Major League Baseball's Hall of Fame is in Trouble

Published: Jan 07, 2014 21:29pm EST
By Lance Rinker, Managing Editor for Konsume Sports

Please Note: This article was updated Jan 07, 2014 @ 09:29pm EST

 

The tagline for the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is something in which each voting member of the Baseball Writers Association of America should really take a good, long look at.

“Preserving History. Honoring Excellence. Connecting Generations.”

 

Unfortunately, the BBWAA has been failing on their duties to preserve the history of the game, honor the excellence of the deserving players or other individuals, and connect the generations of players and fans when it comes time to cast their ballot for inclusion into the Hall of Fame. This, of course, all started when performance enhancing drugs (PEDs) burst onto the scene in a way that caught the media’s and fans’ attention. Not to mention all of the ‘sacred’ records that were being encroached upon or outright broken.

There is a legion of BBWAA members that feel, or felt, that it was a travesty they could not allow to go unpunished and so they make their grand statements, often times just to put the focus on themselves as opposed to the game itself, by refusing to vote for players even suspected of PED use regardless of proof and some will even return blank ballots as a form of protest.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, it’s important for us to understand exactly how the BBWAA was created and for what purpose.

Initial discussions to create some form of a writers association took place in 1906 when, Cincinnati Inquirer journalist, Jack Rider began discussing with other writers the need to improve working conditions for themselves. You see, during that time the writers covering baseball were not only treated poorly but the conditions in which they did their work in would be considered brutal by today’s standards.

It took two years but baseball writers of the time accomplished what they set out to do in 1906 and on October 14, 1908 the BBWAA was officially formed. The main goal, of course, was to improve working conditions for sportswriters but they also set out to promote uniformity of scoring methods and to professionalize the press box, so only working reporters could get in.

The BBWAA started off by making every effort to better the world of sports journalism and have contributed to the game in a very positive way overall. The National Baseball Hall of Fame didn’t even exist, physically that is, until 1939 even though the first Hall of Fame ballots were filled out in 1931. Since its inception the voting members of the BBWAA have taken their role as gatekeepers of the game very seriously, in the sense that they seriously considered each candidate and voted for them based on the merits of play on the field.

But those were simpler times, as they say.

The first time a Hall of Fame vote was taken it was Ty Cobb who was overwhelmingly voted in by 98.23% of the BBWAA members, along with Walter Johnson (83.63%), Christy Mathewson (90.71%), Babe Ruth (95.13%), and Honus Wagner (95.13%). Cobb is widely regarded as one of the greatest baseball players of all-time, but his reputation as a human being is less than stellar given his history of violence against others and being an often documented racist.

The Hall of Fame also has Klu Klux Klan members Tris Speaker and Rogers Hornsby enshrined and worshipped at the altar of baseball. Again, two players cherished as all-time greats of the game and many baseball writers and historians consider them to be worthy of enshrinement.

Babe Ruth, another player largely considered THE greatest player of all-time, is just as famous for his over-indulgence in drinking, smoking fat cigars, and having sex with women who were not his wife. Yet, he is still viewed with such favor by today’s voting members of the BBWAA who refuse to vote for players who did, or were linked to, steroids.

Charles Comiskey, the founding owner of the Chicago White Sox as well as the key person in the formation of the American League, is in the Hall of Fame per the Veterans Committee even though there is some evidence linking him to the Black Sox Scandal of 1919 when eight players on his team conspired to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. In addition to that, he was notorious for ripping his players off and paying them substandard wages.

Famous spit-baller Gaylord Perry was voted into the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA in 1991 even though he cheated throughout the majority of his career by using an illegal pitch. He even had the audacity to admit it in an autobiography he wrote while he was still playing the game.

There are so many black marks on the sport of baseball from its conception through today, as well as many different players voted into the Hall of Fame that do not hold up to the tight moral code the BBWAA feels compelled to thrust on today’s candidates that it doesn’t seem to make sense for the Hall of Fame voting process to become such a farce.

Should we retroactively kick Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Cap Anson, John McGraw, Charles Comiskey, Babe Ruth, Gaylord Perry, Rogers Hornsby, and many others out of the Hall of Fame for being all-around pieces of shit and wastes of oxygen as human beings?

Are voters comfortable saying that people who have done the things and treated others the way those group of men have are okay to worship at the altar of baseball and enshrine in the Hall of Fame but players that used performance ‘enhancers’ are not?

We should also keep in mind that there is no definitive proof that performance enhancers even help players such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, or even Mark McGwire perform the way they do. The single greatest thing that has been proven about such substances is that they help with healing and recovery, which keeps those players on the field longer and helps them stay fresh.

The only performance enhancer out there that has been said (by former and current players) to assist them in giving them a little extra pep in their step, improving their focus – which in turn could help with hand-eye coordination and staying in the moment – are amphetamines (though you may have heard them referred to as “greenies”).

Otherwise, there is no performance enhancer out there that would assist with improving eye sight, hand-eye coordination, pitch recognition, timing of swinging a bat, gripping a baseball properly for any pitch, or automatically allowing any player using them to suddenly become Hall of Famers. That’s simply not how it works but there is so much misinformation out there that it sometimes seems damn near impossible to set the record straight with anyone that has already made up their mind.

However, is it really the fault of the BBWAA though?

They didn’t assume this sort of ‘power’ or responsibility on their own. This is something that was given to them by the Hall of Fame. The process itself was so poorly designed it’s no wonder that, as we’ve progressed through the decades, it began to break down as situations became more complex and things were nowhere near as black and white as voters of the previous generations liked to believe.

Deadspin made efforts to purchase the vote of a BBWAA member so they can crowd source a ballot to turn in and they succeeded. What will happen to the Hall of Fame voter that sold his or her vote, I have no idea and I’m not familiar with any policy or process that would bar that person from voting next year.

However, I did reach out to Deadspin’s Deputy Editor, Tim Marchman, to ask him about the Hall of Fame voting process and where the issues are in his opinion.

One thing to keep in mind is that the BBWAA isn't really the problem here. That group mainly comprises, and is mainly concerned with issues relevant to, working baseball writers. The whole debate over epistemology and moral virtue is to be blamed on the subset of writers who spent 10 years in the BBWAA and so got a lifetime voting pass. That they make up the voting body is to be blamed on the Hall of Fame itself. That the Hall of Fame has the power to pass judgment on players is on the public, which has assigned it that power.

Generally, the problems here are the result of a poorly designed process. That the current setup gives disproportionate power to old guys with strong takes is what everyone fixes on, but the bigger issues are that there's no obvious reason for the historical record to come down to a yes or no vote, and no obvious reason for baseball writers to be the ones to do the voting if someone has to.

Tim makes mention of several different things here, most notably that the BBWAA isn’t really the issue here, although you wouldn’t know it by how much negative press and attention they get every year leading up to and through the Hall of Fame season. Much is made of the fact that baseball writers who finally earn a vote by paying their dues over the years, financially and professionally, gain a lifetime vote for the Hall of Fame.

What makes that lifetime voting pass such an issue is that many of the older voters no longer cover the game, they no longer follow along with the many different changes in how the game is played and how it is analyzed, and more than anything they seem more than willing to interfere with the voting process to ensure they are not forgotten and their voice is still heard even though they’ve chosen to allow the game to pass them by.

One such person, who seems to stir up as much intentional controversy as one can by trolling the younger generation of writers and even voters, is Murray Chass. Let me be clear, Chass is an accomplished sports journalist who managed to bring sports law and labor relations issues into the forefront of the baseball world that organizations, players, and sports journalists benefit from now. However, today he comes across as nothing more than an old crank that has an obvious agenda against sabermetric analysis of the game and sports bloggers – although he actually writes for his own sports blog since retiring from actively covering baseball.

Most recently he decided that he would not give up his Hall of Fame vote because he knows keeping it, and possibly turning in a blank ballot, would annoy people that he doesn’t particularly care for.

Finally, an announcement that will disappoint Neyer, Calcaterra and the reader who, like those two bloggers, said they were delighted that this was the last time I would be voting for the Hall of Fame. Sorry, guys I never made it definite.

I said “barring a change in my thinking,” this could be my last vote. My thinking has changed, and all of you critics can blame yourselves. How could I relinquish my vote knowing how much it annoys you? I plan to vote a year from now even if I just send in a blank ballot. You would love that.

We have two solid examples of Hall of Fame voters being willing to interfere with the integrity of the Hall of Fame and the process in which eligible players are voted in. The motives in each are pretty clear, though quite different.

One wants to call further attention to the issues with the voting process and voting members of the BBWAA that don’t take it seriously, or any other grand statement that particular voter is or was trying to make by selling his or her vote to Deadspin.

The other, Murray Chass in this example, states that he wants to hold onto his vote and return blank ballots to stick it to certain sports writers or bloggers all because being guaranteed lifetime voting status allows him to do so.

Who is right or wrong here? Maybe they both are to some degree. Part of the problem is that the voting process set forth by the Hall of Fame, an independent institution, it’s left practically everything up in the air outside needing to be retired for at least five years and garnering 75% of the vote.

In an effort to get some answers, or at least comments, regarding the many different issues perceived by voting and non-voting members of the BBWAA, other sports journalists, and of course the fans I reached out to the Vice President of Communications at the Hall of Fame, Brad Horn.

Throughout our conversation, which was a very pleasant one because Brad is someone who loves the game itself and its history, he made it a point to let it be known that the Hall of Fame is aware of the ongoing issues as it relates to public perception and that they aren’t turning a blind eye to anything. But, they do strongly believe in the process and have complete trust and faith in the BBWAA to handle its overall responsibility to vote the worthy into the Hall.

In addition to that belief and commitment to their voting process and the voting members of the BBWAA, the Hall of Fame also regularly reviews the process in place although no formal review process exists. Part of that review seems to take place in the form of strong, open lines of communication with the BBWAA where they welcome input to improve the voting process in any way. The one thing that wasn’t made clear, however, is whether any input has ever been given that has led to any change or serious discussions about making any changes.

I made it a point to bring up voters such as Murray Chass or the one who sold his or her vote to Deadspin in an attempt to highlight the issues of the voting process. A comment was not given, no matter how many times or different ways in which the questions were asked. The one thing that was said, as it pertained to Murray Chass opting to return a blank ballot to stick it to sports bloggers and those who don’t like him, was that the Hall of Fame does not look at things on an individual basis or level. They look at things collectively as a whole and that is why they feel the process is working.

One comment made that has stood out to me was when Brad stated that the “Hall of Fame has withstood the test of time” and maintains its relevancy within sports and with fans.

The reason this resonates with me so much is because attendance at the Hall of Fame is down, dramatically. After bringing in 352,000 visitors in 2007, attendance dipped to 301,755 in 2008, then to 289,000 in 2009, and again to 281,000 in 2010. An article published on the Wall Street Journal pointed out that the museum only had approximately 260,000 visitors last year, which is their lowest total since the mid-1980s.

I’m sure the reasons for the precipitous decline in attendance has many different factors, but can the constant negative attention surrounding the governing body of who gets in and who doesn’t really be helping the call for more to show up and celebrate baseball history?

If the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is truly serious about welcoming input from baseball writers and fans in an effort to improve the process by which players are voted into the Hall of Fame than perhaps its well time they’re taken up on that.  


 

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Lance Rinker
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