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Psst...You Wanna Buy a Book?
Jason Michael Barker
If you're a regular Strikethree.com reader, you're probably familiar with Bill James' Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?, a book we've mentioned in passing on several occasions -- as a holiday gift, as a way to pass the time during the off-season, and so on. However, simply glossing over the book doesn't do it justice. It's book review time, ladies and gents.
James begins with a brief history about how the Hall of Fame came to be, then weaves this history in throughout the rest of the book. From the politics of how the Hall is run, to the librarian who innovated baseball research, to the unscrupulous fellow who actually sold some of the Hall's memorabilia, it's all there. The story is well written, and reads more like a novel than a history text.
And then there are the statistics. Oh, the statistics -- Similarity Scores, the Black Ink Test, Fibonacci Win Scores, and the Hall of Fame Standards List, just to name a few. But don't let this deter you from reading the book if you're not big on statistics. James explains how they work, and their strengths and weaknesses in an easily understood manner.
To be honest, there isn't all that much statistical complexity in the book. James doesn't mention OPS, Total Average, or Runs Created. He rarely mentions slugging percentage, and on-base percentage comes up even less. Why? Because the people who vote for the Hall of Fame don't consider them, that's why. Voters look at batting average, home runs, and RBI. You and I (and Bill James) know how silly that is, but it's useless to judge players by standards on which they weren't judged initially.
Despite and emphasis on statistics, James gives equal time to intangibles, such as leadership and off-the-field contributions. Consider the case of Dick Allen, who James argues should not be in the Hall, despite strong career totals. "He did more to keep his team from winning than anybody else who ever played major league baseball," writes James, "and if that's a Hall of Famer, I'm a lug nut." Allen, you see, was a grade-A clubhouse cancer, to a degree which far surpasses Albert Belle's refusal to speak with the media.
Much of the book is devoted to case studies of certain players (or pairs of players), which add a personal and biographical feel to a potentially dry subject. Paired players include: Catfish Hunter and Luis Tiant, Vern Stephens and Phil Rizzuto, Pee Wee Reese and Rizzuto, Jerry Priddy and Rizzuto, Don Drysdale and Milt Pappas, Joe Tinker and George Davis, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose.
No, that's not a typo -- there really is that much emphasis placed on Phil Rizzuto. James uses the Scooter as his guinea pig throughout the book illustrate such points as the importance of defense, the advantage of playing on winning teams, positional differences, and how much weight to give intangibles. For pitchers, he holds up Drysdale as his example of how misleading won-loss records often are, and the importance of park effects in comparing players.
There is a discussion of modern players, including his guesses as to when they'll be inducted (Barry Bonds in 2011, Ken Griffey Jr. in 2018). James also covers the Negro Leagues and baseball before 1900, leaving the reader with a sense of historical comparison and continuity.
Finally, James offers his suggestions as to how the voting process could be changed for the better. Sparing you the details, his plan includes five voting bodies -- the players, the fans, the media, the scholars and the professionals (execs and other front office folk) -- and would eliminate some of the problems which have plagued the process in the past, not to mention generating an increased interest in the Hall.
Witty, entertaining, and (above all) well-written, Bill James' Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? is a must-read for most any baseball fan out there. So while you're thinking about it, click above and order your copy today from Amazon.com, and receive a Strikethree.com discount to boot!
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