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Latest HoF controversy: Nothing new here

National Baseball Hall of FameWith the election of four new inductees, the National Baseball Hall of Fame still managed to generate some controversy. But this is par for the course — and may be quieting down.

I went to an art gallery not that long ago. They had an exhibition by an artist — Canadian magic realist Rob Gonsalves — that I did not mind going out of my way to see. I found the gallery welcoming, loved and cared for by its curators. I might have stayed there for ten minutes, or it may have been an hour. Time passed away from the world.

The Baseball Hall of Fame is like this. Cooperstown is not on the route to anywhere else, requiring you to specifically figure out directions (and sometimes reservations) through the hills and beyond the lakes of central New York. The people who work at and around the Hall of Fame are by and large Cooperstonians or, at the least, familiar with the tucked-away nature of the region. They are happy to have you, to comfortably share with you all of the work they have put in to honoring and retelling the national pastime’s history. If only it was all up to them…but they do not handle the voting process.

January is an exciting but uncomfortable time of year for Cooperstonians. The announcement of the BBWAA’s latest round of Hall of Fame inductees raises a tempest of attention and discussion, some years worse than others. This year’s discourse may end up milder than most, thanks to the four incoming inductees. Pitchers Pedro Martinez and Randy Johnson are two giants of the game, the 6’11” Johnson a bit more giant than the slight Martinez, and they make for fine headliners. Their two counterparts bring areas of the country that admire them, with Craig Biggio is a hero of Houston, John Smoltz a hero of Atlanta.

There remained an undercurrent of discontent. The shadow and stigma of performance-enhancing drugs hung over the ballot. Barry Bonds was a generation’s greatest hitter and Roger Clemens its greatest pitcher, yet they were held fast in ballot limbo. Mike Piazza was the best offensive catcher the national pastime has yet seen and Jeff Bagwell one of the ten best first basemen in the game’s history, but PED rumors placed both below the cusp of the necessary 75 percent of the votes required. It is very likely that PED rumors and hearsay has also held down other candidates while at the same time diminishing fine career statistics.

Because of this, the ballot — limiting voters to ten votes maximum — has become jammed with compelling candidates. This concern was expressed most visibly by ESPN’s Buster Olney, who was concerned that the ten-vote maximum cost worthy players key support and chose to protest the process by not voting this year.

The Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), which determines the Hall of Fame inductees each year, responded with a small concession, voting in December to raise that maximum from 10 to 12. I suspect that this is far from enough to change a flawed process.

On the other hand, it does go along with a tradition of messy Hall of Fame voting, perpetually caused by a logjam and ending in a logjam.

To many of us, the Baseball Hall of Fame is the best Hall of Fame in sports. (That’s my opinion, and I suspect it’s also your opinion.) Yet while the fine folks of Cooperstown work away to deliver as warm and inclusive museum they can muster, their Hall has historically been associated nationwide with argument, trouble, and — worse — failing its mission to honor baseball history.

The BBWAA elected five Hall of Famers in the very first induction, held in 1936. A hop, skip, and a jump later, in 1939, they decided that they had no need to vote every year, but would instead meet every three years to take their vote. It was a terrible idea.

Three years later, in 1942, they elected Rogers Hornsby to the Hall of Fame. In 1945, they elected nobody. People were not happy. Looking back on that unsuccessful 1945 vote now is remarkable: the top 12 vote-getters all were eventually inducted, as were 19 of the top 20, 31 of the top 33, and 38 of the top 43. Lefty Grove, perhaps the greatest southpaw the game’s ever seen, finished 26th. And Joe DiMaggio, who was out fighting in World War II in the middle of his sterling career, received a vote from someone.

The BBWAA proceeded relatively reasonably for the next ten years or so, even as the Permanent Committee (forerunner to the Veterans Committee) did its darndest to put in every single remembered name from the game’s first half-century. Then in 1956, they decided that they were putting in too many guys and concluded that they should only vote every other year. This led to even worse publicity for the Hall, as the BBWAA proceeded to not induct a single soul from 1957-1961 before electing two fellows in 1962 (Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson), one gentleman in 1964 (Luke Appling), and one greatest hitter who ever lived in 1966 (Ted Williams). In case you were curious, 18 other players who received votes in 1966 have been subsequently elected.

Since 1967, the BBWAA has rolled right along, putting in a player or two each year with rare empty votes in 1971, 1996 and 2013. This keeps the logjam nice and firm for all of those wishing to see candidates 3, 4, and 5 get inducted. Think Carlton Fisk should go in? He can wait till his second year. Ryne Sandberg? Third year. Tim Raines? He can keep on waiting.

Here strikes the balance, with a variety of different Permanent Committees and Veterans Committees established over the years, ready to right the wrongs, give a double-check to those overlooked, and bring in a slew of candidates. (The seven inductees brought in during the 1971 Veterans Committee election provided a fine microcosm of how generous the committee could be.) Jack Morris provoked strong words from those both for him and against him, but, much like Phil Rizzuto several decades ago, a Veterans Committee panel should have Morris enshrined during the next decade.

The Hall of Fame as a destination represents many things: Oz to a fan, Carnegie Hall to a player, Mount Olympus to a BBWAA voter.

But to Cooperstonians, backing away from any hint of the tempest brought by “logjam” and “PED” talk, they can do only what they will: Stay warm through the cold New York winter, put their heart and soul into their exhibits and their galleries, and bring joy and warmth to those touring baseball fans looking to pass time away from the world.

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