Defending the "small Hall" ... in 1960 (when it was still small)

Jim McIsaac

While we're all worrying about how many outstanding Hall of Fame candidates will certainly not be elected this month -- and how many will continue to not be elected, for some years to come -- I ran across a couple of experts who would probably be thrilled at the prospect of fruitless elections.

in 1960, Washington Post columnist and Hall of Fame voter Bob Addie asked Senators great Sam Rice a simple question: "Suppose you were Bob Addie. Would you vote Sam Rice into the Hall of Fame?"

Rice's response: "No. I think Rice fell too short. He could hit maybe, but there were a lot of other things he couldn't do. I wouldn't have voted for him."

More nuggets from Rice:

How come Joe Cronin and Hank Greenberg are in the Hall of Fame? Greenberg hit the long ball, but that's all. He couldn't field and he couldn't run, either.

Cronin, now, wasn't as good as a number of shortstops I could mention. And yet he was voted in. I will say this about Joe -- He was the greatest shortstop I ever saw for one year...

But one year doesn't make a Hall of Famer. I say a man has to keep it up for several years. Maybe there should be a minimum of ten years before a man is elected to the Hall of Fame. Maybe it should be less, I don't know. I don't run the voting and I wouldn't want to. I'm just talking out loud.

A fellow like Dizzy Dean has no business being in the Hall. You take a man like Walter Johnson. He knew everything there was to know about pitching -- and he did it. That's my idea of a man who belongs in the Hall of Fame.

I happen to agree with Rice about Dean. The other guys, not so much. Oddly, he later says that he would vote for Fred Marberry before he would vote for himself. This was definitely not a majority opinion, as Rice would be elected by the Veterans Committee just three years after this interview, while Marberry never drew more than a faint sniff from any voting body.

Addie's piece was published in Baseball Digest. Coincidentally, just two months earlier another Post writer, Shirley Povich, had weighed in with roughly the same sentiment. Recently, the BBWAA voters had failed to elect a single candidate. Which had happened two years earlier, in the previous election. The BBWAA hadn't given anyone the requisite 75 percent since 1956, when Greenberg and Cronin were elected.

Povich doesn't mention those two. But he was perfectly happy with the shutouts in 1958 and '60. Under the headline "Don't Crowd the Hall!" Povich wrote:

It is difficult to put in with Ford Frick, the commissioner, and American League President Joe Cronin, who expressed disappointment at the result of the ballot and demanded an overhaul of the voting system. Any relaxation of the 75 per cent rule would invite the election of players who don't properly belong in Cooperstown's niches.

--snip--

The steady rejection of the less-than-great has been a good thing for Cooperstown. None has been elected by the writers since 1956, and the high honor of the Hall of Fame has been safeguarded. It must be noted that one reason for the four-year moratorium has been not the fact that voting system is too severe but the fact that the game currently isn't producing the giant-type performers of the past.

Povich goes on to say that Stan Musial and Ted Williams, then nearing the ends of their careers, would be worthy candidates. And that Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella would deserve serious consideration. And that Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle and Hank Aaron were well on their ways. But that was about it.

In 1960, the Hall of Fame didn't have nearly as many members as it does today, and had generally been reserved for the true immortals. Not exclusively. But generally.

You might also argue, though, that the BBWAA's ballot in 1960 was loaded with good candidates, which is what kept any of them from actually being elected. My guess is while there were many voters like Povich who didn't think anybody really deserved election, there were other voters who voted for lots of guys.

How loaded was the ballot? There were 269 voters. Almost exactly half as many players -- 134 of them -- were named on at least one ballot. Seventy-six got at least five votes, 55 got at least 10, 34 at least 20, etc.

Here's what really blows my mind, though: While not a single one of those 134 candidates was elected by the BBWAA in 1960, 36 were eventually elected (as players; three more were elected as managers).

I'm not sure that Povich was so terribly wrong, though. Of those 36 who were later elected, nearly all were elected by the Veterans Committee rather than the BBWAA, and nearly all probably shouldn't have been. Sure, Povich was probably being too rough on candidates like Arky Vaughan, Luke Appling, Red Ruffing, and Johnny Mize. But the Veterans Committee would be far too easy on the likes of Chick Hafey, Jesse Haines, Chuck Klein, Tony Lazzeri, and literally dozens of others.

So Povich lost that battle. Which is actually sort of a shame. Still, that doesn't mean anybody as good as Jesse Haines should in the Hall of Fame. The standard is no longer Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, but that doesn't mean it's now Lefty Gomez and Travis Jackson. I believe a good guideline is this: A worthy candidate doesn't lower the standards of the Hall; that is, he's at least as good as the median. Another reasonable guideline (at this point): A worthy candidate ranks among the 10 best players at his position. Both standards are tough, but would allow for the election of many of the players currently on the ballot, or joining the ballot in the next few years.

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