Upcoming Early Baseball Era Committee Ballot Will Give Negro Leagues Candidates Another Shot at Hall of Fame

For the first time since 2006, candidates from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black baseball are being considered for placement on a Hall of Fame ballot. While the 10-candidate slate to be voted upon later this year by the Early Baseball Era Committee has not yet been finalized, those who were previously shut out by baseball’s shameful color line, and then again by the Hall of Fame following the election of 17 players, managers, and executives by the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues in 2006, are eligible once again.

In a statement to FanGraphs, Jon Shestakofsky, the Hall’s vice president of communications and education, said, “The Hall of Fame’s Early Baseball Committee, which is scheduled to meet for the first time this December, will consider 10 candidates comprised of players, umpires, managers and executives/pioneers who made their greatest impacts in baseball prior to 1950. Negro Leagues candidates will be eligible for consideration as part of this ballot.” Shestakofsky later clarified that the eligibility applies to pre-Negro Leagues Black baseball candidates as well.

At a time when Major League Baseball is in the midst of a long-overdue reckoning with regards to Negro Leagues history, branding and symbolism, and the representation of Black Americans at all levels within the sport, this is good news. It comes a year after the Negro Leagues Centennial Celebration, which has helped to introduce new generations of fans and media members to some often-overlooked greats, an effort that has met with such success that Shohei Ohtani is drawing comparisons not just to Babe Ruth but to Bullet Rogan and Martín Dihigo. It stands to reason that the renewed spotlight on Black baseball would extend to Cooperstown.

The devil is in the details, however. The Hall of Fame’s general opacity when it comes to its committee deliberations might provoke some anxiety regarding how this process could play out. Will the institution meet the moment? Will the voters get it right? And what would that even look like?

Some background is in order, obviously. The Early Baseball Era Committee is the successor to the euphemistically named Pre-Integration Committee, which only considered candidates whose primary contributions to the game came before 1946 — and only white candidates, at that. That committee was one of three spinoffs of the old Veterans Committee that voted on a triennial basis for inductions from 2011-16. On its 2013 ballot, the Pre-Integration Committee elected umpire Hank O’Day, owner Jacob Ruppert, and third baseman Deacon White, but three years later it came up empty. In the wake of that 2016 shutout, when only one candidate (pioneer Doc Adams) received more than 50% of the vote, this scribe asked Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson why Negro Leagues candidates had not been considered for inclusion on that ballot or the one three years earlier. Said Idelson, “When we had our last Negro Leagues election in 2006, it was a special election which resulted in 16 [actually 17] members from the Negro Leagues community being elected. At that time, we indicated that the books were closed on the Negro Leagues pending more information that came forth from the research community… [Their candidacy] is something that we addressed 10 years ago, so it’s not unusual that they’re not part of this slate.”

The answer wasn’t particularly satisfying for anyone. Whether it was the heightened scrutiny of the Hall’s curious decision to focus on its segregated era — Joe Posnanski’s column alone was caustic enough to strip paint off the museum’s walls — or the mere fact that two times through the triennial cycle, voters had failed to elect a single living ex-player from among its eight honorees and had produced back-to-back shutouts, the Hall announced another restructuring of the process six months later. Under the new format, which is still in place, candidates whose biggest impact dates to the period before 1950 are now considered by the Early Baseball Era Committee, and instead of being voted upon once every three years, they’re limited to consideration once every 10 years. Meanwhile, the Golden Days Era Committee votes once every five years on candidates who made their biggest mark during the 1950-69 period, while the Modern Baseball and Today’s Game Era Committees each vote four times within a 10-year cycle, with the former covering candidates who made their biggest marks from 1970-87 and the latter those who did so from 1988 onward.

The first Early Baseball and Golden Days ballots under this new format were scheduled to be voted upon at last December’s Winter Meetings, but due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Hall announced last August that both votes would be postponed for a year (the Winter Meetings were held virtually). There was plenty of reason to be concerned about the impact of waiting a year when it came to the presumptive Golden Days candidates who had come so close on the Golden Era ballot in 2015 — Dick Allen was 78 years old, Jim Kaat 81, Tony Oliva 82, and Maury Wills 87 — and those concerns were realized when Allen, who had fallen one vote short on that ballot and figured to have the best shot at election, died on December 7, one day after that slate was scheduled to be considered.

Publicly, no one gave much thought to the consequences for the Early Baseball ballot, mainly because all of its plausible candidates are long deceased. Beyond a stray mention or two of Buck O’Neil, the most high-profile Negro Leagues candidate to fall short on the 2006 slate, there was little discussion as to who might be on the ballot.

Since then, much has changed. Last December, Major League Baseball announced its decision to officially recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and ’48 as major leagues, making the statistics and accomplishments of some 3,400 players part of the major league record. In June, Baseball Reference, which lacks the “official” imprimatur of MLB but goes far beyond the league and its official statistician, the Elias Sports Bureau, in presenting data to the public, launched its expanded coverage of the Negro Leagues and historical Black major league players, a monumental effort incorporating data previously available only via the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database.

For as ham-fisted as MLB proclaiming to “officially elevate” the Negro Leagues may have been, the designation puts those leagues on equal footing with the National League, American League and several bygone whites-only leagues — the American Association, Players League, Union League, and Federal League if not the National Association — from which Hall of Fame candidates are generally drawn. That should bulldoze any remaining barriers when it comes to considering such candidates for the Early Baseball ballot and Shestakofsky’s note suggests that will indeed be the case.

To some portion of the general, baseball-interested public, that might feel sufficient, particularly if it brings closure with the nomination and election of O’Neil, who died less than a year after falling short in 2006. Problem solved, move along, right? It’s not that simple, because it never is. While O’Neil’s career as a Negro Leagues player and manager, and then his post-integration roles as a scout, coach, and ambassador may have made grappling with the totality of his candidacy a challenge within the previously existing framework (his numbers as a player don’t make a strong case), he’s far from the only Hall of Fame candidate on the wish list of Negro Leagues experts.

Here it’s worth remembering that just as Hallheads can quibble over the wisdom of electing certain players and other candidates from the AL, NL, and bygone 19th century leagues — as I’ve done for the past 20 years at multiple websites and within The Cooperstown Casebook — there’s debate and disagreement over Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black baseball candidates as well. That’s particularly true given the sporadic nature of those elections, their shifting formats, and the internal and external politics brought to bear on their choices.

The consideration of those candidates has occurred across four separate phases, which are neatly outlined in Steven R. Greenes’ recent book, Negro Leaguers and the Hall of Fame (McFarland, 2020). From 1971-77, the Committee on Negro League Baseball Leagues — a collection of Negro Leagues players, managers, owners, and sportswriters from the Black press, chaired by Monte Irvin, a great player and a politically astute choice as he was then working under commissioner Bowie Kuhn — elected nine men, one at each position, and never more than two in a single year. For as strong as most of the selections were (Gibson, Satchel Paige, Oscar Charleston, Cool Papa Bell, etc.), the voters did not even have the benefit of statistics to guide them. They were dependent upon eyewitness accounts and word of mouth, and their selections veered towards players from the 1930s and ’40s who were concentrated in eastern leagues, with an emphasis on those still alive so as to create greater publicity for the Hall’s efforts. Irvin and Judy Johnson were also both elected while serving on the committee. That isn’t to say that they weren’t worthy of eventual enshrinement, but the conflict of interest, and the apparent cronyism in play while bypassing stronger candidates, was problematic to say the least.

After that committee declared its work complete and disbanded, from 1978 through ’94 the Veterans Committee considered such candidates in the context of its usual deliberations on long-retired players, managers, umpires, and executives from the AL, NL, and bygone 19th century leagues. While many of the Black baseball candidates were considered multiple times, only two of the 27 honorees from this period hailed from the Negro Leagues. In 1981, Rube Foster, a great pitcher as well as a seminal figure as the founder of the Negro National League, was honored, and in ’87, third baseman Ray Dandridge was chosen. Irvin served on this iteration of the VC from 1983-97, accompanied at times by Roy Campanella, who had been on the previous committee and who served on the VC from 1978 until his death in ’93, and by O’Neil, who served from ’81 to 2001. Still lacking statistical data to support their arguments, and with no sportswriters who covered the Negro Leagues or historians claiming expertise in that area on the committee, those veterans bore the burden of making the cases for such candidates to the greater VC. Judging by their body of work, it was an uphill battle.

At O’Neil’s urging, the Hall changed its process again, implementing what amounted to a quota system on Negro Leagues elections. With Irvin and O’Neill as their guides, the VC chose one honoree annually from 1995 through 2001 from an eight-man ballot separate from those of the AL/NL/19th century candidates.

In February 2001, the Hall of Fame secured a $250,000 grant from Major League Baseball to conduct an 18-month study by the Negro Leagues Researchers and Authors Group, with the goal of securing as much verifiable statistical data as possible for the Negro Leagues for league-sanctioned games from the period from 1920 to ’48. Over 30 researchers compiled more than 3,000 box scores covering over 6,000 players and yielding some 9,500 pages of information, which was compiled into a statistical database that provided the basis of the 2006 Special Committee’s process. For that election, a five-person screening panel winnowed a 94-candidate list to 39 candidates, of which the aforementioned 17 were eventually elected.

Their final choices weren’t without controversy, not only regarding the omission of O’Neil but also the fact that Minnie Miñoso could only have his relatively brief Negro Leagues career (1945-48) considered in this context, and not the accomplishments from his 20-year AL and NL career, which included an 11-year run as one of the game’s elite players. Additional concerns were voiced regarding the absence of certain prominent Negro Leagues researchers from the panel, and about the relative lack of consideration given to pre-1920 candidates, for whom the statistical record was less fleshed out (even so, five pre-Negro Leagues candidates were elected). Some felt that the mass election and induction did the candidates a disservice by obscuring the focus on their individual accomplishments.

Depending upon whom one asks, the remaining Hall-worthy Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues candidates are generally considered to be among the 22 leftovers from the 2006 ballot or the other 55 candidates who didn’t make that ballot’s final cut. For example, in covering Baseball Reference’s launch of its Negro Leagues data, I asked Larry Lester — an award-winning researcher who co-founded the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, was part of the NLRAG and the 2006 Special Committee, and has worked with Seamheads — for his view on which candidates benefit from the data now presented. He offered the names of John Beckwith, Rap Dixon, Dick Lundy, Dick “Cannonball” Redding, Charles “Chino” Smith, and manager Vic Harris. Sean Gibson, the great-grandson of Hall of Fame slugger Josh Gibson and the executive director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, seconded the mention of Dixon and offered up Pittsburgh Crawfords owner Gus Greenlee. From that group, all but Greenlee, Smith, and Harris were among the 39 candidates on the final 2006 ballot, though that trio was among the 94 preliminaries.

Similarly, the Society for American Baseball Research’s Negro League Committee recently conducted a poll to produce a list of the 101 most notable personalities in Black baseball history, in accordance with the 101st anniversary of the founding of the Negro National League. That meant coming up with 64 names beyond the 35 already-enshrined players, managers, and executives, and the two Spink honorees. Of the 258 nominees submitted, 13 non-Hall of Famers were named on at least 75% of the ballots, most of them among those mentioned by Lester:

1. Lundy (100%)
2. Redding and Dixon (91.7%)
4. Oliver Marcelle and Spottswood Poles (83.3%)
6. Beckwith, Smith, Harris, Buck O’Neil, Alejandro Oms (79.2%)
11. Newt Allen, Dobie Moore, and Nip Winters (75.0%)

Again, of those 13, all but Harris and Winters were among the 39 candidates considered by the Special Committee in 2006. Meanwhile, in Greenes’ book, he outlines the cases of all of those candidates and more. Using a framework that combines Seamheads data (which includes WAR, OPS+, and ERA+), previous scholarship, and various opinion polls of Negro Leagues veterans and historians (most notably a 1952 Pittsburgh Courier experts poll), Greenes puts forth the thesis that an objective consensus on the best Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues players exists, and on that basis produces a selection of 24 candidates he believes are worthy of enshrinement, including most of the names above. Though I don’t know Greenes personally, I recognize a kindred spirt in his attempt to bring some order and objective rigor to the process.

What’s clear from these experts is that not all of the top candidates fit neatly within the 1920-48 timeframe for the seven Negro Leagues that have been designated as majors, or have numbers that pop out on Baseball Reference. Redding, for example, starred for various teams beginning in 1911, and didn’t pitch for any of the now-classified major leagues until 1923. His 9-23 record and 4.43 ERA in those games hardly reflects the esteem in which his career is held.

At the same time, it’s also true that not all of the previously elected Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Hall of Famers fit neatly into the 1920-48 framework, either. Dihigo, a Cuban-born two-way star who was elected in 1977, played only nine seasons in the major Negro Leagues between 1923 and ’45, with additional time playing for independent Black teams in the US as well as teams in the Cuban Winter League and the Mexican League. Outfielder Cristóbal Torriente, another Cuba native who was elected in 2006, starred in pre-Negro Leagues Black baseball before playing 10 years in the major Negro Leagues from 1920-32.

All of this is a very long-winded way of saying that if Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues candidates are to get a fair shake for election to the Hall, we should hope that this amounts to more than just putting a token candidate or two on the Early Baseball ballot to be voted upon by a typical panel of Hall of Famers and veteran sportswriters lacking specific expertise in Black baseball. There are more credible candidates than can fit onto the single 10-person ballot that’s due for consideration just once every 10 years, particularly when those candidates will have to share space with the holdovers from previous early Baseball, Pre-Integration, and Veterans Committee votes. And for those Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues candidates who were previously bypassed, new information has come to light. According to SABR Negro Leagues Committee member Ted Knorr, the Seamheads researchers have uncovered 34% more data (as calculated by plate appearances) for the 15 position players on that ballot who weren’t elected, and 45% more data (as calculated by innings pitched) for the five pitchers not elected.

“The consideration of Negro Leagues candidates for election is necessary, particularly in light of Major League Baseball’s announcement,” Lester told FanGraphs. “The announcement opens the door for a renewed look at quality candidates.”

And just as there’s no shortage of candidates, there exists no shortage of experts on Negro Leagues and Black baseball history available to evaluate their candidacies, and to understand the nuances of the ways they navigated those bygone leagues, including the independent teams, the stints abroad, and the barnstorming. Lester cited researchers such as Gary Ashwill, James Brunson, Todd Peterson, and Bill Plott among those he felt were qualified to participate in the process while acknowledging there were more than he could list offhand.

“If the Hall wants to do it right, they need to reach out to the researchers dedicated to this new chapter in baseball history,” said Lester.

Several potential panelists with previous experience on Hall of Fame screening and/or voting committees declined comment to FanGraphs when asked if they knew whether experts in Negro Leagues history were participating in this process. “Any information on this subject would have to come from the Hall,” said one. Both Lester and Ashwill told FanGraphs that they had not been contacted by the Hall to consult on any candidates or participate in any election. “I try to remain removed from advocacy for any particular players,” said Ashwill. “In general, though, I do strongly believe that Negro Leagues players need to be eligible for the Hall alongside everyone else, and that it’s necessary to have a process that fairly includes them.”

If all of this sounds like a call for another committee specifically dedicated to these candidates, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached in my investigation. To these eyes, it makes sense to incorporate such a committee into the existing cycle, perhaps voting on a biennial basis through the remainder of the Hall’s 10-year cycle in order to capitalize on the current wave of interest, then shifting to a once-every-five-years frequency, á la the Golden Days Era Committee. This isn’t about the election of any specific candidate to produce a feel-good moment, but about letting those who have devoted years or decades of study to weighing the candidates’ individual merits give these players the informed consideration they deserve, and to continuing the progress that was made via the 2006 Special Committee.

But if the Hall has plans to make a mid-course change to its current process, such an announcement typically would have come last month, after its awards ceremony (the Frick Award for broadcasters, the BBWAA Career Excellence Award for writers, and the Buck O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award) took place in Cooperstown on what was previously scheduled to be Induction Day for the Class of 2020. Those festivities were postponed due to the pandemic, and will now take place on September 8.

Similarly, the Hall has remained tight-lipped about the upcoming ballots, which is hardly atypical. Generally, Era Committee ballots are unveiled in early November, a few weeks ahead of the announcement and mailing of the BBWAA ballot for more recently retired players. Because it’s been so long, however, and because so much has changed since the last time Negro Leagues candidates were evaluated, there’s a whole lot more anticipation. We can only hope that the Hall meets this moment and gets it right.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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2 years ago

Would be great to see the door reopened, from those mentioned, Beckwith, Lundy, Moore, Oms, and Redding as players and Greenlee, Harris, and O’Neill as contributors would be fine selections.

2 years ago
Reply to  marchandman34

Agree on all those and Home Run Johnson unless I missed where he already made it