Baseball

The Character Clause Serves No Purpose

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The character clause, as it loosely exists when it comes to Cooperstown voting, serves no purpose. It has never been exercised in a way as to elevate a player who was a fringe candidate into the immortality of the Hall of Fame, instead serving as a vague, divisive opt-out for writers to preach about the “high quality of morals” that reside within the walls of the Hall of Fame. It serves as a non-quantifiable metric, different for every writer and thus creating inconsistencies and hypocrisy in voting history.

The most egregious case of character clause usage will come to a head this year with the 10th year of eligibility for candidates like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, with BBWAA members not inducting them in past years for their purported steroid usage that supposedly makes them morally unfit for the Hall of Fame.

If that is true, and steroid usage is the moral bar for the hall of fame, the voting members need to take a look back at current hall of fame members that committed much more egregious wrongdoings, players like Cap Anson, Tris Speaker, and the first-ever MLB Commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis. To draw the line at the usage of HGH, but not at blatant racism (and potential KKK membership for the likes of Anson and Speaker) proves that the character clause is ill-defined, and serves no purpose.  

I do not mean to equate racism and steroid usage, some wrongs are clearly worse than allegedly cheating on a baseball field, but the point remains the same. Who does the character clause serve to benefit? It is fair to argue not a single person. Players are humans, just as we all are and as much as we would like our heroes to be upstanding citizens, that is not the case.

When it comes to the 2022 ballot, there is everything from players with DUI’s, sexual assault allegations, to however you want to classify the numerous controversies that Curt Schilling has involved himself in over the year. Does human nature excuse that behavior? Absolutely not, but attempting to judge what is “bad enough” to exile a player from the Hall feels an effort that will in time prove to be futile.

Acknowledging the Past:

The purpose of the Hall of Fame can affect how this issue is perceived. Does the Hall exist to detail history, or to preserve and immortalize excellence? The mission statement places importance on both.

The Hall of Fame’s mission is to preserve the sport’s history, honor excellence within the game and make a connection between the generations of people who enjoy baseball.”

With an expressed desire to preserve the history of baseball, the Hall of Fame needs to make a more explicit effort to contextualize it. This New York Times article written by Tyler Kepner details a minor change that the Hall of Fame made last year, adding a plaque that discusses the purpose of the Hall of Fame plaques. That should not be enough. People like Anson and K.M. Landis robbed baseball fans of potential legends by refusing to integrate, and that is a part of their baseball legacy. To memorialize the history of the sport, you must acknowledge that it has not always been smooth sailing. Good comes with the bad, the MLB is like all others, a fundamentally flawed organization.

Per the 42 for 21 Committee, a group headed by Sean Gibson, Gary Gillette and Ted Knorr, “Only 17 percent of players in the Hall from the Segregated Era come from the Negro Leagues Black Baseball, while 44 percent of players from the Integrated Era are African American or Latino.” That 27 percent difference between those two numbers is a representation of stars that (to this point) have missed out on becoming icons in the history of the MLB. 

So, if Landis impacted the game in such a sense, yet escapes any retroactive punishment from the “character clause” it really proves the lack of value any supposed rule that keeps the Hall of Fame morally superior provides. If there are racists, drug addicts, alcoholics and less than stellar people in the Hall, we need to stop drawing the line at PEDs. 

Either all is fair game, and voting takes place strictly in a baseball sphere, or more conditions need to be put in place that creates standardization among voter tendencies. Of course, there is always likely to be some controversial votes, but media members turning in blank ballots in a move of abject moral superiority needs to stop. Stop using the character clause for your own personal justifications to avoid making tough decisions. 

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