The decision of Hall of Famers

December, 11, 2008
Murray Chass with some passionate thoughts on the latest incarnation of the Hall of Fame's Veterans Committee:

    Mazeroski was inducted in 2001, after which the Hall's directors abandoned the veterans committee as it was constituted. Since then, the directors have searched in vain for a format that could get somebody elected.

    They went from the small committee to a large committee, giving the vote to all Hall of Famers plus winners of the annual writing and broadcasting awards. That didn't work either because the new committee, numbering around 85, didn't give anyone 75 percent of the vote.

    For the most recent election, another change: The Spink and Frick winners were dropped and only Hall of Famers, 64 in number, received ballots. But again, no one was elected. Of the 10 candidates on the ballot, Santo came closest with 39 votes, [nine] short of the necessary 75 percent, and Jim Kaat was next with 38, followed by Tony Oliva 33, Gil Hodges 28 and Joe Torre 19.

    Writers were criticized for years by Hodges supporters for not electing the Brooklyn first baseman, but now those supporters know that his contemporaries don't think he belongs in the Hall.

    But one obvious reality has emerged from the four shutout elections (2002, '04, '06, '08). The occupants of the Hall of Fame don't want anyone else to join them.

This is a common refrain: "Oh, those selfish Hall of Famers don't want anyone joining their exclusive club. At least anyone among these unworthies on the ballot."

Except that's not true. It's not nearly true. And Murray Chass must know this, somewhere inside his mind. Because two paragraphs later he writes this:

    This year's 64 voters wrote players' names on their ballots a total of 213 times, an average of 3.33 players per ballot. They could vote for a maximum of four candidates. But vote though they did, the players couldn't agree on which player or players merited inclusion.

    That's the beauty of the 75 percent requirement. No one can sneak into the Hall of Fame. He has to be viewed overwhelmingly as a worthy member.

    "It's the first time we've tried it with a small electorate and a smaller ballot," [Hall president Jeff] Idelson said. "The question becomes, how do we refine it? And if so, when? And that's something the board will have to determine."

    From this point of view the board has to determine only one thing: Why belabor this foolish exercise?

    "The process was not redesigned with the goal of necessarily electing someone, but to give everyone on the ballot a very fair chance of earning election through a ballot of their peers," said Jane Forbes Clark, the board chairman.

    But everyone on the ballot had already been judged three times by their peers, and their peers' rejection of them followed 15 years of rejection by the Baseball Writers' Association of America. How many times does a player have to lose before he accepts defeat?

Did you catch that? Maximum candidates voted for: four. Actual average of candidates voted for: 3.33.

Given that some of the voters must have voted for zero, one or two candidates, I believe we may assume that most voters voted for the maximum number allowed. How can that possibly square with the notion that the current Hall of Famers "don't want anyone else to join them"?

Answer: It cannot. The great majority of Hall of Famers would happily welcome a few of their old colleagues. They simply can't quite agree on which colleagues those should be. This shouldn't come as any big surprise. The best players on the ballot were probably Ron Santo and Joe Torre. But Santo and Torre both played in the 1960s, and there are two problems for candidates who played in the 1960s. One, their numbers were depressed by the pitcher-friendly environment in that decade. Two, a fair number of the living Hall of Famers -- that is, the voters in this case -- either never saw the players of the 1960s, or saw them after their primes.

Fundamentally, the problem is that we're asking players to be analysts, a job for which the great majority of them simply are not qualified. We're also asking them to be objective -- to vote for the most deserving candidates rather than for their friends -- and any time you ask someone to ignore his friends you're going to be disappointed. If you want rational analysis to be a big part of the process, anyway.

Chass believes the Hall of Fame wants to see more new Hall of Famers. He's right, but "more Hall of Famers" is just one of the things the Hall wants. The Hall also wants to keep the old Hall of Famers happy, and one way to do that is by making them a big part of the process (check). The Hall also wants to keep the old baseball writers happy, and one way to do that is by applying the 75-percent standard of the BBWAA's ballot to the Veterans Committee ballots, too. And the Hall also wants to keep the fans of Ron Santo, Joe Torre, Tony Oliva, Luis Tiant and all the rest happy by keeping the Cooperstown door open, even if by just a little.

It's always been a tough balancing act, and always will be.



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