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Fixing the Hall of Fame - Part 2: The Screeners and the 5% Rule

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Fixing the Hall of Fame

By Daniel Greenia

Part 2a – It’s Too Big: The Screeners and the 5% Rule


The hall of fame ballot screening committee of the BBWAA was instituted for the 1968 election to cut the ballot down to a “reasonable” size. Due to expansion and the proliferation of role players, some recent ballots had included more than 60 candidates.

Jump ahead to 1978. The screening committee was scrutinizing the list of 10-year players who retired in 1973 to decide who should appear on the next ballot. Looking through the pitchers they saw Bobby Bolin, Ray Culp, Eddie Fisher, Fred Gladding, Milt Pappas, Ron Perranoski, and Chris Short. The big winner among these, the only pitcher with more than 135 wins, was Pappas. His 209 wins were more than several hall of famers, including recent inductees (at that time) Addie Joss (160) and Bob Lemon (207). It was also exactly the same as Don Drysdale, who was drawing over 50% support on his way to eventual election.

In all likelihood, most screeners were unaware of any numbers, but simply relied on their subjective impressions of the players. When the ballot for the 1979 election was announced in the fall of 1978, Milt Pappas was not on it: few of the screeners thought he was worthy of consideration. Well, Pappas was not the sort to take this quietly; in fact, he screamed holy hell. Pappas appealed to his friends among the Chicago writers: “I belong on the ballot! I won 100 games in each league” (actually, only 99 in the NL). It led to the BBWAA petitioning the Hall for a rule change: do away with the Screening Committee and require that a man must get 10% of the vote to remain on the ballot.

The Hall reacted as it always has to controversy it can’t ignore; with short-sighted accommodation. They said, OK, forget the screening committee; everyone retiring in 1973 that played ten years is on the ballot. However, 10% is too strict. How about we give everyone at least two years on the ballot? The BBWAA countered with one year and 5%, and so it was agreed. It sounded harmless enough.

The result was the ballot increased from 36 candidates in 1978 to 54 in 1979. Sixteen players received zero votes (making an argument for having some sort of screening process). Another 15 players received votes, but less than 5%. This included several that the screening committee had passed through for many years despite not once attaining 5% support, such as Bobby Thomson (14 years, 4.6% maximum support), Harvey Haddix (9 years, 2.8% max), and Vern Law (7 years, 2.4% max).

It turned out the screeners had Pappas pegged. Despite being a cause celebre, he received only five votes, one-and-done with 1.2%. However, there was one foreboding deletion: Ken Boyer. Boyer averaged 3.9% in five years on the ballot and was dropped after getting 4.6% in 1979. Appropriately, he was reinstated to the ballot six years later. To this day, Boyer is still ranked among the top twenty at third base in baseball history by most analysts, ahead of several hall of famers at the position.

Part 2b – FUBAR: Victims and Gaffes of the 5% Rule

Subsequent elections only confirmed the undesirable effects of the 5% rule.

The 1980 election saw an even larger ballot. Out of 62 candidates that year, 29 received zero votes, while nine others were under 5%. This was the year that Ron Santo was one-and-done, with 3.9% support. I hardly need to mention the large body of evidence showing that Santo is one of the game’s great third basemen, an egregious oversight by the hall of fame.

The grumblings among the writers that the ballot was too large to handle led to a reversal by the Hall. For 1981 they decided to reinstitute the screening committee; unfortunately, they kept the 5% rule. This trimmed the ballot to a mere 39 candidates.

The next year saw a major mishap: whoever created the ballot for the 1982 election largely overlooked the 5% rule. Eight of the ten vote-getters with under 5% in 1981 were put on the 1982 ballot (another one of these ten showed up in 1983). The 5% rule did claim another significant casualty in 1982: Bill Freehan, a top 20 catcher, was one-and-done after getting only two votes (0.5%).

The 1983 ballot dampened any hopes that the 5% rule might be on the way out. Vada Pinson (who must’ve had an uncle on the ballot committee) was the only sub-5% player held over, receiving only 1.4% in 1982. The 1983 election also saw more 5% victims who deserved a longer look. Jimmy Wynn, we now know, is a top 20 center fielder; but he received ZERO votes. Worse than this, the controversial great Dick Allen was one-and-done with only 3.7% support.

For 1984, Thurman Munson was given the pass that Pinson had received the previous year, being allowed back on the ballot despite only 4.8% support. In a weak year for new candidates, the ballot had shrunken to 29 candidates.

The 1985 election brought renewed hopes to those who opposed the 5% rule. An official review was made of all players who dropped off the ballot due to the rule. It resulted in 11 players being reinstated to the ballot. Chief among these were three players previously touted here: Ron Santo, Dick Allen and Ken Boyer. Others were Vada Pinson, Curt Flood, Wilbur Wood, Dave McNally, Harvey Haddix, Ron Fairly, Denny McLain and Clay Carroll. Among those who were not reinstated were Bill Freehan, Jimmy Wynn…and the guy that caused it all, Milt Pappas.

For the 1986 election, it was looking like maybe the Hall had decided to phase out the 5% rule. Six of the top seven closest to 5% in 1985 were allowed to continue on the ballot, the exception being Harvey Haddix. Despite getting 3.8% Haddix was not reinstated; this was because he was no longer eligible due to retiring more than 20 years ago. For some reason, George Scott was also put on the ballot, despite getting no votes in 1985.

Part 2c – 5% Rule Continuing Errors

All retraction of the 5% rule stopped dead in 1986. In the 24 elections since then, the rule has been firmly applied, except for an occasional mistake. Players worthy of a longer look, as indicated by modern statistical analysis, continue to be one-and-done. Here is a chronological rundown of the more serious errors:

1989: Manny Mota is on the ballot, despite only 4.2% support the previous year.

1990: Ken Boyer is allowed on the BBWAA ballot more than 20 years after retiring, in violation of the Hall’s rules. Contrary to Haddix’ treatment, this establishes a new precedent for reinstated players, that they will be allowed up to their normal 15 years of eligibility to make up for the years they missed after being disqualified by the 5% rule. This precedent will be followed for Pinson, Flood and Santo, but not for Allen.

1992: Bobby Grich is one-and-done with 2.6%. Grich is generally ranked among the top 15 second basemen in baseball history.

1994: Ted Simmons is one-and-done with 3.7%. Simmons is generally ranked among the top 15 catchers in baseball history.

1995: Vida Blue, George Foster and Don Baylor are on the ballot, despite less than 5% support the previous year. The Hall compounds the error by leaving Blue off the 1996 ballot, despite 5.7% support in 1995.

1995: Darrell Evans is one-and-done with 1.7%. Evans is generally ranked among the top 15 third basemen in baseball history.

1997: Graig Nettles is four-and-out with 4.7%. Nettles is generally ranked among the top 20 third basemen in baseball history.

1999: Dwight Evans is three-and-out with 3.6%. Evans is generally ranked among the top 20 right fielders in baseball history.

2001: Lou Whitaker is one-and-done with 2.9%. Whitaker is generally ranked among the top 15 second basemen in baseball history.

2006: Will Clark is one-and-done with 4.4%. Clark is generally ranked among the top 20 first basemen in baseball history.

2007: Albert Belle gets axed in his 2nd try with 3.5%. Belle is generally ranked among the top 20 left fielders in baseball history.

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