Ansons and Griffeys and Bells (Oh My)
So, the BR Hall of Fame thing has gotten fun, hasn’t it? Obviously, you never want to take anything like this too seriously -- or seriously at all -- but it has provided a very strong sense of just how high 75% is as a voting percentage.
Look at just a few of the players who have failed to get 75% so far:
Cap Anson: Maybe the greatest player of the 19th Century.
Paul Molitor: 3,000 hits, .306 lifetime average.
Eddie Murray: 3,000 hits, 500 homers.
Al Simmons: Lifetime .334 hitter with more than 2,900 hits; Bill James ranked him the seventh best left fielder ever.
Duke Snider: Legendary center fielder of the Brooklyn Dodgers, last part of Willie, Mickey and the Duke song.
Dave Winfield: 3,000 hits, seven Gold Gloves, started in eight All-Star Games.
Billy Williams: One of sweetest swinging players in baseball history.
Phil Niekro: 300 wins.
Gaylord Perry: 300 wins, Cy Young Award in each league.
Old Hoss Radbourn: 300 wins, but that’s not a as a big a deal when you have FIFTY NINE of them in one season, as Old Hoss did in 1884 with the Providence Grays.
Robin Roberts: Led league in wins, complete games, innings pitched four straight years in 1950s; Bill James ranked him the 16th best pitcher of All-Time.
And so on. This does not even include the players tainted by steroids. There are obviously different reasons different players failed to get the vote -- but that’s the overriding truth of 75%, that it only takes a small hole to sink the whole boat. If you are a great player without enough name recognition (Al Simmons?) that could be enough to sink you. If you have a black mark that could sink you (spitballs and Gaylord Perry)? Did Eddie Murray’s lack of an MVP Award knock him off? Are people just unaware of Hoyt Wilhelm?
Or was it none of those things -- was it just that it’s a silly little Internet poll and people don’t take such things seriously enough to study?
Don’t know. But I still find it all pretty fascinating. And I must admit that perhaps the most fascinating part so far for me has been the voting sagas of Cap Anson and Cool Papa Bell. I mentioned Anson above and wrote a bit about him last week -- he was not only one of the dominant players of his time, he is one of the most important figures in baseball history. As Bill James has written, while many people say Babe Ruth’s remarkable home run power in the 1920s “saved” baseball after the Black Sox scandal, Bill finds little factual basis for it. Baseball’s popularity at the time was immense and was not realistically threatened by the scandal. People may have lost some trust in baseball but that’s a different thing -- and Babe Ruth didn’t have anything to do with fixing that.
BUT baseball was in serious trouble in 1879. The indianapolis Blues and Milwaukee Braves had just folded. The National League added the Syracuse Stars and Troy Trojans and Cleveland Blues and Buffalo Bisons, none of whom would last very long. There was a real question if America had an appetite for professional baseball then. And Anson, with his charisma, his baseball skills, his organizational skills and his persistent hunger to legitimize and promote professional baseball, changed the game. He was a virulent racist, that part everyone knows. But he was a powerful engine for baseball in those dodgy, early days. He did not get enough votes.
Then there’s Cool Papa Bell. I ADORE Cool Papa Bell. It is one of my great regrets that I never met him -- he died in 1991, a few years before I became established as a sportswriter. I have asked countless people through the years to tell Cool Papa Bell stories -- just a couple of months ago, I got Lou Brock to tell a couple (Cool Papa had worked with Brock on his base stealing). I have little doubt in my mind that Cool Papa Bell was the fastest ballplayer of his day. Bill James has said he was like Brock, probably a touch better, and he would have been a 3,000-hit man. The author and historian James Riley says he was once clocked at 12 seconds around the bases and he once stole 175 bases in a 200-game season (including many exhibitions). It is known that in 1946, when he was 43 years old, he hit better than .400 in the Negro Leagues, and .430 in the Mexican League.
So -- awesome, right? Yes, awesome. But here’s the thing: The last round of voting as an absolute bloodbath with a lot of players long acknowledged as Hall of Fame legends not getting in -- it’s clear that the standards for this kind of vote are different and higher. And Cool Papa Bell sailed in with more than 80% of the vote. Nobody who voted saw Cool Papa Bell play. Nobody really knows his entire statistical record -- his Baseball Reference numbers (which were gathered by a Hall of Fame study several years ago) show him as a .316/.363/.420 hitter with 132 stolen bases in more than 3,600 plate appearance (which should translate to roughly 900 or 1,000 games). Those numbers are NOT Hall of Fame worthy, not even close.
Now, I believe -- and most people I know who study Negro League baseball believe -- that those numbers do not come close to reflecting Cool Papa Bell’s impact or his performance in the Negro Leagues. BUT, that said, those are the numbers gathered. The numbers at Seamheads are less involved and almost exactly the same. What we have on Cool Papa Bell are some questionable numbers, legendary stories, and maybe a hope that we have -- a hope that it’s true. And that was good enough to get him into the BR Hall of Fame while players like Eddie Murray could not.
As mentioned, I don’t know what it means -- or if it means anything at all. I voted for Cap Anson and Cool Papa Bell -- without any hesitation at all. I voted Anson because he was a great baseball player. I voted Cool Papa because, well, I think of Buck O’Neil and what he used to say whenever someone would ask him: How fast WAS Cool Papa Bell anyway? Buck would smile and say: “Faster than that.”
Oh … and of course the Ken Griffey in the new poll is Ken Griffey Jr. I stopped referring to him as Ken Griffey Jr. sometime in the 1990s when it became clear that it made a lot more sense to refer to his father, a fine ballplayer, as Ken Griffey Sr.