The Baseball Hall of Fame has never tinkered with the 75 percent voting standard for election. Since the first ballots were cast in the first vote in 1936, the “three out of four” requirement has been in place. The Hall has even carried that over to the veterans committees, requiring nine of 12 or 12 of 16, and so on, for election.
But election isn’t good enough for some people. Seventy-five percent and a shiny plaque in the gallery in Cooperstown isn’t enough for some people. Baseball immortality isn’t enough for some people.
Folks want unanimity. Which is pretty damn interesting considering how split the rest of society is.
But when it comes to Hall of Fameness, sports fans really want everyone to think like they do. When it comes to the greats of baseball, they want everyone to be on the same team.
That’s how we got ourselves into this current climate of vote shaming. Of election-bullying. Of finger-pointing and tweet-storming. And it’s nonsense.
On Wednesday, Derek Jeter accepted his plaque and gave his speech in Cooperstown as baseball’s newest Hall of Fame shortstop. He made a point to thank the voters, but took the time to say “all except one,” referring to the single Baseball Writers Association of America voter who did not vote for him.
To be fair to Jeter, the line in his speech was sort of a throwaway (sort of like some of his throws from deep in the hole), meant more to poke fun at the voting than castigate anyone. But predictably, many baseball experts and fans have criticized the lone voter for his “stupidity,” some even calling for his voting privileges to be stripped.
Hey everyone, let’s put down the pitchforks. It’s ok that one baseball writer did not vote for Jeter. In fact, it even makes sense. Honestly, I’m not sure why more voters didn’t withhold their vote from the Yankee star.
The History of Baseball Hall of Fame Election Outrage
There was a time when we didn’t care about vote totals. In 1960, Bob Feller failed to get the votes of ten baseball writers in his first year on the ballot. Feller threw three no-hitters, set strikeout records, threw the baseball as hard as anyone ever, helped his team to a World Series title, and he was a friggin’ World War II hero who missed nearly four seasons while fighting for his country. But ten people didn’t vote for him. No one really cared.
Six years later, Ted Williams mustered only 93.4 percent. This is what The Sporting News said about that election:
“Williams takes his deserved place among the greatest sluggers in the annals of the game: Ruth, Hornsby, Cobb, Foxx, DiMaggio. Now his name belongs in the same breath.”
No mention by TSN of plans to hunt down those who had the audacity to not vote for Williams.
If any player at any position is considered a legend, it must be Johnny Bench, who most experts agree was the greatest catcher to ever squat behind the dish. But in 1989 when Johnny’s name debuted on the Hall of Fame ballot, he was not named by 16 voters. That ballot included eight future Hall of Famers and many other great candidates, and no one was sour that two-time MVP Bench hadn’t been unanimous.
The outrage over voting totals can really be traced back to 1999, when the Hall welcomed three all-time greats on the ballot: George Brett, Nolan Ryan, and Robin Yount. That was the first time that I can recall the media getting their underwear bunched up over someone not getting the number of votes they thought he should have.
The current trend of anointing a “GOAT” for everything is also to blame. We live in an era where being really good isn’t enough, where being excellent isn’t even enough. You have to be THE GREATEST.
Why Hall of Fame Voters Should Consider Not Voting For Sure Things
In the past few years, several players have had their name on the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot who, shall we say, are controversial. Namely Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez, and Curt Schilling. Either due to performance-enhancing drug allegations or off-the-field issues, these stars have been clogging the ballot while making steady or in some cases little, progress toward election.
Pair that with the rule change the Hall of Fame made before the 2015 BBWAA election that reduced the number of times a player can be on the ballot. Previously, as long as a player received at least five percent support his name remained on a ballot for up to 15 years. Starting with the 2015 election, that was changed to ten years.
The reason the Hall of Fame and BBWAA made the change to their election rules was to limit the times a Bonds and McGwire etc. could be on the ballot, causing all sorts of consternation and bad press. The Hall doesn’t want their election cycle to be about steroids. They want it to be about baseball.
With only ten spots on the ballot since 2015, voters have had fewer opportunities to vote for a candidate who may not be a surefire thing. This has led to embarrassing situations where players like Carlos Delgado, Jim Edmonds, and Jorge Posada have fallen off the ballot in their first year of eligibility. These decent candidates, along with Nomar Garciaparra, have left the ballot quickly, when in previous generations players like them would have had a longer time to be considered thoughtfully.
Voters shouldn’t be blamed for casting a vote for a player like Edmonds, who had a .527 slugging percentage and an OPS over 900, to go along with nearly 400 home runs, and eight Gold Gloves. Or Delgado, who has similar career batting figures to those of David Ortiz, who many feel is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Strategic Voting Makes Sense
I don’t know who the voter is who didn’t cast his ballot for Derek Jeter in 2020. But if I did, I would send him a letter with a few kind words in it, or maybe a Starbucks Gift Card, because he’s being unfairly attacked.
Not voting for a player like Derek Jeter is perfectly understandable.
It’s called strategic voting, and it’s precisely what you get when you set up the voting rules the way the Hall of Fame has.
When you restrict the number of players a voter can vote for, you force the voter to leave someone out. Or the voter can use strategic voting to award votes based on their importance.
What is the relative importance of a Hall of Fame vote for Jeter, or his teammate Mariano Rivera? Or Adrián Beltré, who will be on the ballot for the first time for the 2024 election? How does the importance of a vote for one of those automatic Hall of Famers compare to an on-the-bubble candidate or one who is slowly gaining momentum, like Andruw Jones or Andy Pettitte?
The vote for the players near the middle or bottom of the ballot are vastly more important because that vote may be what is needed to keep them on the ballot. Jeter was always going to be elected in his first year, and so was Mo, and so will 3,000-hit club member Beltré. They don’t need the help just so they can be unanimous.
Here’s an example from the 2019 election, when Rivera, Roy Halladay, Todd Helton, Roy Oswalt, and Lance Berkman all debuted on the ballot, making it a talented and deep first-year candidate class. With several other worthy candidates also on the ballot from prior years, it was a tough ballot to trim to ten names:
2019 Hall of Fame Ballot Clog
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Lance Berkman had over 50 Wins Above Replacement in his career, but he fell off the ballot. Roy Oswalt, who had a very high peak and a better career by value than Catfish Hunter, fell off the ballot. This happened while voters were piling votes on Rivera, who didn’t need them. 75 percent is the same as 100 percent when it comes to the Hall of Fame. There’s no such thing as being sort of pregnant, and there’s no such thing as sort of being a Hall of Famer.
It’s acceptable to think that a voter might have considered shifting a vote for Rivera in 2019 and using it for Berkman, or maybe McGriff in his final year. Or to help a favorite candidate like Sheffield or Rolen.
The Hall of Fame should remove the rule that limits the number of players you can choose. If a voter thinks a guy deserves to be considered, why shouldn’t that player get a vote?
People are fond of saying: “I know when a guy feels like a Hall of Famer.”
Well, if that’s the case, why does the balloting force voters to say “He feels like one of the top ten Hall of Famers on my ballot”?
Derek Jeter wasn’t slighted. If he was actually trying to take a shot at the one voter who didn’t check the box next to his name, it was petty. Mr. Jeter got 99.9 percent of the vote. A year before that, Rivera got 100 percent support (thanks to one voter abstaining). But so what? Does it make them any more Hall of Famers than Joe DiMaggio, who got 88.8 percent support the year he was elected. Or are they any greater than Mickey Mantle? Back in 1974, 21 voters failed to select Mantle in his first year of eligibility.
A Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer. Let’s stop this silly vote shaming and bullying of voters who don’t do what the masses want them to.