The Hypocritical Hall of Fame Electorate

In 1965, the Astrodome opened to the public in Houston. The world had never seen a stadium like it before, leading some to call it the Eighth Wonder of the World. Houston’s fledgling baseball team, the Colt ’45s, was renamed the Astros. Although they finished 9th with a poor record of 65–97, attendance was quite high as people came from all around to see the Astrodome. Judge Roy Hofheinz’s vision of major-league baseball in Houston was fully realized.

Fifty years later, there will finally be a plaque in Cooperstown with an Astros cap as Craig Biggio was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, his partner in crime for 15 years, Jeff Bagwell, was snubbed for the fifth year in a row. Which is a damn shame, because he was the best first baseman in baseball in the 90s. (Yes, Frank Thomas was close, but while Bagwell was about as good a hitter as Frank, he could also field and run very well, and was the better all-around player.)

While I completely disagree with them, the two main arguments that people seem to be making against him are that he didn’t play long enough to accumulate certain milestone numbers (e.g. 500 home runs, 3000 hits) and that he might have taken performance-enhancing drugs. The first argument doesn’t hold water, as there are plenty of players with shorter careers that are enshrined (offhand, Sandy Koufax and Jackie Robinson come to mind). The second is murkier, and unfortunately for the players in question, the Hall of Fame does not require the BBWAA writers to use the same standards as a court of law. I have seen some voters who publicly revealed their ballots acknowledge that they didn’t vote for Bagwell because “he looked like a user.”

As someone who grew up watching Bagwell terrorize opposing pitchers on a regular basis, I want to punch all of these people in the face. Also, I am convinced that if Boston hadn’t traded him for 22 innings of Larry Andersen, his numbers probably would have been even more impressive in Boston and, because the Red Sox will always be a higher-profile team, he’d have been elected a couple years ago. Baseball will always have an East Coast bias, unfortunately. But I digress.

Anyway, as of now, no publicly-known users of PEDs have been elected. (José Canseco swears that some users have been elected already, and I believe him.) The idea of electing PED users to the Hall of Fame has been an issue for years now. It’s a pretty touchy subject that still seems to bother at least half the voters, as Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the two most notorious players of the Steroid Era and legitimate contenders for the best hitter and best pitcher of all time, respectively, have received less than 50% of the vote so far.

I do not share their opinion. I do not believe the Hall of Fame should only commemorate upstanding people of good character. It’s not called the Hall of Good Guys. Just in case we forget that there have been jerks in the game, and in the Hall of Fame, all along, baseball historian John Thorn reminds us, “Plaster saints is not what we have in the Hall of Fame… Many were far from moral exemplars.”

I believe the Hall of Fame should commemorate outstanding achievements in baseball. That said, I understand why some people think they should disallow people who cheated or were morally bankrupt. And I’m okay with them having that opinion, as long as they are consistent in their application of the rules they want enforced.

Here I will note that the current voting criteria given to the electorate includes the criteria “integrity, sportsmanship, and character.” Now, consider that there are a number of people already enshrined that have question marks, if not black marks, in their history. Ty Cobb is probably the most often-cited of these guys, but the silver tuna is likely Cap Anson, who was as racist as they come, and was probably the player most responsible for establishing the color line in baseball, which kept blacks out of MLB for 60 years. The butterfly effect of his actions has had considerable implications on baseball, including the fact that fans could only imagine how different it would have been if many of the stars of the Negro League had been allowed to play in MLB. Was Josh Gibson better than Babe Ruth? Thanks in part to guys like Anson, we’ll never know.

I have not heard of any efforts to remove any of these degenerates from the Hall to keep up with the current criteria. Apparently, people of bad character are okay, as are people who threw spitballs, sharpened spikes, scuffed the ball, and interfered with the game. Some of those actions were against the rules and some were just dirty play, but all of them would be frowned on by most or all people today. Will players that get caught doing this crap now be elected?

When Steve Wilstein discovered Andro in Mark McGwire’s locker during the home run chase of 1998 and wrote about it, he was vilified by his fellow reporters. The story was basically crushed. There was no scandal at the time, no loss of interest in the dinger war. I went to an Astros game against the Cardinals the week after McGwire broke Roger Maris’s record, and he received an ovation when he came to the plate. It seemed that nobody in the ballpark cared about PEDs at that point, if they knew about them at all. Just a few years after the 1994 strike had arguably caused baseball’s nadir, with the collusion scandal a few years before still fresh in some minds, baseball was finally flourishing again. Some writers may have been conflicted between their journalistic duty to discover and report the truth and their desire to celebrate the resurgence of the game instead of tearing it down again, which I think is a perfectly cromulent reaction. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had been in their shoes. But as a whole, they basically stuck their heads in the sand, presumably hoping it would go away.

This probably wouldn’t be such a big deal now, if there weren’t members of the media now attempting to ex post facto hold the prestigious honor over the heads of suspected or known users of PEDs until they as the gatekeepers see fit to let them in, or deny it to them altogether. Jay Jaffe does an excellent job of pointing out the hypocrisy of them doing so when many of them knew about steroids and deliberately underreported the issue, regardless of the reason for doing so, and Bob Nightengale has an excellent call to action for ending said hypocrisy, and shows us his ballot for this year, on which more names have been linked to PEDs—however tenuously—than not. I highly recommend reading both Jay’s and Bob’s pieces, and if you still have issues with the idea of players that may have used being in the Hall of Fame, I would ask you to consider why that is, and whether or not it’s logically tenable.

As I see it, here are your three basic options for advocating eligibility:

  • Anyone is eligible for consideration for the Hall of Fame, regardless of any questionable behavior on or off the field.
  • Only people that didn’t break rules are eligible for consideration.
  • Only people that didn’t do reprehensible things are eligible for consideration.

If you choose the second option, then you have no recourse for not supporting most players of the Steroid Era. You may think they used—and you’re probably right about a lot of them, but it doesn’t matter—but Bonds and Clemens and Piazza and Bagwell and a lot of other guys were never suspended for PEDs. There is no (publicly-known) proof that they broke any rules.

If you choose the last option, you may have a difficult job justifying your case. First of all, you have to decide which activities are dealbreakers, which is a subjective and likely contentious dichotomy. Second, you have to juxtapose the activities you condemn with both those you condone and those from different eras. If you oppose the inclusion of players suspected or convicted of taking steroids, but you don’t support the expulsion of guys like Anson and Cobb, you’re implying that racism and dirty play are morally acceptable, but PEDs aren’t. Either that, or you’re suggesting that the integrity clause shouldn’t be applied to those already admitted. And if you oppose the inclusion of players suspected but not convicted of taking steroids, but don’t support the expulsion of players that are already enshrined but are known to have taken substances that are currently banned by MLB—and there are a lot of them—then you’re not taking a logical approach. Either that, or you think there’s a difference between amphetamines and steroids. Personally, I don’t think any of these are defensible. But that’s my opinion. You have your own, and I will respect it as long as you’re consistent. If you want to deny someone entry based on the fact that they used (regardless of whether or not it was legal at the time), I’m okay with it as long as you support the expulsion of all users currently enshrined. If you don’t, though, but still think you have a reasonable case for your opinion, I would like to hear* why you think so.

*This is not sarcasm, by the way. I’m genuinely curious how one can justify such a case.

The last option also has another consideration. If you can come up with a logically consistent application of the rules of integrity you prefer, its enforcement would result in a substantial contraction in the membership. “If the writers wanted to rid the Hall of Fame of everybody who ever bent the rules,” Alex Reimer writes, “the walls would be barren.”

For years, and for whatever reasons, the gatekeepers of Cooperstown have been willing to overlook the repugnant behavior of some baseball people for the sake of posterity. Why start now? Were we such primitive people only a century ago that we can simply dismiss such objectionable activities with a seemingly flippant remark like “that’s just the way it was then”?

And if we can do that, can we not say the same thing about the Steroid Era in baseball? Why should people from one era get a pass while those from another era are made pariahs?

They shouldn’t. As Nightengale says, it’s time to acknowledge the Steroid Era for what it was and deal with it. There were many great players from that era, and they should be recognized.

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