The Halls of Fame and why do we care about Cooperstown?
by Bob Timmermann
Every January baseball fans, eager for any bit of news to keep us going through the long winter, wait to see whom the Baseball Writers Association of America has voted in to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. We study the candidates. We campaign for our favorites. We try to discern who will be voted from ballots made public by writers. We hope that a group of 520 members of the press can honor our heroes. And every January, inevitably, we are both gladdened and disappointed by the selections. Then we turn to wondering what sort of cap the player will be wearing on his plaque. It's a long process. There are even books written on the whole subject.
But compared to the Halls of Fame in the other popular sports in North America, Cooperstown is subject to the most debate. Does anyone ever get very heated over who will be selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in a few weeks except for Paul Zimmerman? Do we even know when the Basketball Hall of Fame election is held? Or the Hockey Hall of Fame has its election? Do we even know where the Soccer Hall of Fame is? (I do, and I even know an elector and have to give him a Christmas present and all that.)
I think there are a few reasons why Cooperstown is subject to such scrutiny. For starters, it's been around the longest (elections since 1936 and the facility opened in 1939). Also, it has a fairly transparent method of election. It's not entirely transparent and ballots aren't made public, but many writers will disclose how they voted. Finally, baseball is a sport where it is relatively easy for everyone to study all the players and presumably make an informed decision. A good baseball fan will be able to tell who is a good third baseman and who isn't. Or any other position. Whether the voters do this correctly is a constant debate. But only the truly devoted football fan could evaluate who the best guards were and how good they were 10-15 years ago. As for basketball and hockey and soccer, these are sports where all players are asked to play both offense and defense during the course of a game, although it seems that only great players on offense ever get recognized, with the exception of goalies in hockey.
Looking at how the other Halls of Fame choose their candidates can be instructive. The Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio chooses candidates with a 39-person panel (there aren't any female members now though). There is one member who "represents" each of the 30 teams and once you join you can stay long as you like, which is why Paul Zimmerman is still the voter representing the Jets, even though he has long been a national writer for Sports Illustrated. There is also one representative of the Pro Football Writers Association and six at-large members. Some of the voters have seen a lot of football: Bob Oates, Furman Bisher, and Sid Hartman are examples of that.
The panel starts with a preliminary list of around 90-100 candidates and then is winnowed down to 25 semifinalists and then down to 15 finalists through a mail ballot. Then around the Super Bowl, the 39 members go in to a conclave and are asked to choose at least three and no more than six candidates. 80% of the vote is required (32 votes) to gain induction. If three men don't get the required 80%, then the next highest ones on the list make it so there are at least three. The 2005 finalists are listed here.
Basketball's Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts is different from the other Halls in that it honors both professional and amateur players and both men and women and both domestic and international players. So the people chosen each year can be an unusual bunch. The 2005 inductees were Jim Calhoun, Jim Boeheim, Hubie Brown, Hortencia Marcari (a Brazilian player), and Sue Gunter (former coach of LSU). I don't know about you, but going to a ceremony to honor these five people wouldn't exactly send me to the travel agent to book the next flight to Springfield.
Who chooses these people? Well, there's the tough question. There's a Screening Committee that passes on recommendations to the Honors Committee. Who's in these groups? No one knows for sure as the names are not made public. There are 24 people on the Honors Committee and you need 18 votes to make it in.
But here's a quiz, which of the following people are in the Basketball Hall of Fame: Artis Gilmore, Dominique Wilkins, Skinny Johnson? Of course, it's Johnson, who starred at Kansas from 1929-33. Which of these coaches is in Springfield: Phil Jackson, Tex Winter, Jim Valvano, Sam Barry? Of course, it's Barry, who won one NCAA championship as a coach. In baseball (USC, 1948). [To be fair, Jackson isn't eligible yet. Winter and Valvano have been passed over.]
The Hockey Hall of Fame differs from other Halls of Fame in that it is actually in a large city, Toronto. And it's pretty easy to get to in Toronto also, so visiting it lacks the pilgrimage aspect that Cooperstown has. The Hockey Hall of Fame has a committee of 18 choose its members. And they actually have names. But as a friend of mine, who is a far more knowledgeable fan of hockey than I, likes to say, "There are too many people in the Hockey Hall of Fame." And the Hockey Hall of Fame now is an elite group of 339 people. And the Hockey Hall of Fame even booted out a member, Alan Eagleson, a player agent and union boss who swindled many players out of a lot of money. By comparison, Bruce Sutter is the 261st member of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The Hockey Hall of Fame has 93 people in its "builder" category, which is mainly executives. Baseball has 24 in the similar category. Hockey has inducted 14 referees and linesmen. Baseball has inducted 8 umpires. Basketball has honored 12 referees. Football has honored one official and 16 executives.
The next Hall of Fame elections will be for Canton and they will be during Super Bowl week in Detroit in February. But will anyone get as worked up about who gets chosen and who gets left off as people were about Rich Gossage and Bert Blyleven? Harry Carson, who is a finalist, has said in the past that he doesn't want to be considered any more, but he's back on the ballot again. Will anyone be angry if Rayfield Wright doesn't get the chance to take a trip to Ohio in August? Or Gary Zimmerman? Or Art Monk?
And in January 2007, baseball fans will go back to their debates about the Hall of Fame? How many votes will Cal Ripken get? Will he deserve more than Tony Gwynn? Will Mark McGwire be considered worthy? Will Jim Rice and Rich Gossage and Bert Blyleven be forgotten? Lather. Rinse. Repeat.