The Hall of Fame Mess: How Did We Get Here?

Within the next few days, word will come down from on high regarding the Baseball Hall of Fame’s Class of 2014. This year, at least there will be a “class” elected by the Baseball Writers Association of America, unlike 2013, when dozens descended upon the idyllic town of Cooperstown, N.Y., to celebrate the induction of three men who were dead when Adolf Hitler invaded Poland. How did we get here, to the current mess of a ballot featuring the most Hall-worthy players in history – most of who have zero chance of being elected, or at the very most have a significantly worse chance than, say, the 17th or so best player on the ballot. Better yet, how do we get out of this fix?

First of all, a disclaimer: One should not take arguments regarding a player’s “Hall-worthiness” as an indictment of that player’s talent. To play at the lowest level of the minor leagues — let alone graduate to involvement in a Hall of Fame discussion — a player must possess significant levels of innate talent and finely honed skill. Baseball is foremost about the player, not the writer, the analyst or the club employee. Each individual who makes a living in the extended baseball industry owes a debt of thanks to the players, who are indirectly responsible for their livelihood. But if we are going to have a Hall of Fame, we might as well do it right. The players themselves deserve this, the sport deserves this, and, say what you will about the historical veracity of the site, the city of Cooperstown deserves this. The regional economy depends on it. Secondly, anyone who wants to study the history of the Hall and the evolution of its voting process and results simply must read “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame,” by Bill James, and hunt down anything written or said on the topic by Hall historian/expert Bill Deane.

There is no such thing as a perfect Hall of Fame. Those who select the membership — in this case, the BBWAA — have two basic responsibilities: The voters must do their best to avoid induction of undeserving members. And, I think most importantly, the primary responsibility is to ensure that the game’s true greats are inducted. This is done by holding players to high standards, and by maintaining intellectual integrity and avoiding emotion. People will complain somewhat if the Hall gets too “big,” but while each one of us who cares about this topic gets peeved when a lesser candidate gets inducted, we eventually get over it. The real problem arises when the Hall gets too “small.” The worst-case scenario has been realized in recent years as the BBWAA has failed on both fronts, by electing a number of relatively undeserving candidates and erecting artificial barriers to induction for some of the game’s all-time greats.

The resulting ballot gridlock threatens to drop players who are worthy of serious consideration from the ballot, kicking them way down the road to some future iteration of the Veterans’ Committee. Predictably, the BBWAA have criticized the rules — created largely by them — citing the limit of 10 selections per ballot, instead of focusing on the real problems. Chief among them are a lack of academic rigor applied to the evaluation of candidates (which has been addressed somewhat by the admittance of some new blood into the BBWAA and a willingness of some members to consider emerging analytical tools when constructing their ballots) and the stark level of hypocrisy present when reconciling media members’ coverage of the so-called “Steroid Era” as it happened with their current revisionist view.

Let’s examine the recent historical record, back to the year 2000:


2000 5.63 Fisk T.Perez Gossage J.Morris
2001 6.33 Winfield* Puckett* Mattingly (Whitaker)
2002 5.95 O.Smith* Dawson Trammell
2003 6.60 Murray* G.Carter Sandberg L.Smith
2004 6.55 Molitor* Eckersley* None
2005 6.31 Boggs* Sandberg None
2006 5.64 Sutter None
2007 6.58 Ripken* Gwynn* McGwire
2008 5.36 Gossage Raines
2009 5.38 R.Henderson* Rice None
2010 5.67 Dawson R.Alomar Larkin E.Martinez McGriff
2011 5.98 R.Alomar Blyleven Bagwell L.Walker Palmeiro
2012 5.10 Larkin (Be.Williams)
2013 6.60 None Biggio Piazza Schilling Clemens Bonds Sosa (Lofton)
* = 1st time on ballot ( ) = No longer on ballot

The “Elect” columns list all players elected by the BBWAA in the years indicated, with an asterisk indicating players elected in their first year of eligibility. The “New” columns indicate other notable newly eligible players in the years indicated, with players who have fallen off of the ballot in parentheses. The most interesting column, though, might be the first one: the number of average votes on each ballot, by year. Why on earth should the number of possible votes per ballot be expanded beyond 10, when it would take a 50% increase from the 2013 level in total votes submitted to reach that limit?

Let’s mentally work through this table to see how things go to this point. Between 2000 and 2003, 12 legitimate candidates were added to the ballot – the four elected on their first try, plus Gossage, Morris, Mattingly, Whitaker, Dawson, Trammell, Sandberg and Smith. The world did not end, because A) the slam-dunks were, well, slam-dunked, and B) with the exception of Whitaker, a shameful result, the remainder of the candidates largely remained in an electable range. Between 2004 and 2006, the BBWAA’s job got really easy. Only three legitimate candidates became eligible for consideration, and Molitor, Eckersley and Boggs were all slam-dunks. In 2007, Ripken and Gwynn deservedly cruised in, but the addition of Mark McGwire to the ballot offered just a hint of what was to come. I would not call McGwire a slam-dunk, but was he really deserving of only 23.5% of the vote on that particular ballot?

In 2008, the looming disaster was certified when the BBWAA deemed Tim Raines, a very strong candidate by almost any measure worthy of only 24.3% of the vote. In 2009, the voters easily swept Rickey Henderson into the Hall, but also decided that Jim Rice, arguably the third best player in his own outfield for most of his career, was better than Raines. Dwight Evans, clearly a superior player to Rice, lasted all of three years on the ballot in the late 1990s. This egregious result set the disaster that was the 2010-2013 results into motion.

Between 2010 and 2013, 15 legitimate Hall candidates were added to the ballot, compared to 20 in the entire previous decade. Only two of those 15 entered the Hall between 2010 and 2013. None was elected on the first try. Of the 20 2000- 2009 candidates, 14 have entered the Hall — 10 on their first try. Of those 15 2010-2013 candidates, I would consider no fewer than nine of them slam-dunks:  Bonds, Clemens, Bagwell, Biggio, Alomar, Piazza, Larkin, Schilling and Martinez. Only one of them is in. Behind them are a few more who others might legitimately consider slam-dunks, as well. Between 2000 and 2009, one could argue all of slam-dunks got in, the vast majority on their first ballot. Then throw 2014 on the pile, with slam-dunks Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina and Frank Thomas, along with another viable candidate in Jeff Kent being added to the ballot. The waiting list might be shorter for Green Bay Packers season tickets than it will be to get some of these eminently deserving players into the Hall.

In addition, take a look at the total votes cast per year. The average generally trended up from 2000 to 2003, as slam-dunks entered the ballot consistently. The declining number of legitimate candidates added each year caused a decline through 2006 that brought the total number of votes down to exactly the number cast in 2000. After a one-year spike caused by Ripken and Gwynn’s presence on the ballot in 2007, the total number of votes cast dropped to a low for this century in 2008, despite Raines’ addition to the ballot. Then look at what happens from then through 2012: Eight legitimate candidates were added to the ballot, and total votes somehow dropped to a new low of 5.10 names per ballot. That’s barely half of the maximum 10 that many voters want to eliminate. This is nothing less than voting malpractice. The number of total votes increased sharply to 6.60 per ballot in 2013, and will likely surge higher this year, but it’s too late. The ballot is clogged, and it’s going to take more than a bottle of Drano to clear it.

At this point, it is no longer possible to ignore the elephant in the room — steroids. Does anyone else find it laughable that the BBWAA has decided to take a morally superior stand on this issue now, decades since the deeds were supposedly done? Where were the voters when these players were active? They were extolling their virtues and crediting them for “saving the game” in the wake of the previous collusion/strike/lockout era. Virtually everyone around the game at that time simply had to know something was going on. Bodies were changing, and long-held records were falling at an alarming rate. The writers — as well as many of the game’s other stakeholders — simply elected to look the other way for an extended period of time.

It’s true that consideration of the game’s greats from this era represents quite a moral dilemma. The steroid connections to various players range from fairly direct to incredibly circumstantial. But throwing an entire era of superstars out of the Hall of Fame would clearly not seem to be the appropriate remedy. How about a more practical approach, where you take each such player on a case-by-case basis, and attempt to conclude whether steroids might have made that player a Hall of Famer, or if they simply would have pushed him farther above the bar? Such an approach would enable us to quickly induct the Bondses and Clemenses, as well as a few others. That would clear those names off  the ballot and allow the battle be fought around the McGwire-Sosa line, where it should probably be engaged.

To get out of this mess, a couple of things need to happen. First, the electors need to remember that this process isn’t about them, it’s about the players. The vast majority of their decisions should be easy: Induct the players whose accomplishments clearly measure up to the standards that have been in place for decades, and leave the social commentary to others. Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Craig Biggio, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Tom Glavine, Mike Mussina, Frank Thomas and others are Hall of Famers, by just about any standard. Get them in. It will take a few years to undo the damage that has already been done to the ballot — but if something isn’t done immediately, the system will eventually need to be blown up.

Keep the guys who clearly don’t measure up to the rest of the Hall. Jack Morris and Lee Smith are two names. It would be a shame on a personal level for Morris to miss at this point, and his induction would simply be a continuation of the ongoing Dawson-Rice trend, but the occasion of the current ballot overload would be a perfect time for that trend to be broken. Use all 10 of the spots on your ballot — you’ve never used more than two-thirds of them, on average. If that’s done for a few years, we can chip away at this problem.

Unfortunately, in the short term, we will be losing some players from the bottom of the ballot. Like Lou Whitaker, Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton, the omission of the folks such as Sosa, Palmeiro and McGwire at the very least cheapens the discussion. Continue to expand BBWAA membership to include more progressive thinkers who embrace advanced analytics, while existing BBWAA members expand their processes to include the same in their evaluations. One can criticize previous generations for their overreliance on RBI and win totals, but hey, they elected Dazzy Vance, a truly dominant pitcher who lacked career counting numbers and would have been unlikely to be honored by today’s BBWAA.

On a personal level, my family owes some of its best memories to time spent in Cooperstown. For future generations of lovers of the game to do the same, the game’s true greats need to be in the Hall, or it will descend into irrelevance. The men who play this game are not perfect, and never have been. We didn’t exclude the players from the pre-integration era for not playing against the best, we did not exclude the players from the ’60s and ’70s “greenies” era, and we must not exclude the greats of the most recent era of flawed men who played a flawed — but great — game.

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10 years ago

Sorry. Too many writers believe they are hypocritical gatekeeper of morality. Maybe it’s better that the ballot gets jammed and players that should easily be in get ousted and players that aren’t eligible do get in our of the voters spiteful stupidity. Then, as you indicated, the system will have to be blowen up and rebuilt. Sadly, that’s exactly what it needs.