Henning: Hall of Fame vote was a disaster; simple remedies can cure Cooperstown’s ills

Detroit News

Lynn Henning
 
| The Detroit News

Whether one, three, five, or 10 men deserved to be knighted Tuesday with a winning Baseball Hall of Fame vote is a matter that can be chewed upon at length. Or, at least until next December when another round of hot-burner baseball banter renews.

What can’t be refuted, not defensibly, is that someone — someone from a cast of exceptional big-league stars — should have gotten that blissful phone call Tuesday informing them they have a date this summer at Cooperstown, New York.

Instead, it was a shutout. And what a tragic waste of time this year’s Hall of Fame balloting proved to be.

Barry Bonds deserved to win, of course. Roger Clemens did, as well. So did Curt Schilling, the man with a blighted philosophy about various human beings and society’s responsibilities to justice and equality. If the Hall of Fame is about extraordinary baseball performance — and that was its founding value and its sustained mission— then Schilling deserved his plaque, regardless of some specious “character clause” that wasn’t uniformly applied in past generations and isn’t, frankly, of great relevance to enshrinement in 2021. Not unless hypocrisy is to be made into an even larger wing of baseball’s supposedly hallowed museum and shrine.

There were others who could have gotten that same happy call Tuesday. Nothing empirical here, plenty of back-and-forth is welcome, but a longer list of serious contenders was likewise denied: Scott Rolen, Todd Helton, Billy Wagner, Gary Sheffield, Sammy Sosa, Omar Vizquel, Andruw Jones, Bobby Abreu, Andy Pettitte, etc.

What we have is a bit of a mess. And it’s all quite avoidable, at least in the most egregious cases.

Here’s where things have broken down, and here are submitted a couple of easy recommendations for restoring order and sanity — and some honesty — to a system that formerly helped create the most respected Hall of Fame in all of sports, endangered as that status is becoming because of silliness to match Tuesday’s outcome.

The Bonds/Clemens flap: They should have been inducted eight years ago. They played Hall of Fame baseball for a combined 46 years, for many seasons well before, and well after, the height of a lawless era of performance-enhancers that Major League Baseball allowed to exist. Denying them a plaque is to arbitrarily and subjectively penalize superstars whose exploits away from any prime PED years were Hall-worthy. If, that is, on-the-field achievements are to be taken seriously and confirmed as the reason Cooperstown is Cooperstown.

The sad truth is Bonds and Clemens probably cheated no more or less than was all too common at a time when PEDs weren’t being policed by MLB, or by the Players Association, both of which shrugged at some fundamental responsibility for how players acted. Bonds’ and Clemens’ decision to juice was ugly, selfish, and shamefully unnecessary. But to pretend the Hall is where baseball’s greatest players reside and to simultaneously brush aside Bonds and Clemens is one more contradiction that helped make this year’s vote disastrous.

The Curt Schilling charade: No, he doesn’t like a lot of people. In fact, his ideological stew of contempt and hatred for people essentially different from him is one of the bleakest, most revulsive collections of verbal toxicity this side of a QAnon Convention.

But if voters are going to reject Schilling’s baseball worthiness, all because of his philosophical pathogens, then they best get to work hauling away a truckload of plaques otherwise hanging in Cooperstown’s corridors. A place so revered and esteemed is home to many a racist, misogynist, bigot, and perhaps too many wife-beaters to imagine.

It’s the inconsistency, the utter lack of uniformity in applying a relatively ambiguous “character clause” that makes shunning Schilling for his odious ideology one more mis-step by HOF voters.

You can argue about his pure baseball credentials, although Schilling compared with other pitchers in the Hall more than passes the threshold there. But to ashcan him because of his noxious views is to ignore once more the reason Cooperstown came to be Cooperstown.

Schilling decided Tuesday that he had been a human pinata long enough. He wants his name removed from next year’s ballot. He says he’ll entrust his fate to a “veterans committee” that Schilling says will see that justice is served.

To which I would say to Brother Schilling: Good luck with that. A man of dubious Cooperstown distinction, Harold Baines, got in a couple of years ago while Lou Whitaker finished dead-last among last year’s considerations. Schilling had better odds with the BBWAA electors.

Where the writers bear responsibility: The folks who vote, which is 10-year or more members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, are a nice, tidy punching bag for critics who assume another voting bloc would see the HOF ballot with clarity and sagacity.

In other words, just toss these candidacies to another conscientious group and they’d surely vote as I do.

There, of course, is both the reality and fantasy of HOF voting. Rarely will two serious baseball followers, from any species of baseball’s biosphere, agree on who precisely belongs and who absolutely doesn’t.

A reminder: There is a reason Cooperstown to date has been the most revered of all sports Hall of Fames. It has done, on balance, a terrific job of inducting the right brand of people. The writers through all these generations have acted honorably, if imperfectly, installing players of exquisite, enduring skill.

It might take them a few years to make the right call. It might result in a miss or two, or more — either way. But for a couple of reasons the overall record is excellent. (1) Safeguards are built into qualifications to vote. (2) Voters to a laudable degree take the responsibility and privilege seriously.

The idea another voting assembly would beat the BBWAA’s galaxy of 500 voters at making sure all the right folks were in and the wrong guys were out is probably appealing. But a single year of returns doubtless would confirm that percentages would be pretty much matched.

Problems exist, for sure. And we’ll cite a couple of shameful examples from this year’s crop.

One guy who now is a candidate for the Nobel Prize in Self Righteousness decided to hand in a blank ballot. How astute. With a jaundiced “protest vote” he raised the threshold (75%, minimum) for any of this year’s cast to be inducted. There was no principle being practiced here. There was a prideful, public tantrum thrown. Critics of the BBWAA had a nice clay pigeon at which to blast away because of a ballot so wantonly reckless.

Another of the BBWAA’s vicars of justice forwarded a ballot with one name on it: Jeff Kent. And writers get defensive when the HOF’s fiercest attackers howl about abuses and malfeasance.

These examples are annual, self-inflicted mud stains that, fortunately, are few.

The enduring fact is that HOF debate is healthy, legitimate, and open to a broad spectrum of opinion and assessment.

I either am vigilant (my assessment) or misguided (in plenty of other views) because I voted this year for five players: Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Scott Rolen, and Todd Helton. I prefer a tight ballot, a higher elevation for HOF entry than many others who don’t mind listing as many as 10 names from a list that has a 10-name limit.

There is no absolute right or abject wrong to such choices. Rather, there are healthy differences of opinion that, as Cooperstown through the years has confirmed, tend to ensure the best of the worthy get their plaques.

Like most voters, I spend abundant time researching, studying, discussing, and discerning Hall of Fame candidacies. I’ve been voting for 31 years. I would be most pleased to list each and every one of those ballots, and in fact I’ve done so. All of those ballots have been written about and disclosed, publicly. Every year. Hundreds of other voters have had different configurations on their HOF scorecards. And a good many of those have chosen to keep their votes private.

Which gets us to a couple of easy remedies for the worst of this HOF gridlock that Tuesday left us with zero winners.

Make all ballots public: This should have been the policy throughout. Those who say HOF votes should remain their personal business, just as their November civic votes are private, miss a couple of disqualifying points.

This isn’t about a nation’s democracy or about personal political ideology that can match religious affiliation on the privacy scale. It’s about baseball. Moreover, it’s about responsibility. HOF voters represent all of baseball fandom in exercising the privilege of a Cooperstown vote.

That responsibility, that calling, is worthy of sharing with the audience. It’s simple accountability.

It just so happens the BBWAA finally agreed with that premise four years ago when we voted, not by a large margin, to make all ballots public.

Terrific news and progress there.

At least until Cooperstown’s suits decided they had other motives in mind and quashed the BBWAA’s move. A shameful, unnecessary, regressive decision there.

Public ballots would demand more accountability. Biased votes, or even positions that are hard to defend, would be less common if the voter’s name and the voter’s rationale for including, or shunning, specific names would be a mandate.

As for Cooperstown’s reason for vetoing the BBWAA public-disclosure choice, it brings us to a second remedy for clearing the political clutter that sabotaged Tuesday’s vote.

Return to the 15-year eligibility period: This was a mainstay until 2013 and it was vital to making sure the fullest number of legitimate candidates got the longest possible evaluation from HOF voters.

A fact to consider: Of the 211 players then inducted in Cooperstown, 115 of them — slightly more than half — were elected in the final five years of their old 15-year window.

So, why did Cooperstown’s august minds decide to mysteriously restrict eligibility?

For the same reason they wanted to allow voters perhaps as prejudiced as themselves to keep their ballots secret.

They wanted to reduce chances players besmirched by the Steroid Stretch (Bonds, Clemens, and others) might end up on the July dais regaling the crowd with their Hall of Fame speeches.

Nothing like reducing eligible years, and offering voters cover who like nothing more than not having to discuss or defend their choices. The secrecy and reduced shelf-life has helped keep guys like Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, etc., from plaques they otherwise probably would today own, or be headed for.

Which invites a third recommendation for unkinking the HOF hose:

Get rid of the 10-player limit: This sounds like your basic contradiction from a man who needed only five slots on this year’s ballot. But there were recent years when a sudden slew of HOF-qualified celebrities came our way. The 10-man limit left some of us with an unconscionable choice: Who do you leave out?

It was such a distasteful task that I chose not to return a ballot rather than be forced into some kind of perverse hair-splitting exercise. If a player is, in one’s view, Hall of Fame timber, there should be room to include any player who has made Cooperstown’s cut. Period.

Expanding the limit can help in another respect, as well: It can guard against people like Whitaker failing to win the 5% minimum now needed to stick on the next year’s ballot.

This will require some surgery, some restoration of what once was common sense, if the HOF wishes to return to its place as a baseball shrine and not as the floor of a political convention.

Tuesday’s empty envelope was unnecessary and indefensible. And, unless it’s fixed — with simple measures — the whole sorry flap is destined to be repeated a year from now when Alex Rodriguez and David Ortiz join the list of those eligible to be shafted rather than enshrined.

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.

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1 Comment

  1. Henning’s a self-important, upside-down-thinking, radical-left Marxist who litters his writings with his deranged interpretations and political nonsense. His tantrum about Schilling—who has *FAR* fewer character flaws than Henning does; and who appears to actually, God forbid, believe in and care about the, you know….U.S. Constitution—is typical misplaced garbage, designed to further brainwash the lemmings who read Henning and watch MSNBCLGBQ-bert. Today’s sports writers are antiquated, pointless, pathetic social-justice warrior goons who, ignorantly and idiotically, are rapidly killing off their own jobs and their entire industry. Hooray!

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