The Hall of Very Good Strikes Again

We really couldn’t resist. Here at SportsAttic we’ve been working on a new format and delivery model for 2022, and had suspended all new posts until that work had been completed.

But as we so often say here at SportsAttic — not so fast…

Because the MLB Hall of Fame had to go and get one right, and we couldn’t sit idly by as this hot a topic simmered during a locked out Hot Stove season.

Truth be told, the Hall of Fame got three right over the weekend when the Golden Days Era committee announced the long overdue election of Gil Hodges, Bud Fowler and Buck O’Neil into Cooperstown for this coming year.

Hodges and O’Neil have been long-time, inexplicable HOF snubs, so the announcement of induction in their two cases righted two glaring wrongs. Both men go into Cooperstown for their overall contributions to the history of the game, rather than simply an outstanding playing career, which is an important distinction for us Hall of Fame purists.

If it were statistics alone, I wouldn’t have voted Hodges in. While very good (remember that term), his career body of work falls just short of the all-time great level that HOF committees should bear in mind when voting in new members. Gil was on the first three Dodgers World Series champion teams, was among the best defensive first basemen of his day, and had an incredible run of success at the plate for much of the ’50’s.

Now you can call me a homer (I wear the moniker comfortably), but without his World Series managerial work with the 1969 Miracle Mets and where that fits in the game’s lore, despite his many achievements Gil Hodges the player doesn’t cross over into Hall of Fame territory.

O’Neil would suffer the same fate if he were only considered for his playing years, a good, not great, run in the old Negro Leagues. But Buck O’Neil’s contributions to the game and his legacy as it pertains to the very fabric of baseball, on top of his distinguished playing career, should have left him a no-doubt-abouter long ago. The first African-American coach in the major leagues, long-time scout and tireless ambassador for the Negro Leagues through his involvement with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum up until his death, Buck O’Neil is a more than worthy Hall of Famer.

As is Bud Fowler, a player I was unfamiliar with until the Hall’s announcement the other day. Considered by many the first African-American player in major league baseball history, his historical significance to the game, given he played at a time when the Civil War had only ended a decade or so prior, makes his inclusion a logical one given his significant role in the game’s historic subplot of color lines and segregation.

So bravo to the Hall of Fame for getting it right on Hodges, O’Neil and Fowler.

By now I’m guessing many of you know where we are heading here. Because there were six inductees agreed upon by the Golden Days Era committee announced the other day. The problem here, which I’ve been railing about for years now, is that the other three inductees (all of whom, by the way, I happen to really like as a fan of the game of baseball) don’t belong in the Hall of Fame.

Tony Oliva was one of the best pure hitters of his day, and one who, to me, falls just short of a HOF-worthy career, mostly due to injuries that cut his playing days short. Similar to Gil Hodges’ run during the early- to mid-’50’s, Oliva terrorized opposing pitching for much of the ’60’s, an era dominated by superb pitching. But Oliva’s career numbers fall short of 2000 hits, he didn’t win an MVP, or lead his team to a World Series title. In fact, through no fault of his own, he was never even the most feared bat in his own lineup, given the presence of fellow Hall of Famers Harmon Killebrew and Rod Carew. Was Oliva a very good player? Yes. A great hitter? Absolutely. A Hall of Fame immortal? Nope.

SPORTSATTIC ASIDE — For what it’s worth, Richie/Dick Allen is one of my favorite, legendary ballplayers from my youth. He finished one vote shy this year, garnering only 11 out of 16 votes from the group that brought in Tony Oliva. Take a look at both players’ stats and tell me how one belongs in Cooperstown and the other does not. I’ve been okay with Allen missing out all these years primarily for the same reason I was okay with Oliva not being enshrined. They didn’t do it long enough (to me, if you can’t get past 2000 career hits the conversation ends there). But with Oliva now in, despite my protestations above and below, I’m okay with Dick Allen joining him in the Hall of Very Good in 2026 when the Golden Days Era committee next convenes (and hopefully the committee member who is putting personalities ahead of the integrity of his vote has moved on by then — hello Fergie Jenkins).

The same goes for Jim Kaat. By his own admission, Kaat was never even a number one starter during his playing career. However, he did have tremendous longevity and he was a lefty, which afforded him the ability to remain in the bigs and eat innings while piling up wins all the way to a career total of 283 victories. That total would earn automatic HOF entry today, but when we view his career through the lens of Kitty’s playing days, it should only qualify him (along with Tommy John) as a really good pitcher and stat accumulator who should remain on the outside of Cooperstown looking in.

Minnie Minoso was perhaps the least deserving of the recently elected old-time players. An exciting and popular player during his time, Minnie is best known to contemporaries of mine for his gimmicky return to the game in the ’70’s to earn some back pension benefits and become the only player to appear in a game in five decades. Like Hodges, Kaat, and Oliva, Minoso filled up the box scores for several years during his prime, just not enough. Minnie Minoso — a really, really good ballplayer.

But not a Hall of Famer.

I’ll never let go of my belief that the air of the shrine at Cooperstown is rarified. Only legends and immortals and those that became larger than life thanks to their overall contributions to our National Pastime belong. Names like Ruth, Gehrig, Robinson, Mays, Seaver, Griffey Jr. They are my Hall of Famers.

Names like Baines, Walker, Raines, Dawson, Mussina, Rice — they are all in the Hall of Fame. But in my book they will never be Hall of Famers. There’s a difference. It’s not called the Hall of Very Good for a reason, and the voters need to remember that when bestowed the honor of a vote granted to them at least in part to uphold that legacy.

Which brings us to the 2021 Hall of Fame ballot, which could best be described under the heading of Steroid Cheats, Very Good Players, and Head Scratchers.

A sportswriter I respect posted his ballot recently on Twitter. I found myself cringing before examining the ballot closely, assuming there would be the maximum ten boxes checked, as so many mindless voters today feel is required (and one more time now — ten is the goddamn maximum, not a requirement — it’s okay to leave all ten blank if you find zero worthy candidates — my temples are twitching…).

To my pleasant surprise, this ballot only had five votes submitted, so points for not being a mindless sheep, dutifully counting to 10 without so much as a thought toward worthiness. However, among this particular writer’s five selections was Barry Bonds, which I found interesting since this writer had not included any of the other steroid cheats among his five.

In the Tweet, he explained his rationale for the Bonds vote, noting as many have, Bonds’ exemplary career prior to the point where most believed he began cheating in an effort to ratchet up his long-ball stats. While I disagree with his ultimate decision to include Bonds on his ballot, I understand the writer’s reasoning, so I decided to take a look at the other cheaters on the ballot to determine who among them might have been a Hall of Famer (a worthy one, not the Hall of Very Good variety) had they not taken the wrong turn down Steroid Row.

Where I landed was that among that soiled group of former stars, only Roger Clemens and Alex Rodriguez were likely to have ascended to HOF-level greatness without the aid of ‘roids. Manny Ramirez and Gary Sheffield would have had highly successful careers, but would not have accumulated their oversized stats that we see today, the juice accountable for their numbers reaching levels that would otherwise make them no-brainer inductees.

In a drug free sport, I’d anticipate seeing Manny and Sheff duking it out with Andruw Jones, hoping to sneak in via the watered down Hall of Very Good criteria that ultimately rewarded players like Andre Dawson and Jim Rice. Andy Pettitte falls just short, too, even with his juiced career stats, so figure him to have been a distant also ran without however many years he was aided by steroids boosting his numbers.

Since Clemens and Bonds manage to combine both egregious drug cheating histories with reputations as being among the bigger assholes in the history of the sport, there’s no way you could convince me to send a vote their way if I had one (and alas, I don’t).

Beyond the cheaters on the Hall’s 2021 ballot, there lies a vast array of very good players, who pose serious risk to continuing the watering down trend of recent years. Since we’ve morphed into a Hall of Very Good world, it would make sense that several of these excellent-but-not-immortal stars would be entering into this year’s voting with hopes high.

The sportswriter’s Twitter ballot I reference above included Andruw Jones, Jeff Kent, Scott Rolen and Curt Schilling, in addition to the aforementioned vote for Barry Bonds. All four of them are very good players, stars even, but not one of them a Hall of Famer.

Jones was an outstanding defensive centerfielder who had pop and put up solid, long-term career stats. Put him in the Braves local Hall of Fame if they have one in Atlanta, but not Cooperstown. He doesn’t belong.

Nor does Jeff Kent, although I must admit Kent is the one I have the weakest conviction to keep out. Attribute my objections in part to bitterness over the Mets letting him go before his power stroke put him into HOF conversations, and partly due to his shitty demeanor in general (he looks like every cop that broke up the high school keg parties I use to attend, although props for hating Bonds when they were Giants teammates). Kent has legit power numbers, which do stand out among second basemen, but does he belong with Joe Morgan and Rogers Hornsby among the game’s legends at the position? Hell no. He’s not even ready to be a peer of Ryne Sandberg. Next.

Rolen shouldn’t even warrant discussion. Period. The whole idea that third basemen get special consideration doesn’t wash with me. Catchers? Absolutely. But why third basemen? When Adrian Beltre gets on the ballot in 2024, he will be the next deserving third baseman to enter the HOF. Please voters, don’t further water things down by adding Scott Rolen in the meantime.

As for Curt Schilling, I really struggle here, because while his numbers fall into the “very good” category, much like Roy Halladay and Mike Mussina, his contributions to the game (rising to the occasion when the stakes were highest in the World Series, the bloody sock, etc.) make him a more worthy selection than his stats alone would warrant. Ultimately he falls off due to his own buffoonery and request not to be included on any more ballots, a request he registered as he pouted over not making The Hall a year ago. Fine by me, Curt. You weren’t a shoo-in to begin with.

Other stars on this year’s ballot that have earned the “very good” stigma include Billy Wagner, Omar Vizquel (who I’ve previously supported but have changed my tune on, deciding he’s a poor man’s Luis Aparicio, himself a borderline selection), Todd Helton and Bobby Abreu (yikes — how could there be voters out there supporting Bobby Abreu???).

As for the head scratchers? Too many to count on the 2021 ballot, so let’s just leave it at this…A.J. Pierzynski. Ya gotta be shitting me, right?

Last but not least, what do we do about the curious case of David Ortiz?

Is he a steroid cheat? The fact that I can’t say definitively “yes” means “no,” doesn’t it? I mean, Mike Piazza had steroid rumors swirling around his Hall candidacy that I chose to ignore (and still do — and yes, I wear the “homer” label like a comfy pair of slippers). Ortiz has the stats, the big moment pedigree, the historical relevance…maybe I’m just holding against him the fact that I can’t stand him on Fox’s pregame and postgame shows.

Whatever it is, I just hope Ortiz doesn’t get in on the first ballot this year. That’s an even higher honor the voters need to hold the line on. An honor we won’t chronicle any further, though (in today’s post at least).

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