Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 20: Hall of Fame logjam

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We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 20 — The Hall of Fame Logjam 

Hall of Fame voting is pretty simple. Each year the Hall releases its ballot of candidates to the eligible voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America. The voters can pick up to ten candidates on their ballot. Any candidates who get 75% or more of the vote are elected. Candidates who get less than 5% of the vote fall off. Candidates who get more than 5% of the vote but less than 75% of the vote can stay on the ballot until they either get elected, fall below 5%, or appear on ballots for ten years without election (it used to be 15 years). If they haven’t been elected in that time they are done, unless the Veterans Committee puts them in later.

The system is designed to furnish new names on the ballot at more or less the same rate that old names fall off the ballot, giving voters similarly-sized pools to vote on each year. The ballot thresholds — 5% for falling off and 75% for induction — are designed to get the very, very deserving and the very, very undeserving cleared off the ballot quickly in order to keep the ballot from getting clogged up. As baseball history progresses, Hall of Fame voting is supposed to, at least roughly, track baseball history, lagging by about five years due to the post-retirement waiting period until guys become eligible.

In the early 2010s, however, it appeared as if this system was going to break down. The reason? Performance enhancing drugs.

The “Steroid Era” of the 1990s and 2000s began to wind down on the field — at least ostensibly — due to the release of The Mitchell Report in late 2007 and the subsequent strengthening of drug testing in its wake. Around this same time, and in the few years just after, the players most prominently associated with the Steroid Era retired. Soon they would be hitting the Hall of Fame ballot.

The fear was that, due to their association with PEDs — which was viewed as disqualifying for Hall of Fame induction by a large percentage of the electorate — even the best players of that crowd would fall short of the 75% they’d normally be expected to get, but because (a) the players were genuine superstars; and (b) enough voters would be more lenient about their drug use, they would likewise stay safely above 5% for a long time. The result: a crop of 1990s and 2000s superstars would clog the ballot for years on end. What’s more, because voters were limited to ten votes regardless, the concern was that votes devoted to the PED guys would take votes away from the non-PED-associated candidates who would come along later. Some worried that this state of affairs would mean that no one would be elected for multiple years in the mid-to-late 2010s.

As the decade began, there was already one datapoint supporting this fear. Mark McGwire — a guy most considered to be a shoe-in for election while he played — had fallen into ignominy after his retirement, being hauled before Congress and giving less-than-impressive and often evasive testimony when asked about his PED use. When he hit the ballot for the first time in 2007 he got 23.5% of the vote. Enough to stay on but nowhere near enough for election. He was still on the ballot in 2011 when Rafael Palmeiro, a man with over 3,000 hits but a positive PED test and some bad Congressional testimony of his own, hit the ballot. His support was small, but again, he wasn’t going anywhere, at least for a few years.

If you were a Hall of Fame voter in the early part of the 2010s and you saw that happen, it would not be unreasonable to look into the future and ask whether there was a the chance of a real disaster in the coming  years. After all:

  • Both McGwire and Palmeiro would still on the ballot in 2013 when Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Craig Biggio, Mike Piazza, Curt Schilling, Sammy Sosa, and Kenny Lofton all became eligible. Absent PEDs that’s a bumper crop of Hall of Fame-worthy guys, but with the PED associations some of those guys had, things would get complicated, right?
  • In 2014 Greg MadduxTom GlavineFrank ThomasMike Mussina, and Jeff Kent would become eligible;
  • In 2015 you’d get Randy JohnsonPedro MartinezJohn Smoltz, and Gary Sheffield;
  • Throughout all of this time big but insufficient vote-getters such as Jack MorrisJeff BagwellLee SmithTim RainesAlan TrammellEdgar MartinezFred McGriffLarry Walker, Don Mattingly, Dale Murphy and Bernie Williams  were all hanging around.

And more worthy candidates would just keep coming. If you look at all of those names it’s not hard to find more — maybe even far more — than ten names any given voter could consider Hall of Fame worthy. Which means that, theoretically, the logjam would cause players who, in the normal course, would receive votes to get the shaft.

It’s a scenario that had happened before. Back in the 1940s, Major League Baseball had been in existence for around seventy years, but the Hall of Fame had scarcely existed for a decade and voting did not even occur every single year. The result: there was a decades-long backlog of worthy players but no means to effectively clear it. It was so bad that even all-time greats like Rogers Hornsby was only elected with 77% of the vote. Others fell far shorter. Indeed, there were 46 future Hall of Famers on the 1946 ballot. Not a single one was elected by the BBWAA. Several, however, were elected by a much more friendly — probably too friendly, actually — “Old-Timers Committee,” the forerunner of the Veterans Committee. But no such friendly committee existed in 2013. Indeed, the version of the Veterans Committee which existed then was much stricter and, in any case, did not consider the same candidates that the BBWAA did, as it did in 1946.

More recently, particularly stacked ballots presented problems as well. In 1999, Nolan Ryan, George Brett, Robin Yount, and Carlton Fisk all debuted in the same year. Also on that ballot were five other future Hall of Famers. Ryan, Brett, and Yount got in — Yount just barely made it despite being a 3,000-hit guy with plus defense up the middle — and Fisk and the five other future Hall of Famers would have to wait. Would the post-2013 ballots present this same issue but more acutely? Would otherwise worthy Hall of Famers simply never get a chance to make it due to such a crowded ballot?

In the end, nah. It wasn’t as big a problem as a lot of people feared.

There has been enough traffic that a couple of guys — Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez spring to mind — had to wait longer than they probably should have, but they made it.

Alan Trammell, Jack Morris and Lee Smith got pushed to the Veterans Committee, but they were all considered by a great many voters as borderline cases to begin with. Their struggle to gain election predated the logjam.

Curt Schilling isn’t in yet, but he’s kind of a special case given that people find him to be odious.

Fred McGriff is often called a casualty of the PED era — a presumed clean player whose accomplishments were overshadowed by the ‘roided-out dudes who followed him — but he never got anywhere near close enough to 75% for anyone to reasonably claim he was crowded out.

Current candidates Larry Walker and Billy Wagner and a few other guys on the ballot are on the outside looking in because it has taken years and years for a number of voters to be convinced that they are, in fact, worthy, as opposed to them being squeezed out due to people simply not having room for them on their ballots. Indeed, the average Hall of Fame ballot still doesn’t come close to having ten names on it. The guys who haven’t made it are victims of the Hall electorate’s historically and often unreasonably tough grading, not the logjam.

Which leaves us with Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and, eventually, Alex Rodriguez. Men who, in the normal course, would all be Hall of Famers — probably first ballot Hall of Famers — but who are unlikely to get in or, at the very least, get in easily. Those men will never be considered victims of a logjam. Those men, because of their PED histories, won’t be considered victims of anything.

No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal