I'm told that when ALS was taking its toll on Joe McGuff, the former Kansas City Star writer and editor would dictate his Hall of Fame vote to his wife, who in turn would place a pen in his hand and guide him as he signed the ballot. Jack O'Connell, secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, further tells me that one of the last things the late John Steadman did on his deathbed was fill out his Hall of Fame ballot.
In other words, we baseball writers treat our Hall of Fame vote more reverently than, say, our expense reports. I dare say some of us would sooner give up our right to vote in our country's elections than give up our Cooperstown vote.
• Caple: McGwire deserves to be in Hall
• Simmons: McGwire is unfairly targeted
But does taking the vote seriously mean it should be restricted to only us?
Back when it was not even a building, let alone a place for Pete Rose to hawk autographs, the Hall of Fame gave the Baseball Writers Association of America the decision-making power on candidates. Seven decades later, we still have that power (though the veterans committee also is able to add players we've passed on). Each BBWAA member with at least 10 consecutive years in the association gets a Hall of Fame vote.
We writers take pride in the good job we do as voters. And in many respects we should. There are very few complaints about any of the players we've voted into the Hall (most question marks surround players added by the veterans committee). And if there are complaints about whom we haven't voted in, well, much of that usually comes down to personal feelings about where the velvet rope of admittance should be placed.
But we shouldn't be so quick to pat ourselves on the back. Remember, 90 percent of our job is incredibly simple. It's nothing more than voting for the obvious candidates. After all, you don't have to cover baseball for 10 years to know you should vote for Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr.
Voting gets difficult with the rest of the candidates, and perhaps we aren't doing as good a job with them as we think. Just ask Bert Blyleven and his fans:
|Bert Blyleven Hall of Fame voting|
Blyleven first went on the ballot in 1998 and he received 83 votes, or 17.55 percent of the vote, well short of the 75 percent needed for induction. He received even fewer votes the next year before rebounding slightly in 2000, then rising steadily after that.
Given the momentum, I would say there is a good chance we'll one day see a plaque of Blyleven on the wall at Cooperstown. But why have our votes changed so much over the years? I started on the fence and then began voting for Blyleven a couple years ago. Why did it take me so long to reach my view that Bert belongs in the Hall?
Or consider Jim Rice, who has gone from less than one-third of the vote to nearly two-thirds of the vote:
|Jim Rice Hall of Fame voting|
Look closely at those totals. Rice went from about 43 percent of the vote in 1998 to his lowest total in 1999 (29.38 percent) and then up to more than half the vote in 2000 (51.5 percent). What happened? The same thing that happened to Blyleven, Tony Perez, Gary Carter, Jim Kaat, Dave Parker and everyone else that year: George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount joined them on the ballot, so writers dropped players they voted for in 1998 to vote for those three in 1999 (along with Carlton Fisk, who also was on the ballot for the first time).
Now, you can't vote for more than 10 players in any year so the addition of four solid candidates in one year could account for some players receiving lower totals in 1999. But I don't know of too many writers who vote for the maximum or even get close to it very often, so that can't account for the entire drop. What is also likely is that some writers add and drop players based on who else is eligible that year. That's why it's less likely that Blyleven, Rice or Goose Gossage will make it this year, when Gwynn and Ripken are on the ballot, than next year, when Tim Raines will be the biggest name becoming eligible for the first time.
Voting trends like that make me wonder whether we writers are doing as great a job as we think. And they also make me wonder whether it would be better if we expanded the voting to include other groups.
Broadcasters, for instance. Broadcasters see more games than anyone else, and I dare say, they're usually paying closer attention than writers, who are busy working on their early stories or surfing the net. True, most broadcasters are employed by the team, but so what? Many writers are now employed by a company that owns a team. The Tribune Company that owns the Cubs also owns the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. The New York Times owns a minority interest in the Red Sox. Disney (ESPN.com's parent company) owned the Angels for several years, but that doesn't mean I can't be impartial when Tim Salmon goes on the ballot.
How could it be a bad thing to let Vin Scully, Dave Niehaus and Jon Miller vote for the Hall of Fame? Actually, Scully already does vote on the veterans committee, so how could it hurt to add him to the first round as well?
Another possibility would be to include some Society for American Baseball Research members. One of the reasons Blyleven has risen in the vote totals is the strong advocacy of stat analysts for him. We're obviously listening to their arguments, so why not let them vote directly? I'm not saying we should open it up to the entire membership, but perhaps SABR could pick an electoral college of members to be given ballots each year based on achievements in research and scholarship.
Look, the BBWAA is filled with passionate writers who cherish their votes and agonize over them each winter. But that doesn't mean our group is infallible. Hell, the BBWAA just voted NOT to allow Internet writers into the organization, apparently preferring to wait and see whether this Internet thing catches on first, or perhaps just wait until there are no longer any newspapers in existence (ESPN.com writers such as myself, Jayson Stark, Jerry Crasnick and Buster Olney receive Hall votes as lifetime members from our tenures at newspapers -- otherwise, we'd be ineligible). And some BBWAA voters are columnists and editors who rarely -- if ever -- attend games because they don't like baseball very much. Yet they vote on the game's ultimate honor.
If the Hall of Fame gives the vote to them, there's no reason it can't give the ballot to some broadcasters and statheads. The Hall of Fame is just beginning to deal with some tough issues surrounding steroid suspects such as Mark McGwire. I'd like to get as much range of opinion on these candidates and this issue as possible.
The question really isn't whether baseball writers are doing a good job with their Hall of Fame vote. The question is whether we could do an even better job if the voting base was expanded to include other knowledgeable, passionate voters. And the answer is, yes, it would.
Tell your statistics to shut up
In addition to seeing how many votes McGwire gets, another thing to look for this year is whether Ripken could become the first player ever to go into the Hall unanimously. I don't think he will -- as great as Ripken was, there are a few cynical bastards who considered him selfish and overrated -- but it's at least a possibility. Tom Seaver holds the record for highest percentage, 98.84 in 1992, when only five voters left his name off the ballot. Three, however, did so only because they submitted blank ballots to protest the exclusion of Pete Rose from the process. One voter reportedly did so because he had just undergone open heart surgery and wasn't thinking clearly. And a fifth did so because he said it was his policy never to vote for players in their first year of eligibility. The "I Never Vote For Anyone On the First Ballot" attitude is dying out so I think we will eventually see a player elected unanimously, with Roger Clemens or A-Rod as possibilities. If Clemens ever retires, that is.
The most interesting growth in vote totals over the years might be Nellie Fox, who went from 10.83 percent his first year to 74.68 percent in his final year of eligibility in 1985, finishing just two votes short of election. Poor Nellie. After waiting 15 years in vain for the writers to vote him in, he then waited another dozen years before getting in through the veterans committee.
If a recent Associated Press-AOL poll is to believed, 25 percent of Americans believe that Jesus will return in 2007, and 46 percent of white evangelicals believe it is likely to happen. Before I fully accept that poll's findings, I want to know the exact questions and how they were phrased. Was it "Do you think Jesus will return in 2007?" Or was it "Is it possible Jesus will return in 2007?" But if this was an accurate poll, what does it say about the Cubs that more people apparently believe Jesus will return in 2007 than believe Chicago will return to the World Series?
A good new movie is "Sweet Land," an indie film about a couple falling in love on a Minnesota farm in 1920 (tenuous baseball connection: there is a baseball game in one scene and the female lead holds on to a baseball card for several decades). It's a movie that begs the question: Why was this released during the Christmas holidays when it was sure to be lost amid the big-budget pictures? I never understand why Hollywood releases so few films during the early fall then dumps them all during the holidays, when only teens and students have enough time to actually get to the theater. Yes, I know, teens and students make up a huge chunk of the ticket-buying public, but they sure as hell aren't going to movies like "Sweet Land." There are few enough good movies these days -- why not release a couple during the long stretches of autumn and winter, when there is absolutely nothing worth watching? Can someone answer this?
In my last Off Base, reader Mike Hagesfeld brought up the lack of national outcry over Shawne Merriman's possible defensive player of the year honor despite being suspended four games for using performance-enhancing drugs. Well, now that Merriman has made the Pro Bowl, I'm still waiting to hear the outrage. If this were a baseball player going to the All-Star Game after testing positive, you can bet talk-show hosts would have gone hoarse screaming about it, and writers would have developed carpal tunnel criticizing it.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached here. His Web site is back up at a slightly different address, jimcaple.net, with more installments of 24 College Avenue. In addition to "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," his new book with Steve Buckley, "The Best Boston Sports Arguments: The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Boston Fans," is on sale now.