About two decades before the birth of Jesus Christ, construction began on what some historians have called the first Hall of Fame. It was conceived of by the Roman Emperor Augustus as a way to honor his gods, his ancestors, and himself. Hardly discerning when it came to his statuary, Augustus loaded his personal Hall of Fame with 108 busts, some hauled back to Rome from far-off lands, others commissioned by Augustus himself, others yet commemorating military triumphs.
Earlier this month, the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown elected its 293rd member in Andre Dawson. He will have to make due with a bronze plaque instead of a full-on marble statue. At initial glance, 293 seems like a lot of members. After all, the history of baseball in America pales in comparison with that of conquests in Rome, and Cooperstown is in many ways more notable for the players it leaves out than the ones it admits.
This year, Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar found themselves on the cusp of entry, scraping in vain at the impregnable golden fences of Cooperstown. Next year, they should be admitted. But what makes the Hall of Fame dynamic – as an institution more than as an actual building – is the list of men left on the outside. The Hall of Fame is defined by that invisible line that separates the worthy from the unworthy. It is the line over which celebrated men like Marvin Miller and Buck O’Neill, Gil Hodges and Ron Santo can never cross.
The location of this line, this threshold, is hard to place. Once upon a time, it sat squarely between numbers. It sat between 499 and 500, between 299 and 300, between 2,999 and 3,000. Only certain circumstances – misdeeds, injuries, intangibles – could compromise the landmarks of greatness. But these are different times. Belief systems, like home run records, have been crushed beneath a type of deceit. Traditional statistics, once considered infallible measurements of performance, have been proven inadequate.
There are 539 Hall of Fame voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Aside from the broad and broadly-covered schism between old-school skeptics and sabermetric believers, that means 539 unique definitions of what merits Hall of Fame induction. Induction requires 75% approval, or 405 votes. Once eligible, players can remain on the ballot for up to fifteen years. This means time for voters to consider the legacy of a candidate as his career fades further into the rear-view mirror. For guys like Blyleven, who seems to be gaining momentum at the pace of a baseball rolling across a flat surface, it means annual near-misses, an extended human drama that feels destined to play out like the final scenes of an ancient tragedy.
This is why there needs to be some level of Hall of Fame voting reform. Not just for poor Blyleven, for whom induction would mean so much at this point, but for all of us. The Hall of Fame is supposed to be a celebration. It’s supposed to be nostalgic and it’s supposed to make us happy. We want to see our heroes in tears on that podium for their final moments of glory. We want to remember what it felt like to watch them play and win and lose.
I don’t know what I’d prescribe to fix the Hall of Fame voting process, but I know this. I would let more people in. I would ease the restrictions. I would welcome more players and more managers and more executives and more ambassadors. Not a lot more, but a few more; some of those legacies stranded right outside the gates would be granted admission.
As it stands now, the voting process is entirely subjective. There are no statistical requirements for entry, no thresholds that need to be reached. There are just those 539 writers and the meager check and balance of the Veterans Committee (an essay for another time). If it were otherwise, if this were a Hall of Greatness or Hall of Merit, then Bert Blyleven would have already been admitted, and the whole conversation would be moot.
But it’s a Hall of Fame. And that’s a different thing. With a Hall of Fame, the stakes are basically non-existent. Is Mickey Mantle’s presence in Cooperstown really soiled by Bill Mazeroski’s? There need be no statistical formula for inclusion. We have our hearts and our imaginations and the whole point of the institution is to please us, the baseball fans who trek to upstate New York, and pass hours arguing about it. So why not ease the standards, ease the frigid self-righteous shrieking over whether an excellent player (anybody whose even part of the conversation is an excellent player) is or isn’t quite deserving enough?
How could this be accomplished without creating a Hall of Mediocrity, or a Hall of Cora Brothers? There are a few possibilities that immediately come to mind. One option is to simply lower the 75% threshold used by the BBWAA, perhaps even to a more sane 70%. Another would be to introduce an element of controlled fan voting. I realize that some fans hate All Star voting because they believe average folks aren’t smart enough to know who the best second baseman in the NL in a given year is, but the fans are what powers baseball. As a single component of a larger formula, fan voting could bring a new dynamism to the process. A third option would be to introduce appeals processes, so certain candidacies could be resurrected.
I don’t know how much thought Augustus put into the statues in his forum. It is very possible that he argued for hours with advisors over whether to include a 109th statue, or whether a certain ancestor or general was being unjustly excluded. But honor and glory are not finite substances of which we could run out. Even with a slightly-expanded Hall of Fame, there will be emotional induction ceremonies and heated arguments over who deserves admission. It’s just that if we open the gates to Cooperstown just an inch or two wider, there will be more joy, and isn’t that the whole point?