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Friday Baseball Post: Dethrone the Hall of Fame

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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The Baseball Hall of Fame voting process is under attack again, with ESPN’s Buster Olney passing on voting because he thinks it omits 10 legitimate candidates. See also Rob Neyer’s analysis.

The starting point for this debate is that the Baseball Hall of Fame, the one in Cooperstown, New York, that began in the 1930s, exists only to the extent that people actually believe in it.

The Hall that people care about is different from, say, Baseball Think Factory’s Hall of Merit, mainly because people believe that the former is “real.” That’s it. If someone starts up a competitor tomorrow, and people treat it as the real one and Cooperstown as a joke, then the new one will be real and Cooperstown will be a joke. That’s all it would take.

There are two groups that matter here. One is the people who publicize baseball -- that’s why Cooperstown was wise to get baseball writers to do their voting. The other is the players, especially the inductees.

The conclusion from that (as Bill James explained long ago) is that the Cooperstown Hall will, over the long run, never allow its selections to deviate too broadly from what most people believe are the players most deserving of reward. If the current voters really won’t allow most of the best players from the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s to enter the Hall, then Cooperstown runs an enormous risk of having someone else organizing an alternative that will include those players.

The same is true, by the way, for seasonal awards. The official Most Valuable Player and other awards are only more real than, say, the Greg Spira/Baseball Prospectus versions because people believe they are more real. And they have the same limitation: If the writers suddenly started giving awards that didn't make sense to most fans, we might all stop caring about those awards.

Olney is a pretty high-profile writer, and ESPN is an organization that would have a lot of advantages if it decided to put together an alternative Hall, by itself or perhaps with a consortium of others. I’m not sure his protest all by itself will produce changes next year, but I wouldn't be surprised. And if not, it won’t take much more. Whatever its other strengths and weaknesses, the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown has always done an excellent job of looking out for its interests.

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To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net