We have, thus far in this series, managed to avoid the hefty question of "What is the Baseball Hall of Fame?" For the next couple of days, though, we enter much less enjoyable territory where we go beyond the play on the field to discuss these questions:
1. If a player's road to greatness is paved with deception and broken laws, should he be elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
2. Can a great player be disagreeable enough away from the field to nullify his greatness and make himself ineligible for the Hall?
We'll take the second question first.
The Baseball Hall of Fame is really two things. There's the museum part; every baseball fan should go to Cooperstown to see it. The museum tells the story of baseball, the whole story, the good and the bad, the inspirational and the troubling. The Baseball Hall of Fame museum includes Dorothy Kamenshek, perhaps the greatest woman baseball player in American history. It includes Pete Rose and all of the Black Sox players, including Shoeless Joe Jackson, and lots of Barry Bonds. It also features Homer Simpson, Abbott and Costello and Norman Rockwell.
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Most people would say that none of these people are in the actual Hall of Fame because they are not in the plaque room. That's the second part of the Hall: The plaque room, a giant hall inside the Hall where the 317 people elected as Hall of Famers by the Baseball Writers' Association of America and the Hall's numerous special committees are honored.
The role of the museum is clear: It is to tell the story of baseball. Nobody thinks that it should ignore the negative parts of baseball. The museum would be an incomplete place without recounting racial reform, the gambling, the drug use, the labor strife, the various troubles that have haunted baseball and the various ways that the sport has worked to overcome them.
But the plaque room's mission isn't as clear. It is a place that is meant to spark memories and thoughts about the people who have shaped the game -- the architects who designed baseball, the pioneers who altered it, and most of all, the best who ever played.
Is it living history for the fans? Or is the Hall of Fame more of an honor, the highest honor, sort of a Nobel Prize for baseball players?
It is, of course, both. But what is the main mission? If it is mostly meant as living history, then the best players should go in it, regardless of their personal flaws. After all, the 317 people in the Hall now include good people and haters, players who valued fair play above all and enthusiastic cheaters, empathetic men and misogynists, drug abusers and role models. Nice guys' plaques are side-by-side with those of total jerks.
The men who led the charge to break the color barrier -- Branch Rickey, Jackie Robinson, Larry Doby and others -- are not very far from Cap Anson and Tom Yawkey, men who helped create and maintain that very color barrier.
The thing they all have in common: They were great baseball players or significant figures in the game's history. It seems to me that is what the Baseball Hall of Fame is.
But I think more people see it as for the players themselves, and it's hard to argue with that. The players elected are celebrated as heroes. They make teary-eyed speeches. Their lives are altered. Their memorabilia prices go up. I would say more people would call the Hall of Fame "baseball's greatest honor" than "a recognition of baseball excellence."
If it is an honor then, yes, suddenly you have to ask the very complicated question when it comes to who should be enshrined on a plaque: Does the player deserve the honor?
So it goes with Curt Schilling. He is a self-proclaimed loudmouth. There are, admittedly, some people who agree with him. They are many others who are deeply offended by him, including many BBWAA voters. He enthusiastically endorsed a joke T-shirt that thought it would be funny to lynch journalists, not the best way to win over the journalists who are voting on your Hall of Fame case.
Sometimes it feels like Schilling is pleading with voters to skip him on the ballot. As one voter told me, "I feel like he punches me in the face with the stuff he says. Why should I vote for him?"
I don't have a great answer for that. I'm on much more comfortable ground as a sportswriter talking about Schilling's baseball case -- and, this is the hard part, I feel like his baseball case is infuriatingly underappreciated.
It sometimes seems like whenever a starting pitcher comes on the Hall of Fame ballot, only two questions are asked:
1. How many games did he win?
2. How many Cy Young Awards did he win?
Every starting pitcher elected in the past 25 years -- with the exception of Bert Blyleven, who needed 14 years to get elected despite various overwhelming achievements like being fifth all-time in strikeouts -- has ticked one of those two boxes. All the rest, every other Hall of Fame starter elected since 1984, are 300-game winners or Cy Young Award winners.
There have been numerous terrific pitchers on the ballot who did not win 300 or a Cy Young Award. Some of them were even better pitchers than the ones elected (consider Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Tommy John, Mike Mussina, Schilling, etc.).
I believe Schilling has the best baseball case of all of the non-300-win, non-Cy Young Award winners. There are many reasons for this, but I'll give you five:
1. Strikeouts. Schilling had 3,116 of them, 15th all-time.
2. Strikeout-to-walk ratio. Schilling's was an astounding 4.38, the best K/BB ratio since 1900, not counting active players.
3. Wins Above Replacement (WAR), according to Baseball-Reference. Schilling's 80.7 ranks 17th since the Dead Ball Era, squeezed right between Hall of Famers Bob Gibson and Tom Glavine.
4. WAR, according to Fangraphs. It is figured in an entirely different way, focusing only on strikeouts, walks and homers, and Schilling's 79.8 ranks 15th, in a virtual tie with Hall of Famers Ferguson Jenkins and John Smoltz.
5. Then the big one: His incredible postseason performance. Schilling was one of the greatest postseason pitchers of all-time, going 11-2 with a 2.23 ERA in a career filled with legendary moments. Bloody sock. Game 7 against the Yankees. Game 6 against the Yankees. Etc.
I think you put them all together, Schilling is one of the 20 greatest pitchers of modern times and a slam-dunk Hall of Famer.
But Schilling only won 217 games and he finished second in Cy Young Award voting three times, so even before he infuriated voters, he struggled to gain traction. He got just 29 percent of the vote in his second year. He was beginning to build support. Then he started talking.
I feel so strongly about Schilling's baseball case that I want to be a vocal supporter -- a couple of months ago I even wrote that I wanted to make him my pet Hall of Fame project. I'm going to rescind that offer. Schilling continues to work very hard to offend those who don't see the world the way he does. I will vote for him because he was a truly great pitcher and I believe that the Hall of Fame should have all the greatest pitchers.
But I'll let him do his own promotion.