Thoughts on Character, Spitballers, Steroid Users, and the Baseball Hall of Fame

Duane WinnCorrespondent IMarch 28, 2009

WASHINGTON - MARCH 17:  (L-R) Former St. Louis Cardinals player Mark McGwire, Baltimore Orioles Rafael Palmeiro, and Boston Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling listen to testimony March 17, 2005 for a House Committee session that is investigating Major League Baseball efforts to eradicate steroid use in Washington, DC. Major League Baseball (MLB) Commissioner Allan 'Bud' Selig will give testimony regarding MLB?s efforts to eradicate steriod usage among its players.  (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

They are instructed that "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."

This has been the charge of the baseball writers who determine which players are worthy for inclusion in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

There are several players now in the Hall of Fame who make for an uneasy fit if we take the Hall of Fame prescription seriously.


Ty Cobb

In November 1926, former Red Sox pitcher Dutch Leonard sent two letters to American League President Ban Johnson.

The letters were in regards to a betting incident that occurred on September 25, 1919 between the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. The incident would involve Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker, Joe Wood, and Dutch Leonard. The letters were forwarded to Commissioner Landis for investigation.

Cobb and Speaker were questioned at great length by Landis, but because Dutch Leonard refused to attend the hearing, Landis placed the entire matter on hold indefinitely. Both Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker were cleared of any wrongdoing.

However, many baseball people believed Leonard and thought that Landis ruled as he did because he didn't want another gambling scandal to taint baseball.


Legend has it that Cobb sharpened his spikes in the dugout for hard slides into infielders. Philadelphia Athletics' third baseman Frank "Home Run" Baker, who was spiked by Cobb in 1909, called Cobb's slashing spikes "Cobb's kiss." 

And, finally, we get around to the question of character?

Grantland Rice's description of Cobb should suffice: "An extremely peculiar soul, brooding and bubbling with violence, devious, suspicious and combative all the way."

Cobb was a racist SOB who bended the means to suit his ends. Hall of Fame voter concluded that Cobb's manic behavior was forgiveable compared to an inestimable career that produced a lifetime .366 batting average; 4,189 hits; 11 batting titles; an American League MVP award, and a Triple Crown in 1909.


Rogers Hornsby

Commissioner Keensaw Landis viewed Rogers Hornsby as a reprobate gambler and sullying influence on his teammates. His teammates regarded him as unapproachable and a man who played for personal glory, not the betterment of the team. As a manager, Hornsby won fewer than 50 percent of his games, likely due, in large part, to his inability to get along with his players.

Nevertheless, Hornsby was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1942 on the merits of his .358 lifetime batting average.


John McGraw

According to authors Nicholas Acocella and Donald Dewey ("The Black Prince of Baseball: Hal Chase and the Mythology of Baseball")  player and manager John McGraw, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937, masterminded several gambling scandals and fixes over the course of his long career.

As a player, McGraw was well-known for bending the rules, which included harassing enemy baserunners. As a manager, he was notorious for terrorizing umpires.

But who can argue with this success? By the time, he retired he had amassed 2,763 victories and three World Series titles as a skipper.


Spitball Express

Occasionally, Hall of Fame voters receive a break. They weren't required to address questions of integrity and sportsmanship as they viewed the careers of Clarence "Red" Faber, Stan Covelski, and Burleigh Grimes.

The trio, Hall of Famers all, are among the 17 hurlers who were allowed inexplicably to keep throwing the spitball under a "grandfather" clause when the Major League enacted a ban against it.

Their spiritual godson, Gaylord Perry, parlayed his saliva into 314 victories, two Cy Young awards, and a career that was deeemed worthy of inclusion in the Hall of Fame.

His Hall of Fame worthiness is one of the hardest to justify since, unlike other spitballers, he knowingly broke the rules.  Perhaps Hall of Fame voters took into account his character. Although doctoring a ball was outlawed in 1920, Perry never denied throwing the spitter.



Both Mark McGwire's integrity and sportsmanship came under fire through his alleged use of steroids. But it was his character that took the biggest hit in March 2005 when he refused to directly answer queries on steroids after receiving subpoena from House Committee on Government Reform, saying he cannot address questions about steroids "without jeopardizing my friends, my family and myself...I'm not here to talk about the past."

Hall of Fame voters had no trouble holding McGwire's past against him, despite the fact that McGwire is the all-time leader in home runs per at-bats (10.6) and was in the top 10 in MVP voting five times. He also won a Gold Glove for fielding at first base. Twelve times an All-Star, McGwire retired No. 7 in home runs with 583.

McGwire, if he did take performance-enhancers, took them before they were banned from baseball. Technically, he didn't break a rule. Should Hall of Fame voters cut him some slack just as they had for Perry? 

The unfortunate thing is that there are very few candidates who perfectly embody talent and character. Surely, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Cal Ripken Jr., Hank Aaron, and a few others possess it. There are many more who have character, integrity, or even sportsmanship issues but who nevertheless have built careers that are worthy of Hall of Fame consideration.

Character should count for something. It's up to each Hall of Fame voter to consider whether a player's off-the-field transgressions outweigh their on-the-field contributions. It's not the perfect system, but it's the best system we have.