Henning: Hall of Fame voting needs reform

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Former Tigers shortstop Alan Trammel likely will wait years for any shot to join the Hall of Fame courtesy of the Veterans Committee.

There was some good news Tuesday, a measure of it, when the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot winners were announced.

Four extraordinary players got at least 75 percent of the vote and will be canonized in Cooperstown in July: Craig Biggio, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz, who might have been a Detroit legend had the Tigers not been shopping for a starting pitcher in August 1987 and traded him to Atlanta.

But that's where Tuesday's celebration ended.

The Hall of Fame got bogged down again this year by bad habits it refuses to break. Rather than cheer the four ultra-worthy players who will crash Cooperstown this summer, too many people were left squabbling about qualified players who didn't make the cut: Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, Mike Mussina, Jeff Kent, Alan Trammell, Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Edgar Martinez, etc.

People always can debate and differ on which of the above names merits a plaque. But in too many cases, the critics have a point. Two problems, in particular, are hammering at the Hall of Fame, and its voting membership from the Baseball Writers Association of America. And they need to go away if the HOF vote is to be more respected than reviled, which was a hard distinction to draw in the aftermath of Tuesday's vote.

Expand the ballot

The first flaw is the easiest to fix.

The 10-man limit must be expanded. And even though the writers voted last month — a year or more late — to extend the ballot to 12 names, there is deep suspicion within baseball's circles the Hall of Fame board will shoot down the longer ballot.

It's a silly refusal to adjust to new challenges.

In earlier years and eras, the 10-person limit had its place. In most of the 25 years I've been voting, one, three — maybe five — spots were adequate. In any given year there were simply few players who arrived as Hall of Fame qualifiers.

That began to change a couple of years ago when Cooperstown's ballot got socked with back-to-back years of bumper-crop candidacies. Rather than accept that a rare convergence of historic talent was begging for a relaxation of rules, the status-quo crowd decided to stick to tradition, however arbitrary was that supposedly sacred number "10."

And so some of us who had traditionally cast conservative votes suddenly found ourselves out of room. I had 11 players a year ago who met any Hall of Fame standard previously established.

With a grimace and with even greater disgust, I decided Edgar Martinez — a Hall of Famer all the way in my view — had to be sacrificed.

Last January, I petitioned the writers association to rescind the 10-man limit and make ballots public (another issue we'll get to later). I got no response. The association did form a committee to study the matter, but by the time expansion was recommended last month, this year's ballot already had been mailed.

And so, once again, there was no room at the inn for perfectly qualified people, three of which on my list of 13 I would have been forced to jettison.

I said no. No more votes until this absurdity, which is more of a perversity, was rectified.

There is no sign that a year from now we won't be caught in the same ringer. And because some people have decided a number — 10 — is more important than inducting Hall of Famers every bit as lofty as those previously enshrined, we stand in 12 months to be having the same rancorous debate.

Disclose the votes

A second problem is also easy to amend. It's a matter of publicly disclosing votes.

This should be routine. It should be welcomed by all parties. This isn't a vote on the first Tuesday of November for a political party. It isn't disclosing one's religious beliefs. Those are intensely personal matters. But a Hall of Fame ballot, more of a delegation, is about baseball players, and about representing the best of baseball's followers in determining who makes Cooperstown's cut.

The public should know who voted for Barry Bonds, and who did not.

Many of us make our ballots known. Many don't, and from what can be discerned through the years, reluctance too often is tied to simple discomfort — and, perhaps, to fear of ridicule for either casting a bad ballot, or for including or excluding names for whatever reasons.

If you make all ballots public, you gain ground in multiple and valuable ways:

You ensure a degree of accountability now impossible due to secrecy. When ballots can be studied and scrutinized, the membership earns at least a prize for transparency.

Secondly, you tend to get better votes. There is more research, more care taken in etching those Cooperstown check marks when you know they're being unveiled at the public square.

Full disclosure also helps reduce, to a human minimum, the number of personal, political or plain-crazy votes that can sully an otherwise conscientious election.

Of course, Hall of Fame elections are almost always accompanied by the sound of background music: axes grinding. And everyone has their protest.

People from Detroit are bitter because Trammell got only 25.9 percent of the vote this year. They have a case, as do the Lou Whitaker supporters, who lost him to a freakish 2001 vote in which he failed to get enough votes to hang on the ballot.

The fact is, Trammell and Whitaker had the bad luck to play in the pre-cable-TV, pre-sabermetrics era when their talents were too shallowly appreciated.

And the truth, however raw, is that any other voting bloc, reasonably constructed, likely would have had the same challenges with Trammell and Whitaker.

Left behind

What is not fair is that Trammell on Tuesday suffered unnecessarily because of an antiquated 10-man limit. Along with his old double-play partner, Whitaker, he likely will wait years for any shot at justice from the Veterans Committee, at which time both men conceivably could score.

But the Hall of Fame's more immediate problem is wider and deeper than any gripes about Trammell or Whitaker. It's about other deserving names who also were ignored in Tuesday's vote, all because of an artificial 10-man barrier imposed long ago that no longer has relevance.

Change the ballot, for the better, with a simple expansion. Then disclose the votes.

And then, at last, the greatest Hall of Fame in sports will be even grander.