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What should baseball’s Hall of Fame be?

The rejections of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens by BBWAA voters raise this question.

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Photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images

Today in The Athletic, Jayson Stark posted a mailbag column in which he answered questions from readers about the Hall of Fame. Not that the Hall is a polarizing topic or anything like that, but Stark ended his article with this:

What kind of Hall of Fame do we want to have?

Just remember that if that answer is going to be “a Hall of Purity,” then don’t we have to start throwing people out? Every baseball scuffer, bat corker, sign stealer and every other form of rapscallion? That seems kind of impractical!

So maybe somebody really will decide someday that we need a Hall just based on historic achievements. Think how easy that would make it for those committees. So who knows? Bonds and Clemens might get 100 percent in one of those elections!

Those two things are what I’d like to examine in this article, among others. First, I’d like to quote the criteria that BBWAA writers are supposed to use when voting for players, part of this list of voting rules:

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.

That’s about as wide open as you could possibly imagine. The “character” clause has been cited by some in not voting for Barry Bonds and/or Roger Clemens. It’s been said that “character” was placed in that list of voting rules back in the day not to keep supposedly bad players out, but to allow for players who might not have what are commonly considered Hall of Fame numbers to be elected. That’s a kind of quaint idea, in my view, something that came from views of athletes as role models or some sort of humans to be placed on pedestals. This isn’t something we commonly do in 2022.

Anyway, while you ruminate on that, let me say something I think I’ve mentioned before, but bears repeating: The name of the institution in Cooperstown is “National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.” Emphasis here on the “museum” part: If you’ve been to Cooperstown, you know that the museum is most of the building; the plaques gallery is only a small part of what you’ll see. When I was last there in 2008 I spent more than three hours in the museum and could easily have stayed longer. The entire history of the game is told in the museum — good and bad. The feats of Bonds and Clemens are noted there, as are the baseball accomplishments of Pete Rose, who will likely never be enshrined in the plaques gallery.

So to say that the Hall of Fame ignores those people is just plain wrong.

Would I vote for Bonds and Clemens if I had a vote? Yes, I would. I’ve changed my mind about this over time. When they were first eligible I was a “no.” The anger over the so-called Steroid Era had not yet passed. But with time passing and perspective, it is clear that Bonds would have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer had he retired after 1998. Why 1998? Because the book “Game of Shadows,” which details a lot of Bonds’ alleged PED use, says Bonds began using PEDs in 1999, apparently jealous of the attention Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa received for the ‘98 home run chase, while he (Bonds) was the better player. (Bonds was right — he was the better player).

Clemens, too, is a Hall of Famer had he retired around the same time. Clemens’ case is more problematic because of his inappropriate relationship with a teenage girl, detailed yesterday by Sara Sanchez in her article about David Ortiz and the Hall.

There are a couple of things at work here, in my view. Did Bonds and Clemens have the numbers to be Hall of Famers? Most certainly, yes — and as noted, even before they allegedly did PEDs. Neither one is likeable, and Ortiz is, and that’s one big reason Ortiz was elected.

But Jayson Stark is correct. Do we want the Hall of Fame to be a “Hall of Purity”? It already isn’t — there are many inductees who weren’t nice people, who were likely racists, possibly already some PED users are inducted. To make the Hall a referendum on that seems wrong.

Stark, though, also writes:

So maybe somebody really will decide someday that we need a Hall just based on historic achievements. Think how easy that would make it for those committees.

I mean, sure, we could have that. Set specific benchmarks for players; those who go over them get in, those who don’t, don’t. We could call that the “Hall of Statistical Achievement.” But what fun would that be? What stories would that tell, beyond lists of numbers?

To me, a “Hall of Fame” is a combination: Great achievements on the field AND a measure of “being famous,” however you want to define that.

Let me give you an example of a player I believe fits both those descriptions, yet is NOT in the Hall of Fame: Tommy John. John’s numbers alone should rate Hall induction: 26 MLB seasons, 288 wins, five All-Star nods, four top-10 Cy Young finishes, a key contributor to three World Series teams (though no WS rings), 62.1 bWAR. Of the top 10 most comparable pitchers as listed on his bb-ref page linked above, nine are in the Hall (Jim Kaat, Robin Roberts, Bert Blyleven, Fergie Jenkins, Early Wynn, Tom Glavine, Burleigh Grimes, Don Sutton and Eppa Rixey). Is he among the best ever? No, but he’s certainly in the next tier of greatness. If it seems as if I’m arguing for “big Hall of Fame,” yes, perhaps I am.

And beyond that, he’s the pioneer of the elbow surgery that now bears his name. There’s the combination of performance on the field and fame that makes John Hall-worthy. I’d bet more people in general in this country have heard of Tommy John than they’ve heard of Early Wynn or Eppa Rixey or even Robin Roberts, assuming they don’t think the latter is the host of Good Morning America.

A lot of people say they don’t care about Hall voting and induction because the process is broken. I agree, it is broken, but that doesn’t seem to stop many of those people from talking about it, implying that they do in fact care.

The museum part of the Hall of Fame tells the story of the game’s rich history quite well. What it appears people arguing for change in the way people get plaques are saying is that the plaque room should reflect that history as well, good and bad. They’re not wrong.

I have some thoughts on how Hall voting could be changed; that’s a topic for another day (and I will do this sometime soon). In the meantime, let us know how you feel about Bonds and Clemens.

Poll

Should Barry Bonds be elected to the Hall of Fame?

This poll is closed

  • 57%
    Yes
    (136 votes)
  • 42%
    No
    (100 votes)
236 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Should Roger Clemens be elected to the Hall of Fame?

This poll is closed

  • 56%
    Yes
    (131 votes)
  • 43%
    No
    (99 votes)
230 votes total Vote Now