Changing the Rules at the Hall of Fame
In the aftermath of the BBWAA pitching a shutout in the 2013 Hall of Fame election, I have immersed myself in the quasi-social media more than ever before (and, I hope, ever after), drinking in the views and opinions drifting in from various participants, historians, enthusiasts, bloggers, and everybody else who has ever watched a ballgame. A lot of people think the HOF election system is flawed and must be replaced. All sorts of blame has been thrown around, and not all of it can be ignored. Observers I respect have expressed seriously varying attitudes toward the varied aspects of the issue, and their expertise nearly cancels itself out. And at least a couple of very smart people I know have come up with specific solutions–presuming, of course, that we can agree on what exactly needs to be fixed. In short, it’s a mess.
I have a few random observations about the situation I’ll share with you here, along with a history lesson about how the 2013 election fits into the history of the Hall of Fame itself, pointing toward what I think might happen, or at least wouldn’t be surprised to see happen.
I’ve seen this all before and worse, in my research for a pair of articles I wrote about the 1945 election while working at the Hall of Fame. That was the thorniest election between the first one and this year’s, especially in terms of a substantial field of very qualified players causing the vote to be spread around just enough to keep any one of them from being elected. In 1945, there were thirty-three (33) future Hall of Famers who received at least 5% of the vote. Seven of them got at least 50%, topped by Frank Chance with 72.3% and Rube Waddell with 62.3. Even the most conservative observers today who advocate Hall of Fame election only to “no-brainers” would find at least 12-15 worthies on that ballot–Lefty Grove, Carl Hubbell, Three Finger Brown, and Kid Nichols, to name just a few. A whopping 94 players got votes, including 56 future Hall of Famers. No wonder nobody got elected.
Did the Hall of Fame take this statistical defeat lying down? No sirree. Since the 1939 inauguration of the museum, this was only the second election (Rogers Hornsby was elected in 1942), and too many good players had been jammed into a hopeless backlog. The Hall of Fame needed to get more players into their museum to attract more visitors once the war was in the past. A six-man “Committee on Old Timers” met that summer and changed the rules. The BBWAA would now hold annual elections, initially using a two-tier run-off format that would make it easier to elect players. In addition, the writers’ jurisdiction would extend only as far back as 1910, with a separate committee, appointed by the Hall’s Board of Trustees, mandated to elect earlier players.
Exercising this free privilege, they promptly elected ten people, including the likes of Jim O’Rourke and Roger Bresnahan. In 1946, after another BBWAA shutout, they elected eleven more, including Tinker, Evers and Chance, along with Rube Waddell and the man felt by today’s historians to be the worst Hall of Famer ever elected solely as a player: Tommy McCarthy. As Bill James declared in The Politics of Glory, those last eleven choices, made in the same year that the BBWAA declined to elect Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove, forever eliminated any elite, overblown premise of making super-excellence a prerequisite for getting a plaque in Cooperstown.
This year, when the electorate couldn’t even find a consensus on a no-brainer like Craig Biggio, it is appropriate that in its desperation to create an excuse for tourists to come root for someone at the July induction ceremony, the Hall of Fame has decided to honor those ten 1945 electees. They didn’t have their own ceremony that year, you see, because of the war, and when the Hall of Fame initiated its annual ceremony in 1946, none of them showed up to receive the honor in person. The only electee from 1945-46 who did travel to the ceremony was Ed Walsh. Anyway, if you’re a major devotee of players like King Kelly and Ed Delahanty, or that vanished breed, the player-manager, like Fred Clarke and Jimmy Collins, this is your big chance to go to Cooperstown and get as close as you ever will to the stage to hear your favorite’s name mentioned at an induction ceremony for the first time since the day they didn’t show up.
What is the Hall of Fame going to do about a voting logjam that is not likely to unsnarl on its own? The eligibility of at least a few no-brainers in the next three ballots will make it certain that living players will be inducted every July, but everyone else will stand still, and the time will come again when the Hall–and the merchants of Cooperstown–will depend on the election of some of today’s uncertainties. They depended on an election this year, and they were disappointed. The Hall of Fame doesn’t have a history of letting other entities dictate its realities. They’ve redone the remnants of that original Committee on Old Timers many times, tinkering with several versions of the Veterans Committee just in the last decade. In 2012, they even put a couple of independent historians on the committee, which helped result in the election of Deacon White and Hank O’Day.
Clearly, the Hall of Fame has taken the high road so far concerning the “Steroids Era,” that is, an extension of Bud Selig’s head-in-the-sand avoidance of acknowledging any more than is absolutely inescapable. The Hall does tell the story of steroids in its label for the Barry Bonds “asterisk ball” in the Records Room on the third floor. There are also plenty of files of material on the subject in the library. As a museum, they have adhered to their responsibility to tell the story of what happened. But staff members have been advised not to speculate about which players may have used PEDs and how that affected their performance or their place in history. It has long been a policy to prohibit staff from advocating or rejecting the credentials of any candidate for election, and rightly so. A cruel fate awaits any employee who, acting as a de facto spokesman for the Hall of Fame, tells a visitor that the odds are against Roger Clemens ever being elected because too many people believe he cheated.
Thus the Hall itself has refrained from any public statement addressing the issue of whether PED use should disqualify anyone from election. The Hall has preferred to let the so-called “character clause” speak for itself, and this year it spoke to certain writers in a way that gave them an excuse to leave all the “steroid era” nominees off their ballots. That works against the Hall’s long-term interest in getting plaques on the walls to get people into the gallery. So it wouldn’t surprise me to see the Hall’s Board of Trustees do something about it. They might, at some point, decide that they can add by subtracting, that by throwing a few people under the bus, they can keep the bus moving forward.
The Hall of Fame’s Rule of Election #5 lists six criteria to be weighed by voters. Half relate to skills on the field; half do not. Voters don’t have too much trouble evaluating a player’s “record, playing ability. . .and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” To take Barry Bonds as an example, all three areas are no-brainers. He had one of the best careers ever statistically, he was extremely talented in batting, running, and fielding, and his record number of MVP Awards tells us how much he helped his team(s). The other three criteria seem just as clearly in the negative column when applied to the Bonds we have come to know: integrity, sportsmanship, character.
It is difficult to make the case that any known user of PEDs has displayed basic integrity, a sense of fair play, or strength of any kind. If they have failed to meet half of the criteria, how can they be honored? Of course the Hall’s rules don’t describe those criteria in detail or give the voters any guidance on which traits might carry more weight than others. The tendency over decades of voting has been to emphasize the player’s ability over everything. It accounts for the election of players like Dizzy Dean, whose enormous talent was blunted by an injury that kept his career totals way below what we regard today as minimally qualified. This year it accounted in part for the failure to elect Craig Biggio, and before him the likes of Bert Blyleven, Jim Kaat and Tommy John . The only bad thing some people have said about these careers is that the player didn’t have many outstanding individual seasons, seldom led the league in a significant stat, and merely accumulated big numbers by lasting so long. In Biggio’s case, more than 30% of the voters decided that he was somewhat lacking in the talent department, preventing his great stats from turning (yet) into immortal stats.
But suppose the Hall of Fame clarified Rule 5. Suppose they issued a statement that players who demonstrably used PEDs had violated key terms of that rule and therefore would not be eligible for the BBWAA ballot. How would you determine that? One simple way would be to say that all players who were named in the Mitchell Report–a process in which the players participated and which has already affected a couple of players’ chances of election–would be ineligible for the BBWAA ballot. That would eliminate a lot of the troubling cases in the news this week: Bonds, Clemens, Palmeiro were on the ballot and the report, which also named upcoming hopefuls like Andy Pettitte, Gary Sheffield, and Kevin Brown.
With those players off the ballot, two things would happen. First, the less crowded field would narrow the spreading effect that helped louse things up this year. Second, writers would know where the line had been drawn and would not be able to exclude players who have nothing against them besides guilt by association. That would give Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, among others, a clearer path to the election they deserve. Other players who were not named in that report but have been caught–Manny Ramirez is the best example–could easily be added to that list.
The Hall might decide that this only applied to the BBWAA election, leaving the miscreants open to election by some Veterans Committee to be named at a later date; I can see the 87th version of the VC, patched together in 2113, deciding it was time to go back and find the Deacon White of their perspective, maybe someone like Bonds or Clemens whose record would finally be regarded as strong enough to overcome the negative factors. That was part of the Hall of Fame’s approach to Pete Rose, acknowledging that if got reinstated by MLB after his period of eligibility for the BBWAA ballot had expired, he could be considered by the VC. Revising Rule 5 would take the current burden off the BBWAA and its individual members, who have twisted themselves into knots this winter trying to justify their widely varying points of view. It would also send a message to players considering steroids, letting them know of an additional penalty for getting caught. Would having to wait two decades after retirement to be eligible for the Hall of Fame have slowed down Barry Bonds? Maybe.
There is plenty of precedent for the BBWAA making worthy candidates wait for election, as if they exert some kind of group will rather than being the sum of individuals quirks and consciences. Roberto Alomar was the most recent example of a no-brainer talent who wasn’t elected the first time because some writers punished him for spitting at an umpire. The umpire forgave him long before some of the writers did, but there is a recurring sentiment in some voters that “I know he’s a Hall of Famer, and I don’t mind if he’s there someday, but I think he ought to wait and I’m not going to be part of the group that ignores his misdeed(s) and elects him the first time.” We’ve heard that this year regarding Bonds and Clemens. Juan Marichal, a gentleman who experienced ten seconds of anger on the field and bopped a player over the head with a bat, didn’t get in until his third year on the ballot. Gaylord Perry, an admitted cheater of the rules of play, also waited until his third election to make it. Even Yogi Berra, with his three MVP Awards and all those World Series rings, didn’t make it until his second year, though what reason 118 writers found to justify not voting for him the first time is beyond me. My point is that if Juan Marichal could be punished for two years for whacking someone with a bat, Barry Bonds can be punished for awhile for whacking baseball’s integrity over the head with his batting.
Incidentally, I used to maintain that Bonds and Clemens should be elected because they had established HOF credentials before the time when they started using steroids. But I no longer feel that way. They shouldn’t be let off the hook for that. It would be like saying that Richard Nixon shouldn’t have paid any price for authorizing and covering up the Watergate break-in because he was going to win the election anyway. It reveals an even deeper character weakness when a person in a superior position still resorts to dishonest methods to gain an even greater advantage. Nixon paid the price.
Should Bonds, Clemens & Company pay a price now for what they did then? Should exclusion from the Hall of Fame be that price? A lot of things we hear all the time about this issue are irrelevant. Some people say that there are so many cheaters, racists, felons, alcoholics, and all-around bad guys in the Hall of Fame already that nobody today should be judged. Some say that steroids and other PEDs weren’t against baseball’s rules back then, so it was okay that players used them. Some say that because the people running baseball, starting at the top with Bud Selig and moving don the ladder to team executives, managers, and teammates, condoned the methods of the “Steroid Era,” we should condone it too. None of that matters. So what if electors, players and executives have made big mistakes in the past. It doesn’t follow that we have to continue along the same path of condonement and glorification. Don’t be suckered in by that false logic. It’s the same explanation that child abusers give–their parents did it to them and they didn’t know any better than to do it to their children. You can’t simply point to an illegal spitball pitcher or a cocaine user’s current presence in the Hall of Fame and say it permanently excuses any other candidate who used drugs. So yes, everyone should pay a price. We can’t go back and change the games themselves or their results. But what we can do is refuse to heap honors on them. So I for one applaud the BBWAA electorate for voicing a strong, albeit belated, objection to glorifying steroids users.
The precedent for today’s fiasco is the prevalence of gambling before the “Black Sox scandal” of 1920. There are key similarities: betting on games was not against baseball’s rules in until 1927, and while there was no specific clause in the rules covering punishment for throwing games, it was unwritten policy to sweep it under the carpet. As with steroids, everyone in baseball knew that certain players were throwing games, yet the most celebrated, transparent, and unrepentant game-thrower, Hal Chase, was not barred from the major leagues. Commissioner Landis kicked the Black Sox out, even guilt-only-by-association Buck Weaver, as a way of signaling that such dishonesty would not be tolerated. After more than two decades of letting it go, Landis came along and said that’s enough. That’s all the BBWAA has done this year. After two decades of nearly everyone involved in baseball turning their heads and letting it go, the BBWAA stood up and said “no, someone has to make them answerable for what they did.” The Hall of Fame can make it easy for everybody. Instead of taking the chance that the BBWAA will never elect any of these guys, it can say “these guys aren’t eligible, but those guys are,” and grease the way for those guys to get in.
Would the Hall of Fame actually do this? There are a lot of factors involved, but I think they might. There certainly is precedent for the Hall telling the BBWAA whom it can and cannot consider on its ballot, and I don’t mean just in 1945-46. I’m talking about the so-called “Pete Rose rule” of 1991. Rose had been added to the commissioner’s “Ineligible List” in 1989, but he wasn’t eligible for the BBWAA ballot until 1992. There was nothing in the election rules prohibiting ineligible players from getting votes on the ballot. In fact, Joe Jackson, banished since 1920, received votes in two elections, 1936 and 1946. There was a genuine fear at the Hall of Fame that the writers might elect Rose, who had been immensely popular with them and was as strong a candidate for unanimous election as there ever was before he screwed it up.
How real was this fear? Here is the text of a memo written on June 5, 1990, by Bill Guilfoile, the Hall of Fame’s Associate Director at the time, their #2 man and PR spokesman. It was sent to his two bosses, HOF President Edward Stack and Director Howard Talbot. Here is what was on Guilfoile’s mind:
“If we are considering changing the Rules for Election by the BBWAA to include adding the sentence, “No-one who is under suspension (or ‘who has been banished’) from baseball at the time of the election shall be included on the ballot”, a revision which I strongly recommend. I believe there is some urgency about accomplishing this within the month for the following reasons:
- Rumors are that Pete Rose will be applying for reinstatement sometime this summer. It would be imperative that this revision be announced prior to his application.
- The annoucement should be made before the Hall of Fame ballot is announced for the 1991 election.
- We should not wait for the August Board of Directors’ meeting. Action taken at that time would naturally result in wide-spread publicity which would detract from the media coverage due the inductees.
- After the rule change was implemented, some HOF apologists insisted that it wasn’t a change but merely a clarification of long-standing policy. It had been an unwritten practice, but since Guilfoile didn’t trust the writers, he wanted to put it in writing.
- He sure was eager to get that change passed before Rose applied for reinstatement. In other words, he wanted the person deciding Rose’s fate–Fay Vincent, who in less than a year had established himself as something other than the knee-jerk owners’ puppet like his predecessors–to be sure to realize that by reinstating Rose, he would also make it possible for the man who (in the owners’ eyes) killed Vincent’s mentor, Bart Giamatti, to be elected to the Hall of Fame, on whose Board of Trustees Vincent sat, as had all of his predecessors. That would stack the deck further against Rose.
- He wanted to keep the thing as hush-hush as possible. He said it was because he didn’t want to detract from the inductees to announce the change during the Board’s meeting that weekend. But they could have made the decision without announcing it right away. No, Guilfoile wanted it done before anybody who cared was anywhere near Cooperstown. He didn’t get his wish.
- The last thing he wanted was to let the writers decide. He had time on his side, with the relevant election more than 18 months away. But he didn’t want to take chances. If the Hall of Fame could put it in black and white that all players who meet this condition can’t be on the ballot, the BBWAA wouldn’t be able to do anything it. Actually, they could. In the 1992 ballot, 41 writers voted for Pete Rose (9.2%) even though his name was not on the ballot. He finished one vote behind Curt Flood and one ahead of Bobby Bonds. He got 14 and 19 symbolic votes in the next two elections, then vanished from completed ballots.