Chicago-based George Castle has covered sports for the gamut of media for more than three decades. He's also authored 11 baseball books, produced and hosted his own syndicated baseball radio show "Diamond Gems" for 17 years, and now is historian for the Chicago Baseball Museum.
Great minds are presently gazing at the gray early-winter skies, contemplating their navels or getting goggle-eyed looking at their laptop screens deciding the identity of the lucky Hall of Fame inductee announced just after New Year’s.
Many of the balloteers are eminently qualified. Some are not. Meanwhile, a whole gaggle of knowledgeable baseball people are locked out of the voting process simply because they don’t possess 10-year Baseball Writers Association of America “gold cards.” They cards aptly named because, to paraphrase imprisoned former Illinois Gov. Rod Blegojevich, they’re “effin’ golden” about the privileges accorded the bearer.
BBWAA membership is exclusive enough, as possession of a card ensures access to all Major League Baseball stadiums and events. Card carriers get prime pressbox seating and overall better treatment compared to non-BBWAA media. The best benefit of the card is as a shield against folks in the game who might not like what you write, with whom you keep company in the clubhouse or your overall persona.
But the “gold card?” That means you’re a “made” man, or woman. Put in 10 years as a member, and you have access for life. The ultimate fringe benefit is you qualify as a permanent voter for the Hall of Fame.
Full disclosure: I’m not a BBWAA member despite covering baseball for more than three decades based in Chicago, and two decades for a sizeable daily newspaper. Even in Cliff Notes form, the politics of why I’m not a member is too thick and involved to discuss here. That’s best left as a book chapter or three. Suffice it to say, I’d still believe the following thought process if I was on the inside looking out.
The Hall voting is too exclusive, too hide-bound with tradition. The elections should have been opened up long ago – as in decades ago – to veteran play by play broadcasters, senior baseball officials and even a couple of vetted fans in each major-league market. Just because the writers were the only organized media group when voting began in 1936 doesn’t mean the process must go unchanged after nearly 80 years.
There are problems with the BBWAA having a stranglehold on the vote now. The gold-card issue can backfire on the legitimacy of the vote, as some possessors of the lifetime card have not covered baseball in years, if not decades. How can you knowledgeably vote on candidates if you’ve been switched off the baseball beat during their playing careers?
In the same breath, big-city sports columnists are usually gold-card members simply through seniority. But if the attendance records in Chicago have been a guide, many key columnists don’t often go to games unless teams are smack dab into a September pennant race, or controversy is enveloping the Local Nine.
The columnists won’t miss an NFL game, home and road, on a Sunday. They’ll hang around a glamorous NBA team. Hockey, not so much. I’ve seen entire homestands on Chicago’s North and South Sides come and go with perhaps one columnist showing up one time. Summers are for burning vacation time, or gallivanting around covering golf tournaments as far away as Scotland.
Cincinnati Reds radio announcer Marty Brennaman has thought about this issue for what he figures is 25 years. The sometimes-outspoken Brennaman is No. 3 in continuous seniority with his team, after the Dodgers’ Vin Scully and the Royals’ Denny Matthews. His first game was Opening Day 1974, when Brennaman called Henry Aaron’s record-tying 714th homer off Jack Billingham.
“I say it all the time and I say it rather disparagingly, aimed at the baseball writers. “It might be the most closed fraternity in our business. Up and down the line, we see more baseball than they do over the course of any baseball season. While I take time off during the season, I still see upward of 140 games during the course of a season. I feel I’m qualified or more so than most of the members of the BBWAA who are charged with the responsibility of voting.”
Brennaman is just as candid in advocating that those who cease covering the game or don’t attend games lose their voting rights.
“There should be legislation in place that should prohibit that type of thing from happening,” he said. “But nobody does anything about it, year after year after year. All the rules remain in place, as antiquated as they may be. They continue with the approach and manner.”
If Brennaman, Scully, Matthews and the Marlins’ Dave Van Horne, who started with the original Montreal Expos in 1969, couldn’t come up with an accurate Hall of Fame vote, then who can? They’ve seen it all.
Mark down Cubs radio voice Pat Hughes, starting his 32nd season as a major-league broadcaster in 2014, as another who believes the voices have enough time in to participate.
“I would say after 10, or maybe 15 years of broadcasting MLB on a daily basis, one is eminently qualified to vote,” he said.
The stance of some writers would be the broadcasters are employees of the teams, skewing their supposed objectively. However, the BBWAA is pinned to the wall on this issue. As MLB.com expands its empire, the baseball-funded internet giant is sopping up experienced writers electing to jump before they’re pushed by a contracting newspaper industry. These writers will retain the gold cards and voting privileges while drawing a paycheck from MLB. Normally, the BBWAA prohibits membership from MLB.com staffers because of their financial association with the game, but the newspaper veterans are now being grandfathered in.
One such veteran is Phil Rogers, who made the switch at season’s end after a long run as the Chicago Tribune’s national baseball writer.
“If the Hall and its board ever chooses to expand the voting body to include broadcasters or non-BBWAA media types, that would be fine with me, personally,” he said. “Baseball writers don’t own the vote; we were just asked to vote back in 1936, or whenever.”
Brennaman appreciated the support of Hal McCoy, a legend in baseball writing circles who is a former national BBWAA president. McCoy, who began with the Reds just before Brennaman came on duty, is now off the road, but still covers the team for the Dayton Daily News and FoxSportsOhio.com.
“Hal has said publicly a thousand times that we should be part of the voting process,” Brennaman said.
At the opposite corner of the Buckeye State, the Akron Beacon-Journal’s Sheldon Ocker, on the Indians beat for 33 years and a Hall of Fame voter for 23, believes the broadcasters should be voters if the process is ever expanded.
But Ocker diverges about those who have gone off the beat or don’t attend many games, and yet still have the vote.
“If you watch on TV, it’s fine,” he said. “You’re watching the game. You don’t have to talk to these guys.”
Rogers believes the bigger issue than the voting body is lack of new guidelines on PED users, which helped freeze the electoral body last year into not enshrining anyone. Combined with the various forms of the Veterans Committee voting on only Ron Santo, almost in a guilt-ballot, posthumously in 2012, Cooperstown has lacked much new blood lately.
“I would like for the Hall’s Board of Directors to give voters guidelines on how to deal with PED users or suspected users, essentially revising voting instructions that have been in place since at least the ’60s,” he said.
“I think baseball writers take the heat for playing policeman when it’s not our Hall of Fame; that belongs to Jane Forbes Clark and the Hall’s board. Each individual voter is left to determine his own interpretation of the voting guidelines on sportsmanship, character and integrity. I say it’s 525 voters, 525 different standards. That’s the problem.”
In the end, the lack of a PED policy and the qualifications of voters go hand in hand. The entire process seems clotted. So many are living in the past, as if there’s no wrenching changes brought about by the points of syringes or the long-term effects of the Internet adversely impacting newspapers.
BBWAA membership has actually declined over the past half-decade. A few newspapers that had large numbers of card-carrying members outright folded. Many others cut both staffs and what is in effect expensive baseball coverage. The impact isn’t felt keenly at Major League Baseball headquarters in New York or at Cooperstown. The cuts have not been as dramatic on the reader-heavy East Coast. Baseball coverage is still intense, with headline-mongering tabloids gamely hanging on in New York, Boston and Philadelphia.
Someday the process will change. It’s just frustrating to wait until it does.