A few days ago, MLB.com columnist Joe Posnanski sent a series of tweets from the Hall of Fame, ending with the following:
— Joe Posnanski (@JPosnanski) March 29, 2017
It got me thinking. Since Henry Chadwick’s selection to Cooperstown in September 1938, it’s seemed aberrational. Chadwick was a 19th century journalist, pioneering statistician and arguably one of baseball’s founding fathers. But enshrinement’s typically restricted to players, managers, umpires and executives. In fact, at quick glance, Chadwick might be the only Hall of Fame selection to fall outside of these realms (though parallels could perhaps be drawn with two other pioneers honored, Al Spalding and Alexander Cartwright.)
In the years since Chadwick’s enshrinement, Hall of Fame committees have only rarely nominated similar candidates, such as Alfred Reach, a 19th century sporting goods magnate known to have been a Veterans Committee nominee in 1963 and a Pre-Modern Era Committee nominee in 2013. Doc Adams fell a vote shy in December 2015, a reminder that the Hall of Fame might be one of the most conservative institutions in sports, hesitant to insitute change at anything more than a glacial pace. Unconventional candidates have no easy time of it.
If the Hall of Fame ever wants another alternative honoree, though, the subject of Posnasnki’s tweet would have to be at the front of the list. Bill James, the Godfather of stats, has long since been deserving of a plaque, having helped pioneer sabermetrics and change baseball forever.
That said, it’s not very likely he’ll get in anytime soon. What’s keeping Bill James out of the Hall of Fame? A variety of factors, both particular to his case and well beyond his control.
Cooperstown chances: 30 percent
Why: I reached out to Posnanski, a longtime friend of James, and asked what he thought of James' chances. Posnanskisaid:
"I’m hopeful that over the next few years, that various new outlets for guys like Bill and Paul Krichell and Buck O’Neil and Sy Berger and John Thorn and others will emerge. I think there are some voices in the Hall who would like to expand not necessarily the STANDARDS of the Hall (which I think people are very eager to keep) but the depth and breadth of the Hall."
I'm hopeful, too, though also pessimistic.
On one hand, there's no shortage of potential people to honor. I put together a list of the 40 most important people in baseball history in November and made sure to featureJames and several other unusual selections. They included:
Dr. Frank Jobe, inventor of Tommy John Surgery;
Alexander Cleland, who had the idea for the Baseball Hall of Fame and museum;
Roy Hofheinz, responsible for building the Houston Astrodome and creating Astroturf;
Robert Bowman, president and CEO of MLB Advanced Media;
David Neft, who led the multi-year research effort in the mid-1960s to create “The Official Baseball Encyclopedia,” without which Baseball-Reference.com and much other seminal baseball research might not exist today.
More of these figures are out there. ButI don’t know ifthe Hall of Fame will goout of its way to honor these people (though I hope they'll listen to Posnanski and others.) For one thing, it’s kind of a slippery slope, with far more subjective standards for enshrinement than that of players or anyone directly connected with on-field happenings.
It’s part of the reason late, great Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Marvin Miller has had such a hard time as a candidate,though he rightly makes the ballot under its executive category whenever he’s eligible.It’s part of the reason Curt Flood will likely never have a plaque, despite his high-profile role in the fight to topple baseball’s Reserve Clause.
Part of the challenge facing James might be similar to what faces Flood or Miller. Hall of Fame committees are typically small, made up of 16 or so veteran baseball insiders, some of whom might actively resent what James has done for baseball. Meanwhile, veteran candidates need at least 75 percent support, typically 12 votes. It doesn’t seem like it would take much for one particularly opposed voter to sway four other voters and prevent enshrinement for a candidate such as James.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve talked to numerous former ballplayers over the years. Some, such asBobby Grich and Dave Stieb, have warmed to the tenets of sabermetrics. But many other retired players have no use for advanced stats. I wouldn’t be surprised if they resent the man who did as much as anyone to bring sabermetrics into the mainstream and baseball front offices (with James even inventing the word sabermetrics in 1982). I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them wouldn’t actively work to undermine James’ candidacy if given the chance.
So long as players who retired before 1990 or so and older writers, historians and executives continue to comprise Hall of Fame committees, James will need considerable luck to even get nominated for consideration. Perhaps in 20-30 years, when the generation of players currently benefiting from the influx of advanced stats into baseball are on Hall of Fame committees, James might have a better chance.
Even then, though, don’t be too optimistic for James.