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A Hall Of A System: Canastota Curiosity

BY George Kimball ON October 21, 2009
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We've never sat in on a meeting of the screening committee at the International Boxing Hall of Fame, but we suspect the most recent convocation went something like this:

All right, fellas, anybody who thinks Sven Ottke belongs in the Hall of Fame, please stand up.

Okay guys -- you can sit down now, Ulf --how about Santos Laciar?

Do I hear a second for Little Red Lopez, anyone?

See you next year.
*  *  *
Although each member of the aforementioned trio had a respectable career, by almost any reasonable standard they're borderline Hall of Fame candidates at best, but in a year characterized by an unusually weak field the new hopefuls have this much going for them: Unlike the other 45 names on the 2009 ballot, they haven't previously been rejected by the same electorate that will pick the inductees for next June.

And say what you will about the credentials of Ottke, Laciar, and Little Red: They may be all that stands between the present unsatisfactory situation and the even more odious prospect of seeing Prince Naseem Hamed paraded through the streets of Canastota next summer.

We've said this before and we'll say it again: It might have made sense in the early days of the IBHoF, but as Canastota enters its third decade as a boxing shrine, the present system mandating the induction of the top three vote-getters in the 'modern' category is basically flawed. If three bona fide Hall of Famers come up in a given year, fine, put all three of them in, but if there are only two -- or one, or zero -- worthwhile candidates, that's how many should be enshrined.  To do otherwise is to dilute the product -- and to cheapen the status of every boxer already represented by a plaque.

And spare us the argument that the induction weekend would suffer in a year in which no recently-retired fighters were added. As last summer's ceremony, when the likes of Bobby Goodman, Hugh McIlvanney, and Larry Merchant joined Lennox Lewis & Co. in the Class of '09 aptly illustrated, a similarly attractive group of inductees from other categories would more than offset the lost revenue occasioned by the absence of the Prince Naseem groupies.
*  *  *
Comparing Halls of Fame is in some respects an apples vs. grapefruits exercise, but since Canastota aspires to be seriously compared to its counterparts in Cooperstown and Canton it might take a few cues from their procedures.

For openers, an eligible candidate failing to garner 5% of the votes in a given year is automatically dropped from the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot the following year. (There is no ballot as such for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but a candidate failing to pass muster one year must go through the entire nominating process again the next.)

But the same tired names, some of whom have been annually rejected for the past two decades, keep showing up on the IBHoF ballot. It ought to be clear by now that if Tippy Larkin and Rinty Monaghan and Al Hostak and Tommy Farr are going to get into the Hall of Fame it's going to be by the old-timers committee. By remaining on the ballot they continue to take up places that might have been allotted to more deserving -- and more electable -- candidates, but, conceded IBHoF executive director Ed Brophy to The Sweet Science, "to date, no candidate has been taken off the ballot once they have been put on."

Here's something else that hasn't changed in twenty years: A "modern" boxer is still defined as one whose last fight took place no earlier than 1943. That's 66 years ago, gentlemen; trotting out the same list of also-rans year after year doesn't make sense.
I mentioned to Brophy that over the past year I'd been queried about the Hall of Fame chances of several boxers, and specifically named a few of them -- Tony DeMarco, Marlon Starling, Steve Collins, and Dave (Boy) McAuley. (The Ring 4 Boston chapter of the VBA, for instance, became so outraged over DeMarco's continued exclusion that the membership angrily, and officially, renounced its recognition of the Hall.) I made it clear to Brophy that I wasn't acting as an advocate for the aforementioned, but merely asking for an explanation I could pass along.

The answer was that the electorate has never even had a chance to pass judgment on their worthiness for the Hall, because none of their names has ever appeared on the ballot. (And a grass-roots campaign wouldn't help: "There is no procedure for write-in candidates," said Brophy. "If a name is written in it is not counted."

(Cooperstown does not count write-in votes either -- witness Pete Rose.)

Okay, so how does a boxer get his name on the ballot? That is determined by the Hall of Fame screening committee:

"Nominations (in letter form) are received at the Hall of Fame and forwarded to the screening committee for their review. The screening committee is also in communication with other boxing historians (nationally and internationally) to discuss possible candidates who have achievements in their particular field," explained Brophy. "The process is ongoing throughout the entire year, and an October 1st mailing of ballots officially begins the induction process."

(The identities of the screening committee members does not appear to be a matter of public record, and probably shouldn't be, but when I hear a phrase like "other boxing historians" I somehow detect the odor of Bert Sugar lurking behind all this mumbo-jumbo.)
Brophy also noted that DeMarco, Starling, Collins, and McAuley were "all eligible but have not yet appeared on the ballot."  Now that the process has been clarified, perhaps their proponents should be advised to submit well-constructed letters of nomination. Getting their names on the ballot wouldn't guarantee induction, but at least the electors would have a choice in the matter.
*   *   *
In order to ensure a more informed electorate (which was becoming more and more difficult as the gulf between younger voters and some of these 1940s-era "moderns" widened with each passing year), BWAA president Jack Hirsch this year appointed a three-man committee consisting of Cliff Rold, Jack Obermeyer, and Lee Groves, to prepare a dossier that included the pertinent qualifications of each of the known candidates. (Since it was distributed before the new additions were announced, it did not include Ottke, Laciar, or Lopez.)

The candidates' qualifications were listed objectively. There was no attempt to characterize the negatives of anyone on the list, nor should there have been, but the sum effect was to put the best face on each of them and let the voters decide whether any of them ought to be Hall of Famers.

As is the case with the Baseball Hall of Fame, electors may vote for up to ten candidates. As is also the case with the Baseball Hall of Fame, in practice this rarely happens, simply because there have never been that many deserving candidates. I don't think I've ever voted for more than three, and it's usually been even fewer.  After consulting the BWAA list -- remember, we'd seen all of these names before -- I'd come to the conclusion that there were no Hall of Famers on it, and had pretty much made up my mind to either skip sending it in altogether, or to return a signed, but blank, ballot.

I may wind up doing that anyway, but the inclusion of the three new candidates no longer makes it a slam-dunk.  One could make some pretty persuasive arguments both pro and con with Ottke, Laciar, and Little Red, but at the very least, unlike the 45 holdovers, they're borderline candidates worth a second look.

Some are going to look at Ottke's perfect 34-0 record and his six-year run with the IBF super-middleweight title and say "He has to be a Hall of Famer!" Others are going to look at the fact that he never had a single fight outside Germany, and avoided many of the top super-middles of his era and decide otherwise.

To be sure, there were a lot of cream-puffs among Ottke's 20-plus title challengers, but didn't Joe Calzaghe (who never left the British Isles during the period Ottke was holed up in Germany) take pretty much the same approach? (In point of fact, David Starie, Rick Thornberry, Tocker Pudwill, Charles Brewer, and Byron Mitchell lost title fights to both Calzaghe and Ottke.)

He's several years away, but few would question Calzaghe's HofF qualifications. On the other hand, that status wasn't confirmed in the minds of many until his last few fights -- the unification bouts against Jeff Lacy and Mikkel Kessler, and the 2008 American victory lap that added Bernard Hopkins and Roy Jones to his collection of scalps. That Ottke's career lacked a similar exclamation point may hurt him in the eyes of many voters, but it could be a close call.

Laciar was 79-10-11 in a career that saw him twice win the WBA flyweight title and briefly hold the WBC junior bantam belt, but his resume includes a bit too much home cooking for my taste, and, I suspect, for that of may other voters as well.

He rarely fought outside Argentina, and was 5-4-1 when he did. Consider, too, that 10 of his 11 draws took place in Argentina (the other was in Chile). Given what we know of the inner machinations of Argentine boxing politics and it is reasonable to assume he lost all or most of them, or would have with fair-minded officials, his credentials don't hold up well to scrutiny.

Lopez will get his share of support from those who recall his exciting television bouts from the late 1970s, but there will be some who consider him another "regional" candidate, since the overwhelming majority of his fights took place within a 20-mile radius of Los Angeles. He held the WBC featherweight title for nearly four years, but is remembered even more for his back-to-back losses to Salvador Sanchez than for his 15th-round knockout of Mike Ayala in 1979's Fight of the Year.

Some are also going to wonder why, if he is a worthy Hall of Fame candidate, it took him a dozen years to get back on the ballot once he became eligible again. (If memory serves, he was on the ballot for a few years in the late 80s, but in 1992, a dozen years after his last fight against Sanchez, Little Red tried to come back and was knocked out in two. Those six minutes of boxing at the age of 40 could well turn out to be what keeps him out of the Hall of Fame.
*  *   *
This year's ballots must be returned to Canastota by October 31. One school of thought holds that even among this borderline field, anyone with a chance needs to cash in now, because next year's ballot will include some mortal locks for induction. Looking over the list of those who stopped fighting in 2005, I'd thought so myself until Brophy shed some light on it this week.

It turns out that to be included on the ballot, a fighter must have been inactive for five years before the entire process starts -- which explains why Lewis, whose last fight had been in June of 2003, had to wait nearly six years between then and his induction.

For the same reason, the next big spike of heavy hitters will come in the Class of 2011, not next year.  Julio Cesar Chavez (last fight: September 2005) becomes eligible for the 2011 election, as do Mike Tyson and Kostya Tszyu (both June '05). And a year beyond that -- provided he doesn't fight again in the meantime -- Tommy Hearns will head up the list.
*  *  *
The Baseball Writers Association of America requires ten years of card-carrying membership before entrusting anyone with the Hall of Fame ballot. The Pro Football Writers are even more selective, leaving the entire process in the hands of a select number of veteran writers representing each NFL city. Voting privileges for the IBHoF, on the other hand, are immediately conferred upon a member as soon as he joins the Boxing Writers Association of America.

Since the organization has instituted a vetting process for prospective members, this is no longer the problem it once was. Or so I had thought until I stumbled across a piece on another website a few days ago.

Since there are no objective criteria for Hall of Fame membership, it's pretty much in the eye of the beholder, but to paraphrase the late Justice Stewart, I know a Hall of Famer when I see one -- which is to say that the IBHoF is for the Catfish Hunters of the boxing world, not the Jack Brohamers.

And as we've pointed out already, an elector could theoretically vote for up to ten names, even though that would be a pretty silly thing to do in a year when there might not be a legitimate Hall of Famer on the entire ballot.

On this particular website the guy had not only decided to publicly reveal his ballot -- which is his right; baseball writers do it all the time -- but to reveal, publicly, and without an apparent trace of embarrassment, that he was voting for at least seven candidates.
He's voting for Laciar, for instance, but presumably not for Ottke or Lopez. Moreover, he appears to be of the opinion that Jung-Koo Chang, Yoko Gushiken, Pone Kingpetch, Lloyd Marshall, Myung-Woo Yuh, and Hilario Zapata should all be immortalized in the Hall of Fame.

My initial reaction was probably the same as yours:  "He's kidding, right?

But upon further reflection, it occurred to me that if a lot of ballots like that one showed in up in Canastota next Saturday it could have one of two effects:  It could either force Brophy and the IBHoF to fix the presently flawed system, or it could force the IBHoF to disenfranchise the entire BWAA. 
 
 
 
 
 


Are there ways to fix these problems? Sure there are.  Brophy isn't intransigent when it comes to these matters.  We weren't the only ones complaining, but a few years ago the Hall went from four to three automatic inductees per year, and we imagine he'd at least consider the following constructive criticisms when it comes to addressing the situation:

1. Reduce the number of automatic inductees again, this time to two -- and be prepared to go to one if the situation warrants. This wouldn't limit the number of candidates who could be elected. As is the case with the Baseball Hall of Fame, anyone named on 75% of the ballots should get in -- even if that turns out to be more than three.

2. Taking another cue from the Baseball HoF, any candidate not named by 5% of the voters should be dropped from the following year's ballot, ensuring a freshened pool of candidates.

3. The screening process doesn't have to be public, but it should at least have enough transparency that both boxing fans and the electorate understand how it works and why certain names make the ballot and others do not. (In addition to supplying the new candidates, the committee could provide an explanation of how they were chosen and why others weren't.)

4. The full results of the voting should be a matter of record. Both the public and the voters should know not only the support received by the inductees who won, but how close the near-misses might have come. And if the overall results reveal a pattern of miscast votes for unworthy candidates, the BWAA should have it within its purview not only to examine the ballots, but to contact rogue voters and ask them to explain their rationale.

None of these improvements is exactly revolutionary in nature, and none of them is apt to stand the Hall on its head. It's more a matter of change we can believe in.

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