Jeff Idelson has learned, in his tumultuous time as President of the Baseball Hall of Fame, that you can’t ever get too caught up in the moment. The Hall of Fame is about history. History takes time. Time takes patience. He understands that people want answers and verdicts and resolution right now, right away.
He also understands that’s not how it always works.
“For most people,” he says, “a point in time is a single moment. But when talking about the Baseball Writers Association of America, it’s not a single election. It’s not about one year.”
We are talking one day after the BBWAA failed to vote in a single player into the Hall of Fame, despite a ballot that had two players with 3,000 hits, three other players with 500 homers, the acknowledged best-hitting catcher ever, a 300-game winner, a different 3,000-strikeout pitcher, a player who stole 800 bases, a hitter with three batting crowns, a hitter with two batting crowns, a two-time MVP …
There are other terrific players on the ballot too. Zero made it.
I ask Jeff if he was disappointed.
“Let’s put it this way,” he says. “Every year I root for someone to be elected. I’m not alone in Cooperstown in that wish. By the same token, I was fully aware that a shutout was possible and was prepared for it. We have tremendous faith in the writers’ process.”
This is not just public relations-speak. I have spoken with Idelson about these things before. While there are some people out there outraged about the ballot shutout, Idelson and the people on the Hall of Fame board are not outraged or panicked. Yes, of course, a year without a living inductee will sting the museum financially a bit, and bruise Cooperstown tourism this summer. But Idelson says it won’t be crushing. He says he still expects 50 or so Hall of Famers to come back to the Hall at induction time. And he says the museum will look into ways to enhance the weekend and draw some more people.
But he says the more important thing is to get the history right … and that takes time. “Over 70 years, we’ve seen the way it plays out with the BBWAA,” he says. “When you walk through the gallery of plaques, like I do every day, you can look at the walls. Certainly I can’t find anyone the BBWAA elected who is undeserving. You could argue there are some on the outside looking in who are worthy, and that’s a valid point. But that’s also the nature of things.”
And so Idelson says the museum’s stance right now is: Let things play out. When I ask him about possible rule changes to the voting, such as expanding the voter limit from 10 players, he sounds pretty set on not changing anything right now.
“We’re comfortable with the maximum of 10,” he says. “The board of directors, all of us, we’re comfortable with the limit of 10. Of course, if the BBWAA wanted to talk to us about that rule or any rule, it’s an open dialogue and we would listen.”
But you don’t see any need for voting changes right now?
“No, I don’t. This is a process. And I would also say we see this year as an aberration.”
I agree with that. I think the BBWAA will elect multiple players each of the next three or four years -- that seems all but certain with players like Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Frank Thomas, Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz and Ken Griffey being added to the ballot. But that doesn’t really deal with how the writers deal with the players who fell short on this year’s ballot. One issue is the now-famous character clause that is sent out as a guideline for Hall of Fame voters. I ask Idelson about the clause, and he says something very interesting.
First, he gives a brief history of the clause. He says it has been a part of the voting since the first class in 1936, though it wasn’t written down until 1945. In the original version, the clause was unwritten but understood -- notes from the first meetings show that the Hall of Fame wanted players selected for their “ability, character and general contribution to the game.” When this clause was actually put in writing in 1945, it was expanded to say: “playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, their contributions to the team.”
I ask: The character clause is obviously vague -- do you think the Hall of Fame should clarify the clause to offer guidance to voters?
“I don’t think it needs to be clarified,” Idelson says. “We want voters to have the leeway to define character as they see fit and to value however they like those traits like character, integrity and sportsmanship.”
But then Idelson says something a little bit unexpected: “Everyone should understand that ‘character’ is not to be used as a moral compass, but refers to how they respected the game, how they treated the game, how they used that character in the contributions they made to their teams.”
Maybe this is common knowledge … but I had never actually heard the Hall of Fame clarify that character should not refer to morality and instead should ONLY refer to baseball. It makes sense, of course, but if this is what the Hall of Fame means by “character” then I would argue that it should be written in the BBWAA guidelines that way. Because I think some voters DO look at character beyond the baseball diamond, and they hide behind the character clause when they do so. What this version of the character clause means for PED users … hard to say. On the one hand, the steroid question is obviously DIRECTLY tied to respect for the game, how they treated the game and so on. On the other hand, I hear people say all that time that even though steroids weren't policed at all by Baseball, it was "against the law." If the character clause refers only to baseball, that shouldn't be part of the conversation.
In any case, Idelson thinks that over time history will pass judgment on the era before drug testing. There may be a lot of talk all around about changing the voting, changing the voters, throwing everything out and starting over, but Idelson says that the Hall of Fame has a deep faith in the baseball writers’ ability to sort through the complexities and quandaries and choose the right players for the Hall of Fame.
“You have to remember, if you had a one-year cycle, there would be only 44 people in the Hall of Fame,” he says. “Just 21 percent of all the Hall of Fame players were elected on the first ballot. That means 79 percent of the players took more time.”
I told Idelson that a lot of people think the Hall of Fame should ONLY have those 44 players. He laughed. A little bit. It might not be the best time to joke about a smaller Hall of Fame. Of course he wanted there to be at least one inductee this year -- the Hall of Fame is a living museum, and to live it needs to grow. But he says everybody’s pretty sure this was just a one-year anomaly while the BBWAA tries to get its arms around a baffling era of baseball. He says everyone at the Hall is content with the way it's going.
Of course, I think it’s fair to say that if the BBWAA does not vote for a single player NEXT year, with Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas and Tom Glavine among many others on the ballot, our conversation will go very differently.