Monday, January 6, 2014

Hall of Fame Stands By Neutrality on Steroid Era

On December 26, the esteemed writer Joe Posnanski posted a thought-provoking blog titled "Time for a Hall of Fame Stand," in which he urged the Hall of Fame to take a firm position either for or against giving steroid users a chance to be elected. I suggest you read it either before or after reading my response to him, so here's the link:

The first half of Posnanski's blog is a fine summary of the most noteworthy stand ever taken by the Hall of Fame:  its 1971 decision to elect Negro Leagues stars even though they did not literally meet the Hall's election criterion of playing at least ten seasons in the majors. After Ted Williams strongly advocated admitting Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson in his own induction speech in 1966, it took a few years for the Hall to come around, but since 1971 roughly three dozen Negro Leaguers have swelled the ranks of baseball immortals. As Posnanski puts is, "Over time, the Hall of Fame became a leader in celebrating Negro Leagues baseball. . . .The Hall of Fame, though it was not easy, took the lead."

The second half of the blog is Posnanski's rationale for the Hall of Fame taking the lead again, this time on defining the so-called "Steroid Era." "The BBWAA craves leadership," he writes. "The Hall of Fame is supposed to provide it." If the Hall would declare steroid users IN or OUT rather than letting hundreds of writers apply their own standards and biases, the current confusion could be cleared up. He hints  at which direction he would prefer, but is more adamant about the Hall simply doing something.

The Hall's silence on the issue is "kind of disgraceful," he concludes. "The Hall of Fame is meant to celebrate the game, but their silence on this issue leaves baseball and the Hall open to this annual flogging of the game and some of its greatest players. . . .It's time to stop sitting back while baseball writers (including yours truly) scattershoot their own particular ethical standards and argue about Barry Bonds. This is THEIR museum. It's time for them to tell everybody what it stands for."

I agree with him in theory about how to go about it, namely for the Hall to appoint a committee that would study the issue from all angles and make a definitive policy decision that would move history forward. I agree that doing nothing will continue the logjam of strong candidates not gaining election because the votes are spread too thin. And I concur with his view that it's THEIR museum and that when they do take a proactive role in determining both the criteria for election and the format to be used, they get the results they desire. Just look at how quickly they acted in 1991 to prevent Pete Rose from being elected the following year, or how they've gerrymandered several Veterans Committees to stack the deck against electing Marvin Miller.

However, I'm not so sure about his assumption that the Hall "is supposed to" provide leadership. There isn't much in Hall of Fame history to suggest an ongoing leadership role. Their mission statement uses three verbs: honor, preserve, and connect. None of those implies a leadership role; they reflect a desire to be the place where people who visit and make up their own minds about baseball history. The inclusion of Negro Leaguers in 1971 was a matter of correcting a long-standing practice of segregation in baseball, and the Hall did it over the lingering racist sentiments of its own president and the retired commissioner who headed the Board of Directors. That is, they were dragged into this remedy kicking and screaming, following the lead of others. The election of 17 Negro Leaguers in 2006 showed far more leadership than the Hall displayed in 1971.

No matter what proactive course of action the Hall might take in regards to the Steroid Era, I see insurmountable obstacles. That's what I want to examine here. The current situation is a gigantic gray area. BBWAA members can vote for people who were 100% prolonged steroid users, for players who may have done steroids for awhile or merely thought about using them, or tried them once and never more, or were merely suspected of using them. Or they can decide NOT to vote for any player for any of those reasons, although even some confirmed users were breaking no official MLB rules in existence at the time.

For the Hall of Fame to take a stand, the Board of Directors would have to accept whatever report was generated by whatever committee was set up to establish a posteriori criteria for judging currently eligible players, and some way of continuing those criteria for players who become eligible later. Such a report might advocate continuing the current gray area, since as many others have observed, it is almost impossible to know who did what when, and what tangible effect it had on the field. If the gray area continued, only the Board of Directors would be happy. They're staunchly conservative and genetically resistant to change, much less a change that might enlighten the public about their own ethical standards. That's a big reason why the Hall is content to let the BBWAA muddle its way through the process, and let the chips fall where they may.

To make a difference, the Hall either has to declare that: (1) nothing that happened off the field of play makes a difference, and any player with Hall-worthy statistics is eligible; or (2) that nobody who ever used steroids or PEDs in any form, whether legal or illegal, prescribed or designer drugs, for the purpose of gaining an advantage on the field will be eligible for election.

Right off the bat, there's a problem. The first alternative bypasses the so-called "Integrity clause" that has existed for decades as a key criterion for election. It contains loaded words like "integrity, sportsmanship, and character." Even if you believe, as Tony LaRussa--thinking like a lawyer--does, that Mark McGwire did nothing wrong because he displayed his steroids in his locker and didn't break the MLB rules of the time, improving his performance artifically does not constitute sportsmanship or character. Of course, pitchers who scuffed the ball and spit on it have been condoned and elected, including Whitey Ford, Gaylord Perry, and Don Sutton. Still, to issue a broad permit for voters to look only at Barry Bonds' stats would require some reworking of an "integrity clause" which has existed for more than half a century.                    

Let's say that the Hall of Fame told the BBWAA members to disregard any speculation on steroid use--if only because MLB had dragged its feet so long on testing and bans that many known users didn't break any actual rules--and stick strictly to the numbers. What would be the result? Sooner or later, the likes of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, and other controversial figures might gain election.

What would be the practical effect in this event? Three strong constituencies would be offended. First, there would be all the fans who resent PED users for perverting the competitive balance of the game and breaking records held by long-revered immortals. (Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's career home run record is the most glaring example, but there are others.) Would these fans come to see Bonds inducted? No. Would they boycott the Hall of Fame for letting in people like that? Yes, they would. I don't claim to know what the consensus is, but my impression is that the majority of fans would be happier if Bonds and company never gain Hall of Fame election. Giants fans loved him, but they're not likely to travel 3,000 miles to see the rest of the crowd boo his induction.

The second offended group would be the writers. The current voters have made it quite clear where they stand on steroids and the players who used them. They're roughly two to one against electing Bonds and Clemens, four to one against Mark McGwire, and so on. Of course, even if the Hall of Fame told them not to consider steroids, nobody can force them to write this or that name on the ballot. I believe the writers would continue to refuse to elect those players, some of them out of resentment at being told what to think. I don't think there are a lot of BBWAA members sitting around today and thinking, "Oh, if only the Hall of Fame would tell me it's okay to vote for Barry Bonds, I would do it, but I'm afraid to do it on my own." A mandate would only make the present confusion worse.

The third group, and probably the one that matters the most to the Hall's Board of Directors, is the living members of the Hall of Fame. Posnanski notes that "Too often people who get into the Hall of Fame want to lock the door behind them." This tendency was confirmed in the three elections in which living Hall of Famers constituted most of the Veterans Committee electorate. They elected nobody. Why? Partly it was because the Hall of Fame has turned its living membership into a huge cottage industry. The Hall pays members a lot of money (in five figures) to come back and participate in many events, not just the induction ceremony. During the big weekend, members make a fortune signing autographs, and for some this Hall of Fame largesse is their chief source of income. In addition, living Hall of Famers receive 30% of revenues from items merchandised by the Hall, split evenly. Having 60 people dividing the pie and cashing in on their immortality rather than 50 would spread the windfall that much thinner.

Nevertheless, many Hall of Famers have declared their intention to boycott the induction ceremony and/or the Hall of Fame itself if Bonds, Clemens, et al are elected. This would be a PR disaster for the Hall, and at this point the Hall of Fame induction weekend is mainly a giant PR event. If the Hall of Famers turn their back on the Hall, who's left? For the Hall's Board of Directors, letting people feel offended by their inaction is the lesser of two evils compared to seeming to go out of their way to offend people.

Going in the other direction by banning anyone even suspected of using PEDs, or even banning just the "proven" users, would be an even bigger disaster. Here's why.

When Jose Canseco started this snowball rolling downhill in his book Juiced, he declared that 80% of active players had used or were using steroids. Even taking the exaggeration-for-publicity and what-a-jerk factors into consideration, it seems likely that 30-40% of the players had at least tried steroids. That's 8-10 players per team. That's a huge aggregation to receive a "never mind" from the Hall of Fame.

A number of baseball historians I respect a lot believe that there are already steroid users in the Hall of Fame, anywhere from a few to perhaps a dozen. If you agree with my reduction of Canseco's estimate of 20 users per team to 8-10 per team, it is impossible to imagine that none of those users made it into the Hall of Fame. The "E" in PED stands for "enhancing," and even though it is impossible to know how much this or that player's performance and numbers were enhanced, the steroids did contribute. It would be naive to think that only borderline or mediocre players used steroids. Many of them did, and there are still minor leaguers being caught using banned substances merely in an effort to make it to the majors.

If the Hall of Fame issued a ban on steroid users from eligibility, the whole premise would be shot to hell as soon as proof emerged that someone already enshrined was a user. I count five players on the 2014 ballot who were named in the Mitchell Report, plus Bonds. Suppose one gets elected? How can the Hall ban the eligibility of users when it has already admitted users?

The only way to do that would be to break with precedent and institute a system for ejecting current members who are subsequently revealed to be users. Of course that would be preposterous. It would open up a can of worms that would be the historical equivalent of "snakes on a plane." If you started kicking out steroid users, what about the druggies, the scuffers, the felons, the sign stealers, the spitball artists, the game-throwers, the crooks, the racists, and a couple--including the top vote-getter in the original election--who killed people?

It won't happen. It would be the only way to avoid the hypocrisy of barring some people for reasons that didn't apply to others, though the Hall has never been uncomfortable about having its hypocrisies revealed. Perhaps the last word should belong to the Chairman of the Board of the Hall of Fame, Jane Forbes Clark.

In his 2009 book Cooperstown Confidential, Zev Chafets included a chapter on the Mitchell Report. He described asking Clark about the report and how the Hall of Fame would deal with it. He wrote, "She seemed surprised by the question. 'I like to think of us as neutral,' she said. 'Like Switzerland.'" Well, the Swiss succeeded in not being invaded by the Nazis, but as Orson Welles put it so beautifully in "The Third Man," "In Switzerland they had brotherly love, 500 years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock."  

Under Jane Clark's cuckoo-clock leadership, the Hall is likely to keep its neutral head firmly buried in the snowbank. The Hall will be content to let folks like Craig Biggio and his fans dangle in the wind until the BBWAA can focus enough votes to elect him. It will be content to let others carry the debate, to let the writers agonize over their responsibility, and to let its current members cash in on their status as "immortals" even while that status becomes murkier with the confusion over who really "belongs" and who doesn't. As Posnanski knows all too well, it's THEIR museum, and even though attendance there has dropped by nearly 30% over the past decade, even though the 2013 induction ceremony drew fewer than 1,000 spectators, they don't have to a damn thing if they don't want to. I don't think they want to.


Jim said...

Nicely written. I think that what the Hall really wants is to have two or three players elected each year, so that the induction weekend, the economic lifeblood of the town, continues to draw huge crowds.

marc61 said...

Not quite sure what people want. First of all, the HOF is nothing more than a privately owned museum. They make their own rules, and if you don't like them, don't go to the museum.

Second, no matter what anyone thinks, we have no way of knowing who did and who didn't do steroids and/or other PEDs. I'm of the opinion that most players did what they had to do to stay on top of their game as world class athletes.

Lastly, if you think the players in the past didn't do the same, then you're just fooling yourself. Police going forward is all you can do.

athomeatfenway said...

I don't have a problem with keeping (more) PED users from getting in even though some writers strongly believe some PED users have already been enshrined. Keeping the HOF roster as clean as possible going forward is enough. No matter how much we grind away at the HOF it is never going to be perfect. Try naming an institution that is. Let's just do right going forward.

Anonymous said...

Well written and some great ideas here. One major quibble that I'll call "reputational housekeeping" - Mr. Cobb never killed anyone. That dastardly story came from Al Stump, a liar and a thief, AFTER Cobb's death. In my research for Ty Cobb: A Biography, I found no evidence to support that story. No body, no missing people in Detroit at that time, no murder weapon, nothing.

Keep writing these great blog pieces, Gabe!