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March 6, 2007

Prospectus Today

The Veterans Committee

by Joe Sheehan

Last week it was announced that for the third time the latest iteration of the Veterans Committee had voted to elect no one to the Hall of Fame. Ron Santo, in my eyes the most deserving player not inducted, was five votes shy of the necessary 75% approval from the living Hall of Fame players, Frick winners, and John McHale (who seems to have a vote because he was on the last version of the VC). Legendary umpire Doug Harvey came the closest on the non-player ballot, missing by nine votes.

There was a considerable hue and cry when the results were announced. This rejection of all the candidates was interpreted as a failure by the committee. That it was the third in a row inspired calls for a new process, one that would lead to someone being honored each time through. This is nothing new; the loudest voices in criticizing the Hall and its processes have generally been the supporters of players not yet enshrined. The discussion is driven by people who want a larger Hall, if only by one.

That the VC didn't elect anyone should not have been a surprise. This was a predictable result from the moment of its inception. You have a disparate group of voters that doesn't get together to argue among itself; you have just as broad a group of candidates for induction; you have, certainly, an electorate that naturally feels some obligation to protect the value of its status. To get 75% of these people to agree on whether puppy dogs are cute would be a difficult task.

I also come back to a point that, while seemingly arrogant and certainly unpopular, is an ongoing theme in the work of informed outsiders: the skill set involved in being a great baseball player is not related to the skill set involved in evaluating baseball players. There is no question that as great as the 61 living Hall of Famers were at their jobs, those are not the 61 people most qualified for determining whether Dick Allen belongs in the room with them. (I should note that Rob Neyer of ESPN wrote wonderfully about this last week.)

Those are all old arguments, though. I want to run at this from a different direction. What if the Veterans Committee-in any form-has simply outlived its usefulness?

Let's backtrack a bit. The first Hall of Fame election was held in 1936, and the Baseball Writers Association of America elected five players, arguably the five greatest players in history to that point. "To that point," though, was the problem. Fifty-one players received votes in that election, and some of those were still active. Cy Young, for crying out loud, appeared on just shy of half the ballots in that first election (he went in the next year).

The issue of numbers became apparent soon after an initial burst of inductees. With so many qualified candidates-a peek at the 1939 ballot shows that the top 31 vote-getters would eventually be inducted-it was inevitable that the pool of candidates would be too deep for anyone to garner 75% of the vote. The backlog got worse when the BBWAA voted just once over the next five years, electing only Rogers Hornsby in that time. Something had to give.

The creation of the initial Veterans Committee was well-intentioned, an effort to acknowledge that there was a backlog, and also that the current voting pool might not be able to evaluate players whose careers had ended 30-40 years or more prior. There was also a need to provide a path for non-players, who hadn't done well in BBWAA voting. All of these things made sense at the time, and a well-organized and diligent Veterans Committee might have slowly but surely filled in the Hall of Fame with the very best players from 1876-1915 or so.

We know now that the VC didn't do so, not only electing players who forever skewed the standards for induction, but electing so many that the character of the place was permanently changed. This was in part a reaction to there being just one new Hall of Fame player in five years, but was also in part a matter of doing it just because they could; the VC put 21 players, managers, and executives in over two years. The VC's mandate was a noble one; the execution was a complete disaster. In fairness, record-keeping and analysis were not as advanced as they are today, so oral history and basic statistics had an overwhelming impact on the discussion. Even allowing for that, many of the VC choices of 1945 and 1946 stand out as the weaker Hall of Fame honorees.

The Veterans Committee would go through a number of iterations over the years, but the biggest transition occurred over the long sweep of time. The VC, originally designed to address the twin problems of timing and numbers, morphed into a back door for induction. The VC tended to do best when the BBWAA was voting every year; it would make questionable choices, but it wasn't profligate, for the most part. When the BBWAA shifted to less-frequent elections-as they did from 1958 through 1966-the VC often served to let out the pressure by pushing in players by the vanful-10 in 1963 and 1964 alone. As players retired, were considered over time by the BBWAA, and failed to achieve induction, the VC served as a second chance, one plagued by politics and influence. The nadir of this era came in 1971, when a VC helmed by Frankie Frisch elected seven new members, most with some tie to Frisch, and almost all marginal, or even unqualified.

At this point, Hall of Fame voting had been going on for 35 years, and various forms of the Veterans' Committee had existed for 26. The latter had named 67 people, mostly players, to the Hall. Their work had comfortably removed any existing backlog while serving to honor, albeit not perfectly, players from the early days of baseball. After the Frisch elections, nearly 50 years ago, it would have been appropriate to ask the question of whether the Veterans Committee had completed its mandate and could be disbanded.

In 2007, that question is an even better one. While previous versions of the VC did honor deserving players from the 1800s (in no small part thanks to work by members of the Society for American Baseball Research), the current version ignores them. The transition from "corrective mechanism" to "back door" has been institutionalized, with the VC ballot consisting almost entirely of players who played, and in some cases lived, in the Hall of Fame era. Every one of the players has been tried and found wanting 15 times by the BBWAA.

Now, whatever my issues are with the BBWAA, I think the one thing they can hang their hat is their Hall of Fame voting. When allowed to vote every year, and accounting for the issues of the early backlog, they have done a very good job of identifying and electing the best players in baseball history. There have been mistakes of both omission and commission, but after 70 years, it's fair to say that a "BBWAA Hall of Fame" would look a lot like what people think of when they think of the institution.

There is simply no more need for a back door, a second chance, a Veterans Committee. If the BBWAA-or, I hope in the future, a larger pool that includes broadcasters, historians, and those writers excluded by fiat from the group-takes 15 looks at a guy and says, "no," I think it's fair to say that he doesn't deserve a 16th chance. I fail to see what a pool of middle-aged or senior ex-baseball players can add to the discussion.

Of the players on the VC ballot, only one can be said to be fully qualified for the Hall, and that's Santo. The rest reside in that great gray area, the Hall of the Very Good. Are we doing the institution, the game, or those players any favors by holding open a back door? If closing off the door to Santo-a shame, I'll admit-means that the endless arguments and the perpetual adding to the Hall's lower-middle-class cease, that's a net positive. It allows election to the Hall to remain a true honor, rather than rejection being an insult.

Non-players are a different story. A committee of historians and executives existing to elect one non-player every year, or even every other year, would do the game a service. There remains a backlog of men who never played a game or whose careers were not that of Hall members, but whose impact on it is worthy of the sport's highest honor. Marvin Miller jumps out as the best candidate, but Walter O'Malley needs to be considered as well, and Harvey, and the crop of legendary managers still active, such as Joe Torre, Bobby Cox, and Tony La Russa. We need a path for men like this to be honored, and you can create a group that has a focus limited to that exact purpose

Now, though, the Veterans Committee should be disbanded. It has long outlived its mandate, and serves now only to reconsider the most marginal candidates. Players' only path to the Hall should be through the primary voting system, and once through that, there should be no more consideration.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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