Death and the Hall of Fame

With Hall of Fame voting season upon us, a couple of friends from Twitter have incorporated Minnie Minoso into their usernames. The American League and Negro League star is one of 10 nominees being considered by the Veterans Committee. Results will be announced December 8, though I’m not hugely optimistic for Minoso. While I think he belongs and will eventually get in, the Hall of Fame doesn’t have a great track record honoring aging players, with death too often the impetus for a player being enshrined. My fear is that it will take guilt over Minoso’s death for him to get in. It happened with Ron Santo and it’s occurred a number of other times as well.

With the help of Baseball Reference, which has a nifty feature showing birth and death years of all Hall of Fame honorees, I looked at the 20 people who’ve been inducted within three years of death. Hall of Fame candidates have regularly received renewed attention after dying. Arguably, death has even gotten a few people enshrined.

The 20 people elected within three years of death are as follows:

  • George Wright, elected 1937: A baseball pioneer, Wright died August 21, 1937 at age 90 and was selected to the Hall of Fame on December 7 of that year by the Centennial Commission. His brother Harry Wright wasn’t elected until 1953 by the Veterans Committee.
  • John McGraw, elected 1937: The legendary manager died in 1934 and was selected in 1937 by the Veterans Committee, the committee’s only selection until 1953.
  • Kenesaw Mountain Landis, inducted 1944: The first MLB commissioner was unanimously elected to the Hall of Fame on December 10, 1944, just 15 days after his death.
  • Jimmy Collins, elected 1945: Bob Stedler, sports editor of the Buffalo [N.Y.] Evening News began a campaign for Buffalo native Collins’ induction two months before his death in March 1943. An AP story on the campaign noted, “In the opinion of Stedler, who has been writing sports for four decades, the comparative youngsters who are now writing baseball and whose votes select the stars for places in [Cooperstown] should have someone call their attention to the merits of a standout whom they never saw.” A special Old Timers Committee enshrined Collins and 20 others between 1945 and 1946.
  • Roger Bresnahan, elected 1945: Similar with Collins, the Old Timers Committee selected Bresnahan in January 1945, shortly after his death on December 4, 1944. The Associated Press said both men stood “the best chance to enter the charmed circle this time. Their deaths within the past year have focused fans’ attention on them and their historic diamond exploits.” Bill James noted that Bresnahan’s help in devoloping catcher shin guards also helped get him in Cooperstown.
  • Herb Pennock, elected 1948: Pennock received Hall of Fame votes seven years between 1937 and 1947, rising to 53.4 percent of the BBWAA vote in 1947. He was voted into Cooperstown just four weeks after his sudden death at 53 on January 30, 1948. An ace pitcher during the Yankees Murderers Row years, Pennock may rate as one of the least impressive Hall of Fame selections for sabermetrics, with a 106 ERA+ and 44.1 WAR.
  • Three Finger Brown, elected 1949: Somehow, the Old Timers Committee missed Brown in its mass of elections between 1945 and 1946. Shortly after Brown died in February 1948, Grantland Rice wrote, “Certainly, a group of stars that doesn’t carry the names of Mordecai ‘Three Finger’ Brown and Kid Nichols can’t be called complete.” The committee made Brown and Nichols its final two selections in 1949.
  • Harry Heilmann, elected 1952: A .342 lifetime hitter, Heilmann figured in 12 Hall of Fame elections between 1937 and 1951, rising to 67.7 percent of the vote in 1951. Usually, anyone who gets at least 60 percent but less than the necessary 75 percent of the vote with the writers will be enshrined not long thereafter. After Heilmann was diagnosed with cancer later in 1951, three newspaper writers organized a push to get him immediately honored by the Veterans Committee. Though that failed, with Heilmann dying on July 9 at 56, the BBWAA elected him the following year with 86.8 percent of the vote.
  • Bill Klem, elected 1953: Perhaps as compensation for not honoring Heilmann, the Veterans Committee selected six people on September 28, 1953, the most people it’s elected in one year aside from 1971. Klem, who died in 1951 and ranks as perhaps the most well-known umpire in baseball history, got in. So did ailing, 84-year-old Ed Barrow, the longtime Yankees executive, who would die December 15.  It’s worth noting that prior to 1953, the committee had only enshrined one person, McGraw, in 1937 so maybe it was itching to get some deserving candidates in.
  • Rabbit Maranville, elected 1954: The Deadball Era shortstop and hero of the 1914 Boston Braves had steadily gained in votes through 13 years of Hall of Fame elections, rising to 62.1 percent of the vote in 1953. Like Heilmann, I think Maranville would have eventually gotten in regardless of his death. That said, Maranville has one of the shortest windows between death and induction of any Hall of Famer. He died January 5, 1954 and was elected by the BBWAA with 82.9 percent of the vote on January 21. Grantland Rice wrote in a column that ran January 15 calling for Maranville’s induction, “[Johnny] Evers is in the Hall of Fame. [Joe] Tinker is in the Hall of Fame. I hope The Rabbit is on his way to the same place. You can’t leave that much heart out and call it a Hall of Fame.”
  • Eppa Rixey, elected 1963: Notified of his Hall of Fame induction on January 27, 1963, Rixey died a month later of a heart attack at 71 and was posthumously inducted in August.
  • Branch Rickey, elected 1967: Groundbreaking executive, died in 1965.
  • Will Harridge, elected 1972: American President 1931-59, died in 1971.
  • Roberto Clemente, elected 1973: Died New Years Eve 1972, standard five-year waiting period waved so he could be inducted.
  • Larry MacPhail, elected 1978: Among the better general managers in baseball history, died in 1975.
  • Warren Giles, elected 1979: National League president 1951-69, died February 7, 1979, selected by the Veterans Committee on March 7 of that year.
  • Leo Durocher, elected 1994: It’s a wonder it took Leo the Lip as long as it did to get in Cooperstown. Durocher, who died in 1991, ranks fifth all-time among managers with 2,009 wins and was instrumental in helping a young Willie Mays find his place in baseball. Then again, the Hall of Fame is fairly fickle with managers, with just 23 enshrined.
  • Leon Day, elected 1995: Adam Penale told me on Twitter that Day, a star of the Negro League learned of his Hall of Fame selection just six days before his death in March 1995. Day’s SABR bio has more. Reached at his hospital bed, Day said, “I thought this day would never come. I’m feeling pretty good. I’m so happy, I don’t know what to do.” Day was posthumously inducted in the summer.
  • Bowie Kuhn, elected 2008: MLB commissioner 1969-84, died in 2007.
  • Ron Santo, elected 2012: Joe Posnanski wrote shortly after Santo’s death in December 2010, “The structure and standards of the committee changed so that in the last 10 or more years the Veteran’s Committee has turned into a grumpy bunch of scrooges who seemed to come out once a year for the expressed purpose of not voting for Ron Santo or Marvin Miller.” The sub-committee handling Santo’s era voted him in at its next meeting in December 2011.

5 Replies to “Death and the Hall of Fame”

  1. Graham you found the birth and death of the Hall of Famers in Baseball Reference, but I just wanted to let you and your readers know that this can also be found in my book, “Induction Day at Cooperstown A History of the Baseball Hall of Fame Ceremony” in Appendix 1 on the Hall of Fame Roster. Thank you for the information on how the sports editor of the Buffalo newspaper helped call attention to Hall of Famer, Jimmy Collins helping to get him inducted. I didn’t know that. Also Leon Day’s widow told the induction audience when he was inducted in 1995 that her husband while in the hospital dying, had dreamed that Ed Stack from the Hall of Fame had visited his hospital bed and given him his ring. Later that day he received the official word of his induction.

    1. Tell you what, Dennis. I’ll buy your book if you promise to buy mine when I write one. I’m planning to write about the Hall of Fame and I imagine your book will have some relevant information.

      Interesting stuff about Leon Day. Induction matters to players.

  2. The induction dates you list for the following are really election dates.
    Wright & McGraw (1939), Landis (1946), Collins & Bresnahan (2013), Klem was not elected until 2 months after the 1953 induction.

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