After last year’s debacle, the Baseball Writers thankfully inducted three worthy players into the Hall of Fame. Yesterday, ballots revealed that Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and Frank Thomas will be the next class of players inducted into Cooperstown. Craig Biggio nearly made it, and his voting jump from 68.2% to 74.8% places him in a good position to make it to the Hall in 2015. Catcher Mike Piazza was the next biggest winner, as his stock improved from 57.8% to 62.2%. The most important loser was Jeff Bagwell, who dropped to 54.3% of the vote in 2014 (from 59.6% in 2013).
Come Hall of Fame time, my feeling as a baseball fan is increasingly one of astonishment and anger. The absurd tactics and false rules placed by writers upon the process are increasingly astonishing. As widely reported, for example, one writer only included Jack Morris — a steroids era player — to protest including players from the “Steroids Era” on his ballot. Another writer doesn’t like seeing a lot of players inducted in a single year, so they artificially limited their ballot to three picks. As widely reported, Deadspin obtained a ballot from a writer and turned that ballot over to the fans. These oddities are in addition to the general score of writers that do not believe in “true” first ballot hall of famers, or refuse to allow for “unanimous” first ballot selections.
Beyond these astonishing tactics, I feel angry as a baseball fan that the writers are ruining several players’ chances to enter the HOF. As a baseball history nut, it’s infuriating when any rightful candidate does not enter Cooperstown (like the Ron Santo debacle — only the Grim Reaper could solve that one). As a fan that grew up in the 1990s and became an everyday fan in the 2000s, it is especially infuriating to be told that our generation of players is not worthy for the Hall (Could one imagine the absurdity of, say, voters excluding great 1960s pitchers that worked during a deadball era? Would fans stand for that?). One wonders how older fans or the older writers would feel if he held the PEDs candle to earlier generations, or the cheating issue. If we scrutinized earlier generations of players as we did the current generation, would Nolan Ryan be good enough to enter the Hall on his first ballot? The biggest problem is, there are a lot of great players from this generation, regardless of circumstance. Baseball writers certainly didn’t hold segregation against the white players inducted in the early classes, or amphetamine use against the ballplayers from the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s; in this regard, it seems absurd to hold actual or suspected PED use against the current ballot.
Mostly, it just stinks to have the players you watched and grew up with denied by an older class of baseball writers. For no good reason. In a previous era of voting, Barry Bonds, Jeff Bagwell, and Roger Clemens would be first ballot members of Cooperstown, just like Ryan, Robin Yount, George Brett, Eddie Murray, etc.
Yet, it is wonderful to have Thomas, Maddux, and Glavine in the Hall. Getting three extremely qualified players off the ballot in one year is key for the writers. As Dave Cameron notes, writers are indeed becoming more picky and will have difficult tasks on their future ballots. Furthermore, as the eras on the ballots shifted from the 1960s and 1970s to the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s, the increases in hitting friendly environments produced more Cooperstown-worthy players (in terms of statistics). It is arguable that this shift in hitting environments (which is not merely due to PEDs, but also allegations of juiced baseballs and smaller ballparks) caught voters off guard, for basic hitting measures that stood as surefire HOF-performances in previous decades did not look as great. Other ideological shifts, including full-time DH players and specialized closers, impacted debates about voting.
Bill James’s Hall of Fame Monitor reflects the impact of the hitting environment on HOF-worthy careers in terms of statistics. It is also a solid estimate due to its inclusion of awards and All Star appearances, fielding position, and milestone judgments. In this case, one might question how institutional factors such as expansion, or the requirements of all 30 teams to have All-Star representatives, impacts Hall of Fame voting (i.e., if the number of “elected” or “non-elected” stars is forced to expand, the impact of true stars may be diluted). In general, a HOFm score of 100 or better approximates a HOF-worthy player, while a score lower than 100 suggests a player that may not be HOF-worthy. Over 30 years of voting, the number of potentially HOF-worthy players has doubled:
|Ballot||HOFm >100||HOFm Inducted||HOFm Eliminated||Note|
|2014||22||G. Maddux / T. Glavine / F. Thomas||J. Morris / R. Palmeiro / L. Gonzalez|
|2013||19||D. Murphy / B. Williams / J. Mesa|
|2012||14||B. Larkin||J. Gonzalez|
|2011||17||R. Alomar / B. Blyleven||D. Parker / J. Franco|
|2010||14||A. Dawson||A. Galarraga|
|2009||13||R. Henderson / J. Rice||T. John / D. Cone|
|2008||13||R. Gossage||D. Concepcion|
|2007||18||C. Ripken / T. Gwynn||S. Garvey / A. Belle / J. Canseco|
|2006||14||B. Sutter inducted with <100 HOFm|
|2005||15||W. Boggs / R. Sandberg|
|2004||16||P. Molitor / D. Eckersley|
|2003||17||E. Murray / G. Carter||J. Kaat|
|2002||16||O. Smith||R. Guidry|
|2001||16||D. Winfield / K. Puckett||L. Parrish|
|2000||15||C. Fisk||J. Reardon / B. Boone||T. Perez inducted with <100 HOFm|
|1999||15||N. Ryan / G. Brett / R. Yount|
|1994||12||S. Carlton||O. Cepeda / T. Simmons / P. Rose|
|1992||8||T. Seaver / R. Fingers||M. Wills|
|1991||10||R. Carew / G. Perry / F. Jenkins||H. Kuenn / A. Oliver|
|1990||9||J. Palmer / J. Morgan|
|1989||9||J. Bench / C. Yastrzemski|
|1987||6||B. Williams / C. Hunter|
|1985||9||L. Brock / H. Wilhelm||N. Fox|
Fun Side Note: In recent years, I’ve toyed with the notion of an “Anti Hall of Fame” as an institution. Players such as Pete Rose or Shoeless Joe Jackson could be included, as well as labor casualties (Curt Flood), minor league integrators (Dick Allen), or ballot snubs (Ron Santo is my favorite example, but there are others). This column of >100 HOFm players that were excluded during voting form quite a formidible group, including Kuenn, Ted Simmons, Guidry, Parrish, etc.
As Cooperstown’s candidates have proliferated, and statistical records become stronger, the number of players elected to the Hall has declined:
|Decade||Average HOFm >100 on ballot||Total Players Inducted|
Notably, if one takes a glimpse at recent ballots, one might note that writers make stronger Ideological cases for players in order to eliminate or qualify players for voting purposes. Taking the 2011 ballot as an example, there were 17 players with a HOFm score higher than 100. 12 of those players can be placed into distinct ideological camps:
(1) The ballot features its first group of “suspected” PED users (please note that I am using this category to describe other writers’ behavior, and not my own views. Not only can I not afford my own lawyer to defend libel cases, I also do not care about suspected PED use. My favorite players growing up came from this era, and I have the Jeff Bagwell t-shirts and Astros hats to prove it. I also think it is problematic that so many writers openly commit libel against some of these players; but, it is a real issue that some writers do not vote for players due to “suspected PED use”). In this case, approximately four players fit into that camp (Palmeiro, Bagwell, J. Gonzalez, and McGwire).
(2) Lost Milestones: As early as 2011, the explosion of home run records and specialized closers rendered some players’ impressive milestones obsolete. McGriff and Lee Smith fell into this category in 2011, and I’d also argue that Jack Morris falls into this camp. Morris’s greatest statistical attribute most typically cited is his prolific win total in the 1980s; this is a matter of ideological dispute among writers.
(3) Three players were arguably lost to Previous Eras. Mattingly, Dale Murphy, and Trammell arguably had statistical records that already appeared outdated or difficult to interpret against the newer retirees.
(4) Two other players were lost to other Ideological Debates: Edgar Martinez faced scrutiny as a near-full time Designated Hitter, and Larry Walker faced scrutiny as arguably the first truly eligible “Coors Field Hitter” on the ballot.
Over time, the writers’ inability to earnestly tackle these issues and vote accordingly will create extreme backlog (as evidenced by the 2013 vote). For these four ideological categories I outlined are also competing against other biases: the “No Unanimous First Ballot” bias or the “Vote for Fewer than 10 Players” ballot arguments are examples of these types of ideological voting behavior. As Cameron notes in his FanGraphs article, voters are electing the current generation of players at a fraction of the rate of previous generations, and they will not have enough spots on their ballots to clear these ideological issues. By 2016, one might be able to divide all 25 potentially HOF-worthy players into ideological categories:
-Suspected PED Users (7)
-Other players from the PED era (use of PEDs unknown) (10-11)
-Lost Milestones (4-5)
-Other Ideological Issues (DH, hitters’ parks, etc.) (2)
-Lost Era (1)
It is worth noting that in 2016, Trammell pojects to be the last “lost era” player. However, the “Lost Milestones” category expands with a gang of closers (Hoffman, Billy Wagner, and Smoltz), and there are at least 10 potentially HOF-worthy players that played in the steroids era without suspicion of PED use (if one doesn’t consider Smoltz a closer, that category expands to 11). Under these circumstances, it is clear that every worthy candidate will not make the HOF, but this has happened in other eras, too. It is not the snubbing of some players that is problematic, but rather the systematic snubbing due to ideological reasons (from excuses about hitters’ parks or DH-roles to arguments about whether or not a player used PEDs).
Despite the prevalence of these ideological issues, there are numerous solutions that can help clear the backlog of eligible HOF candidates.
(1) Expand the definition of the steroids era into mainstream media. From Jim Bouton‘s Ball Four, to Sports Illustrated covers, and quotes from former ballplayers, there is strong evidence that baseball’s performance enhancing drug era begins (at least) in the 1960s. Unfortunately, this evidence stands at the fringes of baseball historians and analysts, rather than in the mainstream definition of the Steroids Era. Perhaps the most problematic ideological issue for the current Hall of Fame class is the definition of the “Official” “Steroids Era” as 1988-present, and the analogous equation of “PEDs” with “steroids,” rather than broader definitions of PEDs. An honest definition of various steroids eras would help clear the stigma of the Official Steroids Era (as the term is currently used).
For whatever reason, reporters and ballplayers are not honest about these issues as they retire. While it is easy for me to call for honesty about this issue since I don’t need to place my professional character on the line, honest dialogue from the 1960s and 1970s players (especially Hall of Fame players) could help clear up when and how players used performance enhancing drugs. My suspicion is that most players in baseball history have used PEDs for health-related purposes, or in order to stay on the field during the summer grind. If this is in fact true, players discussing this issue would help expand the PED eras beyond the Official Steroids Era, and also call into question the potential for such drugs to actually “improve” or “enhance” performance.
(2) Schedule a special Steroids Era election. This might seem extreme, but in fact, many Hall of Famers currently reside in Cooperstown due to special committees. If baseball writers cannot elect players from this era into the Hall, the Hall should step in and produce a historical panel in order to honestly represent this era in baseball’s Museum.
One of the benefits of isolating the “Official Steroids Era” would be that clearer distinctions could be made between candidates. For example, one of the problems with current debates is that some seem to assume that “if Bonds is elected, then Sosa must be elected.” This is certainly not true. Voters have been able to make distinctions between players from previous eras, and the same can be done with the Steroids Era. (As an aside, Tom Haudricourt’s exceptional, inclusive ballot is a great example of how distinctions can be made within an era).
(3) Throw out statistics, and focus on awards. One way to distinguish between worthy or less-than-worthy Hall of Fame candidates in the Official Steroids Era is to focus on the writers’ awards of that era. For example, Bonds accumulated seven MVPs, 14 All-Star selections, 12 Silver Sluggers, and eight Gold Gloves. Outside of his MVP victories, writers voted him in the Top 10 in six other elections. Clearly, Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame; writers of his era showed that he was consistently among the best in his league, and his All-Star selections reflect the same.
(4) Change voting rules. Other potential solutions include defining more specific voting processes, such as mandates for voters to use a specific percentage of voting slots. Given the severity of ideological debates among baseball writers, there has never been a worse baseball era for writers to vote for only one (or three) players. On the other hand, if mandating votes seems undemocratic, then expanding the vote to fans, baseball historians (such as SABR members), players, and front office personnel could help form a greater consensus about this era of player. It is clear that 500+ writers cannot form a great enough consensus about this issue. The Deadspin fan vote for their ballot shows that fans can provide meaningful feedback about players, and also favor some players that fell out of favor with the writers (for further reading, Deadspin‘s “Price of Fame” series is an exceptional display of fan worship and celebration of the game of baseball).
MLB attendance sky-rocketed during the Steroids Era, and has declined as the Testing Era continues (although, attendance remains historically high). Stated simply, fans liked the professionalized entertainment of the Steroids Era. It was a fun era to watch. It seems historically disingenuous to keep the best players from that era out of Cooperstown. That the era was so popular with fans shows that there may be an opportunity to make distinctions between players by polling the people who attended those games. For obvious reasons, including the opinion of players and front office types could also provide distinctions that writers might be unwilling to make.
Conclusion: History and Ideology
Unfortunately, history in general is usually linked to ideology. This is one of the shortcomings of the argument made by writers that history ought to reflect the truth; while this argument purportedly links writers to potential solutions for electing Steroids Era players, it misses one of the key functions of historical records. Humans will frequently use history to form and serve their own moral agenda; if we are ashamed of our rampant consumption of Steroids Era baseball, we may be inclined to downplay its importance and existence in baseball’s Museum. Unfortunately, the ideological revision of history in other fields (such as economics and politics) does not suggest that we will be likely to find a decent solution to the Hall of Fame problem. One might also point out that the greatest gridlocks in Hall of Fame voting correspond with a time of general political deadlock and extreme ideological partisanship. For whatever reason, Americans are rather inclined to find their guns and stick to ‘em — regardless of reason. Unfortunately, debates about “Sabermetrics” or “Playing the Game the Right Way” do not help these strong ideological battles; for whatever reason, some feel that baseball is under attack by certain parties, or some parties feel inclined to attack other eras of baseball (the Jack Morris debate is a good example of how harsh and nasty these debates can be).
As fans, we ought to call for better voting procedures, and we ought to advocate for our own voice in these matters. For, the worst part about the Hall of Fame voting problems is that a small set of professional writers is dictating history of our game. Baseball belong to us. While not every fan will agree about the Steroids Era, one might argue that out battlelines will be softer, for at the end of the day we will want to pass our history down to future generations. How will baseball’s legend fare if, in 25 years, our Hall of Fame classes for the Steroids Era only reflect revisionist aims of writers?
It is time that we take initiative as fans to improve the voting procedure for the Hall of Fame. Our inclusion in HOF voting could be a great strike of amateur joy against the great professionalization of baseball and entertainment in the 20th century. Beyond each ideological issue with Hall of Fame voting, our love for the game can help form a Hall of Fame that adequately reflects the history of the game and our own love for the game. Do not ever forget that this game is ours.
Baseball-Reference. Sports Reference, LLC., 2000-2013.
MLB Advanced Media, LP., 2013.