Home MLB The MLB Hall of Fame and a problem that won’t go away

The MLB Hall of Fame and a problem that won’t go away

by Matt Smith

We’re now a few days on from the results of the 2016 American National Baseball Hall of Fame ballots being announced.

Ken Griffey Jr and Mike Piazza will be inducted into Cooperstown this summer and both are fully deserving of the honour.

Griffey was always a certainty to be elected at the first time of asking and the only point of intrigue was whether he would be the first player voted in unanimously. He fell three votes short, being named on 437 of 440 ballots, and whilst it’s reasonable to query why he wasn’t selected by those three voters (as it’s reasonable to expect all voters to explain how their ballots), it shouldn’t take any attention away from the joy of Griffey’s election and celebration of his wonderful career.

Griffey’s percentage of 99.32 is a new record and this was picked up on by the BBC World Service, who invited me to comment on this historic event on their Sport Today programme on Thursday (the programme will be available on the BBC iPlayer for British residents for 30 days from transmission, with the Griffey section being on in the last five minutes or so of the show).

The Sport Today programme was also drawn to Griffey’s historic election in the context of baseball’s so-called steroid era and him being a standard-bearer as someone who ‘did it the right way’.

As I stated on the programme, the problem with it all is of course that the lack of drug testing prior to 2003/2004 means there often is little solid on which to base a judgement as to whether someone used drugs or not.

Griffey’s fellow 2016 class member Mike Piazza embodies this problem. He was elected at the fourth time of asking despite having a strong claim to being the greatest hitting catcher in the history of MLB to date. The case against him really came down to suspicions that he may have used steroids during his career.

Even in the case of someone like Griffey, the era in which he played means that there will always be some suspicion around the exceptional players of that time simply by virtue of them being exceptional.

That’s what really makes things difficult from the point of view of the Hall of Fame. Every era has great players and they deserve to be recognised as such, otherwise we may as well just whitewash the era out of baseball history altogether.

Except in a few cases of admissions of guilt (such as Mark McGwire) and strong evidence (Barry Bonds being the main example due to his BALCO links) there’s simply no way of knowing if a great player in that era took drugs.

What is even more difficult is deciding if suspected drug use was part of their greatness.

That will be irrelevant for some: a cheat is a cheat and whatever the actual ‘performance enhancement’ amounted to, the intent is enough to do for their Hall of Fame case. I’m sympathetic to this stance, but when it comes to the Hall of Fame I struggle to reconcile it with the fact that so many people in baseball at the time willingly turned a blind eye to it, and that the game benefitted handsomely as a result.

Would MLB be the multi-billion dollar industry it is today after the devastating 1994/95 player strike had it not been for McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s ‘run for 61’ and other such exhilarating moments that captivated people and brought them back to the sport? We’re often happy to judge other Hall of Famers by the era in which they played so are we being honest with ourselves by blacklisting certain players or is it just easing the conscience after the event?

There isn’t an easy answer to any of this.

Although there are signs that a growing number of voters are now simply casting ballots based on performance regardless of drug-use suspicions, that’s probably not going to result in a consistent approach to all players.

Certainly in the case of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, despite their vote percentage increasing this year, it will result in truly outstanding players not being in the Hall of Fame (whatever your thoughts on their alleged drug use, it’s difficult to make a credible case that they were not players of immense talent), whilst slightly lesser players are elected despite being guilty of the same alleged cheating.

As the process comes around every year for the foreseeable future, we’re just going to have to accept that the Hall of Fame will present a skewed version of the era and future generations will need to delve deeper into the history rather than relying on the designation as a Hall of Famer to tell you who were the greats of the age.

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1 comment

John January 14, 2016 - 12:48 pm


I think your train of thought on this issue is about the same as mine. Unless a failed drugs test or an explicit admission of guilt are present, there should be no chery picking by ballot voters as to who may’ve cheated or not. In my view, the Hall of Fame is a mockery anyway with both Barry Bonds and Pete Rose (albeit under different circumstances) considered ineligible.


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