The Baseball Hall of Fame, the most august fraternity of its kind in U.S. sports, unveiled its latest induction class Wednesday — and no one was voted in.
This year, for the first time, balloters had to weigh the fate of two eminent stars, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, who are also the most celebrated poster boys for the game’s disgraced steroid era.
Players linked to steroid use have been resoundingly rejected by Hall of Fame voters lately, shunned as synthetically enhanced frauds. But drawing an integrity line in the sand is a tenuous stance at a Hall of Fame with a membership that already includes multiple virulent racists, drunks, cheaters, brawlers, drug users and at least one acknowledged sex addict. In the spirit of Groucho Marx, who refused to join any club that would have him as a member, would not baseball’s 77-year-old gallery of rogues be the perfect fit for Bonds and Clemens?
Robert W. Cohen, who wrote the 2009 book “Baseball Hall of Fame — Or Hall of Shame?," readily recalled a catalog of reprehensible acts by Hall of Fame inductees.
“Baseball has always had some form of hypocrisy when it comes to its exalted heroes," Cohen said. “In theory, when it comes to these kinds of votes, it’s true that character should matter, but once you’ve already let in Ty Cobb, how can you exclude anyone else?"
Cobb, portrayed as a sociopath in biographies and a Hollywood film starring Tommy Lee Jones, is without question the Hall of Famer mentioned most often whenever the integrity of the game’s top players is questioned. Known as the Georgia Peach, he was often painted a racist and had numerous documented altercations with blacks off the field, including one that led to a charge of attempted murder.
Cobb, along with fellow Hall of Famer Tris Speaker, was also implicated in a game-fixing scheme. Several researchers have written that Cobb and Speaker were members of the Ku Klux Klan, although that has never been conclusively verified.
“Plaster saints is not what we have in the Hall of Fame," said John Thorn, perhaps the nation’s most widely known baseball historian and the author of more than a dozen baseball books. “Many were far from moral exemplars."
Cobb, who was included on 222 of 226 ballots during the inaugural 1936 Hall of Fame voting, is far from alone when it comes to baseball elite old-timers and imputations of racism, some of them blatant, recurring and historic.
“Cap Anson helped make sure baseball’s color line was established in the 1880s," Thorn said of the Chicago Cubs first baseman and manager who was enshrined in the Hall of Fame the year it opened in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1939. “He was relentless in that cause."
Often, the miscreants in the Hall of Fame are viewed more like rascals than scoundrels or bigots. Babe Ruth (class of 1936), a prodigious drinker and womanizer and yet popular and revered, fits the category. Casey Stengel (class of 1966) once called right fielder Paul Waner (class of 1952) a graceful player. Why?
“Because," Stengel said, “he could slide into second base without breaking the bottle in his hip pocket."
Famed Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko once wrote that Hack Wilson (class of 1979) should have been moved to first base from the outfield, where he usually played, “because he wouldn’t have as far to stagger to the dugout."
Grover Cleveland Alexander (class of 1938) pitched better drunk than sober, according to team owner Bill Veeck (class of 1991).
Meanwhile, pitcher Gaylord Perry (class of 1991) had a disregard for the rules that was far more patent and unashamed than any steroid user. Perry doctored baseballs with spit, Vaseline or other substances to confound hitters. All of baseball knew what Perry was doing even if he never admitted it — until a tell-all book after his retirement.
Orlando Cepeda served 10 months in prison after being arrested in 1975 for smuggling marijuana in Puerto Rico. The Baseball Writers’ Association of America did not select him for the Hall of Fame; instead, Cepeda was elected by the Veterans Committee in 1999.
“But there’s a real distinction between a player who does inappropriate things not related to his job and a player who does inappropriate things that affect his job," said Bill James, an influential and pioneering baseball author and statistician who wrote the book “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame?"
In the debate about whether players linked to steroids belong in the Hall of Fame — when compared with players who might have been ne’er-do-wells — a frequent line of thinking is that there is a critical difference between crimes against society and crimes against baseball. A player can, for instance, neglect to pay his income taxes and remain in the good graces of the Hall of Fame (Duke Snider, class of 1980), but neglect to run out routine ground balls and it will undoubtedly cost the player Hall of Fame votes.
It is the reason that certain players, like Pete Rose, who gambled on baseball games, are on baseball’s ineligible list and prohibited from the Hall of Fame ballot. Taking drugs to hit more home runs apparently falls into a similar category for many voters.
“Being inducted is an honor, not a paycheck you are entitled to," James said, defending the character clause written into the criteria on the Hall of Fame ballot. “No one is entitled to be elected. The voters choose who to honor."