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Baseball’s Hall Of Fame Is Stuck In The ’60s

Last month, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced that nobody was elected in this round of Pre-Integration Era Committee balloting — the second straight year that one of the Hall’s era-based Veterans Committees failed to induct a player from before 1973.

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Szymborski is right. Relative to their share of the overall population of Hall-eligible MLB players, those who produced the majority of their wins above replacement before the 1970s — particularly those from the pre-integration era — don’t need their own committee because they’re already wildly overrepresented in the Hall of Fame. In the chart below, we looked at all players retiring in 2009 or earlier with a minimum of 10 career WAR and tracked how many among that group were elected to the Hall. We ballparked 10 WAR as a lower limit because the lowest WAR total for any Hall member whose career wasn’t severely truncated by segregation was Tommy McCarthy’s 14.6.

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Although players who produced the bulk of their WAR before the 1970s make up only 62 percent of the all-time MLB population, they represent 79 percent of all player inductees. Conversely, the 38 percent of players who made their mark since have yielded only 21 percent of Hall members. If we expect legendary talent to crop up in proportion with the playing population of an era, the Hall of Fame hasn’t been paying attention for a half-century.

Then again, maybe it isn’t valid to assume Hall of Fame-caliber careers occur in lockstep with the number of players hitting the absolute minimum for consideration. To check whether there was simply a disproportionate number of great players in action before the ’70s, I ran a logistic regression on all Hall-eligible players, predicting whether they would be inducted based on their career WAR relative to the average for Hall of Famers at their position (a la Jay Jaffe’s JAWS).

Based on the production of each era’s players, my regression predicts 124 Hall of Famers to emerge before the 1970s; in actuality, 169 players have been elected from that time frame. We would also expect 91 players from the ’70s or later to be inducted; thus far, only 46 have gotten the nod. This implies that recent decades of baseball history, what the Hall refers to as the “expansion era,” have been shortchanged by about 45 Hall of Famers relative to earlier epochs of the game. That conclusion isn’t based on an arbitrary cutoff — these are the standards set by the Hall’s own past selections.

Of course, the matter of steroids can’t be ignored. So could the expansion era’s shortfall simply be attributed to voters’ unwillingness to enshrine players (such as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens) whose performances would otherwise warrant a Hall of Fame nod? To account for this wrinkle, I added a variable in the regression for whether the player had ever been implicated in the use of performance-enhancing drugs.1 The resulting formula drops Bonds and Clemens down to matching zero percent Hall likelihoods, but it still says the expansion era is about 42 Hall of Famers short of what we’d expect.

HALL OF FAMERS
DECADE ACTUAL EXPECTED DIFF EXPECTED W/ PEDS DIFF
1870s 0 1.0 -1.0 1.0 -1.0
1880s 13 12.5 +0.5 13.0 -0.0
1890s 15 10.2 +4.8 10.5 +4.5
1900s 21 12.1 +8.9 12.4 +8.6
1910s 12 10.8 +1.2 10.8 +1.2
1920s 28 11.0 +17.0 11.3 +16.7
1930s 28 18.1 +9.9 18.8 +9.2
1940s 13 10.6 +2.4 10.8 +2.2
1950s 18 14.4 +3.6 14.7 +3.3
1960s 21 23.0 -2.0 23.7 -2.7
1970s 17 27.3 -10.3 28.3 -11.3
1980s 20 30.6 -10.6 31.4 -11.4
1990s 9 30.5 -21.5 25.7 -16.7
2000s 0 2.9 -2.9 2.6 -2.6

For players from the late 1990s and the 2000s, the gap occurs partly because recently eligible players have spent less time on the ballot (and therefore have had fewer chances to be inducted) than their predecessors. But under the Hall’s new rules reducing the years of ballot eligibility, they’ll never get as many cracks at the ballot as players did in the past. And besides, even if we throw out the 1990s and 2000s completely, it doesn’t explain why the ’70s and ’80s are also a collective 23 Hall of Famers shy of what we’d expect.

Instead, the biggest explanation boils down to what Bill James called the “expansion time bomb.” Expansion began as early as 1961, with the additions of the Los Angeles Angels and Washington Senators,2 and six more teams were added by 1969. By 1998, MLB had roughly twice as many teams as it did in 1960.

James argued that the Hall of Fame wouldn’t have been affected by expansion at all for about 25 years — and even then the consequences were small, for the time being — but that the effects compounded over time as the ratio of highly accomplished players (according to both traditional and advanced gauges) to inductees grew. Expansion gives more players the opportunity to build Hall of Fame-caliber careers, but it creates a backlog if the voters are slow to account for this by inducting a commensurate number of players. And from the numbers above, it’s clear that the Hall has never quite figured out the expansion time bomb, a problem that continues to grow each year.

The good news is that everybody’s ’90s darling, Ken Griffey Jr., will be a lock to represent the decade in this year’s voting, and he’ll probably be joined by Mike Piazza (who was ever so close to induction last year) and other contemporaries. Further, a big change to the makeup of voters — writers who haven’t covered the game in 10 years are no longer eligible for Hall voting — could open the floodgates to more recent players.

But for now, the last half-century of baseball has been neglected by the Hall of Fame, and voters have a lot of inducting to do before it’s fairly represented relative to other eras.

Read More:

Griffey In His Prime Was The Second Coming Of Willie Mays

Mike Piazza Was More Than A Big Bat

Footnotes

  1. Using the same criteria my colleague Walt Hickey and I employed here: Was the player ever suspended for PED offenses, linked to the Biogenesis scandal or named in the Mitchell Report, or did he have a failed drug test leaked to the media?
  2. Now the Texas Rangers.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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