Why there may never be a unanimous Hall of Famer

Posted: 24th September 2013 by Graham Womack in Baseball Hall of Fame

Last year, I asked readers to vote on an inner circle for the Hall of Fame. I’ve run a few voter-driven projects, and while I enjoy getting to look at everyone’s ballot, it’s generally the same story. I doubt any two ballots are alike. Voters use a variety of rationales. And most every ballot has a glaring omission or imperfection– in the case of my inner circle project, no player received 100 percent of the vote, not Willie Mays, not Babe Ruth, not Honus Wagner. We’re not fools, it’s just the way these things work. Some voters consciously omit players. Others simply forget them. I don’t think this is a a bad thing. I set very few rules for voters, by design. If enough people vote independently, the right thing seems to happen. Unanimity’s a nice ideal, but it’s never been necessary here.

I’m reminded of all this by a piece Buster Olney has up at ESPN Insider, advocating that retiring New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera be the first unanimous Hall of Famer. In the piece, mostly hidden behind a paywall link, Olney recounts the bizarre, implausible, unpalatable truth through more than 75 years of Hall of Fame voting– there’s never been a unanimous selection. Never. Ty Cobb, Nolan Ryan, Tom Seaver, and others have come within a handful of votes, but something always seems to prevent unanimity. One writer left Ryan off his ballot, for instance, because he wanted to make a stand about Don Sutton’s candidacy.

Olney writes:

Maybe it’s time for this embarrassing tradition to end. Maybe it’s time for this small handful of writers who want to turn themselves into a speed bump at the gates of the Hall Fame to stop making themselves the story….

Five years from now, there is no reason for any voter to not put a check mark beside Mariano Rivera’s name on a ballot, because his candidacy is pristine.

It’s a great idea, and I support it wholeheartedly, but it seems highly unlikely it will happen, not in five years, probably not ever. I imagine people responding to Olney’s piece will make this about Rivera, fixating on his worthiness or lack thereof as a relief pitcher, but the broader debate isn’t about Rivera or any other player. So long as the current process for Hall of Fame voting remains, I doubt there will ever be a unanimous selection. And I’m cool with that.

If an algorithm determined picks, it would stand to reason that a player could get in satisfying every requirement. But voting is still done by humans, through an electorate that continues to grow, with a record 581 ballots cast in 2011 and another 573 last year. Few requirements exist for making picks, with a basic set of rules that concern eligibility. Beyond that, voters are invited to set their own criteria. One writer from last year’s election told me he didn’t vote for Tim Raines, in part, because he only logged 13 full seasons. Again, I’m fine with this. I’d shudder if any one voter got to determine all the plaques in Cooperstown using this mindset, but I assume that with enough people casting ballots, the right thing will generally happen.

It doesn’t mean that questionable candidates won’t sometimes be enshrined, be it on the first pass or the 10th, with 98 percent of the vote or 75.2. But the point of the Hall of Fame isn’t perfection or unanimity. It’s about honoring the best moments in baseball history. More often than not, Cooperstown and its voters have honored this ideal.

  1. Detroit Michael says:

    Seems to fairly logical for a BBWAA voter to omit Mariano Rivera (or Greg Maddux) from his/her ballot if the writer (1) is voting for 10 candidates (the maximum) already and (2) the writer figures that Rivera will get 75% of the votes elsewhere so that his/her votes are better spend on candidates more likely to be close to the 75% or 5% vote cut-offs. It would still take a lot of guts to omit an obvious Hall of Famer (assuming for the moment that Rivera is) in favor of using one’s votes for more dicey candidates.

  2. Ron Kaplan says:

    Nice piece, Graham.

    According to the Olney post, Robinson “received 77.5 percent of the vote. In other words, he scraped by, getting the 75 percent needed for election.”

    I wonder if he might not have received even more votes in the following year. I wonder if he might have thought for a second, “This is an insult. I’ll wait until they wise up and give me the proper respect.”

    Just an idea.