Thursday, January 10, 2013

6 changes the Baseball Hall of Fame should learn from the Vintners Hall of Fame

I am chairman of the electoral college of the Vintners Hall of Fame. Soon after taking the position in 2007, I helped developed its voting procedures, bylaws, etc. There's probably nobody in America currently more involved with the creation and changing of Hall of Fame standards than I am.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame was a huge inspiration for us. It's easily the most successful and important Hall of Fame in the world. People don't get anywhere near as passionate about the football Hall of Fame or basketball Hall of Fame.

Unfortunately the Baseball Hall of Fame has lost its way. This year, the strongest ballot of the last 75 years went to voters. It included the all-time home run leader, the best pitcher of our generation, the best-hitting catcher ever, an All-American guy with 3000 hits, and more.

Who got in? Nobody was elected. The Veterans Committee put in three obscure guys: A catcher who played before gloves were invented, and an owner and umpire who retired before television was invented. All three have been dead for more than 74 years. It's hard to imagine anyone going to Cooperstown, New York to see them inducted.

One thing I've learned at the VHF is that you can put great candidates in front of a group of voters, but you can't make them choose them. I thought Robert Parker belonged from the beginning but he wasn't elected until last year. Our entire nominating committee thought Eugene Hilgard was the single most important person not in the Hall for several years, but his work came nearly a century ago and voters kept ignoring him. So we created our version of baseball's Veterans Committee and put him in.

And we stopped there. We didn't usher in 30 19th century vintners that nobody today has heard of.

More importantly, we've never stopped inducting deserving candidates from the present. We don't allow individual voters to say, "All today's wines are on steroids. I'm sending in a blank ballot," and undermine other voters' choices.

When our voting procedures have unveiled flaws, we've changed them. The Baseball Hall of Fame just suffered the most flawed election in its history. It's time for it to make changes. This has been done many times in the past and it's necessary before the next ballots go out.

Here are 6 changes the Baseball Hall of Fame should learn from the Vintners Hall of Fame:

1) Don't limit the number of players someone can vote for


There were 37 players on this year's ballot, and I'd say 19 have legitimate arguments for the Hall. But each voter can only vote for 10. If voters didn't face this restriction, Craig Biggio would probably have gotten in this year, Jack Morris might have, and Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza would have had a shot. Next year, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas will split voters' loyalties even more, if the rules aren't changed.

At the Vintners Hall of Fame, we vote by acclamation. You can vote for as many candidates or as few as you like. This system, developed for wine competitions, works extremely well. People set their own cutoff point, without an artificial limit.

2) Don't count blank ballots

The purpose of voting for the Hall of Fame is to elect people, not to prevent their election. Blank ballots are sent in just to get attention for the voter. You could make an argument that there is a time for blank ballots, if there is a year when there are no good candidates. This is clearly not such a year, and there will not be such a year in the near future.

You can vote for nobody for the Vintners Hall of Fame. You might feel better, and you can blog about it to your heart's content, but you don't stop anyone from getting in.

3) Update the credentials of the voter list

This is the most important change the BBWAA needs to make. Currently, anyone who has been a member for 10 years can vote, whether they have written about baseball recently or not. Lots of older multi-sports columnists are sending in protest ballots that dilute the vote from the many writers who take the responsibility seriously.

At the VHF, we send ballots only to media members who have been writing or broadcasting about wine, including California wine, professionally for at least five years, and have done so in the last five years. We have no angry retiree voters. The BBWAA has a problem with those and needs to address it.

4) Allow Hall of Famers to vote

Who knows a Hall of Famer like another Hall of Famer? Are we really supposed to believe the main sports columnist for a paper in Utah or Connecticut, who writes about baseball only in October, knows more about the game than Frank Robinson or Andre Dawson or Rickey Henderson?

We don't know how the Hall of Famers would vote, but try sending them a ballot to find out. The writers just did the worst possible job, so it's not like the Hall of Famers could be worse.

You could separate the votes at first to see what would happen, and perhaps limit the number of people the Hall members could put in. Maybe they'd finally put Marvin Miller in; about time, after Bowie Kuhn and Jacob Ruppert. But give them a chance.

At the VHF, we put the Hall of Famers' votes together with the wine media's. It has worked out fine so far, but if that changes, we wouldn't be afraid to adapt.

5) Allow players to come back on the ballot

The Baseball Hall of Fame has various Veterans Committees that overrepresent certain eras (pre-1900s, 1920s, the Negro Leagues) and don't yet pay attention to players in recent memory.  

Part of the problem is the rule that if a player doesn't get 5% of the vote, he's off the ballot forever. Most of the time this is a necessary sweeping out of players who made it through 10 years in MLB but aren't true Hall candidates.

But some good candidates get dumped off forever before anybody notices. Kenny Lofton this year is one; maybe Bernie Williams too. My favorite example is Lou Whitaker, who I'm convinced dropped off the ballot after one year because he's a Jehovah's Witness.

Whitaker was the best player on the Tigers teams of the 1980s, better than Jack Morris, who might make the Hall, and Alan Trammell, who still has a shot. Look up the stats. But the press didn't like Whitaker, not because he was snarly like Lofton or Albert Belle, but because if he learned your home address, he sent Jehovah's Witnesses to try to convert you. This happened to me, and the other sportswriters laughed at me; they mostly avoided interviewing Whitaker. When the three Tigers came on the ballot, there was all-American athlete Trammell, tough guy Morris, and that Jehovah's Witness. I'll bet if Whitaker stayed on the ballot for three or four years, people would have gotten over their initial impulse to ignore him and realized that he belongs. If Morris belongs, Whitaker certainly belongs. But he got one shot, didn't get 5%, and was gone.

In our first years of balloting for the Vintners Hall of Fame we used a similar rule, with a sunset clause: people who didn't get voter support were off the ballot for three years. What went wrong is that we had too big of a ballot, exactly like this year's Baseball Hall of Fame ballot, and a lot of good candidates were banished prematurely. We got rid of the rule because it caused more harm than good.

Maybe the Baseball Hall of Fame could allow write-in votes for older candidates, and anyone who gets 5% by write-in gets another 5 years on the main ballot. That's a fairly tall order, 5% write-ins, but it would allow Bobby Grich and Joe Torre and Dwight Evans another chance to be considered.

6) Remember that the Hall exists more for fans than for inductees

Who cares about Deacon White, the only player put in this year?

Any baseball writer who's proud that the Hall voted in nobody should be stripped of his ballot. As a group, the BBWAA failed. Fans want to celebrate inductions.

I promise you this: As long as I am Chairman of the Vintners Hall of Fame Electoral College, we will NEVER have a year where we send out a ballot but elect no one. That would be saying that there is no one remaining who is worthy of induction. At that point we should close up shop and go home. I don't think that's what the BBWAA wants to do, but that's the message it just sent.

It would have been appropriate for the Baseball Hall of Fame's governing board to reject the BBWAA's results and send out another ballot, perhaps making some of these changes. Failing that, the Baseball Hall of Fame needs to make some of these changes by next year. We learned from them; it's time for them to learn from us.

The next Vintners Hall of Fame induction ceremony will be on Feb. 18, 2013 in St. Helena. Tickets are still available. Not only do we have bigger stars than the Baseball Hall of Fame this year -- we've got better food.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Patrick Frank said...

Hi Blake Do you mean that Baseball should have admitted Bonds and Clemens, when their achievements were made on the Juice?

W. Blake Gray said...

Patrick: I mean the Hall of Fame should have admitted someone from the most "juiced" ballot in the last 75 years. Someone. If you don't like Bonds and Clemens, what about Piazza? What about Biggio?

Matt J - Sacramento said...

Totally agree with you Blake. Baseball HOF voting has become a joke. There's those cranky old bastards who feel good about themselves by making sure no player gets unanimous approval during first eligibility. They're abusing power and a privilege with no consequential fear. These voters, who you'd responsibly expect to be serious baseball experts of both past and present, communicate to fans and the baseball world that the greatness of a Rickey Henderson or Griffey Jr. or Maddux does not qualify for the HOF. That's just sick. The voting system is archaic, silly and no longer legitimate. Seriously, how someone could not vote for Rickey Henderson (with his Babe Ruthian credentials and unequaled passion for the game)is mind blowing and insane. Getting rid of vote limits, not counting blank ballots, giving other HOFers a voice and cleaning up or qualifying voter eligibility would certainly improve the process. What crazy organization doesn't want to continually improve? Damn MLB...

And what's with this hypocritical standard they're measuring the steroid era players with? Are they planning on making sure these guys die before voting them into the Hall like what's probable with Rose? This isn't the grand 'ole game anymore. Baseball has been a business for a long time now. The types of players and athletes we have today (and 20 years ago) are very different than the guys who had jobs in the off season. Letting them into the HOF doesn't replace the players or the game of old or even tarnish a legacy. The HOF is a museum of different generations and eras and greats that all have a place in the game's history. If you leave these guys out of the HOF we're going to eventually forget a 20-30 year period of immense baseball importance - where the media and TV elevated sports to new cultural highs and financially the game and salaries became awesomely obscene. Where the great records were shattered and the fans one minute cheered and loved it and then the next they shamed it (but not themselves) for embracing the gaudiness and entertainment that PEDs delivered. This was also the era when baseball finally cleaned up its act and attempted to restore statistical legitimacy, level the playing field and promote individual health and safety above entertainment. A HOF without these guys would be an incomplete museum and a sweeping under the carpet of a time that we actually loved watching baseball. Many of the record holders played during these years and stats are as much a part of baseball as hot dogs and beer. You're going to leave out mention of all the "important" statistical record holders because they played at a time when 80-90% of the league was artificially supplementing their already super-human nutritional and fitness regimens? The league itself didn't even have a policy against PEDs - many of which could be purchased legally at GNC and vitamin stores. We hate steroids and PEDs but completely accept cheating in other ways--stealing signs or plays, corking bats, spiking/hurting players intentionally, home field landscaping, arm and leg padding, pine tar and spit balls, etc. George Brett is a first-ballot Haller and he was caught cheating during a game. The HOF is full of guys who were total scumbags on and off the field so where was their integrity standard during induction? The voters are valuing certain degenerate behavior (like alcohol or non-PED-drug abuse, womanizing, treating fans like crap) above steroid use. You could be widely considered the worst person in the world but you're a Haller if you could hit the crap out a baseball and we think or feel like you didn't use steroids. And all you folks that say "teach the kids a lesson" go ahead and explain to them how sometimes it's OK to cheat in sports and other times it's not. Ridiculous.

W. Blake Gray said...

Matt: Completely agree about the "no first ballot thing." And how about this: Why has nobody ever been elected unanimously? How is that a point of pride for the BBWAA?

What knowledgeable baseball fan would not vote for Willie Mays, Rickey Henderson and Cal Ripken? Some in the BBWAA did not.

Pinotgraves said...

How 'bout Megapurple as a DQ?