In the 1994 book “Politics of Glory,” an opus about the Baseball Hall of Fame’s history and standards, Bill James argued persuasively that the induction process needed reform. Why, he asked, should the Baseball Writers Association of America hold a monopoly on Hall of Fame voting for just-retired players, when there are so many other qualified groups?
“The problem isn’t that the writers don’t know what they’re doing,” he wrote. “The problem is the writers aren’t the only people who know something about baseball. The players know something, too. The professionals know something, too. The people who study the game, its history, they know something, too.”
The roots of this practice trace back to when sportswriters served as much as promotional arms of the leagues they covered as they did detached, independent observers. But you don’t have to be the Philadelphia Inquirer beat writer whom the Eagles kicked out of the press box Sunday to realize those days went out with the straight-ahead place kick and the underhanded free throw.
Part of a sportswriter’s job is to debate the historical merits of Guerrero, Rodriguez, Bagwell and the other candidates up for the Hall or argue whether Daniel Murphy or Kris Bryant should have been the National League MVP last season. Affecting the livelihoods of athletes, either during or after their careers, most certainly is not.
Both of these arguments, in their own very different ways, make you wonder whether the current Hall of Fame voting system makes the most sense. Why do writers have exclusive rights to bestowing Hall of Fame status on freshly retired players (a series of small Veterans Committees rule on players the BBWAA has passed over)? What makes them special? It seems pretty certain that if we were to design a system from scratch, this would not be it.
As James points out, baseball knowledge is not confined to the people in the press box. Players, executives, broadcasters, bloggers and researchers all have opinions on who the best baseball players are, and there’s no real reason why the writers’ perspective should be elevated over them. When the Hall of Fame voting system was devised in the late 1930s, the only way to watch a baseball game was to be there in person, and the only people who did that on a regular basis were the writers. As that has changed, why hasn’t the Hall’s induction process?
And as Svrluga notes, the system puts writers in the uncomfortable position of determining athletes’ post-career earning potential. Though there’s no evidence that players unduly pressure writers to vote for them or that writers would ever comply, it’s inevitable that writers’ personal opinions of players influence their vote on the margins. A player who is cruel to the media (or threatens to lynch the media), could easily lose enough votes to keep him out of Cooperstown. Is that fair?
Still, Svrluga’s argument feels a touch idealistic in a world of financial partnerships between media outlets the teams they cover. Many writers work for publications that pay teams for broadcast rights. Others work for publications that print advertisements fro teams. Others work for the official website of the league the teams play in. Svrluga’s paper, the Washington Post has a giant billboard in center field at Nationals Park, across the field from the press box where he and his colleagues sit.
None of this is a big deal—it’s just the nature of sports media—but it all makes abstaining from awards voting feel a little silly. Almost every news outlet is linked financially to the teams (and thus the players) it covers in one way or another. Awards voting just adds to the list.
But one way to dilute the potential conflicts of interest writers face in Hall of Fame voting would be to expand the electorate, as James suggested 23 years ago. If writers, broadcasters, players, executives, historians, researchers and maybe even fans all got a say in Hall of Fame voting, no individual bloc would hold decisive sway, and a diversity of perspectives would prevail. The intangibles touted by fellow players, the big moments emphasized by newspaper writers and the statistics beloved to bloggers and researchers would all be included in the calculus. Having a positive or negative relationship with the media would be less of a factor, since many of the voters wouldn’t be traditional media members.
The BBWAA has already done a good job expanding its membership by finding room for internet writers with a statistical bend, but there’s no reason Hall of Fame voting rights should end there. There are all kinds of people with baseball expertise who might deserve to vote for the Hall of Fame, and the fact that the BBWAA alone gets to cast ballots feels arbitrary, a vestige of a time when writers were the only ones who watched a critical mass of games.
The writers shouldn’t lose their Hall of Fame voting privileges, but the Hall might benefit if we gave them a little help.