Good for Harold Baines

Controversial selection couldn't happen to a nicer guy, or a more fitting franchise

If I had to describe my reaction to Harold Baines’ Hall of Fame election in one word, it’s easy:

Unprepared.

Watching Baines hang on the ballot for five years before getting clipped off it, I’d made peace with the idea that he was a very good player for a very long time, but didn’t quite distinguish himself in any of the ways that mark a real Hall of Famer. He didn’t own any records or lead the leagues. He played well in the postseason, but his teams went 2-6 in their series. Because of his knees, he didn’t offer much defensive or baserunning value. Maybe work stoppages cost him a shot at 3,000 hits, but you can play alternate history with a lot of guys, and 140 hits likely wouldn’t shake the “compiler” label.

Once I started assessing the numbers for the news post Sunday night, my second reaction involved cringing. I didn’t want to rail against Baines’ Hall of Fame case because, as a White Sox fan, a pro-Baines stance comes with the territory, even if I lack a significant personal connection with Baines’ playing career. By the time I locked onto the Sox for good, Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura and Jack McDowell defined the franchise. Baines didn’t have the star power that captured my grade-school imagination, but if I were born five years earlier and Baines provided the bulk of the entertainment, I’d probably have more stronger feelings.

The findings that I wrote about — that Baines’ was the second-worst position player in the Hall of Fame according to Wins Above Average — foreshadowed the wave of disgust to hit our shores. Baines’ election had lowered the bar for the Hall of Fame, opening the arguments to a much wider swath of players than before, and many knowledgeable writers didn’t appreciate the inconvenience.

Here’s Jay Jaffe, a Hall of Fame scholar and architect of the JAWS metric:

Indeed, that’s yet another facet of what’s frustrating about the election of Baines: his lack of a signature accomplishment that elevates him above the pack. Whether it’s Hershiser with a brilliant 1988 season that included a consecutive scoreless innings record, or Clark, who led the Giants to a pennant and was considered one of the game’s elite hitters for a stretch, or Belle with his ferocious power for the mid-1990s Indians, the other player-candidates besides Carter — who himself at least had the World Series-ending walk-off homer in 1993 — were more distinctive and, to these eyes, significantly more Hall-worthy. Even Jack Morris, who for so long served as a flash point between old-school and new-school voters, had Game 7 of the 1991 World Series, a moment for the ages. Baines’ most famous hit was a walk-off homer in the 25th inning to conclude a suspended game in 1984.

This is not to begrudge the man’s happiness upon being granted entry to the Hall. But Baines’ election is simply not a great day for the institution, or for anyone bringing an analytical, merit-based approach to it while reckoning with its objective standards. The precedent it sets is nearly unmanageable, if future committees are to take seriously candidates of his level. Why battle over Dale Murphy or Fred McGriff if Harold Baines is the standard?

Here’s Grant Brisbee:

There are supposed to be safeguards in place that prevent the sample-size chicanery, dang it. It’s called the hundreds and hundreds of writers who have to mostly agree on something, and it works pretty good if you let it.

Harold Baines and Lee Smith have long been members of the Hall of Very Good For a Long Time, which is a select, impressive group of players that includes Joe Nathan, Nick Markakis, and Paul Konerko. I love that Hall. So many great memories. But Baines and Smith are also in the actual Hall of Fame now, which seems hard to believe. They’re there because a couple of true believers got to lobby and convince a dozen other people.

Here’s Matt Spiegel:

The credibility of the Hall of Fame itself took a huge hit with Baines’ entry, as there are dozens and dozens of eligible players more deserving than him. Fears of a severely lowered bar are uncomfortable and unfortunate.

This election has damaged the integrity of our future annual conversations on the candidates and their merits. The caveat of “if your player doesn’t get in, just make sure he has pals on the Today’s Game Era Committee” now could tag every discussion.

And in an ironic unintended consequence that should embarrass the committee, it has turned Baines himself into a derisive punch line. 

And they’re all correct. Baines is a Hall of Famer, but he’s not the fun kind. His induction might have made sense 20 years ago when counting totals trumped rate stats, but his induction has put a bunch of cold cases on a hot plate when more deserving players are worthy of the bandwidth.

Baines indeed seemed to benefit from a surprisingly friendly committee, which included his No. 1 fan, Jerry Reinsdorf. Reinsdorf rejected the notion that he embarked on any sort of campaigning on Baines’ behalf, but an ownership history full of power plays suggests we treat it with skepticism.

So Baines’ induction has some baggage with it, and while the acidity will dissolve over time, he could be a low-water mark for at least a couple decades if Tony Perez is any indication.

But regardless of how he got in, Baines will be inducted in the same ceremony as first-balloter Mariano Rivera. Their plaques will look the same. The National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame will make no effort to distinguish Baines from anybody else.

But should White Sox fans care?

[/local TV news reporter voice]

I went to Cooperstown to find out.

* * * * * * * * *

Granted, nothing was actually happening in Cooperstown. Baines and fellow electee Lee Smith were in Las Vegas getting formally introduced to the media by the museum, and the Hall hadn’t yet put out any Baines material. I’d already planned to go to see the Moe Berg exhibit and the Jim Thome memorabilia, with stop at Ommegang on the way back. Baines’ announcement happened to be a coincidence.

As I mentioned earlier, I was not prepared for this.

But the National Baseball Museum and Hall of Fame on a winter Monday is a good place to get some thinking done, and the whole Baines uproar gave me plenty to mull over.

Playing with an interactive leaderboard display, I’d realized that Baines would’ve been an acceptable pick 20 years ago. Look at where he sat among active leaders at the time of his retirement:

Back in a time where hits were king, Baines probably gets in without a terrible fight. He might’ve retroactively been panned by future generations for it like Lou Brock, but nobody really argues against Brock’s inclusion. Everybody understands how he got there, whereas Baines’ path from 6.1 percent of the writers’ votes to 75 percent of a 16-person committee confuses everybody.

But it’s not like the White Sox are used to putting ironclad cases in bronze. Check out any “Worst Hall of Famers” list, and it’s likely to include Ray Schalk. He owns the lowest batting average of any Hall of Famer at .253, without any power to supplement it. He was a strong defensive catcher, but he wasn’t alone in that regard. By resume alone, it’s puzzling. His plaque fails to electrify.

In Bill James’ “The Politics of Glory,” Schalk makes The All Why-Did-They-Elect-Him Team. James’ best guess comes earlier in the book, and it also involves an influential campaigner:

Schalk was an outstanding defensive catcher (so were [Luke] Sewell, [Steve] O’Neill and [Muddy] Ruel at least), and was given a boost by the fact that he didn’t sell out to the gamblers in 1919. In writing about the acquisitions of Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Collins to build the team that became the Black Sox, Warren Brown wrote in The Chicago White Sox that “They already had, in Ray Schalk, one of the game’s great catchers.”

Brown was on the Veterans Committee in 1955.

“The Politics of Glory,” Pg. 111

Brown was a J.G. Taylor Spink Award-winning sportswriter and editor who spent the last 40 years of his career in Chicago. He was on the Veterans Committee in the 1950s during the time where vote totals weren’t private. It allowed candidates to build momentum year after year the same way players can in the writers’ voting, and it resulted in a lot of questionably qualified ballplayers getting unnecessarily favorable treatment.

Schalk has company among fellow White Sox enshrinees.  Red Faber also likely benefited from Brown’s benevolence for untainted members of the 1919 team, and Ed Walsh was inducted with a bunch of underqualified early and dead-ball players as part of the Old Timers Committee in 1946. At least he had a helluva peak. Nellie Fox also couldn’t get inducted until the Veterans Committee, although unlike the others, he fell agonizingly short going the conventional path. He earned 74.7 percent of the vote from the BBWAA in his final year of eligibility.

By and large, those who wear a White Sox cap in the Hall of Fame either fought their way through or found a side door. Baines fits right in, and not just because all plaques have the same shape and size.

* * * * * * * * *

The history of the White Sox is mostly ignominy and irrelevance, with knowledge and memories of the particulars limited to fans who were there. Hell, even when the White Sox won the World Series, the country couldn’t forget it quickly enough. I sold a lot of t-shirts because of it. (They’re still available, they’re on sale, and they make a great gift.)

When you list the things most associated with the White Sox among non-Sox fans, it’s more bad than good:

  • The Black Sox
  • Disco Demolition Night
  • Playing in shorts
  • Hawk Harrelson

It remains to be seen whether Chris Sale’s jersey-slashing or L’Affaire LaRoche will stand the test of time, but they won’t push the list in a better direction regardless.

Their legacy is richer than that for those in the know, but given the historical lack of success, I hold the general baseball fan blameless. Until they make the postseason in consecutive years for the first time in their history, the White Sox are resigned to flaring up every once in a while in a strange way, resulting in annoyance and/or mockery, after which they return to the weeds. It’s part of the deal for fans, and kinda fun to lean into it. There’s a reason the South Side is the only place where A.J. Pierzynski gets an ovation, and it’s always standing. James Fegan called the White Sox a “particularly self-reverent franchise,” but if they don’t celebrate themselves, the survey says nobody will.

While they couldn’t have more disparate personalities, Baines’ induction reminds me a lot of the way Harrelson is received in the greater baseball culture, because they were both designed for local admiration only.

Harrelson lasted into the era of MLB TV and Extra Innings, where his homerism extended beyond SportsChannel and into the living rooms of those who had no interest in absorbing his emotions. Hawk became more of a caricature, and non-Sox fans bathed in his sadness and ranked him at the bottom of broadcaster lists.

Up until Sunday, Baines was SportsChannel Hawk. He was known as a very good hitter, a reliable producer and a class act, building a career and a reputation that 99 percent of the baseball world would kill to match. It just so happened the strongest impressions he forged were geographically limited to Chicago, its southwest suburbs and Northwest Indiana.

Until Sunday. After one simple announcement, he’s somehow a heel, taking the form of the Worst Thing To Happen To Hall of Fame Voting.

Fortunately, this is mostly limited to a subset of baseball fans, and history says it’ll fade. A new Worst Thing is usually comes around within five years. Before Baines, Bruce Sutter and Jim Rice took beatings. Eventually, they get shoved down the ladder to make room for a new scapegoat, even if those with progressive platforms make such inductions sound like opening a portal to Hell.

Craig Calcaterra of NBC Sports tried to get to the bottom of the vote, and reached the “acceptance” stage earlier than the others, with a caveat:

I think Baines was elected because, even if he was not a great player, he was pretty darn good, and because the very small electorate which put him into the Hall of Fame was, however inadvertently it was constructed, like drawing a straight flush for him. If I’m the Hall of Fame I’d probably examine that sort of thing going forward, making sure that the people who vote on candidates don’t have such a strong connection and investment in the candidates in future years. For now, though, I say we just continue exchanging those little half-smiles, raising a toast to Baines for his good fortune and let it go.

At least until next year. If the Golden Days and Early Baseball Committee elects the 1906 version of Harold Baines in 2019, then we storm Cooperstown and install a vanguard of a benefit ruling elite to take control.

This is probably the approach to take for non-Sox fans, as well as those Sox fans who aren’t as thrilled for Baines as they were for Frank Thomas, or wonder why Minnie Minoso couldn’t enjoy the same honor before he died. When you see how the famously stoic Baines is processing the news, it’s hard not to fall in line behind him:

If the sight of an emotive Baines can’t crack your calloused Sox soul, then all I can offer you is the history of the franchise. It’s telling you to embrace the way this happened. White Sox players have captured the sport’s national dialogue in far more destructive and embarrassing ways, so you may as well relish the times when unexpected successes are the source of it all.

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Jim Margalus

Writing about the White Sox for a 16th season, first here, then at South Side Sox, and now here again. Let’s talk curling.

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LeftistLefty-Righty

Just make the Hall big as hell, who cares

karkovice squad

This is the correct answer.

Milky✌️

Good for Harold. He was before my time so I don’t have any personal feelings either way aside from it’s nice to have another Sox on the board. 

I don’t have too strong of an opinion on the big/small hall. I lean big just because I’m not nearly as precious about it as the writers association. What I’d really like to see more of us local museums in or near the park, like Cincinnati has. That Chicago doesn’t have something like that between two of the oldest teams is unfortunate. The locals are the ones that want to celebrate their own Hall of Very Good anyway.  

It’s part of the deal for fans, and kinda fun to lean into it.

 Hear, hear.

I enjoy tagging along with the merry band of misfits, but it’s only fun dunking yourself for so long without some success to back it up. 

Trooper Galactus

While I am befuddled by Harold’s induction, watching him tear up talking about his father touched me to the core. Some of you may remember me commenting two years ago on SSS about losing my father suddenly. My primary memories of Baines as a player were having his Donruss Silver Slugger cards in the 80s, when I couldn’t watch them on TV and had no really strong connection to the team, and seeing the tail end of his career with the sudden nosedive into oblivion.

But my strongest memory of him came after he retired and he hit the ballot. Having not really been a witness to his career and not really being enthralled by the statistical case for him, I asked my father what his thoughts were. Dad, a die-hard Cubs fan who was cremated wearing his signed Ron Santo jersey, said that while he didn’t really have an opinion on whether or not Harold would make the Hall, “the man could flat-out hit”, and was the guy he most equated with the term “professional hitter”.

While my dad was never one to offer disparaging comments about others, this struck me as unusually high praise coming from him, and if nothing else, I’m glad that Harold’s induction has rekindled that memory.

As Cirensica

What a fantastic piece of writing. This is why I followed Jim from SM1 to SSS to SM2 again.

I sometimes wonder if it is worth to maintain interest of these HoF discussions year after year after year after year. It never changes. Only the name of the players changes. I am guilty of it years ago, but I have withdrawn from big heated discussions and the “who-cares” I am baffled of past inductions. Sometimes I read many people arguing crazily about these and that HoF thing, and the vast majority hasn’t even set a foot into the Museum or plan to do so.

Lurker Laura

Excellent article, Jim. 

I never understand why people get so cranked up about the Hall. I feel badly for Harold that he’s the butt of that right now. His decency is what likely pushed him over the top, so it’s ironic that he’s getting so much vitriol.

rickjoyce

I agree. So many people somehow think they are stakeholders in the Hall. They need to accept the votes and get on with their lives, root for your favorite team and don’t worry about individual awards.

Ted Mulvey

What a terrific article, Jim. Thanks.

roke1960

Harold Baines in in the Hall of Fame!!! It doesn’t matter what these talking heads say. There are so many players in already who supposedly don’t belong. Bruce Sutter, Orlando Cepeda are two whose stats are supposedly not Hall worthy. But I don’t hear any ex-players who are really criticizing this. He is probably my favorite all-time Sox player, so I’m probably a little biased. Yes, I was shocked when my son told me he was elected. That being said, the guy could flat-out hit and was one of the best clutch hitters in his time. The Chris Russos and Brian Kennys need to shut the hell up. Harold is in the Hall and will be welcomed with open arms by the current Hall members. I can’t wait to see his acceptance speech! It will be a classic!

Gutteridge70

Call me cynical but had Harold been a Yankee ,Red Sox or Cub his election would have been seen as a fitting honor for a deserving under the radar player.

ForsterFTOG

If Harold had been a Yankee, Red Sock or Cub he wouldn’t have received 5% of the vote when he was eligible and fallen off the ballot so quickly.

ForsterFTOG

So you’re arguing for Dwight Evans’ inclusion. Good for you. I agree!

ForsterFTOG

Interpret what? Maybe this comment should have been your first response.

asinwreck

Harold Baines is going to give a great speech next summer. It will be thoughtful, succinct, and I suspect the core of it is in that last interview with Chuck Garfien.
I hope his plaque has a line about Bill Veeck scouting the 12-year-old Baines. That can be the start of a memorable narrative of a successful career.

Unlike Harrelson, Baines was liked and respected around the league. I remember when Oakland picked him up at the deadline in 1990, my friends who were A’s fans were overjoyed to get him. (I was mad as I really disliked that team.) None of them were from Chicago, but his “professional hitter” reputation extended beyond the Central Time Zone.

humberpie

Jim, you are a god damned treasure. This is an amazing piece of writing.

RWShow

Agreed.

karkovice squad

He managed to be an average major leaguer at 40. He managed to do that at DH with the headwinds both from the DH penalty and the WAR positional adjustment. He did that for 2 decades, almost exclusively with his bat, which was about 20% better than league average over his career.

There are only 60 hitters from his era who even managed 7500 PAs. A dozen who cracked 10000.

I’m willing to call that combination of adequacy and staying power exceptional enough to be deserving of Fame. Especially when DH is due for some consideration.

Lurker Laura

I’ve always thought Edgar Martinez deserved to be in, so if Harold as DH paves the way for that, another plus.

Greg Nix

A good point my dad made: it speaks to Harold’s talent and stature that the some percentage of the former players voted him in, even if they were lobbied by Reinsdorf. That at least a few of Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, Ozzie Smith, and Joe Torre thought he was worthy is pretty cool.

gibby32

Jim,
I want to echo those who commented to the effect that this was a brilliant piece of writing. That it concluded roughly where I am about Baines is a bonus. I love the guy.

ParisSox

One of the best things you’ve ever written, sir. 

billyok

Your unprepared columns are as much a treat to read as anybody’s work at its most laboriously prepared. I really enjoyed this, much as I’ve really enjoyed this whole moment. Been a difficult year personally and a bleak baseball year on top of that, but what a wonderful coda this out-of-nowhere induction is. Warmest holidays to everybody here.

Spoiler
except Grant Brisbee