Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Politics of Glory

Phil Rizzuto, who was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on February 27, 1994, by the Veterans' Committee, died today at the age of 89. Rizzuto was the oldest living HoFer, and his candidacy to the Hall was advanced (according to rumor) by Ted Williams, who declared that "the Red Sox would have won all those pennants if [Rizzuto] had played in front of me[i.e., left fielder Williams]"

By coincidence, over the past few days I have re-read Bill James' "The Politics of Glory: How Baseball's Hall of Fame Really Works" (which was apparently re-published in 1995 as "Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?: Baseball, Cooperstown, and the Politics of Glory"); both titles are a mouthful, but improve on James' 1989 work, "This Time Let's Not Eat the Bones."

James' work was clearly inspired by the controversy in the early 1990s about whether Rizzuto should, in fact, be a Hall-of-Famer. Rizzuto's candidacy was clearly aided by the election (also by the Veterans' Committee, of Bobby Doerr (James gives Ted Williams some credit towards getting his teammate Doerr into the HoF on page 142), and, more importantly, Pee Wee Reese. (To be fair, Rizzuto lost the better part of three years to WWII, which would have helped his career numbers be closer to the HoF 'median' for shortstops.)

James' book intersperses a history of the institution -- and its status apart from MLB -- with the voting constituencies, and more important, an analysis of the HoFers who clearly are at the margin -- Rizzuto (who was on the outs at the time James initially wrote; Don Drysdale; Bill Mazeroski (out at the time; subsequently elected); Ron Santo (still on the outside, looking in); Joe Torre (out then and now, although probably in now thanks to his managerial career; much closer to being in as a player than currently appreciated); George Davis (now in); Jim Kaat (out -- then and now); and Minnie Minoso (not considered a 'true' Negro Leaguer, but lost a significant amount of his career thanks to the color line).

Like all of James' writing, the book is witty and thought-provoking; however, in a re-reading some 14 years after publication, what is truly amazing is the changes in the how we view the game -- James still refers to 'Triple Crown' statistics even though they have been replaced (subsequently, and as a result, in part, of James' work) with stats such as OBP, OPS, and the like.

There will be more on the Hall of Fame here shortly, but the original is a good read, albeit dated (written before Michael Lewis' Moneyball, and shortly after Ken Burns' Baseball; the paperback undoubtedly resolves some of the typos and other editing errors that distract from a compelling narrative.

No comments: