So you think you know the Baseball Writers?

Jim McIsaac

Monday, a couple of thoughtful and thought-provoking articles about Hall of Fame voting were published by New York newspapers (which was not, I think, entirely coincidentally). First, from the Post's Ken Davidoff:

I’ve come to believe that voting for the Hall of Fame should be a science, rather than an art. If you prioritize your own personal observations ahead of the numbers, then…

1) You’re asserting that you’re considerably more qualified to judge players you’ve seen than those you haven’t.

2) You’re fundamentally going to emphasize a player’s moments you’ve personally witnessed, be it on person or on TV, over those you haven’t.

3) You might even throw in some elements from your personal life, just because they’re tied into those baseball memories. At least, that’s what I did.

I’m not comfortable with any of these notions. And then there’s this: Isn’t the whole idea of a five-year waiting period to shake off the emotional connection to a player’s career and take a more objective view? If we were going to lean more on personal observations, then why wouldn’t we vote on a player immediately upon his retirement?

My only quibble with Davidoff is probably just semantics. He would probably agree that it's not really an either/or proposition; that there's room for both science and art, and in fact almost nobody has one without the other. I mean, the pure scientist might just look at fWAR or JAWS and call it good. Similarly, the pure artist might apply THE FEEL TEST -- you know, "Does this guy feel like a Hall of Famer to me? -- without looking at a single number. And there are more pure artists than pure scientists out there, at least among the actual voters. But of course the vast majority of voters fall somewhere in the middle.

I will say this: As with most things, the farther toward the science end of the continuum you fall, the more accurate you're likely to be. Which is why I think Davidoff has become a fantastic Hall of Fame voter.

Meanwhile, one of Davidoff's Gotham City colleagues, Tyler Kepner, has a pretty radical idea: Completely revamp the process ...

The next thing that must change is the voting process for the Hall of Fame. There are too many unqualified voters — too many voters, period — and too many segments of the baseball world with no say in the process. There has to be a better way to decide the ultimate honor.

To get a ballot for the Hall of Fame, you must be a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America for 10 consecutive years. Most of our membership does an extraordinary job of bringing the game to the fans, just as we did when we started voting for the Hall of Fame in 1936. Most writers care deeply about the responsibility.

But we are an imperfect voting bloc, and to suggest otherwise is naïve. In theory, everybody who covers baseball for 10 years has a depth of knowledge and perspective that should last a lifetime. But it does not always work that way.

As Kepner notes, there are a fair number of longtime BBWAA members who haven't actually covered baseball in quite a while. Meanwhile, there are incredibly knowledgeable people, with decades of experience covering the game, who aren't allowed anywhere near a Hall of Fame ballot. And those two things don't make any sense at all.

l like this very much. In fact, Bill James was (I believe) the first significant writer to make a similar suggestion about the voting population, in The Politics of Glory (disclosure: I did a spot of work on that book). I suspect the following passage might be the most powerful in the whole 452-page book:

Let's think for a moment about the people who can't vote for the Hall of Fame. I can't vote. Tony Kubek can't vote. Tom Seaver can't and Sparky Anderson can't. Bob Costas can't. Larry King can't. Ron Santo can't. Tommy John can't. Keith Olbermann can't. Ron Barr can't. Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays can't vote. Tom Reich can't vote. Bobby Cox can't. Alan and Randy Hendricks can't. Ted Simmons and Syd Thrift can't vote. Jack McKeon can't. Jerry Coleman can't. Your local radio broadcaster, who sees 162 games a year and studies the media notes for an hour before the game so he'll know what he's talking about -- he can't vote. Skip Caray and Don Sutton can't vote. Harry Caray and Steve Stone can't, either. Carlton Fisk can't vote. Tal Smith can't vote. Doug Harvey can't vote. Earl Weaver can't. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan don't get to vote. Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra don't get to vote. Roger Angell can't vote. Steve Wulf can't vote. Craig Wright and Pete Palmer can't vote. George Brett and John Roseboro can't vote.

Well, pardon my asking but why the hell can't we vote? What, none of us knows anything about baseball? Our opinions aren't worth anything?

A decade or so later, Tom Seaver and Tommy John and Willie Mays and Carlton Fisk and Joe Morgan and Yogi Berra and George Brett did get to vote, and you know what happened? Nothing. This was the revamped Veterans Committee, and the National Leaguers voted for National Leaguers and the American Leaguers voted for American Leaguers and nobody got elected. Which wasn't actually a terrible outcome, because Ron Santo was the only truly outstanding candidate (among players) on the whole ballot. My point, though, is that the ex-players are generally so myopic and apathetic and discriminatory (against their non-contemporaries) that I don't believe they're actually qualified to judge Hall of Fame candidates.

But of course Mr. James had something complicated in mind. Essentially, he wanted to include the players (exactly which players, he didn't say) and the fans and the media and the executives and the scholars. He proposed those five groups as nominating bodies; then, the nominated candidates would have to pass muster with four of the five panels. So even if the players couldn't garner enough support for Ron Santo, he could still be elected if the fans and the media and the executives and the scholars were on his side.

All of which was very complicated and now, 20 years later, the BBWAA's part of the process still operates exactly as it did then. However, the various Veterans Committees operating now do include players and writers and executives; also "historians" (although that label is used very loosely). I certainly won't suggest the Hall of Fame has finally nailed down the perfect Veterans Committee process; I think the committees are too small, and they could use some real historians. But the admixture suggests that someone in Cooperstown might have leafed through The Politics of Glory.

But of course Bill wasn't primarily concerned with the Veterans Committee, even while acknowledging that the BBWAA had actually done a damned good job over the years. "The performance of the BBWAA voters," Bill wrote, "isn't the issue."

The problem is, it's wrong.

Very simply, these men have no right to dominate an institution which they did not build, they do not own, and they do not provide the means of support for.

The problem isn't that the writers don't know what they're doing. The problem is that the writers aren't the only people who know something about baseball. The players know something, too. The professionals know something, too. The people who study the game, its history, they know something too.

I agree with all of that.

Well, except there's one thing I don't agree with. I don't really blame the Baseball Writers Association of America. Of course they're going to behave in a self-serving fashion. Of course they're going to protect their turf, even at the expense of their, and the Hall of Fame's, credibility. Of course they're going to resist change, and pretend, as an organization, that the process is essentially perfect, and in fact could be improved only by a) fewer grenades thrown by impudent non-members/non-voters like me, and b) the dissolution of the Veterans Committee, which after all was invented largely to redress any (supposed) errors made by the BBWAA.

It's all perfectly understandable. What's not so understandable is the Hall of Fame's steadfast refusal to even question the BBWAA's dominance. Sure, in a dark room under pressure and off the record, a Hall of Fame board member might admit that they're afraid the BBWAA would respond to such questions with published opprobrium. But hasn't someone in Cooperstown realized by now has realized the BBWAA needs the Hall of Fame more than the Hall of Fame needs the BBWAA?

So yes, the process should be changed. If the BBWAA will come along, kicking and screaming all the way, let them. If not ... well, the Baseball Writers really don't have the market cornered on historical baseball knowledge. Trust me; this is one of the very few things about which I am absolutely sure.

I do, though, have to quibble with Kepner on one thing: the composition of his new committee. For one thing, he wants to make it small; a LOT smaller ...

The modern iteration of the veterans committee — which last year included four Hall of Famers, four current executives and eight historians or members of the news media — offers a guide to a more sensible election process. Here is a proposal that preserves the tradition of B.B.W.A.A. involvement while more accurately reflecting the game as a whole.

A panel of 36 people would participate, with 27 votes (still 75 percent) needed for election. One-third of the panel would be active 10-year members of the baseball writers association. One-third would be Hall of Famers. One-third would include representatives of many other areas: executives, scouts, broadcasters, statistical analysts, historians and so on.

No candidate could be elected without at least some support from each group ... An overview committee — the Hall’s board of directors, perhaps — could select a new batch of voters every year. This would make it a privilege, not a right, to get a ballot, and ensure fresh viewpoints annually from a diverse group with strong credentials.

The smaller the panel, the more likely you'll have a mistake; I believe the whole "wisdom of the crowd" principle applies here. That's one thing. Another is that the smaller the panel, the easier for that worthy board of directors to load it with cronies, yes-men, etc. Although that possibility (likelihood) might be ameliorated by a new batch of voters every year.

So I support the general principle, but I'd probably like to futz around with the numbers ... say, maybe 100 voters, with 40 active BBWAA members, 30 Hall of Fame players and managers, and 30 others (executives, broadcasters, Rob Neyers, and the like). And gosh, it really would be nice to get the fans involved somehow. But now we're just arguing over details; the hard part is actually convincing the Hall of Fame to do something that's better than what they've got now. Oh, but wait! Maybe here comes the BBWAA to the rescue!

The push for a change in the voting process could come from the Hall of Fame board, but it really should come from the writers ourselves. Part of our job description is offering perspective and context to our readers. Part of the writing process is editing our articles, making them tighter and better.

It is time to apply all of that to this task. We must acknowledge that we are no longer — if we ever really were — the only people whose opinions should count. It is time to improve our process.

a. when pigs fly
b. hahahahahahaha
c. don't hold your breath
d. all of the above

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