Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
HALL OF FAME It's about
2002-12-10 16:43
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to


It's about that time of year again. Time to consider the latest group of candidates for the Hall of Fame. This is an undeniable pleasure for baseball fans, one that allows us to rehash old arguments, make new discoveries, and perhaps even, drawn some new conclusions (however unlikely that sounds.). Both Tim Kurkjian and Rob Neyer at ESPN have weighed in on this year's crop, which is highlighted by Eddie Murray and Ryne Sandburg, and there is a wonderfully detailed breakdown of the entire group on Aaron's blog.

Eddie Murray seems like an obvious selection to me, while Sandburg appears to have all the credentials too. I have less of an absolute feeling about Sandburg though I don't know what to attribute that to. It's funny how some players seem greater as time passes, while others tend to fade a bit. Although I grew up in New York, there were several years in the mid-1980's when WGN was available on local cable. So I watched Sandburg a good deal, and remember him as the outstanding player on the Cubbies (I don't mean this as a diss either), a true team leader. I don't mean to suggest that I don't think Ryno should be elected to the Hall; there is ample evidence which supports him a viable pick (check out Bob Allen's usefual analysis over at Baseball Primer ).

Here are my cousin Gabe's thoughtful musings:

For me, Ryne Sandberg is inextricably linked with
Keith Hernandez. In a lot of ways, I consider 1984 to
be my first year as a functional baseball fan. I was
ten, so I wasn't the seasoned iconoclast I am now, but
I was certainly in tune with what I thought about a
bunch of engrossing stuff: namely, conventional
offensive statistics, all star rosters, and MVP

No Mets player has ever been league MVP. In 1984,
Hernandez finished second behind Sandberg and the Mets
finished second behind the Cubs. Neither player had
what you would call traditional MVP numbers on
offense. Both were "tweeners", guys who hit for a
strong average with extra-base power but not a ton of
home runs. (Sandberg would boost his homer totals
later in his career--in 1990, he hit 40.) Both were
great defensive players: Sandberg at a more demanding
position, Hernandez in perhaps a more revolutionary
manner. After the regular season, I was of the
opinion that the MVP race was dead heat; Sandberg won
by a ton, in fact, for a variety of reasons. (The Cubs
went to the playoffs, for one thing. Also, Sandberg
was a better defensive player than I could possibly
have understood at the time.)

Now that Sandberg is Hall of Fame eligible, I am
inclined to compare the two players once again. It's
amazing to me how well they stack up over their
careers. Sandberg had about 1,000 more at bats, in
part due to the fact that Mex walked about four
hundred more times. Keith's ten points ahead in
batting average (.296 to .285) and forty points ahead
in OBP (.388 to .347), while Ryno is up in slugging
(.452 to .436). Sandberg has a big lead in homers
(282 to 162), while Hernandez is up a little in
doubles (426 to 403) and, as I said, walks. Sandberg
struck out more, but scored more; Hernandez drove in
more. They're not identical hitters--one had more
plate control, the other more pop--but their
differences are the sort that are borne out over long
careers rather than on a season-by-season basis; in a
given year, you could mistake one's stats for another.
In the end, I think you could argue for Hernandez, in
spite of the homerun deficit, being the superior
hitter, albeit only slightly. They're close.

As always, accounting for defense is less obvious. We
know what Mex meant to that team defensively and
spiritually. If Sandberg meant less to the soul of
the Cubs, I think it's safe to say that he meant more
to their defense. I don't think he reset the bar for
the position, as many think Hernandez did at first,
but I think he could be one of the top handful of
defensive second basemen of all time, which I guess
has to be more impressive than being the very best
first basemen ever (if indeed that's what Mex was).

Nevertheless, if Ryne Sandberg goes into the Hall of
Fame, part of me that will feel slighted on Keith's
behalf. In my mind, there's a parity between the two
players. In a vaccuum, I don't know that I really
think Hernandez is a Hall of Famer; in the context of
Sandberg's election (should that occur), it will seem
more ambiguous. Anytime a player is elected based on
something other than total offensive
production--whether it's offensive at a certain
position, defensive value, leadership--it opens the
door to debate in a way that a 300 win guy doesn't.
Suddenly, we're asking how this guy rates against a
whole lot of players with a whole variety of similarities:
If Sandberg makes us (or me, anyway) consider
Hernandez, then Hernandez certainly forces us to
consider Mattingly. And if you consider Mattingly--a
dynamic offensive player and leader with short
prime--how do we not talk about Albert Belle? (Not
that Joey's eligible yet, but what do think the
chances are of him getting any serious support?)

And if Sandberg doesn't make it in, should Kirby
Puckett have his membership revoked?

The Ryno/Mex comparison is intriguing. I agree with Gabe's conclusion that one questionable candidate begats another. (And no, Albert Belle won't stand a chance; if Jim Rice's chances have been hurt by his sour relationship with the press, think about how hard it will be for Belle, deserving or not.)

So who is the standard? Willie Mays, or Frank Chance?

In his book, "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?", Bill James wrote:

"When you ask the question, what is a Hall of Famer, your natural tendency is to look for a written definition. What is it that makes a man a Hall of Famer? What does it mean to be a member of the Hall of Fame? What does the Hall of Fame look for?
There were no written standards in the beginning. An attempt to say what a Hall of Famer is was made by the Permanent Committee in the mid-1940's, but that definition meets the standards of the rest of the Permanent Committee's work, so for all practical purposes ther are no written standards.
So what then?
The Hall of Fame is what it makes of itself.
But since the Hall of Fame's voting methods have been faulty over a long period of time, resulting in inconsistent if not arbitrary selections, that definition is very fuzzy.
The Hall of Fame resists definition. It is a museum, officially--but it is not certified by the American Association of Museums.
So, in a sense, the Hall of Fame isn't really anything. It's the highest honor in the American sports world, but it holds that position, to be honest, more by habit than by merit."

Since there is no answer to the question, "What makes a Hall of Famer?" it allows us fans to do what we probably enjoy most: contemplate and debate.

Here is a follow up from Gabe:

I hope I didn't come to any conclusions in the
Sandberg piece, because I don't feel like I have any
on that topic! I think the crux of it is that there is
some discrepancy somewhere between who goes into the
Hall and who, in a given generation, we consider the
elite players to be--but I'm not sure in which
direction the discrepancy occurs. Probably both. In
some cases--like Puckett's--I think the a player's
positive aura and general winning ways make make
certain people feel like they have license to excuse
marginal credentials. In other cases, failure to
achieve certain exorbitant career benchmarks render a
less likable guy unqualified. I mean, there are
dozens of Mattingly's--successful, popular players who
devotees feel have been egregiously overlooked. But
how about Dave Parker? That guy has no chance, and
let me tell you, he was a sick hitter and a great

Problems occur when you start basing future selections
on prior mistakes. Let's say Puckett's election is a
bit dubious, for argument's sake. Or no, wait, let's
take Ralph Kiner, who was received the minimum votes
needed, I think in his last year of eligibility. By a
number of accounts from people who have spent much
more time thinking about this than I have, Kiner's
inclusion is a mistake. How horrific a mistake it is
I'm not sure, but I think you can safely say that
Kiner is one of the least deserving corner
outfielders/first basemen of the modern era to be
enshrined. But he's in, there's nothing to be done
about it, and there are no official tiers of Hall of
Famer to qualify how much of a Hall of Famer some one
is. To me, the question then becomes, do we use this
guy as a precedent? Because I think you and I could
come up with a long list of active and un-enshrined
retired players who have more impressive resumes than
Ralph. Even taking era into account, I think we can
safely say that Albert Belle is better (and had a
career cut short at about the same point); Dave
Parker's better; Jim Rice is better; Jose Canseco,
Dale Murphy, Harold Baines. These are just guy's
who's offense is at least debatably better than
Kiner's. When you start to consider defense, you get
into people like Alan Trammell, Ron Santo, and many
others--both those who played key positions (Lance
Parish, never mind Kid Carter) and those who were
actually good at less crucial positions (e.g. Dwight
Evans, whose defensive value alone must at least equal
Kiner's offense). When you consider leadership, you
get into players like Gil Hodges. (Of the people I
just named, I think only Hodges has a real chance at
election, and that's because of what his managerial
career added to his cache.) I think it's safe to say
that there are 20-30 active position players who are
better hitters than was Kiner and who have achieved,
in one form or another, more than he did in career
stats--do they all go in? I can't believe they all
will. If Dale Murphy didn't go in, why would Juan
Gonzalez (unless he has a real revival)? But both are
better qualified than Kiner, who was elected late
enough (1975) for writers to know better, to have some

But, as I said, he's in, and you therefore have every
right to use him as a kind of standard if you want to.
Even though his real peers are George Foster and
Cecil Fielder. Darrell Evans was a more valuable
player than Kiner, and no talks about him going to
Cooperstown. It just goes to show that some
sportwriters aren't informed enough to know what to
look for. Therefore, you end up with no real sense of
standards, players elected or excluded with an
insufficient sense of context.

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