10 January 2013

On the Baseball Hall of Fame Shutout

By Shamus
Charlotte, NC

Of the four major U.S. sports, baseball has the longest tradition, its history extending way back into the mid-19th century with the first professional league having begun in the 1870s. Baseball was the also the first of the four sports to establish a Hall of Fame, electing its first class in 1936.

Among all of the major sports, baseball additionally has the longest and most deeply-rooted tradition of bestowing significance upon players’ statistical data. The late great Jim Murray, sportswriter for the L.A. Times from the early 1960s to the 1990s, once wrote that “baseball’s appeal is decimal points. No other sport relies as totally on continuity, statistics, [and] orderliness.... Baseball fans pay more attention to numbers than CPAs.”

In his 1981 book In Praise of the Second Season, Robert S. Weider chose a different metaphor to make a similar point. “Baseball fans are junkies,” wrote Weider. “And their heroin is the statistic.”

Perhaps because of this combination -- a long history, heavily marked by endless numbers encouraging statistical comparison across eras -- the Baseball Hall of Fame gets a lot more attention than do the other sports’ halls of fame. Baseball fans care about the Hall of Fame, with debates over who belongs and who does not often featuring heavily amid the “hot stove league” conversations of the winter months.

This year those debates are taking a somewhat different shape than in the past, not so much focusing on individual players as on the Baseball Hall of Fame itself. That’s because yesterday the news arrived that after the 569 ballots cast this year by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America were tallied, not a single player had been named on at least 75% of them (427).

That's right... the BBWAA pitched a shutout, and for the first year since 1996 won’t be electing any new members to the HOF. The Veterans Committee did induct three individuals -- all of whom died in the 1930s -- which should make for a fairly sober induction ceremony in Cooperstown this July.

While unusual, such a result wouldn’t have been that controversial if not for the fact that among the 37 candidates on the ballot there appeared a number who had careers producing statistics that not only compare favorably to current HOFers, but rank among the best ever in baseball’s storied history. I’m talking about...

  • Barry Bonds -- 762 home runs (1st all-time), 1,996 RBIs (3rd), 514 stolen bases (33rd), 2,935 hits, .298 BA, 7 MVPs (1st)
  • Roger Clemens -- 354 wins (9th), 4,672 strikeouts (3rd), 3.12 ERA, 7 Cy Young Awards (1st)
  • Sammy Sosa -- 609 home runs (8th), 1,667 RBIs (27th)
  • Mark McGwire -- 583 home runs (10th), 566 as a first baseman (1st)
  • Rafael Palmeiro -- 569 home runs (12th), 3,020 hits
  • Mike Piazza -- 427 home runs total (44th), 396 as a catcher (1st), .308 BA
  • Craig Biggio -- 291 home runs total, 228 as a second baseman (8th), 53 to lead off a game (1st), 3,060 hits; only MLB player w/at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases, and 250 HRs

    There were a handful of other players on this year’s ballot whose career numbers were good enough to put them in the HOF debate as well, among them Jeff Bagwell, Fred McGriff, Jack Morris, Tim Raines, Lee Smith, and Dale Murphy. But no one made it, with Biggio coming the closest by being included on 68.2% of the ballots (388 of 569).

    Voters are allowed to name up to 10 players on their ballots, so it wasn’t as though there wasn’t room to include some or even most of these candidates. But only 37.6% voted for Clemens, and 36.2% for Bonds. Clemens was voted the best pitcher in his league seven different times, two more than any other player in history. Bonds was voted the MVP of his league seven times, too, four more MVPs than any other player. But neither came close to being elected to the HOF this year, the first time both players have been eligible.

    Of course, I’ve yet to mention the obvious reason why the votes for Bonds, Clemens, McGwire (who only earned 16.9% of the vote), Sosa (12.5%), and Palmeiro (8.8%) went the way they did -- the fact that all five of those players have been implicated as having used performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) at some point during their careers.

    While the statistics might be baseball fans’ heroin, for MLB players during the 1990s and early 2000s, it was PEDs. And even though some players more obviously succumbed to the pressure to use steroids during their careers than did others, all who played during that period are under suspicion. Some (like Biggio) have never been implicated directly, the questions about them mainly inspired by their having played alongside PED users. Others (like Piazza) have been the subject of more substantial allegations of use. But as yesterday’s vote makes clear, doubts persist about all.

    By failing to police the game for such a long period of time, Major League Baseball helped ensure the warping of the record books that took place during the so-called “steroid era” -- or, to use Jim Murray’s words, the disruption of the “continuity, statistics, [and] orderliness” upon which baseball fans have always relied. Indeed, I believe the only instance of any of this year’s HOF candidates ever being suspended for steroid use was Palmeiro who was made to sit for 10 days after having tested positive in 2005, the first year MLB began officially doing anything at all about PEDs.

    Like I say, a lot of baseball fans genuinely care about the HOF, and thus this year’s vote and the delayed-trigger crisis of the game’s PED-plagued past -- something we all saw coming -- has created a lot of angst all around.

    Some are directing their frustration toward the voters, an unwieldy bunch whose varied motives and arguments bring to mind the frequent non-functionality of the U.S. Congress. Others are lodging a different complaint also aimed at the sportswriters for not calling enough attention to the problem of PEDs when it was ongoing. Bud Selig -- “acting” Commissioner of the MLB from 1992-1998, then officially taking on the title afterwards -- is also earning some heat (as usual). And many are angry at the players themselves, both the users (for using) and the non-users (for not raising enough fuss).

    As winter turns to spring and a new season arrives, the present uproar will die down. But it’ll most certainly revive again in November when the new ballot is announced. Indeed, for the next several years there will be a new tradition forged in baseball, one that will provide a different kind of sad continuity going forward...

    The one of questioning the validity and significance of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

    Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.

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