Next week, the results of most divisive, contentious vote in the United States will be announced. It’s not impeachment, nor does it have anything to do with 2020 presidential election. It’s the annual election to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For nearly a century, elections for that body have occupied an outsized place for many Americans in a way that’s unusual for any other similar institution. Even though pro football is now more popular, Hall of Fame induction sparks far less debate, and die-hard NBA fans would be hard pressed to name the latest inductees into its sprawling Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
But the vote for Baseball Hall of Fame is different. It’s not just that baseball occupies a far more central place in the American psyche and in American history, but because the arguments often have little to do with sports.
Every year, the electorate of over 400 sportswriters has to weed through a ballot of roughly 30 aspiring immortals. If a player gets over 75% of the vote, they are inducted and their plaque hangs forever in Cooperstown, New York. If they get under 5%, they are off the ballot. Those in between can be on the ballot for up to 10 years, at which point they fall off the ballot if not inducted. (Their cases are then considered by various iterations of what was once called the Veterans Committee, a process that combines the bureaucracy of the DMV with the consistency of the electric grid in a Third World country).
Some of these debates center around fundamental questions of morality. Should athletes who used anabolic steroids at the turn of the 21st century be penalized for cheating? While the drugs themselves may have been illegal and harmful, Major League Baseball had no policy against them and did not even test for their use until 2005. This debate has left two of the greatest players in the history of the game — Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — out of the Hall. Another player, Curt Schilling, has faced criticism for devoting his retirement to being a hard-right Twitter troll who notoriously applauded a shirt calling for journalists to be lynched. Voters have had to balance his glory on the diamond with his rather inglorious social media presence.
But the biggest debate has focused on how greatness is even defined. For years, voters have argued over whether it is defined by the eye test, by the soaring home runs and diving catches or by more subtle means defined through numbers. Baseball statistics aficionados have even created an entire new branch of science, sabermetrics, to offer empirical analysis of the sport. Using more acronyms than a history of the New Deal, it has transformed traditional views baseball. Players once considered very good are revealed to be great due to their less flashy skills, while those who racked up gaudy numbers and acclaim turn out to be vastly overrated.
The debate isn’t just about whether Player X was better than Player Y, but focuses on fundamental questions about the nature of truth. Were those who watched former Indians great Omar Vizquel repeatedly make spectacular diving stops correct in viewing him as an all-time great? Did they capture the essence of his career? Or did those who used spreadsheets of data to calculate obscure statistics — like Ultimate Zone Rating — that showed him to be very good, but not quite immortal, do it instead?
While advocates for statistical analysis have been winning the argument in recent years as an older generation of sportswriters has died off, the fight still continues — not just among baseball writers, but in sports bars, living rooms and text message chains across the country. After all, the fight isn’t just about over who played a better center field or which player you’d most want at the plate in a clutch situation. It’s not even about how we watch sports. It’s about how we observe reality.
Ben Jacobs is a political reporter in Washington, D.C.
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