Compared to other North American professional sports Hall of Fames, it is more difficult to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Designed to be exclusive, the Baseball Hall of Fame’s goal is to honor only the elite of the elite. Sometimes the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, seem to induct herds of players in an annual ceremony.
Not so baseball. A player must be mentioned on 75 percent of ballots to be elected.
It has always been tough to get into the Baseball Hall of Fame – as it should be – since it opened in 1939, but recently the Hall made it a little bit tougher by changing its rules for election. While the Baseball Writers Association of America has always been the roll call of voters for the player whose eligibility is fresh following a five-year post-retirement waiting period, the Hall itself is overseen by the Hall, not Major League Baseball.
Clearly, the relationship is a tight one, but the Hall’s board of directors sets the rules for admission. Not every member of the BWAA is eligible to vote. Just as a player must have played for 10 years for consideration a writer must have been a member for 10 years in order to vote.
Recent years have been hard on the Hall and the writers both as superstars of recent play retired from the game under a cloud of suspicion about whether or not they took performance enhancing drugs to help pile up hugely impressive statistics. Never before has this much controversy affected the vote. Voters are torn. It is as if some huge corporation is promising to create 1,000 jobs in your neighborhood – but with a cost of wrecking a pristine environmental area.
Players with remarkable career statistics, some of whom in the past would have been slam-dunk first-ballot selections, have not been able to muster the votes for inclusion. Barry Bonds, the all-time home-run champ, Roger Clemens, a 354-game winner, Sammy Sosa, with 609 homers, Rafael Palmeiro, with 569 homers and 3,020 hits, remain on the outside.
Once a player’s name has appeared on the ballot he must receive at least five percent of the vote to stay on. Recently retired players could remain on the list for 15 years. The new change reduces that to 10 years. After that the nominee is off the regular ballot, but can have his case taken up again by what was formerly called the Veterans Committee and is now known as the Era Committee.
The ripple effect of the pre-drug-testing era in baseball where it was conceded that steroids ruled is that entire categories of players have been treated like criminals by the voters. The attitude is that “Yeah, you have great numbers, but you cheated.” The pressure on voters has been extreme over the last couple of years. While a secret ballot, some voters have come out and explained why they voted the way they did, pro or con. Some issued protests, or even handled their votes in dramatically public, but generally unacceptable ways.
The Hall responded to that, too. Now the voters’ names will be divulged, though not their actual ballot, which lists up to 10 names. The Hall board is trying to get a handle on the circus this has become and maintain a little dignity all around.
Last year's vote pleased most, with the admission of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and former manager Bobby Cox making it an Atlanta Braves festival in Cooperstown as they were joined for induction by Frank Thomas, Tony La Russa and Joe Torre.
Still, there has been such fractionalized voting in recent years that worthy candidates who never engendered any suspicion of cheating have been overshadowed. Three long-time candidates, Don Mattingly, Lee Smith, and Alan Trammel, already on the ballot beyond 10 years, have been grandfathered in for 15-year consideration.
Depending on how you view the cases of those stars whose names have been associated with drug discussion, or suspicion, there are definitely more than 10 worthy players for the ballot. Some innocent party who may have been a long-shot, but was certainly worthy of discussion, may get shoved out too quickly.
Holdovers on the Hall ballots, to be collected by Dec. 31, include Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Edgar Martinez, and Curt Schilling. Palmeiro didn’t even make the cut last year. New for this year are pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.
Good luck to the voters.