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January 20, 2011

Prospectus Q&A

Jack O'Connell, Part I

by David Laurila

The Baseball Writers Association of America is a big part of the game, and Jack O’Connell is a big part of the BBWAA. The organization’s secretary-treasurer since 1994, O’Connell is not only involved in the decision-making, he also serves as spokesperson and coordinates the annual awards and Hall of Fame balloting. A member of the BBWAA since 1975, he is a former beat writer for both the Mets and Yankees. O’Connell talked about the history and objectives of the BBWAA, along with a variety of the organization’s issues. Among them: their relationship with MLB, membership eligibility—including the inclusion of internet-only reporters—and the Hall of Fame voting process.

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David Laurila: How would you describe the BBWAA?

Jack O’Connell: It’s a non-profit and basically an organization of reporters who cover Major League Baseball on a regular basis. We’re over 100 years old; the organization was formed in 1908, during the World Series that year. It was Chicago versus Detroit and the [press] facilities were abysmal. In one, they were on some kind of plank out in left field, uncovered, and they were trying to write in very cold weather. They met at the Pontchartrain Hotel, in Detroit—a bunch of newspapermen—and eventually went to Major League Baseball. There was no Commissioner in those days, so they had meetings with the two league presidents and said, “Hey, we’re covering baseball, we’re promoting the game, give us a place to work.” That was the beginning of the press box.

It’s an organization that kind of guarantees that everybody is on an equal footing in covering the game. Our main goal is to improve access to the players and the people who are involved in the game, and also to make sure that the working conditions are favorable. That’s how the organization began, and it is still what we do today. We guarantee that the clubhouses are open at a certain time before games and after games. That’s pretty much what we’re about.

DL: Article II, Section 3 of the BBWAA Constitution includes the line: “the Baseball Commissioner and member clubs, who recognize the Association as the custodian of Major League press boxes.” Can you elaborate on that?

JO: At one time it was much stronger. In fact, at one time the BBWAA pretty much ran the press box. You could only sit in the front row if you were a member of the BBWAA. At each individual chapter—there are currently 25 chapters, one in each major-league city—there was a sergeant at arms to make sure that only members were in the first row, and that only people who were actually covering the game—not somebody’s brother-in-law—was coming into the press box.

So at one time, the BBWAA was much more forceful in running it, but that has kind of shifted over the years. Eventually—in part because press boxes were so well-run—the public relations departments took over maintenance of the press box, and they did so following the traditional BBWAA standards.

That said, if there are infractions, we go right to the ballclub, or if the situation dictates it, right to the Commissioner to straighten it out.

DL: What is the organization’s relationship with Major League Baseball?

JO: I think it’s cordial. We butt heads once in awhile, but for the most part there’s a working relationship going on between us and MLB, and between us and the Players’ Association, for that matter. I wouldn’t call it adversarial. Occasionally it might be, over a particular issue that comes up, but I think it’s fair to call it a working relationship.

DL: How much direct communication is there between the BBWAA and MLB?

JO: There’s communication on a pretty regular basis. I wouldn’t say that we have scheduled meetings, but if something comes up, I can make a phone call to [MLB Senior Vice President of Public Relations] Pat Courtney, or any chapter chairman can call Pat Courtney and talk about an issue that has arisen at a particular venue. The lines of communication are pretty strong.

Sometimes it depends on who the Commissioner is. We have a Commissioner now who has a pretty good idea of what the media is about. I think it’s fair to say that Bud Selig likes the give and take with writers. Over the years, when he was the owner of the Brewers, he used to come into the press box all the time and chat with the visiting writers, and so forth. So I think that the lines of communication are pretty strong.

DL: What is the leadership structure of the BBWAA?

JO: We have a president, a vice president, a secretary-treasurer, and a four-member board of directors. The president and vice president are elected annually, and the secretary-treasurer—that’s my job—is basically the organization’s administrator, and whoever has that position makes a commitment for an extended period. I’ve had the job for 17 years, and the man who had it before me, Jack Lang, had it for 22. It is the administrative position, so before you’re elected to it you have to make a commitment to take on the assignment for a while.

Like I said, the president and vice president serve for a year, and there is a rotation system. The current president is from the New York chapter, Ken Davidoff of Newsday, and the vice president is from the Los Angeles-Anaheim chapter, Bill Shaikin of the Los Angeles Times. The vice president will become president next year, and I think the San Francisco-Oakland chapter is next. The individual chapters have a vote to determine who their candidate will be for national office.

The four-member board is appointed by the president annually, and one of the members is always the immediate outgoing president. In this case it is John Lowe, from Detroit.

Each chapter has its own set of officers. There is a chapter chair; there is usually a vice chair, and there is a secretary-treasurer. Like I said, there are 25 chapters, one for each of the major-league cities.

There are national dues of $65 annually, and some of the chapters have additional assessments for their own treasuries. In New York, where I am, for example, the assessment is $35. We run the annual dinner, so we need a little extra treasury money. Another chapter might just have a $10 assessment; some have none.

That’s basically the structure. It fits under the title of a non-profit. We’re not selling anything or buying anything; we’re just trying to run an organization that creates a level working field for everybody.

DL: How do the dynamics of the leadership structure—specifically the one-year terms—impact the decision-making within the organization?

JO: Well, there is change, but remember that the president has already served a term as vice president, and after he is president he then serves on the board, so there is some sense of continuity there. So while the president is only in that position for a year, his actual involvement is for three years, and may even serve on the board again.

We have three meetings a year. One is at the All-Star Game, one is at the World Series, which is the annual meeting, and one is at the Winter Meetings. Some people go to all of the meetings and get very involved; they volunteer for committees. There are others who all they want is to be able to get their credential and do their job. It’s like that in any organization: there are people who become very involved and there are people who just get into their car and go to work.

I’ve been very fortunate, in the 17 years that I’ve done this, that the presidents have really taken it seriously. They’ve been very involved. Ken Davidoff, from Newsday, is the president now and he has been very proactive. Most of the guys are. Sometimes it kind of surprises me. Somebody will get the job and I’ll be thinking, “Oh boy, what is it going to be like with this guy?’ and he hits the ground running. That has been good to see.

DL: Can you address BBWAA membership eligibility?

JO: The eligibility is basically what I said before. It’s open to reporters, columnists, and sports editors—one sports editor per paper—of daily publications, and wire services, that cover Major League Baseball on a regular basis. It’s pretty simple.

The sports editor of a paper will contact the local chapter chair and request credentials for X amount of people. And they have to be baseball writers. We’re not putting in hockey writers. Nothing against hockey writers, basketball writers, or football writers, but the idea is to just put in the guys and girls who are going to be covering baseball.

There are about 700 active members across the 25 chapters. About four, maybe five years ago, we opened it up to certain internet sites—daily websites—and we now have about 65 members from internet sites. We also have quite a few members—over 60, now—from publications based in Asia, mostly Japan, but also South Korea and Taiwan. We also have some members who belong to publications in Latin America. Obviously, there are Canadian members as well. So we’re pretty international, but it‘s always been that way. At one point there were members from Cuba and Mexico, and as a matter of fact, we once had members from The Daily Worker, the Communist Party newspaper, from New York.

DL: Internet-only writers being admitted to the BBWAA has been a somewhat controversial issue. Where do you stand on that?

JO: There’s no controversy as far as I’m concerned. Like I said, we’re up to 65 members now. It was something that was discussed, and I think the issue first came up as far back as 15 years ago. I think that once we realized what the landscape was going to be regarding the internet… I mean, when it first came into being, who knew what it was going to turn into? But once the landscape became a little bit clearer, it made sense that if people are writing about baseball—and it is print; it just happens to come in an electronic mode—then it would be accepted.

I think that the first rule of thumb we used was whether the organization was approved by Major League Baseball for credentials. It was actually your organization, Baseball Prospectus, that was the first one not to be approved, but came back to us and made a great presentation. We had a vote and decided, “You know what, it sounds like they’re doing what we’re doing.”

So as far as controversy, I don’t think there is any. If you’re writing about baseball, and you’re writing for a legitimate media outlet, we’re going to consider you, and I think that we’ve proved it; 65 people is a lot of people. The first year that we approved internet people, I think it was 18, of which 16 had already been members of ours previously through newspapers. But more recently, a good two dozen had no, or very minimal, newspaper experience. They had worked almost strictly on the internet and now they’re members of the association.

DL: Why aren’t MLB.com writers in the BBWAA?

JO: That’s a good question. The objection that came up is that they are in the employ of Major League Baseball. This isn’t something I necessarily agree with, but I just carry out policy; I don’t make it. But the fact is that there is a sizable group that feels it is a conflict of interest. And frankly, we have found out recently that there is preferential treatment that the MLB.com people get from MLB. When it came to pass that we were putting in internet people, the feeling of the group—what was passed in the proposal—is that the MLB staffers be excluded.

It’s a little uncomfortable for me, personally, because many of them were members in good standing with us for many years. But again, that’s my own personal view. The group felt that it created a conflict of interest—not my favorite term, but that’s the one that was used—so when we passed the proposal to allow internet people, it did not include members of MLB.com. That may change, and then again it may not. I don’t know.

DL: The constitution lists an objective of, “foster[ing] the most credible qualities of baseball writing and reporting.” Is that enforced in any way?

JO: No. There was a push about 15 years ago to come up with some kind of ethics committee, but the reason it can’t be enforced is very simple: each individual paper has its own set of ethics. The New York Times has one set, the Philadelphia Inquirer has another. We can’t be in the business of telling people… that wasn’t the design of the organization. We don’t have a committee that is going to read every story, every day, and determine that it’s ethically sound. It’s really more of an esprit de corps kind of thing, and that is probably why it went into the constitution.

Again, we try to make sure that the people in the press box are there to work, not to sit and cheer. It’s a nice seat; it’s a great seat. It’s the best seat in the house, but it’s not for fans. It’s for the working press, who are there to work, and I think that is what that clause is about. That clause probably also goes all the way back to 1908. You’re not there to drink beer all afternoon and cheer when Babe Ruth hits one into the seats. You’re there to do your job and behave like a professional.

DL: The constitution includes a clause regarding suspension and expulsion. Does that ever happen?

JO: That was added, actually. A card being revoked is very rare, but it can happen. For instance, if you’re in the clubhouse and you ask Alex Rodriguez for an autograph, boom, your card will be revoked. There is a due-process system if there is any kind of complaint about that. But that’s pretty rare, because most people understand what they can and can’t do when they come to the ballpark to work.

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 To be continued on Friday. In Part II, O'Connell discusses annual awards and the Hall of Fame, including who votes for the MVP and Cy Young, who gets a Hall of Fame ballot, and why Rick Ferrell is enshrined in Cooperstown.

13 comments have been left for this article.

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