Every year around HOF selection time, when analysts discuss future potential HOF inductees, players are measured against their contemporaries, arguments comparing eras are made, and there is general disagreement regarding worthiness of HOF candidates. The Hall has been established for the purposes of “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, (and) Connecting Generations,” and I have no doubt that baseball writers take their votes very seriously.
Anyone who has ever visited Cooperstown understands that the Hall is serious about preserving history. The museum is a veritable cornucopia of baseball delights, with artifacts ranging from early era baseball to tokens from more recent achievements, such as Carlos Zambrano’s 2008 no-hitter. The museum is a fantasy for any baseball geek who appreciates the history of the game, and one could conceivably waste days just gawking and salivating.
The Hall certainly has the ability to connect generations. I took my first visit to the Hall in the summer of 1994 with my grandfather, born in 1912, and my father, born in 1946. My grandfather, who met Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as a child, recalled his times attending Giants, Yankees, and Dodgers games. My father reminisced about the times he spent at the Polo Grounds and Ebbets Field during his youth. I could see the twinkle in my grandfather’s eyes as he recalled attending cold spring games with my then-10-year-old father. The Hall instantly brought them back forty years as I stood by, ready to carry on our family’s seemingly inherent love for baseball.
Finally, the Hall honors excellence, or at least claims to. Recognizing the contributions that players and non-players alike have made to the game is one of the hallmarks of the Hall (no pun intended), but it has been generally assumed that those players who have exceeded the abilities and performance of their peers will get into the HOF, Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe withstanding for obvious reasons. Though the Veteran’s Committee has undoubtedly damaged the integrity of the Hall with some of its questionable selections, one could argue that no doubt exists that the very best players have received the honor of enshrinement. As an example, Enos Slaughter’s induction was delayed by sportswriters who were bothered by his racist past, but felt that his performance on the field was too good to deny, eventually earning him induction.
Fast forward to the current HOF arguments that take place. Baseball writers stand in limbo on players from recent generations. Fred McGriff and Tim Raines are just a couple of players who seem prone to being on the losing ends of battles they should be winning. The waters have been muddied and, given steroids accusations, it’s hard to know who to vote for, much less how to predict who will achieve HOF status.
I can say with certainty, however, that I know of one deserving player will not be inducted into the Hall of Fame, given his ability to only garner 7.7% and 3.5% of votes in his first two years of eligibility:
The first thing old-school BBWAA writers always seem to remember is that they hated Albert Belle. Each year, writers mention Belle’s speckled past, his run-ins with reporters, and his generally poor demeanor. I don’t deny that Albert Belle was not a pleasant man to be around, nor do I deny that his sophomoric and childish antics clearly didn’t endear him to the general baseball public. I also don’t deny, however, just how good of a hitter Albert Belle was.
The mid-90's Cleveland Indians, with those stacked lineups, was like a modern day Murderers’ Row. That the 1995 Atlanta Braves were able to win a World Championship while navigating a lineup of Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Omar Vizquel, a splash of Eddie Murray, and, of course, Albert Belle is nothing short of spectacular. Belle was the linchpin, having hit 50 regular season home runs, while Ramirez and Thome hadn’t quite blossomed into the stars they’d become, and Murray was at the end of his career.
With a career OPS+ of 143, Albert Belle finished in the top-10 in MVP voting five times (his reputation probably cost him the 1995 honor), hit 30+ home runs in eight consecutive seasons (including seasons of 48, 49, and 50), finished his prematurely-ended career with nine straight 100+ RBI seasons, and was generally one of the most feared offensive forces of the decade.
One of the classic arguments in the Hall of Fame debate regards the amount of time over which a player accumulated stats. Extra points are given for extended periods of greatness, but abbreviated careers are not penalized if the body of work is strong enough. Just ask Sandy Koufax or Kirby Puckett. Kirby Puckett’s career, it seems, is actually a great point of comparison.
So here you have it. Player A vs. player B. Extrapolated over a 162 game schedule:
Does the HOF reward longevity? Absolutely! But does exactly 1.5 extra years of service overcome such an obvious offensive shortcoming? Player A, as you might have guessed once seeing the power numbers, is Albert Belle. Belle’s offensive performance generally dwarfs Puckett’s. Belle hit for more power and batted with more patience than Puckett, as his OPS+ of 143 bests Puckett’s 124.
Does Albert Belle belong in the HOF? It’s hard to say, but assuming Kirby Puckett belongs in the Hall (on the first ballot, no less), so does Belle. Both players’ careers were cut short by injuries they could not have prevented, yet Puckett’s good guy image (dubious, considering his many, many personal vices and scrapes with the law) and accessibility to the press put him over the top. I understand the argument that Puckett won a World Series while Belle did not, but the idea that Kirby Puckett was a career “winner” is poorly founded. For the ten years that Albert Belle was a regular in the Big Leagues, his teams posted a regular season record of 786-766 (.506 win %), which included two playoff appearances and a World Series defeat. Puckett’s teams went a combined 924-953 (.492 win %), which included a World Series Championship.
I also understand that the common man could look at Kirby Puckett and feel inspired. When a 6’2”, 225-pound behemoth hits 50 home runs, it makes sense. When 5’8”, 210-pound Kirby Puckett is making jumping catches and knocking doubles off the wall in the Baggy Dome, it inspires the non-professional-athlete in all of us and gives that glimmer of hope: “Hey, he’s just like me!” This is why fans love players like David Eckstein.
I’m not dispelling the notion that Kirby Puckett was a great player or that he accomplished much and brought joy and hope to countless baseball fans, rather I seek to question why the BBWAA can’t get over its obvious grudge. Why should Puckett (or any other player with a short career) benefit from the “brilliance” they displayed in such a short amount of time while Belle is penalized for not having done it “long enough?” When Puckett retired, a sadness permeated baseball, a great career had been cut short. When Belle retired, there was almost a sense of relief, he was finally out of the game.
Statistical analysis in baseball has come a long way, even since the mid-1990’s, but even on the most superficial of platforms, looking at the typical baseball-card-numbers, it isn’t hard to see who the better hitter was. I hope the Veteran’s Committee rights this wrong when the time comes, but I won't hold my breath.