When the Hall of Fame and Controversy Collide

There always seems to be an element of politics surrounding the Baseball Hall of Fame. Passionate people feel strongly about their revered sports icons, and the nebulous process in analyzing players has made for a mercurial state of mind in the selection process for the HOF, especially in the past when the Veterans Committee has been involved.

This past week, the process was yet again under fire when 17 Negro and pre-Negro League players and executives were selected by a special committee in a one-time vote to the Hall of Fame, doubling the total number of Negro and pre-Negro League players enshrined in Cooperstown. And while there was an element of controversy in those selected, it was the non-selection of John “Buck” O’Neil and “Minnie” Miñoso that has created the real fervor.

What really is on trial, however, is the selection process, and the view that two on the list—that in many minds would be shoo-ins—missed the cut.

Former commissioner Fay Vincent chaired the voting and screening committees. Vincent was a non-voting member of the committee, and directed the discussions with the committee members. Hall of Famer, and now Washington Nationals Manager, Frank Robinson counseled the committee.

The voters on the committee are arguably the most knowledgeable and passionate researchers when it comes to the subject of Negro and Pre-Negro league players and executives. In February of 2001, the Board at the Hall of Fame selected “The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group” research team, led by Dr. Hogan of Union County College (NJ), Dick Clark, and Larry Lester, to conduct the study on the history of African Americans in Baseball, from 1860-1960. Those three then led a group of more than 50 authors, researchers, and historians on the study that led to the selections. The voting committee was comprised of 12 members:

Todd Bolton, Greg Bond, Adrian Burgos, Jr., Dick Clark, Ray Doswell, Leslie Heaphy Dr. Larry Hogan, Larry Lester, Sammy Miller, Jim Overmyer, Rob Ruck, and the late Robert Peterson, who passed away just over two weeks ago.

As the press release from the Hall of Fame reports:

The research resulted in a raw narrative and bibliography of nearly 800 pages and a statistical database, which includes 3,000 day-by-day records, league leaders and all-time leaders. The research was culled from box scores from 128 newspapers of sanctioned league games played from 1920-54.

With the research now complete, the study includes sanctioned league game box scores from almost 100% of games played in the 1920s, in excess of 90% of the box scores from games played in the 1930s and box scores from 50-70% of games played in the 1940s and 50s, during which time the various leagues began to disband and newspapers ceased to report game information. The end result is the most comprehensive compilation of statistics on the Negro leagues that have ever been accumulated.

It is here where some of the initial controversy started.

While the members of the Researchers/Authors Group were comprised of many members from the Society For American Baseball Research, the data was not released to the public to advance the vetting process. More on that in a bit.

So, on the 27th of February, 12 players and five executives were selected in this—mind you—a one time vote to the Hall, with O’Neil and Miñoso absent from the list.

This has sent many baseball fans and the media into an uproar, especially in the case of O’Neil. Instead of trumpeting the selection of the 17 that history may have overlooked due to the lack of collected data, the Hall has had to go on the defensive, overshadowing what was thought to be a shining moment for the HOF.

Thrown into the mix on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday has been longtime SABR member, and MSNBC TV and ESPN radio personality, Keith Olbermann.

Olbermann, who may be the greatest definitive resource on Fred Merkle in the world, blasted the Hall on his MSNBC show Countdown w/Keith Olbermann in not selecting O’Neil and Miñoso. In a bit of guilt by association, he also threatened on the show Tuesday to drop his membership in SABR, after being a member for 22 years, due to many on the voting committee being members of SABR; never mind that SABR was not directly involved in any of the process, and has yet to gain access to the data used in the study.

To Olbermann and his producer’s defense, they had the Executive Director of SABR, John Zajc, on the show Friday, where SABR’s position on the matter could be addressed.

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When Olbermann asked if SABR planned to do anything or recommend about Buck O’Neil, Zajc responded, “As you point out, Keith, SABR is a research organization rather than an advocacy group. And we’ve chosen to remain neutral on issues like this in the past. We’ve never taken a stand on things like interleague play, or the DH, or steroids in baseball. We feel this neutrality is important to help researchers to have an environment where they can do their research and have it lead where it may.”

So, yet again, it is the process of the selection that has lead to this situation.

What seems indisputable is that O’Neil is one of the greatest ambassadors that baseball has ever had—Negro leagues or otherwise. He served on the Hall’s Veterans Committee for nearly two decades. He gained a great deal of his celebrity when he was featured prominently in the Ken Burns documentary, Baseball. His love and enthusiasm for the game—especially those that he was associated with through the Negro Leagues—has done invaluable good for the sport.

But the question is, was O’Neil’s play worthy of entry into the Hall of Fame? Based on the Macmillan Baseball Encyclopedia (8th edition), O’Neil’s lifetime numbers break down as follows:

335 G, 1396 AB, 402 H, 39 2B, 15 3B, 11 HR, .288BA, .361 SA

O’Neil won the 1946 Negro American League batting title with a .353 average.

In the ’42 Negro League World Series between the Homestead Grays and O’Neil’s Kansas City Monarchs, he hit .353, as well.

So, as great as O’Neil is as an ambassador of the game, the best that one might say about his playing is that he was an above average player. He, like many other players during the ‘40s, missed playing time due to military service in World War II (he served from ’43-’45), which could have impacted his numbers, for better or worse.

Where it becomes less clear is when his managerial record and scouting career come into play.

O’Neil managed the Monarchs from 1948-1955 winning a total of five pennants and served as the manager of the West squad for four straight All-Star games from ’51-’54.

As a scout, he signed Lou Brock, Joe Carter, Lee Smith, Oscar Gamble, Matt Alexander, George Altman, Harvey Branch, Jophery Brown, John Hairston, J.C. Hartman, Lou Johnson, Donnie Moore, and Bill Robinson. Also, over time it’s been reported that Ernie Banks was signed by O’Neil. This is incorrect. Banks’ contract was sold to the Cubs in 1953, while O’Neil was still managing the Monarchs. He was the first black coach ever hired in the majors, when the Cubs signed him in to that position in 1962.

So, for argument sake, let’s say that O’Neil comes down on the side of “above average” as a player and manager. Is there a category for “ambassador” in the HOF? That’s the question.

Over and over on Olbermann’s show last Tuesday, that word kept resurfacing. Whether it was Olbermann, or his guest, former Cubs great, and Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks, the issue of O’Neil’s numbers as a player and manager were passed over for the discussion on his ability to be a great ambassador for the game.

And therein lies the conundrum: How do you induct a member into the Hall of Fame for something that there is currently no criterion for? As revered and loved as O’Neil is, is that worthy of entry into the Hall of Fame? And, if so, does that open up the conversation as to whether players such as Johnny Pesky, or Dominic DiMaggio, or Dale Murphy belong in the Hall?

In the case of Saturnino Orestes Armas “Minnie” Miñoso Arrieta, his problem may well be that he spent a fairly limited time in the Negro Leagues (’45-’48), with the New York Cubans. The bulk of Miñoso’s career was played in the Majors (’49, ’51-’64, ’76, ’80) with time spent in-between in the Mexican League (’65-’73). He hit .336 up until August of 1946, before settling back to earth at the end of the season and finishing at .294. He was the starting third baseman in the ’47 and ’48 East-West All-Star games before going entering into the Majors with the Cleveland Indians in 1949. Miñoso played in the major leagues for 17 seasons, mostly with the Chicago White Sox, and hit .298 lifetime. He was a seven-time All-Star and won three Gold Gloves in the outfield.

He had good career in his home country of Cuba playing eight season of winter ball there with his Cuban career averages of .294, .294, 285, .263, .321, .271, .327, and .295 for the years 1945-’54, except for the winter of 1949-’50 when he did not play winter ball.

If the criterion of the voting committee was to determine whether Miñoso should enter the Hall under the Special Committee vote for Negro Leagues, Pre-Negro leagues eras, then sadly, Miñoso would fall short here as well. His unbelievable intangible qualities through innovations in the game, that Alex Belth so eloquently defined in his article for SI.com, may, unfortunately, never be fully appreciated.

And while we’re at it, let’s talk about the numbers I present here.

We’re back to the other primary issue in this debate: the data to make the determination as to whether O’Neil or Miñoso merit entry into the Hall of Fame based on their numbers. The problem is, the data available to myself and the general research public is, for the most part, ‘flat”. The ability to apply ballpark factors, or know if some of the data covered barnstorming games, or tours, or any other number of factors that could be revealed in the data that the Hall is holding onto isn’t known, making a definitive determination by those with inaccessibility to the study data, at best, difficult.

So, what are we left with? Unfortunately, it seems that the Hall is in a no-win situation. There seem to be cases that could be made for inducting both O’Neil and Miñoso, but not under the criteria of the Special Committee vote. Certainly in the case of O’Neil, there could be consideration of an alternative method for induction based on his “contributions to the game.”

If the overwhelming sense is that some of the most dedicated, and knowledgeable researchers on the planet on Pre-Negro and Negro league players and executives somehow missed the mark on this vote (something I’m certainly not qualified to say), maybe the Hall should consider re-evaluating this selection process as more than just a one-time vote. Release all the data to the baseball research community at-large, which would allow for a complete vetting process, and then determine whether there is a way to get Buck O’Neil and Minnie Miñoso into the Hall of Fame, based on the numbers. If that route isn’t available, and it’s a more intangible quality such as “ambassadors” that would be considered for induction, certainly some form of lifetime achievement award could be applied to O’Neil’s case. Whether this is acceptable to O’Neil, the Hall, or the baseball community, only God knows.

There should be a solution to this unfortunate problem. It’s a matter of the politics of the situation, something for which the Hall of Fame will have to live with or decide to alter. It is their system. It is their results. It was a secret vote. And, the data has been shielded. In the end, it was the process that was flawed, regardless of whether O’Neil or Miñoso deserve to be in or out of the Hall of Fame.

Until the dust settle, it seems that this will be one more controversial chapter in the book of the Baseball Hall of Fame based not so much on O’Neil and Miñoso, but rather what constitutes making an individual “Hall of Fame worthy”. That, it seems, means different things to different people.

References & Resources

  • James A. Riley – The Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Baseball Leagues (Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2002)
  • Macmillan – The Baseball Encyclopedia: The Complete and Official Record of Major League Baseball (Baseball Encyclopedia) (8th edition, Macmillan Pub Co., 1990)

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    Maury Brown is the Founder and President of the Business of Sports Network, which includes The Biz of Baseball, The Biz of Football, The Biz of Basketball and The Biz of Hockey, as well as a contributor to FanGraphs and Forbes SportsMoney. He is available for freelance and looks forward to your comments.

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