Halls of Fame

As I’m currently confined to my apartment by the polar weather in the midwest, now seemed like a good time to make my first blog post of the new year. (I’m so glad that we can call this cold spell a “polar vortex” instead of just a damn annoying winter day.) And since the baseball Hall of Fame is going to announce its inductees (if any) on Wednesday afternoon, this seems like an opportune topic.

Now, I could go into who deserves to be inducted and who doesn’t—and I likely will do in the course of this entry—but there’s already plenty of that floating around. What’s more interesting to me than the debates over who should be admitted are the conversations about what the Hall of Fame even means. I would not be the first person to suggest that the Baseball Writers Association of American (BBWAA) has been damaging its credibility in recent years with the trend of excluding players based on PED allegations. I should note that there’s an important distinction to be made here: There are some players who have admitted to using PEDs (i.e., Mark McGwire) and some who have tested positive (Raphael Palmeiro). However, there are also players who have clearly been hurt by having been power hitters in the so-called “steroids era,” such as Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Writers who combine these two categories of players into a single debate do a significant disservice to the general conversation about HOF-worthiness, since they’re collapsing the debate about whether a known PED user could be eligible for the Hall with the realm of murky and unsubstantiated allegations about players who might have used. To wit: there is no credible evidence that either Bagwell or Piazza ever used steroids, but some writers have decided that they are tainted by association. They take evidence that by all rights should make both players automatic inductees to Cooperstown and turn that evidence on its head to argue that these players ought to be ineligible, just like their duly convicted brethren.

I’ll try not to get too polemical here, but this sort of argument stinks worse than (to use a Simpsons phrase) the south end of a north-bound mule. You don’t think that known PED users should be in the Hall of Fame? Fine. I don’t agree, but at least I can see that there is a rational argument there, one that is based (loosely) on the rules of baseball and the guidelines of the Hall of Fame. But it is remarkably arrogant of any writer to take it upon himself to be the moral police based on shady accusations and rumors. If we’ve learned anything from the repeated revelations of PED use over the last several years, it should be that there are a remarkable variety of reasons why players take these substances, and there is an equally great range of reasons why individuals might suggest that this or that player is on the juice. (And let’s not kid ourselves here—these same baseball writers who want to wag the finger at players when Hall voting time rolls around have a vested interest in reporting on PED users, whether or not those reports are credible.)

As a FanGraphs writer suggested a while ago (I think it was Dave Cameron, but I can’t recall), I do hope that we are living through a transitional period here, where the old guard of the BBWAA is breathing its final breaths and exerting its waning influence over a sport that has changed dramatically, in both analysis and performance. But I also wonder why we, as a culture, seem so hell-bent on building Halls of Fame. What is achieved by having a building where all of the “greatest” players are recognized? Yeah, there’s some cool stuff in Cooperstown, and the museum generally does a good job of curating baseball’s actual history (rather than the one the baseball writers are trying to inscribe). But what is achieved by saying that (for instance) Ryne Sandberg is HOF-worthy, while Lou Whitaker is not? (Go look up their numbers and explain to me how Sandberg is a Hall of Famer while Whitaker couldn’t even garner the 5% of the vote necessary to stay on the ballot.) What have we gained from the rather public campaign to get Jim Rice in the Hall while Dale Murphy’s eligibility expired last year?

I don’t mean to only apply these questions to baseball, either. I was recently thinking about these same issues with regard to the even more bizarre idea of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. When the 2014 inductees were announced recently, Nile Rodgers was again snubbed. But I was even more surprised to learn that the acts eligible but not in the Rock Hall include: Black Flag, the Cure, Deep Purple, Iron Maiden, Joan Jett, the Smiths, and Sonic Youth. Again, I’m not going to argue that some or all of these should be inducted—particularly not in an arena where the mere concept of a “hall of fame” is even more bizarre and arbitrary than in professional sports—but it seems to me, and to many others, that Rock Hall voters are operating with a similar system of biases as are the BBWAA.

Ultimately, if we’re going to maintain these institutions, we need to accept them for what they are: a series of snapshots of the thought processes, biases, and prejudices of the gatekeepers who vote for inductees, rather than a group of the most elite members of a given field.

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2 Replies to “Halls of Fame”

  1. Putting aside the question of the utility served by creating halls of fame: I am interested in why you think players who used PEDs should be allowed into the Baseball HOF. I accept the notion that steroids did not allow Barry Bonds to see the ball as well as he did, an ability as necessary as power to hitting the ball out of the park. Juicing, however, is a form of cheating. Would you advocate on behalf of a hitter who was known to have been corking his bat for years? Or on behalf of a pitcher who could throw consistently 95+mph but was doctoring the ball?

  2. There are a number of things I might say in response to your question, but it all basically comes down to this: To uniformly call the use of banned substances “cheating” papers over a number of historical contingencies and shifts in moral and legal attitudes to the concept of cheating. It’s clear from the history of baseball that what is considered cheating at one moment might not be so considered during another era. Hank Aaron took amphetamines. Gaylord Perry threw spitballs (and wrote a book about it while he was still pitching). Infractions such as these, committed by a player today, would destroy a reputation, and yet we still (rightly) celebrate the accomplishments of Aaron and Perry.

    Part of the problem here is that the rules of baseball governing PED use have changed rapidly and substantially in the past 10 years. When Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds (and others) were using steroids (still allegedly in the case of Bonds, since he continues to deny any wrongdoing), there were no drug tests and no penalties for doing so. As we now know, baseball was tacitly condoning these actions, since it was generating huge revenues for owners, and moreover, many of the same writers who today want to martyr figures like Bonds and Roger Clemens were also aware of and complicit in this culture. I don’t see how it’s fair that the players who (allegedly) used PEDs should be made the sole recipients of public dismay while the owners and writers continue to profit from the (alleged) misdeeds. But don’t take this to be a blanket acceptance of PED use and users. There’s a significant difference between Ryan Braun’s violations in 2012 and whatever players did in the 1990s.

    There’s another issue, though. (Two, actually.) First, there is no basis to claim that steroids or other PEDs directly improve any aspect of athletic performance. There’s no research that demonstrates this, and the performances of players who have used or allegedly used PEDs are so widely varied that no rational person could conclude any direct links. The case of Melky Cabrera from a couple years ago is instructive: if steroids are supposed to increase power hitting, how can we explain that Cabrera’s unusually good performance was due almost entirely to what looks like a rather random fluctuation in Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP)? To say that any athlete’s performance is due to drug use is a gross oversimplification of a number of factors. Further, the approach of the HOF has traditionally been to find players who are the best of their generation. Since we still know so little about what did or did not happen in the 1990s, I see no reason why this should change.

    Second (and then I’ll finally stop!), I find the question of who used far less interesting and valuable than the question of who gets to decide what constitutes “cheating” and what are the penalties for it. Did Mike Piazza use steroids? Maybe. There’s no evidence that he did, but we can’t say for sure that he didn’t. Did Frank Thomas? Maybe (with the same explanation). What’s the difference, then? Thomas has been outspoken against PED use, while Piazza has remained very private in his post-baseball like (as he was during his career). Piazza, in effect, has the wrong image and is being punished for it. This is not a question of cheating at all, but rather a question of a group of writers trying to make the official version of baseball history conform to some bizarre ideal that they have in their heads. They have made themselves the moral police, and they define the morals as they go along. And this I find absolutely unacceptable.

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