Fixing the Hall of Fame vote, revisited

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s time to look again at how to fix the Hall of Fame’s voting processes.

Last year’s Hall of Fame vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America was troubling enough, for more reasons than just Curt Schilling falling short sixteen votes and Schilling’s demand to be removed from their ballots. This year’s vote could prove just as big a pain in the rump roast.

It’s the last roundup for a few players thanks to the ten-year limit on the BBWAA ballot. Schilling is one of them. Others include some with that storm cloud of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances still hovering above them. (Good morning, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.) It’s also the first roundup for a couple of players above whom the cloud hovers (Alex Rodriguez) or gets pulled (David Ortiz).

Whatever those issues truly are, I’m still convinced we can agree upon this much: Something is still drastically wrong with the Hall of Fame vote. The vote still needs to be fixed. The question remains how to do it. The answers won’t be any more simple now than last year. But they’re worth revisiting.

Last year, the big sub-issue was the blank ballot. There was too much talk about some voting BBWAA members turning in blanks. What I said then still holds: how many blanks came in isn’t as relevant as thinking that, if you do submit a blank ballot, you should lose your Hall vote a spell.

What I didn’t suggest was how long following such a submission. Maybe losing your next two Hall votes should send the message: This isn’t the presidential election where, in some states, you’re entitled to answer to no parties producing candidates to your taste with a) the write-in vote; or, b) the ballot choice “none of these candidates.”

I’m not all that willing to allow the voting baseball writers a write-in vote. Some of their published arguments for or against certain Hall candidates cross into Cloud Cuckoo-Land as it is. But if a voting writer submits a complete blank, he or she should be blanked from the next two Hall votes.

At least, so long as the foolish ten-year limit for BBWAA ballot candidates remains in place. The far better course would be to re-open the eligibility window. It used to be fifteen. Why not make it twenty? You’d run far less risk of ballot logjams that might squeeze a Hall-worthy player out of the running through no fault of his own.

All that said, let me repeat what I wrote last year: Voting for the Hall of Fame isn’t exactly a right. The Hall gave the writers the privilege almost a century ago. With privilege comes responsibility, regardless of any controversies attached to any Hall candidates. The responsibility still includes the one holding the voting privilege doing his or her job—thinking hard, and voting.

It would be far simpler to exercise that responsibility without the ten-year eligibility limit. So here’s hoping the BBWAA thinks that one over and re-opens it to fifteen or twenty years’ eligibility.

Every year, the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America sends its membership a ballot for the Hall of Fame. Yes, it’s only symbolic, since the Hall of Fame doesn’t recognise us as a voting entity. No, the vote isn’t simple, cut, dried, or pre-natal surgery.

When I get my IBWAA Hall ballot, I take some time to think it all over. Then I vote. I even write about how and why I voted for the players I choose. I might now advocate returning the fifteen-year eligibility period or making a twenty-year period for candidates, but the flip side of that coin is that the BBWAA asked for it with the ten-year period—and, if I can do my symbolic job, they can do their real ones.

The ten-year maximum eligibility was imposed in the first place out of concern to do whatever the writers could think to keep those nefarious suspected users of actual/alleged PEDs from getting through. Aside from that jet taking off decades ago (greenies, anyone?), the bullets with which they shot themselves in the proverbial foot traveled far enough to delay or torpedo entirely more than a few legitimate Hall of Fame cases thanks among other things to several jammed ballots.

Kenny Lofton surely wasn’t the only man wondering why the number ten center fielder ever to play major league baseball can’t be in Cooperstown (pending a future Era Committee consideration) except as a visiting customer.

Everybody still with me? (All ten of you?) Good. Now hear (well, read) this. If we really want to fix the Hall of Fame vote, the Hall itself should step up, step in, and decide the BBWAA has played enough games for long enough. It’s time to broaden the Hall vote. It’s time for the BBWAA and the assorted Eras Committees to have company among those conferred the privilege of voting for the Hall of Fame.

Who else should be invited to the party? I had some ideas about that last year, and they’re worth revisiting with a couple of adjustments:

1) The living Hall of Fame players and managers themselves. No one should feel funny about allowing such as Jeff Bagwell, Johnny Bench, Craig Biggio, George Brett, Bobby Cox, Dennis Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Tom Glavine, Ken Griffey, Jr., Vladimir Guerrero, Rickey Henderson, Whitey Herzog, Trevor Hoffman, Derek Jeter, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones, Sandy Koufax, Greg Maddux, Willie Mays, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Cal Ripken, Jr., Nolan Ryan, Mike Schmidt, Ted Simmons, Ozzie Smith, John Smoltz, Joe Torre, and Larry Walker, to name a few, voting for successors worthy of joining their fraternity.

Some of them get to be part of assorted sixteen-member Eras Committees, of course, which also include “executives, and veteran media members” according to the Hall itself. We can adjust that reasonably: The living Hall of Famers should have to choose whether to vote concurrent to the BBWAA or as members of one or another Era Committee considering overlooked/snubbed BBWAA candidates—but not both.

Left to right: Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons. Why shouldn’t they and their fellow living Hall of Famers have Hall of Fame votes?

2) The living Ford C. Frick Award winning broadcasters, and those currently working in major league broadcast booths. They see as much of the games as the writers do. The Hall would not be disgraced by the like of Marty Brennaman, Joe Buck, Chip Caray, Bob Costas, Jaime Jarrin, Jim Kaat, Brian Kenny, Buck Martinez, Tim McCarver, Al Michaels, Jon Miller, Vin Scully, Bob Uecker, or Suzyn Waldman, among others, having a vote.

3) The statistics mavens, since statistics remain the life blood of baseball.  No, ladies and gentlemen, it would not be a travesty for Allen Barra, Bill James, Keith Law, Rob Neyer, or the folks at Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Reference, FanGraphsretrosheet, and The Elias Sports Bureau to be included in the Hall of Fame vote. So much of their work has provoked re-assessments of several subsequent Hall of Famers as well as incoming Hall candidates. They should not be regarded as voting interlopers.

4) Those writers/historians who were never admitted to the BBWAA ,but who’ve established themselves long and with particular distinctions as blessings to the game. Find us a valid reason for ageless Roger Angell plus Paul Dickson, Richard Goldstein, Peter Golenbock, John Helyar, Donald Honig, Peter Morris, George F. Will, or plenty of the fine excavators of the Society for American Baseball Research, just for openers, to be excluded from the Hall vote. You’ll have a simpler time finding Atlantis.

5) Umpires with above-average ratings. (God and His servant Doug Harvey only know you don’t even want to think of bringing Angel Hernandez or half the arbiters who worked this year’s postseason into the voting fold.) Those people had the second-best views of Hall of Fame candidates for themselves. (The first-best is probably a tossup among several.) The best umpires didn’t just call the pitches or the plays, they developed particular appreciation for players who strove for and achieved Hall of Fame-level excellence.

They would not lack credibility as Hall voters if allowed the chance. Should a voting umpire lose his (or her, in due course?) above-average rating, their Hall vote can be suspended for that year.

6) How about the IBWAA? As in, members not concurrent BBWAA members (we do have a few, including Spink Award Hall of Famer Jayson Stark) but whom the IBWAA leadership deems by their actual works to be worthy of a Hall of Fame vote to exercise wisely and diligently. (Fair disclosure: I’m not an IBWAA leader or officer yet.) The IBWAA is not just another gaggle of fans ranting our heads off. We’ve got some excellent observers, analysts, commentators among us who have earned the chance.

7) Establish a Pioneer Committee. This would be a group considering and giving due to those people—players, executives, statisticians, others—whom we’d consider to have changed the game profoundly in ways other than how they played or managed or administered the game. (It wouldn’t have let Marvin Miller wait until death did he part for his well-deserved Cooperstown enshrinement, either, if it lived while he did.)

The Pioneer Committee could begin with considering Curt Flood, who kicked the door to free agency open just enough with his reserve clause challenge. It could consider Andy Messersmith, who shoved the door open all the way by finishing what Flood started and prevailing right to the end. It could consider Tommy John, who enjoyed a long, distinguished second act after undergoing the first of the ligament-replacement elbow surgeries that’s long since borne his name.

They didn’t quite post Hall of Fame playing careers, but they all changed the game profoundly, and irrevocably. There should be a place in the Hall of Fame for all three.

This Pioneer Committee should also consider those such as Allan Roth, arguably the godfather of deep statistics. Bill James, who picked up where Roth left off, all but invented sabermetrics, and sired subsequent generations of deeper analysts many of whom came to play key roles in re-developing baseball organisations. Bob Kendrick, whose administration and representation of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum does invaluable work advancing the Negro Leagues legacy not as mummified artifacts but as a just portion of living, breathing major league baseball history.

If those are unworthy of consideration for having Hall of Fame votes, remember that my Antarctic beach club has yet to find a buyer.

8) Dump once and for all the prejudice against first-time votes/first-ballot Hall of Famers. If you think a player or manager belongs in the Hall of Fame, vote him in the first time. (Again, raising the eligibility limit back to fifteen years or all the way to twenty years should help.) You don’t need reminders of how many Hall of Famers you assumed to be locks waited five or more times to get their due. Or, of how often you wrote fuming over that sad fact.

People still think it’s more than a little surreal, if not insane, that Yogi Berra, Craig Biggio, Joe DiMaggio, Whitey Ford, Hank Greenberg, Lefty Grove, Vladimir Guerrero, Willie Mays, Juan Marichal, and Cy Young aren’t first-ballot Hall of Famers. Even if things worked out well enough for Ford that he got in on his second try, the following year—next to his old running mate Mickey Mantle, on Mantle’s first.

By now you’ve probably noticed no mention of Joe and Jane Fan into the Hall vote discussion. There’s one bloody good reason not to even think of handing them a Hall vote: the hash they’ve made over All-Star Game votes, too many times, either with ballot-box stuffings or choosing to confer gold watches.

The All-Star Game vote needs a complete overhaul, too, though that’s still a subject for another day for now. But do you really want to know how much worse Joe and Jane Fan would make the Hall than the Today’s Game Committee that decided Harold Baines deserved a platinum watch?

Portions of the foregoing essay have been published previously.—JK.

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