Forgive me for a second while I say something that just might blow your mind. Please don’t take it personal: every year, the writers get the Hall of Fame vote wrong.
Like I said, don’t take it personal. This is not a call to take the vote away from the writers. And it’s not a call to give the vote to the stat-heads. And this is not a response to the Jon Heyman-vs.-the-world Twitter-spat from last night (of which I partook somewhat). This is just an observation: every year, the Hall of Fame vote is wrong.
Yes, I understand the subjective nature of the Hall of Fame. I actually love that about the institution. The debates on the merits of players like Edgar Martinez and Andre Dawson and Dale Murphy are some of the most fun that you can have as a fan (for the record, those three are: above the line, at the line, and below the line, respectively). But just because there is some room for debate every year, that doesn’t mean that the voters cannot be flat-out wrong.
This shouldn’t really be all that bold of a statement. Just this last year, for example, there were 28 voters who did not place Rickey Henderson on their ballot. I’m sure if you asked each of them individually what their reasons were, they’d be able to give you some sort of justification for it that they believe in (assuming they didn’t tell you that they just “forgot” to mark his name). That’s all well and good, and many people might even defend those voters’ right to have a different opinion, but, the truth of the matter is, Rickey Henderson is the very definition of a Hall of Famer and those who did not vote for him are plain wrong. It might be harsh, but it’s true.
And what about the six voters who didn’t vote for Tom Seaver in 1992? Or the nine who didn’t vote for Hank Aaron in 1982? Willie Mays? Ted Williams? Babe Ruth? No one has ever been a unanimous choice and, when you’re talking about the five, ten, or even twenty-five greatest players ever, that is a mistake, pure and simple.
But not every player deserves to be a unanimous selection, and not every mistake is of that nature. The other most common mistake that you’ll find in the Hall of Fame voting year-in and year-out is the failure to elect a clear Hall of Famer. For some reason, there is a certain population of Hall voters who have made a distinction in their minds between regular Hall of Famers and “first-ballot” Hall of Famers. And when one of these voters comes across someone who they feel belongs among the former but not the latter, they do the most asinine thing imaginable: they leave that player off their ballot, with the expectation of voting for him the next year.
The strict first-balloters aren’t the only reason the Hall of Fame vote is wrong every year, of course, but they certainly don’t help. The main reason is too hard to pinpoint. It’s more a collection of the writers’ foibles than anything else: voting for players they like and not voting for players they don’t; voting for players based off of nebulous concepts like “grittiness” and “fear”; failing to account for league, ballpark, and era adjustments; relying on poor memories or magnifying minor gaffes; or just plain not putting enough effort in making their choices. It’s the nature of giving a subjective ballot to 400+ people of different ages, generations, attitudes, and experiences, I suppose. Human nature or not, though, it is wrong.
Let’s take a look at the Hall of Fame voting from the early-1980s as an example.
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In 1981, the voters elected Bob Gibson into the Hall on his first ballot. In ’82, they added Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron on their first ballots, and, in ’83, it was Brooks Robinson (first ballot) and Juan Marichal (third ballot). In 1984, Luis Aparicio, Harmon Killebrew, and Don Drysdale all finally made it into the Hall.
Few people seem to disagree with any of those choices these days, if at all. I suppose Drysdale and Aparicio might be viewed as weaker Hall members than Gibson or Aaron, but only the staunchest “small Hall” supporters would be too upset with their inclusions. If we can accept these eight players as absolute Hall of Famers, then we must admit that the vote was objectively wrong each year from ’81 to ’83 (and any other years the non-first balloters were on the ballot). The only way the vote could have been correct those years is if each of these Hall of Famers were chosen the first time they were on the ballot. Just because Juan Marichal had to face Bob Gibson on his first ballot and Frank Robinson and Hank Aaron on his second didn’t make him any less of a slam-dunk Hall of Famer. It gets even worse when you consider that Billy Williams and Hoyt Wilhelm were also toiling away on those same ballots. And this happens every year.
I’m not trying to argue that players must get elected when they first appear on the ballot, or that voters who miss out on the Juan Marichals and Harmon Killebrews in their first few elections are idiots. And, like I said before, I’m not saying that writers shouldn’t have the vote, or that stat-heads are somehow better qualified. All I’m saying is that, no matter how seriously voters take their ballots or how diligently they work on getting it right, mistakes are going to be made, and not just of the subjective nature. No one should be surprised by this.
In fact, everyone involved – the voters, the fans, the players – should expect it and, more importantly, should welcome the discussion. As long as voters are open to hearing critiques of their votes and to listening to opposing points of views, and as long as fans are willing to intelligently and politely offer those critiques and arguments, these mistakes can be rectified. But no one should ever assume that their vote is perfect or that the Hall class for that year is complete. It’s when people think like that that bad things happen.
So, if we can all just remember and accept that the Hall of Fame vote is wrong every year and then strive to make it better, we just might succeed. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?