Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present asked several bloggers and fans to contribute to a project in which he’ll create a 50-man Hall of Fame Inner Circle. I’ve tackled similar topics before in these pages, but I can’t help but weigh in when the power of consensus and the Hall of Fame collide.
I happened to have exactly 50 members in my 100% Group, the guys I thought should have been unanimously elected to the Hall. But that project was based on the pretense that voters use the Hall’s current electorate to determine the worthiness of a new candidate, and therefore was a little heavy on more recent players like Tony Gwynn and Robin Yount, who belonged without a doubt to a group that already contained Lloyd Waner and Elmer Flick, but are not necessarily among the 50 best ever to play the game.
How, then, did I go about choosing my 50 this time? I established a few guiding principles. The first was that my list would only include players. Many managers, umprires, and executives have certainly left their mark on the game and I wouldn’t argue against their inclusion in the Hall, but it’s the players who are most famous, who are most immortal, and without whom there would be no game. Players only. Easy enough.
My second guiding principle was that I wanted the list to be representative of various types of players in various eras. While I believe that the game has evolved over time, and it’s likely that anyone who played at a Hall-of-Fame level in the 1990s probably could have dominated the game in the 1890s to such an extent that he would be a no-doubter for the Inner Circle, it wouldn’t be any fun to take Babe Ruth and the 49 guys who retired most recently. The Inner Circle should be about the players who defined baseball for their generation, either taking advantage of a hitter- or pitcher- friendly era to post ridiculous numbers like Jimmie Foxx and Bob Gibson, or standing out in an era that minimized their primary skill, like Lefty Grove and Willie Mays.
I also wanted to make sure that every position was well represented. Baseball-reference WAR and Adam Darowski’s Weighted WAR would be my primary evaluation tools (though I’ll admit to sneaking a peak at MVP voting here and there), but if they agree that no catcher has ever been among the 42 best players in the game (Darowski has Johnny Bench 43rd; rWAR has him 72nd), I’m not going to exclude catchers from this exercise entirely.
Another challenge was limiting this group to players actually in the Hall of Fame. Jeff Bagwell is eligible and possibly worthy, but since the voters don’t seem to understand the value of a power-hitting, base-stealing first baseman whose numbers are held in check by the Astrodome, I couldn’t vote for him. As soon as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens are eligible, whether they’re elected or not, they’ll be among the 20 best (if not five best) players in baseball history, but they’re not eligible for this exercise. We’re working with the actual Hall electorate and choosing the 50 best therein.
The first 39 players I chose are fairly obvious. I could have picked these names without any numbers. I probably could have just asked my grandmother to name a few baseball players (and I haven’t had a grandmother in over a decade). The last 11 took a little thinking, so I made a matrix of the decades in which players accumulated most of their value and the positions they played the most. If one section of the matrix was overflowing, I cut it off by not choosing any more players who would fall in the same group. If a position was lacking, I found the best eligible player at that position and put him in. Here’s how the list came out, by position:
Campanella was the last pick here. After Bench and Berra, Gary Carter and Carlton Fisk can each make a case as the most accomplished major league catcher ever, but I couldn’t decide between Carter’s decade-long peak and Fisk’s even longer run of excellence. Campanella played in the underrepresented 1940s (primarily in the Negro Leagues), had a better career OPS+ (123) than Carter (115) or Fisk (117), and won three MVP Awards in a career that was cut short on both ends by discrimination and injury, respectively.
I try to steer clear of pre-1900 players in these lists, since the game was so different that we really have no idea how they would have performed in a later era, but Anson was clearly the best hitter in 19th-century baseball, so I couldn’t ignore him. Similarly, Leonard may have been the best hitter in the Negro Leagues, so I’m going with my gut and including him here. It’s amazing that there hasn’t been an Inner Circle Hall of Fame first baseman since baseball integrated, but Johnny Mize didn’t quite have the power, Willie McCovey had too many lean years, and Bagwell and Frank Thomas aren’t in the Hall of Fame yet. wWAR likes Roger Connor and Dan Brouthers, but again, they never faced a reliever who throws 98 with a nasty slider.
Nothing to argue about here, except perhaps the inclusion of Lajoie, but the guy did hit .426 once and earned more rWAR than Frank Robinson. Aside from Nap, we’ve got the three guys in the best-second-baseman-ever debate and one of the most important people in American history. Rod Carew’s narrow exclusion owes much to the chasm between his numbers and those of the group above.
Cal Ripken, Jr.
Here we have my last pick and another of my last five. Davis hit .295/.362/.405 for 20 years as a shortstop. Had those 20 seasons not straddled the year 1900, he’d be more famous than he is; but then, he may not have put up those numbers in a later era, which is why he was my last pick despite 79.8 rWAR and 149.7 wWAR. Lloyd is Bill James’s choice for best Negro League shortstop, and he did hit .368 in his career, for what that’s worth. I’ve always thought of Arky Vaughan as the second-best Major League shorstop ever (besides Wagner), but b-r and Darowski prefer Ripken (and Davis) by a healthy margin, and Ripken has both fame and evolution on his side, so he’s in and Vaughan’s out.
Again, two of the difficult picks show up first and second. I didn’t like having three contemporaries at the position, but these are pretty clearly the four best third basemen ever, with Schmidt way out front and Boggs and Brett well ahead of Home Run Baker, the best pre-Mathews third baseman. I can’t get as excited about Ray Dandridge as I can about Pop Lloyd. I thought about shoehorning Brooks Robinson in here based on his best-ever defensive reputation, but defense is included in WAR and he falls well short of this group, all things considered. I was actually closer to making Ozzie Smith my token defense-first guy, but thought better at the last minute.
Yaz almost missed the cut, not because he isn’t among the 50 best players ever, but because the matrix got a little crowded in his space. He’s not the best Red Sox left fielder ever, nor was he among the three best outfielders in the 1960s. I actually squeezed him in by throwing him in the ’70s, a decade in which he played 1,479 games and rapped out 1,492 hits, while no other ’70s outfielder was close to this list.
The only position (besides pitcher) with six players. Which of these guys do you want to kick out? Bill James and Buck O’Neil agree that Charleston was the best player in Negro League history, and if those two agreed that I should sacrifice my children or vote for Mitt Romney, I might just do it.
Kaline was the only hard pick here. Like Yastrzemski, he suffers from a crowded 1960s outfield group. I gave in, though, because his legendary arm is surpassed only by his prodigious bat (134 career OPS+), and because he beats out nearest competitor Roberto Clemente in wWAR, 138.8 to 131.6, meaning his combination of peak value and longevity is better than Clemente’s (and almost precisely equal to Yastrzemski’s).
Smokey Joe Williams
Thirteen of these guys were easy picks. I probably could have gone with a few more pitchers at the expense of a George Davis or a Roy Campanella, but there was a pretty clear line after the consensus two best pitchers in Negro League history and the 11 best Hall of Fame Major Leaguers. Carlton was the final pick here, and while he’s just 12th in wWAR (with short-career guys Feller and Koufax behind him), his 4,136 career strikeouts, 55 shutouts, and four Cy Young Awards sealed the deal for me.
Among those who didn’t make the cut, Gaylord Perry was closest, but he pales in comparison to contemporaries Koufax and Gibson in peak value and falls well behind Seaver in career value. Ed Walsh is the all-time career ERA leader, and Eddie Plank isn’t far behind, but I’m happy with the best 19th-century guy (Nichols) and a handful from the early 20th (Young, Mathewson, Alexander, Johnson), before the home run came in vogue. Phil Niekro and Bert Blyleven rival half of this group in career value, but neither was as universally renowned during his career as Carlton and Seaver. I considered adding Blyleven just to plug the hole in the 1980s pitcher section of the matrix, but Blyleven wasn’t the ace in the ’80s that he was in the ’70s. We’ll let the crush of ’90s aces (Clemens, Maddux, Martinez, Johnson) flatten out that curve when their time comes.
Feller is my only pitcher from the ’40s, which would have opened a spot for Dizzy Dean had he lasted a few more years as an elite pitcher, or for Hal Newhouser, had his two legendary seasons not come against a lot of wartime scabs. Nolan Ryan has a unique case as well, with all those strikeouts and no-hitters, but with all those walks and losses balancing them out. Ditto Old Hoss Radbourn, who did things no modern pitcher could ever do, but may have been humiliated by modern hitters.
So that’s my Inner Circle Hall of Fame. If we ignore the off-field issues that may keep some current players and recent retirees out of the group, I see six obvious additions in the next several years, and three borderline cases as well. If we add:
and we have to keep the group at 50, I’d eliminate Davis, Campanella, Carlton, Brett, Lloyd, and Smokey Joe. We’re down to three shortstops (two if ARod is a third baseman) and three (or four) third basemen, but that seems fair given the quality of the pitching we just added.
Three more borderline cases could come up:
Ken Griffey, Jr.
which would put the cases of Anson, Leonard, Boggs, Kaline, and Yastrzemski in jeopardy. I’ll stay away from drawing any lines there, but I’d love to hear what others think.