Cooperstown Needs to Restore Excellence, Tighten Induction Standards
With the Hall of Fame induction ceremony set for the July 21–24 weekend, here’s a baseball quiz. The question: What do Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Scott Rolen and Fred McGriff have in common? Not many fans are fooled. Although Ruth, Cobb, Rolen and McGriff have skill levels that range from extraordinary to above average but not great, all four are Hall of Fame inductees. In many scribes’ minds, the vast talent gap between the enshrined great and the very good is proof that the institution has lost its exclusivity. In too many cases, induction isn’t warranted.
Ruth and Cobb are baseball titans elected along with Honus Wagner, Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson in 1936; the five superstars represent first-ever HOF class. In 2022, on his sixth ballot appearance, Rolen squeaked into the Hall with 76.3 percent of the vote, 1.3 percent over the minimum 75 percent required. McGriff took a more circuitous route. After failing to reach the mandatory 75 percent for 10 consecutive years, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, as per its rules, dropped McGriff’s name from the ballot. A few years later, McGriff reappeared on the Contemporary Era committee where he was unanimously elected. The Contemporary Baseball Era includes players from 1980 to the present day, while the Classic Baseball Era spans the period prior to 1980 and includes Negro Leagues and pre-Negro Leagues stars. In other words, just because the BBWAA initially rejects a player — and in some cases, resoundingly rejects — doesn’t mean that he won’t reappear on either Classic or Contemporary Era ballot.
Rolen and McGriff are very good players, and would be welcome additions to any roster. But they’re not Hall of Fame worthy. Without getting too deeply into sabermetric weeds, McGriff in his 19-year career notably hit 30 home runs or more 10 times, and led the league in that category twice. But McGriff never finished higher than fourth in Most Valuable Player award voting, a telling evaluation of his overall value to the six teams he played for. Many feel that Hall of Fame inductees should be the dominant players of their era, not merely key contributors.
Rolen’s Hall of Fame credentials are less persuasive than McGriff’s. Like McGriff, Rolen never finished higher than fourth in MVP balloting, but he had no league-leading categories, and was elected on the basis of his eight Gold Gloves — nice, but not Hall of Fame stuff.
The moment a debate about a candidate’s credentials arises, he’s probably not Hall of Fame material. Center field: Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio; Right field: Henry Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson; Catchers: Johnny Bench, Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, Bill Dickey, Pitchers: Bob Feller, Tom Seaver, Whitey Ford — no one argues about their top place among the greats. But when five failed ballots have been cast, and on the sixth, the player gets elected by the slimmest margin, as is Rolen’s case, he doesn’t belong.
The solution: eliminate the extra committees which are designed to expand the total inductees, reduce the ten-year eligibility to three years, and increase the approval margin from 75 percent to 90 percent. The truly great will easily reach the 90 percent plateau, while those who fall short will remain on the outside looking in. Hall of Fame members returning to Cooperstown to honor the Class of 2023 include: Jeff Bagwell, Harold Baines, Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, Bert Blyleven, Wade Boggs, George Brett, Rod Carew, Orlando Cepeda, Andre Dawson, Rollie Fingers, Pat Gillick, Tom Glavine, Goose Gossage, Rickey Henderson, Whitey Herzog, Trevor Hoffman, Fergie Jenkins, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones, Jim Kaat, Tony La Russa, Barry Larkin, Greg Maddux, Juan Marichal, Fred McGriff, Paul Molitor, Jack Morris, Eddie Murray, Mike Mussina, Tony Oliva, David Ortiz, Tony Pérez, Tim Raines, Jim Rice, Cal Ripken, Scott Rolen, Ryne Sandberg, John Schuerholz, Bud Selig, Ted Simmons, Lee Smith, Ozzie Smith, Frank Thomas, Jim Thome, Joe Torre, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker, Billy Williams, Dave Winfield and Robin Yount. Not all would reach 90 percent.
Baseball will never see another class like 1936, but the BBWAA should keep Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Johnson and Mathewson’s greatness in mind when they vote.
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at email@example.com.