How To Fix The Flawed Baseball Hall Of Fame Voting Process
The current system is not working as intended. There is a simple solution, however.
Last week, we examined the recent trends in the Baseball Hall of Fame voting and tried to make some sense of it all. We discovered that there does not appear to be any discernible pattern in how voters handle things like milestones, PEDs, and ultimately what makes a player worthy of enshrinement. The result is that some of the greatest players in the history of the game have failed to gain admission. This week, we’re going to dig a little deeper and explore possible ways to fix the flawed system.
The Baseball Hall of Fame’s Mission — And The Responsibility Of Voters
To be certain, any voting process is inherently subjective. This will always be true for awards, All-Star selections, and even the Hall of Fame. No changes to the process or guidelines provided to voters will ever eliminate the subjectivity. Nor should it.
Wild inconsistencies, however, have been revealed in the Hall of Fame ballot results. Some players tied to performance-enhancing drug use have gained admission. Others—including some who have achieved significant milestones—have been kept out. Milestone achievers have even failed to muster the meager five-percent of the vote required to simply remain on the ballot for another year. This is alarming, especially when you consider the responsibility entrusted to the voters relative to the mission of the Hall itself.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is aptly named. Its mission is to tell the story of baseball history. The voters have the responsibility to determine which players have contributed the most to the making of that history. That responsibility is not met—and the mission of the Hall is not fulfilled—when only some of the most prolific players from a given era are included in the telling of baseball’s story.
Baseball History Is Made
The case of Barry Bonds is one example of this failure. I don’t need to travel to Cooperstown to learn the story of how Bonds became baseball’s all-time home run champion. I witnessed him doing it. Bonds needs to be in the Hall of Fame for those who didn’t, particularly for future generations.
If PED use is the litmus test, should we remove Ruth and Aaron from the Hall and continue to lock Bonds out? On the surface, that seems to be the unspoken belief of roughly half of current voters. That would certainly be true if PEDs is really the issue. But perhaps it’s not.
With fans still bitter over the strike that canceled the World Series four years prior, the nation was captivated by Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s 1998 pursuit of the single-season home run record. It was one of the biggest stories in baseball since Roger Maris broke Ruth’s mark in 1961. Both McGwire (70) and Sosa (66) succeeded in eclipsing the 61 homers hit by Maris.
McGwire’s record lasted only three years, with Barry Bonds hitting 73 in 2001. Still, that magical summer of 1998 would remain a joyous memory for every baseball fan who watched it unfold.
McGwire (583) and Sosa (609) went on to achieve career home run milestones as well. McGwire ranks eleventh all-time while Sosa is ninth. Yet, McGwire’s Hall of Fame support peaked at 23.6% in 2008, his second time on the ballot. He fell off after 10 years, receiving a mere 12.3% in his final appearance. Sosa was named on only 7.8% of ballots in 2018, his sixth attempt.
Sosa’s name appeared on a list of players who allegedly failed a drug test in 2003. The test was supposed to be confidential, but the list was leaked illegally. In 2016, commissioner Rob Manfred said there were “legitimate scientific questions about whether or not those were truly positives.” Nevertheless, Sosa’s Hall support didn’t increase. In fact, he enjoys barely enough to simply remain on the ballot.
Have the voters denied entry to Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa because of PEDs? That may be one reason, but it couldn’t be the only one. Admitted androstenedione users Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza were enshrined, as was cocaine user Tim Raines. So is admitting guilt the ticket to forgiveness, and to subsequent enshrinement? Probably not, considering McGwire—also linked to andro—made his admission in a 2010 interview. McGwire’s HOF support actually dropped following his mea culpa.
It is odd that Bagwell, Piazza, and Raines were inducted into Cooperstown, despite failing to achieve any traditional milestones. Meanwhile, many who did are being shut out. I’m not suggesting that Bagwell, Piazza, and Raines are undeserving. Far from it. In fact, I believe the trio deserved induction sooner than they actually were. The point is, candidates with prodigious accomplishments are being left out.
In 2013, the BBWAA failed to elect a single new member to the Hall of Fame. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Craig Biggio, Curt Schilling, Roger Clemens, and Rafael Palmeiro were snubbed, even though all of them achieved revered baseball milestones. Alan Trammell, Jack Morris, Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, and Tim Raines were denied entry as well. Biggio, Bagwell, Piazza, and Raines were ultimately granted admission by the writers, while Trammell and Morris were elected this year by the veteran’s committee.
The fact that not one candidate was elected in 2013 — despite a long list of obviously worthy candidates — was evidence of an epic failure in the voting system. So changes were subsequently made to the process by the Hall of Fame’s board of directors. The length of time that a candidate could remain on the ballot was reduced from 15 years to 10. Lifetime voting privileges of BBWAA members were modified to include only those writers who actively cover the game, or who have in the past 10 years.
To their credit, BBWAA members voted to increase the number of players they could name on a ballot from 10 to 12. (Many, in fact, preferred to make it unlimited.) They also asked for complete transparency in the process by making all ballots public. The Hall’s board ignored the first request and denied the second.
The Problem Wasn’t Solved
Unsurprisingly, the problem wasn’t solved. Reducing the length of time a player could remain on the ballot was a poor attempt to treat the symptom, rather than the root cause. The failure of a single qualified candidate to garner 75% of the vote in 2013 wasn’t a result of players staying on the ballot too long. It was caused by the cap on the number of candidates a voter can name on a ballot.
That so-called “rule of 10” has been in place since the pre-expansion days when there were only 16 teams. The league has nearly doubled in size, meaning the total number of people who play the game has, too. The BBWAA members who voted to lift the cap could see that, but for some reason, the Hall’s board didn’t approve the change.
Limiting voting to active writers was a step in the right direction, but it didn’t go far enough. Only a small percentage of people who cover the game on a daily basis are voting members of the BBWAA. The organization consists almost entirely of people who write for newspapers and other traditional print media outlets.
The IBWAA Process
The IBWAA was formed in 2009 for writers who cover baseball for Web sites, rather than print publications. Although it’s been around for less than 10 years, the IBWAA already has more voting members than the BBWAA. This makes perfect sense, considering print media is a shrinking market, while the “new media” on the Internet is still growing.
Unfortunately, the Hall’s board doesn’t recognize the votes of IBWAA members. It shouldn’t be that way. The voting process will be smoother, more complete, and less subjective when as many writers as possible who currently cover the game are included. That was the spirit of the Hall’s decision to limit voting to active writers.
This year, IBWAA members voted to induct six players into the Hall of Fame. Chipper Jones, Jim Thome, Mike Mussina, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Trevor Hoffman all met the requisite 75% threshold to gain admission. (The body had previously elected Edgar Martinez and Vladimir Guerrero, so neither appeared on the 2018 ballot.)
Curt Schilling, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield, and Sammy Sosa are the only milestone achievers who will have to wait until next year to gain symbolic induction via the IBWAA vote. Meanwhile, the BBWAA has yet to enshrine that quartet. Bonds, Clemens, Mussina, and Martinez are still waiting as well. At this rate, the BBWAA backlog will continue ad infinitum. That’s why changes are needed.
The Binary Ballot
So what’s the IBWAA’s secret? IBWAA members are permitted to name 15 candidates on their ballots, instead of just 10. The IBWAA process obviously works very well, but I would take it a step further.
Derrick Goold, a Cardinals beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and past president of the BBWAA, advocates a “binary ballot” system. Goold argues that each candidate should stand or fall based on his own merits, as if in a vacuum, and not be kept out of the Hall due to an artificial limit on the number of people a writer can vote for. I agree. Each player deserves a yes or no vote from each writer. Dayn Perry, a baseball writer for CBS Sports and Honorary Chairman of the IBWAA, has also endorsed Goold’s proposal.
Here’s a summary of changes to the voting process I would like to see the Hall of Fame’s board approve:
- Adopt Derrick Goold’s proposal. The ballot will list each candidate with a yes and no box next to his name. Each voter checks one box or the other. There is no limit to the number of yes boxes a voter can check.
- Ballots which are turned in blank will be disregarded. They won’t count against the 75% threshold a candidate needs for enshrinement.
- Increase the number of years a player can remain on the ballot to 15 (as it was before).
- Recognize the IBWAA’s vote. A candidate garnering 75% of the vote from either the BBWAA or the IBWAA will be inducted.
- Every ballot will be made public (as the BBWAA has already requested). Baseball isn’t a secret society.
Will these changes eliminate the annual debate over the worthiness of the various candidates? Absolutely not. These changes will simply ensure that each and every candidate is given fair consideration based on his merits and that the entire process is transparent. This, in turn, will allow the Hall of Fame to faithfully fulfill its mission. That is, to tell the story of baseball history.