Baseball, The Hall, and an imperfect immortality
At a time when much of the country is looking inward, it is altogether appropriate that we look to a place where baseball is focused more outward, to its historic transcendence – to immortality.
To talk of legacies, we must look across times and places for the timeless among us. Baseball has a place for that: Cooperstown, New York – the home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. If there is a heaven for baseball fans, I may never get there; I’ve been to Cooperstown, and it is enough.
To appreciate the Hall, we must first understand the place of the Hall in baseball history, and in our culture. We must look to the honor it bestows, and the limitations inherent in it.
Eras and legacies
The Hall will call on transcendent players, down through history, regardless of era; greatness demands it, and history will always offer a reckoning, no matter how harshly we whitewash it. We must ready ourselves now; plaques for racists, philanderers, and all manner of scoundrel hang among dozens of decent men across history in the Hall. Thus it has been, and thus it should be; it is a hall of honor, not a sanctum of saints.
The Hall of Fame comprises 317 elected members: 220 former major league players, 30 executives, 35 Negro Leaguers, 22 managers and 10 umpires. By position, there are 77 pitchers, 17 catchers, 22 first basemen, 21 second basemen, 16 third basemen, 24 shortstops, 21 left fielders, 24 center fielders, 24 right fielders, 23 managers, 10 umpires and 35 executives.
Of the more than 18,400 men who have played major league baseball, 1.2% have made the Hall of Fame. If you include the ranks of the Negro Leagues, that number shrinks below 1%.
The Hall makes the criteria for election something less than clear:
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
On only one topic is the Hall concrete; it excludes one group: Persons on baseball’s ineligible list cannot be eligible candidates. Pete Rose. Joe Jackson. Eddie Cicotte. Unless the rules change, these men – all suspended due to various incidents tied to gambling – will never find a place in the plaque room.
The fifth criterion is the current complication: character. What does it mean? How is it defined? Where do its limitations begin and end? Who is its judge, and by what standards? The Hall, as it often does, defers to others with a vague statement:
CHARACTER, INTEGRITY, AND SPORTSMANSHIP
“Implemented in 1945. Rule applies to how the game was played on the field, more so than character off the field.”
The prodigal Pandora’s box
After last year’s election of Mike Piazza, and this year’s election of Jeff Bagwell and Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, many writers have assumed that they have elected a user of performance-enhancing drugs; to be clear, I tend to assume more players than not used PEDs, far beyond just those from the 1990s and 2000s. I don’t believe it impacts the Hall of Fame worthiness of any of these three men.
I saw Pudge’s first game on TV, and he was a Hall of Fame defensive catcher from Day 1. Like many, he developed over time as a hitter. Bagwell was a great hitter, and always a strong, bulky player. Piazza much the same. If these men were borderline candidates, their potential PED use might impact my view of them. None of them, however, needed PEDs to reach the Hall, in my opinion.
I think each worked tremendously hard at their craft, and to convict them because of their physiques, or changes to them as testing came into effect or retirement beckoned…well, that’s too much judgement to put on my conscience.
At the risk of near-sacrilege, I believe no less a player than Nolan Ryan could easily have used “greenies” (amphetamines), given their prevalence in the game during his career (more on that in a moment). I don’t believe they made him a Hall of Famer; God and grit did that.
But to many, the above players’ elections tests the character clause. To many more, it tests their personal definition of “character.”
The evidence against each of these men is largely speculative or circumstantial. More to the point, the argument is moot.
The concerns are proper, but the timeline is off by a half century or so.
The day we began electing players whose careers spanned the 1960s onward, we opened the “Pandora’s box” of PEDs. That we see amphetamines in a different class than steroids is naïve; “greenies” were a clubhouse factor from 1945 on, and peaked in the 1970s and ’80s.
Coffee in clubhouses was either “leaded” or “unleaded”, depending on whether it was spiked with greenies. Teams and players kept amphetamines in open view, often in bowls like M&Ms at a Halloween party. Teammates derided playing without greenies in your system; they called it “playing naked.” In the fine ESPN 30 for 30 film “Doc and Darryl”, there’s an excerpt about amphetamine use; Darryl Strawberry describes their effect:
“You take amphetamines, and the ball looks so big. It’s like you could hit anything,” he says.
The best suggestion I can offer for dealing with the steroid era in Cooperstown is incomplete, but would solve this issue. It does not involve individual blame, but instead breaks the plaque room into eras, with descriptions of the eras – warts and all. Talk about expansion and the dilution of the talent pool, and air travel and fatigue. Outline amphetamine use and the explosion of relief pitching. Speak about steroids.
Beyond all others, lay wide open the most shameful “performance enhancer” major league baseball has ever known: the era from the 1880s until 1947, when the powers of the game barred a large and talented part of the population from taking the field in official major league games. It would talk about a time when the game was as white as the ball, and all the worse for it.
Baseball’s timeline is not best broken up by expansion, or inter-league play, or even performance-enhancing drugs. It saw but one truly monumental shift: on April 15, 1947 – 70 years ago – the game shifted on its axis, and in many ways, the nation moved with it.
Coloring outside the lines
When Jack Roosevelt Robinson took the field April 15, 1947 – 70 years ago – on a brilliant spring day in Brooklyn, he began a reckoning that the nation would shortly face and long after feel. A reckoning that shortly spread to a nation. A reckoning that will span my lifetime and the lifetime of my children.
The Hall of Fame is looking for a way to handle these distinct eras, with all their complexities. Baseball, itself, has finally come to embrace all the loss and all the tarnished legacies that came with segregation. So how to deal with this latest of legacy-bending complications?
In my opinion, if a player never violated a drug test during his playing days, he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame, with eras defined as I’ve described them. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens belong in the Hall; Rafael Palmeiro and Manny Ramirez do not. There is a clear line of demarcation: they broke the rules while the game had in place measures to enforce those rules. Players should not be punished, entirely, for taking advantage of loopholes; a delay of years – sometimes lifetimes – waiting for their election is enough.
Timelessness is a myth
But how to handle numbers?
Simple: era-specific records. Who led baseball in home runs during the high-mound era of the 1960s? Who was the greatest home run hitter of the pre-expansion, post integration era? What about pre-Robinson? The game changes; records cannot – should not – be timeliness.
For most of its existence, Wrigley Field was actually seen as a pitchers park. Then, the likes of Ebbets Field, Shibe Park, and Crosley Field gave way to Dodger Stadium, Veterans Stadium, and Riverfront Stadium. Astroturf and the designed hitter arrived. Relief pitching and specialization evolved. Platoons came, went, and came again.
Did Wrigley change? Not at all. The game did. Acknowledge it, distinguish it, let the fans take in the information and make their own judgments, and move on. The Hall’s role is primarily to tell the story of the game. Museums must tell the dark tales with the light, must paint shame with the same brush as luster.
Character works both ways
The plaque room in Cooperstown is a place of honor, but it far from a roll call for saints.
Let the “character clause” be measured by punitive actions taken by the league in the players own time, and go from there. Do not make writers be moral arbiters. Keep the character clause in, but define it better, as I’ve outlined above. Moreover, let it go both ways. If it burdens Barry Bonds and Rogers Clemens, let it bolster borderline candidates like Minnie Minoso, Fred McGriff, Edgar Martinez, Dale Murphy, Jack Morris, Dwight Evans, Alan Trammell, and Trevor Hoffman.
A higher honor
But there is a way, even beyond the Hall, to offer a higher place of honor for only the most monumental of men.
Only one man has met its criteria. Another’s legacy begs he keep this same company. More on that next time.