Baseball, Status and Tenure

Yesterday, the Baseball writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) announced the results from it’s annual Hall of Fame voting. If you follow baseball, you already know that three players were elected, one player fell two votes short, and a majority of baseball columnists criticized the voting process. Jeff Passan (last link) compared the voting process to “into the modern-day Cuyahoga, a conflagrant river of pollution.”

While the voting process has many problems, today’s discussions have centered on ESPN radio host Dan Le Batard breaking the rules of tenure. The BBWAA has a probationary period of 10 years of active service covering baseball. If your newspaper lays you off after 9 years and you start your own blog, then you are considered “retired” in the eyes of the BBWAA until you get a new job covering baseball. After 10 years, a writer can has the choice of switching to “honorary” membership. It’s the baseball writing equivalent of tenure: honorary memberships are for life, even if the writer moves to other things.

Le Batard is what the baseball writers had in mind with the “honorary” designation. As a longtime writer for the Miami Herald, Le Batard earned tenure from the BBWAA. However, Le Batard’s main job is hosting a nationally syndicated radio show (and recently his own talking head TV show) for ESPN. He is no longer an active baseball reporter. Partially to protest of many baseball writers’ refusal to vote for players who may have taken steroids, Le Batard secretly gave his ballot to the website deadspin.com, a part of Gawker Media. Deadspin invited its readers to vote by checking a yes or no box for each player, hiding the vote totals to make it harder for readers to collaborate on a block vote. Since Hall of Fame ballots can include up to 10 names, Deadspin gave the readers’ top 10 to Le Batard, who filled out his ballot accordingly and signed it as his own. Along with a protest of the voting system, Le Batard made an explicit endorsement of the wisdom of people who do not have tenure with the BBWAA.

“I don’t think I’m any more qualified to determine who is Hall of Fame-worthy than a fan who cares about and really knows baseball. In fact, many people analyzing baseball with advanced metrics outside of mainstream media are doing a better job than mainstream media, and have taught us some things in recent years when we were behind. In other words, just because we went to journalism school and covered a few games, just because accepted outlets gave us their platform and power, I don’t think we should have the pulpit to ourselves in 2014 that way we did in 1936.”

Deadspin readers, as a crowdsourced group, filled out a ballot that is largely consistent with the other tenured writers. Every player on Deadspin’s 10 man ballot was among top 13 vote getters among the BBWAA. The biggest difference is that the readers say yes to more people, in part because they were allowed to say yes to more than 10 people (a change that many prominent baseball columnists want too.) Even though no one is criticizing the fans’ ballot, a litany of older BBWAA writers have attacked Le Batard for giving his ballot to the readers, particularly readers of a lower prestige site. Within a day, the BBWAA announced that it was suspending Le Batard’s Hall of Fame voting privileges for life (emphasis added):

“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.”

If you checked the link to the BBWAA statement, you will recognize that this is the entirety of the BBWAA’s rationale. No one wants to throw out the Le Batard/Deadspin ballot because it is full of absurd names like Armando Benitez, Kenny Rogers and Jacque Jones (each of whom got 1 vote out of 570 tenured BBWAA writers). Instead, the BBWAA sees the Hall of Fame vote as “the ultimate privilege.” In fact, the Hall of Fame vote is the main privilege of being a tenured baseball writer. The privilege to vote on various awards the BBWAA gives every year like “Most Valuable Player” are based on active membership. The two groups may not overlap. Many MVP voters this year do not have tenure to vote for the Hall of Fame, and tenured writers may be honoraries who no longer follow baseball as their primary sport.

The debate between old baseball writers, younger writers and fans seems to have little if anything to do with whether or not fans are knowledgable enough to make well informed decisions. Instead, a tenured baseball writer giving his vote to the plebs has shown just how tightly constrained the BBWAA tenure process is, and how rapidly the old guard will react to defend its status. You may have noticed the BBWAA described Deadspin as “an entity that has not earned voting status.” Active membership in the BBWAA historically required covering at least 75% of a specific team’s games for a particular newspaper. A relatively recent change in the BBWAA constitution allowed people writing for “internet sites” to apply for active membership, if their site received press credentials. This provision allowed national sports columnists to regain their full membership after moving from local newspapers to sites like ESPN, CBS Sports or Yahoo. However, BBWAA members can vote to change these rules every year.

The BBWAA has not been able to maintain a monopoly on who readers will consider a credible expert on baseball, which may make members even more defensive about the few exclusive privileges they do have. Younger readers (and those “younger” in spirit) can turn to a wide range of younger writers, who are fairly collegial on Twitter. The Le Batard/Deadspin vote results give this constituency confidence that they can be trusted to make reasonable decisions. Some of these decisions are about the role of statistics in analyzing players, but the generational gap in baseball is broader. The old school emphasizes strict views on morality and decorum, whether it is Hall of fame voters retrospectively punishing players suspected of using steroids or John McCain calling the Dodgers “overpaid, immature, arrogant, spoiled brats” for celebrating in Arizona’s pool after winning the division this year. In these cases, the old guard wants to maintain as much power as possible over how the game is played, discussed and evaluated amid a growing number of threats from both readers and other writers within their own ranks:

Justice, who spent most of his career covering baseball for the Houston Chronicle, explicitly called for the end of lifetime tenure for Hall of Fame voters during an interview on Major League Baseball’s cable network. Instead, he explicitly recommended broadening the voting base to more websites and broadcasters, because “some of the writers are not thoughtful enough.”

Sociologists have argued that status and prestige are usually effective means of maintaining position in an economic market when the consumer cannot effectively evaluate the quality of a product on concrete terms. Status and prestige are important for cultural products, like sports writing, because we’d usually prefer to trust anyone working for a well regarded news organization than spend hours trying to search for the Internet’s best sports writing. However, maintaining status usually requires active work to disassociate from low quality goods. Maintaining an association with a low quality good can hurt the organization’s reputation, particularly if there is some more tangible way to assess quality.

The Deadspin / Le Batard Hall of Fame ballot gives baseball fans this opportunity to make clear comparisons. We can compare our “low status” ballot to the “high status” ballot of tenured BBWAA writers on more concrete terms. We can see how the low status ballot is attacked purely on the basis of status and tenure, even as tenured writers publicize their own low quality ballots. As the old school of baseball writers dig in to keep out the “riffraff” and protect the sanctity of their exclusive professional association, they forget that most sports readers care more about the quality of writing. If the traditional writers are out of touch and poorly informed, BBWAA tenure will not be enough to protect their status as cultural gatekeepers.

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About Noah Grand

PhD in Sociology. I use statistics to predict news coverage. And home runs. View all posts by Noah Grand

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