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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Monday, November 29, 2004
An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame
Daniel outlines how the Hall of Fame can undertake real election reform.
To My Friends in Cooperstown:
I’ve tried to help. Really. I brainstormed ideas for two previous articles, took the time to write them up, and the kind
people at this site judged them good enough to post here for all to see. What has it changed? Nothing.
My pessimism regarding the 2004 election did not prove out, thank goodness. Eckersley and Molitor were somehow elected.
Maybe things are turning for the better. Bert Blyleven’s support continues to improve, doubling over the past four
elections. Still, he has less then half the support needed for enshrinement. That’s simply absurd. With all of the
knowledge gained in historical research and statistical analysis in the last generation, there is no excuse for Blyleven’s
poor level of support.
It comes down to this: You and I both know that the BBWAA is missing guys. You’ve known this for over sixty years. The
old-timers committees of the 1930’s and 40’s were created because it was obvious that the writers would not elect the 19th
century guys, whom they had not seen play, except for the most obvious greats.
After a few more elections, it was clear the writers had missed some deserving 20th century greats. The Veterans Committee
(VC), in force from 1953-2001, was formed to pick up the players the BBWAA was missing in their elections. This was an
unfortunate decision because it totally undermined the authority of the primary electorate. Even worse, it created a
subclass of hall of famers; it soon became obvious that the VC was exceeding its mandate, not only electing the BBWAA
oversights, but just as often, elevating their buddies who were of lesser quality. This unjustly relegates all the VC
selections to a lower status in the eyes of the baseball public.
But you, the Hall, do not acknowledge any stratification; all hall of famers are honored in the same way whether the BBWAA or
the VC picked them. This implies that you believe there is but one standard defining a hall of famer, not a BBWAA pick
vis-à-vis a VC pick. Therefore, when judging whether a candidate meets minimum Hall standards, you would compare him to the
players comprising the lower tier in the Hall, who, as we know, were overwhelmingly voted in by the VC.
Actually, the creation of the VC was another in a series of indictments of the BBWAA voter’s suitability for the task of
electing hall of famers. Soon after 1953, a rule was passed limiting voters to consider only players who appeared in MLB for
ten seasons; then they said you can’t vote for a guy until he’s been retired for five years; in 1964 they were further
limited, being allowed to vote only for players retired up to twenty years ago, rather than thirty; a couple years later the
voters were limited to voting only for candidates passed by a ballot screening committee. Finally, in 1979 a player was
banned from the ballot permanently if he failed to get 5% support in one election.
Every one of these changes narrowed the field of players the voters were allowed to consider. Apparently, it was thought
these restrictions on candidacies were necessary for the voters to perform their task properly. They cannot be trusted to
have proper historical perspective or be able to “separate the wheat from the chaff,” so they are allowed only a very narrow
slice of players to assess.
Over the decades, the role of the BBWAA voters has been reduced to little more than an honorarium; they get to wave in the
all-time greats, the no-brainers. Whoopee. It is only when they elect a player who approaches VC-quality that they get even
the slightest controversy. In the last 17 elections (1988-2004) their weakest picks (Perez, Sutton, Puckett) look darn good
by VC standards.
Instead of creating a secondary body to review the writers’ job, there were other ways the situation could have been handled.
You could have decided to simply elect at minimum two players per year, more if they attained 75% support. If this had been
done in 1953, there would now be less than 160 players in the Hall, not 193; the only really poor selections would be from
the mistakes of the old-timers committee in 1945-46. Along with this, you could have granted perpetual eligibility for
election, rather than arbitrary limitations for candidates. But this didn’t happen. Instead, the VC was granted a 49-year
run to populate the Hall with their friends, thereby defining the Hall’s lower tier and establishing the minimum standards
for a hall of famer.
Rather than marginalizing the BBWAA, why not look for ways to improve their process? Start by discouraging voters who aren’t
doing the job of identifying and voting for worthy players. This is what I am suggesting be done now; even at this late date
it would do much to correct the process.
1) Make the balloting public. What do they have to hide? Already, a great many writers devote a column or two to the hall
of fame ballot they are casting. For them, it’s an easy column to hammer out, and for those of us who care about the hall of
fame, it’s a good way to judge how qualified they are to handle the responsibility of voting.
It would be pretty simple to use the Hall’s website to publish every ballot, providing the voter’s address or email so fans
can easily interact with them.
Making the balloting public brings accountability to the process. In 2004, 19 voters had Joe Carter on their ballot. What
could possibly be the reasoning for thinking he was among the top ten candidates on the ballot? In 1999, six voters didn’t
vote for Nolan Ryan and nine did not vote for George Brett. Who were these lunatics and what was their rationale for these
omissions? If they dribble out something like, “Joe DiMaggio didn’t make it on the first ballot, and he was better,” or
“Babe Ruth and Willie Mays weren’t unanimous so nobody should ever be,” that leads me to the next suggestion.
2) Clarify the rules for voting. You need to tell the voters, in underlined capitals, something like this: TO MAINTAIN YOUR
PRIVILEGES AS A MEMBER OF THE ELECTORATE FOR THE HALL OF FAME, YOU ARE REQUIRED TO UPHOLD CERTAIN RESPONSIBILITIES. IT IS
EXPECTED YOU WILL UNDERTAKE A THOROUGH AND CAREFUL STUDY OF ALL THE CANDIDATES, MINDFUL OF THE LEVELS OF CHARACTER AND
STATISTICAL STANDARDS ATTAINED BY THE TYPICAL MEMBER OF THE HALL OF FAME. YOU ARE EXPECTED TO LIST UP TO TEN PLAYERS WHO, IN
YOUR ANALYSIS, MOST EXCEED THE MINIMUM STANDARDS ESTABLISHED BY PAST SELECTIONS TO THE HALL. DENYING A VOTE TO A PLAYER ONLY
BECAUSE HE IS IN HIS FIRST YEAR ELIGIBLE IS NOT ALLOWED. BLANK BALLOTS WILL NOT BE INCLUDED IN THE VOTING TALLY.
Most of this is obvious, but it needs to be said. The part about first-year players is practically unenforceable, but it may
discourage the practice. As for blank ballots, this is simply being contrarian or lazy. With the Hall’s standards being
what they are, there has never been a shortage of qualified candidates on the BBWAA ballot. We’ll tolerate blank ballots,
for now. However, they will only register as a protest vote, so as not to impede candidates from attaining 75% support.
3) Limit the number of voters.
a) Stop automatically sending out ballots. These days, about 500 ballots are cast each year in the BBWAA election. Ballots
are mailed out to all ten-year members of the BBWAA. Let’s only send ballots to those who apply for them.
b) On the ballot application, have them complete this sentence: “I am qualified to be an elector for the Hall of Fame
because….” Seriously, have them write a short essay, about 50 words. Writing isn’t hard for these guys, but can they
think? This will demonstrate whether voters have a serious interest to be a part of the process, as well as indicate who has
a greater likelihood of being a conscientious voter.
c) Track each voter’s record. You should know who is consistently casting short ballots and whose ballots are highly
idiosyncratic. A few years of data will reveal which voters are stumbling blocks towards consensus. Some voters will balk
at any directions established to guide their voting decisions, and may even attempt to make a mockery of the process, so
there needs to be a mechanism for weeding out voters who refuse to get with the program. The idea is to get voters to focus
on the best candidates so that they are not leaving out any deserving players for a veterans committee to rescue. This means
they need to average at least 2.5 inductees per year (see addendum for calculations of this number). In the past 15
elections (1990-2004), they’ve elected only 24. The VC has already picked up three that they missed in those years (Bunning,
Mazeroski, Cepeda). Santo, Kaat, Oliva and others are waiting for their time.
People must realize that the hall of fame voting exists to elect the best players. If the aim were to keep players out, we
wouldn’t need to hold elections at all. In the type of voting employed by the Hall, where a 75% supermajority is required
for election, there is little room for highly idiosyncratic or deliberately contrarian voting; building consensus is the only
way to elect the less obvious choices. Furthermore, if the voters are electing fewer players than the established Hall
standard, about 2.5 per year, they are creating a backlog of qualified players. This is not only unfair, to apply a higher
standard to more recent stars, but also unreasonable when there are more major leaguers than at any time previously. Voters
whose record shows they do not abide by this rationale, along with electors who don’t vote or who cast a blank ballot, should
be most likely to be culled in the annual 20% turnover.
d) Establish a set number of voters. Take control of the process. Pick a number; somewhere in the range of 100 to 500 seems
sensible, and choose from among the applicants for voting privileges. Then institute a set turnover percentage, say 20% each
year. Being a voter for the Hall should be an honor, not simply accruing to a person because he’s served his time. Rather
than delegating the job to some group, whose members may or may not be qualified, let’s move toward an expert panel whose
membership has been screened by the Hall. This may consist of a subset of the current BBWAA electorate; or better yet, we
would also recruit qualified voters who pursue baseball in areas other than writing for newspapers.
4) Use a runoff election. If the regular balloting results in no player, or only one, gaining the 75% needed for election,
hold a runoff election to elect one player. Induct the top vote getter, even if they receive less than 75% support in the
Go The Distance - If you really want to do it right, a couple more suggestions.
5) Make everyone eligible. Well, almost everybody; I’d still have them be retired for two years and be at least age 40. But
those are quibbles. No, I’m not crazy. This is the only way to restore integrity to the voting process, to have one voting
body with one set of standards with no limits on eligibility. I would even let Joe Jackson and Pete Rose be eligible; let
the voters decide if their misdeeds should keep them out of the Hall. Can voters handle 14,000+ candidates? If they balk at
this, that’s OK, we don’t need them. We want voters who relish the task of considering everyone who ever played in MLB. In
any case, after a year or two a pecking order would be established.
This could be phased in over three years. In 2005, players retired in 1999 and 2000 who are age 40 by 12/31/04 would be
newly eligible; in 2006 we could add the players retired in 2001-2002; in 2007 add the retirees from 2003-2004.
6) Require filled ballots. We’re voting to elect the best players. This will not be accomplished with empty ballots. Now
that we have so many candidates to choose from, voters should be expected to find ten worthy candidates to list on their
Adoption of my recommendations would reenergize a process that has become hopeless and stale. The BBWAA itself has no
thought of reforming its electorate, feeling secure that their status is permanent. However, the illusion that the writers
possess superior knowledge, to better choose the Hall inductees, has been shattered by annual mock elections on the Internet.
The results of these unwashed net surfers compare closely to what we get from the real election. It’s time to shake things
up and alert the BBWAA that you’ve adopted a new, more serious attitude towards electing players to the Hall, that you’re
acting on the knowledge that there is a better way.
That leaves us with the task of instituting change. Theorizing is easy; living is tough. Overcoming inertia and people’s
resistance to change is always the primary stumbling block. A strategy for change is needed, a plan to get people on board
for improvement and to dispel the objections of the naysayers.
The first thing to do is announce a long-term plan to improve the election process. Some of the objectives are: 1) to make
the process more open, 2) to ensure that all voters are well qualified for the task, 3) to excite more interest among the
fans by encouraging discussion among and between the voters and fans, 4) to eventually phase out the veterans committee
After the initial announcement, implementation is pretty easy, except perhaps for #3d. You will have to decide what is a
manageable size for the electorate, as well as specifying whom you will allow to apply to vote and the qualifications
desirable in voters.
In summary, you and I both want the Hall of Fame to be seen as the worthy bestower of baseball’s highest honor. At present,
this status is widely questioned, when your membership lacks dozens of players who were demonstrably better than many chosen
for enshrinement. To have credibility, there must be one overriding standard of excellence employed in electing members. In
addition, there should not be arbitrary limitations imposed on candidacies. And the electorate must be acknowledged as
qualified and worthy to be entrusted with the task of identifying the best players.
For a better hall of fame, I am,
Calculation of Hall of Fame Average Inductees Per Year
The number 2.5 was decided upon after using three different ways of calculating the number.
1. Recent History - In the past three years, 2002-2004, there have been five players elected, all by the BBWAA. The highly
restrictive rules currently in use by the VC are not representative of the Hall’s history and are not likely to remain
unchanged for very long. Therefore, we look to the years just prior to this reformation to gauge recent levels of
inductions. From 1986-2001, there were 40 former MLB players elected (25 BW, 15 VC). That averages to 2.5 (40 ( 16).
2. Entire Hall History - In its history, 1936-2004, the Hall lists 193 elected as MLB players. That averages to 2.797 per
year (193 ( 69). Included in this is the backlog of players from the 19th century who never received full consideration from
the BBWAA and were eventually picked up by the VC. This includes about 22 players. Chronologically: Radbourn, Welch, Galvin,
O’Rourke, Kelly, Keefe, Ward, Clarkson, Brouthers, McCarthy, Anson, Ewing, Connor, Thompson, McPhee, Hamilton, Rusie,
Burkett, Nichols, Beckley, Kelley, G.Davis. That leaves 171 Hall members who were “fully” considered since the Hall began
electing. That averages to 2.48 players per year (171 ( 69).
3. Hall of Famers retiring each year - In the beginning, the BBWAA voters could vote for anybody, regardless if they were
active or when they retired. Practically speaking, this meant you only had a chance of election if you played in the past 30
years. In the first three elections, 1936-38, they were busy electing the gods of the game. Thus, if you retired about 1908
or later you were on the voters’ radar. Players in the era prior to this are underrepresented in the Hall, having faded from
the BBWAA voters’ collective memory by the time they began considering them.
On the other end of the spectrum are players retired too recently to have ever received full consideration from the VC.
Before the reform three years ago, the VC would consider players who were inactive for 23 years and at least three years
after BBWAA eligibility expired. This means that players retired in the 1970’s and early 1980’s never had much chance, if
any, before the Hall clamped down on the VC. Included in this group are Santo, Minoso, Oliva, Kaat, Tiant, Torre, Pinson,
Munson, Lolich, Flood, Bonds, and Allen. Basically, players retired after about 1974 never had a fair shot at being rescued
by the VC.
We’ll look at 69 years of baseball history 1908-76, where we can say that the players retiring in that span received
reasonably full consideration by the Hall of fame electorates. How many of the 193 retired in those years? 140 players.
How many more are likely to be elected from that span? At least three more. That averages to 2.07 (143 ( 69). However,
there are many more major league players now; from about 17 MLB teams in an average year in that 69-year span, players
retiring in the past twenty years have played in an era averaging 25 teams, a 47% increase. I’m not going to argue we should
raise the target to three retirees per year, but if we just split the difference and increase the target by 23%, we should be
looking to elect 2.55 players per year (2.07 x 1.23).
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