As a relatively recent joke goes, an editor is lamenting the demise of payphones while speaking to a reporter. Editor: "With no more payphones, where would Superman change?" Reporter: "Change? Where would he work?!"
When Clark Kent has to find a new job in newer media, will he lose his membership in the BBWAA and thereby his ability to vote for members of the Hall of Fame?
To this satirical commentary on the trajectory of the print medium, add the recent 9th Circuit decision in the case Opsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, ___ F.3d ___, 2014 WL 185376 (9th Cir. Jan. 17, 2014), which found that a distinction between the institutional press and other speakers, at least for First Amendment purposes, is "unworkable." So where does one go to see any vestige of the traditional, Clark Kent style of journalist? Well, one answer is: the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), on which attention is focused at least once a year when the BBWAA elects the new members of the Baseball Hall of Fame.
The BBWAA was formed in 1908 (ironically, the last year the Cubs won the World Series), and for almost one hundred years – through the advent of radio, television and the internet – was the exclusive realm of baseball writers who were employed full-time by newspapers or magazines. In 2007, the BBWAA did open its ranks to certain "full-time baseball writers who work for websites that are credentialed by MLB for post-season coverage." Thus, some writers from the likes of ESPN and MLB.com are now included in the BBWAA membership, though it takes ten years of BBWAA membership before a writer can vote in the Hall of Fame elections.
The question that seems to have been asked quite often this time of year is: "What about broadcast journalists?" There are few journalists in the country as knowledgeable about baseball as Vin Scully and Bob Costas, for instance. But Costas himself, when pressed on this issue, makes a valid point: Play-by-play broadcasters are part of the game experience. They don't just provide a post-game report. Thus, if Costas were calling a Detroit Tigers game after not voting for Jack Morris for the Baseball Hall of Fame in his final year of eligibility, would that affect the viewing experience of a Tigers fan? Obviously, print journalists who cover a particular baseball team are not without their biases, or perceived biases, either – and that has caused some to question their credibility in voting for members of the Hall of Fame. But, as Costas says, that does not affect the in-game viewing or listening experience of the fan.
In addition, many broadcasters are employed by the team they cover, and yet they would be called upon to make an objective assessment of retired players from that team in Hall of Fame elections. Meanwhile, those broadcasters who only do an occasional baseball game, like Costas himself, are not "full-time" baseball journalists like their print brethren. These factors also play into the reasons why the BBWAA keeps its old school composition.
So, will this dynamic change in the future? When Clark Kent has to find a new job in newer media, will he lose his membership in the BBWAA and thereby his ability to vote for members of the Hall of Fame? And if the nature of the BBWAA changes, will its approach to voting change? Right now, the BBWAA has one of the most conservative attitudes towards inclusion in the Hall of Fame of any sport that selects and enshrines its greats. The BBWAA treats Cooperstown somewhat like our criminal justice system treats prison – you would rather have somebody out who should be in rather than somebody in who should be out.
It seems inevitable that the BBWAA membership criteria will undergo some reevaluation at some point. For the moment, however, two vestiges from 1908 are likely to remain intact for a while longer: the BBWAA's view of a "journalist" and the Cubs' streak of futility.