“The only Hall of Fame that inspires passionate debate is Baseball’s.” That was the claim made in a Cincinnati Enquirer column by a Baseball Writers Association of America voter explaining his ballot in 1997 — which was, sorry, a long time ago if you actually do the math.
It’s a pretty unassailable stance, just a rhetorical flourish deployed as a lede and intended as a compliment to the hallowed halls. The museum established in Cooperstown, as an homage to the sport’s apocryphal origin, dates to the 1930s, with an inaugural class of Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. By the next year, coverage referenced the “vociferous disagreement” among fans.
Sixty years took the discourse from “vociferous disagreement” to “passionate debate” and, after another 10, an op-ed in the Reno-Gazette Journal declared the controversy that surrounded elections a sign that baseball had become “dysfunctional.”
Unlike the “well-oiled machine” of the Pro Football Hall of Fame (this is neither the time nor place to interrogate that particular part of the argument), “baseball tears itself apart arguing about who belongs in its fabled hallways and who doesn’t.”
That was 2007, the first year that home run king and avatar of the early PED era Mark McGwire was on the ballot — all that passion had started to sour.
The 15 years since have only exacerbated the issue. By now, nearly every column about the Hall includes an effort to preempt the backlash it is sure to inspire or at least a weary acceptance of the inevitability. The current process has become so unpleasant that new Hall of Fame president Josh Rawitch is at least open to the idea of changing it down the line rather than preside over an indefinite annual cycle in which voters enrage the public with their bad ballots and readers harass them in response.
But in a culture that can get worked up over fast food rankings and turn caustic at the slightest offense, it’s possible the process isn’t the problem. This is just what Hall of Fame discourse looks like now.
“Any ballot is going to make somebody angry,” says Ryan Thibodaux, who has been publicly tracking the voting process since 2013. His ballot drops on Twitter and the up-to-the-minute spreadsheet that they feed have amplified and energized the discourse. Now, instead of a discrete event, Hall of Fame elections are an entire season. And the vitriol that accompanies it is Thibodaux’s least favorite part.
“I don't really know what to do about it,” he says. “I spend so much time playing Whack-a-Mole block on Twitter every year, which is just really frustrating in itself. But, of course, that's not going to do any real good.”
We can’t fight it, but we can try to understand it.
Why Baseball Hall of Fame discourse is so toxic
Jay Van Bavel is an associate professor of psychology and neural science at NYU who has written a book about how group identity shapes people’s behavior. He identifies a three-prong explanation for why the Hall makes us so mad online.
The first is perhaps obvious. “Whenever you have identity connected to things, it makes people feel like their own self is on the line,” he says.
Sports are about rooting, about basking in the reflected glory of hometown heroes. Fans want their guys to get elected. But it’s not just indiscriminate allegiance, there are actual psychological forces at play.
When Thibodaux explains how he got started tracking Hall candidacy — “I think it's basically because like, I watched Jeff Bagwell, I know Jeff Bagwell was a Hall of Famer, and I want everybody else to know that too” — he’s exhibiting a version of the endowment effect. Repeated experiments have shown that people tend to value much more highly something they have ownership of — usually it’s a mug, but here it would be memories of a great player in their prime — than the same thing that is not in their possession.
In other words, you can’t help it, comparable careers look different if one of them feels like it’s more yours.
Thibodaux notices a version of this whenever he tweets out a seemingly reasonable ballot.
“But it'll get a lot of heat because one player was left off of it. And the fan base of that player will hop on and surprise me with how much negative reaction that particular ballot gets,” he says. “And that happens over and over again.”
How social media moralized Hall of Fame voting
Of course, some ballots are controversial not for who they leave off, but for who they include.
Van Bavel’s second point is that the Hall is necessarily fraught — “it's kind of like a shrine, that's why they call it being enshrined in the whole thing. And so when you have sacred values, those are the types of things that become moralized for people.”
Between a confluence of suspected PED users on the ballot and a growing attention to off-field infractions, that’s never been more true. The Hall of Fame has become a forum for discussing not just what we value in a baseball player, but what can and can’t abide in a beloved public figure.
“So many of these candidates, you crack open their candidacy and it’s a referendum on one idea or another as to what defines a Hall of Famer,” says Jay Jaffe, a FanGraphs writer and the industry’s foremost expert of objective Hall of Fame analysis.
He’s written about — and quantified to the best of anyone’s ability — what makes a Hall of Famer as it’s evolved to include advanced metrics and a closer read of the character clause. The latter is far trickier and involves weighing athletic exploits against a gamut of infractions from cheating between the lines to credible accusations of domestic violence and sexual harassment (in the case of Omar Vizquel, whose candidacy is, in Jaffe’s expert opinion, “really, really f***ed, and rightly so” — a sentiment reflected in the tallied ballots).
It’s not the collective character of former ballplayers that has changed, however. It’s the public awareness — perhaps in a former era, Curt Schilling’s dangerous and unhinged beliefs would have merely been hearsay — and tolerance.
“The norms have shifted in the U.S. There's polarization and that means everything is us versus them, good versus bad,” Van Bavel says, which brings him to his third point in diagnosing the discourse.
“Social media is an environment for moral outrage and strong moral opinions. That's what gets shared. That's what gets light,” he says. “If you have a nuanced opinion, it doesn't travel very far as a tweet.”
This is obvious to anyone who has ever been on Twitter, but it’s also born out in the literature. Studies have shown that the design of social platforms and the psychology of the humans who use them creates a cesspool where content that includes “moral-emotional” language gets amplified.
“And in fact,” Van Bavel says, “there's some evidence suggesting people say an opinion that's stronger than the one they privately hold, because of the way it's reinforced.”
Some of this is just pathologizing the whole point of subjective sports accolades, which is to inspire conversation. For instance, tracking the candidacy of historic greats who are Hall shoo-ins is cool and all, “but they're sort of not the funnest part of the Hall of Fame discussion,” Thibodaux says. The borderline guys, whose cases will provide content fodder for years to come as our analysis evolves, are the backbone of offseason coverage.
So could everyone just be a little nicer?
“I think the debates are supposed to be fun,” Jaffe says, “but they can veer into the very unfun.”