Removing Cooperstown’s crazy rules

My new book, Cooperstown at the Crossroads, offers a nine-point plan to reinvigorate the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (The book is now available from Niawanda Books.) I’m going into detail about each of my nine proposals on successive Fridays in this newsletter. Today — Point No. 3, a streamlined system.

The Hall of Fame has cocooned its voting system in a crazy quilt of rules and regulations:

  • A player must have been an active big leaguer for a minimum of 10 seasons to be certified as a Hall of Fame candidate.

  • He must have been retired for five years to become eligible for consideration by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).

  • He must receive at least 5 percent support from the writers to qualify for the subsequent year’s ballot.

  • If he is not elected to the hall, he cannot appear on more than 10 ballots before his case is shunted to an Era Committee.

Few of these rules are logical. Not one of them is necessary. Let’s consider them case by case.

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The Hall of Fame has been willing to play fast and loose with the 10-season requirement on occasion. Ross Youngs fulfilled it in a technical sense, though only if his seven-game debut in 1917 counted as a full year. The Veterans Committee inducted him in 1972 after ruling that Youngs had indeed participated in “10 league championship seasons.” Addie Joss pitched nine years for Cleveland before being felled by tubercular meningitis in 1911. The committee remained eager to admit him, so the hall’s board simply granted a waiver in 1978.

Other players have entered the plaque gallery despite relatively short periods of success, with Sandy Koufax a prime example. “My career lasted 12 years,” he once said, “but only six were good ones.”

Koufax’s excellence was undisputed, though the same couldn’t be said of other short-timers. Tommy McCarthy — the quality score’s one-point wonder — spent 13 years in the majors, though he played at least 130 games in only five of them. Chick Hafey was a step worse in his 13 seasons, topping the 130 mark only four times. And Hack Wilson’s 12-year career included six of fewer than 120 games.

If the hall hasn’t demanded a full decade of excellence from all of its current members, why should future candidates be held to such an arbitrary standard? Cooperstown should open its doors to any player who is capable of attracting support from three-quarters of the voters, no matter how long (or short) his career.

The five-season retirement rule seems equally unnecessary. Babe Ruth was elected to the hall in 1936, just a year after his final at-bat. Joe DiMaggio, Carl Hubbell, and Mel Ott spent only three years as retirees before being inducted, back when restrictions were looser than today’s. Immediate waivers were granted to Lou Gehrig after the onset of his fatal illness and Roberto Clemente after his death in a plane crash.

The voters didn’t require five years of detailed study and rumination before electing these six superstars. Their brilliance was undisputed. Just look at their quality scores, all solidly in the excellent range. Only one of these early arrivals finished below 78 on the QS scale — Clemente at 69 points — and his career was cut short while he was still batting at a .300 clip.

Six players received votes from more than 98 percent of the writers during the past quarter-century. What purpose was served by making Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr., Ken Griffey Jr., Mariano Rivera, and Derek Jeter cool their heels for five years after hanging up their cleats? What new information about their careers was unearthed during those half-decades? You know the answers.

The 5 percent threshold was instituted in 1979 to clear deadwood from the ballot. It proved to be overly effective, not only removing minor candidates, but often wiping out contenders who were promising, yet slow-blooming.

This side effect was entirely predictable. Ninety-three players had been inducted during the three decades (1949-1978) prior to the threshold’s implementation. Precisely one-third of those candidates — 31 — received fewer than 5 percent of the BBWAA’s votes at some point during the 30-year span, yet all of them joined the plaque gallery in due course.

Twenty-six eventually took the committee route, but the other five gradually accumulated the votes of 75 percent of the writers. Luke Appling, for instance, started with 0.8 percent and 1.2 percent support in his first two elections. He was approved by the BBWAA a decade later. Ralph Kiner made a 15-year trek from 1.1 percent in 1960 to 75.4 percent in 1975.

If the 5 percent threshold had existed in their time, Appling and Kiner would have been wiped from the BBWAA’s ballot the very first year.

That’s precisely what happened to third baseman Ron Santo, who was disqualified after his 1980 debut at 3.9 percent. A small group of writers campaigned persistently for Santo’s reinstatement, arguing that a player of his quality deserved another chance. The hall capitulated in 1985, restoring Santo and another 10 eliminated players to the ballot. Santo finally earned his place in Cooperstown in 2012. Two of his reinstated colleagues, Dick Allen and Curt Flood, have a chance of joining him in the 2020s.

No lesson was learned from this debacle. The hall has opted to retain the 5 percent threshold, even after it temporarily derailed another pair of eventual Hall of Famers, Ted Simmons and Harold Baines.

An enormous eligibility window for BBWAA elections — 25 years — was implemented in 1957. This rule stipulated that a candidate would join the ballot five years after the end of his playing days, and he would remain on it for a quarter-century, unless (of course) he was inducted in the meantime. An unsuccessful contender wouldn’t be transferred to the Veterans Committee’s purview until he had completed 30 years of retirement.

The hall’s officials eventually came to consider this window too generous, so they trimmed it to 15 years as of 1963. And that remained its length until July 2014, when it was shortened to 10 years, effective in 2015.

Jeff Idelson, the hall’s president as of 2014, defended the reduction. “It’s become evident, especially over the past 30 years or so,” he said, “that the likelihood of election after 10 years is incredibly minimal.”

Which is absurd, of course. A dozen players — not an insignificant number — clawed their way through 11 elections (or even more) before securing the writers’ approval. Bill Terry (1954), Rabbit Maranville (also 1954), and Bert Blyleven (2011) reached 75 percent on their 14th attempts. Red Ruffing (1967) and Jim Rice (2009) needed 15 years apiece. Dazzy Vance (1955) finally broke through in his 16th election.

The real reason for the shortened window was transparent. The hall wished to rid itself as quickly as possible of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and other alleged steroid abusers. “Deadlines are a good thing,” BBWAA president LaVelle Neal III said in defense of the change. That’s true to a point, of course, but a deadline that is too short will inevitably force the elimination of worthy candidates. Ten years is too short.

It’s time to jettison all of these rules, thresholds, and floors.

Here’s a streamlined process that has logic in its favor: Every player will become eligible for the BBWAA ballot 20 years after his first big-league game. Every manager, executive, or umpire will qualify for consideration 20 years after the beginning of his professional involvement with baseball.

It doesn’t matter if a prospective candidate is still active. If he reaches his 20th anniversary, he will automatically become eligible for the hall. Albert Pujols would have qualified on April 2, 2021, the day he started his 21st year in the big leagues, thereby putting him in line for 2022’s ballot. We know — everybody knows — that Pujols is destined for Cooperstown. Imagine the excitement if he had been elected to the hall while still playing for the Cardinals.

The benefits to baseball are obvious, the harm is nonexistent. Was the hall injured when an inducted manager, Tony La Russa, returned to the dugout with the White Sox in 2021? Of course not.

Eligibility will be open-ended. If the Selection Committee wants to debate the merits of Ross Barnes or Bobby Mathews, a couple of solid players whose careers ended before 1890, it will be free to do so. If it wishes to consider active veterans who have reached the 20-year mark, it can do it. Anybody who was connected to major-league baseball for at least 20 years — no matter when — will swim in the pool of possibilities.

But we can’t conduct an open vote on the thousands of players, managers, executives, and umpires who are theoretically eligible. The result would be chaos. That’s why a screening subcommittee will be assigned the task of nominating a maximum of 20 candidates for each annual election.

Recent Hall of Fame ballots have contained as many as 37 names, even though relatively few were serious contenders. The 2019 election, for example, featured 35 candidates. Nineteen received less than 10 percent support; 11 didn’t draw any votes at all. The subcommittee will avoid such sideshows.

Each year’s ballot will be constructed anew. If a contender falls just short of induction, the subcommittee might allow him a return engagement the following year, though it will not be required to do so. The panel also will be allowed to reinstate a candidate to the ballot after a hiatus of one or several years.

The 99 Selection Committee members, as a result, will make their choices each year from a list of candidates who possess strong credentials, encompassing a wide range of positions and eras. Quite an improvement from the current situation.

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