The Hall of Fame Problem

1936 was the first year a class was inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Herman Ruth, and Honus Wagner were the five elected. At the time, the United States had a population of about 128 million people; 481 men played major league baseball in that year, a figure that represented about 0.000375% of the United States’ then-population.

Since 1936, the United States’ population has increased 240%, to about 308 million people in 2010 – which is about the same as the population of the entire planet just a thousand years ago. 1,157 men played major league baseball this year, or about 0.000374% of the US population. This means, despite the number of big league teams nearly doubling from 16 to 30, the percentage of major league baseball players compared to the total United States’ population is almost identical 74 years later. The expansion of major league baseball has merely kept pace with the expansion of the general US population.

But several things have happened between then and now that resulted in a wider range of people playing baseball: Blacks were not allowed to play major league baseball in 1936; Latin America and Pacific Asia were not considered the sources of talent then that they are today; parents started talking Little League way too seriously. Major league baseball players as a percentage of the US population has remained stable, but the major leagues now draw substantially from demographics other than just US-born white dudes. This means that the quality of play has not diminished with expansion; it has been steadily improving due to the added sources of talent and a larger population. Even though there are way more of them, the major league players in today’s game are better than they have ever been, if only because there are so many freaking people on this planet right now. There are other reasons the players are better (better training, better nutrition, specialization of roles, better steroids, gamma rays) but the argument from a rapidly growing population of talent is good enough.

I think that’s a solid foundation to say that today’s players are at least just as good as yesterday’s, and probably more so. It’s also pretty clear that our population is expanding rapidly, and is going to continue to expand until the robots armies kill off and enslave a whole bunch of us. For the time being, let’s jump back to the Hall of Fame, as this population growth and baseball expansion present serious problems for our silly little hall.

Let’s say baseball’s Hall of Fame should be reserved for the top 1% of players … or the top 5%, or the top 0.5%, or the top 3%; it doesn’t really matter what figure you pick, because the same problem exists. Assuming that elite talent has been distributed somewhat evenly throughout the decades, there should have been more Hall of Fame quality players – that top percent — playing in the 1960s than in the 1950s simply because there were more players in the ’60s than there were in the ’50s. For the same reason, there should be more Hall of Famers in the ’70s than in the ’60s, and more in the ’80s than in the ’70s, more in the ’90s than in the ’80s, and so on. And there should be more Hall of Fame quality players today then at any other time in history, because there are more players today than ever before. An increase in the number of players means a similar increase in the number of players worthy of the Hall of Fame, provided that the quality of players remains at least the same, as it has. So even if we keep electing just the top 1% or whatever, we should be electing bigger and bigger, but still deserving, classes into the Hall every year.

This is obviously not what has happened. Smaller and smaller percentages of players are being elected. It’s becoming harder to make the cut. Here are the percentages of Major League players from each decade (played at least one game in that decade) that were elected to the Hall of Fame:

  • 1920s: 4.1% of players were elected to the Hall of Fame
  • 1930s: 4.8% of players
  • 1940s: 3.2% of players
  • 1950s: 3.4% of players
  • 1960s: 3.0% of players
  • 1970s: 2.4% of players
  • 1980s: 1.6% of players
  • 1990s: 0.6% of players

(Two notes: Presumably a handful more of players will be elected from the ’80s and many more from the ’90s, and the big dip in the 1940s is caused by the bevy of replacement players used during World War II.)

It’s become progressively harder to get into Cooperstown, particularly if you played in the decades after expansion dramatically increased the number of players. This is not because the players are getting worse; they’re actually getting better. It is because the standards have been raised to hold the number of players being inducted constant. If you continued to induct the top 3% from each generation, you would be electing an absurd number of players come modern times. If you were to elect the same percentage of players from the 1980s as were elected from the 1950s, you would need to elect 41 additional players besides the 37 from the ’80s that are already in. And over the next twenty years you would need to elect at least 100 players who played in the 2000s to give that decade fair representation of about 3%. That would, on some level, be really insane.

This is where the problems with the Hall of Fame come from, and why so many deserving players from the ’80s are being left out. If you’re not going to select the top 2% or 3% from each generation because it would be too many players, and instead just pick the 50 best players from each decade, then deserving players will be denied entrance simply because they happened to play in leagues with more guys. And the Hall of Fame voters apparently have elected to go with this 50-dudes-a-decade-method and somewhat arbitrarily raised the bar for the Cooperstown over time (whether or not they’re aware they have done so). There is already a large group of players from the 1980s who are just as good, if not better, than a significant chunk of inducted Hall of Famers, but are being denied entrance simply because voters don’t want to elect too many players from the ’80s.

AP Photo/Wilbur Funches

For example: Mets fan favorite and gallantly mustachioed wordsmith Keith Hernandez. 162 home runs and 1071 RBI are not exactly eye popping stats for a first baseman, but his career .384 on base percentage is better than those of eight Hall of Fame first baseman.  He has a good case for the Hall. He hit well in the clutch: Over his career, Hernandez raised his .296 batting average and .436 slugging percentage to .318 and .478, respectively, in high leverage situations — those most critical spots in games. His career 132 OPS+ is better than six Hall of Fame first baseman . . . and that’s just the offense. Hernandez is easily the best defensive first baseman in history, saving his teams 119 runs with the glove over his career, being “Mustang Sally,” a real Wilson Pickett, as Hernandez himself is fond of saying. And according to Baseball-Reference, there are just five first baseman not in the Hall with at least 60 career wins above replacement: Albert Pujols, Jeff Bagwell, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Keith Hernandez. He was a great baseball player.

Now, Keith Hernandez was certainly not a better player than Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, or Jimmie Foxx. But Hernandez might have been better than Hank Greenberg, and he’s probably better than Billy Terry, Tony Perez, and George Sisler. And he’s definitely better than Orlando Cepada and Jim Bottomley. All those dudes are in the Hall of Fame as first basemen.

Similar, good Hall of Fame cases can be made for Bert Blyleven, Rick Reuschel, Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich, Alan Trammell, Tim Raines, Reggie Smith, Dwight Evans, Greg Nettles, Buddy Bell, Sal Bando, Willie Randolph, and Jeff Bridges. Any of those players would be, at worst, middle of the pack Hall of Famers; if they happened to play in the 1930s, most would already be in. (The ’30s got a little HOF Happy: 1 out of every 11 players from 1936 were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.)

But Keith Hernandez and the rest didn’t play in the 1930s. They played in the 1970s and 1980s, which is the biggest reason (and maybe the only one) that they’re not in the Hall of Fame. Players are being kept out of the Cooperstown not because they weren’t good enough, but because there were too many other good players playing alongside them. The supply of Hall of Famers is exceeding the demand for Hall of Famers.

There are four solutions to this Hall of Fame conundrum, and three solutions aren’t the plot of Children of Men, so let’s go with those three. The first is to just let everyone good enough to be a Hall of Famer into the Hall of Fame. Have a big Hall of Fame. If you let everyone with at least 60+ or so wins above replacement into the Hall of Fame, the 1980s would hit its 3% representation. This has the benefit of being fair to every generation, but the downside is that there would be about 300 players in the Hall by 2040. This way is fairer, but bigger.

The second is to raise or lower the bar for admission as needed — only allow in the best 40 or so players from each generation into the Hall of Fame. This has the benefit of keeping a steady stream of players; the downside is that players from modern times, though equal or greater in talent to others in the Hall, will be left out just to keep class sizes down. This is way is less fair, but more manageable.

The third way is to pretend to keep the standards the same, but constantly make up reasons to keep certain players out of the Hall and let others in. This includes being sanctimonious about alleged steroid use, saying that this pitcher knew how to win games while another one didn’t, undervaluing defense, and electing very few second and third basemen. This seems to be the solution unknowingly selected by current Hall voters. This way has the benefit of being arbitrary, confusing, and extremely stupid.

I guess another solution would be to stop caring about the Hall of Fame, but if you don’t have feelings of nostalgia for people you never saw play and events you didn’t actually experience, then you’re probably not a baseball fan to begin with anyway. There’s a reason baseball is the only sport that seems to care deeply about the Hall of Fame. And I’m sure the powerful bronze plaque lobby would have something say about this.

So the problem remains. It would have required a remarkable amount of foresight on the part of previous generations to prevent this from happening. That or a robot invasion. There are more players than ever before, but there are more Hall of Fame worthy players than ever before. We have a surplus of Hall of Famers. Keith Hernandez and a bunch of other dudes are certainly good enough to be Hall of Famers, but probably won’t be for the same reason there are no seats on the 7 train at rush hour: too many people trying to get to the same place.

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7 Comments

Filed under Columns, Words

7 responses to “The Hall of Fame Problem

  1. On the other hand, in earlier decades there were only three major professional sports, baseball, boxing and horse racing. One could argue that baseball did not compete with boxing or horse racing for talent.

    Now, many superior athletes head for the NFL, NBA, even golf. Consider Jackie Robinson, a multi-sport star. Today he might have chosen football. One could argue that compared with the 1970s, we’re once again ending up with a bunch of white dues in baseball — plus Latinos.

    And while major league players are the same share of the overall population, they are a higher share of those playing professional baseball, as the minor leagues were bigger back in the day.

  2. You hit the nail on the head, but drew the wrong conclusion. There have been more high quality players in recent decades for the reasons you have explained (better training, deeper talent pools, etc.) The result is that the best players now aren’t that much better than the average players at their positions. They don’t stand out from the crowd the Matthewson and Cy Young, Cobb and Ruth did in the earlier decades of the 20th Century. I think the common is view of HOF eligibility is being clearly better almost all other players of one’s era. This is more difficult now that the talent bell curve has flattened.

    • Patrick Flood

      I agree with that. But what I was trying to say was that if you just want to take those clearly better players, then players from today just as good as the “clearly better” guys from the ’40s and ’50s will be left out. Maybe it’s fair and maybe it isn’t. But you need to come up with reasons to leave those guys out, which you can see happening now with Jeff Bagwell being accused of PED use. Just say the standards are higher.

      • I would suggest that there may have been too many players in the past. That is primarily because the standards were being established. Now the standards are much more established. Rabbit Maranville wouldn’t get in if he were that much better than those at fielding today as he was in his day. But he set a standard of the day. He was similar to Bert Campaneris who is not a hall of famer but was one of the better at his position. Plus he played in an era when fielding was considered a premium.
        So perhaps the earlier stars ought to be considered “standard-setters”.
        As far as today’s stars, I have no problem with the number of players diminishing as a percentage because they are now held to more precise standards. Hence sabrmetrics can define closely what constitutes a hall of famer but could not have done it years ago without the standards being set.

      • Patrick Flood

        Yes. The problem is that too many of the early guys were let in, but that would have been a hard problem to avoid. If they let very few in at the start, it would have been hard to drum up interest in the Hall.

        And they would have had to anticipate the massive population growth that has occurred since then. It’s created a problem, but it would have been extremely difficult to avoid.

  3. I keep coming back like a loyal customer who keeps finding good items in the store. Thanks for some more worthy reading. Tim Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame. That was the best case I have seen for Keith Hernandez. I’m a believer. Defense is undervalued, in my opinion. What errors and missed opportunities on defense mean to pitch counts, longer innings, the pitcher’s mental game, etc. probably can’t be accounted for.
    I’m just about finishing up Moneyball – probably this week. The more I read this book, the more I believe it’s a very real possibility Jose Reyes will not be with the Mets in 2012. Not something that makes me happy, but, if it’s not a good baseball decision, then… hmmm.

    • Patrick Flood

      I’m iffy on Reyes coming back. I think he gets traded at the deadline this year if the Mets fall out of contention.

      But if Reyes is having a good year, that probably helps the Mets contend, and then he doesn’t end up going anywhere. So if he rebounds, he stays, and if he tanks it, he goes.

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