This article was written by Graham Womack
This article was published in The National Pastime: The Future According to Baseball (2021)
Mike Mussina’s induction was a clear sign that Hall of Fame voters had entered the twenty-first century. (NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME LIBRARY)
For an 82-year-old organization, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has remained surprisingly static in some respects. Baseball Writers Association of America members vote on recently-retired players, as the writers have done since the first Hall of Fame election in 1936. A small group of veteran voters meets privately to discuss older candidates, as has happened, at least more or less, since the beginning. The Hall of Fame also announced in 2016 that it would once more consider Negro League contributors, as either special committees or veteran voters had done for decades.
Through the different avenues, the Hall of Fame has enshrined 332 men and one woman, a pace of roughly four honorees per year. Cooperstown voters hit this pace in 2020, selecting a class of Derek Jeter, Marvin Miller, Ted Simmons, and Larry Walker that will be honored this fall, though it helps obscure the fact that no one was selected for 2021.
One would, of course, be foolish to chart the next 20 years for the Hall of Fame based on a quick look at its history. Particularly in the veteran voting department, ever-shifting historical changes promise a far-from-certain future, even in the near term.
But history also suggests that by 2040, the Hall of Fame shouldn’t have anything major to worry about. From the dozens of worthy contemporary players likely to come before the BBWAA and veteran voters in the next two decades to recent developments with the Negro Leagues that could bring new Hall of Famers to the fore, Cooperstown’s long-term future is promising.
BBWAA: POSSIBLE SLOWING IN STORE FOLLOWING A BIG SPIKE
It’s safe to say the pace of BBWAA inductions for the Hall of Fame has picked up in the past decade. From 1936 through 2013, the writers held Hall of Fame elections a total of 69 years, voting in 107 players through their normal process, three players through run-off votes, and two through special elections, according to data culled from Baseball-Reference.com. That averages out to 1.62 Hall of Famers courtesy of the BBWAA each year in that span.
Through good times and bad for baseball and the world, the writers have remained the driving force for most of the greatest contemporary National and American League players selected to the Hall of Fame.
Occasionally, an outstanding player the BBWAA seemingly should have inducted, such as Arky Vaughan, has slipped to veteran voters. Generally, though, the BBWAA has enshrined the best of the best, even if it sometimes has come close to the wire, such as 2011 when Bert Blyleven made it on his 14th try.
In 2013, however, the writers failed to vote anyone in. For whatever reason—and there are a number of potential reasons we’ll consider shortly—the BBWAA followed its blank slate in 2013 by voting in a startling 22 players over the next seven elections from 2014 through 2020, a pace of 3.14 annually, before declining to vote in anyone in 2021.
It’s definitely reasonable to look at 2013 for a possible explanation for the spike in BBWAA honorees for Cooperstown, as historically, goose eggs by the writers have seemed to spur immediate, trackable changes at the Hall of Fame. (It remains to be seen if the blank slate from 2021 will do this.)
In 1960, an empty induction class led to the Veterans Committee being allowed to resume voting annually after a few years of voting biannually. Then in 1971, the committee was allowed on a special, one-time basis to vote in seven members, a notoriously poor class that included Chick Hafey and Rube Marquard, weeks after the BBWAA voted no one in.
Certainly, a lack of honorees isn’t great for the village of Cooperstown, which counts on Hall of Fame Weekends for tourism dollars. All the same, that’s not the only factor that’s increased the pace of BBWAA inductees.
In July 2014, the Hall of Fame announced it would reduce the years players could remain on the BBWAA ballot for Cooperstown from 15 to 10. Since then, candidates like Walker, Edgar Martinez, and Tim Raines, who in years past might have slowly accumulated votes toward a Year 14 or 15 induction, instead saw their vote totals rapidly increase.
Walker, Martinez, and Raines also likely owe some of their rises to Ryan Thibodaux, who began tracking Hall of Fame votes in 2014. Thibodaux has done this by aggregating votes in a public spreadsheet, typically when a BBWAA member either published them in an article, tweeted them out, or emailed them directly to him.
Thibodaux’s work has arguably done a few things. For one thing, it’s allowed BBWAA voters to optimize their Hall of Fame ballots before sending them in, reminding them to vote for a candidate gathering momentum. This used to happen annually, though thanks to Thibodaux, it’s been occurring in real-time the past several years.
Thibodaux’s work has also coincided with some rough treatment of writers that occurs on Twitter when he shares questionable ballots and people who see the posts react. Far from being allowed to make their own decisions, Hall of Fame voters now face pressure to vote however people on social media want.
Some of this is not on Thibodaux, with yours truly even having participated in some Twitter rumbles over crappy Hall of Fame ballots long before Thibodaux’s tracker became ubiquitous. Still, the current climate for writers has led some to quit voting, with The New York Times offering a January 2021 piece headlined, “Hall of Fame Voting, Once an Honor, Is Now Seen as a Hassle.” The Hall of Fame has also culled voting ranks considerably in recent years, no longer taking votes from writers no longer actively covering the game. The most recent election had 401 voters, as opposed to 549 in 2015.
Those writers who’ve stuck around have been more willing to vote with the tribe. Between 1936 and 2013, the 107 players the BBWAA voted in through its normal process, not counting run-offs or special elections, received 85.1 percent of the vote in the years they were inducted and needed an average of 4.38 years on the ballot to get in. From 2014 through 2021, this shifted to 88.3 percent and 3.09 years respectively. Mariano Rivera also became the first-ever unanimous selection in 2019, with Jeter and Ken Griffey Jr. each falling just short in other years.
Speaking of Rivera, one would also be remiss to discuss the run of BBWAA selections for Cooperstown from 2014 through 2020 without discussing all the stellar candidates who hit the ballot in those years.
Of the 22 players the writers voted in, 13 were first-ballot selections: Tom Glavine, Griffey, Roy Halladay, Jeter, Randy Johnson, Chipper Jones, Greg Maddux, Pedro Martinez, Rivera, Ivan Rodriguez, John Smoltz, Frank Thomas, and Jim Thome. It’s arguably as superb a run of selections as Cooperstown has had since the late 1970s and early ’80s, when greats like Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and Frank Robinson were going in.
A possible slowing might be in store, though, with 2021’s goose egg a possible early signal. While some shoo-in candidates such as Adrian Beltre are due to soon become eligible, many of the big names, from Alex Rodriguez to Carlos Beltran, have at least one significant issue clouding their candidacy.
There’s also always the chance that work might wrap up for Thibodaux, who now has two children and three interns according to his Twitter bio. Whenever he decides to step away, it’s unclear who might succeed him. While Thibodaux’s not the first to track votes, he’s been by far the most diligent.
Whatever happens, the total of 134 BBWAA selections for the Hall of Fame over 77 elections suggests the writers will enshrine at least 33 players from their 2022 through 2040 elections. The 22 selections in the eight years Thibodaux has been active suggests the number of honorees over the next 19 BBWAA elections might be as high as 52 if he keeps up his work.
In either scenario, who the honorees might be remains to be seen. In his seminal 1994 book, The Politics of Glory, Bill James attempted to predict 20 years of inductees and included Ruben Sierra. My own predictions of this sort on my blog in 2014 included Jose Reyes.
Still, while these predictions look foolish now, it’s clear a good road lies ahead for BBWAA selections for Cooperstown. Too many fine players will hit the ballot between now and 2040, from Mike Trout to Clayton Kershaw, for there to be too much cause for concern.
VETERAN VOTING: AN EVER-CHANGING PROCESS
About the only thing that’s stayed consistent about the veteran voting process for the Hall of Fame over the years is that voters have had anonymity.
Seemingly from the time of the first one-off Veterans Committee election of 1936 to the ongoing process that began in 1953 to the different-name, similar-thing Era Committee setup in place since 2010, the Hall of Fame has allowed small groups of generally middleaged or elderly men to gather and debate for however long it’s taken each time to choose honorees.
While it’d be fascinating to know these conversations, the Hall of Fame swears members to secrecy and doesn’t publish full committee voting results, ostensibly to protect candidates who receive the fewest votes. Since 2015, I’ve aggregated the names of more than 2,000 veteran candidates since 1953 by going through news archives, though the Hall of Fame doesn’t keep this info handy for the public either.
It can be hard to know what goes on with the veteran voting groups at the Hall of Fame and harder to predict what they might do. That said, some general observable trends that have gone on long-term can help plot a course.
The first thing to know is that veteran groups at the Hall of Fame often consider the same candidates in different years, and occasionally these candidates get in. For instance, when the Veterans Committee voted in Deadball Era pitcher Vic Willis in 1995, it was at least the 23rd time going back to 1957 he’d been up for consideration.
Repeat candidates have continued to come before veteran voters in recent years. When Bill Dahlen received eight of 16 votes from what was then known as the Pre-Integration Era Committee in 2016, it was at least his 15 th time up for consideration as a veteran candidate going back to 1953. Miller got in on no less than his 12th try as a veteran candidate, dating to 2001.
Following Bill Mazeroski’s selection in 2001, the Hall of Fame stopped holding veteran voting annually. While it resumed this in 2008, the same era of veteran players hasn’t been considered in consecutive years since Mazeroski. Not surprisingly, the veterans went 17 years without inducting a living player before enshrining Alan Trammell and Jack Morris in 2018. Harold Baines and Lee Smith followed in 2019 and Simmons in 2020.
Clearly, the Hall has been making an effort to finally enshrine living veteran candidates and it’s good news for former stars like Dwight Evans and Dave Parker, who drew eight votes and seven votes out of a possible 16 respectively with the Modern Baseball Era Committee in 2020 and could look to build momentum to the dozen votes they need for enshrinement. It will be interesting as well to see what the committee does with Steroid Era candidates like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens if they can’t make it to 75 percent with the BBWAA.
Still, there have been limits to the uptick in inductions of living veteran players.
Hall of Fame expert Jay Jaffe alluded to one limit in a Baseball By the Book podcast with former Sporting News editor Justin McGuire and myself last year. Jaffe said that due to not wanting to meet via video conference during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Hall of Fame postponed the votes for the Golden Days and Early Baseball era committees that would have occurred last December.
This postponement had a quick consequence, with Dick Allen dying December 7. It was one day after veteran panelists would have voted on Allen for the first time since he missed induction by one vote with the then-Golden Era Committee in its 2015 election.
As of now, the Golden Days and Early Baseball votes, covering contributors who made their greatest contributions prior to 1950, or between 1950 and 1960, are slated to take place this fall. The Today’s Game Era Committee, covering 1988 to 2006, will next meet in the fall of 2022, while the Modern Baseball Era Committee, covering 1970 to 1987, next meets the year after that.
Given the Hall’s history of continually tinkering with the veteran voting process, it will more than likely do so again before 2040, though when this might occur is anyone’s guess.
Historically, the Veterans or Era Committee have enshrined roughly 25 percent more candidates than the BBWAA, with veteran voters putting in a total of 136 candidates in 62 elections since 1953, a pace of 2.19 annually compared to the writers’ average of 1.74 the years it votes.
These averages would suggest another 41 Era Committee candidates, approximately, could be going in the Hall of Fame over the next 19 years. That said, in the last 19 times the Veterans or Era Committee has met dating to 1999, it has enshrined a total of 33 candidates, not counting 17 Negro League contributors enshrined by a special committee in 2006.
The Hall of Fame had sought to close the book on Negro League inductions following the 2006 mass induction. However, after public outcry, they decided in 2016 to make Negro Leaguers eligible once every 10 years with the Early Baseball Era Committee.
Then last December, Major League Baseball announced Negro Leaguers from 1920 to 1948 would be given MLB status. This was followed by Baseball-Reference.com’s announcement June 15 that it had started to incorporate Negro League stats from those years into MLB numbers. While Negro League stats are still being found, the shift that’s occurring has momentous implications for Cooperstown’s future.
INDUCTION DAY 2040
One criticism people will sometimes level at the Hall of Fame is that it has become irrelevant because a selection they don’t agree with occurred. Someone once said this to me because of the enshrinement of Barry Larkin, a solid Hall of Famer by sabermetrics.
The truth, though, is that the Hall of Fame has survived every questionable induction from mediocrities like Tommy McCarthy to racists like Cap Anson.
And on a hypothetical induction day in 2040, Cooperstown is looking vibrant as ever. Four new selections stand on the dais, a recently-retired MLB star, two candidates in their 50s or 60s, and the relative of a long-dead Negro Leaguer selected due to research that has helped them be rediscovered.
On the dais with them, dozens of new Hall of Famers sit, tens of thousands of fans before them who’ve trekked to Cooperstown, a brutal pandemic and other domestic troubles long forgotten. It’s paradise if we can just get there.
GRAHAM WOMACK has written about baseball history for various publications, including The Sporting News, Sports Illustrated, and the San Francisco Chronicle. A Hall of Fame enthusiast, Womack has run a project several times at his website — baseballpastandpresent.com — asking people to vote on the 50 best players not in Cooperstown. Having been a SABR member since 2010, Womack lives with his wife Kate Johnson and their animals in Sacramento.
Associated Press, “‘Hall’ Voting Annual Now,” Oneonta Star (Oneonta, NY), 8, June 28, 1960.
Bloom, Barry. “Hall reduces eligibility from 15 years to 10,” MLB.com, July 27, 2014
Daley, Arthur. “Sports of the Times.” New York Times News Service. El Paso Times (El Paso, Texas), 15, February 2, 1971.
Darowski, Adam. “Hall of Fame Announces Changes to Era Committees,” HallofStats.com, July 23, 2016.
Draper, Kevin. “Hall of Fame Voting, Once an Honor, Is Now Seen as a Hassle,” The New York Times, January 24, 2021.
“Hall of Famers,” BaseballHall.org
James, Bill. The Politics of Glory. Macmillan: 1994.
Vote results for BBWAA for Hall of Fame accessed via Baseball-Reference.com