Simplifying the process – by G. Scott Thomas

My new book, Cooperstown at the Crossroads, offers a nine-point plan to reinvigorate the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (The book is now available from Niawanda Books.) I’m going into detail about each of my nine proposals on successive Fridays in this newsletter. Today — Point No. 2, a new committee.

The Hall of Fame’s election system made sense when it was devised in 1936.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America was assigned the task of inducting the 20th century’s best players. Most big-league sportswriters had been covering baseball for 10 to 20 years, many even longer. They had seen a majority (if not all) of their era’s greats in action, and they were (presumably) impartial. The hall’s plan called for roughly 200 BBWAA members to pool their wisdom in annual elections. Who better to make such fateful decisions?

The 19th century was a different matter. Current writers hadn’t seen players of such ancient vintage, so a special panel of elderly experts was created. It would go by various names — the Old-Timers Committee, the Centennial Commission, the Veterans Committee — but the principle was always the same. A small group would meet in a small room and select honorees from long ago.

The assumption, of course, was that the committee was a stopgap, a short-lived necessity. It would be phased out in a decade or so, perhaps around 1950. The 19th century’s icons would have been inducted by then, as would the outstanding players from the period between 1900 and 1920. The distant past would therefore be a settled matter, and the BBWAA’s members could carry on with the task of judging the stars they had actually covered.

But reality failed to adhere to this scenario. It was rerouted by the adjustments that the Hall of Fame relentlessly made to its election procedures. Ken Smith, an unapologetic cheerleader who eventually became the hall’s director, counted more than 20 rule changes in the first two decades. Critics snorted at this instability, but Smith detected only the pursuit of excellence.

“Nobody in baseball, from the commissioner, executives, and Cooperstown people to the men on the field and in the press box and the multitude of fans,” Smith insisted, “would stand for any carelessness in electing people to the Hall of Fame. It required wise, judicious guidance to keep the doors guarded.”

Say what?

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The Old-Timers Committee did not hold a meeting after 1949, tacitly acknowledging that it had outlived its usefulness. But the hall kept tinkering, somehow embedding a new Veterans Committee into the process. The new panel heralded its arrival in 1953 by making six mediocre and uninteresting choices, thereby establishing the unhappy pattern that has persisted to this day.

The hall’s various committees have admitted 133 players, carrying an average quality score of 35.8 points. That’s 39 percent below the average QS of 59.1 points for the BBWAA’s 135 inductions. Here’s another way to view this enormous gap: 59 of the committees’ honorees had quality scores in the poor range, but the same was true of only six players picked by the writers.

The conclusion is obvious. The committee (now a tripartite structure collectively known as the Era Committees) has no reason to exist, and it never did a good job, anyway. It should be eliminated.

The other major player in the selection process, the BBWAA, should also be relieved of its duties, although for a different reason. It’s difficult to find fault with the choices the writers have made over the years, but their monopoly can no longer be justified.

The BBWAA was the logical foundation for the Hall of Fame’s electorate in 1936. Broadcasters weren’t given serious consideration back then, nor did they deserve it. Radio play-by-play was in its infancy, and television was in its experimental phase.

Other sources of potential voters were essentially nonexistent. Few authors were writing about baseball’s history back then, and sabermetric analysis and the internet were decades away from creation. Sportswriters were the only independent observers who dealt with baseball on a daily basis in the 1930s. It made perfect sense to give them the vote.

But that rationale has not been applied for a long time. Hundreds of broadcasters, for instance, spend as much time at the ballpark as beat writers do. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times posed the obvious question in 2013: “Why should people like Vin Scully, Joe Buck, and Jon Miller have no chance to vote for the Hall of Fame?” Why not, indeed? And why aren’t knowledgeable people in other fields brought into the process, too?

I propose the creation of a multifaceted Hall of Fame Selection Committee, vested with the sole authority to induct candidates into the plaque gallery. It will cover baseball’s history in its entirety, uniting the spans previously divided between the BBWAA and the Era Committees. The new panel’s 100 members will be allocated among these groups:

  • BBWAA members (20)

  • Radio and television broadcasters (20)

  • Hall of Famers (20)

  • Statistical analysts (10)

  • Authors and historians (10)

  • Past players, managers, and executives not in the hall (10)

  • Current players, managers, and executives (9)

  • Fans (1)

Members will serve five-year terms. Twenty panelists will depart annually, replaced by 20 newcomers. A designated subcommittee will nominate the new members, keeping within the quotas above, subject to the approval of the hall’s board. (The annual rotation will be launched with staggered terms during the Selection Committee’s initial phase. Twenty of the inaugural members, chosen by lot, will serve for only one year, another 20 for two years, and so on.)

The quotas are self-explanatory, except perhaps for the final entry. Baseball fans will be invited to vote online, submitting a new form each day (if they wish) during a specified voting period. The tabulated results will be converted into a single ballot that reflects the collective opinions of the public. A similar system has been used to great effect by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame since 2012. More than 5 million ballots were submitted by music fans in its 2022 election.

The quota system ensures a broadly representative and inclusive committee. The size of the panel will be manageable — not so large that its members become anonymous, yet not so small that they can be easily manipulated.

Voters will cast individual ballots, just as BBWAA members do today. There will be no meetings in cramped rooms, no opportunities for an overbearing chairman (a reincarnated Frankie Frisch or Joe Brown) to exert his influence on behalf of the latest version of Jesse Haines or Bill Mazeroski, no chances for a carefully constructed cabal to push another Phil Rizzuto through Cooperstown’s gates.

Tyler Kepner’s 2013 critique, mentioned a few paragraphs back, identified the serious flaws that plague the Hall of Fame’s elections: “There are too many unqualified voters — too many voters, period — and too many segments of the baseball world with no say in the process.”

The new Selection Committee addresses — and resolves — those complaints.

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