The Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s Suspension of Dan Le Batard Is Cowardly and Wrong

By: Brian Mangan

(Edit: Dr. J. Scott Smith, a professor of communication at Christopher Newport University and frequent contributor to The Read Zone, published a counter-point to this article earlier today.  You can read it here.)

The Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), the body empowered to vote for entry to the Baseball Hall of Fame, today suspended one of its own members, Dan Le Batard, for allowing a popular website to poll its readers and use his ballot.

Let me be clear: what Deadspin did with Dan Le Batard’s Hall of Fame Ballot was brilliant, clever, and revealing; Dan Le Batard was courageous for volunteering and accepting the consequences; and the criticism of Deadspin and Le Batard by the mainstream media and the Baseball Writers’ Association has done more to turn me against the so-called old guard than any of their prior transgressions have.  As a long-time defender of the BBWAA, this is the definitive proof that I’ve always feared — that the Hall of Fame voting process is a farce; a process propagated by the small-minded and provincial.  And for that reason, I’m out.

For those unfamiliar, Dan Le Batard earned his Baseball Writers Association of America Hall of Fame vote while working at the Miami Herald.  This year, he gave his ballot to the popular website Deadspin.com, who in turn allowed its readers to vote on who they thought was worthy of enshrinement to the Hall of Fame (Deadspin originally intended to “buy” a ballot; when that fell through, Le Batard gave his ballot to Deadspin and its readers for free).  The fans voted, and Le Batard submitted a ballot with ten extremely worthy names (Maddux, Thomas, Glavine, Piazza, E. Martinez, Biggio, Bagwell, Clemens, Bonds, Schilling).  The ballot was not a farce; it was the reasoned result of the consensus of fans.  Why did Deadspin do this?  Here’s the part of their reasoning that I liked:

“[T]o draw attention to how ridiculous the Hall of Fame elections have become. With an electorate comprising a subset of a subset of a subset of the baseball press and a 75 percent threshold for entry into the Hall, the process has been hijacked by cranks, attention-seeking trolls, and the merely perplexed—people who exercise power out of proportion to their numbers due to the perverse structure of the voting.”  (link)

In the past, I have been the first to defend older-school sportswriters, the BBWAA, and the Hall of Fame as a whole.  I’ve had friends tell me that they no longer care about the Hall of Fame or the trumped-up voting process; that the Hall is a sham until the best players from the last era are enshrined; that the sportswriters complicit in the Steroid Era are moralist fuckwads deserving of no respect.  In the past, I have been centrist about it.  The sportswriters have earned their votes; the Hall is still a worthy institution; and eventually, everything will come out in the wash – I was sure that people would come to their senses and elect guys like Piazza, Bagwell, and others who are clearly worthy of enshrinement.

Well, no longer.

The BBWAA today suspended Dan Le Batard and stripped him of his vote for the Hall of Fame.

This was after writer after writer – some of whom I respected – piled on Dan Le Batard, calling him a “spoiled child,” “petulantly arrogant,” a “clown,” and a “scumbug.” Writers also took shots directly at Deadspin, one going so far as to call it a site which “exists solely for the purpose of embarrassing people.”  (Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe).

Here is what the BBWAA had to say about their decision to punish Le Batard:

The BBWAA Board of Directors has decided to remove Dan Le Batard’s membership for one year, for transferring his Hall of Fame ballot to an entity that has not earned voting status. The punishment is allowed under the organization’s constitution.

In addition, Le Batard will not be allowed to vote on Hall of Fame candidates from this point on.

The BBWAA regards Hall of Fame voting as the ultimate privilege, and any abuse of that privilege is unacceptable.

This is cowardice to the highest degree.  As Harvard Law School graduate and Supreme Court Justice Lewis Brandeis once famously stated, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”

I could understand stripping Le Batard of his vote if the Hall of Fame election was some closely-managed, well-run process.  It is not.  Voting for the Hall of Fame is done by approximately six hundred sportswriters around the country, some of whom no longer cover the sport, and who are subject to absolutely no vetting process or academic or diligence requirements aside from the fact that they, at some point, were awarded a vote because they, at some point, met the BBWAA’s criteria.  There is no rhyme or reason to the votes that are submitted and, to my knowledge, nobody has ever been stripped of their vote in the past, regardless of how bullshitty their votes were.  Here are the requirements for voting, in their entirety:

Voting — Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

A Hall of Fame ballot is not accompanied by any declaration or affirmation from the person voting that the ballot was filled out to the best of their ability, nor is it accompanied by a certification that the person voting has continued to follow the game or feels qualified to vote. In fact, it is not accompanied by anything other than a single paragraph instructing them to vote, a header with contact information, and a signature line on the ballot (photo of ballot here).  There is no provision in the BBWAA Constitution about “ethics” or “duties” of the writers which would prevent them from crowdsourcing a legitimate vote.  There is a blanket clause authorizing punishment for members not adhering to the “objects and ethics” of the BBWAA.  There is no provision on the website that would limit Le Batard from doing what he did.  The best part of it all, is that Le Batard’s ballot completely comports with the rule above, submitting ten players who are undoubtedly Hall-worthy.

Nonetheless, the cowardly BBWAA, an organization so desperate to retain what is left of its flagging credibility that it would apparently do anything, suspended Le Batard, stating sanctimoniously that voting for the Hall of Fame is the “ultimate privilege.”

If voting for the Hall of Fame is the “ultimate privilege”, then what about these individuals?

  • Ken Gurnick famously left 355-game-winner and 4 time Cy Young Greg Maddux, and every other worthy player off his ballot yet voted for Jack Morris, arguing that he could not vote for any player who played during the Steroid Era (notwithstanding that Morris and Maddux’s careers overlapped by over half a decade) – yet he retains his Hall of Fame vote.  
  • Bill Conlin has been accused by seven individuals of sexual assault – yet the BBWAA never stripped him of his Hall of Fame vote and reiterated that he was in “good standing.”  (Sadly, there are reports today that Conlin has passed away.  Allegations are just allegations, so I am taking no position, but I feel it is in bad taste to speak ill of Conlin today and am merely reflecting on the BBWAA’s failure to discipline him.)
  • Murray Chass specifically only continues to vote to antagonize his critics, voting entirely out of spite, and threatening to send in a blank ballot – yet he retains his Hall of Fame vote.

Hell, the ballot itself says specifically that the players listed on the ballot are “the only players eligible.”  Rule 3(E) of the Hall of Fame voting rules, “Eligible Candidates,” specifically says that “Any player on Baseball’s ineligible list shall not be an eligible candidate.”  Rule 4(B) also states that “write-in votes are not permitted.”  These are some of the ONLY rules voters must adhere to, yet every season about 1% of the electorate “writes-in” Pete Rose.  Every single BBWAA member who has written in a vote for Pete Rose has derogated their specific, delineated duties.  Nonetheless, the BBWAA fails to punish them for staining the “ultimate honor” by specifically breaking the rules.  SIXTEEN PEOPLE DIDN’T VOTE FOR GREG MADDUX.  SIXTEEN.

The BBWAA was embarrassed by what Le Batard did — and they should be.  However the right response to being called out for being sanctimonious, hypocritcial, moralizing, and irrelevant is not to punish the person pointing it out — it is to acknowledge that fact and take actions to repair it. The BBWAA looked bad, now they look terrible, and they have lost even me as a supporter.

Edit 2 (2:11p.m., 1/10/2014): Thank you to Rob Neyer (@robneyer) for the link on Baseball Nation and hello to all our new readers.  Please follow The Read Zone on wordpress, on facebook (www.facebook.com/thereadzone) and twitter @readzonenow.  The authors can be followed at @brianpmangan and @mabitab.

I fully agree with Rob’s assessment in his article, which is somewhat less harsh than mine:

What they [the BBWAA] don’t understand — again, because we all have blind spots and do stupid things — is that disciplining Le Batard just hurts their credibility even more. A strong, self-confident, far-sighted organization might have made a public statement of disapproval, while acknowledging the value of dissent and announcing that Le Batard’s concerns will be addressed by the membership in the coming months.

Edit (6:52 p.m.): Looks like the BBWAA may have owed Le Batard a hearing before suspending him:

Other reactions around the internet that I agree with … a.k.a. people who can say what I just said in 140-characters or less:

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Brian Mangan is an attorney living in New York City and is the co-founder of the Read Zone.

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