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How Big Should the Hall of Fame Be?

Big hall or Big Hurt Hall? If they were all as big as Frank Thomas, we'd need a Huge Hall.

Big Hall or Big Hurt Hall? If they were all as big as Frank Thomas, we’d need a Huge Hall.

Big Hall or Small Hall? That’s one of those Cooperstown arguments that simmers beneath the talk of ballots, plaques, omissions, and commissions. In our next few articles, we’ll be examining the Pre-Integration-Era Committee’s ballot and results. The Veterans Committee has been the chief offender in honoree bloat in the minds of most Hall watchers. Since we’re here anyway, I thought I’d look at the Big/Small Hall question in a little more depth. Especially because neither Miller nor I has looked into it before.

On one end of this argument, a camp believes that only the very elite of the elite should get a bronze—150 or fewer MLB players in big league history. The polar opposite group believes that the Hall may, in fact, not be big enough. And, of course, many people fall in between. If the Small Hallers want the top 1% of all players ever, the Big Coops could imagine a Hall between 250 and 300 members, somewhere between 1.5% and 2%.

The answer is personal to each of us. It depends on how we each define greatness and our tolerance for ambiguity in that definition. At the Hall of Miller and Eric, we’ve operated under the principle that the Hall’s membership is of an appropriate size, but that many of its selections are problematic. That’s our institutional stance, and the way we provide an apples–apples (or at worst apples–pears) view of the Hall. But it may not reflect our personal views.

Today I’m going to give you my own viewpoint. It’s based on participating in the Hall of Merit for several years and now the Hall of Miller and Eric, and, more than usual, it represents a mix of hard and soft factors.

Here’s to the Big Hall

Let’s say that 150 is a reasonable figure for a Small-Hall advocate. Some may prefer fewer, but at two-thirds the current size, it’s a good start, and it represents less than 1% of all players in history. Most Halls elect around 30% pitchers. In which case, a 150-person Hall would include approximately 45 pitchers and 105 position players. Given eight positions, that’s 13 per position plus a wild-card slot (we’ll classify DHes at their most frequent position for today’s purposes). In my estimation, these players who are not in the Hall rank in the top 13 at their positions (among candidates eligible through 2015):

  • C (4): Mike Piazza Charlie Bennett, Thurman Munson, Wally Schang
  • 1B (3): Jeff Bagwell, Keith Hernandez, Rafael Palmeiro
  • 2B (3): Bobby Grich, Lou Whitaker, Ross Barnes
  • 3B (5): Edgar Martinez, Buddy Bell, Graig Nettles, Darrell Evans, Ken Boyer
  • SS (2): Bill Dahlen, Jack Glasscock
  • LF: (4) Barry Bonds, Tim Raines, Jimmy Sheckard, Bobby Veach,
  • CF (4): Paul Hines, Kenny Lofton, Jimmy Wynn, Willie Davis
  • RF (1): Larry Walker
  • P (9): Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina, Dave Stieb, Wes Ferrell, Kevin Brown, Luis Tiant, Rick Reuschel, David Cone

That’s 35 players. Now you probably disagree with many, and maybe you’d rather have extra first basemen than 13 centerfielders. Your list might also number 25 or maybe it’s 40 names long. Let’s pretend that we could agree to 20 players who merit immediate induction. If we elected 20 guys tomorrow, the Hall would jump instantly from 215 to 235. OMG! BIG HALLITIS!!! Yet, we’d be electing the very sorts of players that Small Hallers want. So it’s a real pickle.

In this sense, I’m wildly for a Big Hall.

But…the Small Hallers Have a Point

Having served as elector to two internet Halls, I also recognize that the guys near the very bottom of the list don’t feel all that Hallsy. The gap between the Babe Ruths and Walter Johnsons and damn near everyone else is unimaginably vast. The gap between Bill Dahlen and Joe Sewell or Dave Bancroft is merely vast. It’s at the bottom of each position, the Hall’s stragglers, that I feel the friction. Am I psyched to elect Jose Cruz, Roy White, or Tony Phillips to the Hall of Miller and Eric? Not exactly. We did good work to get there, but I wouldn’t defend them to the teeth against someone who preferred Cupid Childs, Ned Williamson, or Roger Bresnahan.

At what point do I reach a level of comfort that a player is an all-time great that deserves induction? Currently, with 215 members, the Hall has elected about 65 pitchers and 19 players per position. This is simple math, really (rounding to the near whole number):

  • 215 players ~ 19 per position + 65 pitchers
  • 206 players ~ 18 per position + 62 pitchers
  • 194 players ~ 17 per position + 58 pitchers
  • 183 players ~ 16 per position + 55 pitchers
  • 171 players ~ 15 per position + 51 pitchers
  • 160 players ~ 14 per position + 48 pitchers
  • 150 players ~ 13 per position + 45 pitchers

So where do I fall? I went through each guy we’ve elected to the HoME and asked myself this simple question: If Bill James, himself, told me he opposed that player’s election, would I equivocate?

Now, I know for example, that Bill James thinks Ross Barnes is a ridiculous person to elect to a Hall. Bill James and I would agree to disagree. Ross Barnes is “in” for me.

These HoMErs I would equivocate on. These are swords I wouldn’t fall on.

  • Kevin Appier
  • Dave Bancroft
  • Sal Bando
  • Bobby Bonds
  • Mordecai Brown
  • Jose Cruz
  • Willie Davis
  • Red Faber
  • Chuck Finley
  • Whitey Ford
  • Bill Freehan
  • Pud Galvin
  • Billy Herman
  • Orel Hershiser
  • Bob Johnson
  • Willie Keeler
  • Jeff Kent
  • Sandy Koufax
  • Tommy Leach
  • Joe McGinnity
  • Mark McGwire
  • Jim O’Rourke
  • Tony Phillips
  • Red Ruffing
  • Joe Sewell
  • Ted Simmons
  • Reggie Smith
  • Sammy Sosa
  • Don Sutton
  • Joe Tinker
  • Rube Waddell
  • Bucky Walters
  • Zack Wheat
  • Roy White
  • Early Wynn

That’s 35 guys. Coincidentally, the same number as the list above. If I were to nick 35 off the Hall’s (and HoME’s) 215 honorees, I hit roughly the 183 noted just above: 16 per position + 55 pitchers. That’s probably the lower limit for me. Some of the guys on that second list of 35 are easier for me to throw under the bus than others. My upper limit is probably about the 194 honorees noted above: 17 per position + 58 pitchers. About how big should the Hall or any Hall be ideally? About 180 to 200 player honorees, says I.

And then the Brass Tacks

  • THEORY: The Hall of Fame is missing a large number of strongly qualified candidates.
  • REALITY: No one gets unelected.

The intersection of these two items creates a problem for Small-Hall advocates and a potential weakness in the argument of Big-Hall advocates. Small Hallers want only the best of the best. But in order to get those guys in there, they’d have to expand the Hall’s current size. I have seen a few staunch folks at baseballthinkfactory.org say over the years that they’d rather the Hall not expand than enshrine such-and-such deserving candidate. On the other hand, Big Hallers welcome the overlooked candidates but in so doing inflate the number of Hall members. Their opponents can argue with reasonable justification that Hall membership becomes diminished and diluted.

Theory states that the Hall should have n members. Or n more members. The reality is that it doesn’t, might never, and can’t. My synthesis? Ignore the clinkers. Highpockets Kelly may have a plaque, but as a sophisticated, well-informed baseball junkie, what’s more important to me is getting the guys who clearly belong in the Coop into it. So I have two positions on the question of the Hall’s size. The theoretical one—where I can elect my own personal Hall—says that the Hall should have 15–30 fewer players than it does. The realistic one—where I have to accept how things actually are—says that the Hall should expand by as many as 35 players so that greatness is accurately honored. This is not cognitive dissonance or playing both sides. This is acknowledgement that life goes on outside my mind, and that what’s done is done.

Pushing those two positions together, we have the Hall of Miller and Eric. Here we’ve elected all the guys I would have put in my personal Hall plus a couple dozen more to show the electors how its done. Not a bad way to compromise.

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