The Baseball Hall of Fame is a Mess

As the backlog of worthy candidates grows larger, the Hall of Fame still hasn’t figured out how to reform its obsolete voting system, or how to deal with players who used steroids.

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In the election for the 2014 inductees into Cooperstown, the results of which were announced Wednesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) didn’t do anything to help the Hall deal with the complex questions of the steroids era. Three players were voted in, receiving the 75 percent of the vote necessary for admittance: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas. All of three were considered clear Hall of Famers, but that still left a huge backlog of players from 1990s and 2000s that have yet to make it in.

The logjam is because there are a significant number of players on the ballot who used, are linked to, or are rumored to have used performance enhancing drugs. But there’s no way to know who has and who hasn’t, let alone any rules for how to weigh the candidacies of admitted juicers. The only guidelines the rules of the Hall of Fame give are “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” Needless to say, this leaves a lot of room for interpretation. This ranges from one writer who won’t vote for anybody to others who ignore steroid use altogether.

The problem is amplified because, while there were 36 total players on the ballot in 2014, voters can only support 10. Some of these players are guys like Armando Benitez, for whom even making the ballot is an achievement.

Two other players with plausible cases were whittled off the ballot. Jack Morris had spent the maximum 15 years on the writers’ ballot without receiving 75 percent. Morris’s candidacy had been the subject of columns ad infinitum because, while the statistical case wasn’t quite there to be made that he was a Hall of Famer, many writers felt that he was somehow worthy despite these flaws because of certain intangibles.

The other was Rafael Palmeiro. The longtime first baseman for the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles was one of four players in baseball history to accumulate more than 3,000 hits and hit more than 500 home runs. But, after finger wagging testimony before Congress where he bragged about not using steroids, he tested positive in 2005. To this day, Palmeiro insists that he never juiced and simply took a tainted vitamin shot. But that positive test, combined with a career during which he never excelled but instead was simply good enough that he could accumulate counting stats, hurt him with voters. He fell below the 5 percent threshold to stay on the ballot this year, booted off after four years.

Despite the culls, as many as 19 players this year could be plausibly and solemnly argued for, and 14 of them will be still be on the ballot next year along with a whole new class of players including Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and John Smoltz.

The ten-vote maximum is likely to be changed for next year. After all, a number of writers are howling about it and it clearly serves as an obstacle in the current era of voting. But it doesn’t deal with biggest issues with the Hall of Fame. The multi-step process with baseball writers and then the Veterans Committee is model of obtuseness.

Entrusting the vote to newspaper writers may have made sense in 1936 when the Hall was founded but doesn’t 75 years later. Once writers have earned their vote, they get to keep it indefinitely. The result leads to laughable situations; three writers from have votes while the legendary Vin Scully, who has broadcast Dodgers games since they played in Brooklyn, does not.

The Baseball Hall of Fame inspires ardor and passion more than almost any other institution in the United States. Grown men who couldn’t name the most recent class enshrined in the football or basketball hall of fame can recite those first group inducted into Cooperstown in 1936 as easily as they can name their children (a task made easier if they have named their kids after Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson or Walter Johnson). The fierce fights inspired over debates about the relative merits of Tim Raines or Jack Morris have ended friendships and inspired full-fledged political campaigns. The Hall of Fame has a responsibility to get the process right, not just for players worthy of induction who are currently left out, but to a nation of baseball fans. It needs a process that works and uniform approach towards players linked with PEDs. The lack of it deeply wounds the Hall.

Editor's Note: a previous version of this article said Palmeiro tested positive in 1995, not 2005.