Current Cooperstown Conversationsby Chris Jaffe
December 15, 2008
As readers of my regular Monday gig here at THT have no doubt noticed, I have an almost pathological interest in our nation's least highway-friendly tourist trap. So you can imagine my interest in not one, but two separate important pieces of information emerging from Cooperstown. Both news stories contained news to be celebrated, but in each case a nasty subtext bothered me.
The most important news from Cooperstown came on Monday. The Veterans Committee announced the results of its most recent elections. For the first time in nearly a decade, the VC elected a player to the Hall. The late Joe Gordon earned immortality. This decision is to be lauded. Gordon is a deserving pick and it's high time the VC finally bothered to do its job and elect a passed over player.
Despite this heartening news, some problems with the VC clearly remain. Simply put, the eligibles fans care the most about—former players who they can remember—are still getting shafted.
This has been the most turbulent decade in the VC's history. It had a stable format from 1954-2001. Put about 15 guys in a room together and let them decide things. In 2001, the Hall blew that up, replacing it with a supersized committee that would vote by mail. It consisted of all living Hall of Famers and the surviving broadcasters and writers the Hall had honored over the years.
Each time they goose egged the backlog, protests for new reforms grew louder. Last year, four separate committees were created from the old VC: one to examine executives and pioneers, another to look at managers and umpires, a third to look at players who debuted in 1942 or earlier, and finally one to examine those who debuted since 1943.
Last year the two non-player committees met, each voting some individuals in. This year the 1942 committee put in Joe Gordon. The only committee that hasn't put anyone in has the most publicly visible responsibility of all.
More importantly, it's essentially the same committee that skunked all comers from 2002 to 2007. The other three committees are all bite-size affairs, while the post-1943 bunch remains a collection of all living honorees who send in their ballots.
This apparent unwillingness by the VC to admit any new members strikes some as surprising. People are aware that historically the VC's errors have been those of inclusion, not exclusion. Committee leaders like Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry succeeded in stockpiling the Hall with their cronies and friends. It looks like the current generation of immortals holds itself far more removed from their peers than Generation Frisch did.
I've seen people make that argument numerous times, but it doesn't quite wash. Sure, the VC ain't electing anyone, but when you delve into the details, it's clear other reasons are to blame rather than their sense of superiority to the lesser beings of the game.
Look at the recently announced results for the 2009 ballot, for example. The VC members could vote for up to four names from a list of 10. On the 64 returned ballots, 213 names were listed—3.33 per ballot. Thus if everyone put at least three names on the ballot, 21 members must have filled up their allotted slots. Odds are that some only listed one name, meaning perhaps half the electorate maxed out with four names. The BBWAA hasn't had that many members fill up their ballot in decades.
Two years ago, they could name up to 10 would-be immortals from a list of 27. They averaged 5.96 names. For comparison's sake, the BBWAA has averaged barely over six names per ballot for the last 15-20 years. The VC was a little lower in 2005 (5.73 names per ballot), but it's roughly comparable to the BBWAA. There is one difference: the BBWAA has elected at least one man in each of their last dozen elections.
The problem with the current VC isn't a sense of aloofness. If that was the case, they would submit emptier ballots. It's the voting structure that causes the problems.
It used to be they met in a room. Now they do it by mail with zero contact among VC members. That is guaranteed to depress voting.
Second, while voting by mail, they have to meet a 75 percent. The BBWAA also has this standard by which they have several advantages. It's easier to figure out who the all-time inner circle greats are versus the best of the scrapheap.
It's easy to know who the best player on the ballot is when Rickey Henderson or Tony Gwynn or Tom Seaver is on it. Who is the best on the VC ballot? That's a thornier pick. Credible arguments could be made for many, perhaps most, of the people from whom the post-1943 VC picked. Thus it's harder to form a consensus, and consensus is another way to say 75 percent approval.
Also, having the elections held every other year further worsens things. As I've noted in other columns, momentum builds up for the top of the backlog on BBWAA ballots. It's harder to build momentum on the VC committee.
One completely needless and flatly asinine change made in this recently completed election provides a final blow—the decision to limit Veterans Committee members to four names on their ballot.
Let's think this through. In the three previous ballots, the VC could pick up to 10, just as the BBWAA has been doing since 1936. When they limited the VC to only 10 names to choose from, they limited their picks. WHY?!?!
It doesn't make any bloody sense. If 10 names worked before, what's wrong with picking 10 names now? The only reason to limit the number of picks electors have is to ensure they don't elect too many people at once. Has this become a problem for the current VC? I don't think so!
The Hall of Fame, in its infinite wisdom, placed a needless rule that gummed up the voting support. Added bonus: the purpose of the rules was supposedly to help out the voting process, making it possible for the VC to finally, belatedly, mercifully elect someone who played in the last half-century. They badly blew it.
This can be noted rather conclusively by looking at the vote results. Even though approximately half the VC completed their ballot, nine of the 10 candidates lost support. Only Luis Tiant went up (barely).
What makes it especially frustrating is that time and time again the VC shows who they think belongs in Cooperstown. In 2009, the top four vote getters were Ron Santo, Jim Kaat, Tony Oliva, and Gil Hodges. In 2007, the top recipients were Santo, Kaat, Hodges, and Oliva. Sound familiar? In 2005, the top candidates were Santo, Hodges, Oliva, and Kaat. Notice a pattern here? In 2003, when Kaat was still on the BBWAA ballot, the top candidates were Hodges, Oliva, and Santo.
Folks, that's a trend. Also, every year a substantial gap exists between these candidates and everyone else. The average gap between fourth place and fifth (or between third and fourth in the Kaat-less 2003 election) is 17.4 percent. In comparison, the normal gap between the top and bottom of the Big Four is 11.4 percent. The VC members clearly want these guys enshrined. In fact, only once has any of them failed to achieve a majority of the vote (Hodges in 2009 with 43.8 percent).
That's not all. In 2009, the first highest candidates after the big four were Joe Torre and Maury Wills. In 2007, the two best of the rest were—can you guess?—Torre and Willis. And in 2005 and 2003, it was more of the same. A clear hierarchy has emerged. Here are their votes for all elections (ordered by their results in 2009):
Name 2009 2007 2005 2003 Ron Santo 60.9% 69.5% 65.3% 56.8% Jim Kaat 59.4% 63.4% 53.8% XXX Tony Oliva 51.6% 57.3% 56.3% 59.3% Gil Hodges 43.8% 61.0% 65.0% 61.7% Joe Torre 29.7% 31.7% 45.0% 35.8% Maury Wills 23.4% 40.2% 32.5% 29.6%
Fans want them to elect people. The VC themselves continually do as good a job filling out their ballots as the BBWAA. They even know who they want to elect. Yet no one ever gets admitted by them. That's a failure of the structure. They Hall either has to get rid of the utterly clueless four vote limit, or drop the votes needed to 50 percent, or something. The system remains broken.
A failure to converse
The above chart points to a second failure of the VC. One key difference between it and the BBWAA is that momentum propels players near the top of the writers' ballots into Cooperstown. Some slight movement exists with the VC, but overall its candidates mill about in holding patterns. Gil Hodges, for example, stayed between 61-65 percent in each of ten elections. All of Oliva's scores are within 10 percent of each other. Ditto Kaat.
Sometimes I'll hear people in the sabermetric fold bash writers for their willingness to have the backlog's leader jut upward. Statheads mock them for having herd mentality. I disagree. It's a sign that they're willing to listen to others, note what they think, and respect their opinions. The ability to recognize that others' opinions are often sharper than yours is a sign of personal and intellectual maturity, not a cause to be castigated.
That's the problem with the VC. They're not listening to anyone. Have you ever heard Joe Morgan pontificate on ESPN? That is a man who is convinced that his opinion is the opinion, and has no interest in those who approach the game from a different point of view. If you're as arrogant as Reggie Jackson, are you going to care what someone else thinks? The VC members keep assuming they know best, which amplifies the structural problems of the vote.
Their failure to elect everyone isn't because they think they're so much better than those not enshrined; they won't even pay attention to each other.
The BBWAA's conversation
That leads to the other news—the BBWAA has opened its ranks to the sabermetric community, giving membership to Rob Neyer and Keith Law of ESPN.com, and Christina Kahrl and Will Carroll of Baseball Prospectus. This is a tremendous breakthrough for sabermetrics. It's a sign of respect from the outside world.
It's an especially positive achievement given what happened last year. At that time, when the BBWAA first voted on letting internet writers join their fraternity, they let in most applicants—except Neyer and Law, the only sabermetric types up for nomination. It's nice to see the BBWAA recognize and rectify their error.
Like the Gordon induction, this should be celebrated. (It's not nearly as important, but it's still a nice development.) Yet, just as the VC's continual inability to induct anyone since WWII puts a damper on last week's news, a downside has emerged.
Upon hearing the news, Rob Neyer and especially Keith Law sounded anything but happy. Neyer wondered:
Do I want to belong to an organization I've been criticizing for so many years? More to the point, if I'm a member will I lose my edge? Will you, Dear Readers, suffer as a result?
This reminds me of the story of the original drummer for the Velvet Underground. He quit the band upon hearing that they had agreed to be paid for a gig, thinking they were sellouts. Instead, he ended up dying of starvation. You can get carried away with yourself sometimes. An extra card in one's wallet doesn't mandate a massive character change.
Law, however, was downright insulting, stating:
the BBRAA [Law's nickname for the BBWAA] needed people like me, Rob, etc. as members, to try to boost their credibility as an organization in a time when they receive so much criticism for the backwardness and outright hostility towards intelligent analysis.
Speaking as a sample size of one, this is frustrating to read. Let's take a big picture here; what does membership to the BBWAA mean and what are its benefits? The BBWAA is essentially a clearinghouse organization of the nation's sportswriters. Membership is essentially acceptance into the mainstream.
This is important not in hopes of winning popularity, but as a sign of validation, that the work people have been doing on the margins of the sport for decade isn't a bunch of cranks blurting crud. And oh yeah—this is the group that gets to decide all the most important and prestigious awards, from MVP to (of course) Hall of Fame. For that reason alone, membership is nothing to be sneered at.
Here's a question: what's the point of doing all this sabermetric writing and research over the years? Is the only interest of the sabermetric community to solely speak to its own little corner of the world, or does it have any desire to engage in a broader conversation with the rest of baseball fandom? Say what you will about the members of the BBWAA, they do a better job reflecting what the masses think that any fistful of THT columns. That is how they keep their jobs.
I'd like to think it isn't the former. That position only makes sense if one thinks only one point of view has any validity and all others are beneath discussion. Nothing else justifies avoiding that broader conversation. Such a position is the height of arrogance. It's the same failing people for which justly denigrate Joe Morgan. This isn't an issue of accuracy, but of maturity. Insularity is not a virtue, and over time it can lead to an increasingly out of touch view of things.
I'm not interested in sabermetrics as an exercise in masturbatory back slaps. I find it thrilling to see Bert Blyleven's Hall of Fame vote rise up, hear that OPS is now on baseball cards, or read that Baseball Prospectus will be in the BBWAA. It's nice to know that the work that comes out of this community can and has made a difference.
Admission to the BBWAA helps symbolize that sabermetrics has fully crashed the gate. What's the point of having a sit-in at the lunch counter if you're just going to declare a hunger strike once the food is served? Yet those on the verge of entry are acting like someone peed on their shoes.
I'm aware of the failings of the BBWAA. But to dismiss the entire organization as nothing but a bunch of bucket-drooling nincompoops backed up by the token Joe Posnanski says more about the cloistered mindset of the person denigrating them than the body as a whole. It's nice to keep communications open with people who approach the game from a different perspective than yourself.
I wish that all the public faces of sabermetrics had the people skills and tact of Christina Kahrl, who was much more cordial in her response to BBWAA membership.
I've had the pleasure of meeting Rob Neyer. Based on my personal experience, the words insular, arrogant and self-centered do not apply to him. From what I've heard of Keith Law, that is true of him as well. None of the above should be taken as overarching statements on their personal character. I'm only focusing on how they're reacting to this individual issue.
Ultimately, I realize I have the same concern with both of these subjects. I can tolerate many mistakes and human foibles, but there is something especially vexing about people who have no interest in having a back-and-forth with anyone else. Even if someone is right, that's no excuse to have utter disdain for those of us who aren't as perfect as he is.
References and Resources
The VU drummer story comes from "Ranters and Crowd Pleasers" by Greil Marcus.
And I apologize for using wikipedia as my source for the 2005 VC election results.
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.