There’s nothing like the National Baseball Hall of Fame for starting a good argument among baseball fans. All it takes to feed the fire names like these–
- Pete Rose
- Barry Bonds
- Roger Maris
- Mike Piazza
- Steve Garvey
- Gil Hodges
And of course I could have listed about 100 more guys without much difficulty. In general, there are three main flavors of most HOF disputes.
- Player X (not in HOF) is better than Player Y (in HOF). Therefore Player X should be in. (And sometimes add in something about one guy playing in New York.)
- Controversy X (e.g., gambling, steroids, spitballs) should/shouldn’t be relevant to HOF membership.
- The HOF just has way too many players!
The first is a very slippery slope in that all it takes is one dubious HOF selection (e.g., Rick Ferrell) to usher in strong cases for potentially hundreds of other players. The second is intractable enough even where we think we have full knowledge of a player’s exploits (e.g., A Rod) but becomes even worse where there are players where the jury is still out (e.g., Piazza, Pujols, Beltre). I’m not here to settle either of these arguments but rather to focus on the third. Is there a right size of the HOF? I think there are three useful ways to think about the answer.
HONORING THE TOP 1%
To date, there are about 250 players in the National Baseball HOF, spanning both Major League Baseball and the Negro Leagues. Meanwhile, the total number of players to have set foot on a diamond is roughly 25,000. Some very quick math puts the size of the HOF at about 1% the number of players.
Similarly, the number of players to make their Major League debut each year is in the 250-300 range. One percent of that number is around 2-3, which aligns pretty closely with the number of new HOF inductees each year.
Even divorced from baseball, the top one percent as a marker of elite status in any field probably sounds reasonable to most people, myself included. Now getting the right number of players and getting the right players still remain two separate things, but I do think it’s helpful for fans who believe the Hall is too big to think about it in terms of this percentage. For example, ESPN has created their own “Hall of 100” (with 25 additional Honorable Mentions) in response to the “too big” criticism. (And yes, for every new player added another player is kicked out.) Their Hall, which honors about 0.4% of all players, is large enough for just about any notable PED user you can think of but too small to include Roy Campanella and Carl Hubbell among their Honorable Mentions.
HOW OFTEN DOES TRUE HOF TALENT SHOW UP?
A valid critique of the Top 1% argument is that expansion drives up the player pool but doesn’t in itself (hence shouldn’t) create more Hall of Fame talent. As such it may make sense to think about the number of Hall of Famers in more absolute terms. Forgetting for a second about how many teams and MLB debuts we have these days, how many new players should we expect to see each year who have Cooperstown in their future?
I’d be hard pressed to defend my answer on anything but gut feel, but I’ll go with two, at least on average. To see what number of HOFers that leads to, let’s take 1876 as the first year of MLB and assume that most HOF-calibre players debuting in 1996 or later wouldn’t yet meet eligibility criteria. This gives us 120 years of baseball to work with, which at two players per year again puts the size of the HOF as just about right, even if certain eras show up as clearly over/under-represented.
KEEPING IT RELEVANT
While it’s hardly an argument to please purists, we should also consider the importance of annual inductions to the continuing viability and relevance of the Hall of Fame. And I do think inductions here is rightly plural.
I was lucky enough to be in Cooperstown on induction weekend for Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Robin Yount (though I missed the actual ceremony). Honestly, that felt like a good number–even a right number–of inductees. If some years had two, that would feel okay, as would four some years. But zero, gosh that just doesn’t work. And even one feels a bit thin.
Perhaps oversimplifying a bit, let’s go with 2-3 on average and keep 1936 as Opening Day for the Hall. That gives us 82 years at 2.5 inductees per year, or 205 players total. While this number is about 20% lower than actual size, it still points to 250 as more correct than something like the ESPN Hall of 100.
While it’s easy to look at some–even many–of the plaques in the Hall of Fame and feel like the Hall is way too big, I have presented three different arguments for the size of the Hall being at least approximately the right size. All point to a current player membership of around 200-250, with an added 2-3 new members each year.
Not convinced? Feel free to leave your thoughts in the Comments.