Let’s get the easy part out of the way right off the bat: Gil Hodges, elected this week to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, was not a Hall of Fame caliber player, and it was as a player that he was selected. He was also not qualified to be voted into the Hall as a manager, though there is no question that Hodge’s single famous achievement as a manager, the upset World Series Championship attained by the 1969 Mets, played a large part in burnishing his reputation.
And yet the group of old ex-players and others that make up what used to be called the Hall of Fame’s Veteran’s Committee put Hodges, who died suddenly 50 years ago at the age of 48, voted to place a plaque honoring him among those of Lou Gehrig, George Sisler, Harmon Killebrew, Jeff Bagwell and other far superior first basemen in the game’s long history. (To be fair, Hodges isn’t the least qualified HOF member at that position; that distinction goes to Tony Perez.) The reason for Hodges’ ascension was bias, the positive variety for a change, and lots of it.
When the regular voting for the Hall took place, the annual election by baseball writers, Hodges repeatedly failed to get enough votes, until he ran out of chances. This was as it should be, and should have remained. Baseball stat deep thinker Bill James devised a measurement called “similarity scores,” which compares players to other players based on a long list of criteria. A score of 1000 means that the two players are identical; Hall of Fame level players will usually have the ten closest players in similarity scores be other Hall of Fame players. The ten most similar player to Gil Hodges are, in order of similarity scores, Norm Cash (930.3), George Foster (926.4), Tino Martinez (918.9), Jack Clark (911.2), Edwin Encarnacion (904.0), Mark Teixeira (901.2), Boog Powell (899.2), Rocky Colavito (897.5), Joe Adcock (895.3), and Lee May (892.9). None of them are in the hall, and none of them will ever be elected to the Hall. They all were excellent but not quite great players, just like Gil Hodges.
Why did Hodges get in? The New York Times story today is headlined, “A Baseball Man Who Was Best Viewed in Total.” That may be true, except the rules of the Hall specifically prohibit using anything but a baseball player’s performance on the field and his conduct related to that performance to be considered by the voters. Hodges was also a manager at the time of his premature death, and had not managed enough to be considered for election to the Hall as a manager, but everyone concedes that his reputed prowess as a manager got him votes for enshrinement as a player anyway. In fact, Hodges had exactly one achievement as a manager to distinguish his career in that realm; in 1969, he led the perennial doormats of the National League, the New York Mets, to a shocking pennant and an even more shocking victory over the American League Baltimore Orioles, who were overwhelming favorites. This made Gil an icon in New York City, but the Hall of Fame Rules also hold that no player or manager can be elected to the museum’s honorees based on a single accomplishment. Never mind: the 1969 Miracle Mets put Hodges in the Hall as much as his unimpressive .273 lifetime average or his 370 home runs (155th on the all-time list).
That’s not the end of the biases that put Hodges in the Hall. Roger Kahn’s classic baseball book “The Boys of Summer” lionized the Brooklyn Dodgers of the 1950s, and Hodges was a key member of the team that is now viewed by baseball fans in a perpetual golden haze. (Frank Sinatra sang a song about them.) Brooklyn Dodger chic helped Hodges be viewed as an icon; so did his early death, though these features, too, are not supposed to influence voters.
And everybody liked Gil Hodges, who really does seem to have been a good guy. The same committee that elected him this week turned down Richie Allen, a borderline HOF candidate with far better statistics than Hodges. Richie Allen, however, was a prickly personality and boat-rocker who faced racist taunts in Philadelphia and reacted to them with open resentment.
Nobody is criticizing the election of Gil Hodges to the Hall of Fame, at least publicly.The honor, however, defied the standards of the institution, which were overruled by bias—the nice kind.
That doesn’t make it any less stupid.