Who Belongs in the Hall of Fame?
The big news coming out of Cooperstown, N.Y., on Jan. 24 is the Baseball Hall of Fame's scheduled announcement of who shall enter its august pantheon in 2018. What's already known of the semi-secret balloting by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America reveals a couple of surprises, though the actual surprise is not so much about whom actually merits inclusion in the fabled company of Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Ernie Banks, and God, (er, Ryne Sandberg).
The real story this year spins on the underlying qualifications (or lack thereof) that many of this year's leading candidates represent. Should full-time designated hitter Edgar Martinez qualify? Light-hitting defensive genius Omar Vizquel? Recognized abusers of steroids and other performance enhancing drugs Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens? The answers to these questions used to be a resounding NO! But that's not so clear this time around.
According to Ryan Thibodoux, who tracks Hall voting by collecting the ballots of the BBWAA members willing to share theirs with him, Martinez is trending at 80+ percent of the electorate after about half of the votes have been counted. (Players must get at least 75 percent to punch a ticket to Cooperstown.) Edgar seems a shoe-in, along with slugging position players Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, and Vladimir Guerero, and relief ace Trevor Hoffman. The acrobatic shortstop Vizquel is at 30 percent, still far from the promised land but not bad for his first year of eligibility. PED users Bonds and Clemens, who've languished far down on the ballot for several years now, have literally risen from the dead, garnering 65 percent of the vote each so far this year, a stunning leap from about 54 percent each player got last year. If they don't make it this year, they may well get the nod in 2019.
Tinker, Evers and Chance entered the Hall of Fame together in 1946. The evolving historical consensus has been less generous.
But even if specific issues and controversies seem new our day, the fault lines in Hall of Fame voting remain quite familiar. Deciding what skills, attributes, and contributions should factor into Cooperstown recognition is a conundrum that goes back 60 years or more. Just ask the advocates and disparagers of Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers, and Frank Chance.
The three members of the Cubs' great double-play combo of 1903-1912 were elected to the Hall of Fame in 1946 — not by the writers, but by a specially appointed, seven-member committee of baseball executives. The "Old Timers Committee" gathered that year to rectify the steady reluctance of sportswriters of that era to recognize ANYBODY as equal to, or worthy of, the iconic names who entered the Hall in its first decade — Ruth, Cobb, Gehrig, Cy Young, etc. The Hall had suspended the annual votes during most of the war years, and when voting resumed in 1944 and 1945, the writers anointed no one. Frank Chance came closest on his own in 1945, finishing just seven votes short of the 75 percent threshold.
Then in 1946, the Hall’s eighth year of war-interrupted voting, Tinker, Evers, and Chance made it in together, thanks to that Old-Timers Committee. (The writers that year awarded zilch again.) For many baseball observers at the time, their election—along with eight other veterans from the early days of the game—righted a longstanding oversight of the game’s neglected "deadball era." Enshrining the trinity of Cub infielders seemed a fitting tribute to their brilliant teamwork, their remarkable longevity as an infield unit, and to the club’s unrivaled success on the field during their tenure.
The evolving historical consensus, however, has been less generous. While Chance has always been considered a fairly natural choice for Hall of Fame inclusion, that’s as much for his success as a manager as for his performance as a cleanup hitter and first baseman. Johnny Evers was, and still is, one of the best second basemen of his day, and to top off his great Cubs career, he went on to star for and inspire the “miracle” Boston Braves in their come-from-behind race for the 1914 NL pennant and subsequent World Series sweep. But scratch-hitting second basemen have never garnered much respect from baseball mavens and Hall of Fame purists, who rank Evers a borderline choice at best. And Joe Tinker? Well, hardly anyone today thinks he belongs in the Hall of Fame, a judgement that stems mainly from his spotty record as a hitter. Even in his day, the wildly popular, slick-fielding Tinker always performed in the shadow of Pittsburgh’s star shortstop, the immortal Honus Wagner, who was inducted in the Hall of Fame’s charter class in 1936 along with Ruth, Cobb, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Tinker certainly confounded the otherwise masterful Mathewson during the years they faced each other — Matty singled out Tinker on the first page of his autobiography as the one hitter he could never seem to get out—but hardly anyone else feared Tinker at the plate for most of his career.
Hence the sarcastic judgment that this fabled threesome owes its Hall of Fame credentials more to a poetic play on their names than to their knack for turning two.
Such modern-day second guesses are the stuff of arguments in bleachers, bars, and social media. Yet both sides in the worthiness debate miss the crucial point. Tinker and Evers and Chance may or may not belong in the Hall of Fame for the historical rationales that put them there in the first place. But they are more than worthy.
Anyone who questions their Hall of Fame status must take this fact into account: Tinker, Evers, and Chance were the indisputable leaders of their team, and as baseball historian Bill James has shown, that team won an unmatched number of games—which is, of course, the whole point of any team sport.
Their Cubs won more games over any period of years than any other great team in history. The Cubs dynasty began with a single season record of 116 wins in 1906, and continued through their five-season record of 530, and even their ten-season record of 986. They won more games than the Yankees of Ruth and Gehrig, or the Yankees of Gehrig and DiMaggio; more than the Dodgers of Robinson and Campanella; more than the Yankees of Mantle and Berra, the A's or Yankees of Jackson and Catfish, or the Yankees of Jeter and Rivera; more than the Reds of Bench, Morgan, Rose, and Perez; and more than the Braves of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz. “The definition of a great ballplayer is a ballplayer who helps his team to win a lot of games,” James asserts in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (2011), in his assessment of Tinker, Evers and Chance. “If you’re going to say these guys don’t belong in the Hall of Fame … you have to deal somehow with the phenomenal success of their team.”
Baseball geeks will continue to argue over these Cubs' individual metrics—even Bill James hedges his final verdict. But it is harder to dispute another, more qualitative justification for the high standing baseball has accorded them. As I argue in my book, Tinker to Evers to Chance: The Chicago Cubs and the Dawn of Modern America, baseball might not exist today—certainly no myth-making Baseball Hall of Fame would exist—if not for this trio’s rise to prominence, domination, and glory at a pivotal point in America’s embrace of the game.
I don't want to give away the book's ending here, but suffice to say, they do belong in the Hall of Fame, and they belong there together.
And to finish the thought I started with: I think Edgar Martinez belongs in the Hall even though I remain opposed the designated hitter rule. The DH, instituted in the American League in 1973— 44 years ago!—is part of today's game (at least half of it), and Martinez excelled at the job that few others have managed to master. So, too, for shortstop Omar Vizquel, who played the most demanding "skill" position on the field like a Gold-Medal ice skater.
Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, on the other hand, left a stain on the game and aren't worthy of anyone's regard, least of all the official memory keeper of the game. They cheated their fellow players, their fans, and the integrity of competitive sports, and they know it. Toss their baseball cards into the dustbin of history.