Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 13, 2013

The Writers Do Cooperstown No Favor

Of all the tens of thousands of words written in the past few days about the collective judgment of the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America that no former player on this year’s ballot was worthy of the Hall of Fame, the three most ridiculous were found on a well-known sports website. The headline atop one of several stories about the vote read “Hall Remains Clean.” Oh really? Right there, in the fact that the headline’s author couldn’t possibly know whether it’s true or not, lies the problem that both Cooperstown and the trade association that the museum relies upon to elect its members now face.

This was not the first year that the Hall of Fame ballot included names of former players who are either known or believed to have used performance enhancing drugs. Mark McGwire broke the single season home run record that had been held by Roger Maris. But just as Maris, who also isn’t in the Hall, had a lifetime .260 batting average, McGwire hit just .263 over his 16 year career, and was a liability on defense. Despite the record-breaking power he demonstrated in 1998, McGwire would be considered a borderline Hall of Fame candidate even if PEDs were not a factor. The same has been true for the other admitted or presumed steroid users who up to now have passed the five-year mark since their retirement and thus become eligible for the ballot that is distributed annually to all ten-year members of the BBWAA.

But this year’s ballot included the names of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, the greatest slugger and preeminent pitcher of their generation. Bonds hold both the single season and career home run records, was a fourteen time All-Star and won the National League MVP Award seven times. Clemens won 354 regular season games, placing him 9th on the all-time list of career wins. Of the top twenty pitchers in career wins, eighteen are in the Hall of Fame. Clemens and Greg Maddux, whose eligibility begins next year, are the only two who are not. Clemens won another dozen postseason games, was named to eleven All-Star teams, and won seven Cy Young Awards for four different teams.

By any historical measure, Bonds and Clemens would be considered first-ballot Hall of Famers. While no one has even been elected to the Hall unanimously, one would expect both of them to be near the top of the list of those candidates receiving the highest percentage of votes. But it is generally assumed that both were PEDs users, and when the voting results were announced on Wednesday, Clemens finished 8th on the ballot with 37.6% of the vote and Bonds was 9th with 36.2%.

In the weeks leading up to the announcement of the voting results many writers went public with their personal struggle over what to do with the stars of the game’s Steroid Era. Some concluded that while the entire period was a black mark on the game, it would be a denial of history to ignore the achievements of the likes of Bonds and Clemens. Others parsed individual season records with the goal of judging whether the career pre-PEDs was by itself Hall of Fame worthy, even though no one could say exactly when the alleged miscreants had started using the banned drugs. A few even admitted that they would withhold their vote this year as a symbolic punishment, but would likely reconsider for a future ballot.

But the voting result made clear that a large bloc of writers is adamantly opposed to Hall of Fame membership for anyone who they believe is guilty of using steroids. Not only were Bonds and Clemens denied admission; other stars who were never directly charged with steroid use, but about whom there were merely suspicions didn’t come close to getting into the Hall. Thus Mike Piazza, one of the greatest hitting catchers of all time couldn’t crack sixty percent of the vote. Nor could Jeff Bagwell, whose one obvious sin was bulking up during his career. But do those writers really think themselves so omniscient that they will be able to correctly identify every player who ever used PEDs? If not, how many non-users are they willing to sacrifice to prove their point?

This solid bloc of BBWAA members is choosing to ignore a lot of history. Among those who have plaques on the wall are racists, drunks, and drug users. Some voters have attempted to distinguish the PEDs issue by saying private wrongdoing doesn’t impact the integrity of the game. Yet many of the architects of the long period of segregation in the Great Game are honored in upstate New York, and that was hardly a private wrong. The Hall also includes players who have acknowledged using amphetamines. These same voters argue that greenies didn’t improve performance; though that’s exactly what those who took speed were hoping it would do. It’s less clear how these writers justify the Hall of Fame plaque honoring spitball specialist Gaylord Perry, and presumably they don’t spend a lot of time recalling the game-fixing allegations leveled against Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb. They even place themselves above our system of jurisprudence. Both Bonds and Clemens faced federal trials for allegedly committing perjury by denying steroid use, Bonds to a grand jury and Clemens to Congress. Both were judged not guilty by juries. In the wake of the Hall vote, the two are like former Labor Secretary Ray Donovan, who after being acquitted of federal charges in 1987 could only ask “Which office do I go to get my reputation back?”

Since one has to be a member of the BBWAA for ten years in order to receive a ballot, by definition the voters who are so adamant about preserving the supposed purity of the Hall have been covering the game for a long time. Like players, owners, league officials, and of course fans, most chose to look the other way during the height of the Steroid Era. It was easier by far to write fawning stories of slugging and pitching exploits and records falling by the wayside. Now they are like nothing so much as jilted lovers, spiteful and angry and determined to get even at all costs with those who they once courted. But in doing so they risk making the Great Game’s museum less relevant, leaving future generations of visitors to ponder why so many of the names in the sport’s record books aren’t present in the Hall. Should the Smithsonian ignore slavery and the Civil War? If it did so would that mean the institution never existed and the war didn’t happen? Apparently there are many members of the Baseball Writers Association of American who believe the answer to those questions is yes.

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Responses

  1. A few years ago, Jose Canseco made comments hinting that the writers unknowingly elected a steroid user to the Hall of Fame. It would be interesting to see their reaction if that got confirmed.

    • Personally, I’m betting that it is Rickey Henderson he was talking about.

      • All signs certainly point to Rickey (playing in Oakland with known users, playing well into his 40s, Canseco not saying anything about a Hall of Famer on steroids until shortly after Rickey was inducted).

      • Yes I agree.

    • Nolan Ryan is my guess on who Canseco was referring to – Since Canseco had already done enough damage with steroid use and his rag of a book, my hunch is he didn’t want to hurt the game any more by bringing down one of it’s greatest. Best guestimate for when steroids really took off in MLB is the early 90’s which coincides with 2 of Ryan’s No-No’s at the age(s) of 43&44….Coincidentally, Clemens had 2 of his best years for Win % and ERA at the age(s) 41&42. Maybe I am way off base in my thinking and it really is just the water in Texas.

  2. Well, as I’m sure you know, I agree with you 100%. I suppose, though, that many of the writers feel satisfied with this result. For the life of me, though, I can’t figure out whether they’re taking their responsibility too seriously, or not seriously enough?
    And when fans say, “If Bonds and Clemens get into The Hall, I’ll lose all respect for baseball,” exactly what does that mean? They won’t watch their favorite team on T.V. anymore because of what some writers chose to do? They won’t make the trip up to Cooperstown (and you have to wonder how many of them would ever have done that anyway)? They won’t say anything nice anymore about modern baseball (these kinds of people seldom do anyway.)
    In my opinion, what the BBWAA did this year was pander to the herd. But the herd is fickle, and in a few years, it may be that the herd has moved off in a different direction. When that happens, will the BBWAA decide to lead, or follow?
    Excellent post,
    Bill

    • My sense is that the BBWAA members are very divided. I think that a substantial bloc, the “jilted lovers” in my post, are determined to be judge, jury and executioner and never vote for anyone they even suspect of using PEDs. But I also think there is another sizable bloc that is feeling increasingly queasy about the inherent conflict between being neutral reporters on the game and decision makers on the game’s highest honor. As the electorate changes over the next several years it will be interesting to see how or if the voting shifts. Thanks as always,
      Mike


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