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January 14, 2003

Prospectus Feature

A Brief History of the Veterans Committee

by Neal Traven

Almost from the day it opened, the Baseball Hall of Fame has had some form of a Veterans Committee to supplement the player selections voted on by the Baseball Writers Association of America. In fact, Cy Young, who finished sixth behind the first five inductees, also received the fourth-highest 1936 vote total from the Old-Timers Committee. That Committee was supposed to choose five 19th-century players for the initial HOF class, but couldn't achieve consensus in support of anyone. A year after the Old-Timers Committee's failure in 1936, a newly constituted six-man Centennial Commission - including Commissioner Landis and the presidents of both leagues - elected five pioneer/executives and managers, one of whom (Connie Mack) was still active and would remain so for another 13 years.

Over the years, the title of the group has changed, as has its composition, as has its charge, as has the quality of its choices for enshrinement in the Hall of Fame. As Bill James details in The Politics of Glory (1994), while the BBWAA could elect only Rogers Hornsby between 1939 and 1947, the Committee on Old-Timers picked Judge Landis immediately after his death in 1944, then chose 10 men the next year and 11 more the year after that. That immense crowd included such (un)worthies as Roger Bresnahan, Tommy McCarthy, and the trifecta of Tinker-Evers-Chance.

The Veterans Committee began to take its now-familiar form in 1953. At first it had 11 members, split between baseball executives and media leaders. Both league presidents were there, as was J.G. Taylor Spink of The Sporting News. Detroit GM Charlie Gehringer was the only Hall of Famer on the first VC, though Branch Rickey, then running the Pirates, would be elected some years later. Those two were the only former players on the Veterans Committee in 1953. Over the succeeding decades, the Committee's size and composition fluctuated. In its most recent form, there were 15 members. Among them were several high-profile Hall of Famers, distinguished longtime baseball writers and broadcasters, and retired executives.

Meeting in secret, voting only face-to-face, not revealing vote totals or even the identities of the men under consideration, the Veterans Committee came to resemble a College of Cardinals - the ones in the Vatican, not those in Busch. One almost expected to see puffs of white smoke rising from the chimneys of Cooperstown as their selections were announced. There were, it has been reported, intrigues, alliances, and domineering personalities on the Veterans Committee over the years that would have impressed a Borgia or a Medici. Frankie Frisch invited many of his Giant and Cardinal teammates into the Hall of Fame in the 1970s. The Veterans Committee enshrined the likes of Lloyd Waner, Harry Hooper, and Rick Ferrell.

More recently, Ted Williams held sway over the VC, pushing hard for teammates like Dom DiMaggio while opposing the selection of Bill Mazeroski. It's telling that Williams was recovering from open-heart surgery and unable to attend the VC meeting when Maz was chosen in 2001, and perhaps equally telling that DiMaggio isn't on this year's Veterans Committee ballot. Finally, there's the story (probably apocryphal) of Yogi Berra calling Phil Rizzuto to inform the Scooter of his election in 1994 and exulting "We got you in!"

The new Veterans Committee

That all changed on August 6, 2001, when the Hall of Fame announced its decision to completely revamp the way the Veterans Committee operated. No more secrecy, no more old geezers sitting around a conference table behind closed doors choosing which of their old buddies to invite into their little club. Instead, the new Committee would consist of all living Hall of Famers, all living recipients of the Ford C. Frick Award (baseball broadcasters), all living winners of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award (newspaper baseball writers), and the other members of the replaced Veterans Committee (Ken Coleman and John McHale). No longer would the Veterans Committee's purview for relatively recent former players be limited to those few who had received specified (though ever-changing) levels of support from the BBWAA. The new Veterans Committee would vote on former players (the Players ballot) every other year and on all other classes of potential Hall of Famers (managers, umpires, and executives - the Composite ballot) every four years. A defined procedure would be employed to determine the names to be placed on the two ballots for consideration by the Committee.

The method used to cull the two ballots down to their prescribed sizes (25-30 for the Players ballot, 15 for the Composite) encompasses a number of steps. While the eligibility criteria and step-by-step results have been made public during the process, some aspects of the procedure remain unrevealed. In brief, here's how the two ballots were created, with my parenthetical comments:

  • The initial player pool consisted of every player in MLB history with at least 10 years service, whose last game played was in 1981 or earlier (except for those on the Commissioner's ineligible list). Over 1,400 players qualified under these criteria. For the Composite ballot, managers, umps, and execs retired at least five years (or retired for six months if over age 65) were eligible for the initial pool. [These initial pools were not made public, though queries of the Lahman database could identify nearly all of the players, the exceptions being those whose 10 years were served partially in the Negro Leagues.]

     

  • A 10-member Historical Overview Committee, appointed by the BBWAA and consisting of historians and veteran baseball writers, met face-to-face and narrowed the initial pools to 200 players and 60 managers/umpires/execs. These lists were made public. [While the lists were publicized, the identities of the members of the Historical Overview Committee were not announced. Though some of them may have been SABR members, SABR as an organization was not consulted or asked to participate in any way.]

     

  • The BBWAA appointed a Screening Committee of 60 writers (two "from" each team), each of whom picked 25 favored players and 15 managers/umpires/execs from the Historical Overview Committee's lists. These selections were tallied, and the top 25 players and 15 managers/umpires/executives went onto the Players and Composite ballots, respectively. At the same time, six Hall of Famers independently came up with their own list of five players. Anyone on that list who was not on the Screening Committee's player list also went onto the Players ballot. [Neither the Screening Committee nor the six HOFers have been identified. Evidently, one of the Hall of Famers' choices wasn't on the Screening Committee's list; it would be interesting to know who that was. It would also be interesting to learn something about the Screening Committee's rank-order for the ballots.]

     

  • Members of the new Veterans Committee (defined above) cast votes on the Players and Composite ballots, voting for no more than 10 candidates on each ballot. [When the ballots were distributed, the Committee had 84 members.]

     

  • Anyone receiving a vote on at least 75% of the submitted ballots is elected to the Hall of Fame. [If all 84 members turn in ballots, it will take 63 votes for enshrinement.]

This new structure gives us fans a real opportunity to think along with the new Veterans Committee. For the first time, we know exactly who is under consideration and we know exactly how the voting operates. Not only that … it's a familiar method, essentially identical to the BBWAA ballot in its operation. Thus, we're expanding this year's STATLG-L Internet Hall of Fame voting to encompass the Veterans Committee Player and Composite ballots.

I'm very excited about our simulation of the Veterans Committee voting. This is the very first test of the revamped Committee. Everything about this approach is brand-new and experimental, so it's all but impossible to predict (or even guess) what the outcome of the balloting will be. The historical record of prior Veterans Committee results is completely irrelevant; there are no patterns of previous behaviors on which to base analyses of the eventual outcomes. Let's face it - even before the results of the IHOF and BBWAA votes were announced, you had a pretty good idea of how they would look. We knew that Murray would be elected and that Carter also had a very good chance of making it. There was a bit of uncertainty regarding Sandberg, though I think it was generally agreed that he wouldn't receive three-quarters of the votes this year. The rest of the candidates finished in just about the expected order. Nothing of the sort can be said about these Veterans Committee ballots.

For myself, I plan to take a long, hard look at the ballots and the candidates before filling in my choices. I see a few obvious selections and a number of obvious cross-outs on both slates, but a great many names fall between those easy extremes. I understand that the procedure for placing candidates on the ballot was inherently biased toward candidates from particular eras and that it's all but certain that the ballots would be stronger if several of the candidates were replaced by clearly superior ones from the Historical Overview Committee's lists. Hey, it could have been worse - George W. Bush, whose only MLB "accomplishment" was five years as managing general partner of the Rangers, was on the Historical Overview Committee's managers/umpires/executives list, but didn't make the final cut for the Composite ballot. As noted earlier, this is the first iteration of the new Veterans Committee, the beta test, as it were. After the results are in, perhaps the powers-that-be in Cooperstown will examine the process they designed and find ways to make it better.

One observation I'll make is that if the Veterans Committee voters cast as many of their 10 permitted votes on the Composite ballot as on the Players ballot, it's more likely that someone from the Composite ballot will reach 75% than one from the Players ballot. My reasoning is as follows: if every member of the Committee used all 10 choices, and those votes were distributed absolutely randomly among the choices, then every person on the Composite ballot would receive 67% (10/15), while the corresponding random percentage for the Players ballot would be only 38.5% (10/26). Whether my surmise holds water is just another of the many unknowns in the Veterans Committee voting.

What we do know is that the Hall of Fame will announce the results on February 26, 2003. As usual, we'll close the STATLG-L Internet HOF voting a few days before that, and announce the BP fans' results for the Veterans Committee ballots a day or so before the official results.

Ready to vote?

Neal Traven is the co-chair of the Statistical Analysis Committee of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR).

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