Fame, Fortune, Fallen, Fractured, Failure: 2013 HOF vote gets an “F”

The founding principle of B.A.B.E.S. was that a devoted fan can be just as “expert” – and perhaps more so – at predicting the success of teams and individuals in an upcoming season as are the media professionals who report on MLB daily and who make such predictions in exchange for a paycheck.  Our first five years’ performance has amply supported this principle (see “Living Up to Our Name and Fulfilling Our Mission,” 11/16/12).  If the principle is true with respect to picking post-season qualifiers, World Series champs and individual award winners, shouldn’t it also be applicable to the Holy Grail of baseball media privileges – voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame?  Unlike the actual performance results after a season, the results from HOF voting are totally subjective.

Even though I haven’t worked for 10 consecutive years as a professional baseball writer while a member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (the requisite qualifications for casting a HOF ballot), I believe I could cast a worthy HOF ballot.  Through the magic of the Internet I can do just that and also have my public say about the process and this year’s results.  But before I critique this year’s election (or non-election), we should first review the somewhat odd history of the HOF and the highly unusual arrangement between it, its electors and its subject.  The story provides a most fitting preface to the circus atmosphere or day-time-drama feel of the 2013 balloting.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc., is a private entity formed in 1936 in Cooperstown, NY.  The HOF is not officially connected to MLB or the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA), and was formed in Cooperstown only because it is the home of Abner Doubleday, a Union Civil War hero who was inexplicably credited with inventing the game of baseball in a report published in 1907 without MLB’s official involvement.  The avowed purpose of that report was to refute the belief that baseball was derived from the British game of “rounders,”  and Doubleday was as good an alibi as any.  The principal witness supporting the story of Doubleday’s invention of the game was Abner Graves, a man who was never proven to have actually known Doubleday and who later was convicted of murdering his wife and was subsequently locked away in an asylum for the rest of his days.  Doubleday died over a decade prior to the report being published, and in none of his personal papers did he ever claim to have invented the sport, nor had anyone other than Graves ever suggested that he did.   Nevertheless – the truth never having been an obstacle to a good civic promotion – Cooperstown’s business leaders capitalized on this myth during the depth of the Depression to create a local tourist attraction that thrives even today, over 75 years later.  The granddaughter of the principal founder is currently the chairman of the HOF’s board of directors.  Abner Doubleday, by the way, is enshrined in Arlington National Cemetery, not Cooperstown, and also has a monument to his memory at Gettysburg. You could look it up.

This almost comical beginning did not prevent the HOF from quickly gaining legitimacy, as the first class included the undisputed pillars of the modern era – Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, Matthewson and Johnson.  These initial members were selected by the BBWAA, a union that had been formed in 1908 for the express purpose of maintaining adequate press box working conditions and access to players and executives (you could look that up, too; it’s right there on the union website, bbwaa.com). Presumably, these reporters were chosen as electors because the founders of the HOF had no baseball background (like their native son, Doubleday, perhaps?).  Whatever the reason, the voting arrangement continues today, with the HOF deferring completely to the BBWAA concerning which players will become permanent residents of its building.  MLB, which today acknowledged that election to the HOF is “our game’s most extraordinary individual honor,” has absolutely no role in the selection process.  The membership criteria are entirely established by the BBWAA, and are essentially encapsulated in this one sentence:

“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.”

Having spent nearly 30 years in the legal profession, I’m trained to look for objective measures of determination on any issue.   Unfortunately, there is NOTHING objective about this standard – record, ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) are all subjectiveOne could argue that “record” has some objective component, but there are no set thresholds above which a player can automatically gain admission on his “record.”  (They only do that in the LPGA, I think). Indeed, one of the few additional guidelines given to the HOF voters is that “no automatic elections based on performances such as a batting average of .400 or more for one (1) year, pitching a perfect game or similar outstanding achievement shall be permitted.”

So, the task the BBWAA members have assigned themselves, or at least to their number who have held their membership for 10 consecutive years, is to make a very personal decision about the application of these subjective measures to each eligible player. There is nothing inherently wrong with this, as even our government relies on the subjective judgment of its officials in some matters.  I am reminded of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ poetic definition of “ordinary income” under the federal tax code: “one searches in vain for a ready touchstone, but life in all its fullness must supply the key.”  Or perhaps more directly applicable, we could employ Justice Potter Stewart’s famous definition of pornography: “I know it when I see it.” (Still the law of the land in Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964)).

That reference also highlights the moralistic nature of three of these HOF criteria: integrity, sportsmanship and character.  Just as many Americans may disagree with the determination of 5 members of the U.S. Supreme Court about what constitutes pornography, so might many BBWAA writers and fans disagree among themselves about the nature of conduct that would establish the integrity, sportsmanship or character necessary to enter the HOF.  Gaylord Perry’s spitball and nail file did not disqualify him.  What about Derek Jeter’s faking being hit by a pitch so he could get on base during the 2009 pennant stretch run? Does that disqualify him from future consideration?  Or what about Lance Berkman’s near universal recognition as a stellar teammate, valued clubhouse presence and all-around great guy?  Do those “contributions to his team(s)” assure his election sometime later this decade?  Of course, some would even argue that there is no such moral requirement at all since Ty Cobb was a charter HOF member.  My many accounts he was a man whose personality and demeanor on and off the field were, shall we say, unpleasant.  Yet, he was the top vote-getter in the first election, receiving more votes than even Babe Ruth (who was, of course, no choir boy, himself).  So, where is the line? Or is there even a line?  You get my point.

The inevitable result of such subjective determinations, right or wrong, is disagreement – not only among those actually voting, but certainly among those being voted on and even among those like us who are just interested in the results.   It surprises me that there has not been more controversy in the election process since only 1% of the players who ever appeared in a MLB game have plaques in Cooperstown.  And before today’s vote there were fewer than a dozen players about whom real controversy existed over their failure to be admitted.  For two of those, Pete Rose (no relation) and Joe Jackson, the controversy concerns their ineligibility rather than their qualification for admission (for the record, I believe they both should be in the HOF).  The voting threshold, 75% of the ballots cast, is a strength of the process since it requires that 3/4 of the voters come to an agreement on what has already been shown to be a vague, subjective standard.  Of course, the introduction of the Veteran’s Committee and other special consideration has helped eliminate some of these debates, and despite my criticism I must acknowledge that history has proven that the process works, or at least it had until today.

By now you have probably heard that no player was elected today from a ballot that included the following candidates:

– the hitter with the most home runs and MVP awards in history;

– the pitcher with the most Cy Young awards and 9th most pitching wins;

– the player with the most doubles of any righthanded hitter in history, over 600 of his 3,060 hits, which he got while making the All-Star team at two of the most demanding positions, catcher and 2d base;

– the player with the most seasons of 60 or more home runs, who totaled over 600 homers;

– the only first baseman in history with 400 home runs and 400 stolen bases;

– the catcher with the most home runs in history and a career batting average over .300;

– the pitcher with the most wins in the decade of the 1980’s who was an opening day starter 13 consecutive years for 4 different teams and widely recognized as one of the fiercest competitors of his era, and winner of perhaps the greatest World Series pitching duel in history;

– the pitcher with over 200 wins and one of the lowest post-season E.R.A’s in history, winner of two World Series rings with two different teams.

And there were more!  Other than that first ballot in 1936, and perhaps the next few years when the historical greats of the game were first being admitted, has there ever been a more qualified list of candidates?  Probably not.  Which leads to the question asked by many writers this evening, including one of my favorites, BBWAA voter Jayson Stark on espn.com: “What in the hell just happened?”

Well, guys, I’m glad you asked.  Any reader of this site knows that I enjoy asking questions about the mysteries of the universe, and love trying to answer them.  But I don’t think any divine inspiration is necessary to figure this one out, just a little understanding of human nature and a careful recognition of previous HOF voting patterns that are actually consistent with this year’s results, no matter how aggravating they may be.  The precise reasons have of course been expanded to include cheating with PED’s (or suspicion of  cheating), but the order the BBWAA tries to impose on the subjective standards is consistent, I believe.  Even so, I think it was wrongly applied this year.  I’ll explain in a player-by-player analysis and reveal my own personal votes.  You will see that my guiding principle is whether the player would have achieved HOF status without the use of PED’s.  That requires some subjective analysis, for sure, but we’ve already established that the entire analysis is subjective.  I do not disqualify anyone from election solely on PED use (admitted or suspected) because I believe that everyone in the HOF (and all who are not) are fallen individuals worthy of grace – not to mention the fact that we know there are players already residing in Cooperstown who got there in some measure by playing outside the lines.

Roger Clemens (37.6%) and Barry Bonds (36.2%) – I take these 2 together because their almost identical vote totals reveal that the same voters rejected them due to PED taint.  I’d bet that 100% of the voters recognized that they are first-ballot HOF worthy even if all of their statistics after usage began were eliminated.  Bonds certainly would have been; Clemens probably so.  However, practically a super-majority adopted the view that where there is foul, there is harm, and consequences must be paid.  As a parent of teen-agers, I have to respect that, but personally I would have voted for them.  (See Gaylord Perry and Ferguson Jenkins, and others).   Bonds clearly did it for fame; Clemens, I think, more for fortune; but oh how both of them have fallen. I wonder tonight whether they think it was worth it.  Whether either of them can gain enough forgiveness from the fractured BBWAA electorate to acquire another 40% of the votes, and how they go about trying to accomplish that, will be VERY interesting to watch over the next 14 years.

Sammy Sosa (12.5%) and Rafael Palmeiro (8.8%) – I take these two together for the same reason, the similar totals reveal that the voters reject all of their accomplishments (which are HOF worthy) as largely the product of PED’s.  I personally saw both of them play early in their careers in TEX and I would testify that neither looked like the player they became – literally or figuratively.  Palmeiro had a sweet swing, but would that have caused all 569 of his homers to leave the yard?  Not likely.  Take away just a quarter of those home runs and reduce his hit total to below 3000 and he probably does not get elected (see Fred McGriff). Sosa was just a skinny kid with a big smile and wild swing. Hey, with the suggestion of PED use candidate George Bush might not have viewed the Sosa-for-Harold Baines trade as his biggest mistake.   No HOF vote from me for either of them, and no actual election in their future, for sure.

Craig Biggio (68.2%) and Jeff Bagwell (59.6%) – I must consider these two together, since they both came from New England and moved to Texas to become lifelong Astros, teammates for 14 seasons and leaders of the Killer B’s.  Their vote totals are consistent with BBWAA patterns, and I think they are both wrong this year.  There is no doubt that Biggio will make the HOF, but throughout history the writers have made a distinction concerning “first ballot” inductees.  Since the only thing they can do is elect a player or not elect him, when they do so becomes their way of saying that some players are “first among equals.”  Only 21% of the players elected received this special recognition.  The 68.2% vote total in his first year tells us that Biggio will be elected, probably next year, but incredibly over 175 of the voters left him off their ballots!  Even given the tendency to grade admitted merit, this is just wrong.  Biggio’s record, ability, durability,  and, yes, character, sportsmanship and integrity SCREAM “first-ballot HOF’er!” in my subjective opinion. Failing to put him on a ballot should be grounds for suspension from voting by the BBWAA, but then none of the first class got 100% of the votes, either (11 writers didn’t vote for Babe Ruth!).  I assume he will make it next year, and that will be an honor, but I firmly believe he was unfairly snubbed this year.  Bagwell, on the other hand, is not a first-ballot guy despite his impressive stats, particularly if you allow  that years on the ballot before election establish a hierarchy of merit.  Even so, this was his third year and he should be much closer to the 75% threshold.  With over 250 ballots not including his name, clearly he is being penalized by some for the suggestion of PED use.  In my opinion, there is no way a player uses PED’s to help him hit over 400 home runs and still remains healthy and fast enough to steal 400 bases.  I would have voted for him this year and every year from now on that he appeared on the ballot.

Mike Piazza (57.8%), Edgar Martinez (35.9%), Lee Smith (47.8%) – I consider these three players together because the best argument for each of them to be elected is that they were among the game’s best at their position, not just during their careers, but all-time. For Piazza, that’s saying something because there have been many great-hitting catchers.  None of them hit as many home runs as he did and few had a lifetime batting average over .300.  He was never considered much of a defensive stand-out, so personally I think his first-ballot vote total is about right (see Jeff Bagwell).  He may have suffered some PED taint, like Bagwell, but 57.8% is an excellent first-year total and suggests future election.  I probably would not have voted for him this year, and am not overly bothered by the decision to let his candidacy percolate.  Martinez, on the other hand, is an enigma.  What do you do with such a one-dimensional player – literally? Of his 2,100 games played, he actually took the field in only 600 of them.  Do you fault the player because he played the DH, which is half a position?  As much as I hate the DH, I say no, that this does not keep him out of the HOF, it just underscores that his stats, while impressive, are not a HOF certainty.  His candidacy certainly needs more consideration, and a longer time on the ballot. No vote for him this year from me. Lee Smith is undeniably one of the best closers of all-time, but that is a position that many voters do not credit. I, too, think it is overrated, and have said so in prior posts.  Therefore, I am not bothered by his showing, less than 50%, and would not have voted for him this year, his 11th on the ballot.

Jack Morris (67.7%) and Curt Schilling (38.8%) – These players are essentially the same HOF candidates, only one is in his 14th year on the ballot and the other his first.  Neither has adequate numbers alone for election, but both exhibited the competitiveness and heart that makes people want them to be recognized.  If character, integrity and sportsmanship mean anything in this context, then these guys must ultimately be elected.  I don’t know why Morris has taken so long, and next year he will have to compete with Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, as well as Schilling. He may not make it then either, which is why I think the voters were wrong on Morris this year.  The enduring call from players and managers for his election shows that his qualification is legitimate.  Schilling made a decent start, but I would not have voted for him this year. He needs to build the long-term consensus that Morris has.  It is interesting that Schilling got almost the same percentage as Bonds and Clemens, and will be even more interesting to see whether his votes rise in comparison to those very different candidates as the years go by.

Tim Raines (52.2%), Allen Trammel (33.6%) and Don Mattingly (13.2%) – Last analysis, assuming you’re still with me.  As with all of the players on the ballot today, these three players are about my age and I watched them play their entire careers.  While I remember them fondly, none of them makes me think automatically that they were among the all-time greats.  It is a subjective feeling, of course, but shouldn’t a HOF candidacy have some visceral impact?  Raines, of course, suffers from the Ricky Henderson comparisons, and if you look as his stats, he’s not even close to Ricky and probably shouldn’t be next to him in the HOF.  Trammel, likewise, suffered from comparisons to Cal Ripken, but he is an interesting comparison to Luis Aparicio.  Don Mattingly? Well, I think he’s just a nice player that was elevated in everyone’s eyes by having some very good years for NYY.  None of these would get my vote this year, or probably ever, but I will continue to consider Raines and Trammel.  With the line-up he’s been given by LAD, Mattingly gets his shot this year to start building a resume to be elected as a manager.

So, there is my subjective analysis – over 3000 words worth.  There are a few other note-worthy candidates, but I’m done for tonight. If you’re still reading, you’re as crazy a baseball fan as I am and I thank you for it.  If you just skipped to the bottom to get to my point, it was as follows:  the National Baseball Hall of Fame is an institution of questionable history run on subjective principles that have been compromised by complex human failures, but it’s the only one we’ve got.  This year’s vote by the BBWAA is a travesty for denying Craig Biggio first-ballot election, disingenuous for leaving out Bonds and Clemens, and a disappointment for making Morris and Bagwell wait another year.

I’m very interested to hear your comments about any of that.

(JSR) © 2013

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