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Reviewing the good and bad of today’s Hall of Fame vote

Dec 9, 2013, 4:33 PM EDT

Bobby Cox cigar

First the good news: Three managers, all deserving and perhaps even overqualified, were elected into the Hall of Fame on Monday. If you are going to have managers in the Baseball Hall of Fame — and you are — then Bobby Cox, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre are all obviously deserving Hall of Famers.

– Cox managed the Atlanta Braves to an astonishing 14 consecutive division titles (not counting the 1994 strike year), which is one of the great accomplishments in the history of baseball. His great strength, it always seemed to me, was his ability to keep his team focused and looking forward all the time. Losing streaks, winning streaks, major injuries, big trades — you walked into that Atlanta clubhouse and it was always the same. Sure, the Braves were fortunate to have Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz healthy for years, but they won before Maddux, they won after Glavine, they won before Chipper Jones, they won after David Justice, they won with a bunch of different closers. And yet, somehow, that team was always the same in some overriding way.

– La Russa led three different teams to division championships, managed the Oakland A’s to three consecutive pennants from 1988 to 1990 and won two World Series in St. Louis. La Russa’s great strength was different from Cox’s; he was a strategist, first and foremost, and while his constant tinkering and pitching changes could become annoying for observers — he used to drive me nuts as a fan sometimes — I think it inspired a deep confidence in his players. They knew La Russa would never rest on them. If the team was up five, he would still match-up lefties in the eighth to protect the lead. There’s something powerful in knowing that your manager is trying harder to win than anybody else.

– Torre led the New York Yankees to four World Series championships in five years and two more pennants beyond that. Torre’s great strength, I think, was just being Joe Torre. He was a borderline Hall of Fame player, he is an extremely likable man, he commands respect. Torre was famously canned three times before he got the Yankees job — he did some decent work with those three teams (particularly in Atlanta, where he led the Braves to a division title) but he was certainly not viewed as a great manager. Nobody in New York was too thrilled when he got the job. But it turned out to be one of the great three-way marriages in sports history — Torre’s modesty and decency combined with an extraordinary collection of young talent combined with George Steinbrenner’s uncontrollable competitiveness proved to be unbeatable for a half decade. They didn’t always get along, things didn’t always seem to be going smoothly, but they won in the end. Torre also was an excellent postseason manager, always willing to grab the moment, something I think Bobby Cox sometimes did not do.

So all three of them are in the Hall of Fame, and that’s absolutely right. Congratulations to the Veteran’s Committee for getting the obvious ones (and apparently all three were elected unanimously).

Sadly, though, that’s all the Veteran’s Committee did this time around. The obvious. And while managers are important, the Hall of Fame is mainly about baseball players. Once again, no baseball players were elected.

Ever since a different format Veteran’s Committee controversially elected Bill Mazeroski in 2001 — we’re taking a dozen years ago now — the Veteran’s Committees have been gun shy. They have elected exactly one player from the last 70 years. One. They have elected:

– Long ago Pirates owner Barney Dreyfus.
– Famously ineffective commissioner Bowie Kuhn.
– Manager Dick Williams.
– Second baseman Joe Gordon, who retired in 1950.
– Umpire Doug Harvey
– General manager Pat Gillick
– Umpire Hank O’Day
– Long ago Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert
– 19th century catcher Deacon White
– Cubs third baseman Ron Santo.

That’s it. Only Santo is a baseball player from the last seventy years. I’m not saying the others don’t belong — well, I am saying that about Kuhn, but the rest all have their case — I’m saying: Who cares? Well, maybe thats harsh. People care about the Baseball Hall of Fame for a whole bunch of reasons, and maybe one of those is to learn about all these people who influenced the game without playing.

But, I’m betting, a bigger reason is that the Hall of Fame validates our memories of great baseball players. Was my childhood hero a great player? Well, look, he’s right there in the Hall of Fame. This is why so many people travel to little Cooperstown to see their heroes get inducted or to see their plaque on the wall. Doug Harvey was a fine umpire, and he might belong in the Hall of Fame, but who but his family will go to the Hall of Fame to have their photo taken with that plaque? Where are the players?

This year’s crop of Expansion Era players could have been better. It could have included Dwight Evans and Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich and Graig Nettles and Dale Murphy and Rick Reuschel and David Cone and others. But, as it was, there were some really good players on the ballot. Dan Quisenberry. Tommy John. Dave Parker. Ted Simmons. I think Veterans Committees in general are afraid to add baseball players to the Hall. And because of it, I think the Hall is stagnating.

And … a few words on Marvin Miller. It goes without saying that if you are going to elect people into the Hall of Fame who were not players or managers — people like Jacob Ruppert and Barney Dreyfus and, ugh, Bowie Kuhn — then leaving Marvin Miller out is probably the greatest Hall of Fame injustice. His influence on the game was so titanic that people STILL argue about it.

That said, I thought Bill James made a great point: He pointed out that at the end of his life Miller was so embittered by the whole Hall of Fame experience that he said, on numerous occasions, he did not want to be elected. In a way, it would be disrespectful to vote him into the Hall of Fame against his wishes shortly after his death. Marvin Miller was the ultimate outsider — that’s what allowed him to change the game. Maybe it’s a more fitting tribute, in an odd way, for him to NOT be in the Hall of Fame.

One more thing: This year Joe Garagiola won the Buck O’Neil Award — the Hall of Fame’s award, given every three years, to the person who best represents the baseball values of Buck. Garagiola is the third person to win it, after Buck himself and scout, general manager and baseball lifer Roland Hemond. There’s a little bit of noise here, but I think in the end Buck would be proud that Garagiola won the award.

You might know that Garagiola lived a bit of a checkered baseball life. He famously stepped on Jackie Robinson’s foot in 1947, Robinson’s first year, leading to a major argument and questions about Garagiola’s character. He testified against Curt Flood in a trial (he has often talked about how wrong he was). He has, at times, seemed on the wrong side of arguments.

But Buck always said that it is the man you become after you make the mistakes that matters. Garagiola brought great joy to people’s lives as a baseball announcer. He is a powerful voice against chewing tobacco. He was not a great player — he was famously traded four times in an eight-man league — but he dedicated his life to the game. Whenever someone would talk about Garagiola stepping on Robinson, Buck would say, ‘No, no, no, Joe’s a good man. There was a lot of tension back then. Joe’s a good man.”

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