With Experts on the Negro Leagues Involved, the Hall of Fame’s Era Committee Plans Are Emerging

After a year in which its Era Committee deliberations were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Baseball Hall of Fame announced on Friday that both the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees will in fact meet this winter to consider separate slates of 10 candidates apiece. The Early Baseball ballot will include candidates from the Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black baseball, as I reported in August — the first time such candidates have been considered since 2006 — and in a welcome bit of good news, a group of five Negro Leagues historians is part of the screening committee that’s selecting the candidates for inclusion on the ballot.

The Hall’s press release did not specify when the actual ballots will be announced, and at this writing the Hall has not responded to FanGraphs’ request for further information. However, its Around the Horn newsletter sent out on Monday said that the ballots “will be announced in the days following the conclusion of the 2021 World Series.” Going by recent history, that will be sometime in early November. The 2019 Today’s Game Era Committee ballot was announced on Monday, November 5, 2018, while the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot was announced on Monday, November 4, 2019. Since this year’s World Series could extend as late as November 3 even without rainouts, all signs point to Monday, November 8 as the date both committee ballots will be revealed.

Both committee votes will take place on December 5, though the Hall conspicuously did not specify whether they would do so at the Winter Meetings, as various committees have done since 2007. This year’s meetings are scheduled to occur from December 5-9 in Orlando, Florida, but given both the ongoing pandemic and the December 1 expiration of the current Collective Bargaining Agreement — which could trigger a lockout — there’s a growing expectation within the industry that the meetings will be canceled, and so one can’t blame the Hall for its lack of specificity. Regardless of where the vote happens, the results will be announced live on MLB Network that evening.

(Separately, the 2022 Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame ballot will be announced and mailed to voters on November 22, with returned ballots postmarked by December 31. Those results will be announced live on MLB Network on January 25.)

Under the revised Era Committee structure announced in 2016, this is the first time that either of these two panels has met. The Golden Days Era Committee, which is slated to meet every five years (for the 2022 and ’27 elections, given that everything after ’20 was pushed back a year due to the postponement), covers candidates whose primary contributions to the game came during the 1950-69 period. That ballot is expected to include the likes of Dick Allen, Gil Hodges, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso, Tony Oliva, and Maury Wills, a group that had their share of near-misses under the older Veterans Committee and Golden Era Committee formats, and there’s been a growing movement to consider Curt Flood for his contributions including the courageous sacrifice of his career in the name of challenging to the reserve clause. Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall’s chairman of the board, will serve as the non-voting chairman of the committee. The Early Baseball Era Committee, which is only slated to meet every 10 years on the principle that the older periods have been the most picked-over by previous committees, covers candidates who made their biggest contributions before 1950. Clark and former commissioner Bud Selig will serve as non-voting co-chairs of the committee.

In the previous iteration of the Era Committee format, which was in place from 2011-16, the euphemistically-named Pre-Integration Era Committee ballot did not include Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues Black candidates. After the Special Committee on the Negro Leagues’ elected 17 such candidates in 2006, the Hall indicated that “the books were closed on the Negro Leagues pending more information that came forth from the research community.” With a flood of research into the field, and with developments such as Major League Baseball’s December 2020 announcement of its decision to officially recognize seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and ’48 as major leagues, and Baseball Reference’s June 2021 launch of its expanded coverage of the Negro Leagues and historical Black major league players, the Hall’s position was no longer a tenable one.

Moving on from an untenable position doesn’t guarantee an improved process, however, and without the input of experts with deep knowledge of the history and nuances of Black baseball history, it wasn’t hard to envision an Early Baseball ballot that merely included Buck O’Neil, the most notable omission from the Class of 2006, and another stray Negro Leagues candidate or two alongside a group of white candidates headed by pioneer Doc Adams, shortstop Bill Dahlen, and outfielder Harry Stovey, the only candidates who received more than four votes on the 2016 Pre-Integration ballot. When I spoke to Larry Lester — an award-winning researcher who was the co-founder of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, served on the 2006 Special Committee, and has worked with Seamheads — in August, he stressed the importance of having Negro Leagues experts involved in the process of building and considering the ballot. “If the Hall wants to do it right, they need to reach out to the researchers dedicated to this new chapter in baseball history,” he said at the time.

Thanks to his appearances in Ken Burns’ Baseball series and the writings of Joe Posnanski, O’Neil “reigned as a symbol of baseball’s past and the game’s greatest good-will ambassador,” in the words of historian Jules Tygiel. His career spanned nearly 70 years, first as a Negro Leagues player and then manager; after integration he did pioneering work as a scout and a coach before settling into his latter-day role preserving Black baseball history. Particularly given his comparatively modest playing statistics, the difficulty of pigeonholing his career into a neat, Negro Leagues-only framework factored into his falling short in 2006; in response, the Hall created a lifetime achievement award in his name. Yet he’s far from the only Hall of Fame candidate on the wish list of Negro Leagues experts, or even the strongest one. Players such as John Beckwith, Rap Dixon, John Donaldson, Dick Lundy, Oliver Marcelle, Spottswood Poles, Dick “Cannonball” Redding, Charles “Chino” Smith, manager Vic Harris, and owner Gus Greenlee also draw significant mention as worthy of enshrinement. Given the complexities of Black baseball, evaluating their careers isn’t as simple as tapping into the Seamheads data and sorting by OPS+, ERA+, or WAR, as economic necessity required most players to supplement their time in the bygone major leagues with barnstorming, independent teams, and/or stints abroad.

Typically, the Hall of Fame delegates the construction of Era Committee ballots to a Historical Overview Committee, which consists of 11 senior members of the Baseball Writers Association of America; that group winnows the ballot down from a larger pool, but they’re not the ones who vote in the actual elections (though many if not most of those involved have served in that capacity at one point or another). For the Golden Days ballot, the committee includes Bob Elliott (Canadian Baseball Network), Jim Henneman (formerly Baltimore Sun), Steve Hirdt (Stats Perform), Rick Hummel (St. Louis Post-Dispatch), David O’Brien (The Athletic), Jack O’Connell (BBWAA), Jim Reeves (formerly Fort Worth Star-Telegram), Tracy Ringolsby (InsidetheSeams.com), Glenn Schwarz (formerly San Francisco Chronicle), Susan Slusser (San Francisco Chronicle), and Mark Whicker (Los Angeles News Group). O’Brien and Slusser are newcomers to the group; the latter is the first woman to serve on an Historical Overview Committee since Claire Smith did so for the 2012-15 Era Committee ballots. The other nine members have been part of the committee since at least the 2016 ballot cycle, with some dating back to at least the ’05 cycle, when the actual electorate consisted of an expanded Veterans Committee featuring all living Hall of Famers as well as living Frick and Spink Award winners (broadcasters and writers).

Henneman, Hirdt, Hummel, Reeves and Schwarz are also serving on what the Hall termed the Special Early Baseball Overview Committee, where they’re joined by a panel of Negro Leagues historians, namely Smith, Gary Ashwill, Adrian Burgos Jr., Phil Dixon, and Leslie Heaphy. It’s an impressive and accomplished group:

  • Smith is currently an associate professor at Temple University, which recently unveiled plans for a new sports media center named in her honor. A pioneering journalist, she was the first woman to serve full-time as a beat writer covering a major league team (she covered the Yankees for the Hartford Courant from 1983-87), the first woman to win the BBWAA Career Excellence Award (formerly the J.G. Taylor Spink Award), and the fourth Black writer to win that award after Sam Lacy, Wendell Smith, and Larry Whiteside. She has most recently written about the Negro Leagues for The Undefeated.
  • Ashwill is the founder and lead researcher of the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database, the most authoritative source for Negro Leagues statistics. Seamheads has collected box scores and detailed game accounts for as many games as possible — over 72% of those for the 1920-48 games of the seven leagues designated as majors last December. Earlier this summer, its data was incorporated into Baseball Reference.
  • Burgos, a professor of history at the University of Illinois, is a leading authority on Latin American baseball and the author of multiple books on baseball. He was a member of the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues, and later wrote Playing America’s Game: Baseball, Latinos, and the Color Line, and Cuban Star: How One Negro League Owner Changed the Face of Baseball, a book on 2006 honoree Alejandro “Alex” Pompez, and is the editor-in-chief of La Vida Baseball, a digital platform on Latinos in baseball in partnership with the Hall of Fame.
  • Dixon is a Negro Leagues historian and the author of nine books, including biographies of Rube Foster, Buck O’Neill, and Bullet Rogan as well as The Negro Baseball Leagues: A Photographic History, 1867-1955, which won the Macmillan-Society for American Baseball Research award for excellence in baseball research, and the Casey Award for the best baseball book of 1992. He has interviewed more than 500 Negro Leagues players, family members and others affiliated with its history.
  • Heaphy, an associate professor of history at Kent State University at Stark, is the author of The Negro Leagues, 1869-1960, the editor of The Encyclopedia of Women and Baseball and multiple books about Black baseball, and the editor of the semi-annual journal Black Ball. She was on the 2006 Special Committee on the Negro Leagues as well, and was the 2014 winner of the Bob Davids Award, SABR’s highest honor.

To the casual fan, this is almost certainly inside-baseball stuff, particularly as these aren’t even the actual voters for the committee, but the presence of such experts ought to assuage some of the concerns of the most ardent Hall-heads. While there are certainly others similarly qualified to participate in such a panel, the depth of this group suggests that the Hall is indeed taking seriously this opportunity to sort through the backlog of candidates. Hopefully when the 16-member voting panels are named next month, they will further tap into the wealth of expertise within the Negro Leagues research community. And hopefully when the two panels are convened in December, they’re able to find consensus within a pair of strong ballots and select worthy additions to the Hall, because without that, it could be a lonely summer in Cooperstown given the state of the BBWAA ballot — though that’s a story for another day.

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

Thank you very much for the work you do to illuminate the workings of the Hall of Fame and the election process. I think the election of some more Negro League players is overdue, especially with so many non players in MLB having been selected. I love reading your book about Cooperstown, especially the section about overlooked players.