By: Joe Strupp
When it comes to deciding if Pete Rose deserves to be in the National Baseball Hall of Fame, every fan seems to have an opinion.
But if Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig eventually makes Rose eligible for induction into the hall — a move Rose recently brought to the forefront with a new book and a confession that he bet on games — the only opinions that will matter belong to the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), the 95-year-old, loosely knit organization that decides who makes that trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., each year through a strict system that has seen little change over the decades.
And although the fraternity of newspaper writers covering the national pastime wields immense power in choosing who can join baseball’s elite group of heroes, little is known about this group, which has no Web site, no permanent headquarters and refuses to reveal its list of voting members.
In a media world that has seen broadcast and computer outlets overtake newspapers on many levels, especially in sports, the BBWAA keeps the daily print product on a pedestal in one area — the Hall of Fame vote, which continues to exclude those in television, radio, and the Internet.
In fact, Hall of Fame rules limit voting to baseball writers who cover the game for a newspaper in one of the 26 markets with a major league team, and who have been BBWAA members for 10 years. Such restrictions would bar, say, a Sports Illustrated baseball writer, an ESPN analyst, or even a newspaper writer from a city like Des Moines, Iowa, or Indianapolis, even if they write about baseball full time.
“We like to think that we are the most educated electorate,” says Jack O’Connell, national baseball writer for The Hartford (Conn.) Courant and BBWAA secretary-treasurer since 1995, who still collects the ballots in his home mailbox. “I don’t see any great changes ahead. If it ain’t broke…”
O’Connell, 55, has more than 20 years of baseball writing experience, including 11 years as the New York Yankees beat writer and nine years covering the New York Mets.
While it is best known for Hall of Fame choices, the BBWAA actually started as a way to organize and lobby for better press box conditions following the 1907 World Series, which had writers banished to beat-up quarters down the right and left field lines at Chicago’s West Side Grounds and Detroit’s Bennett Park during the Cubs-Tigers series.
“The writers petitioned to have press boxes behind home plate in most parks, where many did not even have them and others were uncovered,” O’Connell says.
The Hall of Fame voting began in 1936, with active players still eligible for induction at the time. Today’s rules limit opportunities to players with 10 years of major league experience, who have been retired for five years and who have received at least 5% of the vote in the most recent election. Players also have a 15-year window of eligibility.
Winners are those who receive at least 75% of the vote. In only one instance, in 1996, was no one inducted.
Don’t look for the voting procedures — which are not much more sophisticated than a high school prom queen election — to be altered any time soon. Virtually unchanged in 67 years, the vote still includes paper ballots sent out each Dec. 1 to all 550 eligible voters, who return them by Dec. 31, O’Connell says.
But the ballots don’t go to Cooperstown or to Major League Baseball headquarters in New York. Instead, they go to O’Connell’s home in Lake Grove on Long Island, N.Y. Once collected, O’Connell takes them to the Times Square offices of Ernst & Young, where he and E&Y partner Michael DiLecce count them by hand.
“We are like kids in a candy store,” O’Connell says of the counting ritual that often takes up to five hours and includes no outsiders. “For half a day, he and I are the only two people who know who goes into the Hall of Fame.”
DiLecce, whose firm has been involved in the process since 1998, calls it “thought-provoking.” He tells E&P, “Names come up that you never expect. But I never try to predict any ahead of time.”
Then comes O’Connell’s favorite part, phoning each winner to give them the good news. “It is interesting how many people are reduced to tears,” the veteran election organizer says, noting that one of this year’s inductees, Paul Molitor of the Milwaukee Brewers, broke down. “Don Sutton cried, so did George Brett and a lot of others.”
When Mike Schmidt of the Philadelphia Phillies received the call in 1995, according to O’Connell, he wanted to know the identities of the 16 people out of 460 who did not vote for him. “When I called Ozzie Smith, I thought he had hung up on me because he went silent,” O’Connell remembers. “All of them have been interesting.”
Hall of Fame rules also prohibit O’Connell from releasing the names of the eligible voters — to reduce the chances of players lobbying for votes, he says. “Players want to campaign and our people don’t want to be bothered,” O’Connell says of the restriction.
Little lobbying occurs because of the secrecy, says Dan Shaughnessy, a columnist for The Boston Globe and a former Red Sox and Orioles beat writer. He recalls one instance, though, when former Indians pitcher Bob Lemon was being promoted for the hall prior to his induction when someone in the Globe newsroom received a pro-Lemon package of materials that included a lemon.
“I don’t take it lightly,” Shaughnessy says of his annual vote, which began in 1987. “It is probably the only important thing we do.”
The list of voters varies year to year as writers switch beats, change newspapers, or leave the industry. “Guys move or lose interest,” he says. “But, as long as they meet the rules and pay the annual $50 BBWAA fee, they can vote.”
On the subject of Rose, O’Connell declines to say if he would vote the all-time hits leader in were he to become eligible. But, he did not hold back on his feelings about what Rose is doing or what it might mean.
Annoyed that Rose chose to release his book the week that Molitor and fellow 2004 inductee Dennis Eckersley were chosen, O’Connell says it took some deserved attention away from their accomplishments. “We only have a few days a year to stick the Hall’s chest out.”
O’Connell also believes Rose’s chances of election are not helped by the fact that his eligibility runs out after next year, offering little time to get reinstated.
“I don’t think he has helped himself,” O’Connell says. “I don’t know how that helped his case, admitting he gambled on baseball. There was a confession, but there also has to be contrition and that they haven’t seen.”