Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA) who vote for the Hall of Fame 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.”
They are not instructed on how they are supposed to measure the more subjective qualifications like integrity, sportsmanship and character. They are also not instructed on how much weight to give to on-field performance versus character.
The majority of voters decided on Wednesday that the deficiencies they perceive in Barry Bonds' integrity, sportsmanship and character outweigh his performance on the field.
Bonds is arguably the greatest player to ever live. Only Babe Ruth and Cy Young have more career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Bonds, and they both played when the playing field was limited to white Americans only.
According to Baseball Reference, Bonds has the career records for home runs (762), walks (2,558), intentional walks (688), Most Valuable Player awards (seven) and consecutive Most Valuable Player awards (four). He has the single-season records for home runs (73 in 2001), walks (232 in 2004) and on-base percentage (.609 in 2004). He made the All-Star team 14 times and won the Gold Glove in left field eight times.
Clearly, his playing record and contributions to his teams were worthy of first ballot Hall of Fame entry. Yet on Wednesday, Bonds fell well short of the 75 percent threshold needed to gain induction when he received only 36.2 percent of the vote.
The character clause was written by Hall of Fame commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who upheld baseball's shameful color barrier for the entirety of his 24 years in office. The character clause was introduced during a time in which almost everyone in the game showed a lack of character, integrity and sportsmanship by continuing to outlaw people of color. Segregation was a much darker mark on the game than the recent era of rampant PED use.
Yet voters cannot ignore the character clause anymore than Americans can ignore the constitution just because it was written predominantly by slave-owners. Perhaps the subjective character clause should be omitted from the voting requirements, but until it is, it must be considered.
However, the difficulty is in how to measure a man's character, integrity and sportsmanship. In the case of Bonds, he was prickly with the media and a selfish teammate.
His alleged use of performance enhancing drugs (PED's) from 1999 through 2004 when Major League Baseball finally began testing was well-documented in the book Game of Shadows. Bonds was found guilty of obstruction of justice in 2011 for giving evasive answers regarding his usage during testimony before a grand jury.
He also reportedly tested positive for amphetamine in 2006 and blamed the positive test on teammate Mark Sweeney, though first positives for amphetamine use are not supposed to be made public.
Voters have decided that Bonds' alleged use and ornery nature are enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame at present. However, the voters are ignoring the era in which Bonds played, their own culpability in failing to expose the rampant PED use of that era, the precedent of PED users already enshrined in the Hall of Fame and the moral failings of others already enshrined, including the man who penned the clause voters are using to omit Bonds.
Pitcher Rick Helling was an outspoken, lone voice on the prevalence of PED use as far back as 1999. Although steroid use was against the law and against baseball's rules, the player's union, MLB and the media turned a blind eye to the rampant PED use taking place in the 1990's and early 2000's by ignoring Helling's warnings. To punish Bonds and other known and suspected PED users for the moral culpability of an entire industry is an unfair form of retroactive scapegoating.
There's also the precedent of alleged and admitted PED users and others of questionable character already being enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
Mickey Mantle allegedly used steroids in 1961, Hank Aaron admitted to taking amphetamine in his autobiography, Willie Mays allegedly used speed to enhance his performance and Sandy Koufax has admitted to being high on the mound from pain medicine.
Cobb and the Hall of Fame players listed above are just a few examples of players remaining enshrined despite questions surrounding their character, sportsmanship and integrity. There are certainly other players enshrined who were bad teammates, racists, gamblers, drinkers, womanizers or PED users.
Yet the writers who won't vote for Bonds are not trying to launch a campaign to purify the Hall of Fame by removing the alleged cheaters and poor moral characters who are already enshrined.
Applying a higher moral standard to Bonds than has been applied to those already enshrined who may have besmirched the integrity of the game is morally inconsistent. The writers who want to deny Bonds on the basis of his lack of character must also launch a campaign to get rid of those violators of the character clause who are already enshrined.
However, basing character and integrity solely on the issue of PED use, and then weighing that above everything else, including on-field performance, is simple-minded. By that logic, Helling and anyone else who spoke out against PED use while it was happening are the only players from the PED era who should be enshrined into the Hall of Fame.
Bonds' character deficiencies have been well-documented by members of the BBWAA, but there has been no mention of the positive aspects of his character. He was a genius of a hitter who obviously worked exceptionally hard to hone his craft.
Bonds also has agreed to pay for the college education of the children of Giants fan Bryan Stow, who was nearly beaten to death at Dodger Stadium. Bonds didn't make the donation public in a self-serving manner, either, as it was made public by Stow's attorney. Another example of Bonds' generosity is his ongoing support of the UCSF Benioff Children's Hospital.
Do Bonds' good deeds off the field outweigh his use of PED's when it comes to measuring his integrity and character? That's a morally complicated question, but it's one that no member of the BBWAA has been willing to even consider to this point.
It's a shame that the greatest player of this era, and perhaps the greatest player of all time, didn't gain entry on the first ballot. The era of rampant PED use was a black mark on the game, but the self-important, false piety and simple-mindedness of the writers who mostly turned a blind eye to that drug use is an even larger embarrassment to the game's history in my view.
Eventually, Bonds is going to be enshrined into the Hall of Fame, whether through the vote of the BBWAA or through the Veteran's Committee. When that day finally comes, it will be long overdue.