What The Hall is the Problem?

The National Baseball Hall of Fame inducts, on average, about four members per year. On its 100th anniversary in 2036, there will be roughly 400 members.

Alas, the fans who pay to see the games and ultimately decide who is famous and who isn’t have no voice in the Hall of Fame voting. They are trusted with All-Star Game ballots, which certainly affects some players’ future chances of making the Hall of Fame, but a direct vote is denied.

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America has a contract with the National Baseball Hall of Fame to conduct a vote among its long-time members for the purpose of electing players who have recently retired from the game. They are a sort of Electoral College for the Hall of Fame.

Because of potential conflicts of interest between journalists and the stories they cover, some newspapers forbid their journalists from participating in any sports award votes, including Hall of Fame elections. Other journalists engage in home-town boosterism and some even simply forget to vote.

In addition, cities with large numbers of high-paying newspapers have a disproportionate number of votes compared to the distribution of teams around the country. This so-called New York Effect means that players from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles can muster more voting BBWAA members than players from such smaller one-newspaper cities as St. Louis and Kansas City. The nomination and voting process is not nearly as democratic and tidy as most fans assume.

Because only 75% of voters must approve new Hall of Fame members, the small number of eligible voters means that even one or two wayward ballots can deny worthy individuals of membership. And although statistics have recently come to be seen as the primary criterion for entry into the Hall of Fame, officially no statistical filter is used to eliminate clearly unqualified retirees; Travis Fryman can be on the same ballot as Tim Raines.

A group of Hall of Famers and other luminaries, known as the veterans committee, elect Hall of Fame members from among the older or long-deceased retirees. Cronyism was rampant for many years, and the committee was recently recast after failing to elect any candidates in 2007. It still amounts to a club, even if the nominations are controlled by others, and we still have never heard a good argument for having two separate groups to elect new members.

Players on the Commissioner’s permanently ineligible list (“banned for life”) cannot be considered for either BBWAA nor veterans committee voting; they are banned from the Hall of Fame, even after death. Rather than leaving the question of qualifications to the Hall of Fame museum, the final decision remains with the Commissioner of Major League Baseball. This is a clear conflict of interest for a museum that should be encouraging open debate and education, not stifling it.

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