The Paradox of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Part One

Barry Bonds, arguably the greatest hitter to ever live, has been denied admission to the Hall of Fame due to the character clause.

The National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York is the sacred space of baseball - a place to commemorate the legendary players, managers, executives, umpires, moments, and records of the game. Parallel to the honor and glory bestowed among these men (and one woman) is controversy surrounding candidates who are undeservingly honored and, more frequently, candidates who should be honored but are not. Similar to politics, controversy will follow any voting result, but this does not mean that an ideal should not be strived for.

But what is this ideal? How should candidates be assessed for the Hall of Fame? Is the process currently in place the best possible one, or could improvements be made?

Arbitrary Standards

The current process consists of members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) voting for as few as zero (as many writers did last winter) to as many as 10 candidates per year. Each candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote to be inducted, meaning some years there are multiple inductions, while other years, such as this past one, there are no player inductions.

Additionally, for one’s name to appear on the ballot, a player must have either received at least five percent of the vote the previous year, or be nominated by the screening committee, which also has a set of standards that candidates must meet (career length, etc). Finally, players must wait five years following retirement for their candidacy to be considered, if at all, and players may remain on the ballot for up to 15 years provided they continue to receive at least five percent of the vote. Though players are not the only individuals eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame they will be the sole focus of this analysis.

The current voting process is the first of many instances in this discussion where the Sorites Paradox is present. Another name for this phenomenon is the problem of vagueness, which is best described through the paradox of the heap. Consider a heap of sand with 10,000 grains, which should be large enough that any reasonable person would agree that it is a heap (if you consider this number too small, insert any number you choose provided you consider it large enough to be appropriately called a heap). Suppose we remove one grain of sand. Is it still a heap? Certainly. The difference is so slight that the heap looks exactly the same.

Now consider what would happen if we repeat this process 9,999 more times until no grains of sand remain. Is that a heap? Certainly not. The paradox is that by assuming a heap of sand is indeed a heap, and no sand is not a heap (which are both reasonable assumptions), we are forced to draw an arbitrary line at the point where the heap goes from being a heap to no longer being a heap. Is it 5,000 grains? How about 500? What about four, with three grains on the bottom and one on top? The answer is unclear and no matter where one draws the line, the question of why a one grain difference changes a heap to a non-heap remains.

Applying this principle to the voting process, why must candidates receive 75 percent of the vote? Jack Morris received 67.7 percent of the vote in the most recent election, which is insufficient even though two-thirds of the baseball writers found him to be a worthy candidate. We can reverse the application of the paradox and ask why candidates who are not found to be deserving by 20 percent of the voters are subsequently enshrined? Requiring a candidate to receive 75 percent of the vote seems very arbitrary, but essentially any number we choose would be arbitrary. Is this a necessary consequence that we simply must overlook?

Moving from the vagueness of the 75 percent threshold that candidates must reach to standards of admission, the Hall of Fame provides perhaps the most vague standard for admission possible. According to the official website of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, “Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played,” (BBWAA Election Rules).

Whoa there.

This needs to be discussed one arbitrary term at a time, but before we do that, note that there are not any guidelines for how well each candidate must rank in these categories. The instructions simply state that, “Voting shall be based upon” these categories, and no more. The necessary level of excellence demonstrated by candidates is unclear as is the relation of the categories to each other. Should a candidate’s character hold the same weight as their playing ability? What is the total level of excellence necessary for a player to be granted admission?

In all honesty, I have no idea what the first category, record, refers to. Since anything relating to playing ability is covered in the second category, record seems to refer to nothing in particular. Pitchers have a Win-Loss record, but hitters do not, meaning a reference to that statistic is unlikely, and I can't think of anything else that record could refer to. Although the point of the analysis is to explain the vagueness in the Hall of Fame voting process, the first category for voters to consider is worse than vague since I can't even make sense of what it refers to.

Character Clause

So instead, we're going to skip the second category (playing ability) momentarily and move on to integrity, sportsmanship, and character.

Integrity and sportsmanship seem to fall within the domain of character, so we can refer to these three categories as the frequently referenced character clause. In practice, the character clause is not valued as highly as playing ability or a player’s contribution to his team, although some voters tend to see the relation between these categories differently.

The 1936 inaugural Hall of Fame class had no unanimous selections, and it included the great Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. When BBWAA members who didn't vote for them were asked why, the writers cited the character clause. Despite his charming personality, Ruth was widely known as a drunkard, while Cobb probably deserves to be in the conversation for having the worst character of any baseball player to have ever lived (along with John Rocker and KKK member Rogers Hornsby).

Example of Cobb’s poor character include his habit of sharpening his spikes then sliding into bases spikes up, injuring opposing players if necessary, and beating a man with no hands. If playing ability and the character clause were weighted equally, in practice, Cobb would have no chance at the Hall of Fame.

But in the end, he - Cobb - led the inaugural class by receiving 98.2 percent of the vote, more than renown high character candidate (and Bucknell alum) Christy Mathewson.

Moving to the modern day for a moment, the character clause is essential to the decision of the BBWAA on how to approach steroid users. Barry Bonds is arguably the greatest hitter to ever play the game, but has not been elected to the Hall of Fame due to steroid allegations. Despite never failing a league administered drug test, it's widely believed that Bonds used performance enhancing drugs provided by BALCO laboratory that were undetectable in the league administered tests.

Putting his elite career numbers aside, Bonds has been denied admission to the Hall of Fame thus far strictly because of his connection with steroids. Furthermore, steroid allegations have hindered the candidacies of other sluggers during the steroid era who have neither failed a drug test nor been connected with any substances, such as Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell.

Apart from steroids, cheating in any way seems to directly prevent admission into the Hall of Fame. The most notorious cases are Pete Rose and Joe Jackson, both of whom were involved in gambling on baseball. Rose’s gambling occurred while he was managing the Cincinnati Reds, while Jackson’s guilt came from an awareness of (but allegedly not a participation in) the famed “Black Sox” scandal in the 1919 World Series, where Jackson’s White Sox intentionally lost the series to the Cincinnati Reds.

All members of the “Black Sox” were acquitted of all criminal charges, but eight members of the team, including Jackson, received lifetime bans. There is no doubt that Rose gambled on games that he managed, but his case has been the subject of debate because his actions took place following his elite playing career.

These cases, along with Bonds, Cobb and Ruth, give us an idea of what the character clause has meant in practice. Cheating in any way seems to be both taboo and the quickest way to remove oneself from consideration, but what about the case of Gaylord Perry?

Perry enjoyed an elite career, and is enshrined in Cooperstown. But he was notorious for throwing a spitball (he has admitted to using the pitch). The spitball was formally outlawed by Major League Baseball in 1920, while Perry played in the 1960s and 1970s. Thus, the pitch was clearly illegal.

Conversely, steroids were not formally outlawed by the league until 2002, yet Bonds and other sluggers linked to steroids are instantly removed from consideration by many members of the BBWAA. When asked about the candidacy of steroid users, Perry said he would not vote for them and that there is a big difference between steroids and spitballs. I disagree. Both are against the rules. Participants in both activities were caught. Yet, one is in the Hall of Fame talking about how he doesn't think cheaters should be allowed in the Hall of Fame. Oh the irony.

So how should character be judged? Assuming we don't completely rewrite the criteria for Hall of Fame induction, or simply abolish the character clause (which is a trendy argument to make these days), we are left with what is generously described as a mess. Precedent seems like a poor judge since some cheaters are in and some are out, while low-character guys like Ty Cobb received a higher percentage of the vote than high-character guys like Christy Mathewson.

Does an arbitrary line need to be drawn? How should character be weighted against playing ability? Does Ty Cobb have better character than Pete Rose or Barry Bonds? (In my opinion he does not) Why are steroids an unforgivable sin while players in the 1960’s and 1970’s used greenies (amphetamines) as much as modern bullpen pitchers use ibuprofen?

With so many factors and degrees of factors to consider, perhaps it would be best if arbitrary lines are drawn. The proper place to draw these lines is as random as choosing 75 percent as the number of votes a candidate must receive, but like establishing the 75 percent barrier, it must be done.

A good place to start would be with steroids, since it's the issue presently at hand. But what about those who are merely rumored to have been users? Do Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell deserve the skepticism they have received regarding the legitimacy of their on-field achievements? How about Jim Thome? Thome played during the steroid era, hit lots of home runs and had big muscles, so surely his gaudy numbers should be questioned. However, this is not the case because Thome is regarded as a nice guy and a great teammate.

The current situation with the character clause is one of great controversy and little consistency, but is a situation which could improve albeit without losing its controversial nature if arbitrary character lines are implemented.

Contribution to One's Team(s)

The next category for admission is contribution to one’s team or teams, otherwise known as the “Excuse to vote for all of the lifelong Yankees” clause. “Contribution to the team(s) on which a player played” generally means that the team should have accomplished some things, or at least not finished last every season - a premise which seems completely useless.

A team is made of 25 players, and it's entirely possible that 24 of the 25 players are below average while one is a Hall of Fame talent, as evidenced by Mike Trout and the 2013 Angels. Instead, this category should be consider player performances in the postseason such as Jack Morris throwing a 10-inning, complete-game shutout in Game Seven of the 1991 World Series. How should one weight individual, clutch performances like Morris in the 1991 World Series against his regular season numbers? Or how about against his character?

Andy Pettitte's candidacy is largely contingent on his stellar postseason play, which makes up for overall playing ability that seems to be shy of Hall of Fame standards, but he also failed a league administered drug test. No one seems to remember or care about Pettitte’s failed test and instead they opt to consider his candidacy as if the failed test never happened. Did I mention that this process is arbitrary?

The arbitrariness and controversy of this category is also present (and perhaps necessarily so) because many elite players never have the opportunity to boost their Hall of Fame resumes with strong postseason play. Mike Trout and Felix Hernandez, two of the best players in baseball, have never played in the postseason, though clearly it's no fault of their own.

Nevertheless, despite its arbitrary nature, this category seems necessary since the goal of every team is to win the World Series. The question of how to weight this category relative to the others remains, as does the question of how to weight postseason individual postseason performances.

Jack Morris seems to be among the greatest beneficiaries from this category, but was his performance better than that of Joe Carter or Bill Mazeroski who both hit World Series clinching walk off home runs? How about Christy Mathewson’s three complete game shutouts in the 1905 World Series again the Philadelphia Athletics? Should players be penalized for poor postseason performances? Alex Rodriguez, one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game during the regular season, has a poor history in the postseason including getting benched during the 2012 ALCS. Ranking the postseason contributions of all candidates is an imperfect science that is very arbitrary but necessary, much like defining where the heap ceases to be a heap.

Come back for Part Two of this Hall of Fame look early next week, where I'll be analyzing the remaining categories used to determine potential Hall of Fame players.