I find it hard to ignore reading about other people’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballots, real or imaginary, and also hard to ignore reading criticism of other people’s Baseball Hall of Fame ballots, especially the real ones. Those of us who love the game of baseball have some process of player evaluation wired within us, and with that comes some compulsion to rank, and to argue the primacy of our rankings over those of others, and we all know where that leads.
Yes, to a Hall of Fame. But what frustrates me about the Hall of Fame discussions are some arguments which seem to ignore the role of such an institution. For instance, the Hall is a collective enterprise. And the collective that determines who is or isn’t admitted is an aging cohort of the Baseball Writers Association of America, whether they currently write about baseball or not, backstopped by a veterans committee that has taken many different forms and functions over the years in order to get in those the writers decided not to enshrine. So, these two groups have shaped a Hall that reflects their vision, and we live with it because they have successfully sold us on their legitimacy. Plus, they have an awfully nice museum.
That said, this has never been a democratic process, and for all of time baseball writers who have a ballot have, as individuals, made appalling miscues while voting, but when limited to the selections of the writers the process itself has led to a pretty solid roster of HoF players. Obviously, there are close calls that you or I may disagree with, that’s inevitable, but I think it’s fair to say that by virtue of the writers’ rules (five year waiting period, 15 years on ballot, limit to 10 names on ballot in any year) the roster of those enshrined by the writers is pretty solid. At least I’ve never had a problem with it, though I have to admit I never really felt the need to challenge it (or look that closely when I wasn’t reading someone else’s opinions about it).
Which is why the current flap about players from the PEDs era is such a problem. With two exceptions, Shoeless Joe and Charlie Hustle, the Hall has admitted the best players of the game. But now a majority of the writers seem to be saying that the use (or even the possible use) of performance enhancing drugs should make some of the game’s best players ineligible. Today, all-time greats are not being voted into the Hall because of this blemish on their careers and reputations. And other greats are being denied votes they would deserve except that writers have a hunch that they too used PEDs.
Suddenly, my personal Hall of Fame is diverging from the one the writers have been creating collectively for more than 80 years, and that bothers me. It bothers me not because I think they should be doing a better job, but because it makes me realize and have to confront the idea that the Hall of Fame is just an institution that relies on the rest of us to give it legitimacy. And when it doesn’t perform, when it violates our ideas of a properly functioning institution, we can argue with the Murray Chasses of the world about who should be voted in, and we can plot to take over the organization that runs it, but we also have to deny its legitimacy as an organization until it is reformed. Or an alternative arises to unseat it.
The bottom line is that we each, in some way, have a personal Hall of Fame that reflects our knowledge of the game and history of baseball, and that values the quality and fame and personal integrity of the ballplayers who have excelled. How that personal Hall aligns with those of our friends, our colleagues, other fans and even the BWAA helps us make alliances and draw lines in the proverbial sand. My personal line says that any Hall that excludes Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens isn’t worth much arguing about, it has lost its legitimacy. But obviously those with the votes disagree. So be it.
One other issue of interest this year has been a broad call to end the 10 player limit to the number of players who can be listed on a ballot. The argument seems to be that because otherwise legitimate HoF’ers like Bonds and Clemens aren’t being voted in, there are too many legitimate candidates to list. Some people see 18 legitimate Hall of Famers in this year’s list. I don’t really see how this is an issue. If the rank and file of the BWAA doesn’t want to admit Bonds, for instance, it doesn’t matter how many ballot slots there are, he isn’t going to be voted in. And writers who vote for him and don’t vote for a borderline case like Tim Raines, are making a choice, as they should and have always had to. The problem is that old timers like Chass look at Raines and don’t see a Hall of Famer. They’re not voting for him no matter how long the ballot is (Chass listed three or four players this year.
When I looked at this year’s list saw 10 players I thought were obvious names to vote for.
1. Barry Bonds
2. Roger Clemens
3. Greg Maddux
4. Mike Piazza
5. Craig Biggio
6. Frank Thomas
7. Jeff Bagwell
8. Mike Mussina
9. Tom Glavine
10. Curt Schilling
If I had a longer ballot I would include Raines, but that’s all, and I think he’s a decidedly borderline case. The 10 above are unreservedly deserving. Larry Walker, Edgar Martinez and Alan Trammell, like Raines, are bubbling under, not only the 10 name limit but the edge of deservedness. They’ll get another chance next year.