Friday, March 03, 2006

Passing the Buck

Throughout this great land of ours, the fight over Buck O'Neil's Hall of Fame snub is raging. An AP headline reads Fans, Congress Angry Over O'Neil Slight. King Kaufman speaks eloquently about O'Neil's contributions to our remembrance of the Negro Leagues over at Salon. On MSNBC, former Sportscenter great Keith Olbermann threw his $0.02 in, casting a great deal of invective on the Committee, the Hall, and worst of all, several of the inductees--particularly the two whites honored for their ownership contributions. Olbermann fell into the oldest trap in the book, being blinded by one unfair result into taking equally unfair shots at people who are long dead, and unable to defend themselves. Bad show, Keith. Insulting the qualifications the other inductees won't make Buck a better Hall of Fame candidate, it just looks like sour grapes.

A more reasoned, but angrier response comes from the KC Star's Joe Posnanski. Here's a taste:
By dumping 17 persons into the Hall of Fame, they matched the number of persons inducted into the hall the past seven years. But when it came to why Buck was left out, no one was talking.

“I don’t think the individuals are going to be willing to discuss their individual votes,” said Fay Vincent, who served as a nonvoting chairman of the committee. “We agreed we would not do that.”

In other words, they decided to hide. After this travesty, you could not blame them. On Monday, when it appeared that O’Neil was short the votes he needed, Vincent apparently made a frantic plea to the committee to consider O’Neil’s lifetime achievements and not just his playing days. According to the committee member, he sounded almost desperate.

His words held no sway with this committee. They left him out without a word of explanation.

Joe's a terrific writer, probably my favorite "mainstream" baseball writer. Still, as a matter of full disclosure, he should have mentioned in this piece that he's writing a book on O'Neil (not that it's a secret, or anything, perhaps Posnanski assumed everyone knew). So he's close to the subject, and was probably to some extent upset about the implications of this unexpected snub on his narrative--after all, O'Neil's induction speech this July would have been a pretty good natural end-point for a book on his life.

Anyway, Joe's piece (and various other O'Neil pieces, including the Olbermann one) have ignited a bit of a firestorm at at the Baseball Think Factory (maiden name, Baseball Primer). This conversation has included most of the, Think Factory regulars, as well as ESPN's Rob Neyer, and a cameo or two by Posnanski himself.

I take issue with two points that Neyer, and others, have raised in these conversations. The first issue is the claim that it's unreasonable for Posnanski to expect the committee members to justify their non-vote on O'Neil, in large part because nobody ever has to justify who they didn't vote for. Members of the BWAA are constantly called to the matt by readers over why X candidate didn't get into the Hall of Fame. Maybe they don't hold a joint press conference to announce the reasons why they voted for this one and not for the others; but BWAA members frequently write about those reasons, regardless of whether they're asked. It's one of the fringe benefits of voting for the Hall--most of them get a couple of easy columns a year out of their participation in the voting.

The more important reason the Committee should talk about their votes is because--unlike with most elections--part of the reason they were making this decision was because it was considered that everyone else was unqualified to. To put it more simply, if the BWAA snubs Bert Blyleven--as they did this year, again--I have an opinion about that. I can look at the historical record, see how he performed, see how other Hall of Famers from his era performed, and see whether I believe he belongs. Thanks to tools devised by guys like Clay Davenport, I can do the same if the Hall of Fame is considering a 19th Century player. If they're considering an executive, there's usually a large body of literature on the specific team or person being considered for enshrinement, and again facts (you might call them stats) on how well the executive's team performed or the effect of their innovations.

Although there's quite a bit of literature on the Negro Leagues, the volume of literature isn't the same. The prospect of this Negro League ballot was the election of a number of names I'd never heard of (and I'm not proud of that fact) and two fellows that I did know: one because he was a major leaguer (Minnie Minoso) and the other because he was the voice of the Negro Leagues, the insistent voice requiring that those names I never knew not be forgotten. That's O'Neil.

So, yeah. If the result of the Committee's election is that 17 dead people we've never heard of make it, and the two living people we know don't, I'd like to hear their reasoning. They're the experts, they shouldn't have trouble justifying those choices. I know it's not standard practice, but then again, neither was this election standard practice.

The second big complaint from the Buck O'Neil thread was that you'd have to create a new category of Hall-of-Famer in order to enshrine Buck O'Neil--"CONTRIBUTOR" as Neyer all-capsedly called it, as opposed to the current Hall of Fame categories of Player, Manager, Umpire, and Executive/Pioneer.

With all due respect to Rob, "Look, a straw man! Let's beat it!"

The argument goes, "Buck wasn't good enough as a player to be in the Hall of Fame, his career as a manager was not long enough or distinguished enough to be in the Hall of Fame, and he wasn't an umpire or an executive (scouts don't count as execs). So you'd need a new category to induct him under, likely one called 'being Buck O'Neil.'"

Then, when you point out that "/Pioneer" in "Executive/Pioneer," and point out that O'Neil was the first post-segregation black coach, that he helped found the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and that he spearheaded the charge to have other Negro Leaguers recognized by the Hall, including, most probably, all the other inductees from this and previous special elections, and maybe all that is a bit pioneering; the CONTRIBUTOR people say, "Well, that's not really being a Pioneer. Pioneers create something that changes the game on the field."

Nevermind that the definition of "pioneer" isn't the same as "inventor", never mind that some of the "pioneers" in the hall didn't actually invent anything (like Candy Cummings, who we're pretty sure didn't invent the curve ball). This is the kind of argument where you can just go 'round and 'round ad infinitum, unable to reach any resolution because the two sides have defined the terms to suit their desires. And the Hall of Fame itself isn't much help there, either--they list no criteria for electing an "Executive/Pioneer." Indeed, the "pioneer" part isn't even in their vet's committee voting rules--although some guys who never held an Executive (or management, or umpiring) position in baseball, like Marvin Miller, are eligible on the Vet's Committee ballot. Miller, by the way, did not found or "invent" the Players' Association, and technically, the MLBPA's existence doesn't change the game on the field.

Of course, the CONTRIBUTOR guys could just change the definition of Pioneer (again) to fit Miller...

My take on this is that the term "Pioneers" is there as a catch-all, to induct folks like Henry Chadwick (journalist and original stathead) Cummings (the supposed man behind the deuce) and George Wright (player who "revolutionized" the shortstop position)--people whose qualifications might defy simple or rigid definition. That, it seems to me, is Buck O'Neil. It's not a simple candidacy. It's not a slam-dunk. And possibly, it stretches the definition of things a bit--but isn't that what this election was about, to some extent?

So, going back to the first point, it would sure be nice to hear one of the four or more people on that committee who didn't vote for O'Neil explain their reasoning. Was it the no-category issue? Did they think that O'Neil's accomplishments were not baseball-related but rather media-related (we call this the "Who ever heard of him before the Ken Burns documentary?" argument)? It'd sure be nice to know.

Until then, there's nothing to do, other than mention that there is an online petition on this issue.

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