In the 1930s, baseball analysis was still in its infancy. The average fan didn’t have access to even a tiny fraction of the information that’s freely available today. The writers, the men who had dedicated their careers to following and understanding the game, were the only viable choice to choose its immortals. Thus, the founders of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum handed the keys to the BBWAA, for good or for ill.
On that initial 1936 ballot, the writers did quite well. They chose Babe Ruth, the greatest hitter in the history of the game, Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop, and Ty Cobb, who was widely held to be the greatest all-around player. They also picked Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson, who were to that point probably the greatest pitchers in history. (Johnson in particular is still widely held to be the greatest pitcher of all time.)
The writers picked three more greats – Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Cy Young – in 1937, another – Grover Cleveland Alexander – in 1938, and four more – George Sisler, Lou Gehrig, Eddie Collins and Willie Keeler – in 1939. So far, the BBWAA had done a fine job, although dozens of other tremendous players from baseball’s first few decades had yet to be inducted.
Then the writers basically stopped letting anyone in. No elections were held in 1940 or 1941. In 1942, they elected Rogers Hornsby, one of the greatest hitters of all time. After another three-year wait, they elected no one in 1945 and no one in 1946. During that time, the BBWAA failed to honor many, many great players; it fell to various committees to pick up the slack.
The 1947 ballot saw another big class of BBWAA inductees, and it was a good one. Lefty Grove, also arguably the greatest pitcher of all time, was inducted, as was the excellent Carl “Meal Ticket” Hubbell. The two position players selected were Frankie Frisch, probably the third- or fourth-best second baseman to that point in history, and Mickey Cochrane, an outstanding catcher.
The 1948 ballot was… not so great. The writers elected Pie Traynor, who at the time was widely considered the best third baseman ever – not a terrible choice, even though he looks much less deserving in the lens of history. They also elected Herb Pennock, who’s an absolute head-scratcher of a choice. He won “only” 241 games – a healthy total, but well below the standards set by the writers’ previous picks – and his 3.60 ERA was only barely better than average for his time. This was while all-time greats like Charlie Gehringer, Paul Waner and Jimmie Foxx were still on the ballot.
Pennock would be the first of many questionable selections by the writers.
By this point, the BBWAA’s pattern was more or less set. They would induct the obvious players, though sometimes not without difficulty – Gehringer, for instance, needed a run-off election to make it in 1949. Over the years, they elected such greats as Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays on the first ballot – or more recently, if you prefer, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson and now Maddux. I’m not inclined to give the writers much credit for those selections; any fan could have picked those guys.
No, the writers were chosen as a voting body because they had an uncommon degree of expertise. They weren’t selected to judge the obvious guys; they were selected to judge the players on the Hall’s fringes. In that respect, the BBWAA has been, at best, mediocre.
For instance, in 1954, the writers picked Rabbit Maranville, who was (and remains) likely the worst shortstop in the Hall of Fame. Arky Vaughan, who was probably second only to Wagner at the time, got just 0.8 percent of that year’s vote. Vaughan never did make it in on the BBWAA ballot; the Veterans Committee elected him posthumously in 1985.
In 1987, the BBWAA elected Jim “Catfish” Hunter,* a man who had three very good years and was essentially average for the rest of his career. He’s on the short list of worst pitchers in the Hall of Fame. Hunter’s contemporary Luis Tiant, a clearly superior pitcher by every measure, never made it even halfway to the 75 percent threshold to get in on the writers’ ballot. At 73, he’s still waiting for the call from Cooperstown.
*Apparently, having an animal-based nickname carries a lot of weight with the writers.
In 2001, Lou Whitaker, the great Tigers second baseman, fell off the BBWAA ballot in his first year of eligibilty. Four years later, the writers elected Ryne Sandberg, an almost identical player statistically, in his third year on the ballot. Unlike Maranville and Hunter, Sandberg is a deserving choice, but it’s utterly absurd that Whitaker isn’t in there with him.
In 2009, the writers elected Red Sox slugger Jim Rice in his final year of eligibility. His longtime teammate Dwight Evans, a superior all-around player, lasted just three years on the BBWAA ballot, topping out at 10 percent of the vote.
In all four of these cases – and there are many more – the writers selected the more famous player, not the more deserving player. Maranville was beloved as one of the game’s most unique characters in his day; Vaughan was surly and withdrawn. Hunter was fantastically well-known because he had one of his best seasons in New York and two more on some high-profile Oakland squads; Tiant toiled in relative obscurity and only twice pitched in the postseason. Sandberg was the face of the Cubs franchise throughout his career; Whitaker wasn’t even the best player in the Tigers infield (his double play partner, Alan Trammell, is shaping up to be another big miss by the writers). Rice was a feared slugger; Evans was an all-around contributor whose top skills, outfield defense and drawing walks, were largely overlooked.
In other words, when it comes to borderline candidates, the writers have largely picked the same guys the average fan would pick.
One of Neal’s criticisms of Le Batard’s actions was that he gave his vote to an entity that has not “earned” voting status. I’d argue that even if individual writers have “earned” their status with 10 years of membership, the BBWAA as a whole has not “earned” anything. The writers got the vote by default in 1936; since then, they’ve done a borderline-acceptable job. That’s about it.
If Hall of Fame voting is the ultimate privilege, we should expect more consistency and better accuracy from the group entrusted with that privilege.