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March 2, 2005

Prospectus Today

The Veterans Committee

by Joe Sheehan

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This afternoon, the Hall of Fame will announce the results of the Veterans Committee voting. Jay Jaffe does a good job of sifting through the candidates, so I'm not going to run through the ballot here.

I will echo Jay's opinion that Ron Santo should be elected; Santo is the best eligible player not in the Hall of Fame, and not in the Tony Perez sense. He is one of the top eight third baseman in baseball history, and his performance places him comfortably among the Hall's middle tier. That he was passed over by the BBWAA is one of the few egregious mistakes on their record.

I don't expect Santo to be elected. In fact, I don't expect anyone to be elected. This is the second VC election held under the latest system for enshrining players who have been passed over by the Baseball Writers Association of America. The first, in 2002, produced no new Hall of Famers. If you actually tried, you couldn't design a system that was less likely to produce a new Hall of Famer.

To reach the Hall, an eligible player (from a list of 25) must appear on 75% of the ballots submitted by the 83 eligible voters, mostly living Hall of Famers. Sixty-three people, ranging in age from their 80s to their 40s, have to pick the same guy from a list of 25 candidates, all at least midly qualified, and they have to do so without holding meetings that might edge the group towards consensus.

This is assuredly a better system than the previous iteration of the Veterans Committee, which consisted of 18 ex-players, old writers and executives. That system was responsible for some of the most egregious mistakes in the Hall's 70-year history, and plagued by the kind of cronyism and biases that would make Chicago aldermen proud. However, it's not a system that's going to lead to winners. We know this because the Hall of Fame has already been down this road once before.

As Bill James described in his history of the institution, The Politics of Glory, the Hall had problems getting people elected in the 1940s because there were too many candidates.

The failure to elect anybody…revealed a structural problem with the vote. In a vote of this type, where there are a limited number of spaces on the ballot and a player must get 75 percent, then the more qualified players you have, the less likely it is that any of them will be selected.
The problem is largely a numerical one, but there are other issues. That the bulk of the electors are ex-players is intended as a feature, but it's a bug. Players tend to glorify their own career, teammates, era, and believe that those who came before or after them were not as good as the guys they played with. This was, in fact, a defining characteristic of the VC's profligacy in the 1970s, when half the regulars from the 1926 season were ushered in.

The Hall of Fame doesn't require that electors spend days looking over the BP player cards, nor should it. While advanced metrics are a useful tool in divining the line between in and out, raw stats, and the other markers that define a career, have served the BBWAA well over the years. However, I find it hard to believe that, oh, Carlton Fisk spent a lot of time comparing Ken Boyer's career with that of the Hall of Fame third basemen using Baseball Prospectus, Baseball Digest or baseball cards. The players are primarily going to vote for their direct peers, and barring an attention effect rallying support around one candidacy, this will be the biggest barrier to anyone getting 75% of the vote. This system, well-intended though it may be, isn't likely to produce any electees.

On the other hand, is that such a bad thing? The original mandate of the Veterans Committee was to honor players whose careers ended too early for them to receive full consideration by the BBWAA, either because they weren't seen by the pool of electors or they were lost in the wave of fully-qualified candidates in the early days of the balloting. They did this poorly, ushering in a host of players who we now know had no business in the building and setting the stage for a century of "but if Bill and Steve are in, Tommy and Jake should be, too" debates, but they did, over time, elect the legitimate Hall of Famers who the BBWAA missed.

With all the worthies from baseball's prehistory enshrined now, and time having allowed the VC to make up for mistakes that may have been made by the BBWAA-largely due to voting structure, it should be noted-the Veterans Committee has become a back door into a place that shouldn't have a second entrance.

My support of Santo's candidacy aside, I think it's time to do away completely with the Veterans Committee. The concept has run its course, and all it's doing now is lowering the standards. If that means Santo or a Minnie Minoso--or eventually, a Bert Blyleven--is left outside, I think that's a small price to pay for the elimination of a vestigial process that for the last 20 years hasn't served the Hall, or the game of baseball, very well.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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