FIXING THE HALL
by Ron Shandler
Let’s face it… the National Baseball Hall of Fame is broken.
Each winter’s voting results always create controversy. Deserving players are passed over. Undeserving players get in. There is endless discussion about what “deserving” means anyway. The sports media eats this up – which is a reason why the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) won’t change anything – but the results put the Hall’s credibility into question every year.
And these last few years, the ballot has been so stacked with potentially-deserving candidates that there is no possible way for everyone to be properly honored.
Hall-worthiness should never be an open question. Either a player is worthy or he isn’t. But that’s not how it works in real life.
There is is better way.
But first, let’s summarize all the issues with the existing system.
The rules for voter eligibility are flawed.
A potential voter must first become a BBWAA member. To qualify, he must be a beat writer, backup writer, columnist or sports editor from a newspaper or wire service that covers Major League Baseball on a regular basis. Membership has been expanded to include web sites on a case-by-case basis. To vote for the Hall of Fame, he must be an active member of the BBWAA for 10 consecutive years. However, once someone gets a Hall vote, he can continue voting only so long as he’s been regularly covering baseball for the past 10 years.
That last clause — a recent change — closed a major loophole in which some voters had not covered baseball in many years. Still, with the decline of the newspaper industry and the dominance of electronic and online media, the voting pool is still both parochial and old.
The rules for candidate eligibility are arbitrary.
To be considered for the Hall, candidates (1) must have received a vote on a minimum of five percent (5%) of the ballots cast in the preceding election or (2) gain first time eligibility by being nominated by any two of the six members of the BBWAA Screening Committee. Each elector can vote for no more than ten (10) eligible candidates. Write-in votes are not permitted. Any candidate receiving votes on seventy-five percent (75%) of the ballots cast shall be elected to membership. Candidates may remain on the ballot for 10 years.
Why 75% to get in? Why 5% to drop off? Why do voters only get to put 10 players on their ballot? What if there are more qualified candidates in a given year?
“I actually proposed years ago that the BBWAA change that 5-pct rule. It got shot down with logic: If it’s an issue, you’re not a Hall-of-Famer anyway.”
– Jayson Stark
The criteria for induction are too broad and subjective.
Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
Here is where it all falls apart. With these vague eligibility requirements, all sorts of opinions and biases enter into the process. Consider:
What level of statistical performance is Hall-worthy? How many home runs, wins, awards or titles is enough?
There is a “first ballot” bias that keeps worthy candidates out because there is some elevated honor to be voted in on a player’s first chance. However, this bias is held by only some voters, not all. If a player is worthy in year #1, he has done nothing to increase his worthiness by year #2, or year #15.
“Time was necessary for me to warm up to (Jack) Morris. This ballot carries my first vote for him.”
– Marty Noble
“Statistics don’t change, that’s true. But strength of the ballot does.”
– Barry Bloom
But the value of individual achievement should not depend upon the strength of the induction class. A player should not be evaluated in comparison to the achievements of another player on the ballot. Every player needs to be evaluated on his own merits.
Still, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds won’t likely get inducted any time soon because voters will be thinking, “How do I vote for Bonds or Clemens the same year Ken Griffey Jr. will get in?” The fate of all the steroids suspects rests in a sharply divided voter pool.
Also, the value of individual achievement should not depend upon the size of the induction class. For instance, a player in a class with 10 new candidates will have lower odds of induction than if the class has only five new candidates.
Some other variables that skew results:
Voters often place an inconsequential name on their ballot because they don’t believe it will matter. Since a player needs to appear on 75% of ballots, even a few bad ballots can deny a player membership in the Hall.
Voters omit certain names from their ballot because they deem them “no-brainers,” which allows them to vote for other candidates that are more on the fringe. It’s a good idea in theory but the “no-brainers” often fall short because of it.
Cities with large numbers of high-paying newspapers have a disproportionate number of votes compared to the distribution of teams around the country. This gives players from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles teams an edge.
On a recent edition of MLB-TV’s Clubhouse Confidential, guest Keith Olbermann stated that, if he had a vote he would not vote for Curt Schilling because “I just don’t like the guy.” How many actual voters color their ballots with these type of opinions?
“In the afterglow of one of the best World Series ever, I gave more weight than usual to post-season performances.”
– Lyle Spencer
And then there’s the Veterans Committee, which has essentially become an “old boys club.” If you need a secondary device to catch the oversights of the first line of voting, maybe you should re-evaluate that first line.
Even Major League baseball’s official historian, John Thorn, admits that the Hall of Fame vote is purely subjective.
So we need to fix it.