How To Fix The Hall Of Fame

Jim McIsaac

Beyond the PED/steroid Hall debates, the current system for voting for Hall induction is almost irretrievably broken. Here's a simple way to correct that.

Wednesday, the 37-man Hall of Fame ballot for 2013 induction was released. And that began scads of online teeth-gnashing over several first-time candidates, particularly Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. You know the reasons. It's not my purpose here to rehash the arguments on both sides; Craig Calcaterra did a nice job of that at Hardball Talk.

Rather, this is going to be a suggestion on how to, once and for all, make Hall of Fame induction something that will be less controversial, and involve more of the people who really know the game and care about who's inducted.

First, let's stipulate: the Hall of Fame exists not just to honor baseball people, but as a museum of the sport. It's not easy to get to; it's 20 miles from the nearest interstate highway and if you want to fly there, you've got to fly to Albany (75 miles) or Syracuse (85 miles) and then drive down mostly two-lane highways.

So the Hall has to have a way to encourage people to come see its great repository of baseball memorabilia in the museum and the plaques honoring the game's greats. One way they do this is by having a celebration of the sport on Induction Weekend, when sometimes tens of thousands of people descend on upstate New York.

In order to do this, the Hall has to have, in general, two to four inductees every year. It's in their interest to have players or managers or executives or broadcasters (and why broadcasters are excluded from actual plaques, instead being relegated to a "wing", is beyond me) who fans actually want to see, hear speak, and give acclaim for career achievements.

So to hear that baseball writers might actively exclude some of the greats of the game -- no matter how they might have achieved that greatness -- isn't what the Hall wants. Take Ron Santo's induction last summer, for example. It became clear over time -- and it should have far earlier -- that Santo should have been a member of the Hall. But the various incarnations of the Veterans Committee failed to vote him in.

Now, the Hall is a private institution that can, essentially, set its own rules. If its leadership had wanted to after Santo failed to gain induction in 2009, they could have simply had its board of directors declare, "Ron Santo is in," and inducted him in 2010 while he was still around to enjoy it. But they have wanted to at least keep up the pretense of having a "vote", so they designed a system and a committee that absolutely, positively could not fail to vote him in, essentially giving Billy Williams the lead role in getting that committee to vote for Ron. It's just too bad it happened after Ron's passing.

The point of all this is to say: the Hall can do whatever it wants in terms of having a body of voters. When the Hall entrusted (and I use that word loosely) the Baseball Writers Association of America with Hall voting, the BBWAA was essentially the only group of baseball-related individuals who had enough knowledge of the game to vote players, managers and executives in. There was no SABR. There was no television; baseball radio broadcasting was still mostly in its infancy. Fans didn't have access to the statistical databases we have now; major-league baseball was limited to 16 teams in 10 cities, so fans in many parts of the country never saw a live game. Fans in cities that had a team in just one league could see only half the players, with interleague play decades away.

This, obviously, is no longer the case. Many BBWAA Hall voters have that privilege simply because they have had a BBWAA card for 10 years or more. Some are retired and likely have not seen a game in person in years; some might not even follow the game. Some carry grudges or vote quixotically; when Greg Maddux becomes eligible a year from now, for example, there's absolutely no reason for him not to be elected unanimously. Why would any writer leave him off a ballot? Well, because some of the greats of the past weren't unanimous, so no one should be, goes this wrongheaded thinking, so someone will leave him off a ballot.

And that's not even taking into account some of the Hall voting in the past, when, for example, Frank Frisch helped engineer the induction of some of his playing buddies who have about as much business with a Hall plaque as I do. (Jesse Haines, I'm looking at you.)

That's not just dumb, it hurts the reputation of the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame should belong to all of us, not just those who write for dead-tree media.

Here, then, is my modest proposal to fix Hall voting. I'd like to see added to the voting body the following groups, in priority order:

  1. Team broadcasters, both radio and television, who cover the majority of their team's games (why should a retired sportswriter get a vote when Vin Scully doesn't have one?)
  2. Current players, coaches and managers
  3. Retired players, coaches and managers
  4. Internet baseball writers and bloggers
  5. Fans

In addition, members of the BBWAA should continue to get votes, but I'd separate votes from active writers who cover teams on a daily basis from votes by retired writers, and give more weight to the former. For the five new categories of voters above, I'd give a higher weight to broadcasters, less so to the second, third and fourth categories (and for the fourth, you'd need to set criteria as to who qualifies), and a small (but significant enough to count) minority to fan voting. In order to make fan voting meaningful, and not the popularity contest All-Star Game voting has become, you'd have to limit the vote to one per person. Perhaps doing it through Facebook would work; I realize that's not a foolproof method because you could, if you wanted, create extra accounts, but at least it would mostly eliminate the issue of people stuffing the ballot box.

Using a method like this for voting for the Hall of Fame would involve more people who are really invested in making sure the people who really deserve Hall induction get there; every year, there are debates on who should or shouldn't get in between smart people on sites like this. Why shouldn't we get even a tiny say in who actually does stand up on a warm summer Sunday in Cooperstown to make a speech? It would get more people invested in the Hall; more people, perhaps, to make a pilgrimage there; and make the Hall truly a reflection of everyone who loves the game.

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