The Politics of Glory, by Bill James

The Politics of Glory

The Politics of Glory, from 1994, is baseball stats geek Bill James’s take on the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame.

There is some material about the history of the Hall and other topics related to the Hall, but the bulk of the book is about the criteria for being voted into the Hall, which James then applies to specific cases of prominent players not yet in the Hall (or at least who weren’t in back then when he wrote this book) to justify why he thinks they should or shouldn’t be admitted.

At times I felt like there was some equivocation between the descriptive and the normative. Is he talking about what it takes to be voted in, or what it should take to be voted in?

Mostly he seems to be talking about the latter, but if so there are some puzzling aspects. For example, for a stats guy, he is often surprisingly simplistic in his use of stats. For instance, when he suggests a certain point system for determining if a player deserves to be in the Hall, he bases it on round numbers, e.g., how many times the player hit .300, how many times he hit 40 home runs, how many times he led the majors in ERA, etc.

But surely .300 is an arbitrary cutoff point. Consider a player who hits .297, .350, .338, .294, and .299 in a five-year stretch, versus one who hits .250, .304, .301, .303, and .272. Should the second player really get more points for batting average just because he was above .300 more times?

Or should a player who led the majors in ERA with a 1.18 mark, where the next best was 2.02, only get the same number of points for that achievement as someone who led the majors a different year with a 2.10 mark when other pitchers finished at 2.11, 2.17, and 2.20?

If I were constructing such a system, I would make the difference between hitting 43 and 39 home runs the same or very similar to the difference between hitting 39 and 35 home runs. It’s irrelevant that one happens to cross a round number and one doesn’t.

But the more I read and the more I thought about it, the more I came to see him as kind of doing a combination of the descriptive and the normative. I think what he’s doing with his system is inferring what factors voters have tended to take into account or be influenced by, and the degree of that influence, and then basically asking, “In order to remain consistent with how they’ve voted in the past, ought the voters elect so-and-so to the Hall or not?”

If you think of it that way, it’s not that James himself is saying that hitting .300 is significantly better than hitting .299; he’s merely noting that, all else being equal, voters have tended to vote in the .300 hitter significantly more often than the .299 hitter. If you have a beef with that, in other words, take it up with them, not him.

So if his system isn’t as mathematically sophisticated and defensible as one might like, it’s because the criteria that the voters use, consciously and unconsciously, aren’t all that sophisticated.

Much of his analysis is a matter of comparing a candidate for the Hall with those who are already in it. If we look at the players whose career stats are relevantly similar to those of Player X, are most or all of them in the Hall, or are most or all of them out of it? Are there a large number of players clearly better than X who aren’t in the Hall? Are there a large number of players clearly worse than X who are in the Hall?

James doesn’t just defend his own criteria, but evaluates and sometimes rejects other suggested criteria.

For example, while a lot of what he does is to examine whether voting a certain candidate in or out of the Hall would be most consistent with who has and has not historically been voted in, this is not to be confused with the common type of argument where someone says, “Certainly Player X is as good or better than Player Y, and Y is in the Hall of Fame, so X has to be let in too.”

The problem here is that a single precedent is being cited. James wants to know, are players like X typically voted in?, not, can we find at least one instance of a player like X, or worse, having been voted in?

Because if it’s really just one player (or two or three players) of X’s level who have been voted into the Hall in the past, with the vast majority of players of his level not making it into the Hall, then the better conclusion to draw is not that X is entitled to be in the Hall, but that it was a mistake to have let those one, two, or three players of that level in.

A related point, or possible criticism of James’s methodology, is that his system implicitly endorses whatever implicit criteria for Hall admission have been used up to now. But what if the standards have been too loose or too tight? Wouldn’t basing future decisions on precedent just compound this problem?

James’s response is not that those who call for a much more exclusive Hall (or the fewer who would prefer a much less exclusive Hall) are necessarily wrong, but that it is too late. Unless you are going to blow up the Hall and start from scratch, you’re pretty much stuck with the criteria that have been used thus far. It’s fine to disagree with a decision here and there, but to disagree with the bulk of the decisions and seek to convert to different set of criteria now would generate too much inconsistency and unfairness. Players up to a certain point would have been judged by one standard, and those after that point by a very different standard. To him, that’s worse than having a consistent system that’s arguably more stringent or less stringent than it ideally should be.

James addresses the Pete Rose controversy (which remains a controversy decades later). He’s in favor of Rose being allowed in the Hall, but only after his lifetime ban from baseball is lifted. He contends that we have to judge on the evidence that has been made available, not on rumors or hints or inferences from those seeking to discredit Rose, and based on that, there was never enough to justify a lifetime ban.

As far as Shoeless Joe Jackson and the Black Sox who threw the 1919 World Series, he has zero sympathy for them and does not believe they should ever be in the Hall.

At the time the book was written, the most prominent argument—aside from the Pete Rose matter—about whether a certain player deserved to be in the Hall was the case of Phil Rizzuto. There had for years been a massive lobbying campaign on behalf of Rizzuto, and an insistence from many quarters that it was a blatant injustice that he had not gotten in long ago.

James spends a great deal of time crunching numbers and examining arguments pro and con, seeking the answer to the question of whether—consistent with the implicit criteria the Hall has used in accepting or rejecting other players—Rizzuto deserves admission.

He concludes that there has certainly not been any blatant injustice here, that if you examine all the evidence impartially Rizzuto’s case is a very close call. In the end he leans just slightly toward a “no” vote, but says he’d have no problem either way because it’s really a case about which reasonable people can differ.

Rizzuto was in fact finally voted into the Hall just before the book went to print, leading James to add a note reiterating that, yeah, he could see it either way, so he’s fine with the decision.

The Politics of Glory would be an interesting read for just about any serious baseball fan. James is good at spelling out the criteria his system uses, and then going over many, many cases to show how to apply them. I think there are things here and there to quibble with, but I agree with the bulk of what he says in the book, and appreciate the way he’s able to summarize the best arguments for both sides before explaining which side he comes down on and why.

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