Hall Falls Down

By Murray Chass

December 9, 2008

If a player went to bat four times in six years and didn’t get a hit, he probably wouldn’t command consideration for the Hall of Fame. Fair enough.

If a player, on the other hand, pitched four times in six years and threw a shutout each and every time, would he deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?

Well, the “player” who has pitched those shutouts is already in the Hall of Fame – he was actually 64 players this year – and the player who has gone hitless is at the Hall of Fame, running the Hall of Fame and doing at least as good a job as Larry, Curly and Moe could do.

The Hall of Fame’s board of directors struck out once again this week, the fourth time in six years in an every-other-year format, in its efforts to sneak additional, undeserving players into its fine institution and building in Cooperstown, N.Y.

The directors have a problem. They’re never satisfied with what – or whom – they have. Their view isn’t necessarily the more the merrier because then they might get more players than they bargained for but they want more than they get.

Having Rickey Henderson and maybe Jim Rice to induct next July wouldn’t be enough. They wanted the induction lineup to include a few others, maybe Ron Santo and Joe Torre or Gil Hodges. They did get Joe Gordon this week via a separate pre-1943 Veteran’s Committee, but Gordon died in 1978 so he won’t provide much of a presence on induction day.

The Hall has had a veterans committee voting on players for a long time, and most years the committee elected somebody. But those elections eventually became embarrassing because the committee members – former players, executives, writers – began swapping votes. You vote for my guy this year; I’ll vote for yours next year.

In one of his last years on the veterans committee, Ted Williams urged his fellow members to vote for Dom DiMaggio. As good as DiMaggio was, he did not belong in the Hall with his brother and his former teammate. The Hall directors reached the final straw when the committee, through the lobbying efforts of its chairman, Joe Brown Jr., former general manager of the Pirates, elected Bill Mazeroski, the Pirates’ fine second baseman, whose home run beat the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.

Mazeroski was inducted in 2001, after which the Hall’s directors abandoned the veterans committee as it was constituted. Since then, the directors have searched in vain for a format that could get somebody elected.

They went from the small committee to a large committee, giving the vote to all Hall of Famers plus winners of the annual writing and broadcasting awards. That didn’t work either because the new committee, numbering around 85, didn’t give anyone 75 percent of the vote.

For the most recent election, another change: The Spink and Frick winners were dropped and only Hall of Famers, 64 in number, received ballots. But again, no one was elected. Of the 10 candidates on the ballot, Santo came closest with 39 votes, 9 short of the necessary 75 percent, and Jim Kaat was next with 38, followed by Tony Oliva 33, Gil Hodges 28 and Joe Torre 19.

Writers were criticized for years by Hodges supporters for not electing the Brooklyn first baseman, but now those supporters know that his contemporaries don’t think he belongs in the Hall.

But one obvious reality has emerged from the four shutout elections (2002, ‘04, ‘06, ‘08). The occupants of the Hall of Fame don’t want anyone else to join them.

“It’s not that players don’t care; there is an interest level from the players,” said the Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. “They obviously feel there are candidates worth election.”

But even Idelson has to realize the players’ position. They are so opposed to admitting anyone else that when they had the opportunity they didn’t even vote in necessary numbers for Marvin Miller, the union leader, who was responsible for making many of them wealthy.

This year’s 64 voters wrote players’ names on their ballots a total of 213 times, an average of 3.33 players per ballot. They could vote for a maximum of four candidates. But vote though they did, the players couldn’t agree on which player or players merited inclusion.

That’s the beauty of the 75 percent requirement. No one can sneak into the Hall of Fame. He has to be viewed overwhelmingly as a worthy member.

“It’s the first time we’ve tried it with a small electorate and a smaller ballot,” Idelson said. “The question becomes, how do we refine it? And if so, when? And that’s something the board will have to determine.”

From this point of view the board has to determine only one thing: Why belabor this foolish exercise?   

“The process was not redesigned with the goal of necessarily electing someone, but to give everyone on the ballot a very fair chance of earning election through a ballot of their peers,” said Jane Forbes Clark, the board chairman.

But everyone on the ballot had already been judged three times by their peers, and their peers’ rejection of them followed 15 years of rejection by the writers. How many times does a player have to lose before he accepts defeat?

In fact, the Hall is being unfair to these players. With each election, the losers become angrier and more frustrated.

“It’s so ridiculous that nobody gets in again. I can’t understand it,” Santo was quoted as saying after he learned of his latest unsuccessful bid.

Santo and the others should not be put in the position of having their hopes rise, only to be swatted down once again. Miller, whose impact on baseball cries out for election to the Hall, became so disgusted after yet another rejection last year, that he asked that his name never appear on another ballot.

Former players won’t take that step because they figure that if they get on another ballot and somehow get enough votes, their lives will be complete. But unless their number of hits or home runs or their batting average or their number of wins increases before the next election, they won’t fare any better.

But the board will fiddle with the format because that is what the board does.

In 1992, when Pete Rose became eligible to have his name on the writers’ ballot, the board changed the rules so that Rose would not be eligible. “Any player on Baseball’s ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate,” the board decided.

The board’s action prompted me to take a radical step. At a Baseball Writers Association meeting, I proposed that the organization withdraw from voting for the Hall of Fame. Ten-year members of the BBWAA make up the Hall’s electorate.

It wasn’t that I wanted Rose to be eligible so that he could be elected to the Hall. I would not have voted for him. But I was offended that the board didn’t trust the writers to do the right thing. If the writers were going to do the Hall’s work by voting for its members, we should make the rules.

Had a vote been taken at the meeting at which I introduced the motion, I believe it would have had a good chance of passing, and the Hall would have had to find another electorate but with great damage to its prestige. However, the vote was tabled. A sharp minded writer who wanted to retain the vote saw the possibility of having it ended and moved to have the motion submitted to the entire membership in a mail vote.

The tabling motion won, and my motion was resoundingly defeated in the mail vote after pro-Hall members had a chance to campaign against it.

I wish now that the writers would refuse to have anything to do with the board’s game of Hall politics, but writers like being part of the process. They like the prestige attached to it. Two writers even served on the committee that elected Gordon. Writers served on the committees that helped determine the makeup of the ballots.

Maybe the board next will ask the writers to figure out a format that will facilitate the election of players the writers rejected for 15 years.

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