BY J.A. SCHWARTZ
The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) is responsible for the election process that admits or denies retired players access to the Hall of Fame. The process is very straightforward. Once a player elects to retire, a period of five years must pass before that player can be considered “on the ballot” for the Hall of Fame. Writers who have been members of the BBWAA for 10 consecutive seasons, during which they have been covering Major League Baseball on a regular basis, are able to vote in the Hall of Fame election process. If an eligible player on the ballot receives 75% of the votes cast in a given year, he is honored with election to the Hall of Fame, and is officially enshrined at a ceremony that takes place the following July in Cooperstown, NY, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.
The BBWAA has been around since 1908, and was founded to provide journalists with reasonable working conditions and, according to their website, “to ensure its members have access to players and others in the game so its members reporting can be accurate, fair and complete.” The voters for the Hall of Fame take that responsibility very seriously, and many choose to make their ballots public, explaining their reasoning about the decisions they’ve made about who deserves their vote, and who doesn’t. It’s the process by which those decisions are made, and the logic that informs them, that will be discussed in this feature.
First, two links that should help with some historical context.
The first shows the percentage of votes earned by every member of the Hall of Fame since its inception in 1939. The second lists the 100 greatest players in the history of the game, ranked by their Wins Above Replacement (WAR) figure. These are presented for reference purposes, and to help illustrate some of the conundrums faced by the writers charged with bestowing immortal honors on the very human players who dream of that achievement.
In 1945, there was a codicil to the guidelines given to the writers in the BBWAA with their Hall of Fame Ballot. It states: “Voting shall be based upon the players record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
That one sentence has led to oceans of arguments and debates over the relative merits of candidates for decades. The moral agonizing and general gnashing of teeth when trying to interpret the rule has put scribes in the unenviable position of becoming both judge and jury when it comes to assessing players on-and off-the field performance. BBWAA writers have tried to become champions of fair play, guardians of the soul of the game, and the ultimate arbiters of justice in baseball. Each of them take their responsibility as a voter very seriously, and perform untold hours of due diligence to properly evaluate the candidacy of each player. What began as a very simple and noble enterprise-honoring the very greatest players ever to play baseball-has become far more complicated.
When the clause about integrity, sportsmanship and character was added in 1945, apparently racism was still considered within the bounds of acceptable behavior. Black players were still excluded from the major leagues, and would remain on the outside looking in until Branch Rickey famously decided to make Jackie Robinson the first player of color to join the major leagues in 1947. Robinson would debut at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers despite intense pressure from fans, opposing managers and many players, some of who refused to take the field while Robinson was playing. Many of those same players would go on to achieve immortality by being elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA.
In 1949, a Red Sox scout named George Digby made an urgent recommendation to team ownership. Digby had seen a 17-year-old outfielder that he felt had significant professional potential, and pleaded with GM Joe Cronin and owner Tom Yawkey to sign him for $4500. Because the player was black, Yawkey declined. That player, Willie Mays, would go on become one of the greatest to ever wear a uniform, amassing 156 WAR (5th all time) to go along with 3,300 hits and 660 home runs.
Yawkey had a long-standing policy of not signing black ballplayers, and Boston was one of the last teams to integrate their roster. The Boston franchise famously suffered through a long drought of seasons (from 1919-2004) without a championship, and many in the game cited “The Curse of the Bambino” as the reason.
In 1919, Babe Ruth, then a star Red Sox pitcher and outfielder, had been sold to the Yankees by franchise owner Harry Frazee, apparently so Frazee could help to finance a Broadway play he was trying to produce. It might be more accurate to note that Yawkey, and his policy of racist practices, had far more to do with the team’s woes than any hokey jinx resulting from Ruth’s sale to the Yankees. Yawkey was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee in 1980.
Numerous players who had admitted dalliances with illegal drugs have been elected to the Hall of Fame. They will not be named to avoid besmirching their legacies. Players who were widely known to have committed adultery, some multiple times, have been voted into the Hall.
Dozens of players who admitted to various and sundry forms of cheating have been elected to the Hall of Fame. One such perpetrator, Gaylord Perry, published an autobiography before he was elected to the Hall that described his use of grease to apply to a ball he would then pitch to an unsuspecting batter. “I’d always have it in at least two places in case the umpires asked me to wipe one off,” Perry noted. The application of spit, or any foreign substance, to a pitched ball had been outlawed for decades at the time of Perry’s admission. Still, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991.
The topic of sign stealing has made recent headlines. MLB concluded that the 2017 Houston Astros illegally used video replay monitors and an elaborate system of signaling the batter as to the pitch he was about to see. Astros GM Jeff Luhnow, and Manager A.J. Hinch were both suspended for a year by the league, and then fired by team owner Jim Crane. Players on that 2017 team, including young All-Stars like Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman, will forever have the stigma of the sign stealing controversy attached to their names. One would imagine that, should they continue to produce great seasons, their association with this issue might well cloud their Hall of Fame candidacy. Or will it ? Apparently, the practice has been going on for quite some time.
St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame infielder Rogers Hornsby said late in his two decade career, “I was in baseball since 1914, and I’ve cheated, or watched someone on my team cheat, in practically every game.”
Detroit Tigers Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg, when asked about whether sign stealing helped him, “I loved that. I was the greatest hitter in the world when I knew what kind of pitch was coming up.”
The use of amphetamines, or “greenies”, was rampant in baseball clubhouses during the latter half of the last century. So widespread was their use that it was common parlance to refer to a player who did not use amphetamines as “playing naked.” Players who admitted to using such pharmaceutical aids, which were not illegal at that time (but were banned in 2006), were not considered to have been running afoul of standards of fair play, and have joined the ranks of the Hall of Fame based on their career achievements.
The standards of integrity, sportsmanship and character have certainly been subject to broad interpretation in many regards. Gambling, however, has been the clear, bright line that writers have drawn to protect the public perception of integrity about the competition they pay to see. Members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox allegedly conspired with gamblers to fix the outcome of the World Series that year, agreeing to lose the series to the Cincinnati Reds to enrich themselves.
Despite being acquitted in court, baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis banned those players from baseball for life, making them permanently ineligible for Hall of Fame induction. Shoeless Joe Jackson, the star of that team and the owner of 62 WAR over just 13 seasons in the majors, was thus forever excluded from election consideration.
The major league leader in hits, Pete Rose, owner of 80 career WAR (64th all time), has been banned from baseball and Hall of Fame consideration for life because he bet on games he was managing for the Cincinnati Reds in 1987. Despite his plaintive pleas to be reinstated, he has been blacklisted, and will seemingly remain so indefinitely.
Is being a racist enough to keep a player or executive out of the Hall of Fame ? It would seem it is not. Are those who seek to bend or break the rules excluded ? Not in most cases. Are players who abuse drugs asked to stand outside the gates looking in ? They are not. What about players who abused alcohol, or admitted adulterers ? Should they be blacklisted ? Again, the answer is no.
It seems that gambling is one unforgivable indictment of a player’s candidacy that has remained unchanged for nearly 100 years, and has kept those convicted (the 1919 White Sox, Pete Rose) on the unwelcome list when it comes to the Hall. Gambling was a clear line of demarcation as to what defined sportsmanship, character and integrity. Cross it, and be forever ostracized from baseball and the Hall of Fame. At least the writers should be of one opinion on that front.
Times can change.
Before the 2019 season, Major League Baseball announced a partnership with MGM Resorts International, a casino conglomerate, making MGM the “Official Gaming Partner of Major League Baseball.” Commissioner Rob Manfred said “We are pleased to partner with MGM, a clear industry leader in the sports gaming area, to work together on bringing innovative experiences to baseball fans and MGM customers.” When the Supreme Court opened the door to legalized sports gambling in May 2018, baseball was quick to pivot and partner with the casino group. The announcement included commentary about how the relationship would be focused on “responsible gaming measures” and “protecting the integrity of the game on and off the field.” It would seem that can be stretched to mean just about anything if the circumstances are right.
The information available to voters today compared to even ten years ago is staggering. We now have access to much better systems and statistics when it comes to assessing defensive value than ever before. The advent of Statcast and Trackman technology has poured reams of data about spin rate, launch angle and exit velocity into the hands of teams, players and writers, providing insights into the game at levels never dreamed possible at the turn of the century. It is not hyperbole to say that we have a greater understanding of the game of baseball today than at any time in history. Keeping up with those advances, and adopting opinions and evaluations of players current and past based on new information is the responsibility of the scribes who interpret the game for the fans.
The Hall of Fame is a shrine that was created to help celebrate baseball’s most accomplished players, managers and executives. It is more than fair to say that some of the initial or contemporary opinions of candidates for enshrinement have changed or evolved in the light of updated information and cultural paradigm shifts. In 1940, voters gave absolutely no thought to the greatness of some of the players competing in the Negro Leagues, none of who had the opportunity to be recognized as the equals of white Major Leaguers of that same time.
The great Lou Gehrig, a Hall inductee in 1939, was quoted as saying, “I have seen many Negro League players who belong in the big leagues. I don’t believe there is any room in baseball for discrimination. It’s our true national pastime and a game for all.” Not until 1947, six years after Gehrig passed away, did Jackie Robinson become the first African American player to debut in the major leagues. It would be another 24 years before the first African American was inducted into the Hall of Fame, when Satchel Paige was honored in 1971. It can be argued that Paige’s enshrinement required some overt pressure on the sportswriters and the Hall itself, and that leverage was provided by none other than Ted Williams. In his induction speech in 1965, Williams said, “I hope that some day the names of Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in some way could be added, as a symbol of the great Negro [Leagues] players that are not here only because they were not given the chance.”
On December 16, 2020, Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred released a statement: “All of us who love baseball have long known that the Negro Leagues produced many of our game’s best players, innovations and triumphs against a backdrop of injustice. “We are now grateful to count the players of the Negro Leagues where they belong: as Major Leaguers within the official historical record.”
There are few certainties in life. Since the beginning of time, change has been one of them. Human beings have evolved and adapted in the face of ever shifting rules, laws, beliefs and paradigms. We’ve incorporated technologies and scientific advances into our daily lives, and are constantly adjusting how we think about and see the world as we learn more about how it works.
It is incumbent upon the writers who chronicle the exploits of players who are at least one and sometimes two generations removed from their own to take the time to recalibrate their firmly held beliefs and biases, and consider how much has changed since they formed those positions. The historical record of their efforts in that regard when it comes to Hall of Fame voting leaves quite a lot to be desired, and should serve as a reminder that they have an opportunity to be more progressive going forward, in the most modern sense of that word.