With all the talk about who should make it into the Hall of Fame this year, I decided to test an impression that I've had for years: that it was perhaps easier in past eras to make it into the Hall of Fame than more recently. I think the genesis of this thought arose while I was reading baseball books when I was a kid and saw some of the huge inductee classes of the 1930s and 1940s. Sadly, this is another time where the eyes did not get it right, but I found some of the trends that revealed themselves interesting. There are a few observations from that data, and from the history of Hall of Fame voting, that I thought I'd share. With Joe Pos, whose writing I generally think is up there among the best, stating that perhaps the Hall of Fame is too big nowadays, I think that what I've found might explain a few things about the manner of elections over the past few decades (ignoring for the moment that his article was likely satire). There are a couple of weaknesses in his argument, as are distilled below: the first being that modern standards for a 90% or 95% threshold would exclude every player inducted before the 1960s or 1980s, depending on which threshold is used, with the exception of Ruth, Cobb, Wagner, and maybe Christy Mathewson. It appears that in at least one sense when comparing Hall of Fame voting nowadays and in the distant past we are comparing apples and oranges.
I should point out that this data is little harder to distill than might at first be apparent, so a little description is in order. For example, taking the total number of inductees from year to year would make any player-based analysis impossible, as from 1937 to the present there has regular inclusion of non-players such as umpires, managers, executives, and so-called "pioneers." Often a person wore multiple hats, so I used the designation given for their induction (e.g. Whitey Herzog did play for a few years, but his lifetime .257 BA and 25 HRs didn't get him on the train to Cooperstown). A harder question came when dealing with the induction of Negro League players. There are three methods by which Negro League players have been elected. First there was a special Negro League Committee in the 1970s that elected nine Negro League players, many of whom, such as Satchell Paige, spent that waning days of their careers in the ML after integration. Second, the Veteran's Committee elected one player in 1987 and six more between then and 2005. Third, the Committee on African American baseball, via the Hall of Fame Board of Directors, elected 12 Negro League players and five Negro League non-players in 2006. Because the nature of Negro League inductions tend to skew the decade by decade analysis below, I limited this to ML players who were inducted on the basis of their ML play, not play in the Negro League or its predecessors. This doesn't mean that Negro League players are not worthy of inclusion, but the haphazard manner in which they were inducted, as well as the period during which they were essentially ineligible due to anachronistic social views, and that they have never been included in the BBWAA voting system, just means that for the purposes of comparing apples to apples that data doesn't work.
Notable is that observation that, working back in ten-year units from the 2011 induction class, that it does not appear to be harder to make Cooperstown via BBWAA voting now than in the past. In fact just the opposite is true: allowing for some variation due to the sample sizes the last ten years appear to be consistent with prior ten-year periods. The 1960s in fact yielded the fewest inductees per year, with the period from 1962-1971 only yielding 0.9 inductees per year on average, with every other ten-year period averaging between 1.3 and 1.9. The 1940s do have a small number, but it's likely that this was partly a result of the effect of World War 2 (in a number of the war years no one was inducted) and perhaps a hangover effect from the large classes that entered after the Hall was founded in the late 1930s. It's notable that, except for the 18-member 2006 class that, besides Bruce Sutter, was the result of the Committee on African American baseball, the two largest classes of ten apiece came immediately at the end of the war in 1945 and 1946, but in each case all ten players were elected by the Veteran's Committee, not BBWAA. Accordingly, I think the 1940s might be skewed downwards in terms of BBWAA elections and upwards in terms of Veteran's Committee elections. One thing I did notice is that in the past it appears that the BBWAA was more willing to let a year go by with no player inclusion. In the 1950s into the early 1960s there were a number of years in which no player was voted in by the BBWAA. This tapered in more recent decades and 1971 and 1996 are the last two years in which no one received the required 75% vote.
However, that does not mean that player induction classes have remained constant. Without regressing these numbers, the drop-off in Veteran's Committee elections of players in the past decade is clearly statistically significant. The Veteran's Committee went from voting in 24 players in the 1962-71 period to just one in the past decade (Joe Gordon, 2nd baseman for the Yankees in the 1940s, if you were wondering, and looking at his numbers it seems to me that this is arguable). This might not be surprising considering that the Veteran's Committee underwent significant rules and voting changes in 2001, which among other things eliminated annual voting. Or it might be that baseball, as a sport, is running out of retro. So the most significant observation over the past decade is that nowadays once a player is out of the BBWAA balloting, he's more likely to stay out because the Veteran's Committee appears to be focusing more on non-players and less on players who may have been overlooked by BBWAA for whatever reason. Accordingly, I think it's safe to say that BBWAA voting has become considerably more important in the past decade as Veteran's Committee player elections have declined to essentially nil.
After realizing that, I began to think about how BBWAA voting operated: if the Veteran's Committee has gotten stingier about allowing people in who missed the BBWAA cut, could it be that there were fewer close calls than in the past? And this revealed something interesting. Excluding three players from the inaugural Hall of Fame class in 1936 (Ruth, Cobb, and Wagner), no one prior to the 1980s had ever-yes, ever-gotten over 95% of the vote. Not Ted Williams. Not Stan Musial. No one. In fact, prior to the 1960s-with the same exclusion, plus Christy Mathewson in 1936-no one ever received over 90% of the vote. Instead, there were far more players who squeaked in just above the 75% line prior to the 1980s than in the last few decades. What we see in the 1990s is that there were a number of locks, a number of guys who squeaked by, and no one in the middle. The distribution looks like a "U." While this appears to have evened out in the past decade, with a players received votes ranging from just over the 75% mark up to over 95%, perhaps the continuing trend plus the distribution in the 1990s put less onus on the Veteran's Committee to right past wrongs regarding player statistics, and there were only two groups of players: those clearly worthy and those who made it but were subject to some disagreement.
At bottom I think it's clear that there has been a trend over the past number of decades towards consensus voting. This does not mean that there have not been controversial candidates, but there does appear to be fewer cases, by percentage of total players elected, of players who are controversial. I have no explanation for this, but it's intriguing to wonder if the more local nature of baseball in the past caused sportswriters to be less objective and more partisan towards hometown guys and more antagonistic towards those who played for other teams. Perhaps also the greater availability of statistics of greater or lesser value has made some choices clear without completely removing the tendency of sportwriters to vote by their gut.
At the end here, I'm going to be frank in stating that I have no idea what any of this means beyond conjecture. But I found this stuff interesting and hope you do as well.
For the record, which two players had the highest BBWAA election percentage of all-time? Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan, in that order. Man, I bet that any team that had those two together would never have gotten rid of both of them.
Oh wait. Crap.