Baseball writers face moral dilemma in Hall of Fame vote

Sean Winters, Flickr

Baseball writers’ annual ritual of canonizing saints in the church of baseball—of voting players into the Hall of Fame—concluded Wednesday after weeks of typically fiery debate over who is worthy. Ken Griffey Jr., a smooth-swinging centerfielder who embodied all that is good and holy in the sport, headlined the two-man 2016 class with a record 99.3 percent of votes cast. But the induction of power-hitting catcher Mike Piazza may be more consequential for sports media still grappling with how to remember some of baseball’s darkest days. 

Journalism, the adage goes, is the first rough draft of history. But baseball writers, specifically veteran Baseball Writers’ Association of America members, have something of a final-cut privilege on how the sport is recognized in our collective consciousness. They hold the keys to Cooperstown, the power to confer upon players not only eternal baseball glory, but also a place in American mythology. And the debate in recent years over how to wield that power with respect to the Steroid Era, which spanned roughly two decades till the late-2000s, has divided writers over what the Hall of Fame is or should be. 

“It is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum,” says Derrick Goold, a St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer and president of the BBWAA, using the institution’s full name. “It’s there as a testament to the game. We cannot ignore the flaws of players already in there. People sometimes refer to it as a shrine. I think of it as a museum. It’s there to reflect the game.” 

Many writers have speculated that the induction of Piazza, the first chosen one dogged by whispers of performance-enhancing drug use, will open the door for others with more solid allegations leveled against them. Those discussions revolve around Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, arguably the greatest hitter and pitcher of their generation, respectively. But the pair drew just modest vote increases in 2016 despite a number of high-profile commentators’ public support and a rule change that shrank the electorate nearly 20 percent by culling writers who’d been inactive for a decade.

Both players have floundered during their first four years on the Hall of Fame ballot—they have six more years of eligibility left. That’s six more chances for baseball writers to collectively decide how to acknowledge a black mark on baseball history, or attempt to erase it.

It’s no small task, and indeed it shouldn’t be. Other sports are just sports, we true believers tell ourselves. Baseball is the national pastime. “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” the sage-like Terence Mann says in Field of Dreams. “It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It’s a part of our past … . It reminds of us of all that once was good and could be again.”

That’s why Griffey is still so widely loved. An entire generation of young ballplayers flipped our hats backward during batting practice not because we wanted to be like Griffey, but because we wanted to be like “Junior”—The Kid.

Baseball writers understand their cultural duty in curating such legends, and they don’t take the job lightly. Along with evaluating candidates’ on-field metrics, leadership qualities, and playoff heroics, Goold talks to current and former players and coaches throughout the year to get a sense of candidates’ reputations. “It’s almost like a treasure map,” he says. “Each step lets you get closer, or not, to whether the guy is worthy of the Hall of Fame.”

Goold is one of 440 writers who filed a ballot this year, down from 549 in 2015. The reduction is due mostly to the Hall of Fame’s decision to bar BBWAA voters who hadn’t actively covered baseball in 10 years—they previously had lifetime voting rights. That shift, which skewed the electorate younger, was expected to give Clemens and Bonds a boost. But they respectively earned about 45 percent and 44 percent of voters’ support this year, only minor improvements over previous totals. An eternal home in Cooperstown requires 75-percent approval.

Clemens and Bonds were both widely respected as players long before allegations of steroid use, racking up astronomical on-field numbers. PED-fueled success came later in their careers, when steroids are believed to have been common—no one knows for sure—leading some to argue that it’s unfair to single them out. Clemens finished his career with a record seven Cy Young Awards, given to the league’s best pitcher, while Bonds received seven Most Valuable Player Awards, also a milestone. Both accolades, like admittance to the Hall of Fame, are decided by the BBWAA.

Still, Clemens and Bonds are cheaters. And they repeatedly lied about steroid use to preserve their legacies, placing themselves deep within a gray area of baseball lore.

The Hall of Fame instructs BBWAA voters to consider players’ character in their voting criteria. And writers face an inherent quandary in this regard, as Goold wrote in a post explaining his vote for Piazza this year: “If the Hall of Fame, at any time, announces that it will mention transgressions on the plaque, then I’ll vote for Bonds and Clemens and watch as their plaques are carried into the Hall to hang near Shoeless Joe Jackson’s and Pete Rose’s.”

Those last two names connote previous chapters in baseball’s decades-long struggle with morality, in which certain unforgivable sins have overridden evaluations of broader bodies of work. Jackson, involved in the infamous “Black Sox” scandal, was accused of taking money to throw the 1919 World Series. Rose, baseball’s all-time leader in hits, gambled on games as a player and coach. 

 

If you look at the history of the Hall of Fame, you have all sorts of rogues and rednecks and reprobates and wife beaters—all kinds of shitheads. I don’t think PED use is anywhere near the worst offense committed.

 

“The biggest difference is that the Black Sox players were officially banned [by Major League Baseball]—Pete Rose, too,” says Jacob Pomrenke, director of editorial content at the Society for American Baseball Research. And fierce debates on both decisions have continued to this day. “The Hall of Fame has almost intentionally placed themselves outside of the process with steroids, leaving it to the writers,” Pomrenke adds.

The current situation is unlike any other the BBWAA has faced since the Hall of Fame entrusted it with the job in 1936, largely due to changes in the media environment. “Back then,” Pomrenke says, “[writers] were really the only group that might have had a chance to watch every game before people had radio, television, or the internet.” With the fragmentation, not to mention the democratization, of media, the process itself has become a major annual news event. And baseball writers—most of them hailing from more traditional news organizations—lie at its center.

Of course, baseball writers have made moral compromises with votes in the past. “If you look at the history of the Hall of Fame, you have all sorts of rogues and rednecks and reprobates and wife beaters—all kinds of shitheads,” says Jay Jaffe, an SI.com writer. “I don’t think PED use is anywhere near the worst offense committed.”

But Bonds’ and Clemens’ poor showings suggest baseball writers still see steroids as something more sinister to the sport, a notion that extends throughout American culture. Sports captivate us by showcasing human athletes performing superhuman feats. We want to believe the unthinkable, yet we dish out punishment when athletes veer into the shadows to satiate that collective desire. In this sense, Jaffe argues, all share responsibility for the Steroid Era.

“It was a complete institutional failure,” he says. “It was the owners, the players union, the commissioner. The media didn’t ask the right questions. It was the fans who cheered Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire and credited them for saving baseball [in 1998]. It’s everybody. And to make a few players carry all of that is insane.”

Journalists’ pride in their ability to find nuance makes the current balance of blame more perplexing. But to be fair to baseball writers, the Hall of Fame presents an inherently black-white dichotomy: A player is in, or he’s out. Its mystique is inherently at odds with history’s infinite shades of gray, creating something of a wilderness for voters to navigate. Such is the task of those with the power to bestow immortality.

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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.