There’s been a whole lot of talk about the Hall of Fame in the past few weeks (some might even say too much). With the election of Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar, there’s been a lot to talk about. But the story that has really dominated much of the conversation is the support that Jeff Bagwell’s candidacy received. For a player who had one of the greatest careers at his position ever, and for someone whose only steroid-related crime that we know of is that he was a hardcore weightlifter, the 42% of the vote that he received is shockingly small. Looking at Mark McGwire’s support throughout the years – debuting at around 25% and hovering there year-in and year-out – it’s hard to even know what will happen to Bagwell in future years.
Which makes those of us who care about the Hall of Fame and the history that it represents sad. If Jeff Bagwell – someone with no credible steroid controversy whatsoever – can’t get into the Hall, what’s going to happen in a few years when some of the greatest players of all time (and who have legitimate steroid concerns) are up for election? Are the writers who vote for induction about to make the Hall an institution that forgoes history’s greatest players as a punishment for using weight-lifting drugs?
Joe Tetreault, a friend of the blog who blogs over at Tetreault Vision & The Biz of Baseball and who offers some good conversation on Twitter as @JoeTetreault, has an interesting take on this that I’d like to share. He’s of the opinion that this slide that we’re seeing from the Hall of Fame is nothing new and has, in fact, been gaining momentum. Read on for his thoughts, and let us know what you think in the comments.
“People will say I’m an idealist. I hope so.”
–A. Bartlett Giamatti on Expelling Pete Rose from Baseball
In 1989, amid a clamor in popular culture for a review of the case against Joe Jackson on the seventieth anniversary of the 1919 Black Sox, the idealist MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti consigned another man to the same fate as Jackson as he condemned the all-time hits leader to permanent exclusion from the game of baseball. Evidence showed Rose wagered on baseball. More so, Rose wagered on games involving the team for whom he played and managed, the Cincinnati Reds.
The Hall of Fame voted in February of 1991 to deny a vote to any individuals who were placed on the permanently excluded list, effectively barring both Rose and Jackson from future consideration for admittance to the Hall of Fame. No act greater defines the narrowing of our Hall of Fame from an inclusive museum dedicated to baseball’s rich history to an increasingly irrelevant collection of players and memorabilia.
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Rose, without question belongs in the Hall of Fame. Let’s state his case succinctly. Rose has awards denoting greatness (three batting titles, two gold gloves, an MVP and a Rookie of the Year selection, plus 17 trips to the All-Star game). In addition he sits atop the leaderboard of impressive measures. He is baseball’s all-time hits leader, and played in more games than anyone before or since. He was an integral member of three World Series winning teams. And if that doesn’t matter, he played with hustle and grit every time he went out.
But Rose bet on baseball and therefore cannot be considered.
In blocking a vote on Rose, Baseball’s Hall of Fame chooses to bowdlerize itself. While his memorabilia is Hall-worthy, he is not. Regardless of the motives of the Hall of Fame’s directors, their choice set a course for the Hall of Fame that mocks its very purpose.
When a player so obviously worthy is excluded, the importance of Cooperstown has been reduced. Too much thought is given to the honor bestowed to a player through election, and not enough to the game itself. The Hall of Fame’s relevance is not determined by the character of the inductees, but rather the record of history that is preserved for future generations of baseball fans. Leaving behind those whose play warrants inclusion merely underlines the obvious, election to the Hall of Fame is just some silly award given out based on something other than merit.
In future years, the voters will decide whether the reigning home run champion will be worthy of election, and he is likely to be at least at first snubbed. They will also consider the pitcher who won more Cy Young Awards than any other in the game’s history, and he too will initially be brushed aside. Perhaps as time passes, Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds will be voted in. Perhaps it will take both the maximum fifteen ballots. But the damage done to the Hall in those intervening winters will be irrevocable.
This season, Jeff Bagwell was smeared without any evidence of using performance enhancing drugs. Bagwell is among the top five players at his position in the history of the game. His election even on the first ballot should have occurred without any unnecessary drama. But like Roberto Alomar, who last year was censured by the voters for spitting on an umpire, Bagwell will wait an extra year.
The choice for the Hall of Fame is simple. They can choose to remove subjective sanctimony and therefore restore the Hall of Fame’s importance, or they can choose to continue down the road to irrelevance.
Some BBWAA voters, notably the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham, argue the Hall of Fame will never be irrelevant. They mistake popularity for relevance. And the chorus of opinions surrounding the Hall should not be confused with either respect or reverence.
Every year people who love baseball spill more ink and illuminate more pixels debating the Hall of Fame vote. Increasingly cynicism and disgust animate these discussions. Lost in the discourse is the Hall’s theoretical purpose – Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.
If one accepts that the 1991 decision was meant as a punishment for Rose, then it has been a pyrrhic victory for the Hall. They preserve the sanctity of the institution, while opening the door to gently taunting mockery from one of baseball’s true scholars, Joe Posnanski.
Even so, the punishment barely registers. What would be a better punishment, to exclude these players and therefore diminish the Hall, or to include them, with a full reckoning of their flaws and foibles and thus diminish the individual? The Hall chose the former course, and baseball has suffered for it since.
But that choice is barely two decades old, and not some time-honored tradition. As such, it can and should be rescinded. For baseball’s sake it must be.