How to Fix the Baseball Hall of Fame


Given the National Football League being firmly in control of its status as “most popular professional sports league in the United States,” it was a little surprising to witness the amount of attention Major League Baseball has received during the NFL playoffs.  Perhaps most surprisingly, a greater number of people seem to care about the National Baseball Hall of Fame class election process than actually care about the MLB season in general.  While seemingly every professional baseball hall of fame election in recent memory has yielded a slight kerfuffle, this year’s voting generated nothing short of righteous indignation.

There was the controversy over ESPN’s Dan Le Batard allowing Deadspin to directly influence his votes, and subsequently the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (“BBWAA”) choosing to take away Le Batard’s future voting rights, despite arguably lacking the authority to do so.

There was also outrage over Dodgers beat reporter Ken Gurnick voting only for Jack Morris, as well as his justification for not voting for any other candidates.  Gurnick’s rationale in his own words: “As for those who played during the period of PED use, I won’t vote for any of them.”

As if Gurnick’s curious guilty by association ideology didn’t elicit enough resentment, retired Cincinnati Enquirer cartoonist Jerry Dowling—allowed to vote in the first place for reasons unclear—delivered undoubtedly the most incoherent hall of fame ballot of all time.  Dowling did not vote for Frank Thomas “because [he] seldom saw the American League after moving to a National League city. Or maybe it’s [his] hatred of the crosstown Chicago Flubbies carried over to the south side of Windy City.”  That is an actual quote from a hall of fame voter.  In turn, Dowling did not vote for Craig Biggio because Dowling thinks he cheated by way of his arm padding, which purportedly allowed Biggio to intentionally get hit by pitches.  Oddly enough, Dowling had no problem voting for such cheaters as Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens.  Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 baseball Hall of Fame voters!

And on top of all of that fervent debate, 2014 once again featured the following eight omnipresent arguments:

  1. Should known or even suspected PED users be allowed in Cooperstown?
  2. Any variation of the cliche “This is the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Very Good but Not Great” arguments.  (think the Ron Santo, Lee Smith, and Jim Rice debates)
  3. Should advanced metrics have a role in Hall of Fame voting, and if so how much?
  4. Should durational milestones be valued or instead deemed arbitrary? (think Mark Grace leading the ’90s in hits versus player X leading the league in hits from 1977-1987)
  5. Who should vote?  Only active baseball writers?  Fans?  Players, current and/or former?  Retired cartoonists? [sorry, I couldn’t help myself]
  6. Should Electors be allowed to vote for more than ten retired players?
  7. Should the 5% threshold be done away with, given the possibility of stacked years forcing Electors to not vote for certain players who will then get eliminated from future voting?
  8. Are asterisks welcome in the Hall of Fame?

For what it’s worth, here are my answers to the above questions: (1) I am fine with PED users being elected to the Hall of Fame; (2) I think that the difference between “very good” and “great” is partially subjective, and my Hall of Fame ethos can best be described as “the more the merrier;” (3) advanced metrics should be a voting necessity; (4) durational milestones are not arbitrary culturally, e.g. the climate of the arch-conservative 1950s versus the progressive 1960s, so they should not be considered arbitrary in baseball; (5) anyone should be allowed a vote if she or he can pass a rigid voter qualification test, featuring closed book questions such as “what is xFIP?” and “would you be comfortable voting Adam Dunn into Cooperstown if he finishes his career with 600HR?”; (6) Electors should be able to vote for an infinite number of players; (7) the 5% threshold is silly and should be done away with permanently, and all previously disqualified players should be back on the ballot; and (8) asterisks are vital for the Hall of Fame; just as Hank Aaron should have an asterisk for taking “greenies,” Barry Bonds should have an asterisk for his hat size increasing from 7 1/4 to 7 3/8.

But I consider those questions cliche for a reason.  While they are absolutely important, they also hardly illustrate the single biggest problem facing the Baseball Hall of Fame: the absence of quasi-objective voting criteria.

If you are a Baseball Hall of Fame voter, you are given very little guidelines for how you should vote.  And as a result, voters are allowed to behave like Jerry Dowling and penalize Craig Biggio for wearing padding and shun Frank Thomas for playing in the American League.  Consider the BBWAA Election Rules:

"1. Authorization: By authorization of the Board of Directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc., the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) is authorized to hold an election every year for the purpose of electing members to the National Baseball Hall of Fame from the ranks of retired baseball players.2. Electors: Only active and honorary members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, who have been active baseball writers for at least ten (10) years, shall be eligible to vote. They must have been active as baseball writers and members of the Association for a period beginning at least ten (10) years prior to the date of election in which they are voting.3. Eligible Candidates — Candidates to be eligible must meet the following requirements:A. A baseball player must have been active as a player in the Major Leagues at some time during a period beginning twenty (20) years before and ending five (5) years prior to election.B. Player must have played in each of ten (10) Major League championship seasons, some part of which must have been within the period described in 3 (A).C. Player shall have ceased to be an active player in the Major Leagues at least five (5) calendar years preceding the election but may be otherwise connected with baseball.D. In case of the death of an active player or a player who has been retired for less than five (5) full years, a candidate who is otherwise eligible shall be eligible in the next regular election held at least six (6) months after the date of death or after the end of the five (5) year period, whichever occurs first.E. Any player on Baseball’s ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate.4. Method of Election:A. BBWAA Screening Committee — A Screening Committee consisting of baseball writers will be appointed by the BBWAA. This Screening Committee shall consist of six members, with two members to be elected at each Annual Meeting for a three-year term. The duty of the Screening Committee shall be to prepare a ballot listing in alphabetical order eligible candidates who (1) received a vote on a minimum of five percent (5%) of the ballots cast in the preceding election or (2) are eligible for the first time and are nominated by any two of the six members of the BBWAA Screening Committee.B. Electors may vote for as few as zero (0) and as many as ten (10) eligible candidates deemed worthy of election. Write-in votes are not permitted.C. Any candidate receiving votes on seventy-five percent (75%) of the ballots cast shall be elected to membership in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.5. Voting: 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.6. Automatic Elections: No automatic elections based on performances such as a batting average of .400 or more for one (1) year, pitching a perfect game or similar outstanding achievement shall be permitted.7. Time of Election: The duly authorized representatives of the BBWAA shall prepare, date and mail ballots to each elector no later than the 15th day of January in each year in which an election is held. The elector shall sign and return the completed ballot within twenty (20) days. The vote shall then be tabulated by the duly authorized representatives of the BBWAA.8. Certification of Election Results: The results of the election shall be certified by a representative of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America and an officer of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. The results shall be transmitted to the Commissioner of Baseball. The BBWAA and National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. shall jointly release the results for publication.9. Amendments: The Board of Directors of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. reserves the right to revoke, alter or amend these rules at any time."

To long, didn’t read?  By rule, Electors may vote for any player not on the MLB ineligible candidate list [see, Pete Rose] who has been retired for five years and has played within the last 20 years.  That’s all the criteria for who to vote for found in the BBWAA Election rules.

If one digs a little deeper, one might come across the Baseball Hall of Fame Committee By-Laws from 1944.  In those by-laws, voters are to elect players “on the basis of playing ability, sportsmanship, character, their contribution to the teams on which they played and to baseball in general.”  Two observations.  First, how many voters do you honestly think have actually bothered to read the aforementioned organization by-laws from 1944?  Do you honestly think Jerry Dowling ever read them?  He doesn’t even know who Dan Le Batard is; there is no way he has bothered to read his organization’s by-laws.  Second, even assuming for the sake of argument that voters are aware of the aforementioned voting criteria from the 1944 by-laws, such criteria are still incredibly vague.  Playing ability is subjective.  Sportsmanship, like morality, is subjective, as is character nonetheless. A player’s contribution to a team and to baseball in general are, again, both subjective.  The Hall of Fame needs more objective criteria.

I am not proposing something as inhuman and inorganic as statistical algorithms leading to a quantified floor value that gets a player into the hall of fame.  Nor am I calling for strict adherence to “magic numbers” like 500 steroid unassisted home runs or 300 wins.  I only argue that Hall of Fame voters adhere to the following quasi-objective criterion: could a reasonable and prudent person make a coherent argument for a player being enshrined in the Hall of Fame?  

Such a test would slowly but surely significantly increase the number of players in Cooperstown.  But we should all be okay with that because the arguments supporting these players would be required to be reasonable and prudent.  Curt Schilling?  Jeff Bagwell?  No question!  Tim Raines?  Jonah Keri seems both reasonable and prudent, so Rock gets in. Mike Piazza?  Of course!  John Rocker?  Hell no!  Roger Clemens.  To be sure.  Neifi Perez?  No, because anyone all aboard the proverbial “Neifi train” would neither be reasonable nor prudent, and might in fact be clinically insane.

At the end of the day, what is the worst thing that can happen utilizing a reasonable and prudent person standard?  Perhaps a guy like Gary Sheffield getting into the Hall of Fame?  Big deal I say, as there was at least a seven year stretch where you wouldn’t want to pitch to The Iron Sheff in a video game, let alone a critical postseason at-bat.

Cooperstown is home to a Hall of Fame and a Museum.  If you’re lucky enough to have a son or daughter interested in baseball, and you bring them to the Hall of Fame, what would you do if your child asks you about the hypothetical Gary Sheffield plaque on the wall?  Would you get visibly angry and start ranting about the Mitchell Report? Or would you smile and begin to mimic Sheffield’s signature bat waggle to your kid, and then reminisce about that magical 1997 season in Miami?  If you answered the former, you might want to take a step back and evaluate your life.  If you answered the latter, then help me champion the reasonable and prudent person standard for the baseball hall of fame.