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How Big Should the Hall of Fame Actually Be?

This afternoon, the results of the 2011 Hall of Fame voting will be announced. Spoiler alert – Barry Larkin is going in and no one else stands much of a chance. This is basically in line with recent precedent, where the Baseball Writer’s Association of America is relatively stingy with their election even when presented with multiple quality candidates. By and large, the 75 percent voting threshold for induction leads the BBWAA to be a de facto “small hall” organization, electing only the very best players of all time – and then a few players that the writers just have irrational affections towards.

In fact, of the 206 former players enshrined in Cooperstown, only 111 have been placed there by the baseball writers. Perusing nearly any year’s voting results at random will provide an example of just how stingy the BBWAA can be when it comes to voting. In the 1966 vote that I just linked to, 6.6% of the electorate didn’t cast a ballot for Ted Williams. Ted Williams!

Now, I’m not here to tell anyone what their personal Hall of Fame standard should be. If you feel like that the Hall should be reserved for just the absolute cream of the crop, that’s something of a personal preference. Likewise, if you’re more liberal in your interpretation of what a Hall of Famer should be, then that’s an easily defendable position as well. And, many of the arguments over whether the many players on the bubble should be elected or not basically come down to disagreements over personal preference for a “big hall” or a “small hall”. Big hall guys want Alan Trammell, Edgar Martinez, and Larry Walker elected, while small hall guys point out the valid flaws in their resumes. For players like that, the differences aren’t generally about the quality of the player, but about the standard that should be applied for election.

But, as was pointed out in a terrific piece by David Schoenfield last week, there is one organization whose opinion on the size of the Hall of Fame should probably matter the most – the actual board of trustees of the Hall itself. And they’ve made it fairly clear that they want a big hall of Fame.

To quote Schoenfield:

At the actual Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, there is no distinction made between means of enshrinement, no mention of vote percentage or years spent on the ballot. All Hall of Famers are equal, with a small plaque in the main gallery of the museum, ordered by year of election.

And thus the reality is that we have a large Hall of Fame, one encouraged by the board of trustees with its various incarnations of the Veterans Committee through the years. In so many words, it’s saying to the writers, “You’re not electing enough Hall of Famers; you’re too tough and we believe in a big Hall, so we want another means to elect players you missed.” When the Veterans Committee failed to elect any candidates from 2002 to 2007, the Hall revised the committee in attempts to get more inductees.

Several times throughout history, the BBWAA has become so stingy with their elections that trustees in Cooperstown have created or modified rules to essentially overrule the writer’s association and expand the pool of players getting enshrined. Part of this is clearly just good business, as the Hall relies on revenues produced during induction weekend. Electing players is good for the Hall’s bottom line, and they have a vested interest in ensuring a reason to throw a big party in upstate New York each summer. But beyond just the financial motivations, the Hall is also something of a steward of baseball history, and serves as an educational tool for future generations to learn about the game’s past.

A small hall simply narrows that history and encourages a tight focus on just a select few players. In any era, however, there are a lot of interesting players with varied careers who accomplished significant feats, and allowing visitors of the museum in Cooperstown to remember those players as well only serves to increase the exposure of the deep roots the sport actually has. The trustees aren’t just making a blatant cash grab when they try to encourage more inductions – they’re also promoting the sport in a way that is simply good for baseball.

I understand the perceived nobility of preserving Hall of Fame inductions for only the truly elite, but from a practical standpoint, nearly all parties involved are better served by big hall standards. I don’t want to cheapen the Hall of Fame either, but does anyone actually think any less of Babe Ruth simply because his plaque now stands in somewhat close proximity to Jim Rice‘s? Did Andre Dawson‘s enshrinement make Mickey Mantle any less great? We know that there are tangible negative effects associated with a lack of inductions, but I’m not sure I see corresponding consequences from having an inclusive Hall of Fame.

And so, for aesthetic and practical reasons, I’m a big hall guy. I’d vote for most of the bubble guys on this ballot – my actual ballot, if I had one, would be Bagwell-Larkin-Raines-Trammell-Martinez-Walker – and I’d argue in favor of future induction for guys who should have gotten in when they were on the ballot, such as Lou Whitaker. Giving these guys plaques in Cooperstown will attract people to the town for their induction ceremonies, expose more people to the broad and great history of the sport we all love, and, in my view, not cause any real harm to come on the Hall’s reputation.

To me, an inclusive hall is a better hall, and one I’d be more interested in visiting. I won’t begrudge someone who holds a small hall perspective, but I would ask them to perhaps consider to what end they’re in favor of exclusivity. What is the benefit of fewer people remembering how great Tim Raines really was?

In the end, maybe the best solution is removing the equality of the plaques. I don’t know that I want to turn the museum into an actual pyramid, but Bill Simmons may have been on the right track when he proposed a system of tiers. Instead of requiring 75% of the writer’s to simply vote yes with no distinguishing variables beyond that, perhaps the Hall could both become more inclusive and preserve the integrity of the “Greatest Of All Time” guys by separating elected players into tiers. Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Willie Mays get to hang out together in a special room reserved for only those who are legends of the sport. In another room, you can recognize the guys who reached historic milestones that are worth honoring. Another room could be reserved for guys who were great players for shorter periods of time, and whose peaks deserve recognition even if their career totals might not live up to historical standards.

After all, we all inherently know that all Hall of Famers are not equal. Perhaps splitting them into tiers would give us the ability to meet the practical needs that an inclusive hall serves without doing anything to degrade the accomplishments of the truly elite. It’s an idea worth exploring, at least.

But for now, I’d settle for the BBWAA just lowering their standards a bit. There are worthy players and many fan bases who are going to be disappointed this afternoon, and it doesn’t have to be that way.