The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is probably a good time. I haven’t been, but I’ve never heard of anyone visiting the thing whose review of the experience was, “Yeah, that sucked.” Even scribbles on the same topic as this post, about how Hall of Fame voting is a ridiculous enterprise, always go out of their way to talk about how the actual museum is pretty cool, and I have no reason to doubt that that’s the case for those that make the trek to Cooperstown. But today, I’m here to mewl about the other kind of trek to Cooperstown: the metaphorical one, on the back of a ridiculous voting system that somehow has persisted for nearly 90 years at this point.
1936 was the first year of the enterprise we currently refer to as “Hall of Fame voting.” Back then, baseball wasn’t televised (the first televised game occurred in 1939), no one was seriously crunching newspaper box scores to come up with park effects and all the other things you needed to reasonably assess players relative to one another, and, maybe this will blow your mind: despite the technology being there, three teams, including the dominant Yankees, refused to allow their games to be broadcast on the radio (as did the Dodgers and Giants, also still based in New York at the time). Given the constraints of 1936, you can see how the process to determine who was and was not “allowed” in the Hall of Fame had to tab for the task the only people that could reasonably see more than just their hometown players on a regular basis — sportswriters. But, man, it is definitely not 1936 anymore. Yet, we’re still handing out “election” to the Hall of Fame as though it were 1936, for reasons unclear.
Before I get into some higher-level discussion, I just want to point out the nonsensical, legacy structure of Hall of Fame voting. Did you know...?
...that the “75 percent of ballots” threshold was just a random, un-vetted, un-tested idea that has persisted? Then-National League president Ford Frick was the driving force behind the Hall of Fame, and he enlisted a couple of key representatives from the newswires in order to flesh out his idea. One of those collaborators Alan J. Gould, later the executive overseeing the Associated Press, came up with the 75 percent threshold before any votes, “test” votes, or anything else had been tried. Call it inertia, or whatever you want, but this arbitrarily- and/or capriciously-selected figure has never been seriously challenged or re-examined even though it has no useful basis in anything. (Who cares if 75 percent of any electorate thinks something? Why not 51 percent? Why not 80 or 90 percent?)
...that the BBWAA was initially created to ensure press box access for sportswriters, and has no quality control-esque criteria for who can and can’t vote? You probably already figured this out from the array of low quality Hall of Fame and other award voting ballots every year, but membership in the BBWAA is in no way a stamp of approval of an individual’s ability to make informed decisions regarding baseball. The BBWAA itself was created in 1908 as a result of geographically disparate but temporally proximate incidents (which you can read about here) where the sportswriters of the day were crowded out of being able to watch the game by, well, people who weren’t covering the games for a living. (One incident involved a guy literally sitting on another guy to write his copy. Seriously, click that link.) The only requirement for Hall of Fame voting is that an individual hold BBWAA membership for a full decade; said qualified individual can then continue voting after losing BBWAA membership for another decade.
The BBWAA has this on their website, which... look, I’m not going to hammer it too hard, but yikes.
Does that mean some Hall of Fame voters don’t even cover baseball any more?
Yes. The BBWAA trusts that its voters take their responsibility seriously, and even those honorary members who are no longer covering baseball do their due diligence to produce a thoughtful ballot.
Just to be clear, back in 1936, Frick, Gould, and company figured that the (probably) cigar-chomping, en-fedora’d, Depression-era sportswriters were probably the best people to make Hall of Fame determinations. Back when the BBWAA started in 1908, it had 43 members. By the time it was 1936, there were 226 ballots cast; as detailed in this Chicago Tribune article from 1996, the number of BBWAA voters submitted a ballot had ballooned to 470. This growth didn’t stop, leading to an eventual change in 2015 that added that second “you can only vote for a decade after losing membership” clause — before 2015, anyone that had 10 years of BBWAA membership at any point could vote forever.
...that the employers of BBWAA members aren’t even unanimous in whether the BBWAA should be the group voting for the Hall of Fame (and awards)? About 20 years ago, some major newspapers (which employ many BBWAA members) instituted a policy that their employees should be responsible for reporting on the news and not making it, which essentially made Swiss cheese of the relationship between BBWAA membership and actual weight in voting. I’m not going to stand here and grandstand that the New York Times, Washington Post, and other broader-reach papers have better sports coverage than other publications (unequivocally, they don’t), but the idea that one’s ability to vote, length-of-membership restrictions aside, depends on an employer’s policy further dilutes the endeavor. After all, we still have Gould’s inane 75 percent threshold as the election requirement, which is directly influenced by who is (and isn’t) able to vote.
...that early on, Hall of Fame voters were instructed to actually vote for 10 players, and mostly did so, up until 1956? If you care about the process, something that might rankle you is the submission of a blank ballot, or perhaps a sparsely-populated one. Back in 1936, selecting ten players was a requirement, and of the 226 ballots submitted there were 2,231 votes, meaning basically everyone followed directions. This ability to follow instructions was mostly present in the electorate through the next two decades (1946: 9.64 votes per ballot, 1951: 9.59 votes per ballot), until the average votes per ballot dipped below 9.00 in 1954. By 1956, following voter complaints that there weren’t enough quality player candidates to vote for, the requirement to vote for 10 players changed to an advisory to vote for “up to 10” players. Yet, the 75 percent threshold remained unchanged, and nothing was put into place to adjust any aspect of the voting for both the growing landscape of MLB teams and players or the growing BBWAA electorate.
By the way, the average votes per ballot fell to 7.32 in 1966, and then to 7.04 in 1986, which was the last year for votes-per-ballot to average above seven until 2014. As recently as 2020 (I couldn’t find totals for the last two years), it was again below seven at 6.58.
...that in 2014-2015, the BBWAA proposed increasing the number of votes from 10 to 12, which wasn’t taken by the Hall of Fame, despite the number of MLB teams increasing by 30 percent between 1936 and the current era? As with any group larger than a handful, the BBWAA’s voting members are a group with some diametrically-opposite challenges. You have those apt to submit sparse or empty ballots, but then you have a bloc that felt that finally, “up to 10” wasn’t sufficiently flexible when combined with the unchanging 75 percent threshold. The Hall of Fame board didn’t care, though, ignoring the proposal.
I could go on, but hopefully you get the idea. What we have is a system developed in 1936 that has barely evolved, has made less and less sense over time as the baseball world has changed, and seems to pit both parts of the electorate, and the electorate vis-a-vis the Hall of Fame itself against one another. It’s a mess, and the only pseudo-solution has been a burgeoning number of side committees (there are now four of them for some reason) that seemingly only exist to rectify the missteps of the voters as a whole.
By now, I’ve hopefully convinced you that the current process is, if not nonsense, at least in dire need of some kind of top-down revamp that actually makes sense beyond, “Well, that’s what some reporter executive said in 1936 and we’ve just stuck with it since.” But, that sort of reconfiguration of how the election process works wouldn’t solve the issue. I titled this post, “Please stop with the Hall of Fame voting,” and I mean it — redoing a rottenly outdated system could infuse some sanity into the proceedings, but it won’t change the fundamental issue: why in the world is this whole thing based on voting?
We’ll circle back to the criteria for election in a moment, but fundamentally, the Hall of Fame is a sorting exercise. Some set of players are to be placed on one side of an imaginary line, and the rest on the other side. By some set of attributes or achievements, a player (or manager, or executive, or whatever) is either “good enough” to make it across the line, or “not good enough.” Maybe those achievements pertain to accumulating stats, maybe they have to do with some measure of probity, or maybe we can take the “fame” in “Hall of Fame” literally and draw a dividing line between players whose feats and/or existence captured the imagination, and those who didn’t. Maybe we need to consider all of those things, together. I don’t know, but no matter what, there’s a way to build some kind of index, a worthiness score, and just do it that way. But the point is, someone can actually figure this out, operationalize these criteria, and put everyone on one side or the other of a dividing line. Having people vote for who is “worthy,” when “worthy” means different things to different people, seems pretty unworkable. If Joe Velociraptor thinks Dale Murphy is “Hall-worthy” (whatever that means), why is capital-B Baseball invested in the idea that there’s a formal process by which Mr. Velociraptor is informed that he is wrong in assessment, yet not so invested that they can’t actually make a formal process that doesn’t forcibly involve a bunch of other people that don’t have much in the way of better qualifications than our theropod-surnamed hypothetical person to make that determination?
Again, perhaps in 1936, there was a reason why you had to rely on the... opinions? eye test? of 75 percent of people who were presumably earning a living by watching baseball games and writing stuff about them. There is literally no reason to rely on this at all now: you can literally watch every MLB game (though shamefully for MLB in 2023, many only after the fact, depending on your geographic location). So why is there still voting? Even beyond the fact that the BBWAA has lads who don’t cover baseball submitting ballots, even beyond the fact that some eligible members aren’t allowed to submit ballots by their employers, even beyond the fact that no one requires a public-facing, internally-consistent, logical rationale to accompany each ballot submitted, why is there any voting at all?
Here’s one more bit of trivia for you: take a gander at the actual criteria for Hall of Fame 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.
This set of criteria includes two, maybe three things that are related to on-field performance (depending on how you read the “contributions” clause), and three or four things that are not. Yet, aside from steroids and bugbears being used as a litmus test by some and not all of the electorate, “Hall-worthiness” circles around statistical achievements and not all this other nebulous stuff. Why that’s the case is probably obvious — it’s way easier to give a player concrete credit for each homer hit or each win above replacement achieved than it is to try to quantify “integrity” across the field of everyone on the ballot. But if that’s the case, then just formalize it, say that the Hall of Fame is reserved for players with X or more WAR-to-be-defined-by-a-committee-nominated-by-the-Hall’s-board, but anyone with a positive PED test or otherwise running afoul of the potential for righteous indignation is barred no matter what.
Why are these vague criteria even there? Because, again, the Hall of Fame and the voting were Frick’s idea, and Frick was president of the NL, not the AL. Through 1936, the AL had won 60 percent of World Series titles, and among the truly elite on-field producers that the Hall was supposed to enshrine, a majority played in the AL. In that year, John Kieran prodded Frick in the New York Times (as Zachary Levine noted for Baseball Prospectus in 2014):
The idea was to get a lot of National Leaguers on the ticket for the Hall of Fame and then some miscreant injected the question of baseball ability into it with the sad result that the American League was –
’No, no!’ said Mr. President with great dignity. ‘That is all wrong – entirely wrong – absolutely wrong. Not an all-star team at all. A Hall of Fame for baseball players – men who have meant something to the game – men who have made lasting contributions to –‘
Having noted that his original idea had been flattened by the American League steamroller process of counting batting, base-running and fielding, he was now reorganizing the platform on a character-building basis.
So, just to be very clear: we have a ballot and enshrinement process developed by Frick’s compadre with no vetting or consideration, voting criteria made deliberately vague and difficult to work with precisely to muddy the waters, even the playing field, or some other idiom in favor of Frick’s league, a voting electorate that maybe made sense at the time but doesn’t anymore, and has also been diluted to the point where actively covering baseball somehow isn’t a prerequisite for casting a ballot, and not only is there no sign of this changing any time soon, but the Hall of Fame actually rejected a proposal by the electorate to minorly change the process in a way that would only be used by part of the electorate anyway.
While the quip that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried is attributed to Winston Churchill, it’s actually an unsourced aphorism. It’d be convenient for Frick’s legacy, and the Hall, if that applied to their particular voting enterprise, too. There’s just one problem: they haven’t actually tried anything else. Maybe they should. I’m not sure how it could be worse.