The Pro Football Hall of Fame has a category called “contributors” among those considered and enshrined there. So does the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. And the World Golf Hall of Fame, the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, and the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Just about every major Hall of Fame has that category, or something equivalent.
Except the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
The early Baseball Hall elections didn’t categorize candidates, or even have formal ballots. If you got enough votes, you were enshrined. The BBWAA considered 20th-century players, while special old-timers’ committees elected men who, decades later, were categorized as pioneers, executives, managers, or old-time players.
In 1953, a formal Veterans’ Committee was established, with the power to consider major league players by-passed by the BBWAA, along with managers, executives, and umpires – that’s all. No more pioneers, no coaches, no scouts, no broadcasters or writers (who are eligible for special awards, but not enshrinement), no standouts in leagues outside of Major League Baseball (though Negro leagues’ stars were made eligible in 1971). Since 2001, the Veterans’ Committee has been succeeded by a series of long-named similar bodies, but the candidates they can consider remain the same.
There is a rule which states, “Those whose careers entailed involvement in multiple categories will be considered for their overall contribution to the game of Baseball; however, the specific category in which these individuals shall be considered will be determined by the role in which they were most prominent.” And they must meet the ten-year service requirements for that category. Again, only the four eligible categories count.
So, what if the Hall’s Board of Directors created a “contributors” category, enabling voters to consider all contributions to the game of baseball? Who might break out of the pigeonholes to find a home in Cooperstown? Here are a few potential candidates:
Lefty O’Doul – Though he didn’t become a regular outfielder until his 30s, O’Doul was one of the top hitters in the game for a few years. He won the NL batting title in 1929 (.398) and 1932 (.368), setting a league record with 254 hits in the former season. He finished with a .349 career average; only Ty Cobb, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe Jackson had higher marks with as much playing time. But, though O’Doul played the requisite ten years to qualify for the Hall of Fame, he topped 400 at bats in just four of them, and BBWAA voters largely ignored him. He peaked at 45 votes (17%) in 1960.
The reason for O’Doul’s delayed start as a great hitter was that he started as a pitcher. He pitched in the pros from 1917-24, with four cups of coffee in the majors. In 1921, he went 25-9 for his hometown San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League. But an arm injury forced him to reinvent himself as an outfielder at age 27. From 1924-27 he batted .392, .375, .338, and .378 in the PCL, and he finally got a chance in the majors at age 31 in ’28.
After his big league career ended, Lefty returned to the PCL as a player-manager in 1935. His playing time gradually diminished, but he remained in the dugout for 23 years, amassing 2094 victories and becoming a legend in San Francisco. O’Doul led the Seals to four straight playoff championships, 1943-46.
Perhaps his biggest contribution was as “The Father of Baseball in Japan.” O’Doul made some 20 trips to that country in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, performing as player, manager, teacher, and ambassador. He had a profound influence on the development of professional baseball in Japan, earning him posthumous enshrinement into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame in 2002.
Buck O’Neil – A lot of people were upset when O’Neil was passed up for Hall of Fame honors in 2006. A special committee of baseball scholars voted in 16 Negro leagues’ participants, all of them dead and most of them obscure to the average fan, effectively closing the book on eligibility for pre-1947 African-American players. O’Neil died later that year, just shy of his 95th birthday.
The consensus of the voters was that he was a good player, but not Hall of Fame-caliber. Maybe so, but there was a lot more to Buck O’Neil than his playing record.
O’Neil played 12 years, mostly for the Kansas City Monarchs. A singles-hitting first baseman, he batted .292 in league games (based on available data), winning a batting title. He was the Monarchs’ player-manager in 1948-50, then remained as manager another five years, leading the team to five pennants.
O’Neil scouted for the Chicago Cubs, signing future Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Lou Brock. In 1962 he became a coach for the team, the first African-American coach in major league history. O’Neil later became a special scout for the Kansas City Royals.
But Buck’s most-remembered role was in his golden years, as a goodwill ambassador for the game. He served on the Hall of Fame’s Veterans’ Committee from 1981-2001, and was chairman of the Board for the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City from its opening in 1990 until his death. O’Neil stole the show in Ken Burns’s 1994 Baseball documentary, with his upbeat recollections of early black baseball and observations about the current game.
Shortly after his death, and perhaps in response to his snubbing, the Hall of Fame created the John J. “Buck” O’Neil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008. O’Neil was the first honoree; he has been followed, at three-year intervals, by Roland Hemond, Joe Garagiola, and Rachel Robinson.
Johnny Sain – Sain is considered the pitching coach whom all other pitching coaches are compared to – but it won’t get him to Cooperstown, under current rules, which don’t recognize coaching service. Sain had many pitchers who won 20+ games under his tutelage, some who had never done so before and would never do so after: Whitey Ford, Ralph Terry, Jim Bouton, Mudcat Grant, Jim Kaat, Earl Wilson, Denny McLain, Wilbur Wood, and Stan Bahnsen – not to mention Dave Boswell, Jim Perry, and Mickey Lolich, who learned from Sain and won 20 later on.
Sain had been a pretty fair pitcher in his own right, winning 20+ games four times in five years for the Boston Braves. He led the Braves to the 1948 NL pennant with 24 victories, finishing second in MVP voting. Sain rebounded from shoulder problems to become a top-flight reliever for the Yankees in the 1950s. He could handle a bat, too, batting .245 lifetime, leading the NL in sacrifices one year, and striking out just 20 times in 856 plate appearances.
Sain peaked at 123 votes (34%) in his last year of BBWAA Hall of Fame eligibility, 1975.
Bill White – During his playing career (1956-69), White won seven consecutive Gold Glove Awards at first base and earned five All-Star selections. He was a solid middle-of-the-lineup man, posting three straight seasons of 100+ RBI and a .300+ average for the Cardinals. He finished with 202 homers and a .286 average, and received 18 Hall of Fame votes over three years.
White then spent 17 years as a respected Yankees’ broadcaster, playing straight man to Phil Rizzuto’s comedy show. And, in 1989, White was named President of the National League – the first African-American to hold such a lofty post. He retired in 1994.