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Halls, Hallowed

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The Baseball Hall of Fame rule changes underscore just how antiquated and convoluted the voting process is.

Jim McIsaac

You could say that the Baseball Hall of Fame is broken, but that would assume it ever worked. It functioned, certainly, but in the manner of faulty plumbing your dad "fixed" with electric tape and pipe cleaners. It was an arrangement not designed to handle stress.

Much was made of the Hall's hasty announcement over the weekend of changes in its voting policies, the biggest being its reducing of candidates' eligibility from 15 years to 10. It was widely assumed this was done to prevent players from the so-called Steroid Era from ever getting in, so much so that the Hall's chairman of the board, Jane Forbes Clark, had to explicitly state this was not the reason behind its decision.

On its own, this rule change certainly looks like a way to punish candidates such as Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds by giving them less time on the ballot, and thus less time for their "crimes" to diminish in the eyes of voters. But the Hall announced some other significant changes to its election process that, when viewed along with the eligibility adjustment, seem less a slap in the wrist to former players than they are to voters. These changes also underscore how antiquated and convoluted the whole process is.

In the wake of the Hall of Fame's announcement, most Hot Takes focused on the eligibility changes. Far less was made of the Hall's simultaneous decisions to require voters to fill out a registration form when submitting their ballot and sign a code of conduct, along with a delineated prohibition against transferring one's ballot. This is clearly a reaction to Deadspin's purchase of Dan Le Batard's HOF votes in 2013. When explaining the sale of his ballot, Le Batard stated he did so to "draw attention to how ridiculous the Hall of Fame elections have become."

The Hall responded by stripping away a good deal of power from its corps of voters—not just Le Batard (banned from HOF voting for one year), but from the entire Baseball Writers Association of America. Revealing the names of all BBWAA members who voted will force those who once preferred the cloak of anonymity to incur the wrath of angry baseball fans demanding to know exactly who didn't vote for Candidate X, and why. Reducing the number of years players are eligible also reduces writers' ability to lobby for their pet candidates. Campaigns like those in the last decade that eventually helped elect players such as Jim Rice and Bert Blyleven would be severely curtailed.

That the Hall would take aim at its own voters in such a fashion only reinforces Le Batard's point. The Baseball Hall of Fame exists through a series of informal agreements that only have the air of permanence due to the passing of time. Once these informal agreements are tested, they prove as strong as the paper they're not printed on.

It's important to note that the Baseball Hall of Fame is a private institution, one with no official affiliation with Major League Baseball itself. The Hall began in the 1930s as an idea to capitalize on the recently propagated myth of Abner Doubleday's invention of baseball in order to lure tourists to Cooperstown, New York. Founded on a wink and a nudge, it "elected" 20 notables before opening an actual physical Hall in 1939, at a time when the National and American Leagues still conducted their business in a manner closer to rival companies than partners, and thus were in poor position to assert authority over the Hall's activities.

The Hall's association with the BBWAA began in largely the same way. In 1939, radio was still a newfangled medium and most people got their sports news from the dailies. The BBWAA was therefore the only entity close to being qualified to fill out Hall of Fame ballots, and so its membership, comprised almost entirely of newspaper writers, was invited to vote. Apart from requiring voters to be BBWAA members in good standing for 10 years, the Hall made virtually no demands on the organization and relied on it to police its own membership.

During the FDR administration, when a firm handshake landed you a job and 5 cents bought you a five-course meal at Delmonico's, such tip-of-the-cap arrangements could fly. The problem is that these same arrangements are in place in the 21st century.

It's irrelevant to discuss whether MLB wants to keep players like Clemens and Bonds out of the Hall, or whether they'd want to speed the induction of players like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, because MLB has no power over the Hall. It's similarly pointless to consider the Hall's stance on the Steroid Era, or any other topic, because it too is largely powerless when it comes to judging who is plaque worthy.

The Hall has invested its voting power in an entity that seems committed to anachronism. Not a single broadcaster—people whose jobs require watching and describing every play of all 162 games—has ever voted for the Baseball Hall of Fame because the BBWAA won't accept members who work in radio or television. This fact holds blatant disregard for how the sport has been enjoyed by most fans since World War II. Writers who toil online are being welcomed in now, but at a glacial pace. That means Hall of Fame voters are disproportionately represented by writers who work in newspapers, a medium that holds less relevance to the average fan each day.

Then again, the BBWAA has no responsibility to alter its idea of itself as a writer's guild just because the Hall of Fame wants it to. It's not the BBWAA's fault that the Hall invested voting power in it and it alone. There is no reason the Hall can't extend voting privileges to other entities. There is also no reason that MLB can't assert more oversight on an institution that purports to represent its history. But the weight of tradition and precedent makes it seem unlikely such sweeping changes would be implemented any time soon. Meanwhile, attendance at the Hall continues to drop as the 35-and-under set find it holds none of their memories.

The aftershocks of the Steroid Era continue to threaten the informal triangular arrangement between MLB, the Hall of Fame, and the BBWAA. Before long, it's doubtful anyone will care what happens to them. If an irrelevant institution falls and no one's around to hear it, does it make a sound?