Baseball Hall of Fame: Rethinking Voting Rules

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Baseball Hall of Fame: Rethinking Voting Rules
The Baseball Writers Association of America needs to rethink its voting requirements for the Hall of Fame.

In order for a baseball player to get elected to the Hall of Fame, his name has to appear on 75 percent of all ballots cast. Only members of BBWAA get to vote, and they can vote for up to 10 players.

Up until the late 1950s, the writers were pressured to vote for the maximum number of players. Under those circumstances, it made sense to have the 75 percent requirement to get into the Hall.

Now, when the average number of players voted for on any given ballot has dipped below seven, it’s time to reconsider the 75 percent rule.

The finer points of parliamentary procedure aren’t normally the primary subject of a sports column—but bear with me. It's from parliamentary procedure that we get these processes.

In non-authoritarian organizations, it's generally the case that the majority rules. This becomes problematic when the majority wishes to abridge the rights of the minority. In order to prevent the tyranny of the majority, rules are created to protect minority rights.

Some of those rules include requiring “super majorities” in certain voting situations. In the United States Senate, for example, it takes 60 Senators to end debate on an issue. In the criminal justice system, it takes every member of a jury to convict a man of a crime.

In each instance, the requirement of a vote over and above the majority is designed to protect the rights of individuals and small groups.

The reason the Hall of Fame has such a high threshold is to make the Hall of Fame an elite institution. A super-majority of writers need to think a player is worthy of enshrinement. This makes for a powerful affirmation of the successes and achievements of any player so honored.

This isn’t a bad thing. The Hall of Fame should continue to require some form of a super majority for enshrinement. But I would like to lower the vote requirement to a two-thirds vote.

It’s a small reduction of the threshold, but one that makes sense when the weaknesses of the process are considered.

First and foremost, the change would admit to and adjust for the inherent weakness of the voting system. Baseball writers typically only follow one team, and only encounter other teams on the occasions their primary team competes against them. Thus a majority of baseball writers are only really experts on a single club, not the entire league.

Because the media markets are weighted by popularity and not by merits, there are more New York sportswriters than Kansas City sportswriters. This systemic bias needs to be acknowledged. Players who spend their careers in flyover country have a more difficult time getting into the Hall of Fame, because it only takes a small minority of big-market writers to prevent entry.

The only way players from smaller markets can be properly considered for entry into the Hall of Fame is through intense statistical analysis (really, this applies to any player). Unfortunately, most writers have only a passing interest in sabermetrics, and this keeps the greatest objective tool out of the Hall of Fame process.

Another weakness of the process is the writers themselves. It needs to be noted that sportswriters are just guys who went to college for four years to learn how to write at an eighth grade level. The majority of them don’t have the background for statistical analysis, nor are most of them going to be aware of their own biases.

There are exceptions, of course, but the point is the writers are not infallible when it comes to judging baseball players. A small minority of them should not be able to keep deserving players out of Cooperstown.

The Hall of Fame should be an honor for the elite of the sport, and thus a super majority rule makes sense. But lowering the threshold from three-quarters to two-thirds will help alleviate some of the weaknesses of the system.

Writers don’t watch every team play every game, so their experiences are biased. Writers aren’t historians or statisticians, so their methods are flawed. And under the current system, a small minority can unfairly trump the majority.

Fixing that flaw would be the first step towards fixing the Hall of Fame itself.

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