A Hall of Fame Idea

OK, so I’d like to throw out a new Hall of Fame voting system. It is based a little bit on the current system, a lot on old Bill James idea and a little bit more of something new. I’m sure there are many things wrong with it, and I’m sure you’ll be happy to tell me all those things. That’s good. I’d love for it to be a starting point for a conversation.

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The current process: As you know, the Baseball Writers Association of America has been voting players into the Baseball Hall of Fame since before the museum opened in 1939. They (or “we” since I am a BBWAA member) are not the only entry-point. The Hall of Fame has, through the years, put together many different committees to honor overlooked Major League players and those who do not fit the traditional definition of Major League Baseball player (Negro Leaguers, managers, executives, pioneers, umpires, etc).

But the main process (as I’m sure you know) is this: The BBWAA -- the oldest and biggest organization of baseball writers -- create a ballot of players who played at least 10 years in the Major Leagues and have been retired for at least five years. The BBWAA voters are mailed this paper ballot which they fax or mail to the BBWAA office for processing. Yes, in the BBWAA, we still fax things. Voters are instructed to consider a player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which he played.

If a player receives 75% of the BBWAA vote he is automatically voted into the Hall of Fame. If he receives between 5% and 74% (no rounding up) he will be placed on to the next year’s ballot for up to 15 years.

If a player receives less than 5%, he is dropped from the ballot and is no longer eligible to receive votes from the BBWAA.

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The problems: I think most of the problems with Hall of Fame voting have been discussed ad nauseum, which translates from the Latin to mean “to the point of nausea” which is exactly what I’m saying.

The New York Times asked me to be part of what they called a discussion with other writers on the Hall of Fame voting problems. I didn’t get to actually discuss this with Rob Neyer, Ed Sherman, Christina Kahrl and Trent Rosencrans -- which would have been fun since they are all much smarter than I am. We all wrote our pieces separately. But, whether it was luck or genius New York Times editing, we all seemed to hit on a different issue.

Here, quickly, are five problems with today’s voting. I’m sure you could easily come up with 100 more:

1. The BBWAA does not reflect the way baseball is consumed and enjoyed in 2014. In 1936, when the Hall of Fame turned over its process to the writers, yes, absolutely, the BBWAA was everything, the sun and the moon and the stars of baseball coverage. There was nothing else. No Internet. No television. Little radio. Every newspaper of consequence would send its baseball wrier to the World Series, whether it was near a Major League City or not.

Now: No. Newspapers are shriveling. Fewer and fewer cover baseball regularly. The biggest baseball covering operation in America is MLB.com and its members are not in the BBWAA. The broadcasters around the teams every day are not in the BBWAA. The statistical analysts who have changed the way we look at the game, for the most part, are not in the BBWAA.

Plainly, the BBWAA is just not enough anymore.

2. There’s an ethical question -- one Ed Sherman brings up -- whether sportswriters even should vote for the Hall of Fame. His feeling (and many others feel this way too) is that journalists should COVER the news not MAKE the news the way the BBWAA does every year with its Hall vote. Several newspapers do not allow their writers vote.

I don’t come all the way around with Ed on this one, but I understand the thinking. I hope my plan has a way to work around this, at least a little bit.

3. Fans feel powerless. This, I think, is why there’s so much outrage about the process. Many baseball fans care a lot about the Hall of Fame but don’t feel like they have any voice in the matter. And this is because, Deadspin aside, fans do not have any voice in the matter.

4. The world has changed much more dramatically than many want to acknowledge. I barely touched upon this in my Times essay but it’s a big deal. Here’s just one small example of how much times have changed (and haven’t).

Every year, in our Hall of Fame voting packet, we will get a statistical packet that offers a brief statistical rundown of each player. In the 1970s and 1980s and even into the 1990s, this statistical packet was ESSENTIAL to vote. There was almost no access whatsoever to even the most basic numbers -- not unless you had access to a Baseball Encyclopedia or an extensive baseball card collection.

Thing is they STILL send these packets. Every year, when I get it, I just look at these few stapled pages with basic numbers and shake my head. It’s like being a voter for the greatest mathematical advancement of the year and them sending you an abacus in the mail. These days I can find anything -- ANYTHING -- in a matter of seconds. Want to know what hitters batted off Mike Mussina after the seventh inning? Three clicks, bam, they hit .246. The BBWAA still sends these statistical relics of another time, and while it’s an innocent thing, it also seems symbolic of something.

5. There’s a powerful divide on what to do with players who used (or, for some voters, may have used) performance enhancing drugs. The BBWAA has, so far anyway, has strongly voted that these players do not belong in the Hall of Fame. That’s a perfectly viable opinion -- I sense it’s the opinion of Hall of Fame leadership too -- but the BBWAA alone shouldn’t be making that call.

There are plenty of other issues,. Like I say, I want to throw out a new process as a starting point and see if it goes anywhere.

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The new process: Let’s go one step at a time.

First: The BBWAA would still construct the Hall of Fame ballot. I don’t think most people view the ballot itself as a problem. My feeling is that for this new process to work, the BBWAA is the best group to oversee and execute it. The BBWAA has been handling the Hall of Fame vote for 80 or so years. It's in the group’s DNA.

So the BBWAA creates a ballot just like today. It’s still made up of players who played at least 10 years in the Major Leagues and have been retired for at least five years. This is all the same.

Now is where we make our changes, loosely based on Bill James’ concept introduced in his book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?

We have four different groups vote on the ballot.

Group 1: The BBWAA. This election can be much like it is now.

Group 2: The living Hall of Famers. I’d actually be for expanding this group so that it is the living Hall of Famers AND anyone else who has ever appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot. I’d be happy if it was widened even more than that and include, say, radio broadcasters.

I’d be for expanding the group beyond just Hall of Famers because Hall of Famers have a habit of not voting for anybody.

- There’s this natural inclination for Hall of Famers to believe that nobody plays the game the right way anymore. Kids today! Goose Gossage’s constant, “I’m not saying, I’m just saying,” grousing about how Mariano Rivera didn’t have pitch two or three innings for saves like he did is a prime example.

-- There are business reasons for Hall of Famers to keep the club exclusive. Hall of Famers make a lot of money being Hall of Famers.

-- Personal feelings about the nominated players might get involved. Hall of Famers might be too kind to teammates, too stingy with opponents they didn’t like. This sort of bias is true in BBWAA too, of course, but I would say it’s not AS true. There is still a wall between writers and players.

Anyway, let’s start by saying it’s just current Hall of Famers. They deserve a say. And we can discuss any expansion of Group 2 later.

Group 3: A SABR-organized panel of baseball historians, researchers, analysts and experts on the game’s history. SABR -- the Society of American Baseball Research -- is often viewed as an organization of statisticians running around in Star Wars pajamas with slide rule stick out of the front pocket. The term “sabermetrics” is the reason for this.

But it isn’t true. It isn’t close to true. Only a small percentage of SABR members are what people would call sabermetricians. Most of the members are intense baseball fans interested in exploring and sharing the game’s history and its meaning. The group’s mission is very much in line with the Hall of Fame’s. I think we could feel very confident that SABR would create a wonderful voting bloc that would both protect the Hall of Fame and keep it vibrant.

Group 4. Fans. I have a very specific suggestion for the fan group. I don’t think an All-Star balloting system or gigantic Internet poll is the way to go.

Here’s what I would do: The basic membership for the Hall of Fame right now is $50. I’d cut that in half -- but make it so that one of the perks for membership is getting to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame.

There are countless advantages here. For one thing, it would unquestionably beef up Hall of Fame membership, probably double or triple the membership base, maybe even a lot more than that. It would re-engage people with the Hall of Fame, which I think would be fantastic (and necessary). Also, think a group of baseball fans who cared enough about the Hall of Fame to be members would make for a great collection of voters.

OK, we have our four groups. Now what?

Well, each of the groups gets a ballot. They vote. And here comes our biggest change. Every player who gets more than half the vote is nominated for the Hall of Fame by that group.

So for this year, for instance, the BBWAA would have nominated Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas (of course) but also Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jack Morris and Jeff Bagwell. All of them got over 50% of the vote.

Only now, they would not just go into the Hall of Fame. The other groups vote the same way. And in order for a player to get into the Hall of Fame, they need to be nominated by at least three of the for groups.

Three out of four. There’s the 75% line that the Hall of Fame is famous four.

So how would this work in real life? Obviously a player like Maddux or Thomas would be nominated on all four ballots and would breeze right into the Hall of Fame. But now, someone like Piazza would probably get in right away. The BBWAA would nominate him, the fans (you suspect) would also nominate him. And then I’m guessing at least one of the other two groups would nominate him. That would get him in.

There are a lot of advantages to this system -- here are short responses to the issues listed above:

1. It would broaden the voting group to better reflect baseball in 2014 rather than baseball in 1936.

2. I think it lightens the ethical issues any news organizations might have about their writers voting. In this scenario, writers aren’t CHOOSING the Hall of Famers (like now) but are simply part of a much bigger process. There are those who would say this doesn’t change anything, those who take the ethical issues to extremes. There are editorial board members, for instance, who refuse to vote in elections. That’s fine. But I think, in general, this would alleviate some of the concern about writers making news.

3. Fans would have a say in who becomes a Hall of Famer.

4. This expansion, I think, fits the time. The BBWAA is almost certainly too homogenous in the way it looks at the game. Yes, there are powerfully different viewpoints among baseball writers (as we see every year) but everyone is still looking down from the press box.

5. There will still be divides on controversial issues like drugs in baseball but now you would get many different perspectives on these issues. And we could learn from each other. Let’s say, for instance, that the fans nominate Roger Clemens. I’m not saying that would happen, but let’s say it did. Well, that should be eye opening for the BBWAA or the living Hall of Famers if the fans make it clear that they feel the Hall of Fame in incomplete without Clemens in it. I can think of many different scenarios like this.

Would this system make it harder or easier to get into the Hall of Fame? It’s an interesting question and I don’t know the answer. But I’d like to find out.