On Wednesday, the Baseball Writers Association of America (for some reason abbreviated as the BBWAA instead of BWAA, but I digress) announced the players who had earned the requisite number of votes for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Named on all but three of the ballots returned to the BBWAA – for a 99.3% tally, the best all-time – was outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., in his first year of eligibility. He will be joined by catcher Mike Piazza, who has been waiting for a few years when he too should have been a first ballot entry (we’ll get to that in a moment). Other deserving players such as Tim Raines, Jeff Bagwell, Trevor Hoffman, Lee Smith and Curt Schilling came up short and will have to wait until next year for another shot.
The problem with the BBWAA – and with the electorate for other Halls of Fame in other sporting arenas – is that those involved with electing those who would be enshrined into such rarefied air seem to want to serve as some sort of “arbiter of the game” or “Lord Protector” of what is holy about a sport. You get past the four names at the end of the paragraph above and you see other names that, in their own right, arguably should have been elected the first time their names appeared on the ballot. Roger Clemens (received 199 votes, 45.2%), Barry Bonds (195 votes, 44.3%), Mark McGwire (54 votes, 12.3%) and Sammy Sosa (31 votes, 7%) are all quite a distance from reaching that magic 75% threshold and, in McGwire’s case, are running out of years left on their eligibility for being voted in by the BBWAA (a player has to be retired for five years before being considered; said player then has ten years to garner the 75% votes for election to the Hall before being removed from the ballot, as McGwire will be next year).
All of these men have put up some of the greatest individual achievements in the history of the game. Clemens has won the Cy Young Award seven times while striking out 4672 batters (third all time). Bonds not only took the single season home run record away from McGwire, he also eclipsed the career home run record of the legendary Hank Aaron while winning the MVP Award seven times. McGwire was a former Rookie of the Year who won two World Series titles and was a 12-time All-Star while earning the best home run-to-at bat ratio in the history of the game. Perhaps the only weak link is Sosa, who could only claim one MVP award and seven All-Star appearances over his career.
So why are these guys not in the Baseball Hall of Fame? And is your sport’s “pantheon” of greatness a true Hall of Fame if your greatest players/contributors aren’t there?
In baseball’s case the BBWAA, when they were tasked with the duties of electing people to the Hall of Fame, were given criteria for consideration, if you will, as they pondered their decisions on who to elect. Under the BBWAA Method of Election subsection entitled “Voting,” the criteria states, “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” (Highlights by the writer.)
Therein lies the problem with Clemens, Bonds, McGwire, Sosa and a host of others from the Steroids Era of baseball. Although they were never caught – hell, in most cases it is believed that baseball turned a blind eye towards the usage of steroids so the players could bulk up, smash home runs and bring fans back to the game – they live under the scarlet “S” of suspicion of using steroids over their careers. Bonds (never admitted but somewhat proven in a court of law) and McGwire (confessed eventually) have danced around the issue while Clemens has vehemently denied ever using anything, despite having his close friend and former teammate Andy Pettitte admit his usage and allege Clemens’ (Clemens said his wife used steroids, which doesn’t look good when your supposed “personal trainer” is allegedly stabbing your wife’s backside with ‘roids, but not you). Sosa conveniently forgets the English language when the subject comes up.
By the literal reading of the criteria for the BBWAA, then those that have been found to have been users (we’re talking to you, Alex Rodriguez) or are from a preponderance of the evidence believed to have used (Bonds, Clemens, et. al.) should not have a seat among the greatest in the game, the pantheon known as the Hall of Fame, for violating the sportsmanship and, perhaps more importantly, the integrity and character of the game. It is the same reasoning that has been unfortunately used for more than two decades on one man and for almost a century on another (wrongly, but we’ll get to that).
Another story during baseball’s Hot Stove league was baseball’s pariah, its Lost Son, Pete Rose, applying for reinstatement to the game. Having been banished from baseball in 1989 for gambling on the game (something that will lead us to our second case), Rose had survived at its periphery but was unable to fully receive all the accolades he truly deserved for his lifetime achievements. Because of the banishment (more on this in a second), the BBWAA would not consider him for the Hall of Fame – despite the fact that Rose is one of the game’s all-time great players and its all-time leader in hits with 4256, three World Series titles and 17 All-Star appearances. He also couldn’t work in any capacity with any Major League Baseball franchise, meaning his managing career was over.
With a new Commissioner of Baseball in place, Rob Manfred (who succeeded Bud Selig as the 10th Commissioner of the game), Rose felt that the time was right to take a stab at being reinstated, perhaps to reach that elusive goal of the Hall of Fame, maybe to perhaps get into that front office job or work as a scout for a team (strangely enough, Rose had done work with the Fox Sports 1 as a baseball analyst during the 2015 MLB Playoffs). After some investigation – which allegedly found that Rose still gambles on baseball and other activities – Manfred refused to reinstate Rose to the game and, thus, his odyssey continues.
The situation where it has been used wrongly is in the case of the unfortunate “Shoeless” Joe Jackson. One of the outstanding players of the early 20th century, Jackson was accused (along with seven of his Chicago White Sox teammates) of throwing the 1919 World Series to the Cincinnati Reds. Although Jackson and his teammates were acquitted in a trial in 1921 of any wrongdoing in the case, the first Commissioner of Baseball, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, banned all from the game.
The problem with this is that Jackson, or at least his performance during the 1919 World Series, was doing everything apparently that he could to win the Series. He was the best hitter on both teams, batting .375, and hit the only home run on either team. He threw out five baserunners from left field and handled 30 fielding chances without an error. The seven other players, following Jackson’s death in 1951, stated that he was not a part of the plan to fix the 1919 World Series, but Jackson to this day is banned from the game and, thus, from the Hall of Fame.
Perhaps the situation will begin to change over the coming years, however. Manfred, when announcing that Rose would not be reinstated to the game, indicated that the BBWAA reticence to induct players who have run afoul of baseball’s rules is simply a way for them to dodge having to deal with how to induct them into the Hall. In his official statement announcing that Rose would not be reinstated to baseball, Manfred said, “It is not part of MLB’s authority or responsibility here to make any determination concerning Mr. Rose’s eligibility as a candidate for election to the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” and “any debate over Mr. Rose’s eligibility for the Hall of Fame is one that must take place in a different forum.”
Depending on the transgressions, a person is usually entitled to either a second chance or, lacking that, a firm examination of their work and recognition for it with the explanation about their actions. For example, in the steroids case, Bonds, McGwire and Clemens could have a simple statement placed on their plaques that recognize they played in an era where usage of “chemical enhancement” was rampant. For Rose and perhaps Jackson, a similar statement could be made regarding violating one of the base tenets of the game of baseball, to not bet on its outcome (even though it doesn’t appear Jackson did). Other players in the Baseball Hall of Fame utilized spitballs, were racists, even allegedly killed during their careers…but they’re in the Hall of Fame. To keep these men out just doesn’t seem to fit the crime.
Perhaps the answer to the question we asked earlier – in the case of the Baseball Hall of Fame, at least – is that some of your greatest players cannot be a part of your Hall of Fame, yet it is still the pantheon that it is supposed to be. But perhaps, at some point, the change will come and the powers that be – whether it is the sportswriters, broadcasters, the “Veteran’s Committee” or perhaps a young boy or girl watching the game today – who will look back at the cases, names and achievements of men like Jackson, Rose, Bonds, Clemens…and say, “Why not? Why AREN’T they in the Hall of Fame?”