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Defending the BBWAA

Does John Heyman really need my help?

Does John Heyman really need my help?

Many people believe that reluctant testimony is testimony that can be trusted. If you’re one of those people, you’re going to leave this article thinking a little more highly of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) than you do now. I’m someone with little non-negative to say about the group that elected the likes of Bruce Sutter. However, I also want to be accurate. And I think a lot of people, myself included, have been inaccurately critical of them at times over the years.

In my piece on Jack Chesbro last week, I implied that the baseball writers did something wrong by electing just one player, Rogers Hornsby, from 1940-1946. This wasn’t exactly an original idea. Bill James more directly said that they failed in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame. And a year ago, espn.com, sportsillustrated.cnn.com, hallofstats.com, and nearly every baseball blog and newspaper in the country seemed to run an article with the same tone – that somehow the BBWAA failed when they didn’t elect a single one of the men on the 2013 ballot.

Today I’d like to offer three arguments in defense of the BBWAA.

  1. They’re a group, but they don’t act as a group.
  2. They didn’t fail – it’s not their responsibility to elect players to the Hall.
  3. Let’s just relax, already.

They’re a group, but they don’t act as a group.

We refer to the BBWAA as a group. And so we should, in a way. After all, they are an Association. But they’re not a group in the same way the United States Senate is a group. Harry Reid, Mitch McConnell, and company, at least in theory, are charged with such things as making laws, overseeing the U.S. mint, and approving treaties. Fun stuff like that. To fulfill those responsibilities, they must work together. They must compromise. And very differently than the BBWAA, they do so in the same room. And in back rooms. And they’re televised. They might be 100 individuals with votes, but they’re 100 individuals with a very specific charge to work together, in theory, to accomplish their goals.

The BBWAA is different. They don’t work together. They work for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, the Ashtabula Star Beacon, the Carroll County Times, the Traverse City Record Eagle, and other esteemed publications. Do Akiko Yamawaki and Jose de Jesus Ortiz ever speak to each other? Would they even know how? The point I’m trying to make is that these people are never in the same room together. They didn’t try to hash out last year whether or not Mike Piazza, for example, was worthy of induction. About 58% believed he was deserving, and a bit more than 42% thought he wasn’t. It wasn’t until January, when the votes were counted, that we decided they “failed” as a group.

They simply don’t make decisions as a group. So even if there’s some verifiable failure that’s going on, it’s the system rather than the BBWAA that’s failing.

They didn’t fail – it’s not their responsibility to elect players to the Hall.

The job of the BBWAA is not to elect players to the Hall of Fame. It’s to elect qualified players to the Hall of Fame. I know, I know. I’m going to have a problem with this argument. How is someone unqualified one year and suddenly qualified the next? Clearly, that’s not possible. But it’s not the failure of the BBWAA that individual writers change their minds – that they understand a player’s qualifications better one year than in a previous year.

In fact, changing one’s mind would seem like a success in this case. Individual members fail one year. Writers and/or others persuade them to change their votes. And the collective succeeds the next year. Or the one after that. Such a process seems like to epitome of success, not failure.

See, the top 33 vote getters on the 1945 ballot are now in the Hall of Fame. And I think at least 11 of the top 12 on last year’s ballot eventually make it. But on both ballots, the writers elected nobody.

Look at the 1945 ballot below. There were no inner circle guys at the top. And steroids confused the issue last year. Plus, it’s not like the writers didn’t vote for anyone. They voted for 95 different players in 1945 and 26 last year. It’s just that they didn’t agree on which players should receive votes.

Let’s take a look at the top part of that 1945 ballot.

                    Votes  Vote%
1   Frank Chance     179   72.5%
2   Rube Waddell     154   62.3%
3   Ed Walsh         137   55.5%
4   Johnny Evers     134   54.3%
5   Roger Bresnahan  133   53.8%
    Miller Huggins   133   53.8%
7   Mickey Cochrane  125   50.6%
8   Jimmy Collins    121   49.0%
9   Ed Delahanty     111   44.9%
10  Clark Griffith   108   43.7%
11  Frankie Frisch   101   40.9%
12  Hughie Jennings   92   37.2%
13  Wilbert Robinson  81   32.8%
    Pie Traynor       81   32.8%
15  Hugh Duffy        64   25.9%
16  Fred Clarke       53   21.5%
17  Rabbit Maranville 51   20.6%
18  Joe Tinker        49   19.8%
19  Mordecai Brown    46   18.6%
20  Herb Pennock      45   18.2%
21  Joe McGinnity     44   17.8%
22  Chief Bender      40   16.2%
23  Ray Schalk        33   13.4%
    Eddie Plank       33   13.4%
25  Bill Terry        32   13.0%
26  Lefty Grove       28   11.3%
27  Home Run Baker    26   10.5%
28  Carl Hubbell      24    9.7%
29  Addie Joss        23    9.3%
30  Ross Youngs       22    8.9%
31  Dazzy Vance       18    7.3%
32  Dizzy Dean        17    6.9%
33  Bill Dickey       17    6.9%

That’s quite a list.

And some might use it as evidence of some sort of failure. I don’t. Once again, every one of the top 33 guys is in the Hall today. This isn’t like the American system of jurisprudence where justice delayed is justice denied. Don’t worry Mike Piazza fans. Your guy is going to get in. And so will Craig Biggio and Roger Clemens and even Barry Bonds.

And that brings me to my third point.

Let’s just relax, already!

This may not be the most highbrow of arguments. Still, it applies very well. Even for someone who’s gone so far as to start a blog because he doesn’t like the work the Hall has done.

If in 1945 you were a big Jimmy Collins guy, for example, you had to wait all the way until the Old Timers selected him in, get this, 1945. Maybe you love Frankie Frisch. He had to wait until 1947. Egad! Same with Lefty Grove, who was just 26th on the 1945 ballot.

The BBWAA is far from perfect. That’s one of the main reasons for the HoME. But as much as it pains me to say this, just because they don’t elect someone for one year – or anyone for one year – doesn’t mean that they’ve failed.

Miller

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