The Hall of Fame Debate Begins Anew

The long awaited Mitchell report on steroid use by baseball players identified over 80 alleged users. The evidence presented on some players, for example Roger Clemens, appeared to be more damning than on others who have received far more publicity for their alleged behavior to date, e.g. Barry Bonds. 

No matter where the legal case goes from here, and no matter what action is taken against any or some of the alleged abusers by Major League Baseball, another aspect of the scandal will be with us for years: how to evaluate the star players who may have enhanced their career numbers with steroids, and whether they deserve admission to baseball's Hall of Fame. While Bob Costas makes a case  for admitting to the Hall of Fame Marvin Miller, the negotiator for the major league baseball players union, his candidacy is not what will keep the hot stove league boiling over this winter.

Earlier this year, I looked closely at Barry Bonds' numbers  when he was on the verge of breaking Henry Aaron's record for career home runs. Had Bonds retired the year he may have begun taking performance enhancing drugs, I believe he would have been a near lock for the Hall of Fame based on his career record to that point. Had Bonds simply played out another five or seven seasons with numbers that nearly matched his earlier seasons, his election to the Hall would be a certainty.

So should Bonds be denied admission to the Hall now for getting a late career boost that enabled him to post his best-ever seasons? 

A similar argument centers on Clemens. Some sportswriters have argued, prior to the release of the Mitchell report, that he was the best pitcher in baseball history. A career won lost record of 354-184 over 24 seasons, and a career ERA of 3.12, more than one earned run per nine innings below the League Average for the years he pitched of 4.46, make for a  pretty strong case for Clemens to be considered among the best ever.  Clemens posted his career low ERA in 2005, 1.87, less than half the National League average at age 42. His ERA was also below 3 in 2004 and 2006.  These years, late in his career, are the ones the Mitchell report claims Clemens enhanced his performance. But had Clemens retired five years ago, he was a certain inductee into the Hall on his first consideration.

Were I a Hall of Fame voter, I would elect both Bonds and Clemens when their name first appeared on the ballot. Some sportswriters have indicated that they will not vote for either the first time they are considered, five years after retirement, as a penalty for cheating. While such sentiment is understandable, both men belong in the Hall. So what is the point of the delay?

A more complex calculus for the Hall of Fame relates to Sammy Sosa  and Mark McGwire
Sosa was not named by Mitchell but his power spurt from 1998 to 2002  defies other explanations. The top six single season home run records  now belong to alleged steroid users: Bonds (73), McGwire (70, and 65), and Sosa, (66, 64 and 63).  McGwire was passed over on his first appearance on the Hall of Fame ballot, and it is hard to know whether voters will show greater interest in him now that they know he had so much company in his performance enhancement. McGwire's career numbers look better than Sosa's, both before the alleged drug use period and during it.  Neither was a certain Hall of Fame candidate based upon career numbers prior to the alleged drug use period. Their chances may be better than those of Alan Keyes or Joe Biden to get elected President, but of course that is not saying much.

The Hall of Fame has always courted controversy. "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, with the third highest career batting average in baseball history at .356, has been left out of the Hall for his role in the infamous Black Sox scandal of 1919, when 8 players were accused of conspiring to throw the World Series to the Cincinnati Redlegs, who won 5 games to 3. Jackson, a dull-witted man, may have been a co-conspirator, but hit .375 in the Series. Would he have hit .600 were he not promised a cut by the gamblers?

More recently, we have the all-time leader in base hits, Pete Rose, with 4,256, who has been kept out of the Hall, because he bet on games while a Manager, though never against his own team.  Both Jackson and Rose belong in the Hall for their career records. If character were an important test of admission, several current members would have to be tossed out.

The bigger controversy may come on how to deal with baseball records. Will Bonds still be regarded as the single season home run leader with 73? Or should Roger Maris get his crown back for his 61? (Or should Babe Ruth get the crown, since his 60 came in a 154 game season while Maris had an asterisk next to his record for a longer 162 game season?)

Alex Rodriguez, with 518 home runs at age 32, and an average of 45 homers a year for the last ten seasons, has just signed for ten more years with the Yankees. He seems very likely to pass Bonds' career home run record (currently 762) in the next ten years, but do we now give Henry Aaron the crown back for career home runs until that happens?

Of all American sports, baseball is the most studied and its numbers the most examined. Does anybody really get excited about the career or single season stats in the other three major sports (I am being kind to hockey here) or who gets into the football, basketball or hockey hall of fame?

One final thought: I think Ron Santo belongs in the Hall of Fame, though his 1969 season end of game kick routine was very annoying (I was a Mets fan then).

Richard Baehr is political director of American Thinker.