The Baseball Hall of Fame election process is a mess.
Over the last few years controversy surrounding its eligible parties and selection procedures has come to a head. It’s time for more legitimate dialogue about the Hall of Fame and it’s time that dialogue resulted in lasting and meaningful reform to the election process.
To begin, some reminders and basics of how the Hall of Fame election process works:
Each year, qualified members of the BBWAA (Baseball Writers’ Association of America) can select up to 10 eligible players they believe deserve to be enshrined. To become enshrined, players need to appear on at least 75% of voter ballots. Players are removed from the ballot if they receive less than 5% of the vote or they have appeared 15 times without receiving election (the HOF is moving to a 10 year period of consideration as of 2014). There is a failsafe, the veterans committee, who can vote in players not voted in by the BBWAA, as well as Negro league players and non-playing personnel (managers, executives). In order to be an eligible voter, a writer has to have been an active member of the BBWAA for at least 10 years (in 2010, 581 ballots were returned, although typically the number increases yearly).
On initial reflection one might think that there would be safety and consistency to be found amongst the throng of Hall of Fame voters, that the large number eligible might provide clarity among potential entrants. Instead the opposite is achieved; the diversity, agendas and sheer number of voters brings chaos to the proceedings.
The first problem is the restriction that each writer is only allowed to select 10 entrants per voting cycle. After trolling sources for a considerable time I have been unable to find a convincing rationale for this. This logically does not make sense. The peaks and troughs associated with the quality of any given sport dictate that there are some eras, years and voting cycles that will be of more high quality than others, where they maybe more deserving entrants. Given that each potential entrant needs to appear on 75% of ballots to be enshrined, what is the purpose of restricting each writer to 10 votes? This expectation has a severe knock on impact to the entire voting procedure; It makes each voter consider choices more strategically, omitting potential entrants that are in their first few years of eligibility if a player (even a potentially weaker candidate) who is in their last few ‘needs’ their vote to ensure enshrinement at the tail end of their eligibility.
Another issue is that only writers who have been active 10 years in the BBWAA have the right to vote. This is curious. How is it beneficial to shut out the younger quotient of potential voters? If there are writers who have been active less than 10 years who are highly influential and respected by their peers, why should they not help shape the history of the game? Baseball is limiting the diversity of its Hall of Fame voters instead of increasing it. Surely there should be a more representative spread of voters contributing to how the history of the game is traversed and remembered?
The mission of the Hall of Fame is an interesting read; it mentions ‘fostering an appreciation of the historical development of the game’, ‘honoring excellence’ and (to speak to my earlier point about voter diversity) to ‘make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball’. Should the election process not strive to meet the same ends? Currently, not all BBWAA voters follow these protocols and strive to meet this mission. Since becoming HOF eligible in 2013, Jeff Bagwell, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds have failed to be enshrined into the Hall. Bagwell, whose link to PEDs is purely speculatory, has had voting percentages of 59%, 54% and 55%. Clemens has remained at a steady 37% in his 3 years of eligibility and Bonds has remained at a consistent 36%. In other words, these three players are making little headway in their cases to be HOF players.
Looking at the achievements of these three players during their careers is a telling, if tiresome tale. Bagwell, the least prestigious of the three, had a career .408 OBP, slugged 449 HR, batted in 1529 runs, stole 202 bases, was a 4 time all-star and won an MVP. Bonds won 7 MVPs, has the MLB HR record at 762, single season record at 73 and took 2558 walks in his 22 year career. Lastly Clemens, who won 354 games (Randy Johnson was the last to even pass 300), won an MVP (pitchers rarely do that), won 7 Cy Young awards and owned a career WHIP of 1.173 (over 24 seasons). Incidentally Clemens is the only pitcher who posted over 300 wins in his career who isn’t in the HOF. These three players rank 4 (Bonds), 8 (Clemens) and 63 (Bagwell) on the all-time WAR list. These statistics aren’t new, so why bring them up? To highlight how utterly ridiculous it is that at least Bonds and Clemens are not in the Hall of Fame (Bagwell has good HOF numbers, I brought his name up more to highlight the effect that even suspicion of PED use can have on the case of a player).
The reason for their exclusion is their links to use of performance enhancing drugs. Using PEDs is obviously contrary to the spirit of sportsmanship and the integrity of the game, but for the writers to pretend that the period of PED use wasn’t a significant historical development through ignoring these individuals is equally insulting to fans of the game. No one is suggesting that the actions of PED users be condoned. The current landscape however, where players such as Bagwell are receiving knocks on their voting totals because of an unsubstantiated link is absurd. One cannot parse through the significant historical records of baseball without coming across the names of Bonds, Clemens and Bagwell. Are we really suggesting that if it were not for PEDs their careers would have added little statistical significance and value to the history of the sport? I think not. These three men are all Hall of Famers in my book.
Another legend marginalized by MLB is Pete Rose. Pete Rose WAS baseball in the 1970s. The all-time hit leader (4256) embodied the combination of hustle, heart and ability which made him a hero, particularly in Cincinnati. Rose’s lifetime ban (in effect since 1989) has lasted almost 26 years. His career in baseball is over. He has served a significant (rightly so) penalty for his infractions. To continue to exclude him from the baseball Hall of Fame and suppress his contributions to the game are insulting. I am not suggesting he be enshrined on the spot, merely that his place in baseball history is reflected in the Hall of Fame, as should be the case with Bonds and Clemens. If it is deemed that these players need to be separated in a new ‘room of controversy’ in the Hall then so be it. To pretend however, that they played no part in shaping recent baseball history is backward. All sports experience eras in which their integrity is challenged (just look at the 2014 NFL season). Baseball’s refusal to acknowledge its own dark past renders it immobile in a purgatory of denial. It is only by acknowledging periods of struggle that we grow from them. With the All-Star game in Cincinnati this year, new Commissioner Rob Manfred has an opportunity to right a wrong early in his tenure by allowing Rose participation in the all-star game festivities and a back door to the enshrinement in his lifetime of which he is fully deserving (Rose has now formally petitioned Rob Manfred for reinstatement from his ban).
A new issue that has surfaced with HOF voting is around a shift in what perceived ‘Hall of Fame numbers’ are. While this is a useful discussion as a benchmark from which to evaluate players, it also narrows the focus of criterion for entry to an unreasonable level. The discussion is so focused on these statistical measures that all other considerables are thrown aside. Take the example of Jack Morris.
Jack Morris was Madison Bumgarner in the mid-80s and early 90s. In 1984 (a season in which he threw a no-hitter), Morris threw two complete game victories against the Padres to lead the Tigers to their last World Series triumph. In 1991 he signed a one year pact with his hometown Twins, went on to win both his starts in the ALCS against the Blue Jays and went onto one of the most remarkable performances in World Series history. Morris started 3 games in the 91 World Series, going 2-0 with a 1.17 ERA. In game 7 against the Braves, he threw a 10 inning shutout to win game 7, wrap up the World Series for the Twins and finished as World Series MVP, at the age of 36. Morris was up to 67.7% of the vote in 2013 (his 14th year of eligibility). In 2014, Frank Thomas, Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux all became eligible, all three were first ballot Hall of Famers, Morris’s percentage dropped to just 61% in his final year of eligibility. My point here is simply this; Morris didn’t have some of the numbers to stack up with entrants like Glavine and Maddux, he offers something else, a performance for the ages. Does this not have a place in the history of the game? Morris pitched a 10 inning shutout in arguably the greatest World Series ever and was a post-season legend. Perhaps he will be voted in by the veterans committee, but something doesn’t feel right about his exclusion. To give another example, if Madison Bumgarner suffered a career ending injury he would never qualify for enshrinement (he has not played 10 years). Would we want the owner of the most impressive performance in recent World Series history not be celebrated in some way in the HOF? The fact that Bumgarner already appears on lists like this would suggest otherwise. My point here is that it seems as though the HOF has trended to becoming solely a numbers game, how can numbers be all you take into account when you have to compete with pitchers like Old Hoss Radbourn? (Radbourn threw 678 innings in a single season….in 1884).
Usually, writers name problems. Here are some potential solutions. Not all of them are plausible or even effective but it would be hypocritical to list issues that people know exist without naming alternatives.
- Baseball writers with votes can vote for as many players as they see fit per voting cycle. Let’s trust them, not handcuff them.
- The baseball writers can waive the 10 year playing requirement under special circumstances (such as career ending injury), if a particular percentage consent to do so for the player in question.
- The number of voters is cut dramatically and the BBWAA has a limited number of voters that are elected by their peers for a given number of voting cycles before the votes are given to other writers (additionally there is no 10 year active writing requirement).
- There is an advisory committee set up who cast a certain number of votes every cycle. The members of the committee include but are not limited to; writers, players, ex-players, managers, executives, politicians and other societal figures of note. If baseball is America’s pastime, why can a representative subsection of American society help contribute to how the history of the game is written?
There are many who think that players tied to PEDs should be excluded from the baseball HOF forever. I would be curious to hear your opinions. Obviously the limited suggestions above are no Hall of Fame fix. Ultimately I would ask, what is the Hall of Fame trying to do? Does it aim to chart the history of the game or the morality of the game and some of its most significant players? I choose to believe that baseball can do better. When we have gotten to the stage where intelligent baseball writers are abstaining from voting and can provide a rationale for doing so, perhaps we can agree on one thing. We aren’t celebrating baseball and its most significant players the way America’s national pastime deserves.