After the fact

Ken Stabler's posthumous election to the Hall of Fame feels wrong

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The last time I spoke with Marvin Miller, he told me what he told everybody: He did not want to go into the Baseball Hall of Fame after he died. Miller is, of course, one of the most important people in the history of American sports. He led baseball’s Players’ Association through a sports revolution, helping players win rights and opportunities that were unimaginable even a generation earlier. I’ve long believed the four most influential men in baseball history are: Kenesaw Mountain Landis, Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson and Marvin Miller.*

*If given a fifth, I might say Vin Scully.

But Miller did not get elected to the Hall of Fame while he was still alive.

In 2003, 79 living Hall of Famers — most of them players — made up the Hall’s Veterans Committee. To get elected, Miller needed 60 votes. He got just 35.

In 2007, 82 living Hall of Famers — most of them players — made up the Veterans Committee. Miller needed 62 votes for election. He got 51.

The next year, there was a 12-person Veterans Committee that voted for the Hall of Fame. Seven of the 12 people were baseball executives — exactly the sort of people Miller had beaten time and again through the years. Miller knew the deck was stacked against him. “Aside from miracles,” he said. “there’s no reason to believe the vote will do anything but go down.” He was right: Only three people voted for him. And in one of those astonishing moments that makes you wonder if the sky is green, the committee voted for Bowie Kuhn, a wrecking ball of a commissioner who lost to Miller more times in a row than Maria Sharapova has lost to Serena Williams. As more than one of us wrote, this was like passing on the Road Runner but voting in Wile E. Coyote.

Later, Miller missed the Hall of Fame by one vote.

Miller was pretty bitter about it all as he grew older. You couldn’t blame the guy. What did he need with these annual headaches? People like me would call him every few months, ask him about his Hall of Fame chances, tell him how absurd it all was. After a while, he’d had enough. Miller said he did not want to get elected to the Hall of Fame. And he DEFINITELY did not want to be elected after he died.

“Why?” he asked. “So these people can make themselves feel better? Forget that.”

This was the thought I kept having after seeing that the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters this month elected Ken Stabler for the Hall of Fame. Stabler died in July at the age of 69. The voters had 25 years to vote him into the Hall while he was still living, and they decided to pass. Then, six months after he dies, he gets elected? Why? So people can make themselves feel better?

Stabler’s Hall of Fame case builds mostly around the seven years he was quarterback of the Oakland Raiders. In those seven years, his Raiders went 68-25-1, won a Super Bowl, reached five straight conference championships and created a marauders aura that lasts to this day. Stabler always threw a bunch of interceptions; he threw 30 or so more picks than touchdown passes over his career. But he kept flinging the ball downfield. He kept bringing the Raiders back. He had a knack for fashioning a miracle happen every now and again: the Ghost to the Post; the Sea of Hands; the Holy Roller.

Is that good enough for the Hall of Fame? I always thought so, but Hall of Fame worth is a matter of opinion. The strong opinion of the Hall of Fame voters on Stabler was: No. Through the years, Stabler was a Hall of Fame finalist three times and did not get elected.

In 1990, the voters chose quarterback Bob Griese over Stabler.

In 1991, the voters chose kicker Jan Stenerud over him.

In 2003, after more than a decade to reconsider the Snake’s virtues, the voters once again did not elect Stabler.

The voters certainly did not overlook the era when Stabler played. In 1974, the year Stabler won the NFL MVP award, there were seven starting quarterbacks – Bob Griese, Fran Tarkenton, Dan Fouts, Roger Staubach, Terry Bradshaw, Joe Namath, Sonny Jurgensen – who would get elected to the Hall while the Snake waited. Stabler’s snub was not an oversight. The voters just didn’t think Ken Stabler was good enough.

Yes, that’s harsh, but Halls of Fame are exclusive places.

So what changed this year? That seems obvious: Ken Stabler died. His death inspired a wave of nostalgia for him. Stabler was more than just a great quarterback. He was a character, a rogue, a man of his time. Stabler said he studied his playbook by the light of the jukebox (in a darker story, he once planted cocaine in the car of a reporter he disliked). Stabler’s name was always on the Hall of Fame long list. After he died, and all the stories about him appeared, it seems likely that his Hall of Fame case was rejuvenated and then he was elected.

Yes, of course, there is something touching about it. You would hope that Stabler’s election will bring joy to his grieving family and his fans. But there is also something infuriating about it. If Ken Stabler was good enough to go into the Hall of Fame, why wasn’t he elected when he was alive and could thrill in the moment? It’s one thing if a great player dies young, dies suddenly, and there’s no time to pay tribute. Think Roberto Clemente. But Stabler was 69 years old when he died. There was time.

There are others. Baseball star Ron Santo was 71 years old when he died. He had been on Hall of Fame voters’ minds for years but they could not quite find the thrust and motivation to vote him in. Then, he died, and they immediately voted him in. There was something almost cruel about it.

And, speaking of cruel: You hear people all the time say that they believe Pete Rose should be elected to the Hall of Fame … but only after he dies. In other words, they believe Rose deserves to be inducted into the Hall of Fame, but he doesn’t deserve the satisfaction of KNOWING that he’s going into the Hall of Fame. I guess I just don’t get that sort of thinking.

I’m guessing that Ken Stabler’s Hall of Fame election day will not be much of a celebration. Sure, people will TRY to make it a celebration but it will be a year since his death, and I’m guessing the whole thing will feel more like a memorial than a party. It’s so unnecessary. What voters for all Halls of Fame should do is pretend that the player died a few days before. Let the emotion overwhelm you. Then decide.

In the meantime, I understand why Marvin Miller insisted that he did not want Hall of Fame election after his death. He still comes up on ballots, and there’s no question that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a poorer place without him. But I think his wishes should be respected. A few months before my friend Buck O’Neil died, he too was passed over by a Hall of Fame committee. He did not feel bitter about it the way Miller did — Buck just didn’t do bitter — but a couple of us asked him how he would feel about getting elected to the Hall after he died.

“Nah,” he said. “I’ve been blessed enough.”