Hall of Fame voting is decidedly broken. Or maybe it’s only a mess depending on the alarmism factor of the columnist who says so. Or maybe the Hall itself is broken and beyond repair.

The problems are deep-rooted and comprehensive, covering everything from interpretation of the ballot to the moralizing of the voting base.

There are major issues with the rules of the ballot, which will have to be looked at in the coming years. There are “look-at-me” voters who will prevent a unanimous vote for one of the most obviously qualified candidates you could ever have. There is the perhaps overbearing interpretation of the character-related conditions that will cost some of the greatest talents ever their due votes. And perhaps worst of all, there is a backlog of worthy candidates that’s going to take years if not decades to slog through.

As Thomas Boswell wrote on “Every year, as ballots are cast by New Year’s Eve, the impossible conundrum will sit there like a smoldering reminder of an era of bad faith. You can’t close the joint. But the Babe deserves better.”

Which is sorta funny because, in addition to nobody having any idea what “.com” means, the Babe hasn’t even been inducted yet, and “the joint” is still three years away from opening its doors.

Welcome to 1936, where all these voting problems you think are so interesting and apocalyptic in 2014 really aren’t that exceptional. And where if you think the Hall of Fame just broke under your watch, you’ve forgotten about us.

Ballot rules controversies
Back to the present: later in 2014, the Baseball Writers Association of America will convene a committee to discuss whether the 10-man limit should be revoked. It is a rule that has been around since the beginning—a vote that was announced on February 2, 1936. The five winners that year, in addition to the winners from the next three years, would be recognized in 1939 when the museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. finally became a physical reality.

Changing rules on the fly? Sure. But BBWAA leadership now has 10 ½ months until next year’s ballot is sent to the voters to get this issue resolved. That’s nothing compared to the confusion of that first ballot.

“Some members of the BBWAA thought that they were being asked to list an all-star team instead of the 10 greatest players without regard to position,” explained Hall of Fame librarian and historian Bill Francis. “Those ballots sent in with what looked to be an all-star team were returned … along with a new ballot and a letter making it clear that the voter can nominate 10 players from any combination of positions.”

This was far more than an isolated state of confusion of a few voters. As recently as one month before the vote, the New York Times devoted an entire “Sports of The Times” column to a bizarre and old-school-basebally ballot controversy regarding how the ballot came about.

Ford C. Frick, the National League president back when there was such a position and such a position mattered, was upset with both the American League-heavy ballot and the taunts that he’d hear from American League supporters. The Times columnist John Kieran couldn’t resist getting his own jabs in at the senior circuit in a trolling column that he set at Frick’s New Year’s party.

The idea was to get a lot of National Leaguers on the ticket for the Hall of Fame and then some miscreant injected the question of baseball ability into it with the sad result that the American League was –

’No, no!’ said Mr. President with great dignity. ‘That is all wrong – entirely wrong – absolutely wrong. Not an all-star team at all. A Hall of Fame for baseball players – men who have meant something to the game – men who have made lasting contributions to –‘

Having noted that his original idea had been flattened by the American League steamroller process of counting batting, base-running and fielding, he was now reorganizing the platform on a character-building basis.

Kieran ascribes much of Frick’s resistance to the all-star idea to the notion that the NL would get trounced in that voting, losing as many as seven or eight spots with only “Hans Wagner” saving face. (The Pittsburgh Pirate Wagner, generally known as Honus, would have been unopposed at shortstop.)

As it was, with five elected that year, Wagner was one of two NLers. Because the format allowed two pitchers, National Leaguer Christy Mathewson was able to join Walter Johnson, whom he actually ended up out-balloting contrary to some of the fears. Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Johnson were the AL representatives in the first class. (The full BBWAA ballot is here, along with the rather disorganized Veterans Committee ballot that failed to yield anybody and would be reformed shortly after.)

Look-at-me ballots
There is a 100 percent chance that somebody from the Jacque Jones/Richie Sexson/Jack Morris/Paul LoDuca/Eric Gagne/J.T. Snow class gets at least one vote this year. That’s just the way these always happen. And back before the 10-vote limit started to matter, it used to be kind of cute. My former Houston Chronicle colleague John Lopez fulfilled Jim Deshaies’ not-so-serious campaign to get one Hall of Fame vote, and that was harmless fun.

Also harmlessly but still kind of annoyingly, somebody won’t vote for Greg Maddux. That’s how it always happens. Cobb was left off four ballots, Ruth and Wagner off 11. Tom Seaver, who holds the record for vote percentage, was missing from five. Henry Aaron was absent from nine, Willie Mays from 23, Mickey Mantle from 43. If those guys didn’t get elected unanimously, nobody will, the thinking goes.

When it happened to Ruth, though, as we go back to 1936, it was pretty unexpected. Per the Associated Press on February 2, 1936:

The committee in charge of the vote tabulation, headed by Henry Edwards, secretary of the Baseball Writers Association, figured the struggle for ballots among the moderns would be a two-man battle between Cobb and Ruth. When the first 100 votes were counted, both Cobb and the home run king were unanimous.

Ruth was the first to fall out, losing a vote from a writer who had watched him hang up some of the greatest records. The committee was amazed. Vote counting stopped momentarily for a discussion for how any one could leave the great Ruth off the list of immortals.

There may have been some reasons for the omission, though.

Those awful character clauses
Most of the angst about the ballot today comes from three of the six considerations for admission into 25 Main Street: the integrity, sportsmanship, and character, rather than the record, playing ability, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

As it turns out, just as the problems with voting based on these requirements aren’t new, sportswriters complaining about those lost votes isn’t new, either. In Kieran’s column post-announcement, the Times writer offers some theories on why some of the best candidates lost some of their votes. Let’s just say the reasons back then were a little more fun than steroids.

It may be that these voters disapproved of Ty Cobb or Babe Ruth for some of their deliberate or care-free antics in the past. The Babe was no role model of deportment when he came roistering along the road to fame some fifteen years ago. The fiery Cobb made plenty of enemies during his baseball career.

There were episodes in the life histories of these two glittering stars that could not but make the judicious grieve. The Bambino at times refused to be shackled by club training rules. He had fights with his manager, with umpires, with Judge Landis, whom he invited to jump into Lake Michigan. Once he leaped over the dugout and chased an insulting fan out the back entrance of the Polo Grounds.

Ty Cobb, roused by insults from the Philadelphia bleachers, went scrambling over the barrier to land a few punches on one tormentor and then discovered that the man was a cripple. There was a fearful row about that. Then there was the Dutch Leonard correspondence that didn’t show the Georgia Peach in the light of an Abraham Lincoln or a George Washington.

Some of the older voters may have remembered these things as they marched to the polls. To them Ruth and Cobb may have failed in the character test.

Some dated stories, sure, but some familiar language at the end for players just as good as a couple of those who will miss the 75 percent cutoff this year.

The dreaded backlog
The big issue in the 2010s has been the backlog of candidates, which is very much related to all these other issues—the 10-vote limit and the PED questions. It’s hardly the first backlog, naturally.

That first ballot had decades’ worth of credible candidates. Of the 50 people (mostly players, but a couple of managers, too) who were on the first ballot, 42 ended up getting in eventually. None of them was forgotten about even when they fell off the BBWAA ballot because there were just too many other names, like there are today.

Of the 50 candidates:

5 got in on the first ballot
19 were voted in later by the BBWAA
9 were elected by the Old-timer Committee in the next few years
8 were elected by the Veterans Committee eventually
1 (Connie Mack) was selected by the Centennial Committee for non-players in 1937
8 did not make it

Some took a while. The BBWAA was voting players from the initial ballot in as late as 1955, when Gabby Hartnett and Dazzy Vance were elected. Part of that had to do with the fact that in 1936, active players were eligible, and Harnett wouldn’t see another ballot for nine years. Vance, though, was on every year and took 15 elections plus a nominating vote and a runoff thrown in the middle to make it to 75 percent.

The last of the 42 to make it who were present on that first BBWAA ballot weren’t inducted until the 1970s, with pitcher Rube Marquard getting the Veterans Committee nod in 1971 and Ross Youngs receiving it the following year.

The parallels obviously aren’t quite parallel. The character issues appear to be more significant in the voting now than they were at the time, when it took about nine years to get the backlog mostly cleared and 19 to get all the writers’ selections in.

Most of this journey back to the first ballot was just a trip through some fun historical sources to show how far we’ve come in how discussions are framed, and at the same time how little has changed in the big picture.

The actual takeaway, if there is one, seems to be from this last section about the backlog, though. Voters of all types will get it wrong because there’s never been a perfect ballot in the first eight decades of this annual tradition.

But time will get it right. However much time it takes and however much ink is cast for or against them, Hall of Famers make the Hall of Fame.

Thank you for reading

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"There is a 100 percent chance that somebody from the Jacque Jones/Richie Sexson/Jack Morris/Paul LoDuca/Eric Gagne/J.T. Snow class gets at least one vote this year."

Ummm...excuse me...Eric Gagne was the greatest closer ever and should get a unanimous vote, just ask Not Jim Tracy.

In all seriousness, though, this was a really fun article. Thanks for the historical context!
I thought Not Jim Tracy would be voting for Paul Lo Duca.
Fun article!

Can anyone shed light on why Lou Criger received seven votes? Was he a legendary fielder behind the plate, or a model of character? He's the only player I haven't heard of on this list, and apart from Connie Mack has by far the lowest WAR(P) of anyone to receive votes.
Goodness yes those are some awful offensive numbers. Wikipedia's bio on him suggests that his most significant contribution was being Cy Young's catcher for 14 years.
I see! I wonder if Ben has analyzed Criger's framing.
Criger was also famous at the time for turning down a bribe by gamblers to throw the 1903 World Series. Ban Johnson thought so highly of Criger's character that he personally ordered a "pension" be paid out of American League funds after Criger fell ill with tuberculosis. It's entirely possible he received Hall of Fame votes simply for reporting that bribe.
Fascinating! Thank you for the link.

I enjoyed the implication in the first article that you have to be truly desperate to move to Tucson.
Hal Chase was on the original ballot! If there were a vote for the one man who should not be in the HOF, Chase should win in a landslide. And today's sportswriters wring their hands over players who risked life and health to play better.
To me the omission of Cal Ripken from ten ballots was the most egregious. He "saved" baseball, was arguably the best at his position (the most important defensive position) of all time, revolutionized the game, and wasn't on a packed ballot. At least the guys who left Seaver off were "protesting" Rose's absence from the ballot. The only possible reason for omitting Ripken is perhaps his brother's penchant for profanity on his bats.
In the grand scheme of things, this is neither important nor relevant to a Hall of Fame vote. However, I cannot let it pass without comment. Ever since the brothers Ripken decided they wanted to own a minor league team, and bought my beloved hometown's Utica Blue Sox of the New York-Penn League, I have had no use for either of them.

Why not buy the existing short season A ball affiliate of the O's? The O's, of course, dropped that affiliate like it had the plague. What sense was there in having a team in Maryland be part of the NY-Penn league? Admittedly in 2014, when the NY-P league has teams all over the northeast/mid-atlantic, this doesn't carry much weight anymore. But why take away a franchise that had decades of history (besides the fact that the then-owners were thrilled to sell it)?

And if you do some searching, you'll find a lot of info regarding the various shenanigans surrounding the building of their stadium (a mini-replica of Camden Yards), and related unpleasantries. I'm sure the co-founder and co-owner of the team was above all reproach in all of these matters.

The quasi-bitter, not really logical lament of a once much younger Blue Sox fan who still misses the team of his childhood? Yes. But for me, Ripken not being unanimous was sweet, sweet justice.

Now Greg Maddux - him not being unanimous is just ridiculous.
Great work. I'd add another factor--and it's the biggest one and one that if fixed would fix everything else--facing the HOF process: The inability of their voting body to analyze and contextualize careers. Among the disclosed ballots so far Glavine has 3X the vote of Mussina (who was arguably better than Glavine) and 2X the vote of Schilling (who was, like, demonstrably no-questions-about-it better than Glavine). Piazza leads Bagwell. Morris leads Raines who leads Clemens/Bonds/Schilling. The fourth most-deserving candidate on the most loaded ballot since the first couple (Schilling) is in 11th among the disclosed ballots. That Schilling is criminally low is not attributable to look-at-me voting, PEDs or character. It's 100% the inability of that body of voters to be able to tell the difference--which is appreciable--between the body of work of Schilling and that of Glavine.

The HOF allows several hundred people to vote. The next-largest HOF voting body is the NFL--forty-six votes. One from each team's city plus a select group of national writers. All active. All selected above their peers who cover the same beat. That there is no controversy in the NFL's process, for a game in which the majority of the players have no stat sheet to demonstrate their worth, is all about the voting body and their ability to analyze and contextualize, coming to an obvious, uncontroversial conclusion year in/year out.
In Total WAR on the B-Ref website, Glavine has 81.4 vs 79.9 for Schilling. I would call that "demonstrably no-questions-about-it better". He may be better, but it is not a slam dunk. Longevity vs Peak argument.
I'll take the guy with the 300K seasons and the historically amazing K/BB ratio over the guy who stuck around longer. So, yeah, I'm a Peak Man. Glavine at his best didn't even sniff Schilling at his best. Also, postseason counts in HOF conversations and there's how many SP of the last 30 years with the postseason impact of Schilling?
...and to add on to that, even if you're a fan of accumulation over peak, there is no reasonable, rational, sane way to explain Glavine getting the number of votes he has received over Schilling. That is an epic failure and perfect evidence of why this body of voters should not be trusted with the process. If they think Glavine > Schilling by a 2:1 margin, there's a huge systematic problem with the process.
In addition to controversy and an apparent inability to contextualize careers, as John Douglass put it so well, there appears to be game theory going on in the vote. Jayson Stark's piece today illustrates what I mean: an element of his vote was based on his conclusion that many deserving candidates would not get the requisite support not only to gain election, but to remain on next year's ballot. For this reason, he voted, for example, for Jeff Kent, both because he finds Kent deserving and because he wants him to be back for consideration next year. By the same token, he left Bonds and others off of his ballot, even though he thinks they deserve election.

Stark can't be the only voter to adopt such a strategy. And, given the vagaries of the Veterans Committee, I wonder if the last sentence of Zachary's essay will remain true. I sincerely hope the BBWAA lifts the ten-vote limit before the 2015 election.
Game theory should be tossed out the window in HOF votes. It's crazy. If everyone left off the 2-3 most deserving players figuring them to be slam-dunks and scattered their vote among the 10 guys who are 8th-17th most deserving, no one would go in the HOF. They should look at the careers, vote the men they think are 10 most deserving and move on. If they were capable of just, simply, easily voting those no-brainers in (which would be, like, 8 guys quickly and uncontroversially going in this year: Bonds, Clemens, Maddux, Schilling, Bagwell, Glavine, Mussina, Thomas) then literally every other "problem" with the HOF vote would disappear. We wouldn't need to have the pointless debate of 10-name ballots. That solves one problem (bumps up those guys in the 8-17 range) and creates another (the guys in the 8-17 range get big bumps and possibly go in the HOF while more deserving players are left out.)

The real and only answer to all this mess is to upend the process by removing the huge body of BBWAA dinosaurs who are involved. A body of fifty, tops. If you write about golf, your vote is gone. If you have covered Olympic sports for 20 years, your vote is gone. If you've written a long-winded HOF column about "cheaters" that's more moralizing than analyzing, your vote is gone. If you've submitted a Morris-only, or a Morris/Lee Smith/Dale Murphy ballot in the past you clearly don't deserve your vote and it's gone. Give us Olney, Pete Abraham, Derrick Goold, Jonah Keri, regardless of tenure and based entirely on body of recent work, and the rest of the best active, smart, writers out there, and we'll get somewhere. Giving a ballot of 15 to a bunch who can't use 10 votes well is like buying your 16 year old kid a faster car after he crashes the first one. It's not progress.
A gold star to ZL for putting Jack Morris in the Paul Lo Duca class of candidates.
Great, great article, Zachary - thank you for the excellent history lesson! My favorite BP article of the year so far.
The problem with the process is not the ten-player limit per ballot. The problem is that the BBWAA is not a very qualified electorate. We either need to upgrade their knowledge or replace a lot of them with people who know the game. The average BBWAA guy looking at the current ballot with 15 or so qualified candidates is only using 6-7 of his slots. This means they, as a group, have difficulty in identifying the deserving other than the obvious "dominant" players.

Modify the 5% rule to give a guy at least three years on the ballot before dropping him.
Everybody here who said the 10-player limit is not the problem is 100% dead on target.

You don't change a rule that was never a problem because of a unique historical situation that's never arisen before in nearly 80 years of voting. Whether the limit is 10 or 15 or some other number, that won't alleviate the idiocy of some members of the electorate.

It's exactly the same issue as the lame decision by the Oscars to expand the Best Picture field from 5 nominees to 10 for 2009, which was largely seen as a knee-jerk response to the failure to nominate The Dark Knight and WALL-E in 2008. The problem is not the the number of spots on the ballot, the problem is a bunch of clueless voters who can't figure out those are 2 historically great movies and need to be among the field no matter what.