Reflections on the Veterans Committee Vote
Dying Cub Fan, the author of the three-part series on Ron Santo's Hall of Fame merits, returns with a look at the flaws of the Veteran Committee vote.
From Ron Santo’s standpoint, it’s hard to see how the 2008 Veterans Committee voting could have gone any worse, particularly when you compare the results to the voting results announced in February 2007. Due mostly to rules changes, there were 18 fewer ballots cast in 2008 than in 2007. Santo’s vote total this year decreased by 18 votes, perhaps not entirely a coincidence. In 2007, 25 electors that returned ballots did not vote for Santo. In 2008, the same number of ballots did not vote for Santo, again perhaps not entirely a coincidence. From 2007 to 2008, Santo went from being five votes short to being nine votes short, and his voting percentage dropped from 69.5% in 2007 to 60.9% in 2008.
There would seem to be a number of possible explanations for this. One would be that Santo had a lot of support among the writers and broadcasters no longer eligible to vote. In 2007, the VC electorate consisted of 84 members: 61 living Hall of Famers (players and managers), 8 writers (Spink award winners), 14 broadcasters (Frick award winners) and one holdover (John McHale) from the previous veterans committee. In 2007, 82 ballots were returned out of the possible 84, making 62 votes the magic number (the rule for induction is 75% of ballots cast). (I assume that one of the persons who did not return a ballot in 2007 was Murray Chass, a Spink winner who has said that the rules of his employer, The New York Times, prohibited him from voting.) In 2008, the writers and broadcasters were excluded from voting (as was John McHale) and the electorate consisted of 64 living Hall of Famers. All 64 living Hall of Famers returned their ballots, meaning that 48 votes were necessary to meet the 75 percent standard for election. Since the 2007 election, one Hall of Famer then living has passed away (Phil Rizzuto), and there have been inducted four new Hall of Famers, Ripken, Gwynn, Gossage and Dick Williams, all of whom are living.
Of course, it is not necessarily the case that the reason Santo got 18 fewer votes was the loss of the 18 ballots from 2007.
One of the rules changes from 2007 that I did not focus on prior to the election, but which may have had a big impact, was a new limit on the number of candidates that could be voted for, which was set at four for the 2008 election. In 2007, the limit was ten. In 2008, an average of 3.33 votes per ballot were cast. This means that at least 21 electors voted for all 4 out of the possible candidates (assuming the other 43 voted for 3; if any of the others voted for less than 3, that would increase the number that had voted for 4). In 2007, voters could choose up to ten candidates, and an average of 5.96 votes were cast per ballot. The four vote maximum seems arbitrary. It’s difficult for me to see voting for anyone in preference to Santo from this year’s list of candidates, much less four players in preference to Santo, but it is possible that this limitation held down his vote total. It is possible, too, that one or more voters that voted for Santo in 2007 changed his mind. It is also possible that one of Santo’s 2007 votes was Rizzuto’s.
At this point, I do not see the Veteran’s Committee, as currently constituted, electing Santo or any other player from the current slate of candidates. The players at the top of the list in terms of votes, Santo, Kaat, Hodges and Oliva, have been more or less the same since 2003 (in that year, Kaat was still on the writers’ ballot), and do not seem to be making headway. The number two votegetter, Kaat, lost 14 votes from 2007. Hodges lost 22, making him a likely victim of the four vote maximum. The number of people omitting these players from their ballots is not going down in a meaningful sense.
If no change is made to the voting members of Veterans Committee, the electorate will still change over time, but only due to deaths in the membership and additions of new living players and managers to the Hall. Turnover in the electorate is likely to be gradual and is unlikely, in and of itself, to enable Santo to make up nine votes by the next election two years from now. Of course it is possible that another candidate could emerge from the BBWAA, such as Jim Rice or Bert Blyleven, and he could be elected by the VC (if Rice is somehow not elected by the BBWAA this year, and appeared on the VC ballot in 2010, I think that would be very bad for the current candidates). Outside of that, having the same electorate consider the same candidates would seem to be pointless. Unlike in the BBWAA elections, where players have improved their voting totals over time, in the case of the VC elections some candidates have improved somewhat, but the top vote-getters have seemed to hit a bloc of voters who do not pick them that they cannot seem to overcome.
Clearly, it is harder now to get elected to the Hall of Fame than it has ever been before. This year’s failure to elect anyone other than Gordon (who for reasons set forth below, almost doesn’t count) means that the VC will go at least 10 years without really letting anyone in. During the ten years ending in 2001 (the Mazeroski election), eleven non- Negro League players were elected by the VC. During the ten years prior to that, 9 were elected. During the ten years prior to that, fifteen were elected. During the ten years prior to that, twenty-four. During the ten years prior to that, eight. During the ten years prior to that, twenty-one. Since 2001, there have been four elections and one person (Gordon) elected, and that person by a separate, much smaller committee specially formed following the 2007 election to consider pre-WWII era players.
Following the 2001 induction ceremony, Joe Morgan, who is on the Hall’s board, was quoted as saying he’d heard another Hall of Famer say that it was becoming too easy to get into the Hall of Fame. Thereafter, the board announced sweeping changes to the procedures and constitution of the Veterans Committee, which had been more or less the same in form and procedures since 1953. While Jerome Holtzman at the time saw the changes as likely making it easier for qualified candidates to be elected, others, such as Jack Lang, the former BBWAA secretary, and Jack O’Connell, the then current BBWAA secretary, correctly saw them as likely making election by the VC much harder. Bob Feller was quoted at the time as hoping the changes made election by the VC much harder.
There are currently six living members of the Hall that were elected by the Veterans Committee: Jim Bunning, Orlando Cepeda, Bobby Doerr, George Kell, Bill Mazeroski and Red Schoendienst. I have difficulty seeing how any one of them would be elected by the full VC membership under the current system. While the old VC was justly criticized for a number of weak picks, they did make some excellent ones, such as Arky Vaughan, Johnny Mize and Home Run Baker. I have a hard time seeing how even these excellent selections would be elected by the entire membership of living Hall of Famers, much less past VC selections that were not of the caliber of the best selections, but were nonetheless very good, such as Earl Averill, Richie Ashburn, Sam Crawford, Pee Wee Reese, Enos Slaughter, Ernie Lombardi, Hal Newhouser, Nellie Fox or Tony Lazzeri.
One of the results of this is a demographic trend that may be unintended. Currently, Orlando Cepeda is the youngest VC-elected member of the Hall of Fame. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1999 and was born in 1937. I would be very surprised if there were another VC selection for some time, meaning that if you were born after Cepeda, and retired from the mid-‘70s onward, or came off the writers’ ballot at any time after about the mid-‘90s, your chances of being selected by the VC are practically nonexistent, or at least much smaller than they had been for people born prior to that time. Kaat (who was born in 1938 and who retired nine years after Cepeda) and Santo and Torre (each born in 1940) are simply on the wrong side of that line. This means that players born after 1937 or so will be less honored by the Hall of Fame than players who were born before that time. They need to be elected by the writers or they are very unlikely to get in at all.
There were 21 Hall of Fame players born between 1910 and 1919, three of whom are still living (Monte Irvin, Bob Feller and Bobby Doerr). There were 17 Hall of Famers born in the ‘20s, 24 in the ‘30s, 17 in the ‘40s, 12 in the ‘50s and 3 in the ‘60s. There were 30 from the 1890s and 40 from the 1900s (all these numbers include Negro League honorees). What the VC is in effect saying is that the ‘30s and ‘40s are now closed to further honorees once they fall off the BBWAA ballot. I do not believe there are any candidates born in the 1940s still on the writers’ ballot with a serious chance of being elected by the BBWAA (Tommy John (born in 1943) is in his 15th year on the writers’ ballot, but has not yet exceeded 30% of the vote). The writers are now considering players born in ‘50s and ‘60s (e.g., Henderson (1958), Blyleven (1951), Rice (1953), Dawson (1954), Raines (1959), Trammell (1958), Morris (1955), McGwire (1963) and Cone (1963)). Given that most living Hall of Famers (34) were born in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the failure by the VC to elect anyone may justly be seen as punishing their own contemporaries.
In this light, the pick of Gordon by a separate committee is particularly ironic, because it indicates that it is easier for someone of a prior generation, one that has already gathered more Hall of Fame members and whose living contemporaries on the VC are small in number, to be elected than a player from Santo’s generation, who has more contemporaries on the VC. More Hall of Famers played in the era from 1920-45 than any other era. In Bill James’s piece on Santo in the most recent Historical Baseball Abstract, one of the things he said was that the only real advantage that older players had on Santo in terms of Hall selection was that they had played so long ago that everyone had forgotten their flaws. Gordon’s election, while Santo continues to be left out, is consistent with this notion.
In fact, a good argument can be made that more recent generations should get higher representation in the Hall of Fame than older ones. For one thing, there are more major leaguers playing now than ever before. Up until 1960, there were eight teams in each league. At the end of the ‘60s, there were twelve teams in each league. Now there are 16 NL teams and 14 AL teams. Also, I believe that play has become much more competitive over time, and the game today is played at a higher level than was ever the case before. In The Politics of Glory, Bill James’s 1994 book on the Hall of Fame, he noted that in most years in baseball about 10% of total at bats had been taken by Hall of Famers. If current trends hold, that percentage will almost certainly go down.
Jane Forbes Clark, the chairperson of the Hall, was recently quoted as saying “The process was not redesigned with the goal of necessarily electing someone, but to give everyone on the ballot a very fair chance of earning election through a ballot of their peers.” As a defense of the VC’s four election span of electing no one, this is nonsense. The Hall of Fame is a business and has a vested interest in ensuring that new members continue to be elected. A Hall of Fame that does not elect anyone is not very interesting or relevant, and without induction ceremonies will not make much money. If the living Hall of Famers want to keep the VC vote, they need take responsibility for making sure they elect people every once in a while; it’s not enough to simply submit ballots every year. Much like a political party trying to get legislation passed, somebody on the committee needs to drive one of the current candidates through the process by lobbying the other members to ensure that someone is elected. I doubt this will happen.
Joe Morgan has drawn a lot of criticism for this state of affairs. I believe that he has supported Santo, but I also believe he is deserving of criticism for being an architect of the current system and a defender of it.
I think they will continue to tinker with the VC procedures in an attempt to come up with a process where the VC will finally elect someone from the post-1943 period. I think they will try to stick with the current structure, despite evidence that it is just not working. I think that they may increase the four vote maximum to five or six prior to the next election. I also think that if that is all they do, they will not elect anyone in 2010 either.
The members of the Veterans Committee are engaged to some degree in the process, as is evidenced by their 100% participation in the voting (although it is rumored that some players have sent back blank ballots) and the relatively high number of votes cast by them. Despite this, it would seem that they are not changing their minds, at least in a way that would elect someone. This article from Chris Jaffe on THT, suspects that there is some dysfunction on the committee, with little interaction and exchange of views. I do not know if this is the case. One of the criticisms of the old VC was that there was too much logrolling; it may be that now there is not enough.
The principal function of the VC is to honor those that have been overlooked by the writiers. The writers are not infallible; they have made mistakes before that the VC has corrected. The VC has now become just a rubber stamp of the BBWAA, refusing to correct any errors that the writers have made.
Perhaps after the VC goes oh-for-five in 2010 people will finally say that enough is enough. A committee that does not elect anyone serves no real purpose.
Here are some other pieces on the recent VC election:
"The Decision of Hall of Famers" by Rob Neyer
"The Veterans Committee Post-1942 Players Electorat" by Chipmaker
"Hall Falls Down" by Murray Chass