Thursday, September 3, 2020

The Suddenly-Luddite Hall of Fame

By Jeff Kallman

Dick Allen used to hit home runs that zoomed into earth orbit. Thanks to the Hall of Fame's unexpected allergy to Zooming, Allen's and others' Cooperstown candidacies will have to wait another year.

Among other changes fun and dubious the pandemic has imposed upon baseball, two Era Committees — the Golden Era Committee on which Allen would now be a candidate, and the Early Baseball Era Committee — now won't meet until winter 2021, with those they elect if any inducted in 2022.

It seems the old fogies who think baseball is headed into an abyss with newfangled analytics aren't the only ones who think technology and the old ball game are a match made in hell. Hall of Fame chairman Jane Forbes Clark seems to think, erroneously, that technology mustn't overcome the coronavirus's travel confusions and constrictions to compromise Era Committee nominations and elections:

"With the nation's safety concerns, the travel restrictions and the limitations on group gatherings in effect for many regions, it is not possible to ensure that we can safely and effectively hold these committee meetings. The Era Committee process, which has been so effective in evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, requires an open, yet confidential conversation and an in-person dialogue involving the members of the 16-person voting committee."

Is Clark telling us that members of the Era Committees or the Baseball Writers Association of America (who determine their candidacies) can't Zoom what numerous schools and non-retail businesses have arranged, managed, and zoomed since the coronavirus world tour kicked into overdrive in earnest a few months ago?

It really is so simple a child of five can do it. (Sorry, Groucho.) Lots of children of five in kindergartens are doing it.

When the Today's Game Committee elected Harold Baines to the Hall of Fame so controversially two years ago, the committee members included Hall of Fame manager Tony La Russa, a man who is about as allergic to high technology as Donald Trump is to self-congratulation. And Dave Dombrowski, last seen as the Boston Red Sox's general manager until late last season.

Surely Clark and the Luddites among Hall governors don't think a manager who helped introduce the computer to baseball thinking and strategizing would have run home to Mommy at the idea of Zooming about Hall candidates? Or, a general manager who last worked for a team 20,000 leagues deep into analytics that require computers as much as other tools?

Technology isn't always a gift, of course. There probably isn't a baseball jury on earth that would say artificial turf was a baseball blessing. But if Clark thinks confidentiality would be compromised by a Zoom remote conference call, what does she think when, almost invariably, certain Hall of Fame doings and undoings get leaked to the working press routinely enough?

Fair disclosure: I have a little skin in this game. I've championed Dick Allen for the Hall of Fame for quite awhile now, after once being skeptical about it myself. (I'd also like to see elected his great contemporary Tony Oliva plus Minnie Minoso, both of whom deserve the honor.) But a long time reviewing the record as it was and remains convinced me that Allen belongs in Cooperstown.

I'm convinced with no further questions asked that his Hall case was compromised way less by the racism against which he waged war in Philadelphia than by a series of injuries he was sometimes foolish enough to try playing through, and that those injuries kept him (as Rob Neyer and others have observed) from posting better late-career numbers that might have solidified his Hall case.

Jay Jaffe, in The Cooperstown Casebook, says it better in prose than I could (and did) say it:

"[C]hoosing to vote for him means focusing on that considerable peak while giving him the benefit of the doubt on the factors that shortened his career. From here, the litany is sizable enough to justify that. Allen did nothing to deserve the racism and hatred he battled in Little Rock and Philadelphia, or the condescension of the lily-white media that refused to even call him by his correct name. To underplay the extent to which those forces shaped his conduct and his public persona thereafter is to hold him to an impossibly high standard; not everyone can be Jackie Robinson or Ernie Banks. The distortions that influenced the negative views of him ... were damaging. To give them the upper hand is to reject honest inquiry into his career."

I can and did say it statistically, too. I determined on my own that if Dick Allen had been allowed 15 completely healthy seasons and a normal late-career, uncompromised decline phase, he might have finished his career with as many as 525 lifetime home runs instead of the 351 he did hit. (Oliva wasn't Allen's kind of power threat but the same healthy fifteen seasons and uncompromised decline phase might have left him with 315 lifetime homers.)

My Real Batting Average (RBA) metric — which I've since modified to disallow sacrifice bunts (sorry, but intentional outs don't and shouldn't count) but retain sacrifice flies; and, which allows the complete look at a player that traditional batting average (treating all hits equal and factoring only "official" at-bats) denies — adds total bases (which treats hits the way they deserve: all hits are not equal), bases on balls, intentional bases on balls, sacrifice flies (unintentional outs, unless you really think a batter swings hoping to fly out to Bernie Boxorocks so Freddie Feetsies can score on the cheap), and times hit by a pitch, then divide by plate appearances. (Yes, you should include intentional walks — why shouldn't a batter get credit if the other guys prefer he take his base instead of their heads off?) For his absolute peak seasons of 1964-72, Allen's TB (2,592), BB (685), IBB (120), SF (33), and HBP (11), divided by his PA (5,457), produce an RBA of .631.

Since he's most likely to be considered as a third baseman (injuries forced his full-time move to first base, since he could no longer throw well across the infield), Allen's full-career .611 RBA is better than all but two Hall of Fame third basemen whose careers were played all or mostly in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era. The six behind him, in descending order: Eddie Mathews, George Brett, Ron Santo, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, and Brooks Robinson. The two ahead of him, in ascending order: Chipper Jones and Mike Schmidt.

Forty-one percent of Allen's hits went for extra bases, too, and they weren't all those orbital belts that once inspired Hall of Famer Willie Stargell to suggest one reason Allen was booed by the notorious Philadelphia boo-birds (those people would boo at a funeral — Bo Belinsky, briefly a Phillie) was that his home runs traveled too far to become souvenirs.

"What I've done, I'm pretty happy with it," Allen told his biographer/Phillies historiographer William C. Kashatus once. "So whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, I'm fine with. Besides, I'm just a name. God gave me the talent to hit a baseball, and I used it the best I could. I just thank Him for blessing me with that ability and allowing me to play the game when I did."

Whatever happens with the Hall of Fame, Allen, Oliva, Minoso, and others covered by the Golden Days and Early Baseball Era Committees, the Hall that includes members who were elected on behalf of being innovators (Branch Rickey, Bill Veeck) or pioneers (Albert Spalding, Barney Dreyfuss) is suddenly allergic to a little pioneering.

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