Hall of Fame season is always a contentious time. Aside from castigating the old fogies who refuse to acknowledge the existence of PED-linked players, we spend far too much time debating who deserves induction. With the ballot allowing for a maximum of 10 selections — and many voters picking far fewer than that — things are bound to get touchy, especially when we disagree on the metrics to use, the value of peaks versus longevity, and (worst of all) the “character clause.” That last area is where our messy story begins.
A couple of weeks ago, my colleague Henry Druschel argued that Curt Schilling doesn’t deserve one of the ballot’s precious 10 spots. Henry’s case rested on the numerous awful things Schilling has said recently, which he felt disqualified the former pitcher from a bust in Cooperstown. Whereas the Hall of Fame used to be a collection of the best players on the diamond, it now, in his view, serves as a monument to those who set a good example off it:
...the primary role played by Hall of Fame membership, to an overwhelming degree, is that of a personal honor bestowed on a deserving player. Induction weekend in Cooperstown is a blast, not least because it’s a time for fans of each inductee to flock to upstate New York, hear them speak, and celebrate them for the outstanding player and, often, representative of the game that they are. The history of that player and their time in the game is important as well, albeit of secondary importance, as is their status as one of the best of all time. That information is available elsewhere, but the kind of focused recognition and acclamation that comes with induction to the Hall is not.
I don’t deny, or excuse, Schilling’s ghastly politics — he’s a bitter Islamophobe and an even-more-bitter transphobe, and he appeared to endorse lynching journalists (more on that in a moment). Schilling is, no doubt, a putrid person, who takes out his misplaced rage on the most marginalized people in our society and generally makes the world a worse place. It’s thus unsurprising that several actual BBWAA members have taken Schilling off their ballots, per Ryan Thibodaux’s invaluable research.
But should Schilling’s bigotry preclude him from getting a plaque? Not in my opinion; I diverge from Henry’s perspective on what Cooperstown should be. For me, the Hall of Fame — despite the often-asinine voting that determines its members — remains an institution for the best baseball players in the game’s history, regardless of what those players did in their non-baseball lives. Look at rWAR, fWAR, and WARP, adjust those metrics for their various shortcomings, and fill out your ballot accordingly.
When we start to exclude some erstwhile players based on their violation of the “character clause,” we can run into some problems with our standards for those violations. How egregious does a player need to be to get himself kicked off the ballot? Which offenses cross the line, and which are just forgivable mistakes? Is there a statute of limitations for different transgressions?
This is obviously a philosophical difference between Henry and I, one that this column won’t resolve. What I object to in his mindset, and what I’d thus like to lay out here, is a sort of double standard. We punish players for certain types of misdeeds — the recent ones, the blatant ones, the ones that sting or worry us personally — and let others pass by scot-free.
Now, Henry did note in his column that Cooperstown “already includes plenty of racists, cheaters, and degenerates,” and that the higher standards he pushes for didn’t apply in the past. So, in the interest of proving my point using Henry’s own logic, I won’t talk about the many vile men — the unapologetic racists, the soulless tycoons, the alleged sexual assailants, the cruel bullies* — who are currently enshrined. Rather, I want to focus on another player still on the ballot, someone who is a deserving Hall of Famer, in the opinions of many people (myself included).
*Note that I didn’t mention a certain notorious Hall of Famer, whose sordid reputation appeared to be exaggerated, if not fabricated.
Here’s what the San Francisco Chronicle’s Ken Hoover reported on Dec. 7, 1995:
The former wife of Giants outfielder Barry Bonds testified in public for the first time yesterday that she was habitually beaten and pushed during their stormy six- year marriage.
In tears, she detailed at least five incidents, including being locked out of their apartment without any clothes on in the middle of the night, being pushed into a bathtub and being pushed to the ground and kicked while eight months pregnant.
That trial was resolved the following year, when the court ruled in favor of Barry Bonds. But as The SF Examiner’s Eve Mitchell wrote, Judge Judith Kozloski “said she wasn't ruling on the truthfulness of Sun Bonds' charges.” For the sake of this article, let’s presume Sun Bonds was telling the truth, as are the majority of women who raise such accusations.
Transphobia and Islamophobia — or “conservatism” for short — are ignominious and inexcusable. Presumably, though, no one would argue that someone who expresses these views is as bad as a domestic abuser. Likewise, only a journalist who’s an unrepentantly arrogant blowhard would think a vague threat at lynching a member of their profession is worse than actual, physical violence. Why, then, have so many people agreed that Schilling should be kept out of the Hall of Fame, while supporting Bonds’s cause (or opposing him solely because of his alleged PED usage)?
Two possible reasons come to mind. In Henry’s case, the answer was simple ignorance. When I asked him about the domestic abuse allegations surrounding Bonds, he admitted that he “didn’t even know about it”; I’d venture that many fans of the game are similarly in the dark. MLB, like most professional sport leagues, has long pushed domestic violence under the rug, allowing abusers to continue playing as their partners suffer. Plus, Bonds’s case was resolved more than 20 years ago, so even if fans did learn about it, the memory has probably faded at this point.
Professional journalists can’t make that excuse, though — it’s their job to know the background of everyone they cover. This is where the second cause of the double standard arises. Earlier, when discussing Schilling’s hatred of Muslims, transgender people, and journalists, I separated the latter from the former two because, well, a great deal of BBWAA members are unrepentantly arrogant blowhards. Writing about Schilling’s future on the ballot, ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick stated:
While Schilling's right-wing orientation risks offending the sensibilities of any left-leaning journalists, ESPN.com surveyed more than 50 writers who cast ballots this year, and only one (who chose to remain anonymous) said he gave the slightest thought to Schilling's political orientation in casting his vote. Instead, evidence suggests a singular act six weeks ago might lie at the heart of Schilling's dropoff in support.
The flashpoint came on Nov. 7 -- amid the heat of the presidential election -- when Schilling posted a tweet in response to a man wearing a T-shirt with the words, "Rope. Tree. Journalist. Some assembly required." Schilling expressed his approval, calling the shirt "awesome," before the comment disappeared from his timeline.
[S]everal Hall of Fame voters surveyed judged the tweet irresponsible, reckless or even dangerous enough to withhold their support for Schilling -- at least for this year.
Not only do these voters disregard Bonds’s awful behavior, they don’t give a shit about any of the other terrible things Schilling has endorsed. Think Islam is analogous to Nazism? Welcome to the Hall of Fame! Think transgender people are perverts and pedophiles? Come on in! Want to (presumably jokingly) threaten journalists? Well, now we have a problem.
This brings us to the big issues with the “character clause”: It’s (a) too subjective, and (b) too amorphous. Given the freedom to judge who deserves baseball immortality, far too many writers will let their petty grievances and prejudices influence their votes. Do we really want Dan Shaughnessy — the Boston Globe columnist who’s a thin-skinned homer, a spreader of scurrilous PED allegations, and a self-plagiarist — to be the arbiter of a player’s character?
This predicament has two solutions: The Hall of Fame bars everyone with sins, or it lets everyone in. Either Schilling and Bonds both stay out, or Schilling and Bonds both come in. I’d prefer the latter path — with a full acknowledgement of what they did wrong, in addition to the current presentation of what they did right. It’s the simple and fair solution, removing potential bias from the vote and making Cooperstown a place to remember the game’s best players, as it should be.
In BtBS’s staff poll on the Hall of Fame last week, 17 of 24 writers put Schilling on their ballot, some of them perhaps holding back after Henry’s column. By contrast, 23 of the ballots had Bonds on them; regardless of why those voters added Bonds, the fact that they did speaks to the problem with this style of voting. Schilling and Bonds — like Cap Anson, Branch Rickey, Kirby Puckett, and Cal Ripken before them — deserve a spot in the Hall of Fame. They’re not role models, and we shouldn’t honor them as such. But we also shouldn’t ignore them selectively, or entirely.