Hall of Fame voters have taken character into account since the very first election, but, ultimately, it has rarely been given significant weight, at least not on many ballots. However, the issue of performance enhancing drugs is more than just a question of morality. Authenticity, not personal integrity, seems to be the driving force behind the movement to keep cheaters out of Cooperstown. Of course, there’s just one problem with this crusade. His name is Gaylord Perry.
Perry’s first two seasons in the majors were abbreviated. In only 119 innings, most coming in relief, the righty posted a 4-7 record with an abysmal ERA of 4.46 (ERA+ of 77). And, his third season in 1964 began the same way. On May 30, Perry’s ERA of 4.76 put him in line for another disappointing year, and perhaps a one-way ticket back to the minors. However, the righty refused to accept that fate. The next day, he threw his first spitter…and 10 shutout innings against the Mets.
On May 31, 1964, I became an outlaw in the strictest sense of the word-a man who lives outside the law, in this case the law of baseball.” – Gaylord Perry, excerpted from Me and the Spitter(1974)
There is no mystery behind Perry’s career resurgence. In his autobiographical confession, “Me and the Spitter”, Perry admitted to, and even boasted about, his crime. What’s more, he knew full well the implications. Unable to compete with his god-given talent, Perry opted for a shortcut. In other words, he cheated.
Perry’s dalliance with spitter is well documented, so there’s no need for a rehash. It’s universally accepted that the righty’s success was largely based on his ability to master a pitch that had been outlawed in 1920 because it was so difficult to hit. So, why is this relevant now? Because in addition to failing the character test, Perry’s accomplishments can be challenged on the basis of authenticity.
The most stridently anti-PED voters in the BBWAA dismiss the moral equivalency of using steroids and corking a bat, for example. And, to be fair, there’s a lot of merit to that argument. However, Perry’s spitter can’t be dismissed as gamesmanship. His willful use of an illegal and highly effective performance enhancing pitch is at least akin to taking a supplement. Just because he was loading up the ball, and not his body, doesn’t mitigate his actions. On the contrary, Perry’s spitball is arguably an even greater transgression when you consider the uncertain link between some drugs and baseball performance (specifically HGH, which one leading scientist suggests may be a placebo).
With so much damning evidence against Perry, most courtesy of his own admissions, why did the BBWAA decide to elect him to the Hall of Fame? It’s hard to speak for every voter, but by all accounts, the folksy Perry was a nice guy. Besides, he wasn’t injecting drugs in a steamy weight room. The righty was standing tall on the mound, loading up the ball with vasoline, saliva, or whatever foreign substance he could sneak past the umpires. Unlike the roided-up muscle heads of this era, Perry’s spitball was a wholesome way to break the rules. Heck, if it was good enough for Bugs Bunny, it’s good enough for baseball, right?
Although Perry may have been charming, he was also a cheater. Just ask the countless batters who fumed after falling victim to his magic pitch. And yet, many (but not all) in the press corps didn’t see it that way, neither at the time of his admission nor when he first came up for Hall of Fame consideration. After Perry and Ferguson Jenkins (who was convicted of drug possession) were denied admission on their first ballot in 1989, but received substantial vote totals, Peter Gammons sardonically chided his colleagues, stating, “it is comforting to know that the Baseball Writer’s Association of America (BBWAA) has become an arm of the Moral Majority.” This year, Gammons joined that moral majority by not casting a vote for Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds.
Jenkins and Perry would have been locks for Cooperstown if they had been judged as Ruth, Drysdale and Ford were—simply on the basis of performance. Jenkins and Perry will be eligible again next year. Let’s hope the many voters who this year refused to vote for them on moral grounds will include them on their ballots in 1990. – Peter Gammons, Sports Illustrated, January 23, 1989
Where does that leave us? The point isn’t to demonstrate the hypocrisy of baseball writers. Every human being who expresses an opinion is bound to contradict himself from time to time. However, these inconsistencies need to be addressed, not ignored as irreconcilable mistakes. We know for a fact there is at least one cheater enshrined in the Hall of Fame. And, chances are, there are probably many others, including some who have used performance enhancing drugs. Hall of Famer Fergie Jenkins alluded to as much during an interview on the MLB Network. So, instead of trying to apply an inconsistent standard, maybe the goal should be justice tempered by context?
During the height of the steroid era, many of the voters who now decry the scourge of PEDs dismissed the extent of their impact. Ironically, they may have been correct to do so. However, perhaps feeling responsible for turning a blind eye to an important issue, many writers now seem to assume all PEDs dramatically contribute to on-field performance. No wonder so many have taken an extreme position.
In addition to reconciling steroid users with spitball artists and players who sought refuge in a substance abuse program, Hall of Fame voters must also reconsider the conflation of character and authenticity. Once the real issue of statistical, not moral, integrity is made the focus, the next step is to seriously consider the prevailing science regarding performance enhancing drugs. If, for example, HGH really is a placebo, then why should it be treated differently from a corked bat? Are the muscle building effects of anabolic steroids more beneficial than the stimulating impact of amphetamines? Undoubtedly, many will have a visceral response to such questions, but, in order to deal with these issues responsibly, a more cerebral approach is needed. That’s asking a lot, and, maybe the Hall of Fame shouldn’t be making such an imposition, but, if voters want to pass their own integrity test, it is a necessary burden.