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Wednesday, January 10, 2007
What is the Duty Owed by Sports Writers Voting for the Hall of Fame?

Excellent article by Tim Cowlishaw in yesterday's edition of the Dallas Morning News (Steroids Issue Still a Judgment Call). Cowlishaw points out that, less than 24 hours before the veteran baseball writers who vote for the Hall of Fame had buried Mark McGwire's first-ballot chances based on a suspicion of steroid use, the football writers and broadcasters who vote for the Associated Press All-Pro team embraced steroid use by putting San Diego Chargers linebacker Shawne Merriman (who actually missed 1/4 of the season because he tested positive) on the first team. While Cowlishaw candidly acknowledges that he wouldn't have voted for McGwire this year if he had had a vote, he also alluded to the problems associated with writers making voting decisions based upon speculation and conjecture:

"But there is a problem with writers taking the moral police role in making these determinations, because we have learned now that Major League Baseball is testing, that steroid users don't always look like steroid users. Even though he also appeared before Congress, Rafael Palmeiro was not on the list of highly suspected steroids users. He's not a big-muscle-type guy. Then, after wagging his finger defiantly, Palmeiro goes out and tests positive. And so have a lot of relief pitchers who also don't fit the Popeye mold... They guess a decisive "guilty" on McGwire based on the size of his forearms. But they say an emphatic "no chance" when confronted with Cal Ripken Jr.'s amazing consecutive-games streak of 2,632. Look, I am not suggesting anything about Ripken. Just pointing out that it is somehow completely off limits to guess how a player managed to push himself to play every day for more than 14 years, while it's a duty to guess how a player added 30 to 40 pounds of muscle during the course of a career."

Cowlishaw is absolutely right that it is all speculation. The fans and the media are definitely permitted to speculate and formulate opinions about whether McGwire took steroids, whether they affected his performance, and whether there should be an "asterisk in the record books." But should writers voting on post season awards, including the Hall of Fame, be held to a different or higher standard, or at a minimum, a standard that is clearly defined? [Maybe it is clearly defined, and I'm just not aware of it.] I mean we're talking about the Hall of Fame, not some all-time top ten best players list put together by some columnist or blogger. Hall of Fame voters, in essence, seem to be permitted to make their own subjective determinations that McGwire did in fact take something. And even further, that the something they think he took is probably on the banned substance list that was subsequently developed and tested for after McGwire played.

What do the voters want here? If McGwire came out today and said that he never took an illegal steroid or a substance that is currently on the banned substance list and tested for, would they be satisfied? Probably not. Is it that they are upset that McGwire isn't talking about it, and they want him to speak out to the public about the dangers of steroid use? I guess we'll never really know for sure, and the answer may be different depending upon which voter you ask. While there is an element of subjectiveness in determining who gets in the Hall anyways based upon performance, at least we can say that those determinations are based upon an analysis of objective-based performance statistics.

The purpose of this post is to inquire about the parameters or standards for determining who gets in the Hall and who doesn't, not to engage in the steroid debate. So what is the duty of a sports writer in voting for the Hall of Fame? I don't mean a duty in a strictly legal sense, but should it be objectively defined? Or is it sufficient for the writers to be permitted to take on a broad "moral police role" as Cowlishaw alluded to. If so, what are the perameters of that role? Presumably writers are permitted to make decisions that even go beyond mere speculation over steroid use, for example the use of illegal narcotics (and speculation of such use) or other acts of perceived misconduct on and off the field, unless that role is more narrowly defined of course. And if the standard is that broad, then why not just let the fans vote, similar to the way the fans vote for the all-star games? Because fans are just as qualified as the writers--maybe even more qualified--to make these types of decisions.


The baseball Hall's rules say voters may consider character and other outside factors, while the football Hall specifically limits consideration to on-the-field activities.

On the larger point, it seems to me that media-only voting is riddled with conflicts of interest. There are numerous stories of voters punishing players who weren't good with the press. With the steroid issue, it appears that many writers are punishing McGwire for, in effect, exposing the media's own slow uptake. Bill Simmons of ESPN noted that Mike Lupica, one of the harshest anti-steroid crusaders, made a good deal of money from his book lionizing McGwire during his pursuit of the home run record. Lupica, Simmons noted, didn't exactly return the money he made from his book.

Simmons made another good argument that the Hall of Fame is a museum, and as such it should not be sanitized to include only players deemed morally perfect. The Hall should include players of great historical significance, not just those deemed ethically worthy by the media.

Anonymous Skip Oliva -- 1/10/2007 10:22 AM  

Excellent post, and I think too many outlets—including ESPN’s magazine—are focusing more on a “moral police angle,” and less a “greatness + integrity to the sport” rule.

That’s what I actually think the inherent formulation might be (even if it is not). We might call it the Cobb/Rose Rule. That is, even before the specter of enhancement methods like steroids (as opposed to methods like pine tar or sandpapering the ball), a player made it into the HoF if a) their play was at a legendary level and b) they did not bring (i) disrepute to the sport or (ii) cause the integrity of the games to be questioned.

Cobb and Rose did both (i) and (ii) (although we can see how only (i) could be fulfilled—i.e., if an Albert Haynesworth-type event were to occur, but with more tragic results—the player committing the act would likely be banned from HoF and further play). Rose’s gambling had the same effect under this analysis as did Cobb’s actually throwing of a game, as both actions cause the integrity of the game to be questioned. Thus they are precluded from the HoF.

I think we can also apply that same rule to McGwire or others who we know to have used enhancement drugs. It brought disrepute to the sport—he went before Congress, fer chrissake—and also caused the integrity of the games to be challenged (for distortion’s sake: in one corner, Cal Ripken, who weighs a little over a buck thirty; in another, McGwire, who put on over a buck thirty in muscle weight in five years).

This analysis also avoids the so-called “moral police” angle—it’s somewhat quantitative and simple. It also allows for “forgiveness” if the player commits an (i) or (ii), as some of the sting from these actions may lessen over the years. Again to use an NFL analogy, I think Haynesworth is well on his way to redemption, but “the stomp” will always haunt him (and justifiably).

The real problem with McGwire is that we just don’t know how long he was doping, and—as with the Palmeiro issue you bring up—MLB’s outright “don’t ask don’t tell” policy brought this upon itself.

Great post! For what it’s worth—I am against Rose and McGwire being admitted to the Hall of Fame, even though Mark McGwire was very much my hero as a kid (I was 11 in ’86).

And contra Skip Oliva's and the Sports Guy's point, I have never thought the Hall of Fame was just about "historical significance." It's a distortion to pretend it's just a "baseball museum." It's not been treated like that historically, and is exactly what it says it is--a place where players of great worth are honored for their service to the game (even if that service is not to the same extent as others; for instance, Ripken's place in the Hall is disproportionate to many others who may have stronger stats, because he brought a type of prestige and integrity the game "wants").

Blogger gorjus -- 1/10/2007 11:04 AM  

Does anyone know that the steroid issue kept McGwire out of the Hall of Fame this time around? That seems to be the assumption, but is it true? I wouldn't vote for McGwire simply because I don't think he was a Hall of Fame player, any more than Roger Maris was. OTOH, I would vote for Barry Bonds.

Anonymous Ralph Hickok -- 1/10/2007 11:17 AM  


I would be interested in reading the exact language, if there is any. If anybody has it, please forward it on. If the standard is "character and other outside factors" then that could mean anything.


If the standard is as you suggest, they did not bring disrepute to the sport or cause the integrity of the games to be questioned, how is that defined? I don't know anybody who would argue that betting on your sport meets that definition. But isn't this different? There is plenty of disagreement whether using performance-enhancing drugs even impacts the integrity of the game. Furthermore, it hasn't been determined that McGwire did it, and it was determined that Rose gambled--he was banned from baseball. So what is the standard? Is it when somebody is accused by a third party and doesn't deny it? Is it being hauled into congress? Is it that the player is the subject of controversy (whatever that means)? Or is the standard that "we just know it when we see it"?


Great question. A number of sports writers who voted have actually stated that the sole reason, or one of the reasons, that they didn't vote for him is because of the steroid controversy. But you're right that there really is no way to know if alleged steroid use is the reason or not, if the standard is so loosely defined.

Blogger Rick Karcher -- 1/10/2007 3:12 PM  

Hmm, interesting point. I automatically assumed that McGwire's strength, which arguably came from enhacement drugs, necessarily equals better ability. That's not necessarily true, although I think it has popularly shadowed both his and Bonds' home-run performance.

I know that some guys have said they like taking certain chemicals because it improves competiveness (i.e., agression spikes) and seems, to some at least, to defray or deter injuries greater. These would be, in my mind, good reasons that don't cause people to suspect they're cheating to win.

That's what it comes down to, and that's what we don't say enough. "Cheaters." It's not about morals, it's about valuing a player who is perceived to have performed great in the midst of greatness (Ripken, Gwynn) versus one who is perceived as breaking the curve due to cheating.

And to be more clear, I think the formula I suggest is actually what many sportswriters have been using, in HoF and other categories (think Maris' *) when they think it is necessary to protect the supposed integrity of the sport.

Blogger gorjus -- 1/10/2007 4:47 PM  

Rule 6 of the Baseball Hall of Fame's election rules states, "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."

I don't have the actual language of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's bylaws, but the AP has written that, "The Hall's voting bylaws preclude consideration of non-football issues."

Anonymous Skip Oliva -- 1/10/2007 5:19 PM  

The problem with the Simmons argument about the Hall as a museum is that it conflates the building and the honor. The Hall of Fame serves a dual purpose. It tells the history of the game and it honors a select group of players. Thus, the building does include a museum, which has all manner of baseball lore from many players who are not Hall of Famers. Failing to induct McGwire will not whitewash a piece of baseball history because his story will always have a place in the museum. However, the honor of induction requires satisfaction of certain criteria - criteria that many voters apparently feel McGwire does not meet.

Anonymous ChinMusic -- 1/10/2007 7:40 PM  

McGwire is being scapegoated (is that a word?), simple as that. Any talk about what we "know" about his use is pure nonsense, only slightly more speculative than wondering how Ripken could have played over 2000 consecutive games without help.

For those of you outside of the world of baseball, Ripken put on at least twenty-five pounds of muscle between his rookie season and retirement. Baseball-Reference lists him as 6' 4", 225 pounds. It is a well-known aspect of his legacy that he was a fitness fanatic, he built and maintained a full gym on his home property, one that included a full court baseketball court, and was very much into weight training throughout his career.

I'd also like to correct the misunderstanding that even HoF voters have been falling victim to; that McGwire mysteriously got bigger in 1996-97. McGwire was also a huge fan of weight training from an early stage of his career (when he met Canseco), but was notably huge even as a rookie, when he set the record for most home runs by a rookie, with 49.

I am the same age as McGwire, barely an athlete at all, and am a solid 30 pounds heavier (not fat, either) than I was as a 20 year old, and I am 5'8". If a 6'5" uber-athlete, with state of the art physical abilities and training methods were unable to match that, I'd say he wasn't trying. The opposite is true with McGwire. He was a workout fanatic, as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and virtually any modern athlete that is commited to being the best have been. To say that it is their muscularity that makes them suspicous is absurd, and has been proven to be fallacious from the minute the first positive tests came back.

Alas, facts have taken a back seat to speculation, and the moralizing and posturing by our sportswriters as they battle for the title of he who is most willing to save our children is more than distasteful.

Anonymous John J Perricone -- 1/10/2007 7:47 PM  

Unfortunately, Hall of Fame voting has gotten so much attention that the process is bigger than the actual induction at this point.

What this means is that some sportswriters have taken the initiative to use their votes for the Hall of Fame as a platform to convey their personal opinions.

This is not limited to steroid suspicions and moralizing; it extends to personal friendships and feuds with players, market bias and overall nostalgic sentiment for certain players and the values they embody.

One might argue that this is inevitable, since the pool of voters is so distinct (baseball writers with more than 10 years of experience) and yet has little semblance of organization (just look up the BBWAA online - their website is a shell).

Each voter is not receiving the same information. Voters are allowed, even encouraged, to use personal recollections and intangible traits (personality, sportsmanship, etc.) in their vote.

Thus, we have some sportswriters who read Rich Lederer's and Bill James's articles on Bert Blyleven who vote accordingly and change their opinions. And we have others who don't read them, or read them and say "yes, but I don't remember Blyleven that way."

One of the problems with the vote right now is undoubtedly that the individuals some sportswriters dismiss for one reason or another, are viewed very differently by more statistically minded individuals. (Albert Belle, Will Clark, and Alan Trammell for example seem to be borderline candidates who deserve more consideration than they've gotten, and two of the three are off, while the last, Trammell, has seen declining support)

On the other hand, the exact opposite (using some kind of absolute statistical marker to determine Hall of Fame worthiness) is also probably unfair. The Hall of Fame is based largely on nostalgia, so why shouldn't we let nostalgia determine its occupants?

I honestly don't think we can tell voters to disregard McGwire's alleged use just because nothing has been proven - writers will have their opinions, and McGwire, in many people's eyes, is already guilty. That many voters believe so and voted accordingly is potentially indicative of how history will view McGwire.

And if in five years, writers look back differently and say "he helped us get over the strike, he and Sosa made the game interesting, and well, he did hit a lot of home runs," then perhaps that nostalgia will override the moralizing that dominates now.

Thus, I don't think giving the writers guidelines would be the right thing. Nor do I think giving fans the vote would really solve the problem. If there were a better way to keep all the writers informed of player histories, some kind of Hall of Fame Ballot Press Packet with both statistical and photographical evidence (and by statistical I don't mean number of All Star selections or MVPs or Gold Gloves, which are extremely subjective to begin with), I believe it would make a some kind of a difference.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/11/2007 4:48 PM  

I thought the Hall of Fame was for the Elite. I think there should be a higher percentage requirement to get in. We are talking about the best to ever play the game. The players voted in should be in a class with everyone else in the Hall.

Anonymous tommie -- 1/11/2007 8:25 PM  

Gorjus mentions that Cobb is not in the HOF. (unless I'm misreading something) I was under the impression that Cobb was in fact in the HOF.

Do any of you wonder if McGwire cares one way or the other about the HOF? By most media reports, he had become a recluse living in a gated community in the OC.

And, as a few comments have mentioned, the relationship between the press and the player does impact the vote. JIm Rice may or may not belong in the HOF, but his strained relationship with the press (imho) isn't helping him any.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/11/2007 10:36 PM  

Joe - Cobb is absolutely in the Hall of Fame - he garnered 98.23% of the vote in 1936, the inaugural year, more than Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson.

That said, he is often cited as an example of a bad human being in the Hall - people cite his racism and his throwing of one or more baseball games as prime examples of why we should not punish people like Rose who remain on the outside.

But you have to look at context - were sportswriters really considering Cobbs racism when they voted? Likely not, given the time period.

I have to feel similarly with McGwire. The current atmosphere is one in which sportswriters (and fans and the government) have focused on steroid usage and cheating through steroid usage. Whether he deserves it or not is something to be debated, but McGwire finds himself in such a context.

Voters may feel differently down the line. But just as we can't exactly kick Cobb out of the Hall for being a racist, or punish those who voted for him for not considering his racism and his race fuelled physical assaults of African Americans, not to mention helping keep his assaults at that time out of newspapers, I don't think we can proscribe rules for sportswriters voting today.

Voters are always going to be biased one way or another. Forget about players who made enemies of writers. Even players who weren't considered interesting are biased against in Hall of Fame voting.

For instance, consider "Sweet" Lou Whitaker. He played for a lot of poor teams, although he was on the World Series winner Tigers in 1984, a team that hasn't properly been appreciated even to this day, and was an intensely private person, to the extent that he rarely talked to sportswriters.

His #1 statistical comparison on is Ryne Sandberg, who made the Hall after three tries in 2005. In comaprison, Lou got 2.9% of the vote in his only year, and then was dropped from the ballot for receiving less than 5% of the vote.

Ryno had a bigger profile in a bigger market and was more popular with reporters. This first led to more All Star appearances and Gold Gloves, which subsequently helped his Hall of Fame chances.

So even if both of them are borderline candidates statistically, their personalities and profiles led to one player getting into the Hall, relatively easily, and another failing to garner even more than 5% of the vote in his first year of eligibility, leaving him to the mercy of the Veterans Committee.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 1/12/2007 1:41 AM  

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