Measuring the character of baseball greatsby Jack Marshall
September 27, 2009
In the middle of a key game, a bat flying out of a hitter’s hands seriously injures a child in the crowd. The home team’s star slugger leaps into the stands, scoops up the child, and carries him into the dugout for immediate medical attention. Most agree the player’s quick actions saved the child’s life. The slugger is a borderline Hall of Fame candidate upon his retirement. How much, if at all, should his dramatic rescue of the stricken child enhance his prospects for election?
Years after his retirement, one of baseball’s greatest relief pitchers falls on hard times and bad health. Reeling from clinical depression over the death of his son, and abusing medication, he robs a jewelry store. Should this sad incident diminish his reputation as a player?
One of baseball’s greatest pitchers, in a sudden fit of fear and anger, attacks an opposing player with a baseball bat during a game. Should this incident disqualify him for admission to the Hall of Fame?
A player recognized for his work ethics, willingness to play hurt and exemplary skills on the field amasses accomplishments that qualify him for serious Hall of Fame consideration. He is also widely regarded as a racist, and once lied to his team, the press and the public about the origins of a serious injury. To what extent, if any, should the latter factors influence the judgment of Hall of Fame voters?
How should we measure greatness in a baseball player? To follow the arguments within the increasingly statistic-obsessed baseball pundit world, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame determines a player’s historical greatness in a straightforward manner, defining it as apparent playing talent demonstrated over time, confirmed by the records and statistics of the game.
The Hall doesn’t exactly see it that way, however. It is clear from its voting criteria that great ballplayers, in Hall of Fame terms, are those arguably worthy of holding the status of hero, men who are credits not just to their teams, but also to the game, and perhaps even their country, their race, and their species.
"Voting shall be based upon the player's record," the Hall declares, and also "playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played." So few words, so much vagueness, ambiguity and grist for debate! Presumably, the player’s record means accumulated career accomplishments, and “playing ability” means degree of superiority in talent and skill to other players. But what are the qualities of “integrity, sportsmanship and character” as they apply to a major league player?
There are some of you whose answer to this question is, "Who cares?" Some analysts regard all references to character as subjective and irrelevant, and cite the changing standards of our culture to bolster their argument that such things have nothing to do with baseball greatness. My answer is that these analysts should start their own Hall of Fame. This Hall of Fame, the one in Cooperstown, NY, believes that there is more to being a great ballplayer than an outstanding VORP, and I agree with the theory, if not always with how it has worked in practice. But that means there are key qualities of the Hall of Fame’s definition that can’t be quantified with a calculator.
They still have to be defined and measured somehow, and then weighed. Amazingly, despite the many protracted debates over the integrity, sportsmanship and character of individual players, there is little consensus about what is relevant and what isn’t, and the assumption appears to be that trying to move the argument beyond seat-of-the-pants opinion is futile.
Maybe it isn’t, though. Integrity, sportsmanship and character are concepts that have meaning, and determining their meaning within the world of Major League Baseball should be possible, if not especially easy. I’d like to start that process here, invite the thoughts of Hardball Times readers, and then move on to the task of weighting the factors and applying them various types of conduct, and ultimately to specific players and problems.
When Manny Ramirez was suspended for testing positive for banned substances earlier this season, several commentators, including Boston Globe sportswriter Dan Shaughnessy, former teammate Johnny Damon and Manny himself, employed what I regard as the worst of all rationalizations for misconduct, the "It’s not the worst thing in the world" argument, which seeks to minimize every wrongful act by comparing it to a worse one. Their version was the "it’s not like he killed someone" defense.
It caused me to wonder about the hierarchy of perceived bad conduct in baseball. Using banned substances is far, far less of an offense than murder in the real world, of course, but it would seem that baseball necessarily regards the two acts as less disparate in negative value. Could it even be possible that in the world of baseball, steroid use, or other misconduct, is worse than murder?
Determining this must begin with identifying the factors that determine how particular conduct relates to a player’s integrity, sportsmanship and character. They begin with the basics—when, and what.
When: Did the conduct occur before, during, or after the player’s career? If during his career, did it also occur during the baseball season? What were the cultural norms in the game and in society when the conduct occurred?
Pre-career: In most cases, what a player did before he became a major leaguer is not held against him, though good conduct in this period may still raise opinions of his character somewhat. It is as if the player’s life begins when he puts on a big league uniform. Indeed, a pre-baseball life of serious misconduct can burnish a player’s reputation for character, because it casts baseball as the symbol of his redemption.
Former Detroit outfielder Ron LeFlore, for example, never reached the career accomplishments that would qualify him for the Hall of Fame, but it is inconceivable that his pre-baseball conviction for armed robbery would have been used to disqualify him. As for especially virtuous pre-career conduct, it may become part of the case for integrity and character, subject to being superseded by subsequent events.
Post-career: After a player’s career is over, his notable conduct, good or bad, will be linked to his baseball career, and to the institution of baseball. Perceived bad conduct can embarrass the player’s team and the sport. Thus the embarrassing revelations about Steve Garvey’s sexual indiscretions affect how posterity will regard his integrity and character. Orlando Cepeda’s post-career arrest, conviction and imprisonment for drug possession impeded his candidacy for the Hall of Fame for many years.
Players who remain in the game as coaches or managers, serve as teachers and role models for young players, perform special service to the game or its players (like Don Newcombe or Mark Belanger), or those, like U.S. Senator Jim Bunning, who have significant achievements in a different field, add to their reputations for character because they are “credits to the sport.”
During Career: Clearly, conduct that occurs during a player’s career is the most relevant to assessing his character as it relates to baseball, and will have the most impact on his reputation. Bad conduct may have direct negative consequences on the team’s performance and is likely to create more serious damage to public perception of the sport and its personnel than any pre- or post-career conduct.
The revelation of Wade Boggs’ extramarital affair with Margo Adams in 1989 helped to throw the 1988 Division-winning Red Sox season into disarray, and is still more remembered than Garvey’s indiscretions. A player’s exemplary conduct will also have more impact and perceived significance when it occurs during his career, when the public attention will be most intense.
There is also significant difference in perceived relevance to a player’s character according to the timing of the conduct within a player’s career. Off-season conduct will usually have less impact on assessments of a player’s character than conduct during the season, unless the conduct is extreme, while conduct actually occurring during a game, such as Rick Monday’s famous outfield rescue of the American flag from a would-be flag-burner, or Ty Cobb’s infamous attack on a legless heckler in the stands, may become a prominent part of the player’s public image for all time.
The "When" impact hierarchy, then, is During Career (during a game) first, During Career (during the season) next, and During Career (off-season) third. Post-Career conduct, good and bad, is well behind all of these, and Pre-Career conduct far behind both of them, with virtuous Pre-Career conduct likely to have more relevance to assessments of a player’s character than Pre-Career misconduct.
There is one additional aspect of timing that can be critical to an overall assessment of a player’s conduct and how it reflects on his character, and that is cultural context. It is only fair to judge Babe Ruth’s hedonistic lifestyle in the context of America in the 1920s and 1930s. Confirmed steroid-users who broke the rules after the Mitchell Report should be regarded even more severely than those who used PEDs when they were epidemic in baseball and ignored by the game’s leadership.
Applying cultural context is so subjective and difficult that one is tempted to forego the effort. To do so would be unjust, however. Time gives all of us, including baseball players, opportunities to learn from history and experience. It is wrong to be excessively harsh in our judgment of those who didn’t know they were wrong, when it may have taken us decades to learn what was right.
What: What was the conduct? Was it good or bad in absolute terms, in the context of baseball only, or some combination of the two?
In society, the worst crimes involve murder, because murder threatens to destroy society by throwing civilization into chaos and violence. In baseball, the worst conduct is conduct that threatens the game, rather than society. What threatens the game? As with all competitions, the greatest threat to baseball is a public perception that the game is a fraud—rigged, deceptive, and unworthy of trust and belief. Since 1919, as even the most casual baseball fan knows, gambling on baseball games has been pronounced an unforgivable sin, following close behind intentionally hurting one’s own team on the field and accepting bribes to do so.
Another type of conduct that threatens baseball itself is player violence directed at umpires, because such behavior undermines the authority of official arbiters that the game cannot function without. (In Philip Roth’s wonderful The Great American Novel, a star pitcher receives a lifetime ban for intentionally injuring an umpire with a well-placed fastball. I think that’s right.) These and other on-field transgressions reflect on a player’s sportsmanship as well as his character and integrity. Somewhere in the same group are steroid and other PED use, conduct that may involve a crime (as with bribery and assault) and involving on-field activity (a player’s steroid use might be harmless to the game if he never played), that affects the integrity of the game.
But what about murder? We can conclude that a player who intentionally killed a player, fan, teammate or umpire during a game would attain instant and lifetime infamy, placing that act at least on par with the game-threatening conduct mentioned above. Murder committed by a player or former player in his non-baseball activities, however, might be considered less serious (though very serious still), implicating his character but not his sportsmanship or integrity.
Assessing the impact of good conduct is also tricky, because being an admirable person does not make an individual a more talented baseball player. One principle I would advocate embracing right now is "The Anti-Dibble Rule." This is named in honor of former gonzo-pitcher turned gonzo-radio pundit Rob Dibble, who last year went into an extended rant on his XM radio show when Ron Santo failed to be voted into the Hall of Fame by the Veteran’s Committee. "I mean, it’s a joke!," Dibble raged. "With everything this guy has put up with, with all his courage, losing his legs and everything, plus his record, and they don’t think he’s qualified?"
The Anti-Dibble Rule holds that while admirable conduct off the baseball field may be used as a measure of a player’s character and integrity, it can only enhance the measure of a player’s greatness to the extent that it counter-balances misconduct or negative conduct. It cannot push a borderline great player into a higher category. Thus the impressive charity work of Ted Williams for the Jimmy Fund and his Korean War heroism can only help offset incidents showing poor character and bad sportsmanship in his career, such as spitting at the stands and refusing to tip his cap.
The "what" of good and bad conduct reflecting on a player’s character must also, in individual cases, be tempered by the "how" and "why." Four-time All-Star reliever Jeff Reardon’s robbery attempt seemed to be completely out of character, prompted by grief and emotional illness. That conduct should probably have no bearing on our assessment of his character at all.
Apparently Juan Marichal’s attack on catcher John Roseboro has been accepted as the result of a form of temporary insanity, because the incident did not significantly impede his acceptance into the Hall of Fame. If he had killed Roseboro, presumably it would have hurt his candidacy more, although in character terms, there is little difference between trying to kill someone and succeeding. (The legal penalties for attempted murder are virtually the same as for murder itself.)
Now I’ll propose some general principles for measuring a baseball player’s character in the assessment of his greatness, point out some difficulties, and suggest the next steps, hopefully with the enlightenment and participation of Hardball Times readers.
- In the case of the very greatest players, only misconduct that directly harmed the game of baseball or threatened to do so should disqualify the player for the Hall. (Complex cases: Ty Cobb, Cap Anson, Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens)
- Conduct showing bad sportsmanship should be considered more damaging to the measurement of a player’s “greatness” than conduct implicating integrity or character generally. (Complex cases: Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Ty Cobb, Manny Ramirez)
- Personality should not be included in the assessment of character, except in extreme cases where it arguably affects team performance positively or negatively. (Complex cases: Rogers Hornsby, David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez)
- Pre-career conduct is irrelevant, unless it serves to explain, confirm, or mitigate subsequent conduct.
- Good conduct, even unusual conduct that occurs during a game, should never elevate a player whose playing career is not Hall of Fame-worthy to Hall status. It can appropriately be used to counter-balance negative conduct that might otherwise show inadequate integrity, sportsmanship and character. (Complex cases: Jim Rice, Jeff Kent, Buck O’Neill)
- Admissions, apologies and expressed regret for misconduct do not, by themselves, erase the significance of misconduct for purposes of assessing character, but may be used, as with other good conduct, as counter-balancing factors.
- The Dibble Principle (See above.)
The next step in this inquiry is to assign weights to the various varieties of conduct that are relevant to measurements of player greatness. Here is a incomplete list, in rough order of most important to least important.
Bad Conduct (Indicating lack of integrity, bad sportsmanship, or bad character)
1. Throwing a game
2. Murder on the field
3. Attempted murder on the field
4. Accepting a bribe
5. Gambling on baseball
6. Extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs
7. Attacks on fans or umpires.
8. On-field impairment affecting performance
9. Major crimes during the season
10. Major crimes during the player’s career
11. Dishonest, uncivilized or other embarrassing personal conduct during a player’s career
12. On the field cheating, unrelated to drugs.
13. Unprofessional conduct on the field
14. Post-career serious crimes
15. Post career conduct involving dishonest, anti-social or offensive acts
16. General reputation for bad character
17. The expression of extreme or offensive views (racist, homophobic, misogynistic, anti-American, etc.)
18. Betrayal of the confidences of teammates in printed material and interviews
Good Conduct (Indicating integrity, sportsmanship or good character)
1. Team leadership
2. Unusual hustle, “playing the game right.”
3. Special acts of courage, heroism or integrity during a game
4. Charity and community service
5. Special acts of courage, heroism or integrity during a season
6. Special acts of courage, heroism or integrity during the off-season
7. Post-career charity and community service
8. Distinguished career in baseball post plying career
9. Outstanding military service
10. Distinguished career achievements after playing career
11. Military service generally
12. Special individual acts of heroism, generosity, charity or other exemplary conduct, post career.
This is just a beginning. With your help, it may be possible clarify and quantify the inherently foggy concept of character and its relevance to baseball "greatness," and admission to baseball’s Hall of Fame.
Jack Marshall is a professional ethicist, writer, lawyer and lifetime baseball enthusiast. He is the president of ProEthics, a national ethics training firm, and the writer of the Ethics Scoreboard.