Can’t We Just Leave the Hall of Fame to the Immortals?

Why are the legends at Baseball’s Hall of Fame surrounded more than ever by ‘very good’ players? Here’s some thoughts on an unfortunate trend.

By Eric Gouldsberry, This Great Game—Posted January 7, 2023

TGG Opinion

There was a time, long ago, when the people responsible for electing retired baseball stars into the Hall of Fame were a stingy bunch, making the legends of the game sweat their way onto the hallowed walls of Cooperstown. The great Joe DiMaggio, as iconic as iconic gets, got the 75% needed to get into the Hall on his third ballot. It took Rogers Hornsby—he of the career .358 batting average, including a .400-plus mark over a five-year period—five tries to finally get in. And so it went; even in later years, there were voters who didn’t put a check next to names like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Ted Williams and Greg Maddux. 

But today, the opposite is occurring. The question is not whether the no-doubt-about-it candidates will get in, but how short of 100% they’ll be once all the ballots are tabulated. As those legitimate Hall of Famers trend closer to vote perfection, the other, ‘very good’ players—those who, in the old days, would have never seen the light of enshrinement—are trending closer to the 75% threshold needed to be inducted into Cooperstown. 

The Hall-of-Fame Class of 2023 will be announced on January 24. There are no “100 per-centers” on the list of nominees. But there are a batch of very good, potential “75 per-centers.” It’s quite possible that one, two, or maybe even three of these will get themselves a plaque alongside the likes of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. Mortals, among the immortals. 

Everyone has his or her definition of what qualifies as a Hall of Famer. My definition is simple: Cooperstown should be a place reserved only for the immortals, the legends, the iconic greats. 

I’m sorry, but Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Carlos Beltran, Billy Wagner, Jeff Kent and Andruw Jones, occasionally terrific as they may have been during their baseball lives, simply do not fall under any of those categories. 

In further defining my standard for what constitutes a Hall of Famer, I often cite two adages: Reggie Jackson’s quote that there should be a Hall of Fame for the real Hall of Famers, and the once-widespread idea that if you have to think about whether someone should be a Hall of Famer, then he shouldn’t be one. 

The current environment, which has seen a significant watering down of Cooperstown standards, has been fed by social media that has bordered on mob rule. On our This Great Game Twitter feed, we often see people campaigning not just for the 75 per-centers, but also the 50 per-centers, the 25 per-centers, even the no-chance-in hell per-centers. Perhaps some of these Twits are doing it for the clicks, likes and retweets, or perhaps they actually do exude passion from a lower measure of enshrinement qualification. And with each passing year, the bar seems to go lower. Just recently, there were serious discussions about the merits of Gene Tenace as a potential Hall of Famer. Right—a guy who didn’t even rate as a ‘very good’ player, let alone a legend, is getting Cooperstown chatter. If this slippery slope continues, someone will come along and make a serious plea for Mario Mendoza to be in the Hall. 

The Twits will come back and say WAR this, ERA+ that, and BAbip the other thing. Stop it. They’re using obscure acronyms to shield their opinions. I embrace stats as much as the next analytics nerd, but I would implore these Twits to use their heads and not their Excel spreadsheets; if a player is great enough to be in the Hall, you don’t need a calculator. You just know

When someone does dare to think from a higher standard, the Twits get their knickers in a twist. One of this year’s Hall-of-Fame voters revealed his ballot on Twitter—as many others boldly do—but he voted for nobody. Reading the responses, you would have thought that the world was coming to an end. Shame! Revoke his BBWAA membership! Fire him! Hey, that’s his opinion. If it’s different than yours, live with it. (In my view, he’s right; if the BBWAA gave me a ballot, I would have left it blank, too.) 

Then there’s the shameful saga of Bill Ballou, the only BBWAA rep who did not put a check next to Mariano Rivera’s name when the fabled Yankee closer was up for enshrinement late in 2018. A veteran baseball writer for the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Massachusetts, Ballou based his non-vote on the fact that Rivera had an easy job compiling saves, “the lowest-hanging fruit on the game’s statistical tree.” I didn’t agree with Ballou, but I respected his opinion and didn’t savage him on social media like so many others who logged on to rant. Apparently under public pressure, Ballou changed his mind and gave Rivera his 100% vote—a Cooperstown first—saying that he got feedback from “writers and observers whose voices are important.” Not sure if he was referring to his colleagues or the trolls. In the end, Ballou wasn’t so much educated as he was bullied. 

By the way: 44 years before Rivera breezed into the Hall with 100% unanimity, Whitey Ford—arguably considered the greatest Yankee pitcher ever—got in on his second try, barely clearing the 75% threshold. Imagine if Twitter had existed then. 

So, I’m looking one more time at the 2023 list of candidates for the Hall of Fame. Do I see any immortals? No, I do not. What I do see is a list of very good players. (I also see Alex Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez—but that’s a different story.) Greatness, not very goodness, should define a Hall of Famer. 

Go ahead and call me old school, a curmudgeonly ol’ baseball fart, a stubborn traditionalist. My Hall-of-Fame standards are like an intimidating brushback pitch from Hall-of-Fame immortal Bob Gibson: It’s high and tight. And that’s the way it’s going to remain, because I would like to see the Hall retain its dignity of legend. 

When I go to an art museum, I want to see a Rembrandt, not a Bob Ross. Similarly, when I go to Cooperstown, I want to check out Honus Wagner, Lefty Grove and Reggie Jackson—the immortals, the masters, the legends. 

The real Hall of Famers.