Don’t villify the writers

It is an article of faith in the online baseball community that Barry Bonds, etc., got jobbed in this year’s Hall of Fame voting. Just look at the numbers, says the sabermetric orthodoxy.

And understandably so. Looking at numbers is what sabermetricians do. But these are not the people who vote on Hall of Fame membership.

Members of the traditional sports writing fraternity—who do vote—do numbers, yes, but are more inclined to look beyond them. Thus the brouhaha over this year’s election and its rejection of otherwise-qualified candidates suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs. And thus the overwhelming online condemnation of what the voters did (or didn’t) and why, in articles like this.

I have a foot in each camp. For some years now, I’ve been an editor here at The Hardball Times, working with smart people who massage statistics in ways I couldn’t have dreamed of in my long-ago life as a newspaper sports editor (and, briefly, a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America).

One thing I have learned is not to stereotype either camp. Baseball writers on the internet aren’t all geeks in their pajamas writing in their mothers’ basements, eschewing baseball tradition. Baseball writers in the press box are not all old fogies getting mustard all over their plaid sports jackets and refusing to recognize newfangled numbers.

The argument that reached its loudest point in this year’s Hall of Fame election cycle is familiar to anyone reading this. The electors are 10-year members of the BBWAA. The guidelines they get are open to wide interpretation:

“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.”

Nothing about how much weight to give each of those elements. Nothing about how to define any of them. And so, not surprisingly, the 500-plus BBWAA voters don’t all agree on how to apply these standards.

I think we’ve covered the major points on THT over the past few days: Chris Jaffe gave us the historical pattern of Hall of Fame voting and explained why this year is different. Jeffrey Gross made the case for Bonds, the most obvious left-out candidate. Today, Jason Linden sums up the argument that the “character” qualification is meaningless. And Dave Studeman, here and here, has urged that all those who care about baseball and the Hall of Fame take a fresh look at the whole selection system.

I’m not here to argue Bonds and PEDs, or RBIs vs. wOBA. Rather, I’d like to offer a little perspective.

There’s a BBWAA chapter in each major league city. The print beat writers who go (or in some cases used to go) to the games are members, and, after 10 years, have the opportunity to vote on Hall of Fame candidates. (Not all members vote. Some news organizations have decided, not unreasonably, that there’s an essential conflict in having people who cover the players participate in decisions that affect those players.)

The full membership requirements are in the BBWAA constitution. Essentially, you must be a beat writer, backup writer, columnist or sports editor from a newspaper or wire service that covers major league baseball on a regular basis. Membership has been expanded to include web sites on a case-by-case basis. No television or radio broadcasters have a vote.

Some of these writers are historians of the game. Some are students of its strategy. Some are working stiffs just happy to have a job in these troubled times in their industry. As is the case where you work, some are more diligent and knowledgeable than others.

Most love the game. Some can’t wait to get off the weird travel and hours of the beat so they can have a normal life. Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Some are quite good with numbers, believe it or not, but numbers are the salt and pepper that season each day’s game stories and most other newspaper baseball coverage. They’re not the meat. Newspapers tell stories. Newspaper baseball writers use statistics in aid of that.

So why has this exclusive little group, bound to get smaller under current rules as the number of daily newspapers shrinks, kidnapped the Hall of Fame admissions process?

MLB’s Diversity Fellowship Is a Step in the Right Direction
It is not a perfect program, but it certainly counts as progress.

Well, it hasn’t, exactly.

The system in place is legitimate in that it represents an old reality. Time was, as Jason Linden notes today, baseball beat writers for daily newspapers were the fans’ primary eyes on major league baseball. Only they saw all the games and all the teams (at least in their teams’ league). Then came locally televised games. Then came the national game of the week. And then superstations. And then came now, when, if you can’t find a ballgame on TV on a summer day, you aren’t trying, and when you don’t need the Cleveland Plain Dealer to find out Asdrubal Cabrera‘s batting average.

But the Hall of Fame didn’t see that future three-quarters of a century ago when it asked the people who watched baseball players for a living to choose the best of the best players to be honored. The BBWAA notes on its website:

“The board of directors at the Hall of Fame is responsible for choosing the best way to select honorees. Currently, they have decided that the BBWAA is the body best-suited to vote, but the Hall of Fame board is free to make changes as it sees fit.”

That’s the Hall’s decision. And the “… integrity, sportsmanship, character…” language is the Hall’s language.

If the Hall of Fame wants its honorees selected on the basis of statistics and nothing else, that’s easy. We have a dozen folks at The Hardball Times who, given an afternoon, could propose a credible formula defining a Hall of Fame player by the numbers.

I think most of us can agree, though, that a Hall of Statistics would lose some of the romance of what we have now. But once you move beyond mere numbers, you bring in subjectivity—opinion, interpretation. And that invites differences of approach, less so on what 300 wins means than on what “integrity” means, and “character.”

You can make a good case—as Dave Studeman has—that the process should be examined, overhauled, opened up, made to reflect 21st century reality. But don’t blame the people who have been asked to figure out how to do a vaguely defined job for doing just that.

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Joe Distelheim is a retired newspaper editor whose career included stints as sports editor of The Charlotte Observer and Detroit Free Press. He co-authored Cubs: From Tinker to Banks to Sandberg to Today.
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Let’s take out the writers that don’t take their job seriously.

Folks that voted for Aaron Sele or Shawn Green.  4 voted for Steve Finley.  6 for Julio Franco.  Who voted for Reggie Sanders?


walt kovacs
walt kovacs
a good 1/3 of the voters no longer cover baseball on a regular basis…some havent for a decade 3 cover golf one guy got angry at me when i pointed out that he hasnt covered the game in 6 years and said…“i go to every st and have attended the last 6 ws” so what? that isnt coverage…thats a hobby this person wrote a book on the impact of roids on the game that is filled with misinformation. yet he did note that the rise in offense could have been attributed to other factors during the era….oh, he sent in… Read more »
Bad Bill
Bad Bill
So which one of “record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions” covers “playing in an era when some other guys juiced, even though the player in question has never been credibly accused of it himself?”  Because that’s what some of the voters are using to justify not voting for Biggio, Schilling, Trammell, OR ABSOLUTELY EVERYONE ELSE ON THE BALLOT except the ones who are KNOWN to have juiced. This article is a copout, Joe, and I’m sorely disappointed with you for writing it.  What actually has happened is NOT that writers are interpreting the rules and priorities differently.  Instead,… Read more »
What would be nice is an examination of the real effects of steroids and PEDs and a real look into the offensive era. Oh wait, somebody has done that, but none of the writers are paying any attention or bringing this up for national discussion.  Eric Walker, of A’s and Sinister Firstbaseman fame, keeps up a website to sell his baseball analytics service and, first, he discovered that the offensive era looks like it was caused by a juiced ball (, and second, because people claimed he was wrong and started claiming steroids did certain things, he researched the heck… Read more »
Here is how I view this: the writers felt greatly embarrassed by the steroids era because they did nothing while it was going on, and thus many of them feel the need to punish the players who used or allegedly used PEDs. Instead of looking at what the evidence shows, which as Walker has nicely captured, shows that it was a juiced ball, not juiced humans, that contributed to the offensive era of baseball.  I think history will show the writers to be on the wrong side of history for not doing anything when clearly there was cheating (McGwire being… Read more »