>On Rights and Responsibilities in Hall of Fame Voting: Do the Job Right or Don’t Do It At All

>By The Common Man

A couple of days ago seemed to be Hall of Fame Day around the internets, as SI’s Jon Heyman released his ballot which was predictably non-sensical and haphazard (Update: Heyman has since published a column explaining his voting. While TCM doesn’t agree with his vote, nor his criteria (“in some ways you just had to be there” and “impact,” and especially his assertions for Morris over Blyleven), it’s clear that Jon has put a great deal of thought into his vote and has tried to be as consistent and true to his own criteria as possible.  He also strikes a very consiliatory and reasonable tone, and demonstrates an active interest in rethinking his previous votes.  He is also not trying to enforce a new standard on the Hall.  The Common Man is sorry, Jon, for suggesting otherwise.) and it was commented on here. Also, Hall of Fame voter Paul Leume offered to give readers a chance to have some input on his ballot over on Around the Horn. Paul announced his dissatisfaction that the Hall’s criteria for membership has been less than stringent in the past trimmed his 33 man ballot down to a more manageable number by crossing off players who did not meet his criteria, which he defined as:

“To me there is only one category of ball players that should be considered for the Hall of Fame. That category consists of those once in a generation type ball players that were dominant at their position during the era they played in for an extended period of time. These are players who changed the way the game was played and managed.”

This criteria, however, gave rise to serious objections by Bill and The Common Man, who contributed extensively to the comments section, and who suggested that Leume should face dire consequences for his desire to actively reshape the Hall of Fame’s body through his voting. Bill wrote, “

The Hall is what it is, and I think voters, while obviously totally free to apply their own valuations of players and such, have an obligation to do their best to more or less hold to the Hall’s already entrenched standards. If you’re going to say ‘I know the Hall is this, but I think it should be limited to this instead, so I’m going to vote as though that’s what it is,’ in my opinion, you should have your vote taken away. You’ve been given a responsibility to the sport and the institution, and you’re utterly failing to uphold it.”

The Common Man echoed, and perhaps amplified, Bill’s sentiments,

“You seem to be announcing a decision to completely abdicate your responsibility to the public and to the Hall of Fame as a voter and is an attempt to substitute your own subjective and arbitrary definition of a ‘Hall of Famer’ for one that has been previously established by the Hall and your brethren. You have crossed over from an arbiter to a politician…. Voters had to think carefully about these players to parse between them and less worthy candidates and came to the conclusion that, indeed, they were worthy. To hear you say you’re not willing to do the heavy lifting is infuriating and sad. If you’re not going to do your job, then stand aside so someone else, who is willing, can.”

 All of which gives rise to an important question, what are the responsibilities of a Hall of Fame voter in 2010?

First, an important caveat. No one here is saying that a voter should have his or her vote stripped because they do or do not support a particular candidate. Nor does anyone on this site believe that voters need to use the same criteria (for instance WAR). We, at The Platoon Advantage, believe in no way that our opinions are sacrosanct. And we acknowledge voters are entrusted to make distinctions between the players by the Hall of Fame and the Baseball Writers’ Association of America because of their general knowledge about the game.

Responsibility #1: Respect the process.

Leume writes, “When someone says to you ‘is this guy a HOF player?’ if you even have to think about it and mull it over, he’s not…. Albert Pujols IN if he quits tomorrow, no brainer. Jason Giambi, NO – It’s really simple when you come down to it.” As Bill points out, however, writers are not asked to answer just the easy questions. If it were easy, every writer would have understood that Yogi Berra, Roy Campanella, and Harmon Killebrew were Hall of Famers the moment they appeared on the ballot. Instead, each of them had to wait to be elected. And they had to wait because writers had to re-calibrate what it meant to be a Hall of Famer. They had to understand that Berra and Campanella’s low homer totals were actually incredibly impressive for catchers, who tend to have a shorter career. They needed to understand the incredible value of Killebrew’s power (even if they didn’t yet grasp the importance of his patience). And perhaps at first glance, in their kneejerk response, they missed that.

There will be guys that writers don’t need to research (like Pujols or Aaron or Seaver), but there will always be tougher calls (like Mark McGwire, Barry Larkin, and Bert Blyleven) whose greatness may not be immediately evident at first pass. Just because a writer has been entrusted with a vote, doesn’t mean that writer is the be-all-and-end-all of baseball knowledge, and they owe it to themselves, their colleagues, the Hall of Fame, the players, and fans everywhere to do research and think carefully about their vote. Otherwise, superior players like Lou Whitaker may be forced off the ballot.

Responsibility #2: Know your history.

This goes not just for the history of the players involved but for the history of the Hall of Fame. Regardless of what Leume thinks, the Hall of Fame has never been exclusively for “once in a generation type ball players that were dominant at their position during the era they played in for an extended period of time[, the] players who changed the way the game was played and managed.”

In 1939, the voters decided to induct 19th century players, and chose Willie Keeler and Buck Ewing, along with George Sisler. All of them were, no doubt, fine players, but when stacked up next to the earlier classes that inducted the no-brainers (Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, etc.), it paled in comparison. And the Hall of Fame realized, over the next seven years (in which only Rogers Hornsby was elected) that it was far more important to elect somebody rather than nobody. So in 1945, they elected nine members, including Hugh Duffy, Jimmy Collins, Roger Bresnahan, and Jim O’Rourke. In 1946, they elected another ten, including Tinker, Evers, Chance, Chesbro, and, perhaps the worst player in the Hall of Fame, Tommy McCarthy.

The Hall of Fame hasn’t been what Leume and like-minded writers think it is, therefore, for the past 70 years. Yet Leume wants to pretend that this history does not exist. That the precedent has not been set. Instead, he wants to create his own Hall of Fame that bears no resemblance to the current one. But that’s not noble. That’s not returning the Hall of Fame to its roots. That’s saying, I know what the Hall of Fame is, but I don’t approve and I’m going to do something about it. It’s hubris.

By looking at this precedent, Paul is afraid that “There will be a time in your life…when they are placing every Tom Dick and Harry who ever had an above average WAR rating in the Hall and you will become disenchanted as the honor of getting in looses its meaning.” [sic] But acknowledging that this precedent exists doesn’t mean that we have to open the Hall of Fame to the lowest common denominator of player. Indeed, we can acknowledge that Tommy McCarthy, Ross Youngs, Elmer Flick, and Freddie Lindstrom were terrible selections and not use them in our analysis. We can look at whether a player, for instance, would be an above average Hall of Famer at his position. We can look to see whether a player’s inclusion significantly improves the quality of the membership body compared to who’s already in. We can use some damn common sense.

Voters need to respect what the Hall of Fame body has become, and use their best judgment to make sure that they are honoring both the players and the institution in the manner that both deserve. They cannot choose to ignore the history of the Hall and its membership.

Responsibility 3: Be intellectually consistent.

Look, again, The Common Man doesn’t think that a writer who would vote for Jack Morris is a bad voter. Indeed, if a voter thinks that Jack Morris was a Hall of Fame caliber pitcher, he should have every right to cast that vote. But that voter then needs to be willing to vote for every player who is more worthy than Jack Morris. And there are HOF eligible pitchers who were much, much better than Black Jack.  Such things have been demonstrably proven. Bert Blyleven, for instance, was far superior. He pitched more and longer, he won more games, his ERA was better relative to his league than Morris, he struck out more batters, he performed better in the postseason.

And if you believe in something as stupid as pitching to the score, Blyleven was better at that too. In which his team scored 0-2 runs, Bert had a 3.35 ERA and a .193 winning percentage. In games that Morris pitched, in which his team scored 0-2 runs, Jack had a 4.00 ERA and a .134 winning percentage. In fact, Blyleven has a winning percentage that’s better than Morris in games that his team scored more than 5 runs as well. And the two are virtually tied in winning percentage (.598 for Morris, .595 for Bert) in games where their teams scored 3-5 runs. The only reason Blyleven’s overall winning percentage is so much lower than Morris’s is that Bert’s teams scored fewer than 3 runs per game in more than a third (34.5%) of his starts, while Morris’s clubs scored fewer than 3 runs in only 26% of his. Blyleven lost so many more games, then, because he was more often put in a position to lose. And in every aspect of a pitcher’s job, he was better than Morris.

 

Likewise, a writer can think Jim Rice is a Hall of Famer. But if he really thinks that, he should be prepared to vote for Tim Raines, who was miles better than Rice was in every aspect of the game except hitting homeruns. And a writer can believe in his heart of hearts that Omar Vizquel is a Hall of Famer. But then he’d better be voting for Barry Larkin and Alan Trammell. The list goes on.

Unless a writer is taking the “fame” portion of “Hall of Fame” literally, they have no excuses for thinking that Morris, Rice, or Vizquel are better candidates. If a writer argues differently, they are either being intellectually inconsistent, intentionally obtuse, or woefully and willfully ignorant for reasons that we can’t really understand.

Responsibility #4: Check your work and have an open mind.

Don’t just rely on yourself to make these judgments. Talk to other voters. Talk to fans (who, other than the players, are the real reason the Hall of Fame exists in the first place). Talk to researchers and historians and writers who don’t have a vote. Talk to former players and executives. Seek out advice. And if it seems as though others might have a stronger argument, it’s ok to acknowledge you might be wrong.

This institution is important to baseball fans and important to the game of baseball. And to be endowed with the honor of determining who gets to go into the Hall of Fame and who has to stay out is a sacred trust. You owe it to yourself, to the Hall, to your colleagues, to the candidates, and to the fans to give your best effort. Obviously, voters are busy men and women, who have huge time commitments. But if they cannot devote the necessary time and energy to doing their due diligence, voters should have the common decency to either not submit a ballot or have their rights taken from them and given to someone who does care enough to weigh the decision carefully.

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