How to Fix the Hall of Fame (And How Not to Fix It)

Maybe it was the fact that Keith Olbermann now has a sports-oriented platform with which to rail against the “banana republic” that is the Baseball Hall of Fame. Maybe it was Deadspin’s stunt where they turned over what turned out to be Dan Le Batard’s Hall of Fame ballot to the public for them to vote on. Maybe it was the continued hand-wringing over the steroids issue, or the fact not a single modern-era player was inducted the previous year, or the ballots and accompanying grandstanding and sanctimonious moralizing that made Le Batard’s stunt seem reasonable. Or maybe it was some combination of the above. Whatever the reason, despite the induction of three very worthy first-ballot candidates, this year’s Hall of Fame election became as much about how broken the election process supposedly is than about the election itself.

It strikes me, though, that many of the reforms that many writers and other commenters propose to fix the Hall miss the reasons for the rules they want to change. Doubtless the voting could be expanded beyond merely sportswriters, and writers who throw away their ballots in ways more outrageous than Le Batard did should lose them. But for example, Deadspin elected the top 10 candidates that received a simple majority of the people’s vote, rather than the 75% the Hall requires, explaining that the high threshold helps allow the process to be “hijacked by cranks, attention-seeking trolls, and the merely perplexed—people who exercise power out of proportion to their numbers due to the perverse structure of the voting.” But it should be difficult to get into the Hall; someone should only get in if there’s some sort of consensus that they’re deserving.

Nor do I buy the argument that because there are already cheaters and general assholes in the Hall of Fame, that justifies inducting the steroids users as well. Yes, the general public is ambivalent at best about the steroids issue, but the sport’s history is more important to baseball than any other sport; the steroids users have irrevocably tainted that history, and it seems odd to play up that history in one breath while backing the induction of the steroids users with the other. The single-season and career home run records, once the most hallowed in sports, will forever be untrustworthy and have an asterisk mentally if not physically attached to them, and many other records besides. Of all the players blackballed from the Hall, only Shoeless Joe Jackson might have done more damage to the game. (There’s an argument to be made that players that had Hall-worthy credentials without steroids should be inducted, which would put Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and possibly Mark McGwire in, but not Sammy Sosa, who no one had heard of before he came from out of nowhere in the summer of ’98, or Rafael Palmeiro, who actually received few enough votes to be dropped from the ballot this year. That a player like Sosa could effectively juice his way into a Hall of Fame career underscores why the steroids issue can’t be simply swept under the rug. I would bet Gaylord Perry would be in the Hall of Fame regardless of whether or not he spit.)

Many commentators, including Olbermann, faulted the 10-person limit for forcing voters to make very difficult choices on a loaded ballot, resulting in part in Craig Biggio missing induction by two votes. What would be the harm, they say, in allowing as many people as the voters find worthy to get in? Theoretically, if someone isn’t one of the ten best candidates on the ballot maybe they aren’t that strong a candidate after all (again, it’s supposed to be difficult to get in); but even beyond that, it’s not so much having a ton of people getting in at once than losing those people in future years. Craig Biggio will be inducted into the Hall of Fame, possibly as soon as next year. But if not next year, it’s very possible he (or someone like Mike Piazza or Jeff Bagwell) may end up saving the Hall from a repeat of 2013, when no one was inducted. It’s worth noting that even with a supposedly loaded ballot, only three people were actually inducted, and only seven even received more than half the vote. Clearly there isn’t that much consensus over which candidates are more deserving to get in over which other candidates.

Perhaps the baseball Hall could take a cue from the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which repeatedly cuts down all the numerous candidates for induction down to a list of 15 finalists, then brings the voters together Super Bowl Weekend to debate the merits of those fifteen candidates and further whittle them down to five. Result: the Pro Football Hall of Fame always inducts the maximum five modern-era players despite actually having a higher threshold for induction at 80%, and so actually tries to clear its backlogs. Obviously, given the fact that the BBWAA has hundreds of people voting, it’s impractical to get them all together to discuss the candidates, but what would be wrong with a two-stage voting system, where the first ballot cuts the list down to 10-15 finalists, who are then subject to a straight up/down vote?

Underlying the last complaint, however, seems to be the notion that someone either “is a Hall of Famer or he is not“, that it’s ridiculous for someone who wasn’t considered a Hall of Famer X number of years in the past to suddenly be a Hall of Famer now. Presumably many of these people would prefer to hold a single up/down vote on a candidate five years after their retirement, induct anyone who crosses the threshold of induction, and keep out everyone else. It’s an attractive prospect, but it seems cruel to subject a player’s destiny to a single vote at an arbitrary point in time, especially if the rules may be different at a different point in time; should Edgar Martinez’s chances be based on the luck of how the voters feel about the DH issue in one particular semi-random year? The Hall of Fame voting window allows candidates to be looked at fairly and with some degree of historical perspective; five years after retirement allows voters to vote somewhat dispassionately without being too close to the player’s career, but leaving their fate in the hands of the Veterans’ Committee after fifteen years ensures that a player’s fate lies in the hands of those who actually saw him play. That’s why I’m leery of giving Bill James a Hall of Fame vote. Bill James is awesome; he may well go in to the Hall of Fame for the way he revolutionized the way we look at the game. But Bill James perfectly encapsulates why there’s a statute of limitations on how long a player can wait before it gets much tougher for them to get into the Hall of Fame. We don’t need him engaging in historical revisionism to justify why some random player from the 30s no one at the time would have ever dreamed of getting into the Hall should get in using statistics no one at the time could have ever conceived of. It’s disingenuous for someone to complain about, say, Bert Blyleven getting in without any change in his resume in one breath and argue for Bill James to get a Hall of Fame vote with the other. It’s called the Hall of Fame, not the Hall of Great.

When figuring out how to fix the Hall of Fame (in any sport), there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • The fate of players should be in the hands of a group of electors who experienced their career as it happened, that is, not making a post facto judgment. They should also, however, have a good grasp of the standards by which someone should be considered a Hall of Famer and the historical perspective to assess players by those standards in a relatively unbiased fashion, at least as a whole. The selection process should facilitate striking a balance between these competing concerns.
  • Reasonable people will always disagree over someone’s Hall credentials. They also disagree over how stringent the standards should be for induction, with some “small Hall” people arguing that only the very best of the very best should be honored.
  • Once a player is inducted into the Hall, they become a benchmark for any other player to get in; i.e., “if player X is in the Hall, player Y should be too.”
  • Once a player is inducted into the Hall, they are never un-inducted. The body of electors should be very sure of themselves if they wish to induct somebody.

With these challenges in mind, we can begin to sketch out a proposal for organizing a Hall of Fame that reflects some level of consensus over who does and does not belong. There will, of course, continue to be debate over who does and does not belong, but hopefully even those who disagree with the Hall’s selections can agree that it reflects the consensus of those who lived through the era on the matter of the best and most important players and other figures.

One place to start would be to adopt Bill Simmons’ pyramid idea, that is, assigning all Hall of Famers to one of five tiers, with the top tier (“the Pantheon”) reserved for the very best of the best and each subsequent tier containing progressively less esteemed players until the players with the shakiest cases show up on the bottom level. I know a lot of people don’t like the idea of “ranking” the best players, feeling it makes things too much of a competition and that it becomes a case of splitting hairs between specific players as you get further down the list; shouldn’t it be enough that a player is considered a Hall of Famer? Why belittle the guys perceived to have shakier cases by placing them on a lower level or considering them not “real” Hall of Famers? However, I think this would be a good compromise between the “small Hall” guys and the more liberal guys. The “small Hall” guys would have only the guys they would allow in on the top one or two levels, while still having all the other players on the lower levels. It would serve as a way to refocus and rekindle the debate and provide some necessary clarity to the Hall, reorganizing it by players’ importance to the game and thus better allowing people to appreciate its history. Depending on what kind of Hall of Fame we’re talking about, we could use different terminology to distinguish the levels, even naming each level (for example, Bronze/Silver/Gold) if circumstances warrant.

I have a couple of issues with Simmons’ specific implementation. First, Simmons’ pyramid distributes Hall of Famers across five physical floors of the pyramid. Actual Hall of Fames, however, tend to throw all their Hall of Famers into a single literal hall; they are museums first and Hall of Fames second. The Hall may be the room everyone gravitates to and even the most prominent room, but it’s still a single room. Even the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a place that already vaguely looks like Simmons’ pyramid (and, incidentally, by all accounts a place that makes Cooperstown look like the model of integrity) throws all its Hall of Famers onto a single level of a six-level building; the closest thing to what Simmons might be talking about might be the Hollywood Walk of Fame. There are some points in this model’s favor, even from the perspective of the Halls themselves, as it provides a single place for you to be overwhelmed by the prestige and the eminent personalities all around you, to take it all in all at once, besides the fact it allows the Hall not to overwhelm the building’s place as a museum. But this consideration doesn’t completely invalidate the model; physical differences in the honoring of each Hall of Famer, such as a plaque made of different materials or placement on the floor, could distinguish players of different tiers, which could be indicated by the personality used. For example, each plaque could have one to five stars on it and we could refer to Hall of Fame members as one-star to five-star Hall of Famers. Or we could arrange the Hall as a spiral going around a larger building, connecting with the exhibits on each floor with each full turn or half-turn, each tier arranged in chronological order or in rough order of importance within each tier, up to the Pantheon taking up the entire top floor, with statues instead of mere plaques for each Pantheon member, and if the sport has a Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Wayne Gretzky, one single undisputed best player of all time, they get their statue in the center. This could be considered taking a cue from the Guggenheim Museum, which arranges its artifacts in a spiral one browses starting from the top and working their way down.

A simpler but perhaps more challenging problem has to do with the process of assigning a level to each member, which Simmons would do by taking the average score each member gets from an assignment committee, “rounded up”. The problem should be obvious: if the assignment committee consists of 50 people, 49 of them votes a member to level 1, and the 50th votes them to level 2, their average is 1.02, which gets rounded up to 2. That one single voter got them bumped up to level 2! It would seem that very few people would be selected to level 1 unless their election to the Hall at all was so tentative as to make it unlikely they would be elected in the first place. Considering part of the appeal of the pyramid for Simmons is to throw all the borderline candidates to level 1, this seems counterproductive. Even if we made a post facto argument that past decades were undeniably mistaken in putting someone in, and everyone votes them to level 1 because even those who would have voted for them agree it’s ridiculous to put them any higher, it’s hard to see how the bottom level would grow. Simmons seems to be counting on the assignment committee to disagree with the selection committee, and specifically to agree with his own judgments. (Rounding up has another, similar problem: it’s very easy for someone to get into the Pantheon just by racking up enough level 4 votes and a couple of level 5 votes to get their average just over four. “Small Hall” people would much rather round down, making it more difficult to get into higher levels; while that gives the Pantheon the opposite problem, requiring induction to be unanimous, a case could be made that if your average can’t top 2 you don’t deserve to be in level 2 or above anyway.)

Instead, I prefer to see each level and the ones above it as its own sub-Hall of Fame within the Hall of Fame. If you wish, you can consider only those in tier 2 and above “real” Hall of Famers, and “small Hall” people would prefer to restrict it to the top one or two tiers. As such, the procedure would go as follows:

  • The Selection Committee consists of a mixture of sportswriters (including bloggers), fans, players (possibly including existing Hall of Famers), coaches, historians of the sport, and other people involved with the sport and the media. The vote is weighted towards the writers, fans, and other people who have a good grasp of what it takes to get to each level and are familiar with each candidate’s case.
  • On the ballot, each voter must give each candidate a number from 1 to 5, signifying what level they would induct each candidate to, or leave it blank or mark it with a 0 to indicate that they would not elect that candidate at all.
  • A player must be given a number on 70% of the votes to be inducted, at which point they are inducted to the level at the 70th percentile of their vote. For example, to be inducted to the Pantheon at least 70% of the votes must vote you to the Pantheon. To be elected to level 3 at least 70% of the votes must put you on level 3 or above, and so on. This keeps it difficult to get inducted to the Hall and to each level; I originally considered making the threshold 60%, but I don’t want someone to get into the Pantheon when only 60% of voters agree he deserves it.
  • There may or may not be a limit on the number of players to be inducted (I would support limiting Pantheon inductions to one a year), but there is no limit on how many people may be voted in or voted to a particular level. A player that has received the necessary votes to be inducted to a particular level but is excluded due to yearly limits may have their induction postponed to the following year, but generally cannot fall below the lowest or highest level they were ever voted to.
  • If there is a difference between the median level a player is voted to and the 70th percentile, the player remains on the ballot in subsequent years; as with players pushed out due to yearly limits, they cannot fall below the lowest or highest level they were ever voted to. A player not inducted to the Hall must be chosen for induction on at least half of all ballots just to remain on the ballot the following year; a player with the votes to make the first tier must have at least half the votes naming him to the second tier in order to remain on the ballot for the chance to move up to the second tier, or else their future fate is remanded to the Historical Committee where it gets much tougher for a reassessment to find that a player was wrongfully kept out or elected to too low a level. A player may appear on fifteen ballots; once they have appeared on fifteen ballots, they are either inducted to whatever level they are voted to their final year, or the highest level they were ever voted to. (Alternatively, once a player has the votes for induction and aren’t kept out by numerical limits they are inducted to that level, but may be “re-inducted” to a higher level later.)

This is a similar system to the up/down approval voting system Deadspin and others would favor, but the addition of the pyramid and tier system turns it into a range voting variant, which for various reasons is probably the best voting system for achieving the best outcome without perverse incentives. The notion that “the first ballot is sacred” (which only succeeds in producing “second-ballot” Hall of Famers like Roberto Alomar) would become less relevant if the Pantheon (and possibly the tier or two below it) serves the role of separating the “elite” from the rank and file, and broadening the electorate beyond sportswriters helps keep people with agendas from hijacking the process. Ideally, we’d have a single vote to determine the legacy of each candidate, without candidates completely crowding each other off the ballot, without necessarily risking some induction ceremonies being too big (though more time can be devoted to players going in to higher tiers) or nonexistent, and without completely precluding reconsideration later, but only if a substantial enough number of people believe from the start that someone’s case merits reconsideration (that is, 5% of the electorate can’t keep someone who clearly doesn’t have a shot taking up space on the ballot for fifteen years).

So we have two different solutions to what seems to be the most obvious and agreed-upon problem with this year’s baseball Hall of Fame induction: an overabundance of qualified players crowding each other out because of the 10-player limit. A system similar to that of the Pro Football Hall of Fame would limit the number of candidates and make it easier to give each of the resulting finalists a straight-up up/down vote, but instituting a pyramid system would help fix some of the deeper, more systemic flaws and restore at least some prestige to America’s Halls of Fame among those who might feel it irredeemably lost.

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