Character counts. That’s the message baseball writers have sent to Hall of Fame candidates who are even vaguely linked to performance enhancing drugs. As a result, this year’s vote will likely see the rejection of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mike Piazza, Jeff Bagwell, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire, among others, a litany of All Stars who, during their playing days, all seemed destined to be first ballot inductees.
Have baseball writers overstepped their bounds by invoking the character clause to keep steroid users out of the Hall of Fame? Let’s see what history has to say about the subject. According to rule five of the BBWAA voting guidelines, which are listed on the Hall of Fame website, “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.” The Hall of Fame also states the “character, integrity and sportsmanship” clause was added in 1945. However, that doesn’t mean character wasn’t taken into consideration beforehand. In fact, it appears as if morality impacted the very first election held in 1936.
The Hall of Fame was conceived in 1935 as the centerpiece of baseball’s upcoming centennial celebration in 1939. In addition to being a museum, the institution also set out to bestow an honor recognizing lifetime achievement in the game. Heading into the first election, which was held in 1936, 15 inaugural inductees were expected (five from before 1900 and 10 from the turn-of-the-century to the present day), but reaching the required three-quarters majority proved more difficult than anticipated. None of the pre-1900 candidates were elected by a special committee, while the baseball writers, who were tasked with judging the modern era, only approved five.
The omission of players like Nap Lajoie, Tris Speaker and Cy Young was surprising enough, but what really raised eyebrows were the voters who did not cast a ballot for Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb. According to the AP, when ballots without the names of Ruth and Cobb were revealed, the vote count came to an immediate halt and a spirited discussion ensued. The incredible omissions “amazed” the assembled observers, who were confounded by the snubs. By the time the tally was concluded, four voters had left Cobb off the ballot, while 11 had done the same to Ruth.
It may be that these voters disapproved of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth for some of their deliberate or care free antics in the past. The Babe was no model of deportment…and the fiery Cobb made plenty of enemies during his baseball career.” – John Kiernan, New York Times, February 4, 1936.
What made the exclusion of Ruth and Cobb truly remarkable is each voter had to list 10 names on his ballot. To omit them entirely was to suggest they didn’t even rank within the top-10 of their own generation. The mere thought was blasphemous, just as much then as it is now. Writing in the New York Times, John Kiernan took a moment from scratching his head to point a finger at what he believed was the culprit. According to the journalist, who recounted the two legends’ many indiscretions, “Ruth and Cobb may have failed in the character test”.
More curiosity than controversy, the failure to elect Ruth and Cobb unanimously was quickly forgotten, and, so too was the character test. A search of newspaper archives fails to turn up a similar reference until 1947, two years after the aforementioned rule five was added. This time, former Giants’ first baseman Bill Terry was placed under the moral microscope. New York Times columnist Arthur Daley, who would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize, feigned confusion regarding the low vote (46 votes, or only 28.6%) total Terry had accumulated in that year’s election. Daley knew the reason, however. During his playing days, the “brusque and bitter” Terry never shied away from insulting ink-stained scribes, and Daley offered plenty of examples. Although professing sympathy to his plight, the columnist nonetheless cited the exact words of the now infamous “character clause” before concluding, “he doesn’t belong [in the Hall of Fame] if the rules mean what they say.” According to Daley, who didn’t vote for Terry that year, the first baseman met the standards of playing ability and integrity, but failed woefully on sportsmanship and character.
One unvarnished fact is apparent. The dislike for Winsome Will Terry among the Gentlemen of the Press has not diminished one iota down through the years.” – Arthur Daley, New York Times, January 27, 1947
Was Terry really a victim of character assassination, at least in Hall of Fame terms? If so, the writers were taking it upon themselves because Terry’s candidacy stalled long before the 1945 implementation of the character clause. In fact, starting in 1946, his vote total began to rise gradually until he was finally elected by the BBWAA in 1954. Perhaps old grudges finally faded away, or maybe Terry, whom modern analytics do not rate favorably, simply had to bide his time while the electorate waded through a pool of stronger candidates?
Whether or not the baseball writers held a grudge against Terry, they finally elected him. The same wasn’t so for Enos Slaughter, Roger Maris and Dick Allen, other ornery types sometimes cited as potential victims of their personalities. In 1978, Will Grimsley of AP lamented the “popularity contest” he believed the Hall of Fame vote had become, arguing that exploits on the field should take precedence. Cynically, he wondered, “how, one might ask, did Ruth, Cobb and Ted Williams ever make it?”
His social behavior offended some Puritanical natures. He had several wives. Off the field he was a brooder. He feuded with newsmen.” – Will Grimsley, writing about Enos Slaughter for AP, January 19, 1978
When Pete Rose was given a lifetime ban for gambling, commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti did the Hall of Fame voters a gigantic favor by also making the all-time hit leader ineligible for enshrinement. Charlie Hustle would have provided the ultimate test case for the relevance of the character clause, but the decision was taken away from the electorate. Unfortunately for the current voters, Commissioner Bud Selig (or Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson) has not provided any guidance about the ethical dilemmas facing the voters today. Without their leadership, it would be nice to fall back on precedent, but once again, there’s not much of a pattern from which to draw. In the nearly 80 years of voting, character has been a criterion used to determine Hall of Fame worthiness, but the impact has been relatively minor. That’s a tradition of which modern baseball writers should take note. If voters want to question authenticity, that’s fine. However, hiding behind the character clause is dishonest at best. After all, the Hall of Fame is not a church, and the BBWAA certainly isn’t the moral majority.