Players who meet certain career criteria are a virtual shoo-ins for Hall of Fame membership: 3,000 hits, 500 home runs, 300 pitching victories. But what of the others?
Herb Pennock, the Yankees pitcher in the salad days of 1923 to 1934, ended with just 240 victories in a 22-year career, and only two 20-win seasons. Yet he’s in the Hall of Fame.
Happy Jack Chesbro is in the Hall of Fame largely on the strength of one season: He won 41 games in 1904, with a microscopic 1.82 earned run average and two strikeouts for every walk. His career lasted just 10 years, and his winning percentage drops to a less-impressive .566 if you don’t count the 1904 season.
So career statistics are just part of the story. Players who just don’t have the stats have always been the tricky cases.
Part of the problem is the paucity of defensive statistics for position players. In some cases you just had to see the guy play to appreciate his talent. In other cases, statistics must be taken in context their era; Jack Chesbro’s record can’t be broken because modern baseball teams will simply not permit a pitcher to start 51 games in one season. It would be seen as irresponsible and possibly abusive. A modern four-man rotation yields a maximum of 40 starts, and a 5-man rotation yields a theoretical 32 starts.
But there are some players who, no matter how much number crunching, simple don’t have the statistics, whether compared to today’s players or their contemporaries.
For example, Travis Jackson, the New York Giants shortstop from 1922 to 1936, had just 1,768 hits, a .291 batting average, 929 runs batted in, and a weak .337 on-base percentage. His defensive skills were cited when he was voted into the Hall of Fame by the veterans committee in 1982.
Although he frequently figured in MVP voting, he never finished in the top three in the National League and his fielding percentage, .952, is low for a shortstop — in fact, it was worse than the career fielding percentage for Johnny Butler, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ long-forgotten shortstop. Jackson participated in 856 double plays in 14 full seasons (61.1 per season) compared to 80 per season Cincinnati’s Billy Myers, a contemporary who is not in the Hall of Fame.
Hard to figure, but the explanation (as is often the case) is that the veterans committee looked less at statistics and more at reputation or, as has sometimes been the case, friendships. Was Jackson an outstanding defensive shortstop? Perhaps, but shouldn’t a Hall of Famer excel and fielding and batting?
Interestingly, Jackson played in just one of the four All-Star games that were held during his career.
Careers shortened by injury or death also cause statistical nightmares. There is an ongoing debate whether it is fair to use early career stats to extrapolate conclusions about a career that might have happened — but didn’t. This is particularly true of picthers, who are prone to careeer-ending injuries. Claiming that someone would have won 300 games based on an injury-shortened career with 200 victories is speculative, but such leaps in logic are sometimes used as arguments for Hall of Fame membership.
So the Hall of Fame waters are actually muddied by statistics, which can be wielded like a weapon especially in the absence of superiority in the core stats of hitting and scoring. Take shortstops in post-war New York City: Phil Rizzuto, an average hitter, sacrificed a lot. Duke Snyder’s slugging percentage was almost always well over .500. Pee Wee Reese stole a lot of bases. All three made it to the Hall despite wide variations in their relatively unimpressive offenses.
The stats that are considered important or tangential tend to shift over the years, but there will always be players in the Hall of Fame who will have no statistics on which to rely. Those are the tricky cases.