Following Wednesday’s dramatic Game 7 victory in the World Series for his Cubs, the team’s president of baseball operations just needs to not make any unforgivable mistakes the rest of his career to be assured his place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Erasing 194 years of combined droughts in Chicago and Boston has a way of cementing a man’s case. Epstein was the man in charge when the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years in 2004 (and also when they won in 2007).
A lot might be written about the Hall of Fame cases of non-players in this World Series. To wit, Indians manager Terry Francona has probably done enough to get in eventually. Cubs manager Joe Maddon is at least on his way, though he wouldn’t be a Hall of Famer if he retired tomorrow, with 981 wins, a .535 regular season winning percentage, and one world championship as of this writing.
As for Epstein, he could retire today and probably be the youngest executive inducted, by a few decades at that. As Baseball-Reference.com notes, Cooperstown’s Pioneer/Executive wing is generally something of a geriatric unit. Only seven members of it have been enshrined while alive, all past their 70th birthdays, with former general manager Pat Gillick the youngest honoree at 73 in 2011.
No matter what, Epstein should get in Cooperstown younger than Gillick. The Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors ruled in July to allow living executives still working in baseball to be enshrined after their 70th birthdays, a move seemingly designed to get 76-year-old Atlanta Braves President John Schuerholz an immediate spot in Cooperstown.
More executives in the next 28 years will likely be enshrined upon turning 70. The only question is how much longer Epstein wants to work. If he wants to be a Hall of Famer before age 50, the Sandy Koufax of Hall of Fame executives, the option’s there.
The broader question is if Epstein will wind up as the best executive in Cooperstown. With respect to Branch Rickey, Larry MacPhail or Ed Barrow, to name three top candidates for the title, it could be close.
Cooperstown chances: 95 percent
Why: If Epstein had merely helped one long hapless franchise finally win a World Series, he could simply be looked at as one of many reasons it happened, with his enshrinement far from perfunctory. The fact that Epstein did it twice? It gets a lot tougher to rationalize away his role in the success. He’s the common thread here.
Critics may scoff that Epstein had two of the largest budgets in baseball to make miracles happen. To this: Tom Yawkey began throwing money at Boston’s problems after becoming owner of the team in the early 1930s. Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Joe Cronin and so many others couldn’t bring the Red Sox a World Series title within their lifetimes. The Cubs have been a high budget operation for at least 20 years, maybe longer.
Countless other executives had the opportunity before Epstein to go in Boston and Chicago and make miracles happen. Only he pulled it off.
So how does this put Epstein in line to maybe wind up as the best executive in the Hall of Fame? There simply aren’t that many of them enshrined. It’s one of the toughest ways to get in Cooperstown, in fact.
Rickey will be tough to unseat. Aside from signing Jackie Robinson to break baseball’s color barrier in 1947, Rickey also developed the game’s farm system and helped introduce sabermetrics to front offices. Rickey’s the gold standard for baseball executives and one of the most important figures in baseball history. Epstein doesn’t crack the top ten list for that latter honor.
A reasonable case could be made, though, that Epstein would be the second-best executive in the Hall of Fame were he inducted today. There’s simply not all that much to get excited about among the other 32 executives enshinred as of this writing. It’s largely a collection of forgotten pioneers, far-from-perfect candidates, and ones like Yawkey who stuck around long enough to more or less receive attendance awards.
Barrow and MacPhail lose points for helping maintain baseball’s segregation for so many decades. MacPhail helped maintain it with the Yankees beyond 1947, with the team loathe to field many black players into the 1960s. George Weiss, another inner circle Hall of Fame executive, was partially responsible for this as well.
MacPhail also drank himself out of greater success in Cincinnati (where he helped arrange baseball’s first night game) and Brooklyn (where he turned the hapless Dodgers into contenders) before he became part-owner of the New York Yankees. As noted by a sportswriter in the book accompanying Ken Burns’ 1994 Baseball PBS miniseries, “With no drinks (MacPhail) was brilliant, with one he was a genius. With two he was insane. And rarely did he stop at one.”
Other candidates for top executive? Fans might point to Bill Veeck, though his teams lost far more often than they won. J.L. Wilkinson and Cumberland Posey could have claims as well, though it’s hard to say with Negro League history.
If it winds up being a two-man race between Epstein and Rickey, the best that can be said for Epstein is that he might have another few decades to keep working in baseball and adding to his Hall of Fame plaque. In that respect, perhaps it’s not in Epstein’s best interest to be the youngest Hall of Fame executive. Hopefully at 42, he’s only just beginning.