Going to the Head of the Class

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by Tom DeMichael

The 2019 graduating class of baseball’s Hall of Fame was recently announced. Reliever Mariano Rivera will enter as the first ever unanimous selection, along with DH Edgar Martinez, and starting pitchers Roy Halliday and Mike Mussina.

Happily, both sides of Chicago will also be represented in this year’s group. With that, it might be prudent to stroll down the bucolic road that leads to the berg of Cooperstown in upstate New York and take a peek inside the hallowed Hall.

In 1909, a wealthy man named Stephen Carlton Clark, along with brother Edward, built the beautiful Otesaga Hotel on the south shore of the lake that lent its name to the lodge. The lake abutted Cooperstown, founded by William Cooper in the late 1700s. His son, James Fenimore, wrote novels like the Leatherstocking series, which included The Deerslayer and Last of the Mohicans.

The impact of the Great Depression in the 1930s was felt not only in metropolitan areas, but small towns like Cooperstown. Clark, a fan of baseball, sought to boost the local economy (including putting money-paying patrons in his hotel rooms). He asked NL President Ford Frick for permission to open a museum and Hall of Fame that honored America’s pastime. Frick gave the go-ahead in March 1936.

By the time the actual museum structure was ready to open in June 1939, four elections had placed twenty-six people into the Hall. Players worthy of the first induction included relatively recent players with names like Wagner, Mathewson, Cobb, Young, Gehrig, (and a guy named Ruth), as well as historic notables like Anson, Cummings, Chadwick, and Cartwright.

Since then, more than three hundred names have been elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame. The hall gallery itself is cavernous and solemn, almost like a chapel. On its walls are plaques that honor players, managers, owners, executives, and umpires that made their impact on baseball. Each bronze plaque has raised text, identifying the honoree as well as their career highlights. A bas-relief image of the winner is located above the wording.

Along with the Hall’s gallery itself are three floors of exhibits and artifacts, including artwork; historic items; and displays of bats, balls, and uniforms from the entire history of the game (and where else can one gaze longingly at the bowling ball and bag of Babe Ruth?) Individual exhibits honor African Americans, Latin Americans, and women in baseball. Thousands of additional items are stored in the Hall’s archives.

A separate wing houses a library, children’s activities, the Giamatti Research Center, and a permanent exhibit called Scribes and Mikemen that recognizes broadcasters and writers who have made their way into the Hall of Fame (as award “recipients”—not to be confused with HOF “inductees”).

Baseball journalists across the country vote for players who are eligible for induction to the Hall. If a player fails to reach the required vote percentage of 75% during his eligible years (reduced recently to ten years, following five years of retirement,) the player can be considered by the Eras Committee (formerly known as the Veterans Committee.)

This year’s Chicago inductees came from the “Today’s Game” section (1988 to the present) of the Eras Committee.

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Ready and steady, Harold Baines’ career spanned 22 years between 1980 and 2001. While he spent time with teams in Baltimore, Oakland, Texas, and Cleveland, nearly half of his career was with the Chicago White Sox, where he patrolled right field and was a designated hitter.

Baines finished his career with a .289 batting average, 384 homers, 1628 runs batted in, and an OPS (batting and slugging percentages combined) of .820. Decent numbers, but some have wondered “Hall of Fame worthy?”

Sports Illustrated magazine called Baines’ selection “embarrassing.” Skeptics point to the fact that White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf – a member of the Today’s Game Committee – had plenty of influence on Harold’s election. And, there’s the age-old argument that DHing is not really a full time baseball position.

But the fact is: twelve out of sixteen Committee members (with HoF names like Greg Maddux, Bert Blyleven, Ozzie Smith, Tony LaRussa, Andy MacPhail) voted for his induction, not just Reinsdorf.

And, the fact is: Baines’ career was one of longevity and consistency. He hit twenty or more home runs eleven times; drove in ninety or more runs eight times; batted .300 or more eight times; had a slugging percentage of .500 or more five times. He was a six-time All Star.

Come this July, Harold Baines will be in the Hall, with a White Sox logo on his cap, like it or not (personally, I like it.)

Similarly, relief pitcher Lee Smith will join Baines in Cooperstown in July. With eighteen seasons in the bigs between 1980 and 1997, Smith pitched in more than 1,000 games (although I’m hard-pressed to recall any of his five STARTS with the 1982 Cubs.) Relieving for eight teams, nearly half of his career was with the Cubs.

He retired as the all-time leader in games saved with 478. The record would last until Padres closer Trevor Hoffman passed that mark in 2006. Still, only Hoffman and Yankees closer Mariano Rivera (another of this year’s inductees) hold higher save totals than Smith today.

Smith posted 30 or more saves eleven times and averaged nearly one strikeout for every one of his 1,289 innings pitched. His lifetime ERA was 3.03. He was a seven-time All Star and finished in the top five for the Cy Young Award three times.

Yet, in his fifteen years of standard Hall eligibility, Smith only garnered as high as 50.6% (in 2012,) a far cry from the necessary 75%. He finished his last year of eligibility with 34.2%. But, with a second chance from the Today’s Game Committee, Lee Smith will be enshrined in the Hall with a Cubs logo on his cap. Again, some ask “Why?”

As previously noted, Smith retired as the all-time leader in saves. He was recognized as a top closer, solid and reliable, in his career (converting 82% of save chances.) His body of work compares with relievers like Trevor Hoffman, Rollie Fingers, and Bruce Sutter – all members of the Hall. As one of the most feared closers in his time, Smith is deserving of his spot in the Hall of Fame.

One of the game’s top managers (and HofFer) Joe Torre once said, “Lee Smith is one of two relievers I never had to worry about…and the other was Mariano Rivera.” High praise, indeed.

Again, just like the DH, the role of a “closing” relief pitcher – essentially charged with just getting the last three outs of a game, (many would suggest the three most important outs) has changed the complexion of the Hall. Only eight of the 323 members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame are primarily “closers” (that’s a microscopic .025 percent.) The first, Hoyt Wilhelm, was selected in 1985, following the increased reliance on the closer starting in the Seventies. Six of those eight have been chosen within the last fifteen years.

Like most things in life, getting into the Hall has changed. At one time, standard benchmarks like 500 homers, 3,000 hits, 300 pitching wins – were unofficial guarantees of Hall induction. But not today. Rampant use of PEDs, the increased role of the relief pitcher, and nearly fifty years (!) of designated hitting have altered the landscape for Hall inclusion.

And, because there never has been a standardized rubric for election, the criteria to reach 75% remains fluid from year to year. For years, selection at the whim of the sports writers was based largely at how well the players interacted with them (Yet, if that were solely the case, ornery and sullen Ted Williams would never have made the grade, despite being one of the game’s greatest hitters ever.)

Some will argue that the Hall of Fame is reserved for only the best of the best, often suggesting, “If so-and-so belongs, why isn’t it the ‘Hall of the Very Good’?” I don’t know – why is the foul line in fair territory?

Bottom line: Harold Baines and Lee Smith will be among the newest members of Baseball’s Hall of Fame. And, that’s a good thing.

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