Trustees, Delegates, and the Baseball Hall of Fame

This article was published in partnership with The Good Men Project.

Edmund Burke, the legendary author, political philosopher and statesman, died more than a century before the 1939 opening of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. But last week, when the Hall of Fame’s annual voting took place (congrats to Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas), I wondered what Burke’s reaction would be.

In his writings about representational politics, Burke famously codified the distinction between delegates (your job is to vote on behalf of my interests) and trustees (your job is to vote based on a rational, educated assessment of how my interests best mesh with what’s right for the nation and the common good).

Are the voters for baseball’s Hall of Fame (HOF) delegates or trustees?

Traditionally, they’ve been neither. The voters are a body of longtime members of the baseball media, known as the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA). Each BBWAA member has a ballot. Their individual votes are their own. They do note vote on behalf of one constituency or another.

But all of that changed last week, when erstwhile BBWAA member Dan Le Batard, in concert with the sports website Deadspin, used his vote to act as a delegate for Deadspin’s readers.

How does Burke come into play? Mainly because neither Le Batard nor Deadspin chose the 10 players that they voted for. Instead, the 10 players selected on the Deadspin-Le Batard ballot were the top vote-getters in a poll of Deadspin readers. In other words, Le Batard acted as a delegate in the strictest sense: He voted on behalf of a constituency’s interests.

It was not without risk that Le Batard and Deadspin acted as delegates. After all, you never know what crazy opinions the uneducated masses might have. Le Batard acknowledged this risk in his public explanation: “I was afraid you guys were going to have me voting for Jacque Jones and no one else,” he wrote.

What happened with the Deadspin-Le Batard ballot evokes not only the writings of Burke, but also those of the Founding Fathers. The purpose of Congress, as James Madison (a.k.a. Publius) describes it in The Federalist No. 10, is “to refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice, will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.”

In Burke’s terms, Madison envisioned a system of representatives who’d act as trustees, rather than delegates. In baseball terms, Le Batard and Deadspin decided the time was right to act as delegates.

The BBWAA disagreed. It stripped Le Batard of his vote.

What I wonder about now is whether Le Batard and Deadspin have set a precedent, in which the voting members of privileged bodies will begin to act as delegates. In this particular case, Le Batard was a delegate for Deadspin’s readers. Is it possible that football writer Peter King, in the future, will act as a delegate for the football HOF opinions of his website’s readers?

Taking it one step further, I wonder if HOF voters in all sports will eventually become delegates in the manner that electors (the members of the electoral college that casts US presidential votes) are now delegates. In the same way that electors are a pass-through vehicle for the popular vote of each state, HOF voters might become pass-through vehicles. Le Batard, for example, proxied the popular vote of Deadspin’s readers; in the future, HOF voters might represent the readership of other websites or publications.

That’s just one way to look at it. I can also see a future in which HOF voters are proxies not for a website, per se, but for a region. Some writers might represent the Boston-area fan base; others might represent New York; still others might represent Cleveland. And perhaps, as with the electoral college, the number of writers assigned to a region would vary based on population or other criteria.

I wonder, too, whether the Le Batard-Deadspin maneuver is the product of an era that venerates the so-called “crowdsourcing” and “crowdfunding” of ideas. Want to raise capital for your startup? You can go the traditional route and try courting the gatekeepers (bankers, angel investors, venture capitalists), or you could put something on Kickstarter and see what happens. Want to publish a novel or release a record? You can go the traditional route and try courting those gatekeepers (agents, publishers), or you could just self-publish.

Some have called Le Batard’s move a PR stunt. If that’s the case, it’s working. And it makes me wonder: Who’s next? Say you’re a large organization that needs to spin-doctor its way out of a PR-debacle. Target and the State of New Jersey come to mind. Why not open up one of your roped-off decisions to the popular vote? You are bound to generate headlines that distract from the scandal. You are bound to become more popular in the process.

For now, the BBWAA remains a roped-off eminence, excommunicating Le Batard and rebuking him for transferring his ballot “to an entity that has not earned voting status.” His place on the BBWAA may be gone, but I have a feeling that — for better or for worse — it will not be forgotten.

photo credit: Candy Schwartz, Creative Commons/flickr