Three Economists Cry Foul, Charge Bias in Baseball Hall of Fame Picks

Economists and baseball fans (from left) James Monks, Arna Desser, and Mike Robinson charge that recent selections for the Baseball Hall of Fame have been racially biased.

Of all the team sports played professionally in the USA, perhaps none is so obviously dependent on individual performances as baseball. In "America's pastime," every trip to the plate by a batter, every play by a fielder, every pitch, is recorded and statistically analyzed by fans, sports reporters, and historians of the game.

In fact, baseball and statistics are so intrinsically intertwined that it is possible to know everything about a player's performance through his entire career. For example, for batters, statistics are kept for at-bats, hits, singles, doubles, triples, homeruns, hits with runner on base, runs batted in, walks, and a slew of other categories. For pitching and fielding, a variety of performance indicators are also regularly measured, tabulated, and compared with the numbers of other players.

So, this January, when longtime baseball star Tony Perez claimed that he had been passed over for inclusion in Baseball's Hall of Fame because he is Hispanic, three Mount Holyoke economics professors looked at the statistics and found that Perez is probably right.

Working during January, international economist--and ardent Baltimore Orioles fan--Arna Desser and labor economists Mike Robinson and James Monks looked at all nonpitchers who appeared on the ballot for the Hall of Fame from 1980 through 1997. Then, using players' hitting and fielding statistics, they created a model that examined the relationship between these lifetime statistics and the number of votes each player received in the Hall of Fame balloting by the Baseball Writers' Association of America, members of which vote annually on new members for the Hall.

While the model successfully correlated players' lifetime statistics with the number of votes received, the economists found that Hispanic players received on average between four and seven percent fewer votes than their white counterparts with similar performance statistics. This difference was enough to keep Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, another Hispanic baseball great, from being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

Desser, Robinson, and Monks also found that African American players, though fairly treated in balloting, were possibly suffering in the nomination process to get on the ballot. African American nominees had significantly higher batting averages and runs produced than did the white nominees. "If you take all the players who are plausibly eligible," Desser says, "it seems that the nominating process goes deeper into the pool of white players."

For labor economists, who are often concerned with issues of race in the workplace, the measurability of performance in baseball changes the rules of the game. According to Monks, "Discrimination is often hard to measure, but there are obvious measures of ability and performance here. There is no difference between a white guy and a black guy at the plate. A home run is a home run."

And a foul is a foul. Desser, Monks, and Robinson have sent a paper presenting their findings, "Discrimination in Baseball Hall of Fame Voting," to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.