Hall of Fame needs to get rid of ridiculous character clause
The clause is something voters embrace or ignore, depending on the moment
Truth is, baseball has been a messy game for more than 100 years
Can the Hall survive without some of the greatest players of the last 20 years?
You probably know about baseball's Hall of Fame clause. It's included in the letter sent off to every Hall of Fame voter. It says:
"Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played."
Nobody seems entirely certain how that clause came about. The best bet is that it was written and approved by the Baseball Writers Association back around 1936, when the Hall of Fame opened in Cooperstown, N.Y. Having spent too much of my life around sportswriters, I can more or less imagine how that came about.
Sportswriter 1: OK, we'll say voting shall be based on the player's ability and integrity, can we vote now?
It is possible that the clause was not written by baseball writers. Bill James, author of the authoritative Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, believes the clause actually written by baseball commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. Landis did have a very strong view that the Hall of Fame should be all about character. In the early years, he lobbied hard for a player named Eddie Grant, who went to Harvard and was both respected and admired around the game. Grant enlisted to fight in World War I after he retired, and was killed on a battlefield in Lorraine, France. He was a true hero. Grant's only real drawback as a Hall of Famer was that he wasn't a very good baseball player. He never got more than three votes.
But at least a couple of writers had their own view of the clause. Two voted for Marty Bergen in 1937. Marty Bergen was, by reputation, a good defensive catcher for Boston in the late 1890s. But he only played four years. Why? Because in 1900 he killed his wife and two children with an axe and then committed suicide. Yes, that will cut a career short. Not sure how high he scores in the integrity, sportsmanship or character categories, but he got one vote in 1938 and another in 1939.*
*There was obviously at least one sportswriter voting who wasn't too happy with his family life.
Since then, the clause has been something that voters have embraced and ignored, depending on the mood of the moment. Mark McGwire's alleged drug use has been a clause celebre: The guy hit 583 home runs, broke the single-season home run record, is the all-time leader in home runs per at bat, but almost 80 percent of the voters did not vote for him because they believe he cheated the game.
Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame is filled with people who admitted to using drugs (Paul Molitor, Ferguson Jenkins, etc.), who willingly cheated (Gaylord Perry threw spitballs, Don Sutton and Whitey Ford cut baseballs, players undoubtedly corked bats), who enthusiastically used illegal performance-enhancers (that would be anyone who ever popped an amphetamine to get a boost, and it's likely that represents a high percentage of Hall of Famers) and so on. It's all a matter of degree. And it's all how you look at it.
Thing is: The clause is now causing real problems for the Hall of Fame. Because, the majority of voters have decided, at least for the moment, that steroid use disqualifies a player from the Hall of Fame. And the fact that McGwire got fewer votes this year than he did last year suggests that the opinion is hardening. It does not seem to matter that McGwire never failed a single drug test (at least in part, of course, because baseball was not testing). It does not seem to matter that he never admitted to using steroids. It does not seem to matter that he was playing in an environment where lots of players -- including many of the pitchers he was facing -- were probably using performance-enhancing drugs too.
No, it does not matter. The clause demands integrity. The clause demands sportsmanship. The clause demands moral judgments by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
And ... I would ask the Hall of Fame to change the clause. I think the clause should have been changed a long time ago; it makes me queasy to think about sportswriters (or anyone else) trying to judge a man's character. I always come back to what Buck O'Neil -- the Negro Leagues player, manager, scout and spokesman -- said when people asked him how he could vote Enos Slaughter into the Hall of Fame. Slaughter was a noted racist during his playing days. Buck said you can't know what's in a man's heart.
"Could he play or couldn't he play?" he asked. "That's what matters."
But now, there's another reason to do away with this ridiculous clause: That clause could end the whole concept of the Baseball Hall of Fame. We already have a Hall of Fame without Pete Rose, the all-time hits leader. Well, he did that to himself. Now, Mark McGwire, perhaps the purest home-run hitter who ever lived, is not in and, honestly, I don't think he's going to get in.
So what follows? Roger Clemens is certainly tangled up in steroids. You can make a case that he's the greatest pitcher ever. What is the Hall of Fame without Roger Clemens? Barry Bonds is obviously the front man for the Steroid Era. He's the all-time home run leader and you could argue that he's the greatest player ever. What's the Hall of Fame without Barry Bonds? Now, Alex Rodriguez has admitted to using steroids. Already people talk about how they will not vote A-Rod into the Hall of Fame.
More names will emerge. Then, of course, there are the players who MIGHT have used performance enhancers, but we don't know, we can't know. Witch hunts follow.
Point is: It's the Baseball Hall of Fame. That's all. Are people coming to visit the Baseball Hall of Fame without some of the greatest players of the last 20 years? Will people still view it seriously? I sort of doubt it. Baseball has been a messy game for more than 100 years. In the years before Jackie Robinson, there were no black players. Players caroused and gambled and boozed. Many cheated to get ahead. Many took drugs. There have been beanballs and stolen signals and thrown bats. There have been thugs and racists and liars and everything else. And, yes, there have been steroid users, too.
The Hall of Fame voters can try to sort through that jumble and pull out only the sportsmen with integrity and character. We can try. But we will fail. Seems to me that sportswriters are pretty good at judging what's a hit and what's an error. Not great at it. But pretty good. Anyway, we should probably stick with that.