It’s time to finally rethink the baseball Hall of Fame

by Paul West

Baseball’s Hall of Fame process is more consistently contentious than that of any other major North American sport. The various threads of controversy surrounding the process have reached a point of critical mass, and worse still–though perhaps in keeping with our increasingly Orwellian times–there’s the new wrinkle that ballots will, as of next year, be made public. In the name of transparency–a classic misappropriation of a word which has merit in many other situations–voters will now be open to public pressure, scrutiny and shaming over whomever they do or don’t vote for. This will only further distort a process that’s been lacking in clarity and internal logic for some time.

It's time to rethink how we conceive of, and populate, baseball's Hall of Fame.
It’s time to rethink how we conceive of, and populate, baseball’s Hall of Fame.

Maybe it’s time to reconsider how we envision the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The whole thing seems to have begun once members of the so-called Steroid Era began to trickle onto the ballot. All of a sudden, lingering resentments about the ‘tainting of the game’ came to a full boil, as Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Roger Clemens and company were now in range of a lifetime entry to baseball’s hallowed halls. This fueled a broadening witch hunt, in which many in the baseball world undertook to ‘clean up the game‘ by way of public displays of disaffection directed at a select few. The drivers of said witch hunt were in some cases misguided, in some cases misinformed, in some cases lacking in historical perspective, and in some cases willfully disingenuous; the ensuing groupthink assertion was that baseball’s long-imagined purity was brought down by a few bad apples. Accordingly, the opinion seemed to be that excision and public vilification of said bad apples would set the baseball universe right again. Nevermind that for generations, clubhouses far and wide handed out amphetamines–a reliable performance enhancer which was illegal for recreational use–like candy. Nevermind that, contrary to popular opinion, many of those busted during the “PED era” were pitchers, who used them to assist in recovery and boost their fastballs. Nevermind that the resulting boost in fastball velocities almost certainly contributed to the general boost in home runs. Nevermind, furthermore, that a 1973 congressional commission decried the prevalence of steroids in baseball and other sports as “alarming.” The ‘tainting of America’s pastime’ was at issue, and a statement had to be made. As a result, players associated with the era’–not verifiably implicated, per se, merely suspected–were left off of ballots in the interest of sending a message. This problem was exacerbated by an absurd tradition by which ‘first ballot’ Hall of Famers were considered more special than their peers, leading to a ‘make em wait a bit’ mentality straight out of a 1950s dating handbook. The result? A growing backlog of viable candidates.

More currently, because of the online mean spiritedness of Curt Schilling along with the personal unpopularity of Alex Rodriguez and others, the so-called ‘character clause’ is being increasingly invoked to explain voters’ stinginess. And while considering a player’s character or personality is certainly relevant to fandom, using it to determine HOF induction is another; and this isn’t because I don’t agree that the cruel, unkind or bigoted shouldn’t be disparaged for such. It happens to be an unfortunate reality that many known bigots and jerks are already enshrined at Cooperstown; there are players therein who, for example, refused to play alongside Hank Greenberg or Jackie Robinson (or who even took it a step further and aimed fastballs or raised cleats at them). And back to the matter of cheating: there are known spitballers and ball-scuffers in the Hall, perhaps most famously Gaylord Perry–whose legend largely hinges on the fact that he made a career out of throwing illegal pitches. Why is the “greenies era” or the “spitball era” not regarded with such derision? Players and managers from the 1970s have openly laughed about the antics of the era, but no asterisks are affiliated therewith.

Hall of Fame inductee Bud Selig presided over one of baseball's so-called Steroid Era.
Hall of Fame inductee Bud Selig presided over baseball’s so-called Steroid Era.

It may be tempting to infer that I’m against the attempt to evolve beyond the wrongheadedness of the past;  any desire that baseball be made more fair and honorable, and any attempt to reward these traits, is admirable and necessary. But blotting out a decade’s worth of players, based on suspicion of their involvement in what appears to have been a baseball pandemic, is misguided.

This brings me to perhaps the most glaring matter of all: the fact that Bud Selig–Major league Baseball’s commissioner during the ‘Steroid Era,’ who by most accounts had at least fair to middling knowledge of the game’s growing steroid problem but sat on his hands as ratings increased–has already been inducted. If suspicion equals guilt in the case of players like Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez, why not in the case of the man who presided over it all?

All of this has led some people to debate the very nature of the Hall of Fame itself, and perhaps this discussion is long overdue. If induction is still to be considered baseball’s highest honor, there remains the problem of how many of the Hall’s residents were less than honorable on or off the field.

But if instead of being considered some sort of hallowed ground, what if it were seen as just a museum? If Cooperstown was just a museum of baseball’s most impactful and memorable, it would change both the voting process and its perceived criteria. It would allow Pete Rose and his 4,256 hits in, along with Bonds and Clemens, two of the greatest in baseball history. It would make it seem less incongruous for Mark McGwire, a home run machine who was a mediocre fielder and hitter, to be included due to his historic 70-homer season. And in lieu of asterisks, players’ plaques could simply tell the salient parts of their story, including such things as public recklessness or performance enhancement along with the accomplishments for which they became legends. Perhaps Perry’s legendary spitball could be described on his his plaque, and the cleats-high antics of men like Cobb could be part of the history of the game–along with the legendary nightclub fisticuffs of Mickey Mantle and company. This would allow all of baseball’s stories and accomplishments to reside under one roof. It might even bring some of the fun back to the Hall of Fame selection process.

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