Baseball Hall of Fame Needs Tighter Standards

by Joe Guzzardi
New York Yankees' great Joe DiMaggio is widely considered one of the top ten players in Major League Baseball history. DiMaggio played a brilliant center field for the Yankees from 1936-1942 and from 1946-1951. His career batting average was .325, he had 2,214 hits, 361 home runs and 1,537 runs batted in. An All-Star thirteen times, DiMaggio was a World Series Champion nine times, an American League MVP three times, batting champion twice, home run leader twice and RBI leader twice.

Joltin' Joe, as fans fondly nicknamed Di Maggio, has a never-to-be-broken ML--56-game hitting streak five fewer than his incredible 61 in the Pacific Coast League. In 1955, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted DiMaggio. But here's the rub - DiMaggio's 1955 appearance on the HOF ballot was his third attempt at induction, a seemingly impossible oversight.

Back then, a first ballot HOF was the cherry on top of the banana split. But today, HOF standards - like so much of baseball - are watered down. While I don't have any serious objection to this year's selection that put in first ballot relief ace Mariano Rivera and stellar starter Roy Halladay in along with previous candidates Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina, the trend from the Baseball Writers' Association of America (BBWAA) shows that very good, but not necessarily great, players often get in on their first crack. Halladay was a very good pitcher, but he doesn't come close to other first-ballot inductees like Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton or Tom Seaver.

Going back to the 2018 ballot, Jim Thome, who never finished higher than third in MVP voting, got in on his first try, and looking back one year earlier to 2017, catcher Ivan Rodriguez, another first-timer, was inducted. Rodriguez isn't at first-timer Johnny Bench's level, so justifying the two players' skill differential, with both being first-time inductees, is difficult. And let's not forget that the Yankees' Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey, as well as the Dodgers' Roy Campanella - 1950s superstars - had to wait several years. Other notables who had to wait: Jimmie Foxx, Whitey Ford, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Mel Ott, Eddie Mathews and Harmon Killebrew all had to wait until at least their second ballot.

The urge among BBWAA is to expand the Hall to the greatest number of inductees. Watch any of the sports talk shows and the patter is about candidates who were very good players but have minimal HOF credentials. Yet the talking heads heartily endorse Andruw Jones, Omar Vizquel and Todd Helton. These are crackerjack players who would enhance any roster, but they're not HOF caliber.

Returning to the curious 1954 ballot that put DiMaggio on the outside looking in at inductees Rabbit Maranville, Bill Dickey and Bill Terry, a good dose of sabermetrics might have enlightened the writers. Father Gabriel Costa, a U.S. Military Academy mathematics professor, broke down Joe D.'s 56-game streak, and although considered one of the most unassailable baseball records, it's underappreciated.

Costa devised a mathematical formula based on balls put into play - that is, plate appearances minus walks and minus strikeouts - and calculated that the likelihood that DiMaggio would hit safely in 56 straight games is about six in 10,000, roughly the same odds as flipping a coin that comes up heads ten consecutive times. Today's devil-may-care free-swingers have no statistical chance to equal Joltin' Joe's record. Bryce Harper, according to Costa, has a 6 in 100 million shot, the same as 25 straight heads. Mike Stanton has literally no chance, 7 in one billion.

Another HOF mathematic consideration that's inarguable. A smaller HOF is more exclusive than an ever-growing one. Writers should tighten up their standards so that the truly worthy don't get lost among the less deserving.


Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research member. Contact him at [email protected]