homeruns were valued. He hit a total of 5 homeruns in the first 13 years of his career, but the Chicago owners moved the fences in for the 1884 season and he hit 21. The dominant statistical category in Anson’s time was batting average, and Anson led the National League in batting average 4 times, including back-to-back when he was in his mid-30s.
Still, while he was unquestionably the best player in the league over an extended time, he was never clearly the best player in the league at any one time.
Pete Rose. Rose won the MVP in 1973 and hit over .300 monotonously, but like Anson he was one of the best, not necessarily the best.
Orlando Cepeda. There were a couple of moments when Cepeda might have been the best player in the league, but they were fleeting and probably an illusion. He won the 1967 MVP award unanimously despite competition from 1966 MVP Roberto Clemente, who put up superficially better numbers, and perennial contenders Henry Aaron and Willie Mays. I don’t think a reasonable argument can be made that Cepeda was ever better than those three players, and it might be hard to argue that he was ever really better than his old teammate Willie McCovey.
Chuck Klein. Klein’s MVP voting record indicates at least a B grade, and he won a triple crown. Had he played in a neutral park I would just give him the B and move on, but his peak was largely an illusion. Klein hit over .400
Willie McCovey. McCovey was the 1969 National League MVP, and arguably the best player in the league between 1968 and 1970. If that makes him an A for you, I’m fine with it. Unfortunately, there are more than 25 players who can fit that criteria (the best player in the league over a 3-year period) who have better surrounding evidence of their dominance. McCovey was a devastating offensive player who made pitchers whimper and drove first basemen to their life insurance agents, but he had bad feet and little defensive value.
His best historical comp might be Hank Greenberg, the Tiger star of the 1930s. Greenberg won a pair of MVP awards, put up a 58 homerun season and set the American League single-season record for runs batted in, but he was the third best first baseman in an 8-team league. Those A grades are hard to get; there are only 25 of them in each category, to cover nearly 150 years of baseball history.
Willie McGee. I didn’t realize it when I chose my 6-pack of Test subjects, but they all won a single MVP award except Anson, who played before MVPs were awarded. McGee’s 1985 season may have been one of the 150 best seasons ever, but it’s hard to quantify it. According to WAR his 1985 WAR total ranks 252 on the list. Winshares ranks his 1985 season in a tie for 215 since 1900 and well out of the top 300 overall.
I graded him a D because of his 1985 MVP award and two batting titles, but a systematic analysis would probably take it away and leave him with another E grade.
Adrian “Cap” Anson. I doubt Anson would have won a bunch of MVP awards – or deserved them – but he would have probably won a couple and he would have been the face on the cover of the “who is it going to be this year?” magazines in a lot of years.
Pete Rose. I don’t think of Rose as a perennial MVP contender, but only 19 players have drawn more MVP votes than he did and he finished in the top 5 in the voting 5 times.
Orlando Cepeda. The thumb rule for this question is we are measuring a player’s prime period, not his peak – that was question 3 – so winning an MVP doesn’t give a player extra credit. Cepeda also finished second, several years before he won, but that was it. He was only an MVP contender twice. He was an all-star several times, and it’s a close call whether he deserves to rank as a C or if his poor showing after 1967 should lower his grade to a D. By the spirit of the question I think the D is warranted. While he could have been an all-star in most of his good years, I don’t think it’s accurate to say he should have.
Chuck Klein. One of the constant balancing acts every Hall of Fame discussion is the weighing of quantity versus quality. Klein goes down without much of a fight when we are talking about the total value of his career – total=total – but defining “prime” isn’t as obvious. Klein put up huge numbers for a very short time, then played at what appeared to be a much lower level for several years after. If we didn’t know better we might think something happened to him in 1934, but we know that wasn’t the case.
In Klein’s case there is a handy statistic that helps tell us the story of his prime: onbase plus slugging (ops+). Klein’s ops+ with the Phillies from 1928-34 was 160. He moved to the Cubs and Wrigley Field – another good hitters park – in 1934 and his ops+ numbers over the next few years were 136, 123, 124, 130 (back in the Baker Bowl), 81 and 127. Ignoring the off-season in 1938, Klein’s typical ops+ was in the mid-120s outside of the Baker Bowl. If we give him full credit for his Baker Bowl awards showing he qualifies for a D grade, but the drop-off after he moved to Chicago means a C is out of the question.
Willie McCovey. With the exception of his 1968-70 stretch he wasn’t a serious MVP candidate, and he only played in 6 all-star games. McCovey’s prime was cut to ribbons by playing time issues early and injuries late. In the decathlon scenario, this is Stretch’s weakest category.
Willie McGee. McGee played in 4 all-star games, but I doubt he could have made more than a couple more at the absolute most. Most years he was just a good, solid everyday player.
For our purposes I’ll define “regular” as 3 plate appearances per team game. This means 462 plate appearances in a 154 game season and 486 in a 162 game season. We’ll deal with Cap Anson when we get to him.
Table 5 lists our candidates and their respective hours on the gerbil wheel. I’ll explain the asterisks in their individual comments.
Adrian “Cap” Anson. He missed regular status in all 27 of his seasons by a single plate appearance in 1984, when he was 42 years old. I think Rose ranks second in that category – seasons as a regular – with 22.
Anson’s career predated the all-star game, so I can’t really say how many games he would have gotten into. My guess is all of them. He was Reggie Jackson, Pete Rose and David Ortiz wrapped into one loud, blustery package. An all-star game without him would have been unthinkable. With his attendance record and love of attention, there is little chance he would have skipped one.
By merit he probably would have played in over 20. He finished in the league’s top 10 in batting average 22 times, and that was the first statistic everyone looked at.
Pete Rose. Rose played in 16 consecutive all-star games (1967-1982) and qualified as a regular in each of his first 21 seasons.
Orlando Cepeda. Cepeda has been landing just over the C/D line, but this time he lands just short. He was remarkably durable for most of his career, qualifying as a regular in 12 of his first 13 seasons, but that was about it. The birth of the designated hitter position in 1973 game him one more season as a regular batter, but he only played 85 games in the field during his final four seasons.
Chuck Klein. I credited him with all-star appearances from 1929-1932 in addition to the pair he played in. He clearly would have been on those teams.
Willie McCovey. He was an all-star or an MVP candidate every year he qualified as a regular – and a couple of times when he didn’t – until he was 35 years old.
Willie McGee. He wasn’t that far from a D grade, but it’s been that way his whole Test. He was a really good E player, but not quite a D player.
I like to begin with James’ positional top-100 rankings, and adjust for anything about his rankings I disagree with. Table 6 lists each player’s ranking according to James, along with my adjusted rank. Since the book came out in 2001, the last 15 years have to be accounted for.
Adrian “Cap” Anson. I don’t imagine I got away with palming that card. James has Anson ranked 11 in his book, and there have been a couple of new players who belong in the top 10 since then, but I moved him all the way up to the fourth spot. There are three things James does in his rankings that I don’t do in mine.
First, James does not count the National Association as a major league. Second, James “charges” the players from the distant past with a timeline penalty. Third, James makes no allowances for the shortened schedules in the 19th century. All three serve to drive Anson’s value into the ground.
My top 4:
- Lou Gehrig
- Albert Pujols
- Jimmy Foxx
- Cap Anson
Pete Rose. James ranks Rose in right field (I dare Tom Brokaw to say that three times fast), but he played all over the place. Rose played at least 500 games at first base, second base, third base, left field and right field. Right field is a stacked position, with Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott ahead of Rose, but I looked around the other positions and I’m not sure there is one where he would crack the top 4 without give him a pretty hefty mulligan for his lack of defensive value. I could be talked into giving him a B anyway, though. Nobody else came anywhere near his level of versatility.
Orlando Cepeda. I moved Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols and Jim Thome ahead of him from James’ list. There are a couple of others I would also move ahead of him by removing their timeline penalty – Dan Brouthers, Roger Conner, George Sisler – but Cepeda would still get the same D grade.
Chuck Klein. Klein was holding on to his D grade by his fingernails as it was. The influx of new candidates pushed him into the E range. Right field is a stacked position.
Willie McCovey. I thought about moving McCovey up a couple of spots but the choices are close and it won’t affect his grade. He would be a C either way.
Willie McGee. There have been a lot of good center fielders in the 21st century, if not very many great ones. A top-20 center fielder might have only moved down the list a spot or two, but McGee dropped 10 spots.
- Precedent – How did the Hall of Fame voters treat him?
Adrian “Cap” Anson. Anson retired in 1897, nearly 40 years before the inaugural Veterans Committee election in 1936. He tied 19th century catching great Buck Ewing for the most votes with 39.5 out of 78 (50.6 percent), well short of the 75 percent needed to be elected. The Hall’s centennial celebration in1939 was set to go off without any 19th century players involved, so a small committee – Commissioner Kennesaw Landis, National League President Ford Frick and American League President Will Harridge – chose 3 players: Anson, Ewing and Charles “Old Hoss” Radbourne, a 300-game winner who won a league record 59 games in 1884.
In cases like this, where the player’s Hall of Fame induction came under unusual circumstances, I like to find his best comps and see how the Hall of Fame treated them. Since Anson’s best comp is Pete Rose (who isn’t eligible for the Hall of Fame) we might need to move to number 2.
Anson’s closest historical comps, according to BasebalReference, are (1) all in the Hall of Fame but (2) not all that comparable. Anson’s rankings in most categories place him in groups of players who have been elected to the Hall of Fame without a lot of resistance, but he doesn’t rank up there with the unanimous candidates.
His best comps are the high average hitters with 3000 hits, like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn, though Anson would likely have been a power hitter had he played in another era. Any subjective guess, from Roberto Clemente to Frank Robinson to Henry Aaron, would be what it is – one man’s unsupported opinion.
Pete Rose. Rose is not eligible for the Hall of Fame because he is on baseball’s ineligible list. The Hall of Fame rarely intervenes directly in the selection rules – they have never shown the slightest interest in who gets elected – but they made a point to tell the voters that Rose would not be eligible until he is reinstated to baseball’s eligible list in 1991, when his name would have first appeared on the ballot. The hue and cry surrounding his candidacy, even after 30 years, tells you all you need to know. Had he been eligible and untainted by scandal, he would have been a near-unanimous selection.
Orlando Cepeda. Cepeda received 73.5 percent of the vote in 1994 – his final year of BBWAA elgibility – and was elected by the Veterans Committee the first year they got a shot at him. His closest historical comp is probably Tony Perez, the first baseman on the Big Red Machine. Perez was elected by the BBWAA in his final year of eligibility. Between Perez and Cepeda lies the line between C and D. I gave Cha Cha a D because he wasn’t elected by the BBWAA, but it would be silly to argue against a C grade. He was less than 2 percent short.
Chuck Klein. Klein was never a popular candidate during his BBWAA years, topping out at 28.9 percent in 1964. He was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1980 as the meat in a slugger sandwich elected between 1979 and 1981. Hack Wilson, a Klein contemporary, was elected in 1979 and Johnny Mize – who frankly should have been elected sooner – was elected in 1981.
Klein has a number of close comps, some of them in the Hall of Fame and some of them still waiting. His best comp might be Bobby Bonds, Barry’s father and the first of the San Francisco Giants’ run of players dubbed “the next Willie Mays.” ESSAY – Klein’s Comps
Willie McCovey. McCovey was elected right away, and his closest comps – Hank Greenberg, Jimmy Foxx, maybe Eddie Mathews – were all elected quickly. A B grade seems obvious.
Willie McGee. He isn’t in the Hall of Fame and none of his good comps are in, but his case isn’t a complete joke. He won 2 batting titles, 3 gold glove awards and an MVP. He was part of a famous team – the 1980s Cardinals, who reached the World Series 3 times between 1982 and 1987 – and he played long enough to reach a few milestone numbers. His best player comp might be Curt Flood, the Cardinals’ center fielder from the 1960s. Flood may make the Hall of Fame eventually for his role in eliminating baseball’s reserve clause, but he never built up a head of steam in the BBWAA voting.
- Prominence – What would this player have to do to make the news?
Adrian “Cap” Anson. Question 8 can be tricky for some players, but not this one. Anson was the face of baseball between 1880 and the 1895. He was a force of nature, dominating everyone and everything he touched, and he was a natural and enthusiastic showman. He began his career as the Marshalltown Infant, grew into “Cap” for captain and eventually morphed into “Pop” toward the end of his 27-year career. The Chicago team in the National League was nicknamed the Cubs because of Anson. He was Pops – and they were his cubs.
Pete Rose. He hasn’t worn a baseball uniform since 1989 (officially anyway, I don’t know what he wears around his house) but he is still one of the most famous players in the game. Rose and Reggie Jackson were the most famous players of the 1970s and 1980s, and Rose always seemed to be in the news for one thing or the other until the scandal that cost him his career, his reputation, and his eligibility for the Hall of Fame.
Orlando Cepeda. Cepeda is unusual in that he had two distinct nicknames (Cha Cha and The Baby Bull) but he wasn’t one of the most famous players in the game. He was famous, but not so much as a dominant force as he was a character – what baseball writers call “colorful,” like Manny Ramirez more recently.
Cha Cha was always a little thick – late in his career his butt was wide enough to advertise on – and he a notoriously bad sign reader. His manager in San Francisco, Alvin Dark, developed a reputation for being racist against Latino players because of his exasperation with Cha Cha’s sign-reading adventures. He was a popular teammate once he got away from San Francisco, and he won the 1967 MVP award in part because of his popularity.
Grading a subjective question like question 8 can be an adventure. I recommend that you make sure your numerical balance is in line with the rest of the Test. It’s easy to overrate (or underrate) how famous these players were, and wind up with, say, 55 A’s, 100 B’s and 40 C’s.
I’ve spent enough time grading players to know that players generally earn about as much fame as they earn anything else. The exceptions – Roger Maris or Catfish Hunter going one way, Darrell or Dwight Evans going the other way – tend to jump off the page. I designed the Test with the more objective questions towards the top and the more subjective questions toward the bottom because of this.
By the time you get to question 8 you will have a pretty good idea where you think the player ranks. If you think he was more famous than his stats, you can bump him up a grade. If he was one of those players – like Evans, either Darrell or Dwight – who wasn’t as famous as he probably should have been – Reggie Smith in the shadow of Reggie! Jackson, for example – you can drop him a grade. If there is no reason to go either way, you can just match his fame grade – and his impact and relevance grades – to his overall grade. There is no reason to overthink it.
Chuck Klein. Klein was about as famous in his time as Cha Cha was in his, and had his peak lasted a little longer he might deserve a B grade, too. It will help you a lot, if you grade a bank of players, to double check yourself horizontally to make sure you have a good balance.
Willie McCovey. Cepeda and McCovey were practically a matched set with the Giants, and they each won an MVP and a great deal of respect after they were separated. McCovey is more famous now because of McCovey Cove behind the right field wall at Pac Bell Stadium, but while they were active they were both in that gray area between the B – where the really famous guys hang out – and C grade. I gave them both C grades in this exercise, but I might give them both B grades next time. Subjective grades are slippery.
Willie McGee. I am sure McGee is a D on this question. He wasn’t substantial enough to be a C – his MVP award notwithstanding – but he was far too famous to be an E. If there is such a thing as the geographical center of the D grade for prominence, I would bet McGee lived on the same street.
- Impact – What would it take to explain him in a history book?
Adrian “Cap” Anson. Modern research tools make Anson a tempting biographical subject. He wasn’t just a substantial player and a forceful, theatrical personality. He was at the center of any number of significant events in baseball history, not all of them good. Bill James once suggested that Anson may have been the most important figure in making the National League the top league, and making baseball a popular entertainment. (cite)
Pete Rose. It’s impossible to properly explain the legend of Pete Rose in anything short of a full chapter. Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ty Cobb and Pete Rose are the Mt. Rushmore of 20th century baseball legends. The stories told about them alone could fill the next Ed Burns 18-hour documentary.
Orlando Cepeda. A paragraph would not do him justice, but a page should be plenty.
Chuck Klein. The Patron Saint of park illusions, Klein may not have earned his place in the game’s lore directly, but it would take a page to tell his story.
Willie McCovey. I would have to do a full count to be sure, but I suspect McCovey might deserve an A grade on the impact question. Who else has a body of water named after him?
Willie McGee. It’s hard to win an MVP award and not need a paragraph, and McGee did other things besides win the 1985 MVP award.
- Relevance – If he isn’t in the Hall of Fame, the Hall of Fame is:
Adrian “Cap” Anson. There are some people who think the 19th century wasn’t real baseball, and there are enough of them that an argument can be made that Anson isn’t 100 percent vital to the Hall of Fame’s existence. It may not be pointless without him – just delusional.
Pete Rose. I might argue that he deserves a not applicable grade on the question, since he isn’t eligible, but there isn’t any reason to Test him in the first place unless we set aside reality and pretend he is allowed to be considered. If he’s eligible, he’s a must-have.
Orlando Cepeda. The difference between a C grade (exclusive) and a D grade (behind) comes from the small-Hall argument. The small-Hall advocates –the exclusivists – want to limit the Hall of Fame to about one player for every year or so, and they usually begin in 1901. A C grade player might be inside the leather if he’s at the top of the grade, but Cha Cha is toward the bottom, so he would fall short of the exclusive club.
The debaters who fall in between the exclusivists and the inclusivists – we’ll call them the realists – are mostly ok with the number on the real Hall of Fame’s list. They may wish the number was a little smaller – 200 is a popular number – but they are, for the most part, ok with the current total of 315 members. Let’s look at the ranges.
- Exclusivists: 100-150
- Realists: 200-300
- Inclusivists: 400-7.2 billion
There are gray areas in there that don’t have their own –ist designation, but the debaters tend to paint in broad strokes. Nobody argues between 140 and 170; it’s either 100, 300 or 800.
Cepeda best fits the C grade definition. If he’s missing, they are exclusive. The C grade players would all be in a Hall of Fame that was behind, because the missing players would be D grade players. Remember question 7; by definition C grade players get elected by the BBWAA within 15 (now 10) years of becoming eligible. If the Hall of Fame hasn’t gotten to him, he’s almost certainly a D or lower.
The only obvious exceptions are players who were never on the BBWAA ballot (Negro League and foreign players) and perhaps a couple of players from the early, primordial ooze days of baseball.
Chuck Klein. Klein waited 36 years to be selected. He was a reasonable choice, but so were others – some of whom are still waiting – and there is no sense of urgency in getting to them.
Willie McCovey. It would take an awfully exclusive club to leave Stretch out, and there would be picketing in the parking lot.
Willie McGee. The Hall of Fame has elected a few players no better than Willie McGee, but only a few and they have been widely mocked as bad selections. McGee will need the voters to loosen their belts a couple more notches to get on the waiting list.
Adrian “Cap” Anson (3.4) Anson’s Test is subject to a wider degree of variance than most A or B level players. He played during the game’s infancy, and much of the competition he dominated wasn’t all that good; some might question whether his numbers deserve the same respect they would had he posted them more recently. Anson’s personality was so big that it would be strange to discount it, but one man’s charismatic promotor is another man’s overbearing blowhard. Anson was universally known, but he certainly wasn’t universally liked.
I ignored his controversial race-related actions when I Tested him, but others may make a big deal out of role in establishing the color line. It’s not my place to tell you how to deal with the Hall of Fame’s cryptic character clause.
Pete Rose (3.6) Speaking of the character clause … it’s up to you how to deal with players like Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, who are ineligible for the Hall of Fame. I’ve heard the argument that they should get F’s on questions 7, 9 and 10 because they are ineligible (7, 10) or violated the character clause (9).
Orlando Cepeda (1.6) The lines between grades are at the .5 marks. Let’s look at it:
A solid C players, like Expo speedster Tim Raines or the Astros’ star second baseman Craig Biggio, will usually grade out between 1.8 and 2.2. The borderline C players like Cepeda tend to grade out around 1.5.
Chuck Klein (1.2) A straight D grade (1.0) represents a 50 percent chance of making the Hall of Fame. Klein graded just above that on this run through the Test, meaning he should have been more likely than not to make the list.
Willie McCovey (2.4) The B level may be the most difficult to define, because B players are known more for what they are not than what they are. The A, B and D grades all have specific identifying characteristics. A players are the best of the best. C players are the borderline BBWAA choices. D players are the starts of the old timer committees. B players are loosely defined as “too good to be C’s but not good enough to be A’s.”
Willie McGee (0.3) A player who earns a D grade on a single question – a 0.1 GPA – is theoretically a viable Hall of Fame candidate. McGee’s 0.3 sounds terrible, but it puts McGee among the top 400 or so position players in the game’s history.