(Editor’s note: In a past life, the author of this piece primarily covered baseball and now is a lifetime member of the Baseball Writers Association of America, which votes every December on the baseball Hall of Fame. This piece, which originally appeared in another publication, discusses a few of the issues involved in voting on this year’s candidates.)
Points: A Sports Column
By BILL PETERSON
Editor at Large
In more than one interview, Pete Rose noted that he doesn’t understand why anyone who’s in the baseball Hall of Fame isn’t a first-ballot Hall of Famer. After all, Rose said, it’s not as if the player became better in his second, fifth or tenth year of eligibility.
Rose is right, as far as that goes, but he doesn’t go far enough to understand that the Hall of Fame selection isn’t about baseball so much as it’s about fame. The players already having made their cases long ago in baseball terms, the voters now have to decide about the fame part, which becomes a tangled process of memorization, second thoughts, new windows of statistical comparison and a continuing struggle to clarify just exactly what the Hall of Fame is supposed to represent.
In retrospect, it’s peculiar that baseball decided to call its shrine a “Hall of Fame,” and that the other sports should follow suit, because it was just about when the baseball Hall of Fame inducted its first class in 1936 that the requirements for fame were changing. As fame is increasingly attached to spectacle and detached from achievement, one wonders when fame’s deceptive mechanisms begin hiding true merit.
In previous centuries, people were famous for leading states, well and badly, or for superior feats staking new frontiers for humanity. By the 1930s, moving pictures and recorded sound ushered in a new mass culture through which fame consisted in the proliferation of one’s image. No longer resting on accomplishment, fame was democratized to mediated personalities.
But it proved difficult to mediate Jim Rice, the Boston Red Sox slugger who is on the ballot for the 15th and final time this year. During a 16-year career, Rice batted .298 with 382 homers. He also played about 25 percent of his games as a designated hitter. Rice didn’t smile for the camera, suck up to sports anchors or expand his audience by going into music or movies. Rice wasn’t known for his pleasing exterior in the presence of fans or the media. He didn’t always dismiss tough questions with toothy sound bite babble, and interviews with him could rapidly turn contentious.
Rice made himself easy enough to forget once he retired, so here we sit, 20 years after his last at-bat, still trying to decide if he’s a Hall of Famer. Obviously, Rice is a borderline case. The arguments for and against him are all forceful and it’s really coming down to a gut call for the voters. And that’s exactly where Rice belongs, more clearly than any other player to come along in many years. If he’s a Hall of Famer, he’s barely a Hall of Famer, and if he’s not a Hall of Famer, he’s barely not a Hall of Famer. In neither case is the outcome an outrage.
Rice missed the Hall by just 16 votes last year, showing up on 392 of 543 ballots cast (72.2 percent). If Rice were just a little more telegenic, making himself available for sunny interviews or honest opinions without ruffling anyone too much, he’d be in the Hall of Fame today. He would have established his credentials for fame. Instead, we’re trying to go back in time, back through 25 or 30 years of life and noise, trying to remember Jim Rice as objectively as possible.
The memory makes a fine case for Rice. The memory reveals that during the late 1970s, Rice was the one right-handed hitter in the American League who was most likely to tear a game apart. To illustrate, rather than argue, Rice is the only player in history with three straight seasons of 35 homers and 200 hits (1977-79).
A vote on Rice, like no other player, becomes a vote on what makes a Hall of Famer. Is a Hall of Famer the best in his league at his position for some lively period of time, like seven to ten years? If so, then Rice has to be in there. Is the Hall of Fame for only the greatest of the great, measured against the broad sweep of history? If so, then Rice can’t be in there.
The Jim Rice issue very closely mirrors the matter of Jack Morris, who is on the ballot for the tenth time. During the 1980s, if you were to ask baseball people and very close observers who they would pick to pitch the seventh game of the World Series, whose name was mentioned most often? Hint: It wasn’t Don Sutton, who is in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t Nolan Ryan, who is in the Hall of Fame. It wasn’t Phil Neikro, who is in the Hall of Fame.
It was Jack Morris. Yet, here’s Morris, still on the ballot, and it’s tough to vote for him. Morris never won the Cy Young Award, though he finished in the top five five times. He took the ball, finished the game, pitched tough in the clutch and really anchored three World Champions in Detroit (1984), Minnesota (1991) and Toronto (1992).
But at the end of all that, his numbers don’t read like Cooperstown material. That 3.90 career ERA with 254 wins don’t add up to induction, even though one plainly remembers that Morris was as esteemed as any other pitcher, if not moreso, for a good many seasons.
The new ballot arrived full of 1980s players like that, names that have been on the ballot for years, All-Stars and game breakers who memory brings right to the edge of Cooperstown, only for the number crunching to send them back home. The lack of clear criteria might be shown by looking at Ricky Henderson, who will certainly make the Hall on his first try this year, and his National League contemporary and counterpart, Tim Raines, who is on the ballot for the second time and probably will never make it.
Bill James once said you could cut Ricky Henderson in two and have two Hall of Famers. Henderson played baseball much better than the personality game, but, unlike Rice, at least he humored the gossips, which availed us of his extravagant demands and proclivity for talking about himself in the third person. He made for funny stories because he was a baseball player through and through, declining college football offers to go with Oakland as a fourth-round draft pick, making the big leagues at age 20 and sticking for 25 years. To this day, he hasn’t announced his retirement.
Henderson is in the books with 1,406 stolen bases, the most all time, including the single season mark of 130 with Oakland in 1982. Playing his best years in the American League, Henderson’s speed made the greatest possible impact.
In the National League, where clubs more routinely defensed the running game, Henderson might not have surpassed Raines, who was close to equal in the 1980s without distinguishing himself so much because base stealing was a way of life in the NL. Raines was the NL version of Henderson, except he tailed off more and more quickly, finishing his career with 808 steals, which is merely fifth on the all-time list.
Raines, who played his best years for Montreal, captured only 132 votes (24.3 percent) last year. While Henderson gives his induction speech on the steps of Cooperstown next August, all will have forgotten that Raines was right there with him during the meat of their careers.
Fame, it turns out, is fleeting, though Henderson doesn’t even need it. But it sure would help players like Rice, Morris and Raines. Rice might sneak in this time on a wave of reconsiderations, but it’s likely that Morris and Raines will go down as greats of the 1980s who won’t count as all-time greats. They just aren’t famous enough.Email | Print