The Death of the Gate-Keeper

February 6, 2017
And I should know—I used to be the Keeper of the Gate, until my untimely death, which I will describe at length further on. This essay begins, however, not with gory details of my demise, but with the ever-popular and always-tedious questions of "Who gets into the Hall of Fame?" and "Small Hall or Big Hall?", ultimately working up to the cosmic question of "How can we move out of these circular, opinion-based unending questions and move on to something more tangible and satisfying?" The Gates to the Hall of Fame are large, and ancient, and seemingly immovable—so how can we tear them down while still keeping them in place, doing away with the notion of a Gate-keeper entirely? My solution involves doing away with the strictly binary, in-or-out, nature of the Hall of Fame’s iron gates. (Oddly, since writing this paragraph, I’ve read and taken Joe Posnanski’s new survey on the HoF, as have many of you, in which he alludes to a similar contradictory idea, "this massive Hall of Fame idea that I’ve been working on. It’s not actually for a NEW Hall of Fame. It’s more like a new way to look at the Hall of Fame. Maybe. If it comes out right."  While we’ll need to wait until July to learn whether Joe P.’s mysterious idea resembles mine in any way, I will spell mine out in considerable detail now.)

First, though, I’d like to start with a kind of fun idea, engendered by Bill’s recent breakdown  of (some) Hall of Famers into three categories, "A," "B," and "C," opening the door, perhaps against Bill’s will and his better judgment, to creating further sub-categories. Let’s start with category "A1," the best of the best of the best of the best, and work up to a whole new way to think of the existing Hall of Fame, made possible by Bill’s A/B/C breakdown.

Imagine dividing by quality Bill’s "A" chart into the superior and inferior "A" players. In fact, I want you to divide it up three separate ways, into 1) the very best player(s) who ever lived, 2) those players just a hair below those/that player(s) and 3) those players just below them. Since we’re choosing from Bill’s "A" list, it may seem slightly insulting to designate any of these Hall-of-Famers as merely "A3," but it’s ridiculous even to think that any sort of insult could be implied by being on any of these lists, not A3, or A2, or B2 or C3, for that matter—every one of which is a stellar compliment that any major-leaguer would commit three or four felonies to find his name on. But this hierarchy of "greatness," "super-greatness," "spectacular super-greatness," and whichever other superlatives you can dredge up, exists for the purpose of removing the insults from our conception of a Hall-of-Fame.

I wrote "the very best player(s) who ever lived" after "A1" above because although it is entirely possible that there is a single greatest player ever by popular consensus, I suspect there is more than one contender for that honorific.  I’m interested in seeing that category A1 is the most sparsely populated, though perhaps less sparsely than "Population: 1." But if we wished to make category A1 into the smallest category we reasonably could wish for, which players would you put in it?  I would restrict you only by asking you to choose among those players listed on Bill "A" list, for the convenience of avoiding tedious and diversionary arguments at this early stage, and to make sure that you feel that you can make a reasonable argument that every player you select is every bit as good as the best player you’ve chosen.

A traditional list would begin and end with "Babe Ruth," but let’s be a tad more inclusive, just for illustration’s sake, and include those players (like Hank Aaron and Willie Mays) who may have played at Ruth-like standards or maybe a hair below (?) but did it against better competition, or those rough contemporaries of Ruth’s who put up spectacular numbers in an era before the lively ball (like Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner),  or those who put up numbers almost as impressive as Ruth’s but suffered a loss of opportunity due to military service (Ted Williams), or maybe a pitcher or three of Ruthian domination (Walter Johnson or Tom Seaver). If we limit category A1 to only Ruth, or to Ruth and only one or two others, no matter, we’d then just quickly move on to the next smallest group, A2, containing these players, so since this is just an example, let’s start it off with a group of 10 or 15 players who are at (or very, very near) Ruth’s level of play. For illustration’s sake, let’s make our most exclusive grouping consist of less than one-third of Bill’s 65-member "A" category.

The key question to be answered here is "Can a reasonable case be made that each of these players is (in the case of category A1) the greatest player in MLB history?" I can easily imagine some intelligent and reasonable baseball fan arguing that any one of these players is as great as Ruth. I can’t really imagine anyone making a reasonable case for any player being clearly and unarguably superior to Ruth, which is why he’s serving as my standard comparison here, but all of the categories that follow will take a similar tack:  Can a reasonable argument be made, and possibly (but not necessarily) won?

Just illustrating what A1 might look like (not arguing that is what group A1 is) an alphabetical A1 might consist of

Hank Aaron

Pete Alexander

Ty Cobb

Walter Johnson

Mickey Mantle

Willie Mays

Stan Musial

Babe Ruth

Mike Schmidt

Tom Seaver

Ted Williams


You may well howl that I’ve chosen horribly, that of course DiMaggio or Feller or Junior or Spahn MUST go in category A1, or perhaps that certain overrated favorites of mine must be lopped off any such list, but relax. This is just an illustration. What I would actually do, in practice, would be to have a much broader and more expert group than myself choose those players who belong in category A1, just as long as it consists of fewer than fifteen or so players, or less than a third of Bill’s 65.

What I would do next is choose the slightly larger group A2, those players about whom all the howling ensued. Perhaps group A2 would look like this:

Johnny Bench

Yogi Berra

Joe DiMaggio

Bob Feller

Lou Gehrig

Ken Griffey, Jr.

Lefty Grove

Rickey Henderson

Nap Lajoie

Greg Maddux

Christy Mathewson

Joe Morgan

Mel Ott

Frank Robinson

Warren Spahn

Tris Speaker

Cy Young


Instead of howling this time, I request that you add a few missing names to this list, bring it closer to twenty names, or simply select the two groups entirely differently yourself, so long as A2 is a little larger than A1.  (Each succeeding group will be a little larger than the one before it.) Now this is JUST my personal opinion, and I don’t actually believe my own opinion will prevail here, but here is the form of the argument: if you compare these players to their contemporaries in group A1, I think they fall a little short in direct comparison: "Was Cobb a better player than Tris Speaker?", for example, I believe would have in their era been answered "Yes." If you asked "Was Willie Mays better than Frank Robinson?" I believe that also was a "Yes."  "Was Ruth better than Gehrig?"—again, that (in my opinion) was a "Yes." Speaker, Robinson and Gehrig were, also in my opinion, absolutely spectacular players, among the two dozen best players in major league history, which is what A1 and A2 constitutes, the two dozen best players ever, but I want a line drawn between these two groups that doesn’t mean very much, but still denotes some very fine distinction.

Was Seaver a better pitcher than Maddux? Hmmm. Maybe not. When we’re done discussing who goes in group A1 and who in group A2, maybe they’ll get switched around, or maybe Seaver and Maddux will both go in the same group. Maybe DiMaggio belongs in the same group as his contemporaries Williams and Musial.  I’m just trying to give you an understanding of how these groups will work. For all I know, you’ll make group A1 far more exclusive than I have (Ruth and Mays? Ruth, Aaron, and Mays? Ruth, Aaron, Mantle and Mays? Just the Babe?) or far more extensive. When we (whoever "we" is) get done hashing it out, I think we can identify through a voting process who goes in which group.

A3 consists simply of the remainder of Bill’s "A" list, about 30 to 50 players, the largest group of the three, and a hair (maybe two hairs) below the others on lists A1 and A2 in quality but still consisting of the very best of the very best, taking all three groups as a single entity, Bill’s group A.

It is not possible, certainly not dignified, to complain that any of the players on lists A1, A2, or A3 have been insulted-- quite the opposite. They have been designated as the 65 best baseball players ever. Not only could they not complain about the insult (many of them being conveniently dead) but no advocate would argue that being on the "A" list is any way a slight to their greatness.

If anyone wants to try, if a Cal Ripken fan, say, or Cal himself, wants to protest that not making the A1 or A2 list IS an insult, I’d simply ask him to appear before a tribunal of Reggie Jackson and Steve Carlton and Eddie Murray to make a case explaining how he is so clearly superior to them. It is simply not insulting to be grouped with such players—more important, being grouped in baseball’s 65 elite players is as high a compliment as anyone could want. Ripken is free to think he’s the best player in A3, or even to think that he belongs in group A2 or even A1, but would he? Can you imagine any player or advocate demanding to be equated with Babe Ruth or to any player in A1? I really can’t.

The next-smallest group, B1, consists of almost half of Bill’s "B" group, the better half.  Those 35-40 players are a good group of strong Hall of Famers (starting perhaps with Roberto Clemente) and the remainder, B2, are a slightly larger group of slightly lesser, but still stellar, players. The final group here is Bill’s "C" group in its entirety, 65 or so players. We’ve now created 6 groups, of increasing size, the first of which (A1) is the core of what the Hall of Fame means, and the last of which, group C, is at the borders of what the Hall of Fame stands for. We could expand group C to include many players (Gil Hodges comes to mind, Tony Oliva, Minnie Minoso, Minnie Methinkso) whose fans argue vociferously and sometimes violently that their man has been abused, humiliated, degraded by not being in group "C"—fine! Now he’s in group C. Happy?

This is a case for a larger Hall and a smaller one, both at once.

I would argue for an even larger category, group D, consisting of hundreds of ballplayers, each now to be honored with a small plaque and a place of honor, among the best 300 or 500 players in MLB ever, and I would go even further, the creation of Group E (maybe we’d stop producing  actual plaques around this point, just some sort of scroll of names engraved into some handsome wall in Cooperstown) of the several hundreds of regular players,  guys who were pleased to be teammates of players in groups A, B or C, who would be pleased simply to be remembered officially after their playing days were done.

And finally a group F, consisting of every player who ever played an inning of MLB. Actually we have this now, don’t we, a listing in the Baseball Encyclopedia or What I am proposing is that we move beyond the spatial concept of the 1930s of a binarily selected physical Hall of Fame, and move to a model that honors all players in different ways.  I’m envisioning, physically, a slightly larger plaque in Cooperstown, more of a display, perhaps, for the players in A1 than the players in A2, but not so much that you would necessarily notice the difference. By the time you’d reach the players in group C, you’d be able to see that, yes, these plaques are a little smaller, maybe the plaques themselves are a little closer together, but still it’s an encomium to each player’s career. Group D would look a little skimpy, but there are a lot of players in group D (most of whom are honored nowhere at Cooperstown today) and each of their careers would be on display.

In creating a Hall of Fame we’ve created a binary system that means an awful lot to players and fans, probably means more than it was set up to do, creating--as a binary system must--slights, lifetime longings fulfilled and denied, punishment or betrayals or favors or backroom dealings or out-and-out corruption, all sorts of things that a Hall of Fame was not intended to do. The Hall of Fame isn’t very good at creating Justice, and it’s done a very poor job of creating Mercy or Understanding. That’s too bad. We can fix that.

Purists and Small Hall guys will be satisfied that we’ve still got a very exclusive club, consisting of groups A1, A2, A3, B1, and B2.  These groups will in the future be very hard to break into (though we will still continue to elect people to every group) and for those who define the Hall of Fame as consisting of those five categories will be pleased. Tiny Hall guys can even take pleasure in the exclusivity of A1, A2, A3 and B1.  Huge Hall guys can define the Hall as including group C or even group D, if they like.

I noticed in the middle of writing this article how its subject kind of resembles a part of my job, assessing with letter-grades the overall performance of college students. (You can skip to the non-italicized section ahead—this italicized section will be a long digression on the woes of academic life, particularly the awarding of letter-grades and ultimately of college diplomas.) Letter-grades are among the more controversial aspects of my job (alongside research, peer review, tenure, academic freedom, etc. each of which stirs up its own controversy), and one of the less-well understood. I’m often asked ("asked" is a euphemism) how I can assess one student with a "B-" and another with a "C+" and do it fairly, objectively, and with confidence, the implication being that the whole grading process is some sort of gigantic scam that is determined by favoritism, subjectivity, and guesswork, prejudicing the outcome in favor of whatever category of student the question’s asker happens not to be.

My first response to this—well, my second response, my first being not printable—is to argue that the process is actually a lot more objective than students like to think, even in non-quantitative fields such as mine, but my third response is to try and make my grading clearer and as objective as I can. I’ve accomplished this goal in several ways: the past few years, I’ve done most of my teaching on-line, so I’ve completely eliminated the possibility of being biased, even subconsciously, by a student’s race or physical appearance, which I never get to see. I’ve also eliminated most possible accusations of gender bias, since I can’t be sure that a student’s name is dispositive evidence of his or her gender. (I’ve had students registered named Michael who are female and named Patsy who are male, and named Lindsay and Stacy who are either. Besides, I’m never sure whom I’m supposed to be favoring here, the males because I’m male and want to favor students like myself, or females because I’m favorably disposed towards the opposite sex.) I get to grade my online students by their writing exclusively, and I enjoy that most about teaching writing online.

Another way I accomplish my goal of grading objectively and fairly is to render content close to meaningless—that is to say, the opinions expressed in my students’ essays do them neither good nor bad, whether they match my own opinions or defy them.  I judge their writing not on the basis of what they say but simply how they say it, whether their sentences are clear, are error-free, conform to the rules of English grammar and usage. I find it amusing when students, or other observers, sneeringly bring up my strong opinions on politics or art or religion or any other subject as a means of indoctrinating students through the punishment and reward of grades, because the best way for a student to gain an edge, gradewise, in my classes, is to disagree with me on matters of opinion or belief. Whenever I catch a student disagreeing with me, or irritating me by expressing some opinion that makes my eyes roll, I make sure to grade that student as generously as I can, and on the most objective means possible, just to ensure that I’m not grading him or her on the content. (This is a luxury, restricted to teachers of non-fiction writing.) I do take off points if students hand in their work late, and if they hand in work that fails to meet certain objective standards (not giving their work a title, for example, or not meeting the minimum word-count I ask for) but pretty much if a student hands in work on time, titled appropriately, above the minimum word count, etc. I grade all of their written work the same exact way, with a "pass."

The grade of "pass" is the most important way I’m able to grade objectively and fairly.  Any student who meets my fairly low barrier of standards on a regular assignment gets a grade of "pass," and the vast majority of students do get that grade on their written assignments, perhaps up to 90% of them. A "pass" or a "check" for a short essay (I require several very brief essays per week in most of my composition classes) is worth 2 points, and students earn those 2 points simply by handing in work on time that meets my low standards.

Why 2 points? And why have I made college work into such an easy thing to do, that anyone with half a brain can earn a passing grade simply by handing in brief assignments at so low a level of proficiency?

Because of those few students who do not earn two points’ worth of "pass"—no matter how easy I make my writing assignments, I have found, no matter how low my standards, there will still be a certain number of students who cannot find a way to hand in these brief assignments on time, with a proper title, and at even the lowest of minimum word-counts.  Such students allow me, no, they force me, to grade their papers at a "1" or even (with multiple issues—like a paper handed in without a title and two days late) at a "0."

I wrote above that up to 90% of my writing students get passing grades on their weekly assignments, but every so often I have as many as half my class lose a point through one of these objective mishaps, usually at the beginning of the term as they are finding out, or testing me on, what I mean by "losing a point." Some students are able to catch on quickly, and a few are able to catch on from reading my syllabus on Day One, creating some divergence in their point-totals over the course of a semester, enabling me to distinguish between students who objectively were able to satisfy my rather low standards and those who were not. I’ve had some students who have never been able to learn what those low standards are, and who spent the entire term handing in brief essays that were briefer than I require, essays with no titles at all, and essays submitted days after they were due. This inevitably killed their final grades, though I reminded them weekly of exactly which simple steps they needed to take to bring their grades up.

So this accumulation of "1’" grades (and the occasional "0" grade) over the course of a term creates a meaningful separation between various students’ achievements, a wide enough separation to account for a few letter-grades worth of distinction.  But do I see no other distinctions between students’ writing worth noting?

Of course I do. I also allow a grade of "3," which measures writing well above my minimal standards, writing that not only exceeds my minimal word-count by far, but does so with only a few minor errors in sentence-construction and grammar, and often with grace and sometimes with wit. (This is the one area that subjectivity enters in, though grace and wit are rare enough that it would take a genuine dunderhead not to see it when it appears. When I see a piece of writing that has grace AND wit AND style, my head chimes like a slot machine paying off a million-dollar jackpot.) I promise my students that there will be at least one grade of "3" on every single batch of essays I receive, and that I have no problem issuing more than one grade of "3." The part that surprises me about the "3" grades is how hard I must struggle sometimes to designate one such grade in an entire class of students seemingly striving for mediocrity, but I do struggle, and I do issue at least one "3" grade per assignment. This "3" grade is the apple I dangle before my students to induce them to achieve more than I require, both qualitatively and quantitatively.

These minute differences of a point in either direction from a normative grade of "2" (or simply "pass") makes for great differences cumulatively. By the end of a semester, I have students who have earned close to 100 points, and I have students who have earned 20 or 30 points, making my final letter-grades simplicity itself, all while being as objective and as little judgmental as a writing instructor can.

I realized recently that I employ a Bell curve in my grading. Most of my students, far more than a third of them, will earn a "2" on a given 3-point essay. I award (or they earn) so many 2s because I want them to know that I am trying very hard not impose my subjective, qualitative opinions when I grade their work. I’m merely acknowledging that they’ve met my minimum requirements, and other than that, they should feel free to express whatever opinions they have, as best they can. If they can write a page or two without committing a gross number of low-level writing errors (the sorts of things we were all taught in grade school not to do to the English language—spelling errors, verb construction errors, misuses of punctuation, stuff like that) they’re eligible to get a 3, and if they commit errors of a grosser nature than their peers who write "2" essays, then they get a 1. Both 3s and 1s should be hard to get, though I’m always amazed at how much harder it is to get a 3 than it is to get a 1. Nonetheless, I use a Bell curve in my grading. A typical mini-essay written by a class of 20 students will yield more than half "2" grades, a smattering of "1"s and an even smaller smattering of "3"s.

What does this all have to do with baseball? If they must do it, as I must for my job, baseball experts can draw meaningful distinctions between different levels of performance, up to the highest levels of play. My own test for whether two students deserve the same grade or different grades is the same, whether it’s made objectively (Are they identical, or very, very close, in their final numbers total?) or subjectively (Is one of them clearly a better writer than the other?).  When I can’t draw a meaningful distinction, then I have to enter the same grade for both students. Distinctions for baseball players can be drawn, and drawn fairly and accurately, between individuals who are all operating at approximately the same level of proficiency. In Bill’s "A" group, for example, we are able to ask perhaps the most demanding of questions on the Keltner list and get slightly differing answers: "Was this player clearly the most dominant baseball player of his time?" Even among the best 65 players ever, you get different answers that are more or less objectively true:

With Ruth, you get an answer of "Yes, clearly, for many, many seasons."  Probably a similar answer with Cobb and Wagner. Mays and Williams and Mantle and Musial get a slightly lesser answer, maybe one fewer "many," and Aaron and Schmidt would get the elimination of "clearly." (For Hank and Schmitty, I’d qualify my answer with "Not as often while they were playing as they now appear in retrospect, but, yes, they have to qualify as dominating players.") For pitchers, there is also always the problem of perception—Seaver and Johnson and Alexander were dominating but there are a lot of people who have a very hard time vaulting a part-time player over the best of full-time players no matter how much they dominated their game, though we might well agree that they were the best players in the game at the peak of their careers. I’d argue that you get some form of the "Yes" answer for everyone on the A1 list. If you don’t, that’s a very good reason to re-draw that list.

Of course that’s not the only question on the A1 list. You’d have to account for questions like "Did he face the highest level of competition?" This question would clearly favor the most recent players, so we don’t want this question to count for too much, since that would yield a list of the last few decades exclusively.  But it’s a factor, at least for me as I draw up my A1 list.

Another Keltnerian question would be "How long did their careers last even after they had lost some of their skills?", and perhaps the other end of that question is: "Did his career begin at a high level at an early age?" Most of the players on my A1 list were stars from a very early age and continued as fading stars long into their thirties—I think Mantle was among the earlier retirees here, and he played at a very high level until the age of 36 or so. Pete Alexander was a 24-year-old rookie, but with one of the most dominating rookie seasons ever.

If you look at my A2 list, they also lasted a long time, but (subjectively, I didn’t look up a lot of this stuff because I’m just giving illustrations of how these lists would work, not defending every choice as correct and eternal) they had a little more diminution of skills in their late years, or a slightly slower start in their early years.

Another question I would ask of the A1 players, and every other group, which some don’t consider very meaningful, is the question of character. Personally, I feel that this question works against Ruth, certainly against Cobb, and works in favor of such players as Mathewson and Aaron and Musial. It’s not a huge question, and certainly not a dispositive one—I still rank both Ruth and Cobb above, say, Mathewson in my own personal pantheon, but it is one of the factors that enters into my deciding not to make category A1 consist of Ruth alone. In regard to more recent players who have had character-issues attached to their HoF credentials as a dog has tin cans tied to his tail, these issues may place a player widely considered to be a classless jerk, an abuser of baseball’s honor, a paranoid imbecile into a slightly lower rung on the HoF pantheon but still in the HoF. (I’m not thinking of Clemens or Bonds or Dick Allen or Rose or Schilling or Man-Ram or any other specific player here, just a lot of players whose poor characters get raised in the context of a Hall of Fame decision, perhaps unfairly, perhaps fairly.) Voters can decide which questions they want to emphasize, as they do now, but they won’t, as they can now, be able to keep players out of the Hall of Fame entirely, just out of a specific gradation of the HoF.

The case I’m making here is that, once you assemble a group of analysts who can approach this issue with no agenda, or at least with conflicting agendas, I think you’ll find that there are meaningful distinctions between groups of ballplayers at every level. Among BJOL readers, to pick one handy group capable of some objectivity, I’d like to see if we could each choose the best five players of all time off of Bill’s group of 65 "A" players. (We can include others who belong on that list, such as Jackie Robinson, as need be later on.)  If I ask you to supply (and rank) your gang of five, I’m presuming that we will get more than five responses for the group in total, which will allow us to rank these players in order of votes and that there will be a natural cut-off at some point. (Let’s presume we’re looking for a group to be somewhere in number between three players and a dozen players for A1.  I’m quite sure we won’t all vote for the same five, and I’m reasonably sure there won’t be vastly different players on each list, so I expect the total numbers to bunch up at some point, probably several points, and yield natural cutoffs for group A1. Let’s try it:  give me, in the "Comments" section, your list of five players, ranked from best to fifth-best of all time. I’ll award five points for your player ranked first, four points for your player ranked second, etc.

Here’s mine:

1.       Ruth

2.       Mays

3.       Musial

4.       Aaron

5.       Williams

I relate the Gatekeeping aspect of the Hall of Fame to the Gatekeeping aspect of college grading, in that I used to think favorably of an active, powerful Gatekeeper in both roles, and now I no longer do. I now think that a strict "in-or-out" gate-keeping function runs contrary to each institution’s mission.

Regarding the Hall of Fame, I used to think it was crucial that deserving players get in and undeserving players are kept out, and I was really into hearing and participating in such arguments. But now it seems to me that the whole topic is not only boring but pointless. There is no right size or wrong size for a Hall of Fame, but the set-up we’ve developed makes "In or Out" the only topic we ever discuss. Actually, since the Cooperstown HoF is, properly, a museum, a place of learning, knowledge, expertise, and research, it makes sense to me to start thinking of it that way, and to start running it that way. (There is a point of connection, btw, between my university and the HoF in Cooperstown: Edward W. Stack, of the Class of 1956, one of Pace University’s most prominent alumni and donors, served as chairman and president of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum from 1977 to 2000.)

If we had a system somewhat like the one I describe above, with concentric circles of players radiating outward endlessly, then it wouldn’t matter so much who was in which circle, nor even that the circles are very sharply defined. No player is going to be far off his "correct" placement, and if your guy happens to be placed a rung too high or too low, you’re probably not going to get all that upset about it. And if it pleases you to argue that Gil Hodges should be placed one circle higher or that George Kelly should be one circle lower, have at it, and I’m sure we could supply a venue for such cases to be made (and mostly lost, I think, but not always: new arguments, new ways of viewing the stats, new ways of framing your case are always possible).  The role of Gatekeeper is no longer needed, in this scheme. Instead of a binary decision, we’re simply placing players alongside their peers, and I’d want players to be proud of being placed alongside the players who’ve achieved as much as they have. If Joe DiMaggio’s ghost is perturbed to be placed alongside Lou Gehrig rather than alongside Babe Ruth, well, I’d say that Joe’s ghost has some growing up to do. He’s still placed in the two dozen best players of all time, and has no kick coming. All of this upkeeping of standards sort of disappears in this scheme of things: we’re no longer voting Joe in or Dominic out of anything—they’re both in the Hall, just in separate rooms.

I’ve also given a whole lot of thought, more than to the HoF, which is saying something, about the Gatekeeper function of college grades, and I’ve turned around even more in my philosophy on that in the past decade or two, although I think I’m still grading students according to the same rough standard, with one big difference. I don’t think my function is to flunk students who do failing work, as I used to.

When I was young and dumb and full of spunk (as John C. McGinley’s character tells Keanu Reeves’ in the original Point Break, more or less),  I used to think that an important part of my job was to do just that.  College is meant to be challenging, and some people, young people especially, just are not up to certain challenges. Colleges admit students optimistically, giving them a lot of benefit of the doubt, and they admit some students provisionally, accepting that the students haven’t really done work in high school that warrants admission to college, but we’ll let them in anyway and see if they sink or if they swim. My job, in part, was to determine if they’re able to stay afloat and, if not, to say so in a clear and forthright and succinct manner with a big red "F".

My first office-mate, whom I met on both of our first days on the job, the only two passengers in an elevator that got stuck rising to our new (and as yet unseen) office, was assigned at first to teach in a program known as "C.A.P." which stood for "Challenge to Achievement at Pace," but which he, wag that he was, dubbed "Can Assholes Pass?" The CAP program was and is designed for students who had under-achieved in high school and were given a provisional admittance to demonstrate that they’d acquired at age 18 the maturity they had lacked at 15, and at 16, and at 17.

I mention my waggish officemate because he encapsulates the changes in my attitude over the years. We both got promoted steadily (I made the rank of Professor a few years earlier than he) but in a sudden burst my officemate blew past me, rising to the position of Provost of the entire university. (A job I wouldn’t touch with a long stick, but still—a considerable advancement, the Chief Academic Officer of six colleges, especially considerable for one as young and ambitious as he was.)  Soon after becoming Provost, he addressed the faculty, his former peer-group, and he said something that I found quite remarkable: he told us that retaining students, keeping them enrolled in the university (and of course paying tuition, though that was a point perhaps too vulgar to be worth mentioning), was our highest priority. We were, he told us, to think of ourselves, not as Professors and Associate Professors and Assistant Professors any longer, but as "Student Retention Officers."

He really did say that. No, I’m serious, stop giggling. Our job, as he was telling us, was to retain students in the university, and we would be trained, under his authority, in techniques designed to keep as many students enrolled as possible.

I seem to remember one brave soul among the faculty raising his hand to ask a question of the new Provost (OK, I fess up): "What’s an acceptable retention rate at this point, Geoff?" I assumed that figure, which is somewhere about 80% or 90% at most universities, was being ratcheted up for us, maybe even above the very high 90% mark. (It’s very hard to keep fewer than 10% of students from dropping out, since there are good reasons, besides the academic ones, that prevent students from staying in a college: some want to transfer to other institutions, some need to transfer to cheaper institutions, some need to join the job market, some want to play pro basketball, some want to join a monastery, etc.)  He looked at me as if I were proposing a topic beyond his considerable vocabulary:

"100%, Steven," he told me and the assembled faculty. They immediately rose up as one, of course, and lynched him on the spot. No, they did not.  He was talking crazy-talk, advocating for a blatantly unachievable goal (probably one or two students had dropped out while he was talking to us), but the faculty did nothing and said nothing in response, just went about their business, and presumably tried their level best to prevent any students from dropping out of college ever again.

For my part, I took his words to heart, and took my new duties as a Student Retention Officer seriously, to the extent that I began to see giving any student a grade of "F" from that point forward, however richly deserved, would violate my function as a Student Retention Officer. One of my younger colleagues, who soon developed thyroid cancer and died, though that’s not really relevant here, actually took the tack of giving every student enrolled in every class he taught an "A"—this guy really told his students on the first day of class that they would all be getting "A"s and he followed through on his promise to "A" students and "F" students alike. He put grades on none of their written work, just commented, mostly encouraging comments, I assume, on their writing, and he presumably did a fine job of retaining his students, while accumulating excellent evaluations from all of his classes. He was one mega-popular dude. The wailing around here when the cancer got him in 2014 at the age of 50 was beyond belief.

I didn’t go quite that far—my Gatekeeper role was all that died. In fact, I really didn’t change my grading standards very much, but I did make one major change: over the last decade or more, I don’t believe I’ve failed a student who’s handed in work, however abysmal, and who showed up for most of the class meetings. The few students I’ve failed have all been students who submitted no work, or a pittance, or who simply never showed up to class. And plagiarists. I hate having to track down plagiarized work, against which you need a mountain of evidence on an order akin to a homicide prosecution, so I spend about a week per term discussing plagiarism in all its permutations. I’ve pretty much eliminated it in my classes, through a variety of methods going well beyond my warnings and my "Plagiarism= F" policy. In fact, the past few years I’ve been teaching a course whose subject is "Famous Plagiarists" (Martin Luther King, Bob Dylan, Joe Biden, George Harrison, Stephen Ambrose, Doris Kearns Goodwin, etc.), most of whom happen also to be personal heroes of mine, and whose reputations have been damaged by plagiarism charges, in some cases badly, despite their other considerable achievements. After discussing plagiarism, and defending or criticizing it for several weeks, none of my students can claim to be uninformed on the subject. (That’s the plagiarist’s #1 line of defense: "But I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to submit other people’s work! No one told me! Is that wrong?") But I haven’t given anyone the grade of "F" who gave the course an honest try.

Is this, then, "A’s for Everyone"? There’s a good essay on that subject (Google "Alicia C. Shepard" and that title to read it online) but, No. The change in my thinking, that has brought about the Death of the Gatekeeper, is my understanding that the purpose of college is not, as it was in my day (and perhaps in yours), to weed out those admission errors, those students who can’t do college work, those incapable of mild intellectual labor, or the full-time partiers determined to find out how long mom and dad’s tuition money can last without a shred of academic effort being expended.  Under financial pressures to retain students at all costs, colleges have become what high schools were in my time, and what grade school was in my dad’s time—bestowers of a credential that affirms that the student has sat through numerous lectures and has taken some rudimentary examinations measuring competence, nothing more.

Having a college degree no longer matters the way it used to in past generations.  I can still distinguish between A’s and B’s and C’s. Essentially, my "A" students have followed my directions (written essays on the assigned subjects, written them at the length I’ve required, handed them in on time, and not written horrendously ungrammatical prose), a very low level of achievement. Those who’ve messed up one of these areas get a "B."  A "C" goes to those who’ve messed up royally—"C" students, honestly, are those I would have failed when I was starting out, but now I pass them along and congratulate them when they’ve earned their diplomas.  I used to think it was my job to see that such students would never get a diploma if passing my course was any part of that.  Now I know that such a diploma means nothing, opens no doors, and is no reflection on me, my judgment, or the university for which I work. When a "C" student graduates, he or she has no employers, no graduate schools, no professional schools clamoring for that student’s abilities—it’s just "Fill out an application, kid," same as it used to be for someone waving an undistinguished high school diploma. As long as I, and a few other professors, give out grades on the spectrum of A to F, we can feel we’ve done a responsible job of evaluating students’ abilities.  We’ve just stopped keeping students from graduating college—that is effectively an outdated description of our roles here.

In practical terms, I used to (or my older colleagues used to, for their entire careers) literally be able to prevent a student from graduating, in the sense that when I started teaching here, students needed to pass four required courses in English. If they failed a course, which some of them did because they were incapable of writing a simple English sentence, they would need to take a remedial course, and then retake the original course until they passed it. Illiterates then would find these four college courses an insuperable barrier. Some of them might repeat the first course two or three or four times, getting an "F" every time, and decide (correctly in my view) to drop out of college until they could bone up on their writing and reading skills. Sometimes an effectively illiterate student would find a soft-hearted English prof, or would perform above his or her normal abilities, and get a D or even a C in the first English requirement, but then she or he would find the same barriers in the next requirement, and frequently the same result: a semester of hard work, ending in an F grade, and needing to take that course over and over and over again. "If you can’t write in minimally functional English," we reasoned, "you shouldn’t hold a college degree that signifies you can do a lot more than that."

Students hated that system, of course, and eventually got it changed, partly by expressing their dissatisfaction verbally but mostly by expressing their dissatisfaction with their wallets.  Now we have only three required courses in English, and zero remedial courses, many of which are taught by people who aren’t writing instructors, and aren’t tenured, so they have very little training in evaluating student writing and are highly sensitive to students’ evaluations of their courses: such instructors are very disinclined even to tell students they are close to earning an F.  Since these instructors (most of whom have MA degrees in literature, and who teach novels or poems in their classes, even those classes that are nominally dedicated to composition) aren’t giving out Fs anymore, the students pass easily from one required course to another, and they graduate college much more easily than past generations did. A college degree, in other words, no longer signifies that the holder is reasonably proficient, or even competent, at writing a few consecutive grammatical English sentences. The Gatekeeper is dead.

That's also how I think of the Hall of Fame. It used to be important to me to have that strict binary line between HoFers and non-HoFers, and I would strive to set that line in the exactly correct place. I would argue for those I wanted in, and I would argue against those I wanted out, exactly as if that were actually important to me. What I’ve come to understand is that there is a gray area, Bill’s list of "C" Hall-of-Famers and my list of "D" Hall-of-Famers, a very large list and growing larger every day. There are players in the real HoF who are vastly inferior to players richly deserving of entry. Instead of spending the mercifully brief remainder of my years on this doomed planet denouncing angrily this sad state of affairs, I propose that we simply encourage every fan to determine the level of excellence that he or she demands in a Hall of Famer, and for those passive fans who prefer to make no such judgment, we arrange the plaques in larger and increasingly less exclusive groupings of players.

The similarity between students’ A through F grades and professional ballplayers’ HoF rankings also on a scale of A though F seems to imply that most major leaguers are the equivalent of failing students.  The very first thing I would do, then, to discourage this analogy, would be to reject Bill’s nomenclature and call the classes of HoF candidates something other than A, B, C, D, E, and F.  One idea might be to call each group after the best player in each: the "Babe Ruth-level" group, followed by the Joe DiMaggio  group, and so on, which would encourage each player to think correctly as being linked to that named player’s level of ability and performance.

Thanks for your patience in reading this over-long yet still, in places, vague proposal for a new way of thinking of the Hall of Fame and college grades and diplomas.


COMMENTS (36 Comments, most recent shown first)

Did some initial calculations--I won't publish them, but nothing surprising. To me, the biggest surprise is the one person who left Mays off their ballot completely. The second biggest surprise is that only one voter chose Mays over Ruth. Among my baseball-loving friends (most of whom are my age or a tad older, so they grew up watching Mays play), Mays would probably win over Ruth. But most of them pay little or no attention to sabermetrics/Bill James, and of course the experience of growing up watching particular players can play a big role. I grew up idolizing Mantle, but it seems clear to me that he is not one of the top 5 players of all time--maybe top 10, and definitely top 25, but not top 5.
11:21 AM Feb 13th
Yeah. 1. Ruth, 2. Mays, 3. Cobb, 4. Aaron, 5. Schmidt
11:13 PM Feb 8th
Steven Goldleaf
Where does Willie go? In Oscar's place?
7:52 PM Feb 8th
Hmm, well, I will say Ruth, Oscar Charleston, Cobb, Aaron, and Schmidt! And then when you make me get rid of Oscar, Willie Mays
7:01 PM Feb 8th
Thanks, Steven. And thanks for mentioning the Posnanski survey, which I then looked for and took.
10:26 AM Feb 8th
Steven Goldleaf
I know "Harrison Bergeron" well, taught it for many years. It's a great, frightening story, among the funniest dystopias I've ever read about, but sadly that's what we seem to be living in now, a dysfunctional, dystopic nightmare of a society. I'm just reporting what I see. I can keep banging my head against the wall to try to bring back standards, and I probably will to a degree, but if the society ain't buying what I'm selling, I'm going to move to a different (and probably crummier) product to sell. Maybe not crummier--it occurs to me that instead of focusing my efforts on the classroom, and my forehead on the brick wall, I'm doing more writing of my views (as I do here) and trying to get a conversation started in these other venues. Speaking of which, I just got a note from Joe Posnanski yesterday, telling me that he and I are on the same page, roughly, with our HoF ideas, and that he's still working the details of his manifesto out.
9:03 AM Feb 8th
1. Ruth
2. Mays
3. Wagner
4. Johnson
5. Cobb

If Bonds and Clemens were in, Bonds would probably be #3 and Clemens #5.

Good article, although I am dismayed by the "non-gatekeeper" approach to higher education. Too "Harrison Bergeron" for me. (If you don't know Vonnegut's short story of that title, I highly recommend it.)
9:38 PM Feb 7th
Babe Ruth
Willie Mays
Walter Johnson
Ty Cobb
Hank Aaron
9:08 AM Feb 7th
Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Williams, Musial
1:39 AM Feb 7th
12:54 AM Feb 7th
I'll play -- except, can't help disobeying the rule of only considering the 65 on that list. (Why was that specified?)

I'll also note this criterion that I'm finding it very useful to follow for such an exercise: Consider only the 9 players that I'd pick for my "all time team" -- a team that I'd consider the best possible for an imaginary actual game -- provided it doesn't cause any awful conflicts or egregious rule-outs, which I think it doesn't.

1. Ruth
2. Mays
3. Walter Johnson
4. Wagner
5. Jackie Robinson

My 6th would be Bench, who, like Jackie, also isn't technically eligible here. I'd add also that although I didn't pick a catcher among the 5, limiting the candidates to a grouping that doesn't include any player from perhaps the most important of all positions is quite odd, and represents a flawed "gatekeeping" from the gitgo. And yes, I'm also implying that on this basis, Bill's list was flawed. I'd say that any system for identifying the top echelon of players and which includes as many as 65 but which doesn't include any catchers is ipso facto flawed and should have indicated to the maker that the criteria needed to be a bit different.

BTW, my whole theoretical "team":

Jackie Robinson
Walter Johnson
12:38 AM Feb 7th
I knew someone who said that the HofF should have only two members, Ruth and Cobb- anyone else is worse. The real harm started around 1946 when the Old Timers Committee (as it was known) added players like Tommy McCarthy and Hugh Duffy. There are dozens of players who were better, obviously. The first lot of players, elected 1936-42, were all worthy. The only slightly odd choices were Willie Keeler (elected by the BBWAA, as he played in the AL in the 1900s) and maybe George Sisler. The others were automatic first ballot entries. The non-players, however, included one dud, Morgan Bulkeley, who was William Hulbert in disguise.
11:36 PM Feb 6th
Steven Goldleaf
Lefty Grove IS an A, Wilbur. No reason you have to leave him off your list, if you can bear to drop Cobb or anyone else off it.
8:44 PM Feb 6th
1. Ruth
2. Mays
3. Williams
4. Musial
5. Aaron

7:58 PM Feb 6th
1. Babe Ruth
2. Honus Wagner
3. Willie Mays
4. Stan Musial
5. Ty Cobb

I would have included Lefty Grove if he was an "A", and would reluctantly drop out Cobb. It's difficult to leave out Mantle, too.

I greatly enjoyed the article. Thanks for the effort.​
7:12 PM Feb 6th
1. Babe Ruth
2. Willie Mays
3. Ty Cobb
4. Honus Wagner
5. Walter Johnson
6:18 PM Feb 6th
1. Babe Ruth
2. Willie Mays
3. Mickey Mantle
4. Mike Schmidt
5. Ken Griffey Jr.

5:20 PM Feb 6th
Steven Goldleaf
bearbyz--Bonds still isn't on Bill's A list. Can you reconfigure yours to make my life easier?
5:03 PM Feb 6th
1. Willie Mays
2. Babe Ruth
3. Honus Wagner
4. Barry Bonds
5. Walter Johnson​
3:29 PM Feb 6th
Babe Ruth
Ty Cobb
Stan Musial
Ted Williams
Mickey Mantle
2:42 PM Feb 6th
Steve161. I too care a lot more about a whole nation's system of higher education than any system of Honors, including the Hall of Fame, the Nobel Prizes, and so on.

Every nation's higher education Should care about people like you. It is important to give almost every young person who can benefit from it a good well-rounded and reasonably rigorous college education - even if that means that quite a few go to college who, worst case, don't stay even one full year.

I say "almost all" as it is senseless to chase perfection. But the closer a country can get to All students able to be much benefited, the better than country's educational system - other things being even anywhere nearly equal.
1:26 PM Feb 6th
Steven Goldleaf
Excellent observation, jwilt, and excellent exceptions noted. I agree that it is passing strange (or failing strange) that we have not seen an A1 player in forty years, though Seaver and Schmidt retired within the past 30 years, and Clemens is every bit their equal, as is Bonds, as is A-Rod. All three are tainted by steroids (or in A-Rod’s case, steroids and ineligibility for the Hall), and all three were quite possibly A1-type players without the steroids. Griffey Jr. may well be an A1 player, and there may be other nominations forthcoming, so you might be complaining prematurely about a problem that’s not really a problem, but if we were to include all the steroid-tainted cases (Bonds, Clemens, A-Rod) and bump up Henderson and Griffey to A1 status (which they might well warrant—this listing was just my personal opinion, and I’m prepared to be outvoted on almost all of it) and maybe another contemporary player or two (Mariano? Randy Johnson? Kershaw? Trout?), plus Seaver and Schmidt, isn’t that over half the A1 group dating from the past 40 years?
1:00 PM Feb 6th
Isn't it essentially impossible that we've gone 40 years since anyone has seen an A1 player play a game of baseball? The various lists in the reader comments plus the author's includes mostly the same names, but in time they go from Wagner (debut in 1897) to Aaron (retired 1976). Zeke did originally include Bonds, but then apparently thought better of it. Basically we had an 80-year run of great players, then nothing for the last 40+.

I think what we have is a few things:

1) Increasing quality of play has narrowed the gap between the best and the middle or the bottom of MLB, leading to the illusion of fewer great players when we actually have as many or more.
2) PEDs have led many to discount much of the past 40 years.
3) Baseball breeds nostalgia.

I believe that about half the true list of A1 players have been active since 1980.
11:47 AM Feb 6th
1. Babe Ruth
2. Honus Wagner
3. Willie Mays
4. Walter Johnson
5. Ty Cobb
11:05 AM Feb 6th

10:46 AM Feb 6th

So then let's make that

10:19 AM Feb 6th
Can you maybe first tell us, what's wrong with how it is now?
Concisely, and in a way that reflects what a pretty large portion of the world thinks. :-)
If you can't (and if there isn't), what all are you doing anyway?

What reason or justification is there for trying to think of such a complex other way?
(Other than as an exercise in curiosity, which is always justified for anything.)

I think some parts of this article/proposal are pretty outrageous, with this perhaps topping it:

"I propose that we simply encourage every fan to determine the level of excellence that he or she demands in a Hall of Famer, and for those passive fans who prefer to make no such judgment, we arrange the plaques in larger and increasingly less exclusive groupings of players."

Among other things, I wonder if you realize that saying "level of excellence" implies one particular view of Hall of Fame-ness and "greatness." I'm also aware that you might not be able to relate to that.

I wonder also if you realize that 'arranging in larger and increasingly less exclusive groupings' would probably hold almost zero interest to most people.​
10:17 AM Feb 6th
Fireball Wenz

1. Ruth
2. Wagner
3. Mays
4. Musial
5. Cobb

No matter what tiered HOF system you develop, you will always be facing a binary question - is he in or out? You will wind up just multiplying the gray-area arguments if you create a tiered process. Maybe argument is the goal, as a necessary process toward understanding.
10:14 AM Feb 6th
Steven Goldleaf
Zeke and Ball of Fire:

Bonds is not on Bill's A list. Reconsider your lists in view of that, please. I want us all to be dealing from the same deck. We will deal with inequities and exceptions later on.
10:03 AM Feb 6th
1. Ruth
2. Mays
3. Aaron
4. Wagner
5. Musial
9:49 AM Feb 6th
75%. You're in. Or you're not in.

No categories.

No levels.

No tiers.

No categorization.

Hall of Famer. Or not Hall of Famer.

9:48 AM Feb 6th
Maybe Jimmie Foxx is one of those A2 players.
8:43 AM Feb 6th
1 Ruth
2 Bonds
3 Mays
4 Williams
5 Cy
8:43 AM Feb 6th
Fireball Wenz
1. Ruth
2. Wagner
3. Mays
4. Bonds
5. Musial
8:34 AM Feb 6th
I care a lot more about higher education than I do about the Hall of Fame, and I consider the liberal arts tradition one of America's few remaining areas of cultural superiority to Europe. So it disturbs me some to hear that a college diploma no longer has much meaning.

Generally speaking, it's harder over here to get into university than it is in the States, so the Gatekeeper function is exercised at the high school level. I suspect this means that there are those who would benefit from a college education who don't get it, and I think I prefer a system where some get it but on whom it's wasted. Inevitably that must devalue the diploma, but it seems a fair price to pay.

But I don't know. The field in which I got my degrees (political science) is not the one in which I made my living (computing). I could probably have had the same career without the college education. On the other hand, my non-professional life has been immeasurably enriched by exposure to the liberal arts, by 'learning how to learn'. It was a very lucky thing to have graduated high school in California in 1961 rather than Bavaria in 2017. But should a well-run system of higher education even care about somebody like me?

I don't know.
8:17 AM Feb 6th
1 Ruth
2 Mays
3 Aaron
4 Musial
5 Williams
7:47 AM Feb 6th
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