Sunday, January 18, 2009

Raines, Race, and the Hall of Fame

Some thoughts on race and baseball on Dr. King's Day.

Two weeks ago, Ricky Henderson and Jim Rice were elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America (for the most complete list of BBWAA members on the net click here). Henderson received 94.8% of the votes and Rice received 76.4% (for full election results click here). A chorus of sabermetricans have been campaigning for the elections of Bert Blyleven, who received 62.7% of the votes, and Tim Raines, who received 22.6%, both of whom fell short of the required 75% vote.

In this article, ESPN baseball writer, Keith Law, uses statistical analysis to make a convincing argument for Tim Raines' entrance into the Hall and compares his career to Paul Molitor's, suggesting something else may be to blame for his omission.
So Raines was perhaps the best base stealer in the game's history, the second-best leadoff hitter, one of the best hitters at reaching base (the most important thing a hitter can do, after all) and a good defensive player. One common excuse for omitting Raines from Hall ballots is his admitted cocaine use in the 1980s, including his infamous confession to sliding headfirst to avoid breaking the vials of snow in his back pocket. Raines was clean for the majority of his career and became known both as someone who talked about his recovery from addiction and just generally a good character guy, yet voters are still bringing up the drug use from the first two or three years of his career.
Yet another candidate who reached the ballot with similar off-field indiscretions, Paul Molitor, sailed into the Hall on the first ballot with more than 85 percent of the vote and 299 more votes than Raines received in his first year. Molitor also played the first few years of his career with a serious cocaine problem. So why does Molitor get a free pass while Raines struggles to reach even a quarter of the vote? It's not about their playing careers; Raines was the better offensive player and played a thousand more games in the field than Molitor did. Molitor accumulated more bulk statistics at the plate, but his inability to play a position was a big part of extending his career. No, it might be about something far more insidious.

The electorate for the Hall, comprising BBWAA members who have at some point held their badges for 10 consecutive years (although they need not be active badge holders now), is overwhelmingly white; the organization's secretary, Jack O'Connell, did a quick count of African-American voters and came up with 19 in the history of the organization, at least one of whom (Hall of Famer Larry Whiteside) is deceased. Even if O'Connell undercounted current African-American voters by 50 percent, that would give us 36, out of a total electorate of over 550. Are we just looking at an example, then, of a white electorate treating drug use by a white player differently than it would treat drug use by an African-American player? Many academics, including Princeton professor Cornel West, have written about the way that the American media treats white drug users differently from African-American drug users; perhaps this inequity has seeped into its treatment of baseball players with distant histories of drug use as well, because any gap between Raines' and Molitor's on-field performances could not begin to justify the gap in their Hall of Fame vote totals. This is not to say that any individual voter is racist, but that pervasive societal stereotypes may be hurting Raines' Hall chances.
I do not think Keith Law is suggesting that racism is to blame for Tim Raines' extremely low vote total. I can think of some other factors that explain the ridiculously low vote totals. For instance, the majority of the BBWAA has been extremely reluctant to considers a player's Hall case using quantitave analysis of baseball statistics, and the new categories that have resulted in the last couple decades. These categories go beyond the traditional HR, SB, R, and RBIs. Some examples include OPS, OBP, WARP, and VORP. Considering Raines' Hall case rests largely on the acceptance of quantitative analysis and these new categories, it is reasonable to conclude that there are just too many old farts in the BBWAA who still believe the earth is flat for Raines to stand a chance as a first ballot Hall of Famer.

That said, Law makes a compelling argument, and one that can't be ignored. It would be easy to simplify Raines' omission as the oversight of a bunch of old flat earth cranks, but that might be a mistake. Law's argument certainly deserves more consideration: social stereotypes could be influencing Hall of Fame voting.

(Check out Tim Raines' and Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame websites. Very convincing.)

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