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Even Baseball Hall Of Famers Have Trouble Deciding Who's A Hall Of Famer

December 19, 2017
With baseball's offseason about to enter its lull period, with or without a Manny Machado trade, I didn't want 2017 to slip away without some comment on the Hall of Fame election announced earlier this month, while also taking a peek at the one coming up next month.

While wrestling with the final names on what will be my 10-man ballot for the announcement coming in mid-January, it was somewhat reassuring to read about the experiences of Robin Yount and George Brett, two of the seven Hall of Famers who were on the 16-member committee that elected starting pitcher Jack Morris and shortstop Alan Trammell earlier this month.

"That was more difficult than anything I had ever imagined when I was asked to be one of the committee members," Yount told MLB.com after the announcement was made.

Brett told MLB.com: "Holy cow, you start comparing them. … I mean it was a pretty heated discussion on everybody, then it's a secret ballot and you write down zero to four names. I learned an awful lot about the game of baseball."

Welcome to the club, guys. It's nice to know that Hall of Famers themselves get to "enjoy" the process.

Morris and Trammell, longtime teammates with the Detroit Tigers, were part of a 10-man ballot of nominees from the modern baseball era (1970-1987) -- nine former players plus the late Marvin Miller, former executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association. With 12 votes needed for election, Morris got 14 and Trammell, 13. Ted Simmons, a switch-hitting catcher who spent most of his career with the St. Louis Cardinals and was a teammate of Yount's with the Milwaukee Brewers, was a narrow miss, getting 11 votes.

All three of the top vote-getters presented interesting cases. Morris was considered a favorite of the "old guard" for his dominance as the best pitcher of the 1980s, while Trammell, a solid but not spectacular offensive player and steady but not flashy shortstop, was a darling of the analytic crowd.

Simmons was the mystery man of his era -- a one-and-done candidate who was dropped from the ballot after his lone appearance in 1994 because of the dreaded 5 percent rule (players who fail to receive 5 percent of the vote are dropped from the ballot). With players initially subjected to a difficult screening process, the 5 percent rule has always been a bone of contention for some voting members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, whose members with 10 or more years' experience make up the voting body.

"I know how good a player [Simmons] was," Yount said. "Something went completely wrong there [with the BBWAA voting]."

In the interest of full disclosure, if there is such a thing, Trammell was always a "no-brainer" for me, while Morris was on the fringe at first before a number of his peers, hitters and pitchers were adamant about his case. I remember Simmons being in the discussion, but can't honestly remember that vote -- looking back in retrospect, the 5 percent rule has always been a factor in my vote, though it wasn't as much an issue then as it is today.

Not that it's a valid reason or even an excuse, but a look at the ballot on which Simmons appeared included six players who would eventually make the Hall of Fame in addition to Steve Carlton, the lone inductee that year. Phil Niekro, Tony Perez, Don Sutton and Bruce Sutter were elected via the BBWAA vote, while Orlando Cepeda and Ron Santo got the nod from the Veterans Committee. 

 In addition, Steve Garvey, Jim Kaat and Tony Oliva, all of whom had varying degrees of support, were on the same ballot -- as was Joe Torre, who would eventually be honored as a manager. That's a total of 10, in addition to Simmons, on what was a moderately crowded field.

It gives one an idea of how an over-stuffed ballot can impact the voting -- as it has for the past several years. By my count, which I guess means IMHO, there are at least 12 bona fide Hall of Fame candidates on this year's ballot -- without including any of those accused or suspected of using performance-enhancing drugs.

That makes it very easy to make a case for 20 or more candidates with sufficient credentials to warrant HOF consideration. With the electorate severely divided on how to deal with the PED issue, the 5 percent rule becomes a strong factor in many votes -- as it has in mine for the past several years, and as it probably was in Simmons' case in 1994.

There is a responsibility to get it right -- and this is an example of how "right" is in the eyes of the beholder, or in this case, the voter. 

It's not supposed to be easy -- and it isn't.

Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com