My wife enjoys watching those mysteries on 48 Hours. It’s not because she’s shocked by the outcome or that the drama is so compelling. It’s because she’s interested in how the story develops. Why was one case chosen for broadcast and not another?
Our mystery begins with two players, eerily similar, yet with completely different post-career paths. One became a Hall of Famer, and the other is largely forgotten. Let’s look at their year-by-year WAR from highest to lowest to see how this story begins to unfold. Can you identify the deserving player?
Player A Player B 4.8 3.7 3.9 3.6 3.3 3.2 3.1 3.2 2.2 3.0 1.6 2.9 1.5 2.5 1.3 1.8 0.9 1.8 0.6 1.0 0.6 0.9 0.4 0.7 0.3 0.4 0.2 0.2 0.0 0.1 -0.2 0.0 -0.3 -0.1 -0.4
What if we divide WAR into their best 5, 7, and 10 seasons? Is there a big difference now?
Player A Player B Top 5 17.3 16.7 Top 7 20.4 22.1 Top 10 23.2 26.7
Perhaps you prefer a more traditional approach to player research. How about now, do you find one of them clearly superior?
BA OBP SLG R HR RBI OPS+ G G at C Player A .263 .349 .337 448 13 537 88 1590 1532 Player B .253 .340 .316 579 11 594 83 1762 1727
Player A was an American League catcher from 1911-1925 and 1927-1928. Player B was an American League catcher from 1912-1929 (okay, his 2 AB in 1929 were in the NL). Which one is in the Hall of Fame, and which is a player you’ve never even heard of?
After a brief commercial break with ads from The Inn at Cooperstown, Extra Innings, and MLB’s RBI Program, we return to find your trusty “How the Hall Failed” guy in a television studio standing in the world’s most fake-looking abandoned warehouse saying, “I suppose you can figure out part of the mystery by now. If you can’t, quickly go back and reread this article’s title.”
You’re back now? Good.
Player B is Ray Schalk. He’s forever enshrined in Cooperstown. Player A is Steve O’Neill. At SB Nation’s Let’s Go Tribe site, he’s forever enshrined as the #62 player in Cleveland Indians history, just one slot behind beloved Indian great, John Romano. Actually, “forever” in this case lasts only until someone like Francisco Lindor takes his spot.
If you’re interested in more contemporary comparables than Steve O’Neill, consider that Schalk is relatively similar to Kevin Seitzer, Edgardo Alfonso, and Melvin Mora. Hmm, that’s a lot of kind of okay third basemen. You want some catchers? How about the likes of Mickey Tettleton, Terry Steinbach, and Benito Santiago? Sure, they were all fine players. So was Ray Schalk. But none of them are worthy of the Hall of Fame.
Let’s consider the clues, the circumstantial evidence, if you will, that might help to explain how such a clearly undeserving player is in the Hall of Fame. If this were 48 Hours, the answer would be simple. The husband did it. The Hall, however, is more complicated.
In The Politics of Glory, Bill James says one place to start is with Warren Brown. Brown was a sportswriter, mainly in Chicago. Ray Schalk played mainly for the White Sox. But there’s more than that. In 1952 Brown wrote the book The Chicago White Sox, in which he praised Schalk one of the game’s best catchers. Three years later, in 1955, Schalk was voted into the Hall by the Veterans Committee. A coincidence? Maybe not. Warren Brown was on the Veterans Committee that elected Schalk.
That could be the answer, or maybe there’s something more sinister lurking.
The Hall of Fame honors the greats in the game’s history, of course. It also acknowledges things like the Black Sox scandal of 1919. The best players on that 1919 team, in order of WAR, were Eddie Cicotte (dirty), Joe Jackson (dirty), Eddie Collins (clean and in the Hall), Lefty Williams (dirty), Dickey Kerr (clean, but with only three more years in MLB), Happy Felsch (dirty), Buck Weaver (dirty), Nemo Leibold (clean but not good), and Ray Schalk (clean, not too good, but in the Hall). Every other player with at least 1 WAR was dirty. Is there something to being one of the clean Black Sox? Might baseball want to highlight some of the good on that team? That’s absolutely possible. There aren’t too many other pro-Schalk arguments.
Sometimes it’s not the husband. Sometimes there’s a twist! An affair, perhaps?
Maybe there’s something else to Schalk’s selection. He had begun to gain some traction in votes by the BBWAA, reaching a high of 45% in 1955 before the Veterans Committee voted him in. Extrapolating Chris Jaffe’s research at The Hardball Times, it would seem there could be something to the idea of momentum. Jaffe talks about the “over-the-top” surge. Basically, he’s found that players at the top of a backlog of candidates can get a huge boost to get over the top and voted into the Hall. For the sake of accuracy, I have to be clear that he’s talking about the BBWAA, and I’m not. Still, it’s possible. Dun dun dun!
So we have some real clues as to why we’ll never forget Ray Schalk and why we don’t really know Steve O’Neill. Do we have enough to solve the mystery? Was it Warren Brown? Did being one of the clean Sox do it? Or was it momentum?
I don’t know. The real answer may forever remain a mystery.