The Baseball Hall of Fame voting process is cruel. It doesn't have to be.
One simple fix could make the voting process relevant, efficient and fun — and ensure that worthy players are enshrined years earlier.
For all of the mythology and fiction surrounding its origin, the Baseball Hall of Fame doesn't have much sense of imagination.
To recap, the hall began with a Singer Sewing Machine heir who wanted to display a baseball of spurious origin supposedly connected to a Civil War general who was said to have invented baseball in the village of Cooperstown, New York,and even if the origin tale is complete bunk — and it most certainly is — the right tastemakers bought in, and an institution to celebrate baseball was built.
The place aimed to honor the game's greats. So it tasked members of the Baseball Writers Association of America with voting on deserving players. A player needs to reach 75 percent of the vote to gain enshrinement.
My book Playing Through the Pain: Ken Caminiti and the Steroids Confession That Changed Baseball Forever is a finalist for the CASEY Award as one of the year’s best baseball books.
But these writers, despite covering the game for a living, have struggled to reach a consensus on the all-time greats. Eleven of the first voters didn't include Babe Ruth, the man most responsible for the game's national growth, and players like Joe DiMaggio, with his 56-game hitting streak and grace, and Jimmie Foxx, with his 534 career home runs and muscle, languished unelected for years on the ballot.
Voter gridlock and confusing rules meant a lot of years passed without any newly-elected modern members.
The writers have struggled to reach a consensus on a lot of things.
Like whether there should be a big hall with lots of honorees or a small hall with only a few.
Whether everyone or just a select few should be voted in.
They don't agree on what to do with controversial players or eras, either.
The voters analyze and bicker about the slate of candidates and decide per annum if any new hall of famers should be added, and they might as well be sending out plumes of smoke like the Vatican, where black smoke means no one has been elected and white smoke means there's a new pope.
There’s a lot of black smoke.
Players wait, year after year, hoping that they will reach the magical 75% threshold needed to gain enshrinement.
Waiting to be deemed good enough.
The waiting game
This year's honoree, third baseman Scott Rolen, endured six votes before the Baseball Writers Association of America found him hall-worthy. In his first year on the ballot, he only received 10 percent. After a half-decade spent marinating, it's finally his time. It's unclear what he did in retirement to suddenly become electable. Perhaps the voters are big fans of the Indiana University baseball team, where Rolen is the director of player development.
Some of the writers talk about how tough it is to get elected like it's a good thing, as though they're doing the game a service with their heightened scrutiny. They're the tough-love parents who won't give their kids the car keys, thinking it will teach them patience and responsibility (it won't ... it never does).
But by and large, the waiting game is inefficient and unnecessarily cruel, leaving worthy candidates wilting on the ballot, which is in turn clogging things up for newer, also worthy candidates, proliferating a system in which players aren't really getting a fair shake.
And it continues to fuel discontent and frustration for no good reason.
Frustration about hall voting isn’t new. As owner Bill Veeck wrote in a 1965 column lobbying for the great Satchel Paige:
"My beef is the deserving guys who don't make the Hall or, if they do, make it when they're no longer around to enjoy the last hurrah. The Hack Wilsons, the Billy Sullivans, and the Josh Gibsons, and Leroy (Satchel) Paige who happens, by sheer coincidence, to be the perfect example of why I get teed off anew each July."
It remains an old, tired, merciless system.
A system that's due for a refresh.
The sad stories
I keep thinking about Ron Santo.
The Cubs third baseman fell off the ballot in 1998 after 15 votes and endured four unsuccessful rounds of committee voting — 19 different votes in which he came up short.
He was only enshrined after he died.
Dick Allen twice came within one committee vote of election. He died in 2020, ahead of his long overdue future election.
Or Gil Hodges, the star first baseman for the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers and manager who guided the 1969 Miracle Mets — he appeared on the ballot 34 times before making it on the 35th.
So many players wait for decades after their careers ended before finally getting enshrined. Phil Rizzuto. Tony Oliva. Jim Kaat.
They fell off the BBWAA ballot after 15 (now 10) years, then were forced to endure rounds of committee votes every few years, getting their hopes up, only to have them dashed.
In some years, no one is elected, which is especially frustrating, given all of the worthy candidates.
That last happened in 2021, but it also occurred in 2013, 1996 and 1971, and five other times in the Hall of Fame's earlier days.
The shutouts are a downer. In 2013, when the BBWAA didn't elect any players, leaving three long-dead figures from baseball's past as the only enshrinees, about 2,500 people — roughly the population of Cooperstown — attended the funereal proceedings. No star power (and a weekend of rain) meant there was no reason for anyone to attend.
Compare that to 2007, when the star power of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn drew more than 80,000 fans.
People don't attend the Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies because they really love the building and pageantry. They attend to see players enter immortality.
No stars means no interest.
No interest further erodes the hall's relevance.
Beyond being a letdown, the shutouts also aren't necessary. In the earlier years when the BBWAA didn't elect anyone — the most recent one notwithstanding, since not enough time has passed to be able to properly let the dust settle — the top players they failed to elect all gained enshrinement in subsequent years.
Curt Schilling (should be in the hall of fame)
Barry Bonds (should be in the hall of fame)
Roger Clemens (should be in the hall of fame)
Craig Biggio (elected in 2015)
Jack Morris (Modern Era Committee in 2018)
Jeff Bagwell (elected in 2017)
Phil Niekro (elected in 1997)
Tony Perez (elected in 2000)
Don Sutton (elected in 1998)
Yogi Berra (elected in 1972)
Early Wynn (elected in 1972)
Ralph Kiner (elected in 1975)
When the writers keep out worthy candidates or keep them waiting, no one wins. The voting process comes under added scrutiny because it's failing to elect quality candidates. Fans are disappointed that their favorite players are being brushed aside and disincentivized from visiting this out-of-the-way place, and the hall continues to lose luster and appeal.
The hall previously had a runoff system to avoid shutouts. If no candidate received 75 percent, a second runoff election was held.
Charlie Gehringer, "the Mechanical Man," was elected in a runoff in 1949.
Luke Appling gained entry through a runoff in 1964.
And in 1967, Red Ruffing entered the hall through a runoff election.
There hasn't been a run-off ballot since 1969. But it could always be re-introduced. Or a different voting adjustment could be established.
Basketball and football's halls of fame don't have this problem.
Lots of people are elected each year due to a quota system. And there's more vibrance around each new round of honorees.
Nothing beats former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, for example, learning about his enshrinement into Canton on live TV.
Now that was a special moment.
Football and basketball are all about letting people into the hall of fame, not keeping people out.
I recognize that the baseball hall is focused on
But what if the Baseball Hall of Fame could devise a system that A) cut down on cruel and unnecessary wait times for deserving players, B) streamlined the ballot, C) ensured that there were no shutouts, and D) made the process more fun, while E) not unnecessarily expanding the number of enshrinees to water down the enshrinement threshold?
My initial thought was that the hall of fame could annually enshrine the top three finishers in the BBWAA voting (and any others who top 75 percent), along with any other people elected through committee votes. I ran that system from 1966 (that's when the hall began voting every year on current players, instead of skip-year voting) until today to see what it would look like.
I removed those who would have been elected through this system off of the ballot for future elections and ranked the remaining candidates based on their voting totals — an imperfect process, sure, but a way to gauge which candidates might have broken through.
You can see the outcomes in a PDF here.
A few highlights:
Gil Hodges would have been elected in 1970, while still alive, instead of getting elected in 2022 through the Golden Days Era Committee half a century after his death.
Maury Wills and Roger Maris would have gained entry during the 1970s, something that remains elusive.
Ron Santo, Dick Allen and Curt Flood would have been members of the Hall of Fame class of 1987 instead of enduring rounds of ballots and committee votes, only to fall short during their lifetimes.
Dwight "Dewey" Evans gets the call in 1998.
Players like Jim Rice, Bert Blyleven and Bruce Sutter avoid the waiting game and enter the hall in the 1990s or early 2000s.
Albert Belle and Will Clark. Those would have been some fun speeches ...
Mark McGwire, whose bats and memorabilia the hall was happy to promote and display during the late 1990s, only to put them into storage years later, gets a plaque in 2007.
Juan Gonzalez, hall of famer!
Scott Rolen and Billy Wagner enter the hall with Derek Jeter in 2020.
This year's top three candidates: Carlos Beltran, Manny Ramirez, Andy Pettitte.
Here are some of the other candidates poised for election under the Top 3 system — some very deserving, others not so much:
The "Top 3" system would have added 68 eventual hall of famers years earlier, along with more than 50 players who are not currently in the hall.
Which is a little madcap. A little too loose. A neat idea, but not a practical solution. Let's keep fine-tuning this.
Top 3 by the numbers, 1966-2019 (removing recent votes because candidates' outcomes remain unresolved)
Hall of Famers with reduced wait time: 67 (41%)
Average reduction in wait time: 10.4
Number of non-Hall of Famers enshrined: 45 (27%)
What if we tried "Top 2" instead?
Under this system, the hall of fame would annually enshrine the top two finishers in the BBWAA voting (and any others who top 75 percent), along with any other people elected through committee votes.
As with the “Top 3” idea, I removed those who would have been elected through this system off of the ballot and ranked the remaining candidates based on their voting totals.
Here are the most notable highlights:
For the first 19 votes (1966-1984) only eventual hall of famers would have been elected.
Among those 25 candidates gaining earlier entry from 1966 through 1984, the "Top 2" system would have trimmed an average of eight years off of players' inductions, the longest being Gil Hodges, who could have been enshrined 52 years earlier.
The first non-hall-of-famer to gain enshrinement would have been Roger Maris in 1985, who might not have the career stats for hall purists but remains a sentimental choice for scores of baseball fans due to his 61-homer season in 1961.
Orlando Cepeda and Tony Oliva, both eventual committee selections, would have entered the hall in 1987 together.
Ron Santo and Steve Garvey (another non-hall-of-famer who remains a sentimental favorite) would have achieved immortality in 1996.
Tim Raines (who had to wait until his final year of eligibility) and Mark McGwire (who is being scapegoated for the steroids era while other players who used PEDs are in the hall of fame) would have become hall of famers in 2008.
Fred McGriff could have shed a decade off of his Hall of Fame wait, entering in 2012 with Larry Walker, another player who wound up being unnecessarily stuck in ballot limbo.
2020: Derek Jeter and Curt Schilling
2021: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens
2022: David Ortiz and Scott Rolen
2023: Todd Helton and Billy Wagner
Under the "Top 2" system, not counting recent players because not enough time has passed (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling, along with Todd Helton and Billy Wagner), only five additional players not currently in the hall would have gotten their tickets punched over the course of 54 elections:
Roger Maris, 1985
Harvey Kuenn, 1987
Steve Garvey, 1996
Tommy John, 1998
Mark McGwire, 2008
And I'm OK with this list. These figures all have legitimate reasons to be enshrined, and putting them in the hall wouldn't unnecessarily water down the sanctity of the place.
Using this type of system would have lowered the wait times for more than 50 eventual hall of famers.
In essence, a “Top 2” system is really, really effective at pinpointing those players who traditionally have reached the hall of fame—and enshrining them years earlier without watering down election classes with unworthy candidates.
Top 2 by the numbers, 1966-2019
Hall of Famers with reduced wait time: 52 (46%)
Average reduction in wait time: 8
Hall of Famers elected in the same year: 56
Hall of Famers elected 108 (95.5%)
Non-Hall of Famers elected: 5 (4.4%)
A simple solution for fixing the Hall of Fame
The “Top 2” process is 95 percent accurate — and for the roughly half of hall of famers who wind up having to wait before getting elected, it can reduce their wait times by an average of eight years.
Under this system, the top two finishers each year in the BBWAA voting would get the call, along with any others who receive more than 75 percent of the vote.
It would allow the deserving players to smell the roses while they still can; keep fans engaged; ensure that someone is elected each year without greatly expanding the number of enshrinees; take away the empty, hollow feeling of worthwhile candidates falling short year after year; and bring back some life to a stagnant, stale voting process.
A re-invigorated baseball hall of fame voting process. Can you imagine?
To me, the Cooperstown origin story is a lot like “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” when Ferris isn’t at school. “My best friend's sister's boyfriend's brother's girlfriend heard from this guy who knows this kid who's going with the girl who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night. I guess it's pretty serious.” “Thank you, Simone.” Ferris’ phony sickness is about as believable as Abner Doubleday inventing baseball, with lots of people responsible for spinning the fiction into something bigger. And yet, people bought it.
Paige was overlooked for decades by the hall because his heyday happened to occur when white men barred him from playing in the majors; when he was finally selected for the hall in 1971 by the Negro League Committee, after lobbying by Ted Williams and others, there was consideration to hang his plaque in a Negro League-only wing (thankfully that didn't come to pass, and his plaque was added alongside other plaques).
Thanks for trying to rethink this. A really nice book to read this off season is G. Scott Thomas' "Cooperstown at the Crossroads: The Checkered History (and Uncertain Future) of Baseball's Hall of Fame" which I will be reviewing in my 2023 new baseball book series.
That’s a very straightforward approach. I think it would bring true consistency to the process.