It's Baseball Thanksgiving!
July 29, 2017 11:26 PM   Subscribe

This weekend, some 40,000 people made the pilgrimage to the village of Cooperstown, N.Y., home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. They've come to welcome five new members – three players, two executives – into the family; Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Iván Rodríguez, John Schuerholz and Bud Selig will be inducted as the Hall's Class of 2017. The process itself is as weird and fun as you’d expect for an institution honoring a game where people whack a ball with a stick and run around a square. So stick around for a tour of statistics, lobbying, bronze sculpting, hats, drugs, contract intrigues, the rewriting of history, and, of course, baseball legends.

(First, please bear with some needed rules and stats wonkery, needed to set up the rest of the post.)

It all starts with the Baseball Writers Association of America, which elects players to the Hall of Fame. To be elected, a player must be named on 75% of ballots cast. If they are named on 5% or more, they get another chance on next year’s ballot, for up to 10 years. Writers can put up to 10 players on their ballots. Various non-BBWAA committees also elect members, including Schuerholz and Selig, but that’s a whole ‘nother story.

The BBWAA has been historically stingy. Famously, there’s never been a unanimous selection, not ironman Cal Ripken Jr., not even Babe Ruth, who wasn’t even the top vote-getter in his induction year. The closest to unanimous was The Kid, Ken Griffey Jr., who got 99.3% of the vote in 2016; three voters out of 440 left him off their ballots.

In fact, BBWAA members sometimes cast votes for players of questionable merit, usually as a tip-of-the-cap to a friend or favorite. (Or so we think –writers rarely own up to this, but soon they'll have to.) There are plenty of good players who had excellent careers, but just don’t quite measure up.

Today's inductee Tim Raines was nearly one of those players, and his election embodies three of the sea changes in baseball Hall of Fame voting.

First is in the BBWAA itself. The organization has purged its oldest and inactive members, cutting about 100 from the rolls and started to accept members from new media and even blogs.

Those new voters tend to be more attuned to sabermetrics, modern baseball statistical measurements. That ranges from the from the greater appreciation of simple stats like on-base percentage to the development of complex measures like Wins Above Replacement. Credit the acceptance of those metrics with bolstering Raines’ case.

Meanwhile, those new-stats adoptees have not been shy in making their case, and the Internet has given them important tools. One is the means of gathering, compiling and tracking BBWAA members’ votes – which aren’t yet public, but many writers disclose voluntarily. Oakland-area fan Ryan Thibodeaux’s tracker is the latest and most-followed.

The Internet, of course, makes it easier to disseminate the information to a player’s supporters, and for them to lobby the writers. Jonah Keri, a devotee of the late Montreal Expos, did all of the above in a lobbying effort for Raines. And a few years earlier, Rich Lederer, a fan and investment manager in Long Beach, did much the same for Bert Blyleven, a often-overlooked ace pitcher for the Twins and four other teams.

Fan attention made all the difference. Raines climbed from a low of 22.6% in his second year to an 86% mark in his last, making the cutoff with room to spare. Blyleven’s trip was even longer – from 14.1% in his second year to 79.7% in 2011, his 14th year (before the cutoff was reduced to 10 years). Trivia moment: That made him the first Dutch-born player admitted to the Hall.

And while it might merit a mega-post of its own, the other trend evident in this year’s vote is voters’ growing acceptance of players' use of steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, which may have smoothed the path for Bagwell and Rodríguez. (More below.)

So, finally(!), they’re in, and the fun begins.
Probably the most well-known honor for the player is the commemorative bronze plaque, bearing the player’s likeness and a description of his career, in the Hall’s gallery (which its staff admits is soon to run out of room).
The Pittsburgh-based firm Matthews International has made those plaques for more than 30 years. Until 2016, an artist named Mindy Ellis had the best job in American sculpting, making more than 76 plaques over two decades. (Very cool video of how they do it.) Tom Tsuchiya, a Cincinnati-based artist, took over that year, and his first assignment was sculpting the plaque for his boyhood favorite player, The Kid, the previously mentioned Ken Griffey Jr.

The sculptor works from a set of photos provided by the Hall of Fame, but even this gets complicated. Players’ plaques show them wearing a baseball cap, which has the team’s insignia, but players rarely stay with one team for their entire career. So what cap goes on the plaque? This too has been a matter of much debate.

Until 2002 players got to choose their cap, but now the Hall does so, after the infamous Wade Boggs case. The third baseman was best known for his time with the Red Sox, but won a World Series with the Yankees (a whole ‘nother saga). But he finished his career with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (now just the Rays), and reportedly negotiated a contract with a $10,000 bonus if he designated a Rays cap on his Hall plaque. (Boggs denies it.) That prompted the Hall to step in.

Some players, though, are diplomatic. Jim “Catfish” Hunter, who had his best seasons with Athletics but gained his fame with Yankees, chose a blank cap. So did Greg Maddux, who started his career with the then-woeful Cubs, then won four Cy Young awards as baseball’s best pitcher with the Braves. He requested a blank cap, and though it was the Hall’s prerogative, it honored the request.

But that’s just the surface of plaque oddities.

You might think a museum piece etched in bronze would be permanent, but in a few cases that hasn’t been true. Notably, the plaques for the players we know as Roberto Clemente (perhaps the most tragic loss in baseball history) and Roberto Alomar were changed after they were unveiled, to re-state their names in accordance with the proper Spanish naming custom: Roberto Clemente Walker and Roberto Alomar Velázquez.

More notable is the plaque for Jackie Robinson. Upon his induction, Robinson insisted that his plaque mention only his on-the-field achievements, which were formidable enough (six All-Star appearances, and the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player award, among others). The Hall honored his request, but in 2008, after consulting with Robinson’s widow Rachel, recast the plaque with one more line: “Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern Major Leagues in the face of intense adversity.”

 Until this weekend, the new inductees’ plaques will have been closely held – not even the player sees them until the unveiling. But in a new practice, the players do get a chance to personalize their plaque – they’re invited to autograph its mounting board before the plaque goes up, a nice Easter egg for baseball historians of the next millennium.
So what’s left? Oh yeah, those inductees! Alphabetically:

Jeff Bagwell

The first baseman had Popeye-esque forearms, surprising speed and may have been baseball's best at the position from Gehrig to Pujols. He had a unique stance, dubbed the "crouching tiger, hidden dragon," with his hands essentially in the strike zone - causing him to suffer broken bones in three straight seasons. But his vicious uppercut swing resulted in 449 career home runs and he finished his career with nearly a .300 batting average.

He played all of his 15 years with the Houston Astros — though Red Sox fans will always think of him as the one who got away, the one who might have battered down the Green Monster with an endless succession of line drives, save for one of the worst trades in baseball history.

Those aforementioned forearms, ironically, are what almost kept him out of the Hall of Fame, because they raised suspicion that he bulked up with steroids, not Spinach. But as noted above, writers are becoming more tolerant on the performance-enhancing drugs issue, and in his seventh year, he cleared the bar with 88% of the vote.

Tim “Rock” Raines
We’ve already talked a good bit about Raines and how new statistics have led to a better appreciation of his game. But he also did pretty well by traditional statistics. He began his career with 27 consecutive stolen bases, which one sportwriter called the "Raines of Terror." By career's end, he was fifth all-time in stolen bases, with 808, and his success rate is better than any of the players above him, even all-time steals leader Rickey Henderson.

And that sums up the Tim Raines story: Raines wasn’t Rickey. He was fated to be a great leadoff hitter playing at the same time as Henderson, the greatest leadoff hitter in baseball history.

Playing in his prime for the Montreal Expos, outside the major U.S. media markets, didn’t help, nor did collusion by baseball’s owners, which may have kept him from a big contract with a more prominent team.

And like Bagwell, Raines was also dinged by some moralistic voters for drug issues - in his case, a cocaine addiction, which Raines overcame early in his career. His nickname of “Rock” - often derisively said to come from his cocaine problem - reportedly dates to his days playing high school football in central Florida. It stems from his solid build, but it might as well refer to his career: Raines is one of 29 players in baseball history to have played games in four decades.

Iván “Pudge” Rodríguez

If it were on achievements alone, Pudge would have been another near-unanimous first-ballot Hall of Famer: He posted some of the best offensive seasons of any catcher, and more importantly, built a reputation as the best defensive catcher - certainly the best throwing arm at the position - in the history of the game. His quick, accurate and powerful throws made him the best of his era at throwing out runners trying to steal bases; his 45.6% “caught-stealing” percentage for his career was the best of his era and among the best in modern baseball history.

Add to that 10 consecutive All-Star Game selections, then four more; 13 Gold Gloves; an MVP award, and in all, 21 years in the most physically demanding position in the game. His 2,427 games at catcher surpassed the previous record holder, another great catcher nicknamed Pudge.

Instead, Rodríguez squeaked over the line, with 76% of the vote. Like Bagwell, Pudge was dogged by rumors of steroid use. In his case, though, voters looked past it, seeing his defensive excellence as independent of any benefits drugs might convey.

As a boy growing up in Puerto Rico, the story goes, Pudge preferred playing third base or pitching. His father moved him to catcher because he threw so hard, he was scaring the other players. While we don’t know how good a pitcher he would have been, it seems dad had good instincts.

Extra bases

Two non-players also are being inducted, baseball executive John Schuerholz, architect of the dominant Atlanta Braves teams of the 1990s, and Bud Selig, the Milwaukee car dealer who became owner of the Brewers, and then possibly the most influential (for better or worse) commissioner of baseball in history. Consider it a birthday gift for Selig, who turns 83 today.

The Hall of Fame ceremonies are at 1:30 PM on the MLB channel and via webcast on the Hall’s website. But you can browse every single plaque at your leisure via the Hall of Fame Explorer, as well as review terrific exhibits on Women in Baseball, the Negro Leagues and International Baseball, as well as one of my favorites, scouting reports, among much more in the Archives and Digital Collections.

Happy Baseball Thanksgiving!
posted by martin q blank (23 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Don't forget Bill King who was awarded the Ford C. Frick award as well!
posted by Carillon at 12:40 AM on July 30

As a Canadian it's nice to see Tim Raines given his do. What a hell of a baseball player he was. Man, the Expos, done in by avarice and nationalism, what a waste.

Also, Pudge's arm, is it too weird to imagine him as a pitcher?

Thanks for this lovely post.

That is all.
posted by Phlegmco(tm) at 1:12 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]

whack a ball with a stick and run around a square

It's a diamond. 25 man rosters, not 40 (except for September call-ups), and the strike zone is the letters to the knees.

And Ban the DH!
posted by XhaustedProphet at 1:54 AM on July 30 [2 favorites]

It's time, a MiFi poster hall of fame should be established!
posted by sammyo at 4:57 AM on July 30

It's time, a MiFi poster hall of fame should be established!

Can you imagine the size and scope of the doping scandal, though?
posted by Thorzdad at 6:06 AM on July 30 [4 favorites]

Instead, Rodríguez squeaked over the line, with 76% of the vote.

Fuck the BBWAA. Pudge will always be a unanimous vote in my mind.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:20 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Fantastic post, and a great warm up before heading out to a minor league game today. Go Flying Squirrels!
posted by COD at 6:55 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

I don't understand the fixation on unanimous selections. Throw five 400-inning seasons, win 30 games five times, have fifteen (15!) 20-win seasons, have a career WAR of 168, and win over 500 games, and you get a 76% vote. There are already a handful of questionable selections in the Hall; gaming the voting procedures to make a unanimous vote easier is just going to let more lower tier players in.

Once someone's in the Hall, it doesn't matter what % got them there. It doesn't change their status. Anybody who possibly deserves a unanimous selection gets in. They don't put your marks on your diploma, either.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:59 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Don't forget Bill King who was awarded the Ford C. Frick award as well!

Carillon: Indeed. I thought about talking about the Frick awards as well, but it was already a crazy-long post, and I left a lot of stuff on the cutting-room floor. That was one of them, because technically the Frick winners,-like the Spink awards, for writers, aren't members of the Hall of Fame -- they're honorees. (A former colleague received the Spink award a few years ago, and he set me straight when I called him a Hall of Famer.)
posted by martin q blank at 9:36 AM on July 30 [1 favorite]

> They don't put your marks on your diploma, either.

The diplomas of those graduating summa/magna cum laude are.
posted by ardgedee at 10:33 AM on July 30

Fuck Bud Selig. And fuck the Hall if they never induct Barry Bonds, the greatest hitter of my lifetime.

That said, I applaud the move to transparency.

> There are already a handful of questionable selections in the Hall; gaming the voting procedures to make a unanimous vote easier is just going to let more lower tier players in.

I... don't understand this. How does that work? Why would someone be more likely to vote for a lower-tier player when they're going to have to explain their vote to people?
posted by languagehat at 11:18 AM on July 30 [3 favorites]

I don't like baseball as much as some people, but I absolutely LOVE talking about the Hall of Fame. A lot of people make fun of the "Hall of Very Good" concept, but I'm a maximalist. Let them all in! In honor of Tim Raines's (quite deserving!) selection, FiveThirtyEight ran a story about others who were close but ignored. The one who stood out to me was Jim Edmonds. The dude was all over SportsCenter in the 90s with his defense, and he was a championship-level player well into the 2000s. I'd vote him in.

And of course, as a native southwest Ohioan, Pete Rose belongs in. And Cincinnati style chili is one of the most delicious meals known to man.
posted by kevinbelt at 12:14 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

True languagehat, every year they don't let in Barry Bonds really decreases the legitimacy of the whole Hall endeavor in my eyes, and I say this as an As fan who's generally down in the Giants.
posted by Carillon at 12:35 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

I like to be all snooty about the Hall and say things like "halls of fame are only for people who can't figure out who the good players are on their own." But then, I've never been to it -- if I went, I'd probably turn into a blubbering sentimental slob, and emerge full of insufferable opinions about who should and shouldn't be there.
posted by JanetLand at 12:45 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Carillon- I used to have my doubts, but I think Barry Bonds will get in. He's moved up the last couple of years, according to Ryan Thibs' tracker, and his achievements are just so enormous that most writers will admit that, or fall back to "He'd be a Hall of Famer without the drugs."

JanetLand - What prompted this post was a visit to the Hall with my kids a couple of weeks ago. (Hence that one linked photo.) I'd been there back in 1989, iirc, and it's just so much more impressive now. Modern, compelling exhibitds, recognition of diversity and a lot of stuff that prompted some teary-eyed memories. It's a hell of a place.
posted by martin q blank at 12:53 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Ha, a friend of mine just posted this article he wrote and I was wondering if I'd find a spot to share it on MeFi: A Field Guide to the Greatest, Most Glorious Mustaches in the [Baseball] Hall of Fame
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 1:13 PM on July 30 [4 favorites]

Eyebrows, that is so amazingly perfect, I wish I'd seen it! Would have fit right in with the "plaque oddities" section. (I cut a section on "plaques with eyeglasses.") And I actually took a photo of that John McPhee plaque when I was there.
posted by martin q blank at 3:33 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Mike Mussina.
posted by AugustWest at 4:10 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

Why would someone be more likely to vote for a lower-tier player when they're going to have to explain their vote to people?

There's a combination of changes taking place/being considered. Right now there's a limit to the number of players you can put on a ballot, so there's a lot of strategic voting. If you only have ten spots on your ballot, and there's a lot of deserving players eligible, you have to choose between voting for someone who's a sure thing or someone who's not obvious but in danger of dropping off the ballot. Somebody like Griffey is going to garner enough votes to get in on his first try, so a couple voters can afford to not vote for him to protect someone like Raines who might have been in danger of dropping off the ballot (either by not getting the minimum or by falling short in their last year of eligibility).

If you make a change designed to avoid this type of strategic voting (unlimited vote selections, for example), then it's easier to throw a few votes to a borderline player. And there's always votes going to borderline players now. Look at Jim Edmonds. A career 60 WAR but only got 2.5% of the vote last year so he's off the ballot. Doesn't 60 WAR deserve more votes? Piazza got in with only 59 WAR. There's 8 players not elected on the ballot this year with over 60 WAR. So if you vote to keep Edmonds, you can't very well withhold a vote for McGriff or Kent or Sheffield. Now you're starting to vote in borderline players (as much as I love McGriff and think he deserves it).

Then there's the curmudgeon brigade, the old voters who say that if Ruth didn't get in unanimously, nobody else deserves it either. Pulling their voting credentials and adding in more bloggers is going to put the spotlight on esoteric players like Wakefield. Someone could make a solid argument that he's HOF worthy because he's one of the finest knuckleball pitchers ever, and maybe he did deserve more consideration. That's going to increase votes to borderline players as well. Bloggers are great for raising the profile of their personal hobby horse players, and giving outsize consideration based on their fan base.

No, it's not going to open the floodgates and let in the JD Drews of the game, but any change done to increase the odds of a unanimous selection also increases the votes for weaker players. They're voting for them now with the limits; remove those restrictions and that only gets worse.

There's just no need to "fix" it so someone gets a unanimous vote. If the rules somehow worked to deny entry to someone like Griffey, then something should be done. Making a change just to satisfy some weird quirk isn't worth it.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 5:05 PM on July 30 [1 favorite]

> There's just no need to "fix" it so someone gets a unanimous vote

I understand your points, but they're not "fixing" it so someone gets a unanimous vote, they're fixing it so the process will be transparent and we can all see what idiot voted for X or refused to vote for Y (and point and laugh as necessary). To my mind transparency is a hell of a lot more important than the possibility that Jim Edmonds might get in.
posted by languagehat at 5:15 PM on July 30 [2 favorites]

Transparency I have no concern with; it's the other changes they're contemplating to relieve the logjam of players because of the Bonds/Clemens/PEDs debacle. We're in the middle of a major voting problem, and some of the solutions I've seen to fix that issue will just bring other problems.

This has been building since 2007, when McGwire was first on the ballot. Baseball Reference had him as the third most likely candidate to be elected, but voters punished him with a 9th place finish. Since then, nine players with lower ratings have reached the Hall, and one player (Palmiero) with a higher rating dropped off the ballot for lack of support. There are six players with higher ratings this year, with a seventh joining the list next year. That's splitting votes among a lot of worthy players. You could easily make solid arguments for maybe 15 HOF players next year, but only 2-3 will make it. Transparency's not going to change that.

Let's put a transparent ballot together. Bonds, Clemens, Hoffman, Guerrero, Martinez, Mussina, Ramirez, C. Jones, Thome... that's nine. Who's your #10? Schilling with 3000 Ks and postseason heroics? Sosa's 600 HRs? Sheffield's 500 HRs? Walker's .313 avg and almost 400 HRs? Vizquel's nearly 3000 hits and stellar defence? Rolen's 70 WAR? Wagner's 400 saves? You have to leave SIX of those players off your ballot. Would you really question any of those choices? If someone determined McGriff's 493 HRs worthy of that tenth vote, would it really be so bad? So no, making voting transparent isn't going to really fix anything.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:21 PM on July 30

Ivan Rodriguez was the first baseball regular to be younger than me (there was a pitcher, but he got a cup of coffee then went back down). And now he's in the Hall of Fame. This officially makes me old, but at least I'm not old enough to be the guy posting a mis-spelled and near-incoherent denunciation of "Pludge" and steroids on a Facebook baseball history page this morning. So there's that.

Also, hooray for Tim Raines! Now the question becomes whether or not the Expos get up to six HOF players with substantial time-on-roster, or five, or stay at four, with Larry Walker and Vladimir Guerrero in the wings. It's interesting to me that the Blue Jays have only had one in substantially the same amount of time, with only Roy Halladay looking to have any chance of making it two.
posted by Quindar Beep at 8:31 AM on July 31 [1 favorite]

Thanks to GhostintheMachine for spelling out strategic voting. I had started to get into that in a draft of the post, but it pushed the other stuff down so far that I cut it.

I'm a big-Hall guy myself; to me, it's a Hall of Fame, emphasis on the last word, and the guys who made highlight-reel plays over and over deserve to be there (as long as they had some value with the bat, too). In general, defense gets short shrift in the Hall voting. So I'm in favor of guys like Edmonds, and my personal favorite from my youth, Graig Nettles, who was a decent hitter (390 HR) but also the best defensive 3B in the league for much of his playing time - hence his 68 WAR. Third base is way under-represented in the Hall -- just 16 of them, the fewest of any position -- but Chipper will sail in, as will Beltre in a couple of years.

As for transparency - check that one link up there, "soon they'll have to." Starting next year, all ballots will be public. We'll know who threw away a vote on Scott Podsednik and who left Jim Thome off the ballot. If they dared.
posted by martin q blank at 12:03 PM on August 1 [1 favorite]

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