Should Major League Baseball allow steroid users into the Hall of Fame? Yes, says Matt Record.

Part 1 of a series.

by Matt Record

Baseball has been marked by cheating forever. It’s hypocritical to draw a line now.

These are – in my opinion – the top 15 best position players in the history of baseball:

  • Babe Ruth
  • Barry Bonds
  • Willie Mays
  • Ted Williams
  • Ty Cobb
  • Hank Aaron
  • Tris Speaker
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Honus Wagner
  • Stan Musial
  • Alex Rodriguez
  • Rogers Hornsby
  • Lou Gehrig
  • Eddie Collins
  • Mickey Mantle

The fact that two of the top 15 best hitters may never make the hall of fame is a  shame and a frustratingly meaningless shame at that. Watching baseball writers drum up moral outrage over baseball is like watching a six year-old throw a hissy fit. It’s absolutely pointless and the rest of us can do nothing but look at our watches and wait for them to tire out.

All manner of cheating and institutional wrongdoing has been overlooked or even highlighted vis a vis baseball’s dark past in the hall. Why do we choose now to draw a moralizing line in the sand? Ty Cobb would sand his cleats into little metal knives. He was also a degenerate and well-known racist. Norm Cash and Billy Hatcher corked their bats and George Brett slathered his in pine tar in the 1970s. Do we really think they were the only ones? Players throughout the ’70s were hopped on stimulants and greenies. Players in the ’80s kept cocaine on their persons during games.

Most importantly of all, nine of those 15 players – a full 60% – never played against a black player. Not once, not ever.  Two more saw integration during their career. Isn’t it quite the coincidence that the era when non-white players weren’t allowed in the majors accounts for only about 48% of baseball’s history but about 66% of its best play? Doesn’t that deck feel a little stacked to anyone else?

When Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris chased Babe Ruth’s record, 9.7% of the league was black and another 7.7% of the league was Latino. Do we really think steroids gave Barry Bonds a 17.4% advantage over other historical players? In 1973, when Hank Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s all time record, 17.4% of the players were black and another 11% were Latino. Do we really think steroids made Alex Rodriguez 28% better than he was naturally? When Barry Bonds hit 73 in 2001, more than 40% of the game consisted of non-white players. You don’t think a couple of those Babe Ruth homers would have turned into double plays or strikeouts if he had had to face Pedro Martinez? How about Bob Gibson? Fergie Jenkins? Not fair? Fine, how about Bill Foster, George Mitchell, Willie Powell, Theodore Trent and Satchel Paige?

Every era has its shames, but clutching our pearls and acting horrified when every goddamn one of us knew what was happening during the steroid era is both hypocritical and disappointingly predictable. Put an asterisk next to his name if you must but put Barry Bonds in the Hall.

Matthew Record is a PhD student studying Public Policy and Management in the John Glenn School of Public Affairs at Ohio State University. He is the drummer and driving force behind the indie pop sextet Fortune & Spirits and the sole contributor to his own blog.

Matthew’s favorite board game is Power Grid and he suggests you all go to right now to discover one of your own. He currently resides in Columbus, OH.

10 replies »

  1. all drugs should be legal. what a person does to his own body without hurting someone else directly is there business. there are plenty of sports figures that use drugs and get away with it. even the playing field and let the results of their play become the point of interest not what they do off the field. it would also help us understand what the effects on the human body are so we can give that info to the people that are using the drugs so they might make better choices with their lives. making things illegal (prohibition) only creates problems. it creates more crime, more government to control something that can not be controlled, destroys peoples life’s for minor infractions, and much more. let us take a step to freedom of choice not government control. there will always be someone who knows how the rest of us should live and if we do not, punish us for not living the life he thinks is best. let us get back to when you hurt someone else we take care of it not if we hurt ourselves. prohibition has never work for anything we have learned it many times. let us quite going down that road. the more the government takes care of us and makes our decisions, the less individuality results. individuality is what made america great, different thinking processes come up with new ideas. when decisions are made at the top for us it destroys our culture and individuality. government needs to be reduced. while we are at it if you decide to have more kids you should pay for their education. if you can not pay for their education you should not have them. if you do not drive a car you do not pay gas taxes. the government is to complex and burdened with to many laws, mostly written to make the rich richer and keep the others in line so they have no resistance in their drive for more. stop trying to control the world, bring our troops home. the only thing we will have changed in the end is a reduction of some of our beautiful young people by trying to control someone else. our national bills will only be paid by destroying our monetary system. and the rich get richer the middle class and poor get poorer. the rich should pay a greater share, much greater share then the rest of us because they could not have done it without us. i will stop the rambling be stating freedom, freedom, freedom!

  2. There’s a competitive environment to consider in baseball with regard to drugs. It’s why I have some sympathy for the players but also why taking the steroids is so damaging. Many, perhaps most, of the players would not take steroids if many (or most) of the other players weren’t doing the same. It’s an arms race. The fact that players have to choose between damaging their body and potentially giving up millions of dollars, their life’s passion and the only profession most of them have ever known is unfair, even tragic.

    Talented athletes who don’t want to do long-term and irreparable damage to their bodies deserve protection more than the libertarian notion of letting people do what they will with their bodies. I don’t believe players (and only some players at that) ought to be punished for widespread, institutional misdeeds by all players and baseball itself but I want to state emphatically that I don’t support baseball making steroids, non-prescription HGH and the like legal. Players that choose to use those drugs aren’t just making a choice for themselves, they are making it for their peers too.

    • I agree with a lot of what you’re saying, Matt, but you’re really getting into the muck now. If I unpack all this, you seem to be saying:

      1: Roids are bad.
      2: Most players only used them because if they didn’t they couldn’t compete.
      3: We shouldn’t legalize roids.
      4: We shouldn’t punish people who used them.

      Which leads me to a question: how the heck do you get roids out of the game?

      If the answer is with testing and suspensions, cool. But that is TOTALLY incongruous with then, once they’ve retired, bestowing upon them the sport’s highest honor.

      I don’t want to dive in too deeply here – probably makes sense to wait until after my counterpoint goes up tomorrow. But it seems like any hope we have depends on being utterly, brutally consistent with the message.

  3. It’s really not all that complicated. Whatever ethical failure the individual players engaged in pales in comparison to the ethical failure of baseball’s leadership itself. Putting people in impossible moral situations and then clucking our tongues when they don’t all do what we perceive to be the right thing is asking for failure. Thus, punishing the players -especially in the haphazard manner we’re doing it now – is capricious and arbitrary. I see nothing constructive that comes of it. If steroids outrages us so much, we should punish the institution of baseball itself by withholding our money and if we’re not willing to do that then its time to shut the fuck up about it.

    We can exclude Barry Bonds from the Hall if we like, but that says more about our hypocrisy as fans than it does anything about him. Hall or no, he remains one of the greatest ball players ever. If you can point me to any instance where arbitrarily punishing some subset of a population doing something we didn’t like changed anything, I’d like to hear it.

    • You keep saying things that are so incredibly right, but then arriving at conclusions that don’t seem to follow naturally. I know a lot of people who agree with you, of course. As I’ll note tomorrow, though, the fact that one set of miscreants got away with something doesn’t mean you don’t punish the ones you caught. I’m ALL for going after baseball leadership on this – if anybody ever suggests that we induct Bud Selig into the Hall I’m going after them with a Louisville Slugger. But that doesn’t mean you don’t bring the hammer down on McGwire and Sosa and Bonds. People keep saying he was a HoFer before the roids. I haven’t seen compelling evidence of that. Would he have been, had he stayed on the path he was on? Well, if we project him out over the course of a normal career, probably. But you can’t do that and you shouldn’t. You judge him on his accomplishments when he was clean and you don’t give him credit for the tainted numbers, and at that point what you have is far from automatic.

      • To update a little. I’ve done some more snooping on BB’s numbers and I have been undervaluing his pre-roid accomplishments. His “clean years” would very likely have gotten him into the HoF.

        I still wouldn’t let him in, but in the interest of being as accurate as I can in my commenting I thought I should amend what i said earlier.

  4. Very apples and oranges post.

    Some questionable comparisons. For example, comparing PED’s to cocaine is foolish. I never heard anyone argue that cocaine improves performance. And while greenies might have had some performance-enhancing effect, I’d guess it was trivial compared to PEDs. More than likely it allowed players to go out and drink more the night before knowing they’d be able to do better the next day. (I don’t think the term papers I wrote on speed were any better than ones I would have written without it, but they allowed me to start writing two days after I should’ve.)

    You also have some questionable conclusions. Do I think PED’s improved Bonds and Rodriguez and Clemens significantly, 15 to 25%? Absolutely. Baseball’s most cherished records are mostly longevity records. PED’s not only improve performance on the day, but they allow players to get back sooner and have longer careers. Double whammy. In cycling, Greg Lemond has argued that Armstrong would’ve finished 30th in the Tour de France if everyone was clean. In track and field, look at athletes like Ben Johnson before and after PED’s. PED’s are an absolutely enormous advantage. I think we’d see the same thing in baseball, if for example, we actually knew when Clemens or Sosa started and stopped.

    Even your point about putting up records against diluted fields is only partially correct. While most sports historical records tend to be less impressive when scrutinized closely (some of Richard Petty’s wins were at county fairs, Wilt Chamberlain hung up a 100 point game before international players and zone defenses, Laver didnt have to face Eastern Europeans) arguing that Babe Ruth’s records are cheapened because he didn’t play against Negro players isn’t quite valid. I’ve discussed this with Sagarin and you have to correct for things like overall population size, etc.

    Look, things like the HOF are for entertainment value only. It’s inherently impossible to know how Jim Brown would have done against today’s bigger players, and if it were possible, you certainly wouldn’t turn the task of deciding over to a bunch of sportswriters, who are uniformly dumb and biased. If you want to say it should all be formula based as women’s golf is, I can buy that. But arguing that PED’s are just the corked bat of their day is specious.

    And by the way, Sammy Sosa used corked bats, too.

  5. “You keep saying things that are so incredibly right, but then arriving at conclusions that don’t seem to follow naturally” No conclusion from this is more “natural” or logical either way, it’s a normative stance.

    It’s my belief that the fans and the institutional leadership in baseball deserve as much or more of the blame for the steroid era as the players. Do I think that excluding deserving players from the Hall of Fame will deter future use of steroids? No. Would it make be feel high and righteous to exclude these players? No, not really and even if it did, that’s not a good enough reason. These weren’t isolated occurrences. At some point the cheating becomes to widespread and such an open secret that the real crime is that the powers that be (the owners) and money men (we, the fans) have allowed them/ourselves to become complicit in the crime or worse, the true cause.

    More to the point – and this is something we’ve been dancing around the whole time – I keep honestly give a fuck if the players take PEDs or not. In that regard I’m with Art. The only reason I come down against legalizing them is for the exact same reason I don’t think we should exclude players from the Hall – it puts people that would otherwise never consider taking them and puts them in a very difficult situation. I’d like to spare ballplayers that.

    But, any argument about integrity or the purity of the game? Please. The game was never pure and the players were always cheats and scoundrels playing in a system that was crooked one way or another. I don’t need purity. I don’t desire purity. I simply want people to be safe and enjoy the game. I truly hope baseball takes the steps to make the game safe for everyone who wants to play it. But as for the past? As for those players? Papering over the parts of history we don’t like is ignorant and pointless. Those players played and they played well. They deserve to be in the Hall.

  6. OK, this is at least approaching coherency. I feel like your editor here, helping you tease a logical post out of this mess.

    You’re arguing:

    1. The game has never been pure, and to believe otherwise is naive. The HOF is full of cheats already.
    2. Fans were complicit in the PED mess. Absolutely. They gave McGuire a standing ovation when he came back as Cards hitting coach. (And LaRussa, who ruled over two of the dirtiest clubhouses in history, went into the HOF on first ballot. Reinforcing your first point.) (And of course sportswriters knew as well. They’re dumb, but not blind. Brady Anderson? Really?)
    3. Therefore it is inappropriate to put a filter on the Hall to keep out cheats.

    That’s a real argument and possibly right. It’s all the other stuff you drug in about PED’s not being an advantage, etc, that confused us. If this is all you’re arguing, I agree. Shoot, as a White Sox fan, I’m still pissed at that tinhat Judge Landis for banning Shoeless Joe from baseball and sportswriters for going along with it. Heck yeah, let’s let the performance on the field do the deciding, not the whims of sportswriters.

    However, we do come back to Sam’s greater point, should they be legal? Art is right that all drugs should be legal, at least in theory. You’re right that in this case legalizing those drugs amounts to an economic strong arm forcing those who don’t want to take them to cheat. It’s a real tough one and I don’t have an answer.

  7. Steroid users caught cheating in MLB should never be in the Hall of Fame. It simply denigrates what players like Aaron and Mays did without the benefit of performance enhancing drugs. Bonds and Rodriguez would probably have , at a minimum, 100 to 200 less home runs. Manny Ramirez’s stats are worthless to me because we don’t know what he could have done without them. I wouldn’t put the cheaters in the same stats column, either. ///the cheaters would have their own.