The Baseball Hall of Fame has become the third rail of American sports talk. The growing influence of sabermetrics and ethical hand wringing over performance enhancing drugs are mostly to thank for that. Although debate over Cooperstown candidates has always been spirited, these issues have turned the discussion into snarky shouting matches between warring factions.
As Ken Rosenthal recently noted, the intensity of this debate isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the contrary, the passion aroused is indicative of just how important baseball is to the American public. Even though some other sports have surpassed the national pastime in terms of TV ratings, baseball remains the country’s most sacred game. That’s why it is held to a higher standard, and so much scrutiny is paid to its history, much of which is embodied by the Hall of Fame.
The backlash against the baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame is understandable. After all, their votes are the only ones that count. However, it is a little surprising that much of the criticism leveled against the electorate have come from within the ranks of the BBWAA. Granted, baseball writers have never been shy about criticizing each other, but lately, the organization’s generation gap has been widening.
In response to the increasing vitriolic level of discourse, some members of the BBWAA have decided to wash their hands of the Hall of Fame vote. Still others have argued that baseball writers should have their exclusivity in the matter revoked altogether. Needless to say, this latter proposal has won the support of those who are currently disenfranchised. In fact, an internet petition calling upon the Hall of Fame to revamp its electoral process is currently making the rounds. How will the Hall of Fame react to the outcry? There haven’t been substantive changes to the initial ballot process in nearly 50 years, so the chances of an overhaul seem slim. However, if the induction ceremony features an empty podium this summer, the Hall’s board of directors just might take notice.
The BBWAA is not the problem (well, some members might be contributors). On the contrary, its many well meaning members are an important part of the solution. After all, most baseball writers remain well qualified jurors; however, they are no longer uniquely qualified to serve as the sole arbiter of baseball’s greatest honor. In addition to tenured writers, several other groups merit a voice, including historians, sabermetricians, broadcasters, and other members of the media, including those who work for electronic platforms or lack 10 years on the print side. It’s time for the Hall of Fame to turn away from convenience, and make diversity, transparency, and accountability the guiding principles of its electoral process. It also wouldn’t hurt to have more clearly defined voting guidelines to help prevent the moral dilemmas that exist in the gray areas of the current instructions.
So, how would this more inclusive election work? Instead of outsourcing voter eligibility to the BBWAA, the Hall of Fame would establish minimum verifiable criteria for participation based on both experience in the industry and current involvement in the game. Based on this standard, potential voters would then register for the privilege every year instead of having it bestowed upon them. This would prevent the apathetic from automatically being sent a ballot. In addition, all voters would be required to perform continuing education on topics deemed relevant by the Board. Finally, every voter’s decision would be subject to scrutiny by an oversight committee. So, if someone votes for Tony Womack, or doesn’t vote for Mike Piazza because he may have had acne on his back at one time, they’d have to defend that decision in order to retain their vote.
Implementing a new process will be difficult, and it may need to be refined over several years. For example, if the increased number of voters makes reaching a 75% majority too difficult, the threshold could be lowered. Or, a super committee of voters could be created to address candidates who stall at a certain level of support. Another alternative would be to create two segments of the electorate: one that nominates and another that confirms. There are plenty of good reform ideas. Now, it’s up to the Hall of Fame to muster the will to consider them.
The biggest drawback to a more inclusive, and more carefully scrutinized, electorate is it will require more work by the Hall of Fame. And, that just might be a deal breaker for the institution’s board of directors. However, if the Hall of Fame wants its electoral process to be taken seriously, it can’t bow down to convenience. The current system may not be the travesty some have suggested, but, it is far from ideal. Although a perfect system will never be attained, a sport like baseball, which values its history more than any other, deserves that pursuit.