Hall of Fame Eligibility Should Not Be Affected by Off-Field Activities

Tammara Gage


The National Baseball Hall of Fame, located in Cooperstown, New York, is a shrine to the best players and the greatest moments in the game of baseball.  Induction into the Hall of Fame is an honor and a recognition of a player’s achievements.  Plaques in the Hall of Fame are reserved only for those players who made an impact on the game.  Therefore, there should be no question that players who hold such important records as the homerun record and the hits record should be given their rightful place in Cooperstown.  However, this is not the case. 

Roger Maris held the single-season homerun record for 37 years from 1961-1998, and was never inducted into the Hall of Fame.  His successor to the homerun record, Mark McGwire, was also passed up on the chance to be inducted into the Hall of Fame during the 2006 voting.  Pete Rose still holds the career hits record that he achieved in 1985 and is also not in the Hall of Fame.  The current single-season homerun record holder, Barry Bonds, is also chasing the career homerun record and might very conceivably not be given a place in the Hall of Fame. 

Why are players who have had such a lasting and important impact on the game of baseball not given a place in Cooperstown along with the other great men of the game?  They are not being kept out of the Hall because of what they did on the field, but whether what they did off it.  A player’s off-field activities should not affect his consideration for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Off-field activities are defined as anything but the player’s game statistics and include personality, violence, personal opinions, use of enhancements, and gambling.  These activities should not have any influence on whether the player is considered for the Hall of Fame because induction into the Hall is a recognition of the player’s baseball achievements on the field, not a reflection of his personal life off the field. 

The Baseball Hall of Fame ballot states under Method of Election:

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. (Pearlman, 2006)

However, how relevant is character and even sportsmanship to how well a player plays baseball?  It alludes to the ideal that professional baseball players should be heroes and role models, and therefore should embody the characteristics that we think such people should possess.  But when it comes to enshrining them in the Hall of Fame, shouldn’t their ability to play the game be the only thing that matters?  As writer Peter Golenbock states:

Before the advent of television and of the ‘new journalism’, an athlete to be idolized needed only to be proficient on the field.  The guy could’ve been the meanest, nastiest son of a bitch, but if he could hit consistently with men on base or pitch with lightning speed, hew was a hero, and how he treated his fellow man was quite irrelevant. (Golenbock, 1975)

Indeed, some of the players celebrated as the greatest of all time could not be classified as “good guys.”  Ty Cobb, who held the hits record for almost 60 years and is in the Hall of Fame, was notorious for his meanness, often sliding into bases with his spikes up with a win-at-all-costs attitude.  Mickey Mantle and Babe Ruth were both widely known to be drunken womanizers.  But they both hit homeruns that charmed the New York fans.  As writer Eliot Asinof observed, “Ruth did more than his share of drinking and whoring—and his play didn’t seem to suffer” (Asinof, 1987).  If these players were made to hold to the ideals of character and sportsmanship, then some of the greatest players of all time would not be in Cooperstown.  The accomplishments of Maris, Rose, McGwire and Bonds on a baseball field were extraordinary.  Therefore, they deserve a place in the Hall of Fame, regardless of perceived character or sportsmanship flaws.

In order to realize why off-field activities should not be considered for Hall of Fame inductions, it is important to understand what off-field activities are and how they differ from on-field activities that are a part of the actual game of baseball.  The word “activity” is defined as “a pursuit in which a person is active” (Merriam, 2006).  This means that all things that a person does, from driving a car to running to taking a test, are all activities because the person is actively involved in all of them, either physically or mentally or both.  This definition obviously is not limited specifically to sports; however, an expansion of this definition states “a form of organized, supervised, often extracurricular recreation” (Merriam, 2006).  This definition implies that sports in and of themselves are activities. 

Furthermore, in baseball, the sport can be broken down into specific activities.  Pitching, hitting, throwing, catching, running, and sliding are all activities within the game of baseball.  These are the obvious activities that spectators think of when they watch baseball.  But if an activity is anything a person is doing while being active, then there are many other activities occurring during a baseball game.  Drinking water, spitting sunflower seeds, and swearing are also all activities that occur during a baseball game.  These activities occur right in the ballpark.  Because they are not part of the specific game itself that the spectators pay to see played out on the field, they are not readily thought of as activities that are a part of baseball.  Therefore, “on-field” activities are limited to the actions in a game that are observed on the field of play and are noted in the form of statistics.  These include hitting home runs, stealing bases, striking out batters, walking batters, and committing fielding errors.  All of these are activities whose frequencies of occurrence are carefully recorded in order to determine the relative worth of a player.  How far a player can spit a sunflower seed or how many times he can swear during a game is not recorded as part of the player’s statistics.  This is because these activities have no direct effect on how the player performs on the field and, therefore, has no direct effect on whether the team wins or loses.   The impact of the activity on the actual outcome of the game itself in respect to wins and loses is one way to determine an action as being an on field or off field activity.  On-field activities that clearly have an impact on the game are measured in the form of statistics, which is an important indication that the activity is an on-field activity.  Off-field activities are never measured in the form of statistics.

Off-field activities are what a player engages in while he is not inside the lines of the baseball field.  Examples of off-field activities include giving time and money to charity organizations, vacationing with the family, and playing pickup basketball.  Some off-field activities are looked upon more favorably than others, but they do not all have a direct impact on how a player and his team perform during any given game.  The player who gives thousands of dollars to charities is not guaranteed to hit more home runs or strike out more batters than the player who gives thousands of dollars to strippers on a Saturday night.  If a player acts surly when talking to a reporter, this is also an off-field activity.  His individual personality has nothing to do with how he hits, throws, or catches the ball and statistics are not kept for levels of happiness or grumpiness. 

Some activities may be argued as either on or off field activities because the impact they have on the player’s performance.  Steroid usage, gambling, and abuse of alcohol and drugs may be argued to have an effect on how the player performs and, in turn, on the win-loss record of the team. However, these activities do not occur on the actual field of play.  Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire, two players accused of using steroids, were not sticking needles into themselves in between pitches.  Pete Rose, who was banned from baseball because he bet on his team, was not handling cash while standing on first base after he got a hit.  In order for an activity to be classified as an on-field activity, in addition to having an impact on player and team performance, it also needs to actually occur on the field of play.  This means the actions occur on the baseball field in view of all spectators and officials.  While steroid use is illegal in the game of baseball, it is not considered an on-field activity because it does not meet the requirement of actually occurring on the field. There is also no measured statistic for the use of steroids.  For example, there is no statistic stating homeruns in correspondence to amount of steroids taken.  Therefore, these activities should not be considered on-field activities.  They are clearly off-field activities. 

While steroid usage and gambling are illegal in the game of baseball, they are still off-field activities.  Steroid usage is an illegal way of enhancing the player’s ability.  This gives the player an advantage over his competitors.  Gambling is banned in order to prevent the purposeful losing of a game, such as occurred with the Chicago White Sox in 1919.  Other off-field activities that are not illegal can be banned in specific contracts in order to keep a player in healthy playing condition and to reduce the risk of injury to that player.  Certain activities such as excessive drinking, womanizing, or spousal abuse may not be illegal, but might contribute to the character of the player and could also harm him when it comes to election time.

Roger Maris did not partake in illegal steroids when he broke Babe Ruth’s homerun record in 1961 with 61 homeruns.  He broke no laws or rules of the game.  So why isn’t he in the Hall of Fame?  He was excluded because the writers who make up the voting committee did not like Maris’s personality.  While chasing the record in 1961, reporters described Maris as “shy, hotheaded, easily agitated, surly, self-pitying, and morose” (Telander, 1977).  Maris, unlike the popular Babe Ruth or teammate Mickey Mantle, who also pursued the record for part of the season until injuries sidelined him, was not talkative, jovial, or especially friendly.  One reporter wrote, “he has proved to be such an unsatisfactory hero” (Telander, 1977).  Instead, he was a man who simply wanted to do his job and not to be bothered.  Unfortunately, reporters continued to hound him throughout the season, and most were rooting against him.  Maris endured such pressure from the press and the fans that his hair began to fall out from the stress (Telander, 1977).  Maris broke the homerun record on the last day of the season, but there was a catch.  He had hit 61 homeruns in a 162-game season, while the Babe only had 154 games to hit his 60 homeruns.  Because of the lengthened season, Baseball Commissioner Ford Frick ruled that an asterisk must be attached to Maris’s record, thus cheapening the record (Smith, 2001).  Maris couldn’t live up the expectations of the fans and press, who wanted him to repeat his fantastic feat in 1962 to “prove his legitimacy” (Telander, 1977).  Maris never hit more than 33 homeruns in a season after 1961 (Telander, 1977).  Said Maris of the ordeal, “People say ’61 was a fluke.  But it wasn’t.  I mean ‘fluke’, what’s a ‘fluke’?  Babe Ruth only hit 60 homeruns once, so was that a fluke?  How many times do you have to do something?” (Telander, 1977).  The media was as much at fault for Maris’s lack of popularity as anything the player himself did.  According to writer Peter Golenbock, “By 1961, television made Roger Maris visible and instantly recognizable.  To the fan, the personality of the athlete had become as important as his statistics, and Maris’s isolationist philosophy served to make him look both belligerent and nasty” (1975). 

While the media portrayed him as surly with the nickname Red-Assed Roger, what they failed to mention were the positive aspects of Roger Maris—his devotion to his family and his various other achievements on the baseball field.  As writer Mark Telander stated, “The notion was that Maris was a fluke, that he was not in Ruth’s class in anything—skill, endurance, personality, charisma.  Forgotten were Maris’s outstanding arm, his fielding skills, his base-running, his three years of 100 or more RBI’s, and his two MVP trophies” (Telander, 1977).  Was it possible that Maris was just misunderstood?  Willaim Loizeaux explored the idea that something so simple as the way that Roger Maris talked might have led to the rift between himself and the press.  Loizeaux writes, “He speaks in what linguists call a Northern dialect in which patterns of pronunciation, stress, and intonation methodically flatten the language.  Vowels are given narrower range, R’s never roll, and frequent pauses invite others to respond…Some of what we construed as his sour character, or his dull lack of character, may simply have been his Northern dialect” (Loizeaux, 2001).   Whether Roger Maris was surly or just misunderstood shouldn’t matter.  The only thing that should matter is that he held the homerun record for more than 30 years, and that achievement alone earns him a place in the Hall of Fame.

Consideration for induction into the Hall of Fame becomes a little more troublesome when the players have engaged in questionable activity off the baseball field.  In the case of Pete Rose, Rose broke one of the cardinal rules of baseball, a rule that stemmed from the fixing of the World Series in 1919 by the Chicago White Sox, then dubbed the “Chicago Black Sox.”  Eight Black Sox players were suspected of throwing the World Series, and while they were acquitted by a jury, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis would not permit the players to ever again play professional baseball.  His statement read:

Regardless of the verdict of juries, no player who throws a ball game, no player who undertakes or promises  to throw a ballgame, no player that sits in conference with a bunch of crooked players and gamblers where the ways and means of throwing a game are discussed and does not promptly tell his club about it will ever play professional baseball. (Asinof, 1987). 

As a result of the 1919 Black Sox scandal, Rule 21(d) was enacted and is displayed in every major league stadium.  It states:

Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has no duty to perform, shall be declared ineligible for one year.  Any player, umpire, or club or league official or employee, who shall bet any sum whatsoever upon any baseball game in connection with which the bettor has a duty to perform shall be declared permanently ineligible. (Higgins, 2001)

Rose did not throw a game, but he did bet on baseball.  As the manager of the Cincinnati Reds, he bet on his team to win.  So where’s the crime in being sure of his team’s abilities and doing everything possible to win?  It did not matter because in 1989 Rose received a lifetime ban from baseball from Commissioner Bartlett Giamatti for having bet on baseball games.  Giamatti stated, “Major League Baseball must move quickly to assure the public’s confidence in the integrity of the game” (Reston, 1991).   Writer James Reston Jr. argued, “Regardless of what Rose may or may not have done off the field, it would cheapen the Hall of Fame itself if a player of Rose’s accomplishments was not enshrined” (1991).  Rose was a baseball hero.  He averaged more than 200 hits in a season from 1965-1980, having gotten more than 200 hits and 100 runs in a season ten times in his career (Boswell, 1989).  In September 1985, Rose hit a single in the first inning to break Ty Cobb’s hit record which had stood since 1928, giving him 4,192 hits in his career (Boswell, 1989).  Rose ended his playing career with 4,256 hits (Higgins, 2001).

As much as for his hitting achievements, Rose was admired for his all-out style of play, earning him the nickname “Charlie Hustle” (Smith, 1998).  Rose was a fan and media favorite and was voted Outstanding Player of the Decade for the 1970’s (Ritter, 1986).  He had a batting average of .300 or better for 14 out of 15 years, winning three batting titles in 1968, 1969, and 1973 (Ritter, 1986).  Even after being banned from baseball, he was ranked 25th on The Sporting News’s list of the greatest baseball players (Smith, 1998).  Rose was also a member of the All Century Team that was voted on by the fans, which seems to indicate that if the fans had the control of the vote, Rose would have his rightful place in the Hall of Fame.

Mark McGwire and Barry Bonds create the most difficult decisions for writers who must decide on the candidates for the Hall of Fame.  By on-field activities (statistics) alone, they should be included without a doubt.  But the accusations of having engaged in the off-field activity of steroid use has tarnished their images.  McGwire, once thought to be a sure bet to be in the Hall of Fame, fell far short of the required 75 percent of votes needed to be inducted, receiving only 128 votes out of the 545 cast (Curry, 2007).   He hit 70 homeruns in 1998, not only surpassing Maris’s record, but helping to restore interest in America’s national pastime as the country watched to see who would break the record first, McGwire or the Chicago Cubs outfielder Sammy Sosa.  The homerun chase seemed to be much more than just sports, as Tim McCarver wrote: “It was amazing how many times in a two month period their story could be found on the front pages of newspapers, including The New York Times, and as the lead story on news programs.  McGwire and Sosa transcended sports, entered the national consciousness” (1999).  Writer Mike Lupica noted how Americans dealing with the turmoil of Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky in the White House turned to the homerun chase to escape: “Never more than during the baseball summer of ’98, when baseball made everyone feel like a kid again, when it felt important again…Baseball would feel as if it were saving not just the country but the whole world” (1999).  When he retired after the 2001 season, McGwire had 583 career homeruns, placing him seventh on the all-time list (Curry, 2007).  From 1996-1998 McGwire had three consecutive seasons with more than 50 homeruns and he also recorded more than 100 RBI’s in six seasons (Smith, 1998). 

McGwire’s problems started when an Associated Press reporter named Steve Wilstein spotted a bottle of androstenedione in his locker when conducting an interview in the Cardinals clubhouse (Pearlman, 2006).  Androstenedione was not banned by Major League Baseball at the time and was available as an over-the-counter steroid (Pearlman, 2006).  The steroid was reported to Commissioner Bud Selig, who stated that he would “take no action regarding McGwire and androstenedione” (Fainaru-Wada, 2006). When McGwire learned of the adverse health effects of using androstenedione in 1999, he stopped using the drug (Denham, 2000).  But when the steroid issue became a hot-button topic in 2005, McGwire was subpoenaed for a Congressional hearing in which he refused to talk about steroid use (Curry, 2007).  Studies suggest that androstenedione has no affect on strength gains and, therefore, would not have attributed to McGwire’s homerun title (Denham, 2000).  Even if there was proof that androstenedione was responsible for all those homeruns, McGwire did nothing wrong because the steroid was not banned at the time that he took it.

Barry Bonds, however, was not subpoenaed for the Congressional hearing.  He was connected with the Bay Area Laboratory Cooperative that was indicted for distributing illegal steroids to athletes, but suffered no personal consequences.  His statistics are amazing, and those considered alone without the steroid suspicions would guarantee him a spot in the Hall of Fame.  In 1998, Bonds became the first player ever to hit 400 homeruns and steal 400 bases, a combination of power and speed that had never before been seen in Major League Baseball (Smith, 1998).  In October 2001, Bonds hit his 71st homerun to break McGwire’s record and ended the season with 73 homeruns (Pearlman, 2006).  In 2003, he hit his 700th homerun, becoming just the third player to ever reach that total (Pearlman, 2006).  Bonds has two batting titles and seven MVP awards, including a stretch where he took the award four years in a row (Fainaru-Wada, 2006).  In his testimony for the BALCO case, Bonds stated that he believed he was taking “flaxseed oil and arthritis cream” and that he had no knowledge the substances were really illegal steroids (Fainaru-Wada, 2006).  Said reporter Dan Brown of Bonds’s achievements, “Barry Bonds keeps his eye on the ball.  So why can’t the rest of us?  Why can’t America see past the unproven accusations and appreciate the greatest power hitter in baseball history?” (Pearlman, 2006).

In a competitive environment like professional baseball, one really can’t blame players for trying to get an edge.  As one study pointed out, players who “attempt to compete naturally [are] a step slower, ten to twenty percent weaker, and risk losing a well-paying job by not making a team” (Denham, 2000).  And even if a player did use steroids, how much would it really help? As researcher Bryan Denham points out, “Baseball is a game of timing and precision, and if players used the most potent steroid available, their capacity to make contact on a pitch from Pedro Martinez or Randy Johnson would not increase” (2000).  This refers to the widely-held belief that hitting major league pitching is one of the hardest tasks in all of sports, and that it takes skill not simply sheer strength.

Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire should both be in the Hall of Fame because Major League Baseball did nothing to discourage or prevent the use of steroids in the game.  The writers, owners, and league personnel turned their heads as the players got bigger and stronger, and only when pressured by Congress did they enact any sort of laws that began to be effective against steroid use.  Therefore, these players should not be punished for any drugs they might have taken in order to enhance their performance because they were not illegal to use at the time.

Previous to the Barry Bonds and Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) scandal, Major League Baseball had no steroid policy.  There was a testing program in the minor leagues; however, any players found to be using drugs were not penalized (Pearlman, 2006).  Obviously, without fear of any punishments, players had no deterrents to using steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs in order to jumpstart their careers.   It was during this era of no drug testing in the major leagues that Mark McGwire bulked up and broke Roger Maris’s 37-year-old homerun record in 1998.  Many argue that because the steroid androstenedione that was found in McGwire’s locker after his record-breaking season was not banned by Major League Baseball at that time and because he never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs (no tests existed during his career), McGwire’s achievements on the baseball field should not be tarnished. 

In 2002, Major League Baseball announced that the league would begin its first-ever drug testing in the 2003 season.  However, even though tests were being administered, there were still no punishments for drug use.  Even if a player tested positive, he would not be punished.  Under this new policy, players were tested twice during the season; with no off-season testing, players were free to use steroids during the winter months in order to bulk up for the season.  The steroid policy was a joke, even stating that “results would serve only for informal survey purposes” (Pearlman, 2006).  When more than five percent of the tests administered in 2003 came back positive for drug usage, Major League Baseball amended its policy to include a treatment program for players who failed the drug test (Pearlman, 2006).  Just in case a stint in a plush rehab facility wasn’t punishment enough, in January 2005 the new testing policy stated that players would be placed on a one-year ban after their fourth positive test (Pearlman, 2006).  This means players could test positive for illegal drugs three times and still be allowed to play. 

After the Congressional hearing in March 2005, the issue of steroids in baseball exploded.  In November, under pressure from Congress, Major League Baseball toughened the punishments for steroid use.  The first positive test resulted in a 50-game suspension, the second a 100-game suspension and the third resulted in the player being banned from baseball for life (Fainaru-Wada, 2006).  Obviously, a third positive test would end a player’s career, which would be the ultimate punishment.  But the odds of being caught three times are not likely; therefore, the policy, while having improved considerably, could still be tougher.  If Major League Baseball is serious about removing illegal drug usage from the sport, then it might not want to give its players three strikes before they’re out.

            Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, and Mickey Mantle are some of the most well-known players in Major League Baseball history.  If character and sportsmanship had been taken into account, they almost certainly wouldn’t be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  Instead, their achievements on the field in terms of homeruns, hits, and contributions to winning teams were reviewed and they were given their rightful place in history.  The same should hold true for Roger Maris, Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, and Barry Bonds.  All of these players performed amazing feats on the baseball diamonds, and regardless of their personalities, gambling addictions, or drug use, they should be allowed to take their rightful place in Cooperstown as well.  Off-field activities should not be considered for induction into the Hall of Fame.  As much as people might like to think it, ball players aren’t the perfect role models or heroes some want them to be.  They are human, and they make mistakes and do commit some unsavory acts.  But when given a bat, glove, and ball, they are extraordinary, and that is what should be praised and remembered.




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