Hall of Fame Voting Needs Fixing from New Commish

Editor’s Note: This is the ninth in a 10-part series commemorating baseball’s new commissioner with advice for his tenure. To read more about this series, click here.

Voters need to be given a clear guide on how to vote for PED-era players. (via Keith Allison)

Voters need to be given a clear guide on how to vote for PED-era players. (via Keith Allison)

Theoretically, the process of Hall of Fame balloting and the anticipatory buildup to the announcement of the annual Cooperstown class is designed as the prologue to a celebration. For the voters—a group of 550 or so members of the Baseball Writers Association of America who receive the privilege of a ballot following a decade of dutiful beat coverage and press-box confinement—the primary reason to consider the 35 or so accomplished ballplayers on the ballot is to responsibly narrow the list to a chosen few worthy of induction.  It’s an awesome responsibility by any definition, and the vast majority of those with a precious vote take it seriously, many to the point of admirable, explanatory transparency.

The secondary purpose of the Hall of Fame voting is smaller but relevant too, particularly regarding the big picture. It’s a reminder that the rich and enduring history—and the irresistible this-guy-was-better-than-that-guy banter that connects fans through generations—remains baseball’s lifeblood.  Baseball-Reference’s Oracle tool delivers linear connections between players through decades, and it’s a swell way to kill a couple of long innings during a midweek afternoon in the cubicle. Hank Aaron played with Sixto Lezcano on the 1976 Milwaukee Brewers … Sixto Lezcano played with Glenn Wilson on the 1984 Philadelphia Phillies … Glenn Wilson played with Barry Bonds on the 1988 Pittsburgh Pirates. Well, hell, they were practically teammates then. Let’s see how Babe Ruth connects to Bonds …

The discussion of these players—the masterful legends but the mediocre journeymen too—the conversation and debate and beautifully exaggerated recollections and shared experiences, is what baseball is all about. The sport traffics in nostalgia and the sweet sentiment of a summer day spent at the ballpark.  It does so unapologetically, because no apology for warm reminiscence should be necessary.

The Hall of Fame voting—both the anticipation and revelation—is supposed to strengthen this essential thread in baseball’s fabric. For the most part since the first Hall of Fame class was elected in 1936—yes, Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Honus Wagner made for a decent inaugural quintet–the electorate has done dutiful work. There were occasional BBWAA bewilderments (start with Rabbit Maranville, 1954 and work from there) and the veteran’s committee proved masterful purveyors of cronyism. But for the most part through the years there was a collective and conscientious effort to elect the players who–and here’s a novel concept–were the most deserving of election.

That is impossible nowadays. Impossible. It cannot be done with any rhyme or reason or consistency of logic. But the signal to noise ratio regarding the Hall of Fame is as out of whack and eardrum-piercing as it has ever been, and for this reason: The museum’s leadership offers no guidelines whatsoever in how to consider candidates who have been linked to performance-enhancing drugs. All it has seemed to do is try to alleviate its own headache as soon as possible, but with a lobotomy rather than ibuprofen.

In July, the Hall of Fame’s board of directors truncated a player’s stay on the ballot to 10 year from the longstanding 15. The news of this was greeted with howls of righteous (and rightful) indignation by a vast majority of fans who recognized that it would affect and even abort the Cooperstown chances for gradually appreciated candidates such as Tim Raines or Edgar Martinez. Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson told Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci that the “steroid issue” had nothing to do with the decision and that the topic never even came up during the board’s discussion. Idelson noted that only three players since 1980 had been elected after their 10th year on the ballot and thus so many candidates without much hope of election had been left to “twist in the wind.”

Verducci noted that the change may help some PED-linked candidates get earlier consideration from the Expansion Era committee than they would if they remained on the ballot for a full 15 years. It’s a fair point, albeit one tinged with speciousness. Mark McGwire, forever paying for his co-starring role during the inauthentic magic of the summer of ’98, is likely to fall off the ballot in two years rather than seven. That will put him in front of the Expansion Era committee, which meets every three years in rotation with the Pre-Integration Era and Golden Era committees, in 2019 rather than 2022. One suspects he doesn’t see the tradeoff – get lost soon, we’ll see you in four years—all that favorable.

This feels like an attempt to wipe the PED-era players from the conversation since they cannot be wiped from the record books. Idelson and the Hall can explain reasons for cutting candidates’ stay on the ballot to 10 years with enough plausibility that there is no choice but to accept it. But that does not change the fact that the reluctance—refusal—to offer counsel and enlightenment in how consider players who dominated with real or perceived pharmaceutical advantages has caused chronic chaos with the voting.

Home-run king Barry Bonds—self-proclaimed purists and Henry Aaron admirers may not like that title, but it’s true—and Roger Clemens, whose resume confirms he could compete for a spot in the starting rotation of any all-time team, did not receive 75 percent between them in the Hall balloting this year. The conclusion to be drawn from that is that the consensus of voters do not believe they belong in the Hall of Fame. OK. Except that their judgments are based entirely on their own personal beliefs regarding PEDs in baseball rather than any guidance from baseball on how the era should be regarded.

Because there is no guidance from the Hall of Fame, let alone enlightenment, the voting process has become a moralistic free-for-all in which too many voters allow haphazard logic and their own visceral perceptions to determine who is worthy of a checkmark. It’s a process both broken and marked with contradiction, something Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy articulated so well in a recent column for The Players Tribune.

As it stands, the baseball writers are trying to have it both ways: they are acknowledging the existence of the steroid era by leaving obviously deserving candidates out of the Hall, while at the same time slowly giving them more votes as each year passes. To the Hall of Fame voters it may feel like progress, but to me it reeks of denial. This moral grandstanding under the auspices of being linked to steroids raises the concern that over time the buck will be passed to a younger generation of voters who will bear the responsibility of deciding on the Hall-worthiness of the great players from the steroid era.

The passing of that proverbial buck to a younger generation is hardly an appealing solution. It’s probably no solution at all. But it beats the hell out of a status quo in which absurdities such as Jerry Green’s ballot can be allowed to happen with a trademark Bud Selig what-can-we-do-this-is-what-we-wrought shrug. Green, a longtime Detroit News baseball writer, did not vote for Bonds, but did vote for Clemens, McGwire and Gary Sheffield—Bonds’s former workout partner and fellow flax-seed oil connoisseur—on his Hall of Fame ballot. It’s hard to square the logic of such a ballot, and there were other ballots like it. At least two others voted the other way around—for Bonds, but not Clemens.

Until voters are given some semblance of direction and recommendation on how the larger-than-life stars of the PED era should be considered, there are no easy solutions to the variance in perspective among voters. I worry that voting will remain an annual anarchistic free-for-all until the PED guys have all fallen from the ballot and become either the Expansion Era committee’s chronic quandary or the sole responsibility of a yet-to-be-formed special committee tasked with revisiting and reconsidering the era. That certainly would be the Selig way of handling it: Wrap it in another layer of red tape and look away until—voila!—a generation has passed and it’s someone else’s problem.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

But that’s the catch here, and perhaps a reason for hope too. It has become someone else’s problem—and that someone else might just be capable of negotiating and navigating with a purposeful deftness that delivers an actual solution. Rob Manfred, who will become the 10th commissioner in baseball history when he assumes office this month, has a smooth, serious manner publicly. But behind the scenes, he is known as a ferocious and masterful negotiator—some may say manipulator, and many do–with a knack for fulfilling and even exceeding the expectations and demands put upon him by Selig. In a recent profile, Grantland compared him to Tom Hagen, the essential consigliere in “The Godfather.”

Manfred’s greatest achievement in that role? He was crucial in turning Major League Baseball’s see-no-needle, blind-eye approach to PEDs into arguably the most stringent in professional sports. As chief negotiator with the players’ union, he pushed successfully for human-growth-hormone testing and established rigid punishments for those caught using PEDs. He relentlessly pursued the Biogenesis investigation in which 14 players were ultimately suspended, among them habitual self-disgracer Alex Rodriguez.

Some of Major League Baseball’s methods in gathering evidence for the Biogenesis scandal came into question, including such ethically dubious tactics as allegedly paying for information. Rodriguez, whom Manfred suspended for the 2014 season, appealed, claiming he was unfairly targeted. But an arbitrator upheld the punishment, vindicating Manfred and, in a sense, justifying his tactics.

It’s not as if any of the punishments—or Manfred’s process in determining them—were anything less than thorough. As the Grantland profile noted: “By the time he testified in Rodriguez’s arbitration, Manfred could speak confidently about testosterone-epitestosterone ratios, carbon isotope testing, the secretion of doping substances from a player’s body, and masking agents used to foil testers. Once he becomes baseball’s commissioner, Manfred may be the first de facto doping expert to lead a major American sport.”

It makes sense, does it not? The man who led the crackdown on PEDs, who learned the subject to the point of true expertise, who knows where all the syringes are buried, who even determined the scale of punishments … well, isn’t he the ideal candidate to help us find perspective and perhaps even consensus on how the PED era should be addressed in the Hall of Fame voting?

Manfred knows how PEDs affected baseball’s recent past as well as anyone. That should make him an incredibly valuable resource in the thus far haphazard quest to determine how that recent past should be regarded in the present and future.

How will he do it? Well, I’m not entirely sure of the how, honestly. Major League Baseball’s relationship with the Hall of Fame is not exactly a linear boss/underling partnership. The Hall of Fame is a privately operated non-profit with its own board of directors. It is of mutual benefit if their interests run parallel with Major League Baseball’s, but is not necessarily required. It could require some nuanced and savvy navigation from Manfred to cajole the Hall of Fame into establishing some clear and helpful guidelines regarding the PED era so players like Bonds and Clemens can escape this purgatory one way or the other.

Threatening to, say, ban the Hall from presenting its annual FanFest exhibit at the All-Star Game probably would not be the way to gain Cooperstown’s cooperation. But something must be done. This has to be remedied. No, not necessarily today, and not tomorrow, though either day would, of course, be cool.  We can be patient. We know Manfred has more pressing–and lucrative–matters to deal with in his inaugural months as commissioner, as this series has illustrated.

But expecting a clear solution well before the deadline for writers to submit their Hall of Fame ballots in late December? That is reasonable. The way to make sure it happens is the way Manfred has made far more crucial and complex deals happen in the past. He needs to summon the Hall of Fame’s leaders—perhaps Idelson and those board members identified as the most vexed by the flawed legends’ stagnancy on the ballot—and request, with a deadline attached, that they provide guidelines for how to address this era.

Should they resist, well, that’s when consigliere-turned-commish should wield his upgrade in power, his request becoming a loud demand. If the Hall won’t offer guidance, Manfred must make the Hall accept his. Sure, Cooperstown isn’t technically under his jurisdiction.  Like that’s stopped him from getting what he wants before. The doping dopes of Biogenesis can tell you all about that.  


Chad Finn is the sports media columnist for The Boston Globe and a sports columnist for Boston.com. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife, two children and several replacement-level cats. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeChadFinn.
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Spa City
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Spa City

The Hall should resist any pressure by the commissioner to drive the voting process. My suggestion is that the Hall (which is a business that needs to earn money) would generate a LOT of interest (and therefore $) if they started a process of re-evaluating existing Hall of Famers to weed out players who never should have been inducted. The Hall could ask for public comment, set up a separate website to document the process , hold focus groups in Cooperstown, bring in professionals (hopefully FanGraph experts), etc. Fans LOVE lists, and they love weighing in on these types of… Read more »

ThePuck
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ThePuck

Yeah, the MLB commish can’t do anything to change the HOF policies or how the voters choose to vote.

Fred Graboske
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Fred Graboske

If Manfred chooses to involve himself with HOF eligibility, he also should consider Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. If performance on the field is to be the primary criterion, with character also considered, then perhaps a new section of the HOF could be established: “Outstanding Ability But Dubious Character”. Some of the current members (Cobb especially) could be included.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

Wow. This just seems tailor-made to set me off. I believe I’m on record here and at SB Nation MLB for laying out a much better (IMO) system for Hall voting. I won’t drag it out here, it’s quite lengthy, and you can probably find it with my comment name if you’re that interested. But to address a couple small things: “many to the point of admirable, explanatory transparency.” Not nearly enough. As a working journalist myself who actually cares about media ethics, I rail constantly that the members of the BBWAA should step out of the process altogether* because… Read more »

Bret
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Bret

Love it. How Vin Scully does not have a vote is beyond me. The voting process at the very least is flawed and at most a scam.

hopbitters
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hopbitters

Baseball writers are paid to sell advertising. Do you need more of a conflict of interest than that? Not that mlb isn’t built on conflicts of interest. Maybe it makes perfect sense. Just vote on what they did on the field.* When they’re in the Hall, you can objectively state whatever transgressions they might have amassed right next to the plaque and let people judge for themselves. To exclude players like Bonds, Clemens, etc. is to give the illusion that the steroid era never happened. It happened and we were all complicit in it. Just admit it up front and… Read more »

ThePuck
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ThePuck

How can the MLB Commissioner kick the BBWAA out of the voting process when MLB doesn’t run the Hall of Fame? The Hall of Fame decides who votes, not MLB. MLB has no authotity over the HOF.

bucdaddy
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bucdaddy

“that’s when consigliere-turned-commish should wield his upgrade in power, his request becoming a loud demand. … Sure, Cooperstown isn’t technically under [Manfred’s] jurisdiction. Like that’s stopped him from getting what he wants before.”

ThePuck
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ThePuck

Yeah, I read the whole article and that’s just the writer thinking that just because Manfried tries he’d automatically get what he wants. It’s a huge assumption.

A. Hopkins
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A. Hopkins

The Hall of Fame already provides guidance to its voters. The ballot itself states, “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Susan Slusser, and others, are on record saying that the integrity and character clause precludes them from voting for steroid abusers, which seems perfectly reasonable.

John Havok
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John Havok

The character and integrity clause is garbage. That’s not to say that integrity, character and sportsmanship isn’t important, but there’s such a wide range of subjective things that people could defend using that clause that it practically loses all meaning. Cheating lacks integrity, sportsmanship and character. Then why are all the guys who were cheating back in the 60’s allowed in? because they never published that kind of thing back then since indivicuals were covering teams, and if an individual ever put something like that in print, they’d have been fired. Writers and journalists back then would never hat bit… Read more »

carl
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carl

I dunno – it seems pretty clear to me. 2/3 of the voters don’t think that Clemens and Bonds should get in. More think that McGwire shouldn’t get in. Raphael Palmeiro got barely any votes. This isn’t a small minority who are hijacking the clear will of the majority. This IS the majority. In the exhaustive search I conducted to find polls of fans (I typed something into google and looked at the first result), 58% of fans (22K votes) would not put a PED user into the HOF. That’s smaller, but similar, to the percentages who are not voting… Read more »

Ennio Morricowbell
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Ennio Morricowbell

Exactly. The baseball writers don’t want the steroid boys in. The general public doesn’t want them in. Current Hall Of Famers REALLY don’t want them in. The Hall Of Fame vote needs no fixing. If you want to read about the exploits of Bonds or Clemens or McGwire (or Pete Rose for that matter), it’s all right there in the Museum portion of the Hall. Greenies, by the way, weren’t outlawed in baseball until Commissioner Bowie Kuhn did so in April of 1971 — the same moment that anabolic Steroids without a valid prescription were banned. Therefore Mickey Mantle, et.… Read more »

hopbitters
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hopbitters

It doesn’t matter what the fans want or the writers want. This isn’t an insipid reality show decided by the collective texting of the hoi poloi. OK, it is pretty insipid and often as far removed from reality, but that isn’t what it’s supposed to be. It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not an obscene monument to the whims of the time. It’s a museum. It’s there to preserve the history of the sport. We’re talking about some of the best players in the history of the sport and that is reflected by what they did on the field. Now… Read more »

Andy
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Andy

This is not true. A lot of the general public doesn’t care, and a number — probably a little less than half, based on the balloting this year — of the writers don’t, either. And any HoFer that took amphetamines or whatever and doesn’t want them in is a hypocrite.

You say that Mantle et. al. weren’t violating drug policies. That’s true. But neither did Bonds or Clemens or Piazza or Bagwell or numerous others. None of them were ever suspended. As far as official infractions from MLB, they are as guiltless as Mantle et. al.

Ennio Morricowbell
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Ennio Morricowbell

Actually Bonds, Clemens, and McGwire, et. al., were in violation of the MLB Drug Policy put in place by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in April, 1971. This is not a statement of opinion. Under that Drug Policy numerous MLB players were suspended, fined, or directed to perform community service by Commissioners Kuhn and Peter Ueberroth. These penalties were sometimes reduced during the arbitration process, sometimes upheld in their entirety, and in one instance (Fergie Jenkins) revoked. If BALCO or Biogenesis had occurred during the 1980’s all players involved would have been disciplined by whichever MLB Commissioner was in charge at the… Read more »

rubesandbabes
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rubesandbabes

Okay, the problem in the article is the obvious lionizing of Rob Manfred. He’s Bud’s hand-picked replacement. It is easy to have a heavy PED training regimen in baseball right now. 95MPH fastballs all around? How else can it be explained? Anyway, this is the 10 zillioneth internet article about the HOF, built on the premise that something has gone terribly wrong with the HOF voting, and that something is Barry Bonds absence. A couple of years ago, there were posts on this site explaining how a possible silent crotchety cadre of just 25% of the voters could always keep… Read more »

Statsdon'tlie
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Statsdon'tlie

As a kid back in the late 80’s, my cousins and I used to play fantasy baseball. We will select players from games we hand picked in turns for the next day games from our collection of cards to make our team and wait till that days paper for the stats. We will get the stats and begin our match in a Magic the Gathering concept. We didn’t care for off field activities, all that mattered was baseball stats. A double play trumps 2 singles or wipes a triple into a single, and etc. At the end of the year… Read more »

Hugh
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Hugh

I don’t see much consistency. Barry Bonds and Clemens should get in even though they used steroids, A-Rod is a “self-disgracer” for using steroids. Which is it? Is cheating OK or not? I agree with the voters and with the public — steroid users should not be in the Hall. Integrity and honesty matter. I would modify the procedure though. There is no line of who is good enough to be in the Hall. I would induct the 2 highest vote getters (or 3 if you prefer) among the eligible players in their first 10 or 15 years of eligibility.… Read more »

David P. Stokes
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David P. Stokes

Does anybody really think that getting clearer guidelines from the HoF would make any major change in the voting? Suppose the Hall came out with a statement that said something to the effect of, “Voters should not consider a player’s possible use of performance enhancing drugs a reason to not vote for them”. Does anyone really believe that the voters who won’t vote for Bonds now would vote for him if given those directions? Oh, probably a few would, but the vast majority wouldn’t. Take the guy who voted for Bonds, but not Clemens. How would clearer guidelines about how… Read more »