Major League Baseball Hall of Fame Election Process
Players become eligible for election to the Hall of Fame five years after they retire from playing. The player must have been active during a period beginning 20 years before and ending 5 years prior to election. If a player’s career ended more then 20 years before the yearly election is held, his case is handled by the Veteran’s Committee (see below). Players who have played within the last five years are ineligible, unless they have died (i.e. Roberto Clemente and Darryl Kile). A player must also have taken part in at least ten seasons of baseball.
Every year a screening committee meets and goes through the newly eligible candidates to be added to the election ballot. If two members of the six member committee nominate a player, he is added to the ballot.
The ballots are then mailed to members of the Baseball Writers Association of America. Each writer is allowed to vote on up to ten candidates for election to the Hall. If a player is selected on more than 75% of the ballots, he is added to the Hall of Fame. If a player receives less than 5% of the vote, he is taken off the ballot and will no longer be considered for induction by the writers. If a player manages to stay on the ballot for 15 years but is not elected, his case is passed on to the Veterans Committee.
It is not unusual for a player to languish on the writer’s ballot for years before they are inducted. Being elected in their first year of eligibility is usually reserved for players that are considered truly exceptional by all. Many times a writer may feel that someone is worthy of entrance to the Hall, but will not vote for them the first time out in order to keep the idea of a “first-ballot induction” as a special event. Many players end up slowly building support as their name sits on the ballot over the years. Every player who has started off with at least 45% of the vote has eventually made it into the Hall.
The Veterans Committee (or, if you want to be all big and important, the NATIONAL BASEBALL HALL OF FAME COMMITTEE ON BASEBALL VETERANS) is made up of all members of the Hall of Fame and the winners of various lifetime awards given out by major league baseball. The Veterans Committee meets every two years and votes on players that have been retired for more than 20 years, this includes men who have been stricken from the regular ballot due to the 5% rule or have been otherwise overlooked by the writers. This also includes all ex-Negro Leagues players. Players being examined by the Veterans Committee need to get the standard 75% in order to be inducted, but there is no 5% rule that removes them from eligibility.
Every four years the Veterans Committee decides on the election of baseball managers, executives, and umpires that deserve to be in the Hall of Fame. These people must also have been retired for at least 5 years, however if the candidate is over the age of 65 he is immediately eligible once he retires.
The Veterans Committee is generally thought of to be the softer sell of the two groups. Considering that their main job is to focus on players that have been forgotten or overlooked by the writers association, they are seen as the last ditch effort for someone to make it into the Hall of Fame.
There is always quite a bit of speculation and argument that surrounds Hall of Fame balloting, the most important being what the standards for entrance should be. There are very few statistics (such as 3,000 hits or 400 home runs) that make someone considered a “lock” for induction, so the potential addition of a new player is usually heavily debated by the press and baseball fans. One of the regular arguments about for a player usually follows the pattern of "If player X has been elected, then player Y who has similar statistics also deserves to be in." This was the argument that seems to have led to the eventual induction of Gary Carter. Carter’s supporters are usually quick to point out that his career numbers are very close to that of Carlton Fisk, a player who was considered much more distinguished than Carter. After Fisk was easily elected in 2000, Carter, who was previously languishing on the ballot, gained a groundswell of support and was eventually elected in 2003.
There is also the problem of how to accurately gauge statistics. Over the years, a retired player’s numbers don’t change (well, except in the case of Hack Wilson), but the game does. Someone who hit 25 home runs a year in the 1920s would have been considered a major powerhouse back then, whereas they would be looked at as a regular hitter today. A pitcher who throws 10 complete games in a season now is a workhorse with an amazing arm, while in the 1950s he was just another pitcher. Within the next few years, the Hall of Fame voters are going to have to significantly raise their standards in terms of hitting statistics in order to account for the offensive inflation that took place in the 1990s, and this might end up leaving some worthy players out in the cold.