Baseball has never been good at looking ahead. It prefers the backward glance toward a sepia-toned world that never was.
The game is built on a reverence for the past. Even when its showiest hallmarks occur, baseball history occupies as prominent a place as those who are about to remake it.
The ghosts of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Roger Maris were tangible, powerful specters when Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, Jr., and Mark McGwire toppled their records.
Jackie Robinson’s groundbreaking debut in 1947 was one occasion when baseball might have gazed forward toward the broader social impact of our national pasttime’s integration.
Instead, it would take the game a half-century to formally appreciate and recognize Robinson’s trailblazing. By then, of course, it could look back fondly.
The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is its temple to the past. It’s there that the game’s relics, statistics, and greatest stars are preserved.
The Hall has marketed itself brilliantly. It’s made us believe it is something more than a tourist attraction. It has done so by establishing an entry process nearly as rigorous as canonization in the Catholic church.
Indeed, it has borrowed the sacred trappings of religion. Its plaque room is marked by a hushed darkness that brings to mind a chapel. Writers and Hall officials serve as its Swiss Guard, jealously guarding the gates.
Those with sins on their souls—sins, at least, in the eyes of Hall guardians—are confined to a permanent purgatory.
But now, with a generation of steroid-using players coming due for Cooperstown consideration, the selection process won’t be nearly so clear, looking back not nearly so pleasant. Nuances, not numbers, will decide.
Mark McGwire finally admitted his steroid use this week, one of the worst-kept secrets ever. His numbers, when the performance-enhancing substance is overlooked, seem to be Hall-worthy—as do Roger Clemens’ and Barry Bonds’ and Sammy Sosa’s and so many others from the tainted era.
So what should the Hall do?
Leave the baseball writers to determine each individual on his merits? Or, as it did with Joe Jackson and Pete Rose, rule these miscreants officially ineligible?
Hall voters who have snubbed McGwire in his first years of consideration—in four votes he has not gotten more than 25 percent; selectee must be named on 75 percent of the ballots cast—like to cite the words “character” and “integrity” in their one-sentence charge:
“Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.”
But the Hall of Fame, as author Zev Chapman points out in his fascinating new book Cooperstown Confidential, has ignored character and integrity forever. In fact, the institution itself was built on a lie. Abner Doubleday no more invented baseball than Al Gore devised the Internet.
“Nothing drains an institution’s integrity like fake claims of integrity,” Chapman wrote. “Honesty clears the way for judging players solely on their professional excellence.”
You know the laundry list of enshrined Hall heels: Ty Cobb, Cap Anson, and likely many others were pathological racists. Cobb and Tris Speaker were implicated in game-fixing. Babe Ruth was a moral reprobate. Grover Cleveland Alexander was a pathetic drunk. Rogers Hornsby was a misanthropic Ku Klux Klan member.
Where was evidence of their character? Their integrity?
Members and their contemporaries always used whatever edge they could muster—spit, grease, aspirin, alcohol, amphetamines, cortisone shots, stolen signs, and corked bats. So why pick on steroids? They weren’t even forbidden by baseball rules when McGwire and his contemporaries used them.
Also, as Chapman notes, the science surrounding the drug remains murky. Do they really do more good than harm? Do they really do more good than cortisone? Or aspirins? No one really knows.
“The guys on the plaques in Cooperstown are a mixed bag, heroes and scoundrels, just like the rest of humanity,” Chapman wrote. “The players who arrive in the future won’t be any different. The Hall of Fame doesn’t enshrine saints, and it never has. It enshrines baseball greatness. And for the millions of people who love the game, that’s more than enough.”
Each January, unless officials take some action, the controversy will continue to embarrass the Hall and the game. With each passing season, more and more players from that statistics-bloated era will become eligible.
McGwire said he could have hit 70 homers without steroids. Clemens, despite much evidence to the contrary, has vociferously denied using them. Will each voter be left to sort out their claims for himself?
Why not end the charade for good? Why not decide that future Hall membership will be based exclusively on what happened between the foul lines?
Not in the clubhouse. Not on the telephone in the manager’s office. Not in a man’s heart. Not in a man’s veins. If you don’t approve of a player’s frailties, walk past his plaque.
Only then will baseball be able to look ahead. It won’t be the end of its drug troubles, but it will be a moment that recalls Winston Churchill’s words to his people during World War II.
“Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is perhaps the end of the beginning.”