On Hall of Fame voting

With a controversial and divisive Hall of Fame vote coming up on the heels of a controversial and divisive AL MVP vote, the questions surrounding voting processes for baseball honors have come under scrutiny—and rightly so.

The nature of the debates has shown the vulnerability—and ultimately, the fallibility—of the voting process. Handing baseball writers the keys to the proverbial car comes with obvious flaws. As with any human process there are positive and negative biases to go along with personal agendas.

In the AL MVP vote, many writers voted for Miguel Cabrera out of a genuine belief that he was the most valuable player in the league, but many also voted for him out of spite toward the stats community. A win for Cabrera was a loss for the so-called “geeks,” and many columns reflected that mindset the next morning.

Now we see a new slanted contingent voting for the Hall of Fame. While several newly eligible players are certainly controversial for many reasons—be they personality or PED related—the split among voters has been interesting in its public nature. Many have been open in their outright refusal to vote for certain players because of checkered pasts.

The question here, of course, has to be asked: If writers are so openly willing to speak about their biases against players, should they still be voting?

As I’ve mentioned in this space before, the purpose of the Hall of Fame is to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations. While the meaning of “Most Valuable Player” is inherently ambiguous—history suggests that perhaps Most Outstanding would be a better term—the onus is on Hall of Fame voters to uphold those aforementioned values, regardless of their personal motives.

The players who have been voted in already raise some eyebrows. Not because of their worthiness but, rather, the fact that they weren’t unanimous. Babe Ruth received only 95.13 percent of the vote to get in; who were the 4.87 percent of writers who thought Ruth wasn’t worthy of a Hall induction that year? Joe DiMaggio earned only 88.84 percent of the vote. Roberto Alomar received 73.7 percent of the vote on his first ballot, yet received 90 percent of the vote on his second. What made his legacy that much better later?

In any system there are going to be flaws, but perhaps it’s time to try another one. Any time you have a group of individuals who have happily accepted their role as kingmakers, you risk abuses of power. The unwritten first ballot rule, while admirable in theory, doesn’t affect a player’s status in the Hall at all. While it may be a dated example, if everyone with a vote couldn’t agree that Babe Ruth ought to be in the Hall of Fame, then we ought to find out the names of those who declined and revoke their votes.

The Steroid Era in baseball happened. There’s no denying it. The evidence is everywhere for us to see. Our individual opinions on how this ought to affect the legacies of those who indulged with PEDs is another issue.

The logical step for baseball after all that has gone on is to—colloquially speaking — own it. Acknowledge that it happened. Acknowledge that it was allowed to happen. Only then can the game move on in an appropriate way.

For writers voting on the Hall, now is not the time to make a political stand. Part of the reason the steroid problem—if we want to term it that—was allowed to grow is many writers chose not to follow up on leads they were given. To hold a flimsy standard against these players not only accomplishes nothing for baseball’s history, but also erases the notion that the media who chose to build these figures up are not partially culpable for these legacies.

The Baseball Hall of Fame seeks to preserve history, honor excellence and connect generations. The steroid era is part of its history, and glossing it over does nothing to help future generations understand what happened. While the excellence we witnessed may be an inconvenient truth for some, it happened..

The Baseball Writers Association of America is authorized to elect players to the Hall of Fame. The onus is on those writers to do justice to the excellence and history of baseball, not to bestow honors on particular players from the position of moral arbiters.

This isn’t the appropriate ballot for politicking. Own the past and move forward.

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11 years ago

Someone doesn’t need to be in the HoF to transcend generations, and their impact is still as important on the history of the game (See: The Black Sox).

I do agree that the punishing aspect of the voters is growing out of hand. Alomar is a HoFer, and there’s no doubting it. He had the spitting incident so the writers took it upon themselves to shame him by denying him passage on his first ballot. How absurd.

I also don’t understand how a player that has never been above 26% can suddenly climb enough to earn enshrinement in their fifteenth year, because they’re “good enough” now, but weren’t for the previous decade and a half. We need some checks and balances.

11 years ago

I disagree with this. From the BWAA: “5. Voting: 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.”

When a subset of players subvert the rules—and steroids were against the rules from 1990 or 91 onward, contrary to a popular myth—to direct fame and money themeslves and away from their non-cheating peers, it is *arguable* that they don’t deserve recognition for their achievements. Obviously, we must evaluate the severity of the violation and the degree of the effect as well as the intent.

Is there one uniform standard we can all agree upon? No. And that’s precisely why you allow voters to use their own interpretations of the rules. Standards for induction are fairly stringent, and if you fail a majority test with stringent standards, that seems to indicate that there’s uniformity of oinion nthe particular case if not about the general rule. Such is a rationale for democracy more generally.

Baseball can own it’s history and steroids without bestowing its highest honor on players who robbed other players.

David P Stokes
11 years ago

There are at least 3 problems that I see with the idea of not voting for anyone who used steroids.

First, we don’t apply that standard to players who at some pointed cheated in some other way.  Gaylord Perry didn’t get kept out of the Hall for throwing spitballs, and who knows how many HoFers used a plugged bat at some point.  Perhaps most problematic, there are a lot players from roughly the late 60s to late 70s who used amphetimines who the writers didn’t see fit to punish for using PEDs by not voting them into the Hall.

Secondly, we don’t really know who did or didn’t use steroids.  I’ve seen way too many things written saying that the author wouldn’t vote for this player or that player because the player juiced, but the only thing I’ve ever seen that even suggests that the player did so was the article in question.  Of course, that doesn’t apply to those who got caught or who have admitted steroid use, but there are simply too many accusations being thrown around without any evidence for me to be comfortable with—it’s just a withch hunt at this point.

Third, for the most part the guys now eligible for the Hall that used steroids did so at a time when baseball didn’t really have any rule against it.  Obviously, that doesn’t apply to someone who got caught after the current rules were in place, but that there shouldn’t be any ex post facto punishments is a pretty important part of our ideas of justice.  Granted, Hall of Fame voting isn’t part of the criminal justice system (though some sportswriters seem to think that it is, or should be), but still.

@ Keith:  there is one legitimate reason why a player’s vote total can change over time.  Well, 2 actually.  It can simply be a matter of individual voters looking at the evidence for a candidate again and deciding that they had come to the wrong conclusion about the player’s worthiness the year before and changing their mind.  That doesn’t seem unreasonable, especially for candidates who are arguable either way.  However, there’s also a structural reason—you can only vote for a maximum of 10 candidates.  On this year’s ballot, there are at least 16 candidates that I would probably vote for if I had a vote, so I’d have to leave at least 6 players that I think are worthy of induction off my ballot.  If some of the 10 I would be able to vote for make it in this year, then that would let me vote for some of the ones I had to leave off this year next year.

11 years ago


Factual point: steroids have been explicitly against MLB policy since the 1991. So pretty much all the guys we’re talking about right now were violating the rules.

I don’t understand the amphetemines analogy, as baseball had no drug policy before the 1980’s. Similarly, when someone cheats you at cards by pocketing the ace of spades in one deal, that’s cheating, and when they do it by setting up a system of mirrors so they can see every hand you have, that’s cheating. But it’s just simple minded to pretend like these are similar instances of cheating. Likewise, we must assess Perry’s illegal use of spitballs and steroids not only according to whether they are cheating but also according to the magnitude of the impact. Steroid had a severe negative impact on minor leaguer’s careers (who were subject to PED testing!) and the careers of non-using MLB players that cost both groups millions of dollars, so it is more like the system of mirrors. I could be wrong, but it really isn’t likely that spitballs have the same effect.

I admit that it is problematic that we can’t know who did or didn’t use steroids. Some players will unfairly get in who used. Maybe some who didn’t but are unfairly suspected won’t get in. Nevertheless, in clear cut cases, there’s no problem with using the evidence in judging their case for the Hall. The fact that some innocent people are convicted and that some guilty people go free in no way means that a system cannot act in those cases where the evidence is clear. It is a sound legal principle that we act on the evidence that we have.

Paul E
11 years ago

Stoker and Fool:
  I’m an anti-steroids guy who believed it ruined the game – but only as a fan who was subject to 3 1/2 – 4 hour 9 innining marathons loaded with unintentional intentional walks and pitching changes as managers and pitchers lived in abject fear of the 210# middle infielder who was now suddenly capable of 25 HRs and 70 extra base hits. Yeah, it’s cheating – plain and simple.
  An amnesty program for active and retired players would be a joke as they would no longer be viewed as heroes. God bless Ken Caminiti – long live Jose Canseco. And, unfortunately, though I know I am wiser than Bud Selig, I don’t have an answer for the conundrum of “who used and who didn’t use”…..for instance – Jeff Bagwell?

11 years ago

@ Paul E

Re: Bagwell – that’s exactly why steroid era protest votes are so dim-witted.

11 years ago

Two things.  First, @Paul E., if steroids “ruined the game,” why do you care anymore?  The game is ruined.  Steroids didn’t “ruin the game.”  They may have sullied your enjoyment of it, they may have forced you to give up a childlike assumption that men who hit baseballs are better human beings than the rest of us, they may have forced you to confront the fact that pro sports are more business than game, or they may have caused you to question the validity of some of the hallowed records in baseball.  But the game is just fine – both the mechanical “game” of baseball, and Major League Baseball itself, which is probably the healthiest it’s ever been, in spite of its lowest World Series ratings ever.

And second (and here’s the thing that I NEVER hear talked about), I was born in 1986.  You know who I grew up watching and admiring?  Mark McGwire.  Sammy Sosa.  Ken Griffey, Jr.  Barry Bonds.  Some day, I want to have a son or daughter.  And I want to take him or her to Cooperstown.  And I want to show him or her the plaques of my favorite players.  I want to share the memory of the night Big Mac broke the record.  Of the day Sammy Sosa hit two out in Milwaukee (where I’m from) to tie Big Mac with little time remaining.  I want to share with them that Barry Bonds was a force of nature.  And I want to do that without having to say that all of my childhood heroes can’t be in, because a whole bunch of people think that they get to judge those players’ morality.  I’m perfectly capable of explaining to my children that those players did something that was wrong.  But I’d love to take them to a museum that honored the very best in the game, regardless of their ethical slip-ups.  I’d love them to see the heroes of MY childhood, not just the heroes of my father’s.  It’s only fair.

11 years ago

Amphetamines are controlled under the Drug Abuse Control Act of 1965 and under Schedule II of the Controlled Substances Act of 1970.

Jon G
11 years ago

@ David, well said. I grew up in the ‘70’s and have never been to the Hall of Fame, but if I ever were to go I would love to see a plaque for Pete Rose. I know he broke the rules, but there can’t be much doubt that his career warrants induction. I feel the same way about Bonds, Clemens, et al.

11 years ago


Since the MLBPA basically insisted, for good reasons, on being allowed to voluntarily comply without invasive testing for the sake of avoid saiding invasive testing (and using testing as a bargaining chip later) I think players had an obligation to act in good faith on the policy without enforcement. Those who acted ingood faith were cheated out of millions of dollars by those who did not.

11 years ago

Forget steroids for a moment.  I would like to see the writers write in Marvin Miller.

11 years ago

“Handing baseball writers the keys to the proverbial car comes with obvious flaws.”

I raise the seemingly obvious question of whether working journalists should be voting for honors and awards at all. This is lifted straight from the APME code of ethics:

“Special favors and special treatment for members of the press should be avoided.”

Such as getting to decide who is MVP, or who goes into the HoF and who doesn’t?

“Journalists are encouraged to be involved in their communities, to the extent that such activities do not create conflicts of interest.”

Such as voting for MVP and Cy Young awards that could cause lucrative bonus clauses to kick in for the players they cover?

“Involvement in politics, demonstrations and social causes that would cause a conflict of interest, or the appearance of such conflict, should be avoided.”

Note, even the APPEARANCE of a conflict.

“Work by staff members for the people or institutions they cover also should be avoided.”

I would argue that the BBWAA is working for the Hall of Fame.

There’s also a general rule among journalists that you should not become part of the stories you cover, which is exactly what happens too often with the results of controversial votes.

I would love to see someone in the BBWAA explain to me why they put ethics aside to vote for such honors and awards. I mean a thoughtful answer. I once wrote to Bill Conlin about this and got a smartass reply, but last I heard, Bill had some vastly more consequential ethical and moral issues to deal with, and as you might imagine I’m not rooting for him to overcome them.

David E
11 years ago

For the record, I’m against the cheaters making the HOF.  However, one thing that really irks me about it is that I would like to see more ownership of the situation on the part of the media.  It seems they let this carry all those years and very little was written or said about it until Canseco’s book came out.  At least certainly much less than should have been.  They consider themselves experts at the game, have close access to players and lockerrooms, profess their love for the sport, and most of them swung and missed at reporting accurately what was going on.  I don’t begrudge reporters their biases or taking a political stand – that’s human nature.  We all do that.  But they did their job poorly during the steroid era and only now they’re trying to right a wrong?

11 years ago

@Dave E

I agree completely. Both the media and MLB—the franchises and commissioner’s office—have managed to do a lot to shift all the blame onto the players, but it clear that reporters didn’t report on things that they knew and front offices didn’t act on their knowledge either. If anyone was in a position to prevent those not using steroids from having their contracts deflated by enhanced competitors, it was the media, But they wanted to report on 60 home runs instead of cheating.

Chasing Roger Maris’s single season record did a lot to rehabilitate public interest in baseball after the strikes. I think Selig and everyone else in baseball basically knew where the power was coming from, and I think they basically made it an unwritten rule that no one was to tarnish the episode, and thereby the revitalization of MLB, with a word about ‘roids. They covered it up, even encouraged it, and now they’re shifting blame to players—which is not to say that shouldn’t be held accountable for their choices.

David P Stokes
11 years ago

@ philosofool:  Yes, baseball had a policy against using steroids—a policy with no enforcement provisions or penalties.  Which is the same as no policy.

11 years ago

Many agreements with no *explicit* enforcement mechanism work. They work because we all understand that if people defect on an agreement that has no explict enforcement mechanism, we’re allowed, within the law, to punish people for their transgression. (This was, in fact, John Locke’s whole basis for government.)

“I didn’t think cheating my fellow players out of millions of dollars was a big deal” is a flimsy excuse for doing it in my opiniion. When the effects of your actions are very damaging to others, you’re liable whether you know you were doing it or not.

11 years ago

“Babe Ruth received only 95.13 percent of the vote to get in; who were the 4.87 percent of writers who thought Ruth wasn’t worthy of a Hall induction that year?”

I highly doubt anyone thought Ruth was unworthy of induction. He was elected in the first year of voting. You had everyone who ever played the game eligible that year and he and four other men garnered well north of 75%. That is amazing! Considering how many greats were eligible during that first election the voters should be applauded for getting that vote right. Of all the elections, that was the one with the least to complain about in the results.

11 years ago

“who were the 4.87 percent of writers who thought Ruth wasn’t worthy of a Hall induction that year?”

I’m guessing old grumps who thought the Babe ruined “scientific baseball” with all that home-run hittin’. The deadball era had only been dead for about 20 years, plenty of curmudgeons likely still around.

The question, to me, for the coming logjam is this: Why is the voting system a zero-sum game? Why is a vote for Mike Piazza a vote taken away from Craig Biggio? One’s candidacy doesn’t have a damn thing to do with the other’s, yet they are forced to compete for votes. Why isn’t every player voted upon, up or down, on his own merits? How goddamn hard would that be?

The Hall voting system is just insane. Iraq under Saddam had a more sensible system. North Korea under Kim Jong Il had a more sensible system.

It’s set up so the more qualified candidates there are, the fewer get elected, until there are so many qualified candidates that NONE get elected. That’s crazy, isn’t it? Can we all agree that’s insane? Certainly even most members of the BBWAA know this is nuts. So why continue with a system that’s nuts? Fix it. The easy way is to quit forcing the candidates to compete with each other for votes and vote on each one individually.

“BBWAA: The candidate at hand is Craig Biggio. What say you, in or out?”

60% in, 40% out.

“Thank you. The candidate at hand is Mike Piazza. What say you, in or out?”

77% in, 23% out

“OK, Mike Piazza is elected. Next up we have Sammy Sosa …”

Vote yea for 20 guys, or vote nay for all of them, but don’t force Mike Piazza to compete with Curt Schilling and everyone else in a finite pool of votes. I mean, why would that be so hard? That would fix this problem in an instant. My best idea, still, is to do one candidate a month, in a gala TV special, with the vote (and the voters’ individual votes) shown live, while the candidate watches and comments.

Wouldn’t you like to watch Barry Bonds sit in a studio and watch the tabulation in real time? How about Clemens?

The Hall election is still held like it’s still 1936.

(The preceding was largely reprinted from SB Nation.)

Paul G.
11 years ago

On a practical level, the inconsistent consideration of steroids in HOF voting will cause problems down the road.  As Stokes notes there are only 10 places on the ballot and the more backlog of “obvious choice if not for steroids” candidates the harder it will be for ANYONE to get voted in.  Too many candidates makes it very difficult to build a consensus except for the most elite players.  This snarl has happened to the Hall of Fame elections in the past for various reasons and we do not want to revisit the mess than ensued.  For the roid generation, it would be better to either vote them in now or let them drop off and let the Veterans Committee sort it out. 

I also tend to agree with Stokes that something that is banned but involves no punishment is not really banned in any useful way.  Any violations prior to the MLB crackdown are hard to argue as a block to the HOF, at least from a cheating perspective.  However, I can see the criminal argument as being more persuasive, where applicable.