The main avenue to the Hall is, of course, through the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), which will announce its voting results on Wednesday. Throughout the history of the game, 108 players have been selected by the writers, who have 15 years to consider a player's worthiness for induction. A look back shows that the baseball writers have been fairly consistent in their standards throughout the history of the game.
With the understandable exception of players who retired in the 1950s (who have fewer Hall of Fame representatives due to WWII), each retiring class has similar representation by the BBWAA. On average there have been about 0.7 Hall of Famers per team elected by the writers in each decade. This means that in a 16-team league, the writers should elect about 12 players to the Hall, and in today's 30-team league, the writers should elect about 21 players. Give or take a few players, that's by and large what the writers have done. It's not easy selecting players to join the pantheon of greats, especially when doing so over the course of more than 70 years, but the writers been reasonably consistent in their standards and have overall done a great job. While I don't agree with every selection (Tony Perez, Catfish Hunter) or non-selection (Ron Santo), a look at the list of BBWAA selections leaves very little to quibble with.
If we combined the 108 BBWAA selections with the 25 players who were elected by the Old-Timers Committee, which met in the 1940's and selected mainly players who played in the 19th century and Deadball Era, we would have a nice, tidy Hall filled with only the most deserving players and precious few oversights (add in some Negro Leaguers as well). Plenty of people think that the Hall is watered down with lesser players, but the blame for that lies not with the writers, but with the Veterans Committee.
The Veterans Committee, which was created in 1953 to consider players who had been passed over by the BBWAA, used to be a small group of fewer than 20 former players, executives and sportswriters, who got together each year and decided upon overlooked players worthy of induction to the Hall. However, their selections did far more than usher in a few overlooked players. Of players who ended their careers in the 1930's, 40's or 50's, a whopping 36 players were voted into the Hall by the VC. In contrast, the BBWAA selected only 35 players from this era to be inducted. In correcting "oversights," the Veterans Committee actually more than doubled the number of players in the Hall of Fame from these decades!
Up until the 1960s, when the Veteran's Committee started its meddling in earnest, the Hall of Fame had an extremely high standard, which slowly eroded over the next 40 years with the inductions of players such as Lloyd Waner (lifetime OPS+ of 99) and Rube Marquard (lifetime ERA+ of 103). In 2001 baseball realized that the Veterans Committee had been chipping away at the standards of the Hall of Fame for years, and it had a choice to make: Let the Veterans Committee continue to induct players at a high rate and accept the fact that many good-but-not-great players would eventually gain admission to the Hall, or reconfigure the Veterans Committee to avoid its chronic over-inducting and deal with the fact that the players from baseball's early live-ball era are over-represented. In 2001 baseball wisely chose to reorganize the VC and reaffirm the standards for the Hall of Fame.
With the pantheon's spare set of keys now tightly controlled by the living members of the Hall of Fame, they won't open up the gates for just anyone anymore. Since the Hall of Famers themselves took control of the process after the 2001 election, they have let nary a player into the Hall and don't appear to be changing any time soon. In 2009 Ron Santo was the top candidate, but he fell far short of immortality, receiving only 60% of the vote. Making it to the Hall of Fame is as tough as it has ever been: With the new Veterans Committee format, the increasing reality for modern players is that it's BBWAA election or bust.
With the VC's generosity, players retiring in the 1930s were inducted at a rate of two per team. While this rate fell to one player per team for those in the 1950s through the 1970s, it has fallen even further today. In fairness, there probably will be two more BBWAA selections from the 1990s, and the Veterans Committee has not yet had a chance to vote on any players who retired from that decade. The VC has, however, had a chance to vote on players from the 1980s, and has selected no one. If its recent stinginess is any guide, the number of players from the 1990s who are eventually selected by the new Veterans Committee will be very, very small.
In a way, it's refreshing to see the Hall of Fame return to its high standards. While the players may not like that the Hall of Fame is now tougher than ever to crack, it's a good thing for baseball. If the Hall let in modern players at the same rate as those who retired in the 1930's, it would be enshrining 60 players per decade. Can you think of 60 Hall of Famers who retired this decade? Frankly I'm glad we won't have to watch the Matt Williams or Chuck Finley inductions. Not that they both weren't fine players -- in fact they compare favorably to, say, Fred Lindstrom or Waite Hoyt, both Veterans Committee selections who played in the 1930s -- it's just that most fans would rather see the Hall reserved for the game's true greats.
The new reality is, however, cause for concern for those players on the bubble of BBWAA selection. As if Andre Dawson, Bert Blyleven and Jack Morris weren't anticipating Wednesday's Hall of Fame announcement already, the new Veterans Committee's lock on the Hall's doors makes the BBWAA's selections all the more important for players on the cusp of immortality.