January 21, 2011
Jack O'Connell, Part II
In Part II, Jack O'Connell, the secretary-treasurer of the Baseball Writers Association of America, 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. You can read Part I here.
David Laurila: Voting for awards is an important part of BBWAA membership. What is the structure behind who votes for what?
Jack O’Connell: Let me start with the history of that. There were various types of Most Valuable Player awards in the teens and the ‘20s. There was a car company—I think it was Chalmers—that gave out an award. There was an American League award, and so forth. And there were some crazy rules, one of which was that you couldn’t win the award more than once. That’s why Babe Ruth won the MVP only once. It got so out of control that in 1930 no award was given out at all. The Commissioner back then, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, was very upset about that, so he went to the Baseball Writers, at the annual meeting that year, and basically said, “We think the award is important; can you guys do something to get this thing back on its feet?” The secretary-treasurer at the time was a man named Henry Edwards, who was based in Chicago, and in 1931 the Baseball Writers took over the Most Valuable Player award.
It was Edwards who came up with the idea of having three writers from each league city vote. It was usually beat guys, and remember that it was the only award given out in those days. It was three from Cleveland, three from St. Louis, three from Boston, and so forth. And it worked; it was back to where they wanted it. I think that the first winners were Frankie Frisch and Lefty Grove. We took over the trademark of those awards in 1931.
It’s done pretty much the same way all these years later. At the beginning of the season I send out a memo to all of the chapter chairs, asking for their recommendations for the people on the committees. We’ve added, obviously, three other awards over the years: Rookie of the Year, in 1947, Cy Young, in 1956, and we took over the Manager of the Year award in 1983 after the wire services stopped giving them out.
There are 240 committee seats now, as we give out four awards in each league, so I send out this memo asking for their recommendations. The people in the individual chapters know who should and shouldn’t be voting, and we try like heck to put the best people onto the committees. It’s usually the beat people who do the MVP or Cy Young, and a columnist might do another award. It depends on the chapter, and on the size of the individual chapter, but it’s usually the people who are at the ballpark on a very regular basis, and sometimes the smaller chapters will double up. A writer might get MVP and Manager, or Cy Young and Rookie. That’s basically how that process works.
Some chapters have a rotation process, where one year a writer will vote for the Manager of the Year, the next year the Cy Young, and so forth. And like I said, it’s based on size. Here in New York, we have a huge chapter, but in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, San Diego, Houston… they’re a little smaller. There’s a chance that if you’re the beat writer for the Houston Chronicle, you’re going to be voting MVP every year. Some chapters aren’t on a strict rotation, but they still like to switch it around. Cleveland, which is a very well-run chapter, does it that way.
And some chapters are a little tougher because there are seven newspapers that don’t allow their people to vote. What we can do in those situations is to use national people, often internet people, for example, Jayson Stark. You can kind of maneuver them into different chapters. Before doing that, however, I try like hell to assign somebody who is from that chapter. I love the idea of things being equal, that the same amount of people from Atlanta are voting as are voting in New York. We try to make sure that if you [play] in New York or Los Angeles, you don’t have a better chance of being the MVP because there are more people in those chapters.
DL: Is there a policy regarding transparency of votes cast?
JO: Our awards, the four BBWAA awards, are completely transparent. In fact, this year, with a few of the awards, we put them right on the website—who voted for whom. As a matter of fact, if somebody calls me and asks, “Who voted A-Rod fifth?,” I’ll tell them. The writers know that they have to be able to defend their ballot. If something happens that is controversial—somebody leaves off Barry Bonds, or something like that—he or she has to explain that. Our awards are completely transparent.
DL: Every year, at least one or two writers cast a Hall of Fame ballot that is highly controversial, voting for a B.J Surhoff and a Tino Martinez but not a Roberto Alomar or a Bert Blyleven.
JO: Hall of Fame voting is different. Hall of Fame voting is confidential, and a major reason for that is—and we agreed with the Hall of Fame on this—you want to avoid campaigning. I think that if the list of voters was made public—and the only person with the list is who you’re talking to—that would lead to open campaigning, which was done years ago. That’s why the Baseball Writers came up with that. Initially, it was also open, and they just got tired of the campaigning. They were tired of getting letters, which is what you got in those days, and just getting hit over the head. For that reason, the Hall of Fame is confidential.
I’m not the only person who counts the ballots. The ballots are counted jointly, by me and a partner in the Ernst and Young accounting firm, a man by the name of Mike DiLecce. He verifies the vote. The first election we involved them in was in 1997. I was very big on this when I first got the job. The first couple of years that I did it, I was uncomfortable not having this verified. It was just my count—and nothing against anybody who preceded me, because we’ve obviously been counting these ballots since 1936—but it just feels more comfortable having an authoritative figure like that in the room when I open the envelopes. I don’t open them when they come to my post office box; I put them in a big box and the day of the counting we open everything and look at everything.
Is there controversy about some of the ballots? Yes, and there always has been. But I can tell you that this is a clean, up-and-up election. The thing is, we had 581 people vote this year, and that’s 581 different opinions. There is no mathematical equation that gets you into the Hall of Fame. It’s an election, not a coronation. And at 75 percent, it’s a very different election from any other election in this democracy. The White House would be perpetually unoccupied if you needed 75 percent to get in.
The controversies we encounter, we deal with. They usually come from somebody who says, “My guy didn’t elected, so the writers shouldn’t do this anymore.” That has been going on since 1936.
DL: What are the Hall of Fame voting requirements?
JO: Ten years. You have to be a baseball writer for 10 consecutive years or more. And these days, the people who stay 10 years in a row aren’t as many as there used to be. When I first started in the business, I listened to the old guys and they would say how tough they had it. I’m different. I’m an older guy now, and I can tell you that with the 24-7 world that writers live in today, they have it a lot harder than I did. Staying on the beat for 10 years is a lot tougher now.
This year, I think we had 12 new voters, whereas in the past you might have had 25 in a particular year. So if you do your 10 full years on the beat, you get a ballot. That’s the requirement. It is basically for senior members.
The ballot comes out in December. We always mail it before December 1, so you have the whole month. It has to be postmarked by December 31 when it’s sent back. And the ballot doesn’t come with just 30 names on it, it comes with a full biographical package on every player that’s on it, so we have a pretty knowledgeable electorate. These are people who take this very seriously.
After the election, people will call and say, “Who the hell voted for B.J. Surhoff,” or “Who the hell voted for Brett Boone?” But that’s part of the process, too. It’s not like those were the only names on a particular ballot. A person might have voted for five people and then decided, “I’ll throw this guy a vote as well.” But I can tell you that, sitting with Mike [DiLecce], it is very rare—no more than one or two sheets—where we will look at each other and kind of raise our eyebrows like, “What’s going on there?”
It’s hard for me to adequately convey how seriously the writers take this. When you go to the Winter Meetings in early December, guys are already talking with each other. “Did you vote for Blyleven? I haven’t been, but should I? Why?” That type of thing. I just think that it’s a terrific process, and it’s very unique to baseball writers. Last week I was talking to a writer who just got the ballot for the first time, and he was bubbling over with how excited he was to take part in the process. I remember when my first ballot came, 25 years ago. When that envelope showed up, it was like I had arrived. It’s something that’s difficult to describe if you’re outside the fraternity.
DL: Unless I’m mistaken, a writer can reach the 10-year threshold but then quit covering baseball and still be casting Hall of Fame ballots 30 years later.
JO: Conceivably. That’s certainly possible, but you’d be surprised. Every year, I get back about half a dozen ballots that are not filled out, and on the bottom the person has written, ”Take me off the list; I’m no longer qualified to vote.” In fact, one year, Bill Gleason, the old Chicago sportswriter, actually wrote something in poem form. Guys police themselves. A few years ago, an older guy told me that the ballot that showed up included a bunch of guys that he hadn’t covered, so he didn’t feel qualified to vote. So there is self-policing that goes on.
DL: Does that explain the blank-ballot issue that people have expressed concerns about?
JO: The blank-ballot issue is a little bit different. I’m not crazy about them, but they’re also part of the process. Most blank ballots—and I can’t speak for the five people who sent them in this year; I don’t know what their reasons were—but they’re usually out of protest. It came to a head… Jack Lang, my predecessor, told me that he didn’t even count blank ballots at one time. If a guy didn’t fill anything in, he usually just threw it away.
But one year, 1988, he got nine of them. It was at a time when we had some discussions, among the Baseball Writers, over some Veterans Committee selections that basically trumped the BBWAA ballot. There were a couple of people that the Veterans Committee put in that… and I don’t want to pick on this guy, because he’s a wonderful person, but the election of Rick Ferrell—who wasn’t even the best player in his family—really irritated people. The Veterans Committee was putting people in left and right, and then Rick Ferrell, who was only on our ballot for three years and got three total votes, got in. He was a popular guy, and he was the farm director for the Tigers for many, many years, and the story I heard was that Jim Campbell had called a few of the Veterans Committee members and said, “Look, just don’t let him get shut out. Throw him a vote.” Well, the guy ended up getting nine votes, so he got elected.
Interestingly, the complaint at the next [BBWAA] meeting came from the Detroit chapter. Again, Rick was a popular guy, but he just didn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. We had a real problem with the Hall at that time, particularly over the Veterans Committee. In the election that soon followed, nine guys submitted blank ballots as a protest to the lowering of standards for the Hall. Willie Stargell got elected that year, but Jim Bunning missed by four votes. It was a relatively light ballot—as you know, some years the ballot has more star quality than in others—and these nine guys, some of whom were quoted… I was working at the Daily News at the time, and I had to do a story, and I was able to find out who some of the guys were. They were well-known writers in some cases, and they just explained, “Look, we’re tired of the watering down of the Hall of Fame, and since it’s a light ballot, I sent in a blank ballot.” Since it is based on a percentage, the idea was to make sure that the 75 percent was honored. The result, and I don’t think it was in each of their minds, is that it actually hurt Jim Bunning’s chances of getting in the Hall. If they would have just not voted at all, he would have been elected; there would have been nine fewer ballots, so the number needed for election would have been smaller.
Now, if somebody sends in a ballot and doesn’t sign it, it doesn’t get counted. If you don’t put your name on the bottom, and your card number, we’re not going to count it. But if comes in and is signed, that tells us that this person doesn’t think that anyone on the ballot belongs in the Hall of Fame. My job is to count the votes, not analyze them.
DL: I’m guessing that the most enjoyable part of your job is to notify people that they’ve been elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame?
JO: Yes, as the person who runs the elections, I notify the winners. That’s the winners of the regular awards we give out in November, and I also call the people going into the Hall of Fame. This is not a high-paying job, as you might imagine, and that is the reward. I’m not going to lie to you. It’s a kick to do that. But I take it very seriously, because I know that I’m speaking for 700 people, not just me. It’s an important day in that person’s life, so I try to keep it brief, and I try to keep it thoughtful.
DL: What type of reactions do you get?
JO: Some guys howl at the moon. Bert Blyleven, this year, said, “Jack, I think I may cry,” and I said, “You wouldn’t be the first one.” There’s a great sense that, no matter who it is, there is great sense of humility. It’s like they can’t believe it. And it doesn’t matter if it’s their first or second year, like an Alomar, or a 14thor 15thyear, like a Blyleven or a [Jim Rice]. That’s the one thread in all of the reactions I’ve had, this great sense of humility. They’re aware that this is one of the most important telephone calls they’ve ever gotten. No one has ever just said, ‘Oh, that’s nice.” There is a lot of emotion that goes on.
Tony Gwynn couldn’t speak for a good two minutes. I said, ‘That’s OK, I’ll give you time.” He was just overcome. Tough, hard-nosed guys like Don Sutton and George Brett wept like babies. It’s a pretty special thing.
DL: Any final thoughts on the BBWAA?
JO: We give a [expletive]. It’s as simple as that. I think that a lot of writers’ organizations envy us, and they should. We’ve been around the longest. We have a good history. Yeah, we’ve got some mustard on our shirt, but I think that it’s a good body. I think that we’ve been faithful to the original idea.
There have been a lot of changes in our industry over the years. We started in 1908 when there was no radio, no television, God knows what an internet was. Hell, we had just started flying. So it was a different world, but I think that we’re true to the original idea, which was for baseball to take the people who cover it seriously. It was to their benefit and it was to ours. That’s what is important to this organization.
We just had meetings. For instance, there is going to be a new [Collective Bargaining Agreement] and we’ve already had individual meetings with Rob Manfred, of Major League Baseball, and Mike Weiner, from the Players Association, to ensure that our access remains the same. We lost 15 minutes in the last CBA and we don’t want to lose any more time in the clubhouse. We had assurance from both of them that our access wouldn’t be limited any further.
I know that print is changing. I’ve been in this business for over 40 years, so I’ve seen tremendous amounts of change, and we’re going through another period of that now. We’re doing things in a different way; people are reading about baseball in a different manner, but the organization is called the Baseball Writers Association, and that’s what it’s about. Now that the internet has come along, they’re doing a lot of the same things we do, and that’s why we have opened this up for their inclusion.
I think that the Baseball Writers will continue to exist, and not only that, I think we’ll continue to thrive.