The National Baseball Hall of Fame (HOF), nestled in scenic upstate New York’s Cooperstown, has been home to some controversial history over the years. As described by Jeff Somers in Grunge, Jackie Robinson, by now a pretty uncontested HOF’er, barely made it into the Hall; Rogers Hornsby, voted into the Hall, was a hugely disliked player and manager and was likely a member of the KKK; Ty Cobb, voted into the Hall, was a noted dirty player and once entered the stands to assault a fan; Larry Walker, voted into the Hall, only hit .334 once he started playing at Coors Field — where the balls “just fly out;” and Whitey Ford, voted into the Hall, actually confessed to cheating by doctoring the baseballs he threw (“The Baseball Hall of Fame’s Biggest Controversies Ever,” Jeff Somers, Grunge, June 25, 2021).
This list doesn’t even include any controversy surrounding PED use, or players who’ve been elected into the Hall who’ve been suspected of PED use — but not proven to have actually used PEDs. Moreover, of course, players who haven’t (yet) made it into the Hall due to known PED use or connections to PED use are in a whole category of their own. But, ultimately, what’s most controversial about the Hall is the election process itself — and as a result, what the bar is for entry.
More from Jeff Somers, same article as above: “Requiring 75 percent of the votes cast by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (and players get booted off the ballots after ten years or if they receive less than five percent of the votes), the Hall is meant to enshrine only the greatest players of all time — men who embody the talent and sportsmanship championed by the game.” Though most of the most controversial players to make into the Hall were undoubtedly among the greatest players of their generation, the “sportsmanship” part in some cases leaves a lot open to question.
It’s the writers who determine who gets into the Hall of Fame for the most recent players on the ballot; but the process for the Veterans, or Era, Committees works differently:
“The Era Committees, formerly known as the Veterans Committee, consider retired Major League Baseball players no longer eligible for election by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), along with managers, umpires and executives, whose greatest contributions to the game were realized in one of four eras.” (National Baseball Hall of Fame, https://baseballhall.org/hall-of-famers/rules/eras-committees)
Recall that a player gets knocked off the BBWAA ballot after ten years if they receive less than five percent of the vote. Hence, the four eras for selection by the Era Committees include: Today’s Game (1988-Present); Modern Baseball (1970-1987); Golden Days (1950-1969); and Early Baseball (Prior to 1950).
The Era Committees don’t only include members of the media, however. They also include retired managers and executives, as well as members of the Hall itself. So I guess you could say any player voted into the HOF by the Era Committees had a fairer, more diverse electorate vote than those voted in by the BBWAA.
And yet there are players who remain perennial question marks, or sit on the bubble of being elected to the Hall, and sometimes for extended periods of time.
There are those who claim that politics play as much of a role in who gets into the Hall as do career achievements and sportsmanship, both on and off the field.
Take for example the case of Harold Baines, elected to the Hall in 2018 by the Era Committees. Baines was a solid player, and his career hit total was 2866. Baines was a MLB player for 22 years, though many injuries interrupted his playing days. Ultimately, Baines was a DH who could hardly play the field — and there are those who’ve questioned whether DHs should be inducted into the HOF at all. Even Baines admitted to being “very shocked” when he won election into the Hall. But Baines had longevity, and he was elected into the Hall on a ballot that included Lee Smith (also inducted) but no others the Era Committees deemed worthy. It’s difficult to believe the Hall would allow a year to go by in which no one on the Era Committees ballots makes it in, though that did happen in the exceptional pandemic year of 2020-2021. But Baines’ induction is a lesson in that who accompanies a player on the ballot is a factor in which players actually make it to Cooperstown.
Harold Baines. (Photo via the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum)
This year, much loved and well feted former Yankee Roger Maris, who held the record for most home runs in a season for 37 years at 61 home runs, was on the ballot. And it wasn’t the first time Maris made the ballot. Of course, the 61-home run season record has been surpassed three times by now by Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds — all of whom had suspected connections to PED use. But Maris managed to achieve more than the 61-home run season during his tenure in Major League Baseball. Maris earned two MVP awards, seven All-Star selections, and one Gold Glove Award. He was also a member of three World Series champion teams — two with the Yankees and one with the St. Louis Cardinals. So what’s keeping Maris out of the Hall, you ask? Here are some more Maris stats: Over the course of a dozen MLB seasons, in a career marred by injury, Maris played in just 1463 total games — on the very low end for a Hall of Fame candidate. Maris’ career batting average was .260; his career home run total was 275; and his career RBI total was 850. These numbers aren’t exactly Ruthian; and although Maris was a popular player and the first player ever to surpass 60 home runs in a season, it’s not clear that he had HOF numbers over his career.
Roger Maris celebrates his 61st home run on October 1, 1961. (AP File Photo)
A narrow miss for the Hall this year, for a second time, was Dick Allen, who for a second time received 11 votes — just one shy of the 12 necessary — from the Era Committees. Allen played for six teams over his career, was NL Rookie of the Year, a seven-time All-Star, one-time AL MVP, two-time AL home run leader, and one-time AL RBI leader. Given that he was on the same ballot this year as Roger Maris, we can see why Allen came closer to induction than did Maris, with these career highlights. What’s keeping Allen on the bubble when Harold Baines made it into the Hall is a very good question. His career total in hits was 1848 after a 15-year playing career and he had a pretty sparkling career fielding percentage of .975. Allen was, however, a somewhat controversial player for the Phillies, known for off the field issues. Yet there are those who credit him with having “saved” the White Sox, as he had tremendous seasons for them during the years that it was rumored they were being moved to either St. Petersburg (now home to the Rays) or Seattle (now home to the Mariners).
There are more Cooperstown controversies, some involving former owners, managers, and executives who’ve either been inducted or never even made it onto the ballot. George Steinbrenner, controversial former Yankee owner, has made it onto the ballot. He hasn’t (yet) been inducted, however. But Charles Comiskey, former player, manager, and owner of the White Sox and known racist, was inducted in 1939.
There are those who claim that politics play as much of a role in who gets into the Hall as do career achievements and sportsmanship, both on and off the field. With such a varied and colorful history over the years, it’s difficult to believe that politics isn’t a factor. And yet, the shrine to baseball in Cooperstown is the only one of its kind in the world; and so it continues to be the iconic baseball museum — attracting hundreds of annual pilgrimages, and with induction considered to be the highest honor a former player can achieve.