The Baseball Writers’ Association of America released its Hall of Fame balloting results earlier this week, and the vote did the institution proud. Four players were inducted, all of whom were deserving; it was, in essence, a nice, happy Hall of Fame class. But beneath the bubbly exterior, there are questions that need to be answered if the BBWAA hopes to maintain credibility among baseball fans and wants the Hall of Fame to maintain its clout.
Curt Schilling remained on the ballot, unelected; should the Hall of Fame induct someone who has spouted inflammatory and often nonsensical rhetoric? Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, of course, saw their vote totals increase slightly, but remain far from induction: Do two players who are undoubtedly the best of their generation, but also sullied the integrity of the game, deserve enshrinement in Cooperstown? Other performance-enhancing drug users have slipped further down the ballot. If Bonds and Clemens are inducted, do the voters need to induct these players — Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, Gary Sheffield — too?
But it seems that these questions are really just versions of the only important question: What exactly is the point of all this? What is the point of the Hall of Fame?
For the most part, there are two possible answers. On the one hand, there are those who believe that the Hall of Fame is meant to celebrate the best of baseball, that being inducted to the Hall of Fame should mostly be about honoring the game’s finest. On the other hand, a sizeable camp believes that the Hall should be a museum of baseball: It should capture as much of baseball history as possible, and the induction process should be based on whether or not players on the ballot have made enough of an impact to deserve a spot in baseball history.
So which is it? And what does the answer mean for the future of Hall of Fame voting? The answer seems clear to me: the Baseball Hall of Fame must remain an institution to reward and recognize the greatest athletes in baseball, which means the vetting process for inductees must be thorough.
If the Hall is just a baseball museum, then many of its current traditions make little sense. There are induction speeches every year, for instance; people often give speeches when they’re being honored, but if the Hall is about history rather than honor, induction speeches seem out of place. One could argue that becoming part of history is itself an act of praise, but that’s just avoiding the issue: If it is an honor, then Hall of Fame inductees are being lauded, and voting should reflect that.
So, the Hall of Fame can dispense with honorific elements entirely — it can stop allowing induction speeches, stop celebrating its inhabitants and turn into a true museum, providing an important narrative of baseball history. Or it can take the opposite tack: It can continue celebrating its inductees as it currently does. Speeches, plaques, celebrations of Hall of Famers and their accomplishments … the Hall can continue functioning as a celebration of baseball and induction will remain an honor, rather than simple codification of history.
But if induction is an honor, we need to think carefully about the names on the ballot, and whether they deserve to be celebrated.
Take Schilling, for instance. The day after the Hall of Fame results were announced, Schilling tweeted at an account with 181 followers, “Let me get this straight. Your dumb ass is trolling me on twitter because a majority of voters thought I should be in Major League Baseballs HOF? That’s another level of stupid right there. #idiot.” Is this someone we want to honor? The person who in 2016 tweeted a racially inflammatory and threatening image toward journalists — should he be inducted into the Hall, if induction means he is being celebrated, honored and given a stage from which to speak in front of thousands of people?
There’s a similar question to be asked for Bonds and Clemens. If the Hall takes the museum approach, then of course they belong: They are some of the most important figures in recent baseball history. But if the Hall wants induction to remain an act of praise rather than a mere expression of what voters believe constitutes history, then we have to ask: Do Bonds and Clemens deserve to be praised? Should they be cheered on stage by thousands, then enshrined on glowing, laudatory metal plaques for posterity, if we are fully aware that they used performance enhancing drugs? Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens certainly deserve to be remembered in baseball history, but celebrating them is a step too far.
Both approaches to the Hall have supporters, but those who advocate for the museum approach need to answer some questions. For one, if the Hall is nothing more than a museum of baseball history, why support only Bonds and Clemens for induction? What about Manny Ramirez, Rafael Palmeiro, Pete Rose, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez? If the Hall is going to be a home for all figures important to baseball history, regardless of doping or other character scandals, don’t we need to induct all players with historic-level numbers? And for another, if all the honor is removed from Hall of Fame enshrinement … well, do we really want that? Do we want to see players treated like museum exhibits rather than honored as heroes of the sport?
Induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame is baseball’s highest honor, and should continue to be so. And as long as induction is an honor, potential inductees need to be thoroughly deserving of celebration before they join the ranks. That means no Bonds, no Clemens, no Pete Rose, no Schilling … These people are being considered for the highest praise in the great American game. If there’s any need for asterisks, clarifications or statements that “he was a great player BUT…,” then that honor is more than they deserve.
James Schapiro ’19 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to firstname.lastname@example.org and op-eds to email@example.com.