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Jeff Idelson and the problem with the Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson’s response to whether the character of inductees matters provides another example of baseball’s problem with racism.

2016 Baseball Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

During an interview at the Hall of Fame induction festivities last weekend, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson was asked to provide his interpretation of Cooperstown’s character clause. His response, like many before him, was likely intended to be uncontroversial, but it spoke of very troubling views still ingrained in the sport. Idelson responded as such:

As I view it, character, integrity and sportsmanship is a guide for the writers to use when determining a players’ overall contribution to the game and it’s a part of the voting rules. I look at it as how [the player] respected the game on the field. It’s meant to be how did they treat the game, how did they respect the game? It’s not supposed to be a judgment on character away from the ballfield, although you hope everybody is a good character. Did they respect the game? Did they treat the game right, did they respect the uniform, did they play the game the right way? That’s what you want, is to make sure you don’t have somebody in here who didn’t respect the game. Did they succeed with a level playing field and achieve the level of elite athlete the right way? I’m often asked why baseball is held to this higher standard? In society, things have to have a set of standards. Why not baseball?”

There are many notably concerning aspects to this response. First, the idea that “it’s not supposed to be a judgment on character away from the ballfield” denotes the idea that a player’s off-field actions have little impact on the game itself. Perhaps in the strictest sense, this is true; somebody who commits a crime or espouses bigotry will likely not undergo a slump because of their actions. But as an institution that prides itself on promoting key values such as leadership, dedication, humility, and many others essential to the shaping of the game and society as a whole, Major League Baseball is inferring that players’ character does matter. The league itself, as well as individual teams, consistently supports local and national charities, asserting that players in such fortunate positions have an obligation to give back to their communities.

Secondly, the idea of “playing the right way,” as Craig Calcaterra pointed out in his article, evokes racist connotations. It is likely that Idelson meant it in relation to PEDs (ignoring the fact that allegations of PED use are frequently tied to racism); players who have cheated do not deserve this honor. However, the notion that there is a “correct” way to play baseball has permeated much of baseball’s history, having been used to weed out large groups of people who are not white men. The exclusion and continued “othering” of Black people, Asian-Americans, and Latinos have all been predicated on this idea that there is one correct way to play baseball: the way invented by white Americans in the mid-1800s. Baseball, then, becomes a further tool of imperialism. It was used in the late-1800s as a way to Americanize other countries by having AG Spalding and a select group of ballplayers tour the globe, showcasing the sport in various countries like Japan, China, and Egypt as a means of proving white American superiority over these people who were deemed too unintelligent to excel at the sport.

As these countries established their own forms of baseball, maintaining similar rules, but implementing different aspects of their cultures, often dictated by political climates, America at home denied access to Major League Baseball to all but white men. As the sport slowly opened to Blacks, Asians, and Latinos, the institution predicated on racism found other ways to deny them equality, first through economic means—offering them smaller contracts and bouncing them between the majors and minors—and then through perpetuating racial stereotypes. As noted by conservative commentator George Will, Willie Mays was subject to this language:

You remember when he came up, people would say: what an instinctive player he is, what a natural ballplayer he is, what childlike enthusiasm. … We can hear, with our better trained ears, the racism in that. He was wonderfully gifted, yes… But no one got to the major leagues…on natural gifts, without an awful lot of refining work. Sure, he was a great instinctive ballplayer, but he was also a tremendously smart baseball player. … Hardest-working ballplayer you ever saw.

White players were, and are, typically described as hard-working, smart, humble, scrappy team players who do everything they can for their team. Conversely, non-white players are commonly typified as either fiery, arrogant players who don’t respect the game or athletes who rely on their natural talents because they are lazy and unable to grasp the complexities of the game.

Though baseball is becoming increasingly diverse, this coded language still inhibits players from achieving their full potential either in their careers or post-career. The vast majority of owners, executives, and managers are white men, who typically hire white male employees and view the game largely through a white male lens. Thus, problems with systemic racism are often dismissed in favor of the system that led to these people’s employment. It is not to say that these men are wholly incapable of doing their jobs, but rather they faced little competition for them, instead benefitting from a system that consistently and extensively bars non-white people from achieving success.

In addressing the systemic nature of racism affixed to Major League Baseball, we must turn to Idelson’s final sentences: “I’m often asked why baseball is held to this higher standard? In society, things have to have a set of standards. Why not baseball?” Here, Idelson openly admits and endorses baseball’s connection to society, asserting that it should be held to similar standards as society is. Throughout its history, it is clear that baseball responds to and enforces cultural norms in America. It does not, and cannot, exist in a vacuum. But the standard in society is still based on racism, still set by the same problems plaguing Major League Baseball. It this sense, it would seem that Idelson and the Hall of Fame are free to judge players by the racist standard of “playing the game the right way,” but baseball has often used its writers as moral vanguards, as evidenced in their determination to rid the game of PEDs. And so, by calling on them to evaluate character and integrity, Idelson again looks to them as these moral vanguards, tasked with progressing baseball—in this case—past the largely stagnated American society.

Many of the inconsistencies in Idelson’s statement pertain to how the Hall of Fame is utilized, whether it is a place to detail the history of the game or a shrine to honor the very best. But wherever one stands on this particular issue, it is clear that this particular defense of the Hall of Fame rests on latent (to those whom it does not affect) racial characteristics in professional baseball. If Major League Baseball wants to portray itself as home to conscientious, dedicated athletes, it must destroy its inherent racism and insist upon judging players as they are—as athletes and members of civil society whose actions impact those around them.

Mary Craig is a baseball history enthusiast who writes about the sport’s relation to America’s political history. You can follow her on Twitter at @marymcraig.