The Hall of Fame Isn’t Worth Our Time

We love debating which baseball players deserve to be designated as the “best of all time.” In the last year alone, I personally have written about Larry Walker‘s case to be regarded as one of them, as well as Andruw Jones’s. Over at The Hardball Times, we publish a piece that explores this notion seemingly every month, sometimes more. Two years ago, we devoted a whole week to the matter. In almost every case, these debates revolve around a player’s credentials for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. But now, more than ever, the institution is unworthy of that authority.

I’m not suggesting everyone should cease attempting to identify baseball’s top players or most influential figures. History is important. I just don’t think that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum should be the focus of this attention or serve as the arbiter of these decisions. One thing that struck me repeatedly while reading Jay Jaffe’s book, The Cooperstown Casebook, earlier this year is just how relentlessly the Hall of Fame has failed at the task of electing the best players to its institution.

Surely one can blame the writers for overlooking certain deserving candidates through the years. Other cases are entirely the responsibility of the Hall itself, though. Former union head Marvin Miller, for example, appears to have been excluded from the Hall of Fame based on little more than a petty grudge held by baseball’s ruling class. The Hall couldn’t even put Lou Whitaker on this year’s Modern Era ballot. Dozens of unworthy players, meanwhile, have been greased through via the Veteran’s Committee. And recently, the hand of the Hall seems to have gotten heavier than usual. Joe Morgan’s plea to voters last week to rethink their stances on steroid-era players was reportedly sent from the Hall of Fame itself.

Lou Whitaker grades out as an above-average Hall of Fame second baseman, according to JAWS.
(Photo: Aaron Caldwell)

When it comes to immersing oneself in memorabilia and nostalgia, it will be hard to ever do better than the pilgrimage to Cooperstown. Major League Baseball makes sure that the Hall has first and nearly exclusive access to the best artifacts from the game today. We recently ran a piece at THT that detailed, among other things, how a group of youngsters (and their parents/guardians) got to swing a Giancarlo Stanton bat. Since the Marlins have only a bobblehead museum, the Hall is probably the only place you’ll ever get to do that.

Moments like that can be deeply satisfying, and they’re certainly a pleasure of the fan experience. But they only make up a part of that experience. And the Hall isn’t the only game in town when it comes to museums, either. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City receives lots of praise, and there are other local, team-based or regional museums that explore the game’s history, including the National Pastime Museum, which is an online museum. Organizations like the Society for American Baseball Research, the Baseball Reliquary, and the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project are also notable for their appreciation of and devotion to baseball history.

To be sure, ground zero for baseball history is the Hall’s Plaque Room in Cooperstown, but the reason it’s regarded as such is because people trust that it houses the best players in history. And that’s not currently what the Plaque Room provides.

In the past, I’ve gotten worked up about this. I’ve bemoaned the ballot logjam plenty, and when I had the chance to vote on the proposal to make the Hall of Fame ballots transparent at last year’s BBWAA meeting at the Winter Meetings, I enthusiastically voted to make them so. But the truth is that I’m tired of the Hall. Between the Morgan letter and the Hall’s refusal to accede to the BBWAA’s vote to make all ballots public, the Hall has shown that it’s unwilling to change with the times.

Luckily, there are other tools at our disposal with which to measure greatness. Adam Darowski’s Hall of Stats is one such tool. It looks at things objectively:

There are 220 players in the Hall of Fame based on their MLB careers. According to the Hall of Stats, Blyleven ranks #34 among eligible players. He should have breezed into the Hall, but instead it took fourteen tries. Curt Schilling ranks #48. Jeff Bagwell ranks #55. Kenny Lofton—who received less than 5% of the vote—ranks #96. There’s no reason to keep these players out of the Hall of Fame… if you look at things objectively.

That’s what the Hall of Stats does. It ignores anything that happened off the field. The Hall of Stats takes the current number of players in Cooperstown (220), kicks everybody out, and re-populates itself with the top 220 players according to Hall Rating. What you get is an objective Hall free of politics, grandstanding, and double jeopardy.

Darowski’s project isn’t comprehensive, of course. It doesn’t account for the contributions of Negro Leagues players, executives, managers, or umpires. But there are reliable and objective means for judging the best ballplayers of all time, and the Hall of Stats does a better job on that front than the Hall of Fame does. So do Jaffe’s JAWS metric and Craig Edwards’ HoF Rating. Before them, Bill James created four metrics to evaluate Hall of Fame worthiness: Black Ink, Gray Ink, Hall of Fame Monitor and Hall of Fame Career Standards Test. All have merit, and given that all of these metrics are organized coherently and are not subject to continuous logical fallacies and cronyism, all have more merit than does the current Hall’s member list.

One thing that the Hall of Fame also doesn’t do is separate out the best and worst Hall of Famers. There’s nothing wrong with admitting that Willie Mays was better than Rabbit Maranville, but it’s not a distinction the Hall is willing to make. But others have tried, and it’s an exercise that should be conducted frequently. One of my favorite Bill Simmons projects is his attempt periodically to assess how far into the inner circle current athletes have reached or will reach.

The combination both of MLB’s seal of approval and its long history as an institution give the Hall a certain gravity. Moreover, the lack of consensus on an alternative method of deciding baseball’s best will make it tough to ever fully displace the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. But that doesn’t mean it still deserves our attention. The Hall has compounded its many, many past mistakes by trying to whitewash recent history and continuing to allow voters to escape accountability for their votes. These tired tactics never seem to go out of style. While we don’t have the luxury of ignoring them in all arenas, we can when it comes to baseball history. We have the tools at our disposal to objectively determine who the best baseball players of all time. We don’t need the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum for that. They’ve never really been up to the task, and their actions have proven that they’re not interested in being up to the task in the future.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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4 years ago

The HOF doesn’t want Bonds, Clemens, et al. to be elected, but they know they’d be crucified if they changed the rules and removed these players from the ballot, so instead they try to persuade the writers to do their dirty work. Pathetic.

4 years ago

Really. Why don’t they just change the friggin’ rules? The voters were asking for clarification for years, letting everyone yell at each other instead. Lots of writers have said that they would change how they voted if they got explicit instructions. A letter like with formal letterhead is a set of vague instructions. What are voters supposed to do with that?

4 years ago

MLB and the HOF absolutely do want those legends enshrined- that is why 100% of their media partners are pushing the pro-PED enshrinement narrative all of the time.

Some very few old timers like Joe Morgan are objecting, but with very limited impact- and the bashing that he is taking across the major sports media will discourage others.

4 years ago
Reply to  ThomServo

I wonder if what may wind up happening is writers that were on the fence may look at the Morgan statement- and do 100% opposite of what Morgan wants them to do.

4 years ago
Reply to  stever20

IMO, of course they will- Morgan is a poster child for regressive, out dated, old timer nonsense. That is likely the whole point of having him write the letter.

4 years ago
Reply to  ThomServo

Your contention is inconsistent with action and fact.

Joe Morgan didn’t write that letter, the HOF did, then asked if he agreed and was willing to sign it. Morgan didn’t mind PED use, as long as they were used like they were during his career instead of after he retired.

4 years ago
Reply to  paperlions

Nothing I wrote is contrary to fact.

The coordinated PR campaign against Morgan’s letter is pronounced- simply do a google news search, I’ve literally found zero articles in support of Morgan’s letter. Whether the HOF asked him to represent the anti-PED argument or not is immaterial- besides Dusty Baker, Morgan is baseball figure most commonly dismissed publicly as regressive. He is a perfect figure to stand as the straw man advocate of a position set to fail.

If the HOF wants to keep the caught users out, they can- just as they kept Rose and Jackson out, supposed ‘backlash’ notwithstanding.

4 years ago
Reply to  paperlions

I didn’t know that the HOF had actually written the article. When it was publicly released/announced on the 2 major baseball networks, even among local tv it was pinned as a Joe Morgan written letter. That they passed it off as such, that the letter from the HOF, asked the HOF do not allow these players in. That was incredibly cringe-worthy.