For the first time in decades Hall of Fame voters decided not to confer baseball’s highest honor to anyone. What makes this announcement unusual is that the most celebrated names from an era marked by performance-enhancing drugs did not gain entry into baseball’s promised land. To make matters even more peculiar, this was a period in baseball history when testing for drugs didn’t exist.
As a consequence, stars such as Barry Bonds, who holds the record for single season homeruns and homeruns over a career, and Roger Clemens, regarded as the best pitcher of his generation, were denied admission based on the suspicion drug use enhanced their distinguished records.
While this was a controversial decision with some claiming dispositive evidence of drug use doesn’t exist, I contend it was arguably the right decision. The baseball writers voting on this matter stood up for those players who didn’t cheat. Would the records Bonds and Clemens attained have been possible without chemical enhancement? One cannot possibly know. On the other hand, those who played by the rules were in a decidedly disadvantageous position. Clemens and Bonds vehemently deny using drugs, despite testimony from those who saw them do so. In their case suspicion is legitimate because they became productive in what is usually regarded as the twilight years of one’s career.
One could argue that drugs coruscated through the bloodstream of many athletes, perhaps even some who were elected to the Hall of Fame. Should baseball executives purge the plaques in Cooperstown? After all, what is meant by a Hall of Famer? Pete Rose has had his nose pressed against the Cooperstown window for years. Even though his record for hits might provide easy entry, his gambling episode has him blackballed. Some might contend even Babe Ruth could be excluded for womanizing and carousing, charges that could be leveled against many Hall of Famers including Mickey Mantle.
However the Hall instructs voters to consider “character” and “integrity” of candidates, traits that are almost impossible to assess. That leaves most writers in a quandary. What they did with this most recent vote is kick the can down the road, a wise but inconclusive political choice. Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, McGwire will be on the ballot in future years. The debate won’t disappear. And the awkwardness will reoccur.
I hate the asterisk as a device to distinguish among players achievements. Roger Maris wore one when he broke Babe Ruth’s single season homerun record. By any standard he was mistreated by nostalgia. Nonetheless, there may not be a more effective method for assessing accomplishments during the drug addled era in baseball. The asterisk doesn’t mean you cheated; it only implies that it may have happened.
The lively ball democratized home run hitting. Shortening homerun distances made it easier to hit one out of the park. Lowering the height of the mound advantaged the hitter. Gloves with deep webbing advantage the pitcher. The list goes on.
In each instance, the game was changed. Yet we assume the records correspond to a set of objective criteria. From my point of view what sets the drug issue apart is that not every player chose to engage in its use. As a result, evaluating players becomes very difficult.
Hall writers did their best, but their best still left more questions than answers, questions that won’t go away. When I visit the Hall of Fame I not only expect to read about records, but about those who wouldn’t damage the game that counts. Phil Rizzuto and Pee Wee Reese weren’t outstanding players, but there was little doubt they gave their all and felt privileged to play the game they loved. They belong in the Hall of Fame.
Who else belongs there remains to be seen. The decisions won’t be easy. In fact, as the years pass they will become more difficult. The best that I hope for is that the writers will do what they can to retain whatever integrity remains in the game of baseball.
Herbert London is President of the London Center for Policy Research, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, president emeritus of Hudson Institute and author of the book The Transformational Decade (University Press of America).
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