Cleaning up Cooperstownby Chris Jaffe
January 14, 2013
Well, that could’ve gone better.
As I’m sure everyone out there in reader-land already knows, last week the Baseball Hall of Fame announced the results of their annual BBWAA vote for admission, an in a massive embarrassment, for the first time in 17 years, no one got the needed 75 percent marker for induction.
Mind you, this happened on the strongest ballot in many a-moon. Okay, some clearly qualified candidates—Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire, and Sammy Sosa—had their names smeared in the steroids whirligig. Beyond them were Craig Biggio, and Mike Piazza, and Tim Raines, and Jack Morris, and Jeff Bagwell, and Lee Smith, and Alan Trammell, and Curt Schilling, and—I could go on, but you get the idea. (A few of those guys have also been implied to use ‘roids, but with no proof beyond innuendo).
By the Hall’s own standards for induction, there was an absurd number of qualified candidates, yet no one got in. Yeah, that’s bad.
The Hall heading forward
And here's an added bonus—it’s going to get even worse.
You see, while no one got in, the BBWAA did average 6.60 names/ballot in 2013, the most since 1999. And since no one got in, nearly the entire backlog comes back. Well, Dale Murphy ran out of time, and a few guys fell under five percent, but just looking at the guys coming back for 2014, those players averaged 5.94 appearance/ballot.
Time for a quick aside. The BBWAA ballot allows 10 names per ballot, and so technically a 5.94 names/ballot leaves tons of room. That’s technically true. Technically. In reality, the ballot gets claustrophobic well before it’s supposed to. Voters used to putting four or fives names on their ballot just don’t like listing nine or ten.
And 5.94 isn’t just high for a returning backlog; it’s the highest returning backlog in decades. In fact, it’s higher than many overall BBWAA ballots, backloggers and newbies combined. Hell, the BBWAA hasn’t even averaged seven names on a ballot in over a quarter century, and now they’re going to walk in with nearly six per ballot even before we get to the 2014 newbies.
Oh, and who are those newbies next year? Oh, just Greg Maddux. And Tom Glavine. And Frank Thomas, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, etc. If history tells us anything, when a really strong newbie crop hits a crowded ballot, the backlog suffers. This happened in 1999, when the arrival of Nolan Ryan, George Brett, and Carlton Fisk caused every man in the backlog to have his support drop. And 1999 wasn’t nearly as crowded a ballot as 2014 will be.
No one from the current backlog will go in next year. Normally, Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas would all be shoo-ins, but on a ballot this overloaded, Maddux is the only one I feel safe predicting gets in (though Glavine has a very good shot).
And then in 2015, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield show up.
There are overwhelmingly qualified guys that just ain’t going to come close. Its not just steroids—though that’s certainly making things a lot more crowded—but how incredibly crowded these ballots are. If you compare the names above to current Hall of Famers, almost every player I just named is clearly qualified for Cooperstown. This doesn’t mean they’re better than the mistake selections, but the current candidates measure up based on the Hall’s typical standards.
Sympathy for the electorate
I’ve always had a good deal of sympathy and support for the BBWAA in their elections. I wrote a two part piece looking over their results and generally reckoning that—with some notable exceptions—they’d done a decent job putting guys into Cooperstown.
Just before the election, Bossman Studes here at THT wrote an article about the need to reform the voting system and set up a petition calling for it to be changed. I’ve always been conservative on this matter. As an old manager once said, there’s no such thing as taking a pitcher out of the game, it’s about putting a new pitcher into the game. It’s easy to point to the flaws of the current system, but that doesn’t mean that any other system would be inherently superior.
Scary reality: the BBWAA tally is the best system for electing immortals that Cooperstown has ever had. Admittedly, that’s like being the tallest midget, but it’s true. Aside from that, the Hall has relied on either a crony-ist Veterans Committee that makes terrible choices or something like the 21st century Joe Morgan Super Friends Veterans Committee that stubbornly refused to elect anyone.
Keep in mind that if the Hall did radically transform or do away with the BBWAA system, the same Cooperstown geniuses that gave us things like the Joe Morgan Super Friends Committee would come up with the reforms. So there is ample reason to think that any new system would actually be worse than the present one.
In fact, forget Cooperstown for a second. Let’s compare the BBWAA to the Football Hall of Fame. They have a system rather like the traditional Veterans Committee; they get about 20 guys in a room together and let them decide who belongs in. Hopefully, they do a better job than the baseball VC, but it’s a similar process.
That’s how most Halls of Fame do it. They typically have a closed off process. I’ve read a lot of talk over the last few weeks about how closed off the baseball electorate it, and while there is some truth to that, it’s also the most open voting for all sports Hall. You get sportswriters all over America writing columns about who they’ll vote for and why with Cooperstown, but you never see that with Canton or the others. As a general rule of thumb, a more inclusive process is better, and a more transparent process is better. And the BBWAA election is the most inclusive and transparent one out there.
If it’s broke, fix it
Yeah, all the above is nice and all, but it all misses the point. That whole section treats the BBWAA in the abstract without looking at the reality of what’s going on. And the reality is, the system is broken. In fact, the system has possibly always been broken.
Let’s think for a second, why do we have a Hall of Fame? In part, it’s to honor those who have excelled the most at, and done the most for, baseball. However, it’s not just for the players, but for the fans. The Baseball Hall of Fame wouldn’t exist unless people went there, after all. The Hall is a place for baseball fans to celebrate the game itself, and the people within it (mostly players) who meant the most to them. That justifies the Hall’s existence.
Well, by that standard, the Hall has a problem, and it’s one that’s actually a lot bigger than just the recent election. If you want to honor the players and give the fans something to celebrate, you know what works well? Honoring the players in a timely manner. Honor players when they’re well remembered instead of dimly remembered. Yeah, that’s doing it well.
How well does the Hall do at honoring those well remembered? Well, let’s see ... including the three men entering Cooperstown via the Veterans Committee this year, there are exactly 300 Hall of Famers.
Of that 300, the BBWAA elected barely a third. In all, they put in 112 of the 300. That’s it. The majority of Hall of Famers entered via Veterans or Old Timers Committees. Well, it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds because the Veterans Committees handle all non-player inductions. Plus 29 immortals are in as Negro Leaguers. If you pare it down, a very large chunk of the major league players elected have gone in via Old Timers Committees.
That's not ideal. It’s fine for there to be a waiting period until you start voting on guys. But nearly one-fourth of all Hall of Fame players were dead prior to their induction. If you include Negro Leaguers, it’s over 25 percent. A total of 39 big league players entered Cooperstown 40-plus years after retiring. In other words, by the time they won election, most of the fans who rooted for them were dead. Another 38 players entered from 30-39 years after they retired.
That stinks, both for the players and the fans. Yes, you can still honor the game, and there is value in that, but there is also value in having a more timely process. The current voting deadlock in the BBWAA just makes the problem that much more pressing.
Far too often, Cooperstown does a better job honoring the long-ago retired than the recently retired. It means the Hall does a better job honoring those barely remembered than those well-remembered. That’s dumb. Why set up a system that works like that?
In other words, the players of your youth will usually win election to the Hall when you’re getting old. The greats of your young adulthood will typically get into Cooperstown when you’re near death, if you’re lucky. Tell me again, how is this an ideal system?
Look, I think an inclusive system is fantastic. It’s a great idea to be inclusive, and the BBWAA election is the most inclusive Hall of Fame vote. But you know what works even better than an inclusive system? One that works. Ends, not means, are the thing. Results matter more than process.
I have one main plan to solve both the long-standing problem of putting guys in after they’ve been forgotten and the current massive ballot gridlock: lower the election threshold from 75 percent to 50 percent of all BBWAA voters.
That sounds like a big deal, right? After all, the BBWAA threshold has always been three-fourths, and half is quite a step down. But you know what, all it will do is speed up what happens already and solve the current notable glut.
Here is the greatest, least-publicized fact about the history of Cooperstown vote. Below is a list of every single Cooperstown candidate not currently on the ballot who has received 50 percent of the BBWAA vote even just once and is not immortalized by the Hall of Fame:
That’s it. Every single other person who got to half the BBWAA’s support has made it into Cooperstown. Either the BBWAA increased its support and put the guy in, or the Veterans Committee added him. Heck, under normal circumstances, Hodges probably would be in, but the 21st-century Veterans Committee went crazy and refused to elect anyone. (Even then, Hodges was always near the top of the candidates.)
So, if you lower the voting standard, you still elect the same guys you’d elect anyway, but you’d just do it in a more timely fashion. It’s the same guys going in, just when they are fresher in the public imagination and more likely to still be alive.
Just think, instead of reading about how no one went in this year, we’d hear stories about how Biggio, Morris, Raines, Piazza, and Bagwell were all Cooperstown-bound. Keep in mind that all those guys are incredibly good bets to make it at some point, anyway, and at least four of them far exceed traditional Cooperstown standards. But under the current system, with its clogged ballots, none will get in for the foreseeable future.
Wouldn’t a celebration of the new honorees be a better story for Cooperstown than the current black eye?
Also, Cooperstown might want to consider a failsafe. If no one meet the minimum standard, then the candidate or two with the most votes get in anyway. Why not? The football Hall has a required minimum number of inductees each year.
Here’s a suggestion for the Veterans Committee. Currently, it’s an odd three-headed beast. The VC looks at candidates every year, but they break it up into three different eras, looking at one each year. One year it’s guys from before 1947. Another year it’s 1947-72. The third year it’s post-1972. In other words, it’s the dead, the dying, and the still alive.
Look, if you’re going to divide into eras, just go with two eras. The pre-1947 period is already heavily overrepresented and, with apologies to Stan Hack and Wes Ferrell, there aren’t that many notable candidates left. Just have pre- and post-1972 categories.
The character clause
Even though I do an annual column here at THT predicting what the BBWAA will do in its Cooperstown election, it’s becoming harder to care about what happens. Heck, at this point, if it wasn’t for the prediction pieces, I’m not sure I would care.
The Hall of Fame argument used to be a blast for me because it was debates about baseball. Remember that, the ability to play baseball? It’s this thing people used to focus on when determining if someone belonged in Cooperstown or not. That isn’t the case anymore.
Now, all too often, Hall of Fame arguments turn into moralistic grandstanding.
My problem isn’t so much that people aren’t voting for Bonds or Clemens. I understand the thought process there, at least. But then you read people saying they aren’t going to vote for Bagwell or Piazza because … well, there are rumors and innuendo. No real evidence, just rumor and innuendo. Is the Hall really supposed to operate on the basis of suspicion?
At least one of two things inevitably will happen. Either someone who used steroids but isn’t popularly associated with them will end up getting elected, or someone who never did will be kept out due to unfounded suspicions. Actually, it’s quite possible the first already has happened. Hey, just because Jose Canseco wrote a book about how he used steroids doesn’t mean he really was the first guy to do so. Ultimately, we’ll never know who did or didn’t take stuff. As the system currently is set up, gossip determines who goes in.
Yes, there’s a character clause in the standards for Cooperstown. Character is one facet people are supposed to look at. But it’s rapidly becoming the standard, instead of a standard. If someone is found, or believed or rumored to be, wanting in character, then everything else is meaningless. This is especially interesting, given that for the first 70 years, the character clause was the least important and most ignored standard for induction. Now it’s completely flipped.
Though little known, the character clause originally was inserted for the opposite reason. It wasn’t to keep people out, but to help let in those with strong character. In particular, baseball commissioner Judge Landis wanted Eddie Grant, a Harvard graduate who died fighting for his country in WWI, inducted. That never happened, as Grant wasn’t much of a player, but that’s what created the character clause.
No other Hall has a character clause, yet all other sports certainly have their steroid users. At a certain point, the clause is more harmful than helpful.
References and Resources
I used B-ref to figure out how many guys have been elected by the BBWAA. To be exact, B-ref lists 107 inducted by the BBWAA but also notes two special elections (Lou Gehrig and Roberto Clemente) and three run-off elections, which were BBWAA elections.
237 players in all have been elected, including 21 by special Negro Leagues Committees and eight other Negro Leaguers put in by the Veterans Committee.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.