November 14, 2006

McGwire, Steroids, and the Baseball Hall of Fame

Mark McGwire appears on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time this year. He is the first of the steroid-superstars to be considered for induction and he will not be elected this year. Still, there are arguments for his eventual inclusion.

This discussion is not about whether McGwire should or should not be elected; this is about the nature of changing metrics and the redefinition of excellency that we as baseball fans do every generation as the game itself changes. Satchell Paige and Ted Williams illustrate an example of one such change that took place forty years ago and the time it takes for us to shift our baseball perspectives.

Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken will be first-ballot electees when the 2007 results are announced. Both Ripken and Gwynn were shoo-ins before they even announced that 2001 would be their final season. Gwynn was a fifteen-time All-Star and won eight batting titles. Ripken was a nineteen-time All-Star, two-time MVP, and he played in 2,632 consecutive games (this many games equals sixteen seasons; there are Hall of Famers whose entire careers did not last 16 seasons). More so, in the free-agency era, both played their entire careers for one team winning devoted fans in San Diego and Baltimore.

Gwynn and Ripken had previously announced that 2001 would be their final seasons and were celebrated as the season drew to a close. In November 2001, six weeks after the regular season had ended, ESPN reported that McGwire had told the network’s Rich Eisen that he was retiring. While unconventional for a player of McGwire’s caliber to retire through the press rather than at a press-conference, it looked like McGwire would make it a three-player party in Cooperstown in July 2007. After all, McGwire had 583 career homeruns, was a twelve-time All-Star, and had the best at-bats per homerun ratio in history. lists Bill James’ Hall of Fame Monitor score which “assess how likely an active player is to make the Hall of Fame. It's rough scale is 100 means a good possibility and 130 is a virtual cinch.” McGwire scores a 169.5.

McGwire was coasting towards election until he appeared before the House Government Reform Committee in March 2005. Previously, he had denied using steroids. However, when asked to put his money of the table and say-so under oath and before Congress, McGwire showed his hand when he refused to say that he had not used illegal performance-enhancing drugs. We heard his admission to steroid use when he responded to questions with, "My lawyers have advised me that I cannot answer these questions without jeopardizing my friends, my family, and myself." Never had the fifth-amendment been so incriminating.

With his admittance-through-silence in Washington, McGwire’s Hall of Fame candidacy plummeted. Later that summer, at Hall of Fame induction weekend in Cooperstown, baseball writers, who themselves would be voting in 2007, told me they would not vote for McGwire this year.

Does McGwire deserve induction in the Hall? What about Sammy Sosa and Rafel Palmeiro in 2011, and Barry Bonds in 2013? Do they merit plaques alongside Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and Steve Carlton? McGwire, Sosa, Palmeiro, and Bonds were all among the best of their eras, strong criteria for permanent residence at 25 Main St.

We are now asked to calibrate our definition of greatness and Hall of Fame inclusion to this era. We have done this before in baseball – redefining who is in and who is out. In every baseball generation we encounter new questions. Enter Williams and Paige who were at the center of one such shift. These shifts take time and we will not decide today, or in 2007, how to treat the steroid-superstars.

In 1966, there was one ballplayer of color in the Hall. Jackie Robinson had been the first in 1962 and four years later, remained the lone player enshrined. Satchell Paige had ended his professional playing days 13 years earlier in 1953 (yes, he had pitched three-innings for the KC Athletics the previous summer as a publicity stunt). Cool Papa Bell had been retired for sixteen years and Josh Gibson had passed away, mid-career, nineteen-years earlier. There was consensus that these and other Negro League stars would have dominated the National and American Leagues, and therefore would have been HOF inductees, had not major league baseball segregated itself from 1885 through 1946. Yet the Hall was for those who had excelled in the American League and National League and in their systems of statistical record keeping and championship play.

So it was in July 1966 that Casey Stengel and Williams were being inducted into the Hall. During his Hall of Fame induction speech, on the stage behind the Hall’s library, Williams said,

The other day Willie Mays hit his five hundred and twenty-second homerun. He has gone past me, and he's pushing, and I say to him, 'go get 'em Willie.' Baseball gives every American boy a chance to excel. Not just to be as good as anybody else, but to be better. This is the nature of man and the name of the game. I hope some day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren't given the chance.

Baseball gives every American child a chance to excel. Those who excel are the best and recognized in the Hall. Williams was arguing that professional baseball had not fulfilled its obligation to give every child his chance. Now, Major League Baseball could recalibrate its metrics to recognize achievements and excellence which the current definitions failed to include.

That there was one ballplayer of color and no Hispanics in the Hall was a passive result and not an active decision on the part of the Hall’s stewards. Certainly Paige, Gibson, and Rube Foster were amazing but none had played in the American or National Leagues (Paige had, and his best years, for which he would eventually be honored, were in the Negro Leagues).

But Williams certainly had a point. These players were among the titans of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s and themselves would have been perpetual All-Stars and record setters had Commissioner Landis and the owners not closed the doors to them. They did deserve honor but what would this look like? What was the appropriate way for Cooperstown to honor these giants? The current parameters no longer worked effectively so we needed new ones.

The movement to honor the Negro League stars gathered momentum when Dick Young, president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America echoed Williams’ advocacy. It took five years and after much debate about the nature of the induction, Satchell Paige became the first Negro League electee. In July 1971, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn presented Paige with his HOF plaque. In 1972 it was Buck Leonard and to date, 35 individuals who starred in or lead the Negro Leagues have been inducted into the Hall of Fame. The Negro Leagues basically folded around 1950 – that is more than twenty years for the Hall to open its doors to its players.

What this means is that the electors defined new standards – they did not lower the standards – they recognized that these individuals called us to redefine who is in and who is out. And these changes take time. They take years of thought and debate, newspaper columns and speeches at dinners.

The steroid-superstars have not been nor are they being marginalized as were the Negro League stars. How do we react and relate to changes in definitions? Williams called baseball’s attention to a perspective through which we had not looked at the Hall of Fame nor at these great players. We are now asking ourselves how to look at McGwire and his contemporaries.

We recalibrate our perspective in response to the soaring offense of the 1930s and the anemic hitting of the late 1960s (which would eventually result in the designated hitter). We are still debating the inclusion of relievers in the Hall. Bruce Sutter went in this past summer and we debate Goose Gossage. They do not fit our clean metrics of 300 wins and/or 3000 strikeouts so we find new ways to judge.

McGwrire finished with 583 career homeruns and is now seventh on the all-time list. We already knew that not all homeruns are created equal. Frank Baker earned the nickname "Home Run" during the 1911 World Series when he hit a go-ahead home run off Rube Marquard in game two and a ninth-inning game-tying home run off Christy Mathewson in game three. He lead the American League in homeruns for four consecutive seasons. What was his highest season total? 12! Carl Yastrzemski led the American League in batting average in 1968 with a .301 average; lead the league!

As we did for Baker and Yaz, we ask ourselves how to evaluate McGwire and Bonds and Sosa and Palmeiro. We will ask ourselves the questions we ask of all potential Hall of Famers: Would they have excelled in any era? Were they the best of their own era? Should their steroid-use exclude them from the Hall?

Like baseball encountering the Negro Leagues between 1966 and 1971, we are now rolling around their Hall of Fame credentials in our collective baseball minds. McGwire will not stand with Gwynn and Ripken this summer in Cooperstown. It will take us a few years to figure this one out. We are not used to saying that we do not know, that we are not sure. Sports is about instantaneous decision making – but not here. And the fans, in our collective will, and the sportswriters who vote for the inductees, do not have to make a decision yet. Players are on the HOF ballot for fifteen years for this reason.

To its credit, the Hall and baseball found a solution for the Negro League stars. Our generation, in time, will figure out how to understand the accomplishments of the steroid-era.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

One of the more intersting aspects about McGwire's success is the impact that his popularity had on the game. According to report, Bonds, decided to take steroids partially because of McGwire's success, whose popularity Barry couldn't believe as Mark was such an inferior overall player. The question that probably never could be answered is - how much did McGwire's success impact the decision by some players to take steriods and therefore change the game of baseball?

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