In one way, the HOF is like the Roach Motel. Players check in but they don’t check out. In absolute terms, the HOF can only get bigger. But I prefer a different view. For HOF players, as with any group, understanding who the outsiders are (and how many of them there are) is essential to defining the insiders.
The size of the HOF is best considered in relative terms. With slightly more than 200 MLB players enshrined in Cooperstown out of about 17,000 who have played at the major league level, about 1.2% of players have received the game’s highest honor. A metric that can be calculated is something I will call the enshrinement rate: the number of inductees, expressed as a percentage of the number of players who left the game five years earlier (allowing for the five-year lag between a player’s retirement and his becoming eligible for election). Because both quantities making up this rate can vary from one year to another, let’s consider enshrinement rates on a longer time scale, say, ten years. For example, for the 1960s (the years 1961 to 1970), 29 MLB players were enshrined. Newly eligible for enshrinement during this ten-year period were the 991 players whose careers ended in the years 1956 through 1965. Therefore, the enshrinement rate for the ‘60s was 2.9%. It does not mean that 2.9% of the ’56-’65 retirees were enshrined, since the Veterans Committee honorees in the ‘60s were players who had retired in earlier decades.
The ‘60s and ‘70s (also at 2.9%) were the high water mark for enshrinement rate. These were the years that, for better or worse, saw the most VC picks enter the Hall. In contrast, the enshrinement rate was 1.8% in the ‘50s, 2.2% in the ‘80s, and 2.1% in the ‘90s. More recently, we have seen a dramatic drop in the enshrinement rate, to 1.0% during the decade of the 2000s; 19 players were enshrined while 1887 players became eligible. This calculation does not include the Negro League honorees who entered by special election in 2006 and who played few, if any, games in the major leagues. While the HOF continues to grow in absolute numbers, it is now seeing a modest reduction in relative size.
I do not foresee a return to the enshrinement rates of the ‘60s and ‘70s. With 30 MLB teams, about 200 players end their major league careers each year. These days, even a 2.5% enshrinement rate would mean five players getting elected annually. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen a year in which that many new players have gone to Cooperstown.
A significant elevation in enshrinement rate can probably happen only if the selection rules change. Giving the writers the opportunity to vote for more players will probably not make much difference, though, since even under the current system, many writers cast fewer than their allotted ten votes. Perhaps some elevation in enshrinement rate could come about if there were changes promoting greater activity from the VC. However, even if the induction rate were to rise to 1.5 or 2% (3 or 4 players a year) we would see only very slow growth from the current relative size of the HOF.
Although the 1% enshrinement rate of the past decade presents a fairly robust Small Hall scenario, if you’re a Small Hall guy you might be wishing for even lower enshrinement rates in the future. But how much lower can we go? I find it hard to imagine that between the writers and the VC we won’t average at least one new player in the HOF per year, or an enshrinement rate of at least 0.5%. This would reduce the relative size of the HOF, but slowly.
My best guess is that we will see enshrinement rates hovering somewhere between 1 and 1.5% in the decades ahead, which would have the HOF remaining nearly static in relative size. Even if we do see changes in the enshrinement rate, the ensuing change in the relative size of the HOF will be slow. The bottom line: if you’re unhappy with the current size of the Hall of Fame, you will probably carry that unhappiness with you the rest of your days.