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An agnostic's guide to the Golden Era Baseball Hall of Fame ballot

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Hurry, up, voters! There is still time to get to some of these guys while they're still kicking. Minnie Minoso thanks you for your consideration.

Minnie Minoso
Minnie Minoso
Getty Images

The Hall of Fame "Golden Era Committee," one of a few successors to the old Veterans Committee, announced its latest ballot on Thursday. The 16-member committee meets every three years and considers players who were active from 1947 through 1972. It meets every three years so (A) committees that vote on other time periods can have their turn, and (B) so the players involved can die before receiving their plaques. There's zero urgency to any of this, as evidenced by Ron Santo, a man who had had health problems for years and had also been clearly qualified for roughly an equal period of time, being voted in not long after he died.

This time around there are a number of living possibilities among the deceased, at least some of whom deserve to get in. Maybe. Since the Hall of Fame is an amorphous blob of a concept stuffed into a lovely building in upstate New York, any pretensions of having definitive answers are suspect. Even my old colleague Jay Jaffe's rightly respected JAWS attempts to identify a Hall of Fame-quality player by using the players already in as a de facto definition. JAWS injects a much-needed objectivity into the matter, but it's also circular given that no one had anything like a standard in mind when they were inducted. It's like those Constitutional scholars who like to settle issues according to "the intent of the Framers." If you read back, the Framers often disagreed on what they intended, so you're crediting them with a coherence that is actually retroactively forced on them by your interpretation -- just as you might do with any work that you read, including this one.

In short, whether these players should be in or out is your call, America. Actually, it's David Glass's call, and Tracy Ringolsby's, and a few ex-players as well, but you get the idea.

Gil Hodges (1B/Manager)

Hodges would be a good choice for enshrinement under the same "all-around contribution" rubric that brought Red Schoendienst into the Hall. A power-hitting first baseman, he was "just" a very good player. This sounds like damning an eight-time All-Star with faint praise, but remember, this is the Hall of Fame we're talking about. He had some big years in a small ballpark, Ebbets Field, but that's of no matter -- one way to think of park advantages is to ask if every player who wanders in to a particular stadium (be it Todd Helton at Coors Field, Jim Rice at Fenway Park, or Hodges at Ebbets Field) turns into a 40 home-run slugger. If the answer is no then the player in question has demonstrated a useable skill, being able to take advantage of his environment. After all, an advantage only changes from "potential" to "actual" if someone actually exploits it.

Hodges had one of the all-time miserable World Series in 1952, going 0-for-21 in seven games. After that, though, he was excellent in October, hitting .337/.404/.511 in the remaining 26 World Series games remaining to him and picking up two winning rings. Nevertheless, with career rates of .273/.359/.487, 370 home runs and no major awards -- or 44.9 WAR if you prefer -- he falls short at a very demanding position as a player. However, throw in his managing work, particularly as skipper of the seminal 1969 championship New York Mets, and you have an argument that his overall accomplishments deserve a spot. He came fairly close to enshrinement in three different elections, with percentages in the 60s, so the BBWAA voters weren't exactly strongly opposed.

Hodges died in office with the Mets, passing away at the age of 47 in 1972. It's too late for him to enjoy the honor, but if the completeness of the Hall of Fame gallery matters then there's a place for him in Cooperstown.

Brooklyn Dodgers

Carl Furillo, Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Duke Snider in 1950 (Getty Images).

As time goes on, players die, their fans fade away as well, and what we're left arguing about are numbers on a piece of paper or a computer screen and which set of numbers is superior to another set of numbers. If we were attempting to construct a pantheon of the great novelists, musicians, or painters, we could review their books, paintings, or compositions, respectively. For many ballplayers, their games are gone, and even in their day they were witnessed by a relative handful. When Hodges had his four-home run game in 1950, the announced attendance was just over 14,000. That was a good day -- one game they played in Pittsburgh that year had a gate of 1,011. So our "memory" of these players is, in many cases, imaginary.

Even if we could review Hodges' career the same way we might review all of (say) Charles Dickens' novels or George Harrison's solo albums, it wouldn't be time-effective. Let's say you had films of all 2,110 of Hodges' games. You can't just fast-forward through the games because you want to see all his at-bats and fielding plays. Let's figure that games went faster back then and someone has edited out the change of sides between innings, so that you can boil each contest down to 90 minutes. That's roughly 3,200 hours, or 132 days.

The whole point of having the statistics and primary-source material is so we don't have to do that, but if you never saw the guy play aside from the odd highlight, what do you really know? Why do you care? Are you arguing about a player or an abstraction? If the player is more than the sum of his statistics, then it's fair to say we know what, but we don't know who. Even reading what Red Smith or any of the other great sportswriters who saw them only brings us so close, and the words of his contemporaries are often biased. You could say, "I didn't know Picasso either, but I get him." Again, we have the paintings. The ballplayer's art is his games, and those pop like bubbles and are gone.

When Hodges died, Casey Stengel, one of his former managers, said, "The best remark he ever made, if anybody said anything about him was, ‘My goodness, a man has a right to his opinion.' He had a terrific respect for standing up for the rights of himself and for others."

That sounds like a great guy, but is he a Hall of Famer?

Dick Allen (1B/3B)

When Dick Allen was healthy and motivated, he could hit with anyone in the history of the game. That sounds hyperbolic, but the low-offense era in which he played disguises just how good he was. At his best, he was roughly Miguel Cabrera... but a little better.  The reasons for Allen's general discontentedness boil down to a mix of his personality and the racial politics of the time, and they require our understanding. If you feel like the Hall of Fame can accommodate a guy whose case boils down to a half-dozen full-time seasons that were really, really good -- and there are players already in the Hall of Fame who don't have that -- then Allen is the guy for you. Just be prepared for the opposite side to argue that as good as he was, he was a fatal distraction to those same teams and hold on to your hat for a debate that's impossible to resolve: Can a player give you 160 games of Cabrera-style hitting and still be a detriment?

Minnie Minoso (OF)

A Cuban great whose career was made possible by desegregation, but it was also retarded by the slow pace of change, and he spent a few seasons in the Negro Leagues and minors that he might not have had the color of his skin been different. You can't say what he would have done had he been a major league regular somewhere between 20 and 25, but he was so good that even a couple of average-ish seasons would have put him around 2,000 hits, 200 home runs, and a .290-something career average. That should be good enough for a Gold Glove left fielder who would have won an MVP award or two had he played for the Yankees, but he couldn't have, at least not initially, and that's kind of the point. The Hall of Fame has often been tone deaf when it comes to the game's history of bigotry -- Satchel Paige talked about induction meaning that he had gone from being a second-class citizen to a second-class immortal when Negro Leagues inductees were initially going to be grouped separately from what the Hall clearly considered the more legitimate greats. There are large enough error bars surrounding Minoso's career that he deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's 89, so the voters may not  have much time to make things right while it still matters. No one needs to see another Buck O'Neil situation.

Jim Kaat (LHP)

Pitched forever (from age-20 to age-44) and won 283 games. He was very good at times, but he's also an example of how the unrestrained workloads of the past wrecked young pitchers. Look at his season-by-season record and it reveals an arm that's like a battery that cycles up to 300 innings, gets drained, spends a few years building back up to that level, and then gets drained again. You can't argue that he would have pitched longer, but would he have had had a few more seasons at his best? Almost certainly. That's not what happened, though.

Ken Boyer (3B)

A great defensive third baseman and the 1964 National League MVP award-winner, he was basically Adrian Beltre with a shorter career. He had his first great season at 25 and his last at 33 (the aforementioned MVP season). Playing in the stingy 60s means his hitting doesn't look quite as robust as it actually was, and third basemen are underrepresented in Cooperstown. This is the great thing about the Hall of Fame, actually: It's whatever you want it to be, like scripture or the Constitution, as long as you make an argument and someone believes you. You can root for whoever you without guilt or even coherence. Boyer was good enough to play in over 2,000 games, and at over 60 WAR was worthy of the time.

Ken Boyer

Ken Boyer dives, 1964 World Series (Getty Images).

Billy Pierce (LHP)

The pitching heart of the White Sox of the 1950s, sort of Chris Sale I. Like his White Sox teammate Minoso, Pierce is in his late 80s and is still here to receive the honor should he be inducted. Pierce won one ERA title and one of his two 20-win seasons led the American League. Despite never playing for the Yankees, he got into two World Series and acquitted himself well. The White Sox traded him to the Giants for 1962 and he was a piece of the pennant-winning puzzle there, going 16-6 to help them to a playoff against the Dodgers for the NL pennant. He was a Cy Young Award-level pitcher for two or three seasons, a very good one in a handful of others.

Tony Oliva (OF)

You know the story here. Oliva was another Cuban great, didn't get started until 25 and his knees were done early, so although he won three batting titles and generally killed the ball the rest of the time (again, the 1960s really did a number on raw stats), the counting totals aren't there. If your benchmark is quality, he had it. If you want quantity as well, you need to go elsewhere. The quantity argument doesn't mean a whole lot except as a way of limiting the population of the Hall. Your mileage may vary. Who is to say what special is? The Hall is a museum, it's a building, it's a vehicle for argument. It's not a good place for agnostics and others who aren't overly doctrinal about things. You know, whatever, man.

Maury Wills (SS)

Won an MVP award in 1962 by stealing a lot of bases for the Dodgers; some players who were on the team thought they actually hurt their offense by taking pitches for him. Still, 104 steals in 117 attempts is a monster season, and Wills stroked a decent batting average in singles and played good-not-great defense. Imagine a faster Elvis Andrus who wasn't quite the same kind of fielder. Weird guy who didn't break into the lineup on an everyday basis until he was 27 and stopped being interesting at 36, so he made just 2,134 hits. Again, at a time other than the 1960s it might have been different, but then, in a higher-offense era he wouldn't have been free to steal as many bases so maybe it all balances out.

Luis Tiant (RHP)

The third Cuban star on this year's ballot, El Tiante, was a charismatic, cigar-smoking, six-pitch hurler with a unique ratcheting delivery. He won 20 games four times and endured a midcareer crisis when he went from a AL-leading 1.60 ERA in 1968 to a very average 3.71 in 1969, a drop that brought a 9-20 record with it. It took him three years and some time in the minors to get back on the beam again, but when he did, working as a swingman for the Red Sox in 1972, he led the league in ERA again. Despite a mediocre season in 1975 (the Sox had pitched him 311.1 innings the year before -- just as with Kaat, you can see the impact of that in the following season), he was Boston's playoff weapon, making four starts and winning three of them, pitching a complete game each time. Unfortunately, the fourth start, in Game 6 of the World Series, was one too many against the Big Red Machine. He was clearly better, and certainly more memorable, than many pitchers already in the Hall of Fame. The BBWAA never took him very seriously, for whatever that's worth. Again, if you like peak value, he has it. If piling up numbers is more important to you, at 229-172 he's well short of 300 wins. There is no right answer, so vote your heart.

Bob Howsam (Executive)

General manager of the Cardinals from August, 1964 (which is to say he wasn't the primary designer of their championship team that year) through January, 1967 (so he left on the verge of the 1967 championship), Howsam joined the Reds that same year and was GM and eventually team president through 1978. That puts him squarely in charge of the Big Red Machine. Many of its players were already in the organization when he came aboard, but you only have to look at the career of a GM such as Frank Lane to know that often an executive deserves as much credit for the moves he doesn't make as those he does.

Howsam's signature move was the November, 1971 deal that sent Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart to the Astros in return for second baseman Joe Morgan and four other players. Morgan became a Hall of Famer as a Red, the throw-ins all had their uses, and the Astros are still working off the Curse of Joe. A close second would be stealing another future MVP, outfielder George Foster, from the Giants for light-hitting shortstop Frank Duffy and pitcher Vern Geishert. Howsam was less successful coping with the free-agent era, and gave way to Dick Wagner, one of the least-successful GMs in Reds history. Still, if building one great mini-dynasty of a team is a qualifier for the Hall of Fame, Howsam should get in.