Ted Williams

Time For a Hall of Fame Stand

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In June 1966, Ted Williams did something amazing. Nobody saw it coming, perhaps not even Williams himself. He was in Cooperstown, giving his Hall of Fame speech, and he was visibly moved by the day. Williams had never been able to let go of the anger he felt toward sportswriters — even before his last game he couldn’t help but spit out “I’d like to forget them, but I can’t,” — and I imagine some people were cringing in anticipation.

But somehow Ted that day had mostly moved past bitterness.* “I didn’t know I had 280-odd close friends among the writers,” he said of the people who had voted for him, and he thanked them, he thanked the playground director who worked with him and his high school coach and others who affected his life.

*Mostly. As written in The Kid, Ben Bradlee Jr.’s excellent new biography of Williams, he could not resist a private shot at sportswriter Dave Egan, who was his personal Lex Luthor.

And then, he riffed a little bit about baseball. It’s worth putting the whole wonderful paragraph in there.

“The other day Willie Mays hit his 522nd home run. He has gone past me, and he’s pushing, and I say to him, “Go get ‘em, Willie.” Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as someone else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance.”

Williams was speaking without notes that day and, as far as I know, had not told anyone he was planning to say anything about Negro Leaguers. It honestly may have been a spur of the moment statement — Williams was pretty famous for those. Whatever, it was a a bold statement. This was 1966, right in the middle of the Civil Rights movement, and his statement was political and counterculture and took some guts.

Then again, guts was never a problem for Ted Williams. What strikes me about the statement — what makes it amazing to me — is that it was SO magnanimous. Hall of Fame speeches (all award speeches, really), by their nature, are meant to celebrate self. You applaud your own career, thank those who made it possible. Williams raced through that part. What he really wanted to do was celebrate BASEBALL. And to him, celebrating baseball meant celebrating those great players who had gone without enough notice. He wanted to remind people about Negro Leagues players he felt sure belonged in the Hall with him.

That was another wonderful part of the Williams speech. Too often people who get into the Hall of Fame want to lock the door behind them.

Williams speech did not instantly grant Negro Leaguers entry into the Hall of Fame. Not even close. But it brought the subject to the surface. By the end of the decade, the topic was hot, and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn held a meeting to discuss the topic. By all accounts the meeting was exceedingly nasty. Former commissioner Ford Frick and Hall of Fame President Paul Kerr were particularly opposed to adding Negro League players. Their reasons ranged from somewhat reasonable (there were no statistics to tell how good the Negro Leaguers were) to somewhat unreasonable (Negro Leaguers would water down the quality of the Hall of Fame — this tinged of racism) to ludicrous (no Negro Leaguers fulfilled the Hall of Fame requirement of 10 years in the Major Leagues — an absurdity since they were not ALLOWED to play in the Major Leagues).

The meeting basically went nowhere. Sportswriter Dick Young was there screaming at everybody, Kuhn was his typically ineffective self, and the one guy who knew more about any of this than anybody — Monte Irvin, who had played in the Negro Leagues and Major Leagues — quietly let others hold court. Kuhn, typically, tried a split-the-baby solution of having a special Negro Leagues display in the Hall of Fame which made exactly zero people happy. Satchel Paige announced he wasn’t going through the back door of the Hall of Fame.

The criticism was so harsh — Jim Murray in Los Angeles was particularly fierce as was the rampaging Dick Young — that the Hall decided on the fly to get rid of the display idea and let Satchel Paige into the actual Hall of Fame. Kuhn would say it was all part of his plan to let public criticism force the Hall into doing the right thing. I don’t buy this for one minute but hey I guess it worked out.

Over time, the Hall of Fame became a leader in celebrating Negro Leagues baseball. There are 29 Negro Leagues players in the Hall of Fame and a few more executives and pioneers. There were missteps, of course, and things worth disagreeing about, but all in all the Hall of Fame has done as much as anybody to keep alive the memory of the Negro Leagues, exactly what Ted Williams had asked for in 1966 (and exactly what my friend Buck O’Neil — who has a statue in the Hall of Fame — had fought for most of his life).

I bring all this up because (1) It’s a pretty great story, but more because (2) it was a case where the Hall of Fame, though it was not easy, took the lead.

It’s time for that to happen again. It’s time for the Hall of Fame to take a stand on the Steroid Era.

Right now, the Hall of Fame is passing the buck. They are letting an unwieldy group of more than 500 baseball writers who never meet as a group sort out the Steroid Era by secret ballot. That’s no way to do things. If it had been up to the BBWAA, Satchel Paige would never have been elected to the Hall of Fame. There’s almost no chance he could have gotten 75% of the vote. Josh Gibson would have had even less chance because he never played in the Majors. Oscar Charleston? Turkey Stearnes? Smokey Joe Williams? There’s no chance 75% of the BBWAA in the 1970s would even have HEARD of them.

If the Hall had not inducted them, they would not have been inducted. The Hall would have remained as racist as baseball in the 1930s and 1940s. And it would not have been enough for them to say, “Well, we turned it over to the BBWAA and this is what they decided.” The Baseball Writers are good at some things — like electing the truly great players — but this is not an organization designed to deal with complex issues like race or PEDs. The BBWAA craves leadership. The Hall of Fame is supposed to provide it.

So far, they have not. They Hall of Fame won’t say or do ANYTHING to clarify things. And because of that, we are no closer to a a logical narrative about the Steroid Era than we were five years ago. There’s no consensus about how much steroid and PED use ACTUALLY affected power numbers (not just talk but actual study of the subject), no consensus over why steroid use should be viewed differently than amphetamines or other drugs, no consensus about the role the people who run baseball played in the era, no consensus about anything really.

No consensus and no consistency. Tony La Russa is unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame as a manager, one of his greatest players Mark McGwire is not. Why? People openly (or subtly) accuse players of steroid use though they never failed a test, were never involved in a public scandal and never showed up in any of the wild accusations that were thrown around. How can the Hall of Fame just sit back and let this happen to the game it represents?

It’s actually kind of disgraceful. The Hall of Fame is meant to celebrate the game, but their silence on this issue leaves baseball and the Hall open to this annual flogging of the game and some of its greatest players.

It’s time for the Hall of Fame to create a committee of experts (former players, executives, scholars, ethicists) to look into the Steroid Era, to make recommendations how the museum should proceed. They should be open to all possibilities and apply science and philosophy and logic to this issue. They should be leaders in moving the game forward. It’s time to stop sitting back while baseball writers (including yours truly) scattershoot their own particular ethical standards and argue about Barry Bonds. This is THEIR museum. It’s time for them to tell everybody what it stands for.

Chipper Jones says the Mets are his pick to “go all the way”

Braves Spring baseball
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Chipper Jones may believe some weird things but he’s pretty savvy and clear-eyed when it comes to analyzing baseball.

Remember back in 2013 how he picked the Dodgers to beat the Braves in the NLDS? And how, because of his perceived “disloyalty,” Braves players had an immature little temper tantrum and refused to catch his ceremonial first pitch? Yeah, that was a great look. If I was more inclined to the hokey and irrational, I’d say that created “The Curse of Chipper” and that it condemned the Braves to two straight years of sucking. Hey, people have built careers on curses sillier than that.

Anyway, kudos to Chipper for apparently not giving a crap about that sort of thing and, instead, saying what he thinks about baseball. Stuff like how he thinks the Mets are going to win it all, saying “They’re really setting the bar and they’re my early-season pick to probably go all the way.”

Keeping in mind that anything can happen in baseball, it’s as good a pick as any other I reckon. Even if it means he has to say that the team who was his greatest rival during his playing career — and whom he thoroughly owned during that time — is better than the one that pays his salary now. Or any other one.

Did Tony La Russa screw Jim Edmonds’ Hall of Fame candidacy?

2011 World Series Game 4 -Texas Rangers v St Louis Cardinals
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Yes, that’s a somewhat provocative question. But it’s still an interesting question, the relevancy of and merits of which we’ll get to in a second. I pose it mostly so I can tell you about some neat research a friend of mine is doing and which should make Hall of Fame discussions and the general discussion of baseball history a lot of fun in the coming years. Bear with me for a moment.

There has long been a war between metrics and narrative. The folks who say that so-and-so was great because of the arc of his story and his career and those who say so-and-so was not so great or whatshisface was way, way better because of the numbers. Those views are often pitted as irreconcilable opposites. But what if they weren’t? What if there was some data which explained why some players become narrative darlings and others don’t? Some explanation for why, say, Jim Rice is in the Hall of Fame while Dwight Evans isn’t despite having better numbers? An explanation, that isn’t about voters being dumb or merely playing favorites all willy-nilly? What if there was some actual quantitative reason why favorites get played in the first place?

That’s the thesis of the work of Brandon Isleib. He has just finished writing a very interesting book. It’s not yet published, but I have had the chance to read it. It sets forth the fascinating proposition that we can quantify narrative. That we can divine actual numerical values which help explain a player’s fame and public profile. Values which aren’t based on some complicated or counterintuitive formula, but which are rooted in the very thing all baseball fans see every day: games. Wins and losses. The daily standings. Values which reveal that, no, Hall of Fame voters who made odd choices in the view of the analytics crowd weren’t necessarily stupid or petty. They were merely reacting to forces and dynamics in the game which pushed them in certain ways and not others.

“But wait!” you interject. “Jim Rice and Dwight Evans played on the same dang team! How does Brandon distinguish that?” I won’t give away all the details of it but it makes sense if you break down how the Red Sox did in certain years and how that corresponded with Rice’s and Evans’ best years. There were competitive narratives in play in 1975, 1978 or 1986 that weren’t in play in 1981 or 1987. From those competitive narratives come player narratives which are pretty understandable. When you weight it all based on how competitive a team was on a day-to-day basis based on how far out of first place they were, etc., a picture starts to come together which explains why “fame” works the way it does.

From this, you start to realize why certain players, no matter how good, never got much Hall of Fame consideration. And why others’ consideration seemed disproportionate compared to their actual performance. All of which, again, is based on numbers, not on the sort of bomb-throwing media criticism in which jerks like me have come to engage.

Like I said, the book won’t be out for a bit — Brandon just finished it — but in the meantime he has a website where he has been and, increasingly will be, talking about his quantification of narrative stuff, writing short articles posing some of the questions his book and his research addresses.

Today’s entry — which is what my headline is based on — isn’t really numbers-based. It’s more talking about the broader phenomenon Brandon’s work gets at in terms of trying to figure out which players are credited for their performance and which are not so credited and why. Specifically, it talks about how Tony La Russa, more than most managers, gets the credit for his success and his players probably get somewhat less than they deserve. In this way La Russa is kind of viewed as a football coach figure and his players are, I dunno, system quarterbacks. It’s something that is unfair, I think, to guys like Jim Edmonds and Scott Rolen and will, eventually, likely be unfair to players like Adam Wainwright and Matt Holliday.

It’s fascinating stuff which gets to the heart of player reputation and how history comes together. It reminds us that, in the end, the reporters and the analysts who argue about all of these things are secondary players, even if we make the most noise. It’s the figures in the game — the players and the managers — who shape it all. The rest of us are just observers and scribes.

Corey Seager tops Keith Law’s top-100 prospect list

Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager warms up before Game 1 of baseball's National League Division Series against the New York Mets, Friday, Oct. 9, 2015 in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Lenny Ignelzi)
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Yesterday it was the top farm systems, today it’s the top-100 prospects from ESPN’s Keith Law.

As Law notes, there’s a HUGE amount of turnover on the list from last year, given how many top prospects were promoted to the bigs in 2015. Kris Bryant seems like a grizzled old veteran now. Carlos Correa too. Eleven of the top 20 from last year’s list have graduated into the bigs. Are we sure it’s only been a year?

So, obviously, there’s a new number one. It’s Corey Seager, the Dodgers’ infielder. Not that everything has changed. Byron Buxton is still number two. This will obviously be his last year on the list. If you want to see and read about the other 98, go check out Keith’s excellent work.

And yes, like yesterday’s farm system rankings, it’s Insider subscription only. There were comments about how much you all hate that and I am sure there will be many more of them today. I get that. No one likes to pay for content. I was somewhat amused, however, by comments that said things like “hey, maybe if we don’t click it, they’ll have to give it to us for free!” Maybe! Or, more likely, the content simply will cease to exist!

It’s good stuff, folks. There aren’t many paid sites I say that about.

Ozzie Guillen to manage again. In Venezuela

Ozzie Guillen Getty
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With Dusty Baker getting back into action with the Nationals and with there being at least some moderate sense that, maybe, inexperienced dudes might not be the best choice to manage big league clubs, I sorta hoped that someone would give Ozzie Guillen another look. Nah. Not happening.

Not that I’m shocked or anything. I can imagine that, under the best of circumstances, a guy like Guillen is hard to have around. He tends to find controversy pretty easily and, unlike some other old hands, Guillen never claimed to be any kind of master tactician. He famously said that he was bored during games until the sixth or seventh inning when he had to start thinking about pitching changes. Refreshing honesty, yes, but maybe not the sort of dude you bring on to, say, be a bench coach or to mentor your younger coaches or to show your hand-picked manager the ropes. Nope, it seemed like Guillen was destined to stay in broadcasting with ESPN Deportes or someone and that his days in uniform were over.

But they’re not over! Guillen was hired yesterday to manage the La Guaira Sharks of the Venezuelan Winter League next offseason. It’s not the bigs, but it is is first on-field gig since he was canned by the Marlins in 2012.

 

Guillen managed the White Sox from 2004-11 and was voted AL Manager of the Year in 2005, when Chicago won the World Series. He may be a bit of a throwback now, but he knows what he’s doing. While I can’t really say that a major league team would be wise to hire the guy — I get it, I really do — a selfish part of me really wants him back in the bigs. He was fun.