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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Wednesday, August 08, 2001
Same Old Story
The Hall of Fame?s reshuffling of the Veterans Committee is an important symbolic step, but it?s not likely to produce better results.
The Baseball Hall of Fame this week announced the most extensive overhaul in its voting procedure since the institution was established in 1936. The old Veterans Committee ? the embattled group that gave us laughable Hall of Famers like Jack Chesbro, Phil Rizzuto, and Travis Jackson, while denying entry to worthy candidates like Bill Dahlen and Spottswood Poles ? has been abolished.
That?s the good news. The bad news is, the new voting process doesn?t promise to be much better. The new, allegedly improved Veterans Committee will include all living Hall of Famers, plus all living recipients of the Hall?s lifetime achievement awards for broadcasters and sportswriters. And just so they don?t feel too bad, the three members of the old Veterans Committee who don?t fit into any of these categories will be allowed to remain until their terms expire. All of this bumps the Veterans Committee up to 90 members, although that number will almost certainly change by the time the Committee first votes in 2003. The change is likely to have both positive and negative effects regarding the selection of Hall of Famers. Lest I be accused of being a cynic, let?s look at the positive aspects first:
First, the changes are good because the old Veterans Committee is gone. Almost anything would be an improvement, except maybe drawing the electees? names out of a hat.
Second, the change virtually guarantees eventual election for Curt Flood and Marvin Miller, a duo who, because of their antagonism toward team owners, had no chance of election under the old ownership-dominated Veterans Committee, whose members were appointed by the likes of Bud Selig, Paul Beeston, and George Steinbrenner. Now, only 33 of the 90 voters draw their paychecks from the corporate entity of Major League Baseball. (For the record, the 33 include 14 longtime broadcasters, 18 Hall of Fame players still employed in baseball, and Devil Rays president John McHale). Instead of yes-men appointed by owners, the new voting body includes Carlton Fisk, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, Dave Winfield, and many others who reaped the rewards of Flood and Miller?s work on players? rights. Soon, I think, both of these baseball pioneers will be officially recognized as such in Cooperstown.
Third, the change is good because Vets elections on players will be held only every other year, in odd-numbered years. Elections on umpires, managers, and executives will be held every fourth year beginning in 2003. This will make it much harder to get into the Hall of Fame, which is good in the long run. The fewer elections, the fewer undeserving Hall of Famers. This does, however, mean that there will be uneven numbers of Hall of Famers being inducted each year. Induction ceremonies in even-numbered years will likely honor just one or two people, perhaps none, while those in odd-numbered years could have seven or eight inductees.
Now the bad. First of all, the idea of putting Hall of Famers in charge of electing their own is absurd. This isn?t a fraternity or an Elks lodge, for chrissakes, it?s the Baseball Hall of Fame. Time and time again, baseball players have proven that they are inadequate at best when analyzing the performance of their peers. Players tend rely on memory and observation, which is fine, except they also tend to sneer at statistics, which is not fine. Players are set in their opinions, and if Ted Williams thinks Mel Harder is a Hall of Famer, there is no statistic or argument that will ever change his mind. All of which means that the Veterans Committee will continue to elect players based on feelings rather than on analysis.
A related problem is cronyism: Players electing their friends to the Hall with little regard for whether they really belong there. It?s no coincidence that both of this year?s selections had close personal friends on the Veterans Committee. (Buck O?Neil was Hilton Smith?s roommate with the Kansas City Monarchs, while Joe Brown was in charge of the Pittsburgh franchise for the entirety of Bill Mazeroski?s career.) These players may be deserving of the Hall, and they may not, but is players voting on players really fair? Where does it leave guys like Pete Browning, who have no golfing buddies on the committee? The good news is that the new committee may help stymie cronyism because of its sheer size. Before, a player only had to have one or two good friends on the committee and he was in. Now election to the Hall will require having lots and lots of friends, instead of just a couple. The new solution doesn?t solve the cronyism problem; it only multiplies it.
Secondly, players from one generation will be voting on players from other generations, which will make it essentially impossible for many deserving players to make the Hall of Fame. If it?s difficult for players to judge their peers, then it?s damn near impossible for them to judge those who played before and after them. I mean, what makes Enos Slaughter particularly qualified to judge whether, say, Lou Whitaker is a Hall of Famer? How many Tigers games do you reckon ol? Enos watched during the 1980s? Probably not many. Players will inevitably vote based on what they saw during their careers, and if they didn?t see someone play, it?s highly unlikely they?ll support him for the Hall of Fame. How many people on the new Veterans Committee do you think have heard of Bill Dahlen? How about Spottswood Poles? Pete Browning? Dick Redding? Sol White? Again, not many. It?s a shame, because these men, and a few others like them, are probably the most deserving players not already in the Hall. And now they have virtually no chance of ever getting there.
The Hall of Fame did say in its press release that it was still undecided on the question of Negro League players. It?s pretty clear that there are still Negro Leaguers out there who deserve to be enshrined; I?ve heard estimates ranging from five worthy Hall of Famers to 60. Anyway, the Hall has commissioned an extensive academic study of African American baseball from 1860-1960, and will wait until that is done before deciding the Negro Leaguers? fate. After that, a committee will be formed to recommend a course of action. So once the Hall of Fame hears from its academic committee, it will then form another committee, which will advise the Hall?s board of directors (a committee) on whether to form another committee. How efficient. Meanwhile, Spottswood Poles lies in Arlington National Cemetery, a-mouldering in the grave.
And lastly, there is the question of Pete Rose. If I were a cynic, I might speculate that the motivation behind forming a new Veterans Committee was to keep Pete Rose out of the Hall of Fame forever. You see, Pete retired as an active player in 1986, which means that five years from now, in 2006, he will have been retired for 20 years, making him ineligible for consideration by the writers. The BBWAA?s first rule of eligibility clearly states that a candidate ?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.? So even if he is reinstated from the ineligible list, Rose?s only hope for election after 2006 will be through the Veterans Committee. While the writers? group was largely sympathetic toward Rose, many current Hall of Famers are adamant that Rose not be allowed in the shrine. Some ? including Bob Feller and Johnny Bench ? have reportedly threatened to boycott future Hall of Fame ceremonies if Rose is elected. Now, the control over Rose?s eventual fate has been placed in their hands.
Eric Enders is a former researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame Library. He lives in Cooperstown, New York, where he runs Triple E Productions, a baseball research and consulting service.
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