Quick Ride Down from Mount Olympus

In 1998, the baseball world heaped adulation on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in their pursuit of Roger Maris’ single season home run record. Eight years later, the Hall of Fame voters among baseball writers chopped the feet off of the McGwire statue, delivering only 23% of the 75% of votes needed for election in the Hall. In past posts regarding the steroid issue in baseball [Truth on Bonds & Palmeiro Files], I’ve seen that it generates strong passions among Sports Economist contributors and readers. This post doesn’t get into the right or wrong of the matter, only the consequences for HOF voting.

Last spring after Sports Illustrated published its expose on Bonds, I mused about his HOF chances along with others caught up in the issue. That story along with prior continuing revelations from other sources, in my view, had ratcheted up the “believability index” among fans and writers with regard to not only Bonds but McGwire, Sosa, and others use of illicit performance enhancers. As a purely seat-of-the-pants guess, I placed McGwire’s chances of HOF induction (say over his first 5 years of eligibility) at 50-50 with Sosa and Bonds much lower. Some of my colleagues thought that about right, others thought it too low.

After yesterday’s vote, I’m suspecting that 50-50 was overly generous. Yes, a few HOF inductees scored as low as McGwire on their first ballot [See HOF site for player by player voting]. For example, Duke Sinder garnered only 17% in 1970 but was inducted in 1980. Don Drysdale received only 20% in 1975 only to gain entrance in 1984. Billy Williams and Luis Aparicio are two others with similar outcomes. [While HOF voting has been studied at length, these dynamics of HOF voting have not been]. However, as Peter Gammons pointed out last night (he voted for induction), none of these players had the cloud hanging over their head. The magnitude of the McGwire smackdown by voters can be seen in comparison to his peers on the all-time home run list. Every eligible player above him cruised in on the first ballot with at least 89.6% or higher. Of the eight eligible right below him, six went in on the first ballot. One of these, Jimmy Foxx, is from a whole different voting era. The other, Harmon Killibrew, went in on his fourth ballot but garnered about 60% his first year of eligibility.

Next year may be a telling vote for McGwire. If his total stays about the same, Cooperstown may be out. Gammons speculated that over time, if voters come to view the bulk of players as using steroids, then McGwire and others may get in based on being the best from the era. I’m guessing that Bonds’ first ballot is about where McGwire’s is or lower. He’s never been liked as well as McGwire, and his leapfrogging of the icons among icons like Mays, Ruth, and possibly even Aaron has only increased the acrimony about his results. Still, I suspect that the McGwire vote provides a pretty good picture of the breakdown of writers who think the issue should matter and those that do not, so Bonds’ numbers may be about the same. A “futures contract” on induction would be an interesting proposition for Tradesports.

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Author: Brian Goff

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