Nobody on the mowable side of the diamond made the cut this time, so the Baseball Hall of Fame had to go to the graveyard for its newest group of immortals, who’ve been dead for a combined 226 years. Jacob Ruppert, the Yankees owner who paid for The House That Ruth Built, will be enshrined Sunday afternoon along with umpire Hank O’Day, and Deacon White, who retired in 1890.
It will be the first time since 1965 that the Hall has inducted no living members, and it’s indicative of the common challenge confronting the Halls of Fame of the four major sports — when both the game and the times are changing, who should be immortalized and how should they be selected?
Baseball is debating how to deal with a generation of players who doped. Football is trying to squeeze a growing number of players, coaches, and contributors through the same narrow goal posts. Hockey, once a provincial pastime north of the border, now is a global enterprise that includes women. And basketball, which includes everyone from high school coaches to NBA stars to Brazilian women, is trying to accommodate them all under its roundball roof.
“There are idiosyncracies involving each sport,” says Jerry Colangelo, who chairs the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “There’s no one process.”
Everyone in Cooperstown and elsewhere knew that a shutout was likely, that none of the 37 candidates on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot would receive the 75 percent required for election. “You could see it coming a mile away,” says Jayson Stark of ESPN.com. This was the Great Steroid Referendum, with Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens the pin-pricked poster boys.
When baseball writers’ votes were tallied neither came close to getting in and everybody else fell short for the first time since 1996. So the Hall went back to the tintype era and will enshrine not only Ruppert, White, and O’Day, but also a dozen others — Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and the Class of 1945 — who weren’t formally inducted because of wartime restrictions.
Next year the Hall likely will return to the land of the living. “We feel this year’s class is more an anomaly than a potential trend,” says president Jeff Idelson. “The ballot, I’m sure, brought consternation to each and every voter in terms of how to decipher it.”
The Class of 2014 will have multiple untarnished candidates — Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, and Mike Mussina, among others, with the likes of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, Nomar Garciaparra, and John Smoltz on deck for 2015. But as more current stars, perhaps dozens more, are caught doping, the consternation likely will continue for decades. Meanwhile, the legacy of the shoot-’em-up Nineties continues.
“This is the mess we find ourselves in,” says Stark. “We’re looking at an era when there was no testing and no punishment and no consequences and no evidence for people like us to go on. I admire my colleagues who want to keep cheaters out of the Hall of Fame. My only question is, how exactly are we supposed to do that?”
Stark voted for Bonds and Clemens, as did more than a third of the 569 voters from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, which has chosen the inductees since the first group in 1936. But unless a couple hundred of them change their minds it’s likely that the all-time home run and Cy Young Award leaders never will be enshrined. Joining them on the outside could be the man who broke Roger Maris’s single-season homer record (Mark McGwire) and the man with the most hits (the ineligible Pete Rose). “And on and on and on,” muses Stark. “What kind of Hall of Fame is that?”
The PED predicament has revived the debate about what the world’s most storied sporting pantheon should be. Should cheaters and wife-beaters be honored with a plaque? Racists and roisterers? Should the best men from a pumped-up time be cast in bronze for all time? “This is a history museum,” says Stark. “It’s not the Vatican.”
Actually, the Hall is both. Rose may be banned from the Hall for betting on games, but he’s in the museum. So are Shoeless Joe Jackson and the rest of the 1919 Black Sox accused of conspiring to throw the World Series. But while the history doesn’t have to be illustrious to be included, the game’s immortals do. “It’s a heavy weight that the writers bear,” acknowledges Idelson, who says that the BBWAA does an admirable job of pondering and picking. “It’s a tremendous responsibility. It’s the ultimate seal of approval.”
Even during the unjuiced era, voters set a high standard, rarely electing more than two candidates a year. Four times since 2005, they’ve tapped only one. Earning 75 percent approval from such a punctilious electorate is an extraordinary achievement.
“With 53 percent you can get to the White House but you can’t get to Cooperstown,” BBWAA secretary/treasurer Jack O’Connell observed when this year’s results were announced. The difference, Idelson points out, is that someone has to win a presidential election. “And our election,” he says, “is permanent.”
Just because Bonds and Clemens didn’t make it this time doesn’t mean they won’t in the future. As long as they can manage 5 percent, candidates stay on the ballot for 15 years. “The main reason why we have a long period is to give voters the perspective of time, which we think is important,” says Idelson. “Opinions can change.”
Sabermetrics, which has redefined how player performance is valued, has caused some voters to question traditional benchmarks for election. “When Felix Hernandez wins the Cy Young with 13 wins, we’re having a sea change,” says John Thorn, Major League Baseball’s official historian. “People are learning that the old metrics that we learned off the back of bubble gum cards aren’t necessarily accurate.”
Determining who’s worthy of a plaque in a statistics-obsessed sport always has been a challenge. Bill James, baseball’s crown prince of empirical analysis, once drew up the Keltner List (after former Indians third baseman Ken Keltner), which posed 15 questions for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates. Among them: Was he ever regarded as the best player in baseball? Do the player’s numbers meet Hall of Fame standards? How many All-Star-type seasons did he have?
Bonds and Clemens obviously ace the Keltner List, but this year those questions come with an asterisk. Were their numbers enhanced by a syringe? Was a whole generation’s? “Once you start taking the records away, where do you stop?” wonders Stark. “It’s impossible to go back and rewrite history.”
In the novel “End Zone,” a supersized college lineman poses a conjectural comparison. Who was the greater man? Sir Francis Drake or the prophet Isaiah? Edward Gibbon or Archimedes?
The day before this year’s Super Bowl in New Orleans the 46 selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame asked themselves a pigskin version of the same question. Andre Reed or Art Modell? Bill Parcells or Cris Carter? Edward DeBartolo Jr. or Michael Strahan? “You’re trying to compare apples and oranges in the extreme,” says Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star.
After deliberating for more than eight hours the committee tapped six players (Larry Allen, Jonathan Ogden, Warren Sapp, Carter, and old-timers Curley Culp and Dave Robinson) plus Parcells, leaving 10 other finalists in the waiting room. Some, such as Reed and fellow receiver Tim Brown, running back Jerome Bettis, and defensive end/linebacker Charles Haley, are considered inevitable inductees. The question is, when?
Lynn Swann was a finalist 14 times before he was elected. Carl Eller was chosen on his 13th try, Paul Hornung his 12th, Tom Mack his 11th. Even Pete Rozelle, the legendary commissioner who shaped the modern NFL, needed eight opportunities. Parcells, who was passed over for the third time last year, ended up with a spotlighted role at the enshrinement, presenting running back Curtis Martin.
This year, fans nominated 127 players, coaches, and executives. When the rules limit enshrinements to between four and seven a year with 80 percent approval required, the backlog of worthy candidates runs into the dozens. “The reality is, we want it to be tough,” says Hall vice president Joe Horrigan. “This isn’t the Hall of Very Good.”
Even great ones still are cooling their heels. Jerry Kramer, the iconic Green Bay guard who was named to the NFL’s 50th anniversary team, was bypassed 10 times. “Jerry has said he got more publicity for not being in the Hall of Fame,” observes John McClain of the Houston Chronicle.
With the league nearly three times as large as it was when Kramer first played in 1958, and specialization increasing, determining immortality has never been more difficult. The voters, media representatives from each NFL city (two from New York) plus at-large members who are chosen by the Hall, are an opinionated bunch who don’t necessarily agree on what a player is.
“Some members believe that punters and kickers aren’t football players,” says Boston Herald columnist Ron Borges, the New England representative. “That’s like saying that relief pitchers aren’t baseball players.”
While early inductees Lou “The Toe” Groza and George Blanda also booted the ball, only one pure placekicker (Jan Stenerud) is in the Hall, and no punters. “How do you not have the best player at his position, whatever that is?” wonders Chappell.
Raiders punter Ray Guy, who invented the concept of hang time, was denied seven times and will have to be elected by the nine-member Seniors committee. And the chatter already has started about Adam Vinatieri, the former Patriot and current Colt who is the only placekicker to win four Super Bowl rings, two of them by his own foot in the final seconds.
“If you look at the [New England] Super Bowl teams, beyond [Bill] Belichick and [Tom] Brady, the only lock is the kicker,” reckons Borges. “If he doesn’t get in I don’t think any kicker in the history of mankind will get in.”
As the game has evolved, as players’ roles and their relative value are being redefined, and as more sophisticated statistics are available, inductees are coming from all over the field, with four offensive linemen elected this year and last. “These guys [voters] are prepared,” says Horrigan. “They come into the room with reams full of material.”
The evaluation is a year-round process with committee members polled three times before the list is reduced to 25 modern-era candidates in November and then to 15 finalists, plus two seniors. Before the vote each of their names is presented by the member from their geographical area. “We ask them to make the opening salvo,” says Horrigan. “If the person says, ‘I don’t think this guy’s a Hall of Famer,’ that’s their prerogative. Then everyone else will chime in as they see fit.”
Unlike baseball, whose voters cast mail ballots, the football selectors are closeted face-to-face for the better part of the day as the field is reduced by secret ballot to 10, then five. “You have guys having real debates in a room,” says Borges. “It’s pretty intense and it can get pretty heated.”
What makes the decision less complicated is that the character issue is limited to what happened on the field. “We do not consider what goes on outside the white lines,” says McClain. “It doesn’t matter if they sniff the white lines. All we consider is the performance.”
That guideline was reaffirmed when Lawrence Taylor was elected on his first try in 1999 despite a history of drug abuse and several arrests. At a time when more NFL players than ever have rap sheets, the voters would just as soon limit their purview to the gridiron. It is difficult enough to make distinctions among wide receivers who played in disparate systems and to weigh statistics for old-timers who played both ways. “It used to be if you caught 35 balls a year you were the greatest receiver in the league,” muses Borges. “Now if you catch 35 balls you’re unemployed.”
For owners and executives, whose résumés have no stats or game film, outpolling helmeted candidates is difficult. “To me [former 49ers owner] Eddie DeBartolo is as good an owner as I’ve ever seen,” says McClain. “Right now it is so hard for contributors to get in when there are so many worthy players.”
While there has been discussion of a separate wing for the execs — former commissioner Paul Tagliabue has been bypassed three times — there’s no talk about pouring a foundation any time soon. Next year the same voters will ask themselves the same questions. Who is the greater man? Aeneas Williams or Don Coryell?
It was the Dunkin’ Donuts method of selection — three of those, a couple of these, and that one there — until they had a mixed dozen that satisfied everyone. This year’s class for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, which will be inducted in Springfield Sept. 8, includes two North American players (Bernard King and Gary Payton) and three coaches (Guy Lewis, Rick Pitino, and Jerry Tarkanian), one female coach (Sylvia Hatchell) and one female player (Dawn Staley), one international player (Oscar Schmidt), one veteran player (Richie Guerin), one former ABA player (Roger Brown), one early African-American pioneer (Dr. E.B. Henderson), and one contributor (Russ Granik).
That’s the equivalent of a full team for an institution that formerly was electing half a dozen a year, and as recently as 2007 didn’t induct an individual player. “I think there was some catching up to do,” says Colangelo, the former Suns owner and present USA Basketball chairman who was enshrined in 2004.
Unlike the other Halls, the Naismith embraces the planet at every level. “Anyone can nominate, anyone can be in the Hall of Fame,” says president John Doleva. “If you want to nominate your high school coach, you can do that.”
That was the idea when Lee Williams, the former Colby athletic director, established the Hall on a shoestring in 1959. The NBA had only eight teams, none west of Minneapolis. The NCAAs were a 16-team field, the women’s game was still a curiosity (The All American Red Heads), and the international game was a rumor beyond Olympus.
The NBA now has 30 clubs with players from 38 countries, March Madness involves 68 teams, Title IX has engendered nearly 350 women’s Division 1 varsities, and even casual basketball fans can identify Pau Gasol, Manu Ginobili, and Dirk Nowitzki. “It’s an expanding universe for us,” says Doleva.
The Hall has been expanding with it, with more than 300 players, coaches, referees, and contributors, 44 of them elected during the past four years. “We’ve plugged a lot of holes with people who’d fallen through the cracks,” says Colangelo.
To accomplish all of the expansion, patching, and filling, the Hall has created a complex system of seven screening committees, five of which elect members directly, in addition to a 24-member Honors Committee that chooses the North American and women’s inductees after they’ve been vetted by the Board of Trustees.
But unlike the other Halls, the Naismith doesn’t divulge its voters’ names, and asks that they keep mum themselves. “I have no problem with going public with who they are but they don’t want to,” says Colangelo, who favors making the process both more inclusive and transparent. “They’re afraid of relationships and being hustled.”
The Hall will disclose the committees’ makeup — Hall of Famers, basketball executives, media members, and other contributors to the game. Yet with nearly half of the inductees chosen by specialized panels, some observers believe that the public should know who’s doing the picking.
“The idea that you’re going to vote something that significant and people aren’t going to know who votes is absurd,” says writer Jack McCallum, a former voter and Gowdy Media Award winner.
With the Naismith still trying to develop the cachet of Cooperstown and Canton, anything that creates more buzz figures to be helpful, which is why the Hall next year will give the public a voice in the election for the first time. “My interest in opening this thing up is for exposure,” says Colangelo. “It’s going to be a nominal involvement. It’s a piece of the action, but it’s a small piece.”
Still, it should provoke a spirited debate over who should and shouldn’t be enshrined. Unlike the other Halls, whose rolls are dominated by professional players, until recently there were relatively few NBA stars elected. From 2001-07, only nine were tapped. The best route historically has been to be a college coach — Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun, Geno Auriemma, and Tara VanDerveer already are in. So are three high school coaches.
The Naismith Hall always was about inclusion, but the hoop world was smaller when Phog Allen was inducted. Now, with a mixed dozen coming through the doorway every year, how many of the world’s ballers can fit under that roundball roof?
The voters have reminded each other so often now that it has become their mantra: This is the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s not the NHL Hall of Fame. For half a century there was virtually no distinction, nor was there any geographical diversity. The National Hockey League was 90 percent Canadian and so was the Hall.
But that was before the Summit Series and the Miracle on Ice and the influx of Russians, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, and, yes, Americans, into what once had been a maple-leaf monopoly. “We’re very aware that this is a global sport,” says Eric Duhatschek of the Globe and Mail, one of the Hall’s 18 selectors.
The NHL now has players from 19 nations, including Slovenia and Kazakhstan. Three countries have won the last four Olympic titles, and neither Canada nor Russia made the medal stand at this year’s world championships.
So the Hall, whose home is a former bank in Toronto, has made it a point to open its doors and its selection committee to the rest of the planet. “I firmly believe in evolution,” says Columbus Blue Jackets president of hockey operations John Davidson, one of the voters. “You have to change with the times.”
Two women — Cammi Granato and Angela James — were elected in 2010, and Geraldine Heaney will join them in November. A Russian (Pavel Bure) and a Swede (Mats Sundin) were elevated with Adam Oates and Joe Sakic last year. Peter Stastny, Igor Larionov, and Anders Hedberg, who were among the European pioneers in the NHL, are selectors, sitting alongside the likes of former NHL general managers Brian Burke and Bill Torrey and coaches Scotty Bowman and Pat Quinn. “If you look around the room, somebody has an expertise in the names that come forward,” says Duhatschek.
As the game has become more international, the names have become decidedly more numerous and the decisions more difficult, given the cap of four players and a lofty standard for “Honoured Members.” “The key underlying criteria is to achieve greatness at an elite level over a prolonged period of elite competition,” says Hall president Jeff Denomme.
By elite, the Hall means the NHL. “We still feel that the NHL is the best league in the world,” says Davidson, who tended goal for the Blues and Rangers for a decade. “Always was and always will be.”
With rare exceptions such as Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary goalie for the Big Red Machine, and teammate Valeri Kharlamov, the Europeans in the Hall all played in the NHL. A number who were their international equals, such as Russia’s Boris Mikhailov and Vladimir Petrov, Sweden’s Lars Bjorn, and Germany’s Erich Kuhnhackl, haven’t been tapped.
The same goes for players such as Andre Lacroix, the World Hockey Association’s all-time leading scorer who was much less productive in the NHL. “The WHA wasn’t around very long,” observes Davidson. “It had some good players but it was not on a par with the NHL.”
For a shrine that once had something close to an open-door policy — 27 members were elected in 1962 — the Hockey Hall has become much more picky in recent years. In 1999, Wayne Gretzky was the only player selected, and only Glenn Anderson and Larionov made it in 2008. “There are members on our committee who feel that perhaps our limits are too stringent,” says Denomme. “But there hasn’t been a lot of movement to try to adjust things.”
The Hockey Hall of Fame isn’t the only one on the planet. The IIHF Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1997 and shares the same Toronto venue, has more than 180 members from 23 countries, including 20 Americans, among them Bill Cleary, Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, and Phil Housley.
By contrast, only 10 US players are in the HHOF and four — Brian Leetch, Granato, Mark Howe, and Chris Chelios — were elected in the last five years. “I think there’ll be a lot more Americans,” predicts Duhatschek. “Since 1980, the growth of the game in the States has been phenomenal.”
Until the Summit Series in 1972, Canadians had no reason to believe that anyone else belonged in the Hall. When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal against the Soviets in the series finale in Moscow, he became a national hero, and his jersey later sold for more than $1 million.
Henderson’s NHL statistics — 236 goals in 707 games — haven’t been impressive enough to get him into the Hall, but there’s talk that he could make it as a builder, alongside the likes of Clarence Campbell and Conn Smythe. The NHL and the game changed forever that summer.