It seems that every year, a great debate rages on the blogosphere and the radio about who among the retirees of baseball should be voted into the Hall of Fame.
While I can appreciate the healthy discussion and analysis that comes from such debates, I ultimately find myself losing respect for the Hall of Fame, and moreso the writers/voters of the Baseball Writers Association of America. There have been reports (and admissions) of voters who don't vote, voters who hold grudges against players, voters who never saw the players play (and only look to statistics to inform their vote), and voters who use the ballot as a political tool (protesting the steroid era or the admitted/suspected PED users).
The Hall of Fame website (http://baseballhall.org/) welcomes viewers with the tag line "Preserving History | Honoring Excellence | Connecting Generations."
Identifying the Problem
The Hall of Fame is two institutions; a museum of baseball history and a shrine of the game's best players. The current process is for writers in the Baseball Writers Association of America to vote, each year, on players eligible for induction. The guidelines (found here) on voting are unarguably vague:
5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.
There is no public clarification of any of those criteria, which means that all of those criteria can be interpreted in many ways. This very confusion, as I prefer to call it, is what leads to inconsistent voting practices from generation to generation. Even the quality of integrity, defined by Miriam-Webster as seen below, is open to interpretation as a voters "code of moral values" may differ from generation to generation (as we've seen in the difference in voters who elected great players, but not great men, into the Hall of Fame).
1 : firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values : incorruptibility
2 : an unimpaired condition : soundness
3 : the quality or state of being complete or undivided : completeness
Couple integrity with the criteria of character:
of the eight definitions available, the only one that applies is this:
: moral excellence and firmness <a man of sound character>
This is where I think a great many voters and fans would classify cheating (and PED use), but again, it falls under the voter's concept of ethical and moral behavior. The interpretation of this criteria (in any of its definitions) has also historically been varied, as known cheaters such as Gaylord Perry, who mastered an illegal pitch, has been inducted into the Hall of Fame. If we go further down the character rabbit-hole, we find adulterers, rapists, self-professed murderers, and known KKK members.
The last criteria I would like to address are "contributions to the team(s) on which the player played" and "playing ability." These two are also not clarified, and as such, present a wide variety of interpretation for voters. Are the players compared to their peers? Are they compared to other Hall of Famers, regardless of era? Should they only be evaluated on what they directly contributed to the success of their team? Are there clear cut milestones that they must reach to be strongly considered? So many questions, and not a lot of clear cut answers.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is an independent, non-profit educational institution dedicated to fostering an appreciation of the historical development of baseball and its impact on our culture by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting its collections for a global audience as well as honoring those who have made outstanding contributions to our national pastime.
Since the Hall of Fame professes to be a museum as well, I propose that we approach it as such. The Hall of Fame would hire a committee of baseball historians, whose sole job would be to research, record, and tell the story of baseball with all the facts. There would also be a separate committee for electing (honoring) former players, managers, broadcasters, and owners (and perhaps journalists). However, they will be more strictly ruled by a set of standards.
The historians would be separated and assigned specific categories, such as decades or eras of baseball. They would then research the entirety of baseball in their assigned category and "tell" the story of their period in a manner that combines the narrative with the facts. For example, in documenting the 90s, the stories of McGuire and Sosa would be told, along with the facts that they broke the existing single season home run record. If there are stories from that time that hint or speculate about McGuire's PED use, they would be incorporated as such (suspicions) and if verification is later revealed or known, it will be included. In this way, the history of the game would be kept intact, while at least presenting the fact of an accomplishment (with no bias or condemnation).
This is where the stories are told, particularly any stories that reflect remarkable character, triumph over adversity, miraculous comebacks, and unlikely heroes. The stories of Jim Abbott, and Josh Hamilton, and Jim Morris. It's a way to honor their stories in the Hall, even if they didn't play at the "Hall of Fame" level.
As all museums do (and I confess, I've not been to Cooperstown), the museum itself would document all these stories and accomplishments with plaques, dioramas, paintings, memorabilia, video interaction, and sounds of the game (think Bob Sheppard announcing the 1998 World Series Champion Yankees).
Hall of Fame Membership
For the election committee, the historians again would be separated, this time perhaps by player position (or again, era). The criteria for election would focus on the player's performance on the field, and leave the narrative to the other historians. These studious individuals would be tasked with researching each player's career, from their rookie year until retirement, watch as many games available in which the player participated (including playoffs), study their statistics in relation to history as well as their peers, assess their contribution to the game of baseball and their impact on the teams for which they played, and come to a definitive conclusion about their election into the Hall of Fame.
There would be no voting, no bias, no political agendas, no voters who don't vote for a player because they never saw him play, and no hypocrisy.
I would also propose that if someone is a known cheater, however great their on-field accomplishments, they would not be elected to the Hall of Fame. It's a simple rule, but it would be applied uniformly. Also, election would be stripped if there came to be definitive proof or an admission of cheating. The counterbalance to this rule is that those players stories (if their accomplishments were so great) would still be told in the history/museum part of the Hall.
Thus, the Hall of Fame would be a true museum, documenting the entirety of the history of baseball, telling all the stories, while providing a more informed selection of Hall of Fame inductees. The former voters from the BBWAA may wish to provide the museum with their view/perspective of certain events, which would be a great contribution to the museum.