In discussing the complications surrounding the review of candidates from “the Steroid Era” for the Hall of Fame, sportswriter Peter Gammons accidentally tapped into the real root of the problem:
“What I find is that there is no guidebook to what entails a Hall of Famer or a manual defining the criteria. Most of us vote based on our own vision of what the Hall of Fame is or should be, which, in reality, means we don’t know what the Hall is supposed to be, which is a fascinating part of what goes into each ballot due on New Year’s Eve.”
Gammons is absolutely correct. The Hall of Fame has never clearly defined for the voters what a Hall of Famer is. From the very beginning, the job of defining that has been left to the voters—a group of people each with a slightly different answer to that question. All we really know is that a man is a Hall of Famer once 75 percent of the voters agree that he is, and not before. The best measuring stick today’s voters have in determining whether a player should be in the Hall of Fame is by comparison to those already enshrined. With 237 players inducted to date, there is a 77-year history whereby a de facto definition has been settled on by previous generations of electors.
That standard has included players who cheated, broke baseball’s rules, or broke the law. It has included drug users, alcoholics, gamblers and racists. It has included many players who were not positive role models for our children in any way, shape or form other than to teach them how to play the game of baseball.
And that’s the point: The Hall of Fame elects people who play baseball very well. It is not in the business of canonizing saints. The clause about character, sportsmanship and integrity was a rhetorical flourish added in the 1940s to help boost the candidacies of players who might be borderline solely on the basis of their performance. It has never been used to keep out a single candidate who, on the basis of how he performed on the field, was worthy of election. That is how the Hall of Fame has handled players like this throughout its history.
The only players the voters consistently rejected as Hall of Fame material were those who threw games, players who intentionally lost. Shoeless Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte received virtually no support from the voters for a decade before the character clause was inserted into the guidelines, making absolutely no difference to the electorate. In 1991, the Hall of Fame codified the prohibition against players on baseball’s ineligible list (i.e., lifetime banishment from Organized Baseball) to keep Pete Rose from appearing on the ballot.
And that’s been the policy ever since. If a player’s sins are serious enough to kick him out of baseball forever, then the Hall of Fame won’t honor him. Anything less than that and, if the voters consider him one of the greatest players of his era, he should be elected.
The one issue serious enough to question the integrity of the game, so far as the Hall has ever been concerned, is throwing games. Players who defaced balls and corked bats, who stole signs or injured opponents, who flagrantly broke the rules in all manner of ways, were all trying to help their team win. The players of the past two decades who ingested and injected things into their bodies in order to heal faster and to build more muscle are in that tradition. And it wasn’t until threats from Congress forced MLB to act against performance-enhancing drugs did managers, team and league officials (and sportswriters) do anything more than turn a blind eye, often with a wink and a smile.
Baseball has a century and a half of applauding those who cheat to gain an advantage on its opponents. Rightly or wrongly, PED users fall within that tradition. At least they did until mandatory testing began to result in suspensions if you were caught.
But as far as the Hall of Fame remains concerned, PED-users are as eligible for election as anyone else. The only players ineligible for election on the basis of character, sportsmanship and integrity are those on baseball’s ineligible list; the guys with lifetime bans from the game. So far as Hall-worthy players go, that means Jackson, Cicotte and Rose. Some day this might include a juicer, but under current rules only if he fails three drug tests. Anything short of that and the Hall of Fame says he can be elected, which means the Hall clearly does not have a problem honoring a PED user who failed two or fewer drug tests (or none at all) any more than they did honoring players who corked their bats, used amphetamines, assaulted invalids in the stands or any number of other “crimes,” whether against baseball or humanity.
The Hall of Fame says that unless a player is banned for life, so long as he played 10 or more seasons, he’s eligible for election; not just consideration, but election to the Hall. Therefore, voters should apply to same standard to the eligible PED user (or PED suspect) that they apply to all other eligible players: Was he as good a baseball player as the de facto standard for Hall of Famers laid out by seven decades of elections? Was he one of the best all-time at his position? Was he one of the best of his era?
We each have our own version of what a Hall of Famer is or isn’t. But unless and until either Major League Baseball or the Hall of Fame changes its eligibility rules, the fact remains that the Hall of Fame says our individual definitions must include the eligibility of people we believe cheated unless those players fall on MLB’s ineligible list. So while Gammons was correct that the Hall of Fame has never laid out a clear definition of a Hall of Famer, the institution and past electorates have, at least, provided guidance on how to deal with players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens: Elect them.