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How the heck did Harold Baines make the Hall of Fame?

Harold Baines leads off base

1989: Harold Baines of the Chicago White Sox leads off base during the 1989 season. (Photo by: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

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LAS VEGAS -- As an American in the year 2018 who reads the news, not much shocks me anymore. Really, you could tell me that we’re at war with France, that we found life on Europa or that, as it turns out, saturated fat consumption is the key to a long and healthy life and I’d probably just blink once or twice and then nod with acceptance. Any of us who thought we had the world figured out even a few short years ago ended up being comically wrong about it all. Our happiness -- or at least our sanity -- is probably contingent upon us just accepting that anything can happen.

But, boy howdy, I was shocked by Harold Baines’ election to the Hall of Fame last night. I wasn’t alone. While milling about Mandalay Bay last evening, the most common conversation starter was “Harold Baines, eh?” That was followed by confused half-smiles, head-shakes and then at least a halting effort to understand it. I don’t know that anyone has a great handle on it, really. So let’s take a few moments to try.

At the outset let us, without putting too fine a point on it, acknowledge that Baines falls far short of Hall of Fame worthiness as it has been historically understood. I went over the stats on that in last night’s post and won’t belabor them here. Yes, there are some players with worse resumes than his -- George Kell, Lloyd Waner, High Pockets Kelly, among others -- but most of them were inductees from the old Old Timers and Veterans Committees of the 1940s-1970s, which were notorious for electing players for some dubious reasons. Often it was cronyism. Players elected their friends and drinking buddies.

It had been assumed that those days were over, however. Since the death of Frankie Frisch, who was notorious for Hall of Fame cronyism when he ran the Veterans Committee, the Hall of Fame has fiddled with it many times. It has tweaked its electorate, its voting rules and the players, managers and executives it can consider. At times it went too far, and we ended up with several years in which the Veterans Committee elected no one. The recent split of the Veterans Committee into the various “eras” was seen as a means of loosening things up and electing more people while not, hopefully, returning to the days of electing everyone who was nice, played a few years and didn’t trip over his shoelaces.

A question I and others have been asking since last night is whether, in light of Baines’ election, it is now too loose. Was the election of Baines the inevitable product of a process that is geared toward electing someone -- anyone -- at any cost, or was this just some sort of weird outlier?

For now, I’m leaning “outlier.”

The Hall of Fame revamped its Veterans Committee into the current “era” system in 2016. The stated aim was to elect more people from underrepresented eras, particularly the 1950s-onward. This was the third election under that regime. Since that time, six men have been elected by the various committees: Bud Selig, John Schuerholz, Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and now Baines and Lee Smith. Apart from Baines, it’s not necessarily an unexpected or scandalously unworthy group of inductees.

Trammell was quite worthy of induction and was truly overlooked by the writers. Morris and Smith were long-argued over, each remaining on the BBWAA ballot for a full 15 years, with Morris almost making it in and Smith getting over 50% of the vote at times. They are not darlings of this writer or the analytical set, but more people than not spent many years believing they were Hall of Famers. Selig and Schuerholz were high-ranking executives and, for political reasons, were going to get in one way or another. They’re a different category, really, even if no one admits it.

Looking at that I’m inclined to say that, as far as things have gone, the current Veterans Committee, for lack of a better term, has not opened the floodgates to a bunch of unworthy candidates, If they had, you’d figure that even more borderline or sub-borderline players would’ve made it in that way.

In 2016, Baines and most of the players on this year’s ballot was on there and didn’t make it. In 2017 Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy were there too and didn’t make the cut. There are strong arguments for those two and many others who the new committees have passed over, suggesting that there are still pretty high standards at play. Standards that are too high, probably. At the moment, “lasting your whole 10-15 year candidacy on the BBWAA ballot and not getting in” seems to be a bit too important, and actual merit a bit too little, but whatever you think about that, it’s certainly not the case that they’re holding the door open for any Tom, Dick or Harry.

So how did Baines get in? I think it’s a freak accident born, perhaps, of the composition of the Today’s Game Committee this year.

The 2018 Today’s Committee consisted of the following people: Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven, Pat Gillick, Tony La Russa, Greg Maddux, Joe Morgan, John Schuerholz, Ozzie Smith, Joe Torre, Al Avila, Paul Beeston, Andy MacPhail, Jerry Reinsdorf and media members Steve Hirdt, Tim Kurkjian, and Claire Smith.

Three of those people employed and/or managed Baines in his career. Tony La Russa managed Baines from the time Baines broke into the bigs until he left Chicago following the 1986 season. He managed him again in Oakland from 1990-92. Jerry Reinsdorf purchased the White Sox when Baines was was in his second season with the club and signed Baines’ checks during all three of Baines’ tours with Chicago. Reinsdorf felt so highly about Baines that he had Baines’ number retired by the White Sox in 1989, some 12 years before his career was even over. Pat Gillick was the general manager of the Baltimore Orioles and acquired Baines in the summer of 1997, on the way to the O’s winning the AL East title that year. All three of these men owed a great deal of their personal success to Harold Baines’ baseball exploits and, it’s not hard to imagine, all three were eager to see Baines rewarded for what he did in his career.

I have not seen the breakdown of yesterday’s vote -- they don’t release it publicly -- but I would not be shocked if La Russa, Reinsdorf and Gillick all voted for Baines and if, once they did, they lobbied their fellow voters hard to do so as well. To be absolutely clear, I do not have any problem with that. Voters are entitled to vote their conscience on these things and I have no doubt that, if they did vote for Baines, it was because they truly believed he was worthy. Likewise, the entire point of the committee vote system is for there to be back and forth and interaction among voters. It was their duty to persuade others on the committee to join them in their votes, just as it was the duty of the other members to persuade others of theirs. I’d note, though, that Gillick, La Russa and Reinsdorf are, to this day, three of the more powerful, well-respected and influential men in the game, and perhaps their persuasive powers are particularly strong, so that might’ve helped Baines a bit more than someone else’s support of, say, Lou Piniella helped him.

I’ve seen some people suggest that the Baines vote was a conspiracy of old timers, hellbent on getting players who are decidedly not the favorites of the analytics set elected. I’ve seen others say that the Today’s Game Committee was just clueless and had no idea what it’s doing, electing Baines by virtue of incompetence. I find both claims severely lacking. The former because, whatever a few people like Joe Morgan think about such things, I don’t think most people with the stature of the members of that Committee give much of a crap about fights regarding analytics. The latter because it’s patently ridiculous to say those people don’t know what they’re talking about.

I think Baines was elected because, even if he was not a great player, he was pretty darn good, and because the very small electorate which put him into the Hall of Fame was, however inadvertently it was constructed, like drawing a straight flush for him. If I’m the Hall of Fame I’d probably examine that sort of thing going forward, making sure that the people who vote on candidates don’t have such a strong connection and investment in the candidates in future years. For now, though, I say we just continue exchanging those little half-smiles, raising a toast to Baines for his good fortune and let it go.

At least until next year. If the Golden Days and Early Baseball Committee elects the 1906 version of Harold Baines in 2019, then we storm Cooperstown and install a vanguard of a benefit ruling elite to take control.

Follow @craigcalcaterra