Touring the Bases With… the Veterans Committee
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with two members of the Hall of Fame Veterans Committee about the selection process and the thought that went into it. Both men declined to disclose their votes, but were forthcoming about other aspects of their involvement. Here are the edited transcripts of my conversations with Steve Hirdt, president of Elias Sports Bureau, and Roland Hemond, former general manager of the White Sox and Orioles and current member of the Diamondbacks front office.
If you could have voted for more than four players, would you have?
Maybe. I ranked them from 1-10 as candidates, then looked at the top four and asked myself whether they belonged in the Hall of Fame. I changed position a few times in the course of the discussion. It was close for me between 2-3, but I never really thought about the #5 guy.
Did you feel pressured to induct at least one player? Â
Not at all. [Hall of Fame president] Jane Forbes Clarkâ€™s instructions were along the lines of â€œall ten of these guys were very, very good players, but very very good is not enough to get into the Hall of Fame.â€ Once she reminded us of that, with those instructions, it was laid out there, as a final reminder of what was expected of us.
What resources did you consult in making your decisions?
Well, I read what I could about each player. I obviously was familiar with each in broad termsâ€”there wasnâ€™t a guy who I was asking, â€˜who is this, when did he play?â€™ Of course, I used our own statistical resources here at Elias, which probably gave me an advantage over other committee members, especially having such easy access to them.
Without giving away your ballot, I want to ask your opinion on a few specific candidates. First,Â Sherry Magee.
He had fallen through the cracks a little bit. He was a run producer and a power hitter, at least by the standards of his dayâ€”he hit a lot of doubles year by year. He was the man credited with, not the invention, but I guess the recognition of the sacrifice fly. His coaches said that he would always try to hit the ball in the air with a runner on third and no outs. I joked that every hitter who came afterwards owes a debt of gratitude to him for the extra few points on their batting average. In comparison to, say,Â Zack Wheat, though, I think Wheat had the overall advantage.
How aboutÂ Bill Dahlen?
In broad terms, he had a great start to his career, and he played for a long time. He did have an offensive dropoff at one point, after his first six or seven seasonsâ€”I donâ€™t have my stats right hereâ€”but he was certainly one of the premier shortstops of his era.
What did you think of the makeup of the committee? Was it an appropriate mix of voters?
It was great. Everyone spoke up, everyone made a contribution, even though thatâ€™s not always the case in the Supreme Court of the United States, as far as I understand. I didnâ€™t know what to expect, and I was very pleased.
Was there a lot of discussion or mind-changing at the meeting, or had the members more or less decided ahead of time?
I donâ€™t know what the other members thought coming in, they didnâ€™t share that with me and I didnâ€™t share it with them. I didnâ€™t necessarily see at first thatÂ Joe GordonÂ would go in, there was a discussion about him as with all nine guys. Every one of them had a â€˜butâ€™ to their career, otherwise they would have been in already, a long time ago. In each case the idea was to examine the meritsâ€”we talked about the case, and then the â€˜butsâ€™.
Were you satisfied with the results, or is there a candidate you wish had gotten in who didnâ€™t?
Well, besides Joe Gordon, I voted for three others who would be in if it were up to me. I mean, I was as excited as anyone to seeÂ the results. The great thing about the Baseball Hall of Fame is itâ€™s about consensus if nothing else. I donâ€™t put my opinion above anyone elseâ€™s. To the degree the Hall of Fame has asked me to give my opinion, Iâ€™m happy and honored to do that. I donâ€™t think my opinion is superior or inferior to anyone elseâ€™s, though. I think that one of the greatest things about the Hall, besides actually being elected, is the consensus involved. Imagine if the bar for some state election required a 75% vote. Weâ€™d still be having run-offs a year after the election. Even a Supreme Court supermajority is only two-thirds. When you think about what an achievement it is for a candidate to gain three-quarters support, itâ€™s really a remarkable thing.~
How did you feel about Joe Gordon being chosen?
I saw Joe play numerous times. He had great power, was an excellent all-around second baseman, and he played an instrumental role on the New York and Cleveland championship teams.
If you could have voted for more than four candidates, would you have?
Conceivably. There were some other good candidates. Itâ€™s a great procedure, the experience of participating in voting with players who I admired as a fan and then also in my work experience. If others I voted for didnâ€™t get in, thereâ€™s no sour grapes on my part.
What was the composition of the committee like?
Everybody was well prepared, no one rushed through it, the disucussion was profound, not joining forces one way or another and listening very closely. There was a great deal of discussion, pros and cons, with people voicing their opinions very candidly. It was fascinating procedure, and I felt honored to be a participant.
How long did you all meet for?
We had a reception the night before then a long Saturday session, then the decision was announced Sunday. On Saturday we started at 8:00 in the morning and went until about noon. The ballots are turned in then, but you donâ€™t know how others voted. We gave them to Jeff Idelson and Jane Forbes Clark, and they tallied them up, and on Sunday we got back together and they announced it.
What resources did you use in your research?
The Hall provides you with background historyâ€”the statistics, the years they played, the awards. They give you a real good detailed operation. During the meeting, you can ask for additional information to substantiate your own statements as well as other peopleâ€™s. There are Hall of Fame employees who would go and do that at your beck and call; they have a great computer system where they can do that sort of thing. You want to be enlightened not only by your own recollections but by statistics. I felt really good that it was taken seriously by all the participants. You listen closely to those who have seen the players, and for those who havenâ€™t, you try to dissect as accurately as you can what the stats might have meant during their period of participation.
Personally, I used primarily the Hall of Fame material. That was really accurate, high-quality information. I also used some books I have at home, encyclopedias and things. Thereâ€™s more than just the stats, though- you have to recognize the value of a player on the winning ball club.
Did you feel pressure to elect at least one player, given the failure to do so over the last several years?
You have to take the approach that you solidly feel that the person inducted is worthy. It has to be special to be a Hall of Famer, you canâ€™t just vote someone in to get someone inducted.
How did you feel about the voting process? Any suggestions for changes in the future?
I thought for this phase of it, it was a very fair process, and itâ€™s good that there was an opportunity for players prior to 1943 to get a chance. For Joe Gordon to get elected, that made it worthwhile.
A few brief thoughts from these interviews (and thank you very much to both men for their time)â€”first, itâ€™s surprising that the debate only lasted for four hours, according to Hemond (when I asked Hirdt, he said they met â€œa few times,â€ but he â€œdidnâ€™t want to get into specificsâ€). With ten candidates, that equals about 25 minutes a piece. Considering that there were 12 people on the committee, it doesnâ€™t seem like enough time to give each candidate a fair shot. I would like to see them having at least two or three meetings over the course of a month or so, in order to digest each otherâ€™s arguments and check back with the statistics. Second, it seems likely that more players would have been elected if voters could have cast more than four votes. I still havenâ€™t seen an explanation of that policy. Jane Forbes Clarkâ€™s directive, as related by Steve Hirdt, doesnâ€™t sound very progressive in terms of new inductees.
I would love to hear from one of the former players on the committee to see what perspective they brought to the discussion, and in particular, what preparatory work they did beforehand. Most sabermetrically-inclined fans would probably like to see a bit more advanced analysis in this process, but my impression from these two menâ€™s comments is that it didnâ€™t turn out that way.