Baines Elected to Baseball Hall, But Should He Have Been?

A former Indian was elected to the Hall of Fame on Sunday night.

It wasn’t the one I’d hoped for. It wasn’t even one I thought would be elected – and that’s the problem.

Lee Smith and Harold Baines – who was a member of the Tribe, albeit briefly, in 1999 – were announced Sunday night, the first night of the winter meetings, as the Hall of Fame inductees for the Today’s Game era. Other candidates on the list included former Tribe skipper Charlie Manuel as well as Orel Hershiser, Joe Carter and Albert Belle, all of whom wore Indians uniforms as a player at one point or another in their careers.

A case could be made for a plaque for Smith in Cooperstown. When he retired, he was the major league record holder for career saves, bridging the game between the first closers like Rollie Fingers and Goose Gossage and modern firemen like Trevor Hoffman and Mariano Rivera (all Hall of Famers except Rivera, who’s up for election for the first time this year, and is considered quite nearly a mortal lock for induction on the first ballot).

Baines is more mystifying – to the point where even he said he was “shocked” to have been inducted.

He had a 22-year career, the type of longevity that speaks to his skill (as well as a little luck in avoiding injury; who knows what kind of numbers Belle might have put up had he not retired at 34 with his productivity curtailed by a degenerative hip condition), during which time he was named to six All-Star teams and tallied 2,866 hits, including 384 home runs.

But durability alone does not a Hall of Fame candidacy make. Baines only remained on the Baseball Writers Association of America’s ballot for five years, never garnering more than 6.1 percent of the vote (the standard for election is 75 percent) before dropping off the ballot. His career doesn’t contain any of the magical numbers that at one point made players a shoo-in for induction: a .300 batting average, 3,000 hits, or 500 home runs. He only ever led the league in any offensive category once (a .541 slugging percentage in 1984), never finished in the top five in batting average, and his offensive numbers look a little worse when you realize that he spent two-thirds of his career as a designated hitter. His career wins above replacement rate is 38.7, good for 545th all-time – not only below a significant number of other Hall of Fame members, but contemporaries like Paul O’Neill as well as players who’ve been ignored by the Hall, like Gil Hodges, Don Mattingly and Dick Allen.

So how exactly did he get into the Hall of Fame? He had friends in high places. Among those on the committee were his first manager with the White Sox, Hall inductee Tony LaRussa, and White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who said in a statement, “So happy for Harold. He’s a great player and a great human being. I am so honored that I was a member of the committee. He deserved to be in long ago. I am just so excited.

“Not only was Harold one of my favorite players to watch, but I have nothing but admiration for him as a player and as a human being.”

Sports is supposed to be a meritocracy, but who you know matters more than we’d like to believe. The NFL instituted the Rooney Rule to ensure minority coaching candidates get interviews. NFL and NBA coaches use their sons to fill out their staffs. And for many years, Hall of Fame inductions that weren’t slam-dunks depended just as much on who would advocate on a candidate’s behalf as they would on a candidate’s numbers.

Elmer Flick’s candidacy got a boost when writers started telling stories after Ty Cobb’s death about how the Georgia Peach was almost traded straight-up for him. And then Branch Rickey – at the time the chairman of the veterans committee and the only contemporary on it of Flick’s – lobbied for Flick’s induction. Mel Harder’s Hall of Fame candidacy got a boost in the 1990s thanks to advocacy by Ted Williams, and has fallen off precipitously since the Splendid Splinter’s death.

The most glaring instances of Hall inductions came from Frankie Frisch, who as a part of the veterans committee lobbied for many of his former Giants and Cardinals teammates, including players like Chick Hafey, George Kelly and Dave Bancroft, whose careers are consigned to obscurity – and rightfully so.

Since the days when players like Frisch and Bill Terry were part of the veterans committee, it’s reorganized several times. At one point, all Hall of Fame members had a vote, and now, it’s divided into eras to try to right some historic wrongs (they’ll hold the fate of Kenny Lofton in their hands; the speedy leadoff man was on the writers’ ballot for one year before dropping off).

But as this year’s election indicates, the veterans committee is no less political – and no more meritorious – than it ever was.

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