The Hall of Fame’s Class of 2020 Nears the End of a Long Road to Cooperstown

The Class of 2020 has had a long wait for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and not just because the coronavirus pandemic set the festivities back nearly 14 months. While Derek Jeter was resoundingly elected in his first year of eligibility, the road to Cooperstown for the other three honorees — Ted Simmons, Larry Walker, and the late Marvin Miller — was more like a maze, full of wrong turns and apparent dead ends. That road finally ends on the afternoon of Wednesday, September 8, when all four will be inducted into the Hall. As somebody who has been deeply invested in the careers and candidacies of all four, I couldn’t bypass the midweek trip, even under pandemic conditions.

“There was never any thought in my head that [my election] was going to happen. So to be completely honest, I didn’t pay much attention,” said Walker during a Zoom session with reporters last Thursday, referring to the annual BBWAA voting. During his first seven years of eligibility, he maxed out at 22.9% of the vote (2012), and dipped as low as 10.2% (2014).

Even those meager showings surpassed Simmons, who received just 3.7% in 1994, his first year of eligibility. “Back then, you were literally off the ballot. And you know, there was really no vehicle at that time that I knew of or heard of that would enable you to come back,” he said during his own Zoom session, referring to the so-called “Five Percent Rule” that sweeps candidates who fail to reach that mark off the ballot.

Simmons could be forgiven for not knowing the ins and outs of the Hall’s arcane election systems. That he even made it onto an Era Committee ballot to have his candidacy reconsidered for the first time in 2011 was itself groundbreaking. As longtime St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Rick Hummel, who has served on several iterations of the Historical Overview Committee that puts together such ballots, said in 2015, “The first question these Hall of Famers ask you is, ‘How many ballots was he on for the writers’ election? One? They must not have liked him very much.’”

Simmons fell short on both the 2011 and ’14 Expansion Era Committee ballots, and then on the ’18 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot — missing by one vote in the last of those years — before being elected via that same body two years later. In doing so, he became the first “one-and-done” candidate to gain entry via either the Veterans Committee or the Era Committees.

Miller, alas, passed away in 2012 at the age of 95, having grown so frustrated with the election process that in ’08, after having been rejected for the third time by an iteration of the Veterans Committee, he took the unprecedented step of asking voters not to place him him on future ballots. Nonetheless, his candidacy was considered twice more during his lifetime — he missed by a single vote on the 2011 Expansion Era Committee ballot — and three times posthumously, the last of those on the same ballot as Simmons.

“Marvin’s a little bit like me, in that it took forever for each of us to get in there,” said Simmons, who in 1972 became a potential challenger to the Reserve Clause on the advice of Miller, who from ’66 to ’82 was the executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. After a big 1971 season, Simmons played most of the year without signing the contract that the Cardinals had unilaterally renewed, only agreeing to terms once the team caved in and gave him a significant raise via a two-year contract. “Marvin was the Players Association… an incredible, incredible man. And there’s no question that going in with him, in this class, is very, very, very special.”

While the pandemic conditions initially led the Hall of Fame to postpone last year’s Induction Weekend and to plan for a made-for-television July 25 event that would not be open to the public, in June the institution reversed course. The ceremony will now be held on the lawn of the Clark Sports Center, the site of all inductions since 1992, at 1:30 PM ET on Wednesday afternoon, and will be televised by MLB Network and streamed via MLB.com.

Against the backdrop of a pandemic that has claimed nearly 650,000 lives in the United States alone, and the possibility of gathering over 50,000 spectators together for a ceremony — and potential superspreader event — before vaccines became available, none of the living honorees voiced any complaint about the extra delay.

“There were so many things going on in the world for the first year, so I really didn’t think about it much early on,” said Jeter in his Zoom session. “I was getting excited for it and then it was canceled and then your mind goes in other places. So I am looking forward to getting up there next week. It’s been a long time coming.”

A 14-time All-Star who racked up 3,465 hits (sixth on the all-time list) and played a pivotal role on seven pennant winners and five World Series winners with the Yankees, Jeter was an obvious lock for first-ballot election. The real suspense came down to whether he would join teammate Mariano Rivera as just the second unanimous selection in BBWAA history. He missed by a single vote, settling for a 99.7% share, the second-highest in history.

“The wait has been good and bad: bad in that you’ve had to wait an extra year for this thing to kind of come to a head, but good in that it’s extended an additional year,” said Simmons, referring to the canceled 2020 induction. “It’s been a real pleasure to have walked in and been able to stay twice as long ‘in the room.'”

“I waited 10 years. What’s one more? Piece of cake right now,” said Walker.

Walker was a seven-time All-Star and five-time Gold Glove winner who came from humble origins in a baseball sense, having barely played the game while growing up in Maple Ridge, British Columbia, where hockey was his first love (Hockey Hall of Famer Cam Neely was a friend) and where he played 10 to 15 baseball games a year. Undrafted by a major league club out of high school, he caught the eye of Expos scouting director Jim Fanning while playing for the Canadian team at the 1984 World Youth Championships in Saskatchewan. His impressive home run with a wooden bat stood out among so many aluminum-swinging players.

The Expos signed Walker for a $1,500 bonus, paltry but not out of line given his rawness. He had never seen a forkball, a slider, or a good curveball, and would swing at anything, even pitches that bounced 10 feet in front of the plate. So incomplete was his grasp of the rules that while playing for the Expos’ Utica affiliate in 1985, he once cut across the diamond from third to first after a hit-and-run resulted in a fly out.

Despite being a latecomer to baseball, Walker parlayed his outstanding athleticism, freakish hand-eye coordination, mental toughness, and receptiveness to instruction into major league stardom. Even so, he suffered from the stigma of having put together the best seasons of his 17-year major league career while playing for the Rockies, against a mile-high backdrop that inflated his offensive stats at the height of an already hitter-friendly era. All three of his batting titles as well as his 1997 NL MVP award came during his 1995-2004 run in Colorado.

Walker received 20.3% of the vote in 2011, his first year on the ballot, remained in the low 20s for the next two years, then sank to 10.2% in ’14, getting lost on a ballot overcrowded by exceptionally accomplished players, many of them linked to performance-enhancing drugs. His chances were dealt a further blow later that year, when the Hall of Fame board of directors voted to truncate candidates’ eligibility windows from 15 years to 10 due to the prospect of an extra half-decade of rancorous public debate over the merits and misdeeds of Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and others.

“The first few years, I know my percentages were going to be between five and maybe 22,” said Walker. “But then the last few years, [the voting] grabbed my attention pretty good, and I actually had fun with it… It was fun to follow along and see how the votes were going up. The last three years, I believe I set a record, from being here [gestures with one hand, and then raises it] and then making it to the 75%.”

Indeed, Walker made the largest three-year jump of any candidate in modern (post-1966) voting history, vaulting 54.7 percentage points from 21.9% in 2017 to 76.6% in ’20. His 42.7-point two-year gain was the second-largest of any candidate, and likewise for the 22-point gain that carried him over the 75% threshold.

Walker cleared the bar by six votes while becoming the third candidate in four years to gain entry on his 10th and final ballot, after Tim Raines (2017) and Edgar Martinez (2019). In doing so, he became the first Canadian-born position player ever elected (pitcher Fergie Jenkins was the first Canadian overall) and the first Rockies player elected. Both are points of pride. “The Canadian thing’s obviously a big thrill, to be able to join Fergie and be one of two that have made it from north of the border,” said Walker, who pointed to the resurgent Joey Votto as likely to join the pair someday.

“To be the first Rockie, that is awesome. And I hope it opens the door for other other ones. I know that’s been a big talk with the inflated stats that Coors Field presented… My only time being a free agent, I chose Colorado and now I get to put that ‘CR’ on my cap on a plaque on the wall to represent that organization. So it’s a proud moment for me and the fans and management of the Rockies.”

Like Raines and Martinez, both of whom had slow-starting candidacies as well — the former debuted with 24.3% in 2008, then dipped to 22.6%, while the latter hit a low of 25.2% in 2014 just before his eligibility was shortened — Walker benefited from the growing influence of advanced statistics on the BBWAA electorate. Lacking the major round-numbered milestones like 3,000 hits or 500 home runs, those players benefited from the use of OPS+, which helped to account for the offense-friendly era in which they played, and WAR, which helped voters understand the value of their defense and their baserunning, as well as accounting for their varying offensive environments.

With the air let out of Walker’s Coors-inflated statistics, voters could see that his career 141 OPS+ ranked among the best of all time; the mark was tied for 35th among players with 7,000 plate appearances circa 2014, while today it’s tied with David Ortiz and Hall of Famers Chipper Jones and Slidin’ Billy Hamilton for 44th. His defense was estimated to be worth 94 runs above the average right fielder, good for ninth all-time, while his baserunning and double play avoidance added another 50 runs to his value. He ranks 11th among right fielders in my JAWS metric, which uses career and peak WAR (the Baseball Reference versions), having slipped from 10th only with the recent addition of play-by-play data that helped nose Paul Waner past him by a few whiskers.

The cerebral and iconoclastic Simmons, who came of age during the 1968 Detroit riots, denounced the Vietnam War, and wore his hair long early his career, similarly benefited from a retrospective reexamination. Not that he should have needed it, given that he made eight All-Star teams and collected 2,472 hits, with 248 homers and a 118 OPS+. At the time he retired, Simmons’ hit total was the highest of any player who spent his career at catcher (he was surpassed by Ivan Rodriguez in 2007), and more than all but three other switch-hitters at any position (he’s now 11th).

Both during and after his career, Simmons suffered somewhat by comparison to three contemporary catchers who made the Hall, namely Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, and Carlton Fisk. Unlike Bench and Carter, he never played for a World Series winner; he didn’t even reach the postseason with the Cardinals, with whom he spent his first 13 seasons (1968-80), though he did so in back-to-back years after being dealt to the Brewers. Unlike any of those three catchers, he never won a Gold Glove.

The perception that Simmons was not a good defender led to that trade in December 1980. Whitey Herzog, who took over as manager for the fired Ken Boyer in mid-1980, and soon took on general manager duties, viewed Simmons as a defensive liability due to his throwing; he generally caught opposing base stealers at a league-average rate, but the volume of their successes was nonetheless high. Herzog initially mulled moving Simmons to first base and 1979 co-MVP Keith Hernandez to left, a nonsensical tradeoff given the latter’s elite defense. Ultimately, he signed Darrell Porter, who had caught for him in Kansas City and who was better at controlling the running game, and dealt Simmons to Milwaukee as part of a seven-player blockbuster that also included 1981 and ’82 AL Cy Young winners Rollie Fingers (also the 1981 AL MVP) and Pete Vuckovich.

WAR’s estimates of catcher defense are not all-encompassing — there was no pitch-framing data at the time — but what we do have based on Simmons’ throwing and blocking suggests that the defensive cost to his work behind the plate was relatively minimal (eight runs below average for his career) and far outweighed by having an exceptional hitter for the position. Simmons ranked fifth in the NL with a 141 OPS+ in his much-maligned 1980 season while placing sixth in both on-base percentage (.375) and slugging percentage (.505). Overall, even with unsightly detours to the infield corners after he could no longer catch every day, he ranks 11th in JAWS at the position, with Joe Mauer having nosed him out of the top 10 circa 2014.

As fate would have it, Herzog, who was elected to the Hall in 2010, served on the ’11 and ’14 Expansion Era Committees that considered Simmons. Asked on Thursday by this scribe if he thought his previous clashes with Herzog affected his election prospects, Simmons refused to dwell or to incite any controversy. “It’s not a discussion I can win, or elaborate in a way that people will accept. I have known Whitey for however many years now. I respect him, he respects me… We both knew and understood what happened at that time [1980] and both he and I would do exactly what each of us did. If it were happening today, we would do it again.”

Upon being elected in December 2019, Simmons expressed gratitude that modern metrics had reinvigorated his candidacy:

I’ve said it for a while. It was really the metrics people who revived my candidacy. The comparisons that come from the statistics in general is what makes this game part of what it is, so exciting to so many people. The controversies and the discussions just abound, especially around the numbers.

…Now there have been a lot of people who had a lot to do with this, but the Sabre Metrics [sic] people brought me back to life.

Those words warmed my heart at the time, and they still do. I devoted 10 pages of my 2017 book, The Coopertstown Casebook, to Simmons’ career and case, and revisited that profile for the 2018 and ’20 ballots. I can’t say my coverage directly influenced Simmons’ election to the Hall, but it certainly couldn’t have hurt his cause. Similarly, I devoted eight pages to Walker’s career and case in the book, and evaluated his candidacy annually at Baseball Prospectus, SI.com and FanGraphs. Simmons and Walker are now the sixth and seventh of the 14 players featured at length in the Casebook to gain entry, after Raines, Alan Trammell (2018), Martinez, Mike Mussina (2019), and Rivera (2019). I’m optimistic that more — Andruw Jones via the writers, Dick Allen, Minnie Miñoso, and Lou Whitaker via the Era Committees — will soon follow.

Simmons and Walker will soon have their plaques hanging in the growing section of the Hall’s Plaque Gallery that I think of as “my guys,” the ones whose electoral causes I was able to aid over the course of the past 20 (!) election cycles, going back to Bert Blyleven (2011) and Ron Santo (2012). They’re interspersed with the more obvious honorees from that stretch, of course, and some of them certainly would have made it without my help. Rivera and Jeter are “my guys” in a different way, links to the period when I was still just a fan; as members of the powerhouse 1998 Yankees, they helped provide the spark that sent me down my own road to writing about baseball for a living.

Even Miller fits into that puzzle. As executive director of the MLBPA, he revolutionized the game, overseeing its biggest change since integration via the dismantling of the reserve clause and the dawn of free agency, thus shifting a century-old balance of power from the owners to the players. Miller helped the union secure a whole host of other important rights as well, from collective bargaining and salary arbitration to the use of agents in negotiations, to the freedom of players to choose which teams they played for by selling their services to the highest bidder. During Miller’s tenure, the average salary of a major league player rose from $19,000 to over $240,000, and the MLBPA became the strongest labor union in the country.

I began following baseball in the late 1970s, just as my favorite team, the Dodgers, lost back-to-back World Series to the Yankees in 1977 and ’78 thanks in part to the contributions of Reggie Jackson, one of the first major beneficiaries of free agency. Almost as quickly as I could learn the lineups, I saw waves of star players changing teams — the Dodgers’ Tommy John, the Reds’ Pete Rose and Joe Morgan, the Angels’ Nolan Ryan, and so on. My understanding of free agency was enhanced by my reading of Ball Four, Jim Bouton’s diary of the 1969 season, which among other things offered an inside look at the injustices of the Reserve Clause and the early efforts of Miller to reshape the game. While I can’t claim to have had a full grasp of the issues at hand, the 1981 players’ strike didn’t look to me like greedy, ungrateful players depriving us of baseball, it looked like players standing up for themselves, with Miller as their leader.

I even interviewed Miller in 2008, shortly after his open letter to the Historical Overview Committee. “The anti-union bias of the powers who control the Hall has consistently prevented recognition of the historic significance of the changes to baseball brought about by collective bargaining,” he wrote while both thanking the committee for nominating him and requesting that they not do so again. Like any good labor leader, he knew how to count votes before an election was held, and in looking over panels stacked with legacy executives connected to the Reserve Clause era, participants in the game’s mid-1980s collusion scandal, and hardliners regarding the labor issues surrounding the ’94 strike, he knew when he didn’t have them. When we spoke, the two of us had a good laugh over his invocation of the words of both General William Tecumseh Sherman (“I don’t want to be president. If I’m nominated I will not campaign for the presidency. If despite that I’m elected, I will not serve.”) and Groucho Marx (“I don’t want to be part of any organization that would have me as a member.) “Between a great comedian and a great general, you have my sentiments,” he told me before signing off.

For as embittered as Miller may have been at the Hall, he was let down by the players whom he enriched as well. For the 2003 Veterans Committee vote, the electorate was largely composed of living Hall of Famers, but players such as Jackson and Mike Schmidt, who at various points received record-setting contracts due to the leverage created by free agency, both sent in blank ballots. For the 2007 vote, in addition to the aforementioned labor foes, none of the three ex-players on the committee played a single inning in the post-Reserve Clause era. By contrast, when Miller was finally elected, five of the six players on the Modern Baseball Era Committee had benefited from free agency.

Like many within the industry, I struggled to reconcile Miller’s wish with the desires of so many players, labor leaders, and media members to honor him. Ultimately, I came down on the side of the latter. The Hall of Fame is a museum that tells the story of baseball, and one can’t credibly tell that story without Miller, who revolutionized the game and its business practices. With his induction, both his accomplishments and the stain of the institution’s failure to honor him during his lifetime will be part of that story. His plaque will be the same size as all the others, but its presence will stand as a towering middle finger aimed at the small men who conspired against him during his lifetime and after, and who colluded against the players in efforts to break the union.

So yes, I count Miller as one of my guys, too.

I don’t begrudge those who feel as though the Hall can’t ever right this particular wrong, but hey, take a number — the institution and its voters have messed up countless times in their untimely conferrals of baseball immortality upon decidedly mortal humans. Miller’s children pledged not to participate in the induction festivities in the event he was elected posthumously, and so far as anyone knows, they’re sticking to that pledge. Donald Fehr, Miller’s successor as the executive director of the MLBPA, will speak on his behalf.

While it won’t be the epic speech Miller would have given, I don’t expect anodyne platitudes from Fehr. And after sitting through their respective Zoom sessions, I can’t wait to hear more from Simmons, Walker (who fretted that he was giving away too many tidbits), and even Jeter. Each traveled a different road to Cooperstown, and on Induction Day, it will be a genuine joy to hear their stories.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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hombremomento
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hombremomento

It’s kinda crazy how Larry Walker went from a Cerrano-esque “Bat afraid of non straight ball” as a young player to “I am going to rock a .400 career on-base percentage”

hombremomento
Member
hombremomento

Like obviously this is developmental, but considering he was a lifetime hockey player it sticks out to me

dl80
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Member
dl80

Even more impressive, to me, is the he cut his strikeout rate from 23% in his first year to 13% 4 years later, even before Coors.

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

“sticks” out to me

hockey

I see what you did there.

hombremomento
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hombremomento

Not intentional lol

Cave Dameron
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Cave Dameron

Thank you hombremomento, very cool!

John Church
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Member
John Church

Tons of credit to Walker, of course, but also a hat tip to the development team the Expos had in place back then. Walker, Vladdy, Rondell White, Delino DeShields, Marquis Grissom, Jose Vidro a little later; they took talented athletes and molded them into ballplayers for years.