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The good news: Baseball Hall looking at electoral revamp

It’s a bit of a joke, however in poor taste. Or it may be a stunning illustration of the cynicism that’s frequently invaded the issue. Or maybe even an honest effort to reform a process that has too long been allowed to bump along decade after decade with some odd patch-work, here or there.

But the people who run the Baseball Hall of Fame, in concert with various powers that be, including the commissioner, have finally seized the bit and come up with what seems, at least on paper, to be a reasonably clear, simple, logical, and workable format for the annual election of Hall of Famers by a Veteran’s Committee.

This is no small matter. The significant majority of folks who’ve made it to Cooperstown have actually been delivered by old-timers’ panels, including not only the Vets but also such special committees as the one you may recall anointed a dozen fabled characters from the old, so-called “negro leagues” three years ago. Such ad hoc groups have usually been composed of about a dozen choice scholars and venerables who have studied, or at least been associated with the game, mixed with distinguished old warriors who once played it.

These latest revisions represent quite an about-face. Only a few years ago, reactionary elements among both the baseball writers, who fiercely prize their priority role in deciding who gets in, and certain Hall of Famers still with us, who have a narrow – some might say, selfish – definition of who qualifies, tried to abolish the Veteran’s Committee.

It is not as if critics didn’t have a good argument. Cronyism was their main complaint and over the years that’s been hard to deny. They also protest that old-timer panels are more vulnerable to simple sentiment and the wiles of myth, yet another charge hard to dispute. The critics came mighty close to closing down all the retroactive review boards. Along the way they succeeded in bringing the electoral process to nearly a halt for five years. The ban they sought would have been forever and that would have been a bloody shame.

Because a fair amount of the depth and diversity that make the baseball pantheon unique can be credited to special committees like the Vets. Having the first crack, the electors of the Baseball Writers Association (BBWA) easily make the obvious choices and do a fair job of sifting through some of the more debatable picks. But with a convoluted voting process marred by much bickering in the ranks that results in an average of barely two selections a year, the writers muff on too many.

Vets have done good work
Would the Hall be a better place without Goose Goslin, Bill Veeck, Nestor Chylak, Phil Rizzuto, Johnny Mize, Chuck Klein, Leo Durocher, Happy Chandler, Larry Doby, Heinie Manush, Kiki Cuyler, Nellie Fox, and Pee Wee Reese? I don’t think so. All of them made it courtesy of the Veteran’s Committee. There are dozens more fine examples of worthy chaps also rescued from the BBWA’s reject bin. It’s no knock on the writers. Their process simply doesn’t allow for a foolproof system of selection. The most reasonable of them freely admit it.

For sure, the Vets have had plenty of wacky moments of highly dubious judgment. Such picks as George Kelly, Elmer Flick, Beauty Bancroft, Hack Wilson, and Freddie Lindstrom remain embarrassments and there are too many more. Such blunders are largely responsible for the confusion and controversy that endlessly beset the process, aggravating many.

The arguments are countless and eternal. How can George Kelly be in and Gil Hodges be left out? Or, as Bill James has noted, “In truth, Bill Buckner was a better player than George Kelly.”

Bill Dahlen is more deserving than Dave Bancroft while Cecil Travis, who had a lifetime .327 batting average when he marched off to war, sacrificing his career without complaint, deserves the nod over either.

Larry Gardner, Jimmy Dykes, Stan Hack, Ken Boyer, Ron Santo, and Graig Nettles were all significantly better third basemen than Freddie Lindstrom. You could look it up.

Hack but no Roger?
It’s unconscionable to celebrate a daffy character like Hack Wilson, honored for having had one great season, while snubbing Roger Maris, certainly a much better all-round player whose greatest season was decidedly greater than old Hack’s.

Then there’s the baffling case of Elmer Flick. There are a couple of dozen turn-of-the-century and dead-ball era players who deserve the call as much as old buddy Elmer. Not a one of whom is remotely remembered.

Let me put it another way. If you had one vote, who would you pick.  Lloyd  (not Paul) Waner or Saturnino Orestes Arrieta Armas Minoso, aka ‘Minnie’? Think about it.

Veteran’s Committee blunders are invariably beauties. On the other hand, it’s the Vets who’ve enshrined the majority of the owners, umpires, managers, general managers, 19th century titans and minorities who have niches in Cooperstown. One submits the Hall of Fame would be a bore if it were restricted to the most glorious  of the illustrious, ranging from Cobb, Ruth and Mathewson  to Mays, Williams and Aaron with an odd digression for a Mantle, Robinson, Spahn or Koufax.

What’s more, while not all the ink-stained wretches are anxious to belly up to this truth the BBWA has not always covered itself in glory in this business either. Might they have been thinking of Wally Schang when they elected Ray Schalk? Schang, 60 years later, remains both an outsider and more deserving.
 Frank Chance is acceptable but not his buddies, Masters Tinkers and Evers. Might they have been further misled by the doubtful legends of Candy Cummings and ‘King’ Kelly? They can’t blame the Vets for Roger Bresnahan or Bobby Wallace. If it was a yearning for an ancient St. Louis Brownie that motivated them, they should have gone with Ken Williams.

And so it goes. As a decided latitudinarian on this transcendental matter, questionable picks even as bad as the mythical Cummings hardly bother me. It seems better to err in admitting a marginal chap, like Schalk or Lindstrom, than to bar the door to worthier options like Minoso, Dykes, Travis, or Black Jack Morris. And there are many more examples of the inequities the concept of the Veteran’s Committee should be designed to correct.

The new revisions seemingly guarantee more honorees every year. There will be three special committees assigned to distinct eras: pre-integration (1876-1945), so-called Golden Age (1946-1972), and modern (1972-1989). The 16-member panels will be drawn from the usual pool of writers, scholars, retired executives, and ex-players. But the ballots will be put together only by senior BBWA scribes. This, it is hoped, will curb cronyism.

There’s interesting irony at work here. We can probably thank those old rascals, George Steinbrenner and Marvin Miller, for the reforms. When George passed on recently it focused unwanted attention on the quirky old process that had barred him largely out of spite because no matter what your take on the imperial old fellow, his qualifications for a berth at Cooperstown are overwhelming.

So too are those of Marvin Miller, the lion of the labor movement, whose impact was simply historic. Sensible baseball people don’t want to see Marvin elected the year after he, too, departs. There’s been quite enough of that nonsense, thank you.

Miller and Steinbrenner will likely lead the parade when the committees do their thing this fall. Others already being mentioned as probable nominees include Jake Ruppert, Pat Gillick, Gil Hodges, Allie Reynolds, Tommy John, Billy Martin, Davey Concepcion, Billy Pierce, Mickey Vernon, and even Charles Oscar Finley. There may even be room for my pets; Travis, Dykes, Dahlen, Schang, Minoso,  and that wonderful baseball troubadour, Buck O’Neil.

Here’s betting King George will be the first pick, and from off in the Great Beyond you can expect a scowl. For he always said he had no interest in the honor. Owners, he maintained, had no business being be in the Hall of Fame.  Say this of him to the end. You always knew where he stood.