Should Major League Baseball allow steroid users into the Hall of Fame? No, Says Sam Smith.

Part 2 of a series.

How can we honor athletes for cheating and then talk to our children about honesty and integrity with a straight face?

Matt Record’s post yesterday arguing that Major League Baseball should admit steroid users to the Hall of Fame gets a lot of things right. For instance: Ty Cobb? Sub-human PoS, no doubt about it. And Matt could have devoted volumes to the abject malpractice of the sports “journalism” industry during Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s pursuit of Roger Maris’s single season homerun record; they chose to ignore what was obviously happening under their noses because the steroid era was good for business, and the less pontificating we hear from them now the better.

And what about the ways in which MLB’s apartheid system kept some of the greatest stars of their time out of the league for decades? If anything, Matt doesn’t stomp hard enough here. Babe Ruth was a legendary hitter, but he never had to stand in against Satchel Paige, whom DiMaggio called the best pitcher he ever faced after playing against him in a 1936 exhibition.

Lefty Grove and Dizzy Dean were two of the premier pitchers of the 1930s, but neither had to deal with Josh Gibson.

The Baseball Hall of Fame maintains he hit “almost 800” homers in his 17-year career against Negro league and independent baseball opposition. His lifetime batting average, according to the Hall’s official data, was .359. It was reported that he won nine home run titles and four batting championships playing for the Crawfords and the Grays. It is also believed that Gibson hit a home run in a Negro league game at Yankee Stadium that struck two feet from the top of the wall circling the center field bleachers, about 580 feet (180 m) from home plate. Although it has never been conclusively proven, Chicago American Giants infielder Jack Marshall said Gibson slugged one over the third deck next to the left field bullpen in 1934 for the only fair ball hit out of Yankee Stadium. Washington Senators owner Clark Griffith once said that Gibson hit more home runs into Griffith Stadium’s distant left field bleachers than the entire American League.

What would these men, and so many others, have accomplished had they had the sense to be born white? We’ll never know, of course, but it’s safe to say that The Bambino stroked a few taters off pitchers who, if not for the color barrier, would have been in the minor leagues. The same goes for MLB pitching icons, who certainly benefited from hundreds, if not thousands, of at-bats against minor league hitters instead of the likes of Gibson.

Matt gets these things right. So right, in fact, that it’s tempting to swallow his whole argument. That, however, would be a mistake.

The problem is that his case for throwing open the doors of Cooperstown to cheaters is a misdirection that asks us to look away from the real issue. In short, we are being asked to accept that since a group of people perhaps doesn’t belong in the Hall, that we should simply abandon our standards.

First off, all those white players who never faced a black or Latino weren’t cheating. As bad as the system was, DiMaggio and Ruth and Gehrig and Shoeless Joe didn’t break any rules that others were adhering to. The fault was on the owners, not the players.

Matt’s point is a valid one in another argument, but it’s irrelevant and misleading in this one.

Second, even if we accepted his reasoning, there’s still something profoundly disturbing with the idea that since one group of people got away with something, everyone should. If we wanted to push this principle to its logical extreme, we might find ourselves concluding that we should legalize murder because people have gotten away with it in the past.

I’d argue the precise opposite. Instead of using historical crimes to justify present crimes, I’d be more comfortable using what we know now to go back and purge past miscreants. Of all the major sports halls in the US, baseball is the only one that has an integrity component. If you want to launch a move to kick Ty Cobb out of the place, call me.

The Steroid Generation was a special case, wasn’t it? Each day, every day, a generation of cynical athletes woke up every morning, wiped the sleep from their eyes, and pondered, with deliberation and malice aforethought, how they were going to break the rules that day. It was premeditated, it was first degree, and it was arguably as bad for the game as gambling. When you roid up, you are attempting to alter the outcome of a contest. You are actively intending to fix the game.

I’m not going to go into a rant about the virtues of team sports and how they can mold character. But I am going to assert that character matters. Honesty matters. The integrity of the result of a sporting contest matters.

And at the risk of marking myself as some kind of archaic geezer yelling at the kids to get off my damned lawn, I’m going to say this: sportsmanship matters. It is important that we as individuals and as a society have values, and if you don’t believe that our sporting culture is an integral component of our society – as both cause and effect – you’re not paying attention.

Matt is a smart, thoughtful guy, and I wouldn’t attribute to him for even a second anything but the most honorable intentions. Truth is, there are a lot of people whom I admire that agree with him on this.

That’s great. But I want to be there someday when they have to explain to their children that it’s okay to cheat if others do it. It’s okay to break the rules if there’s money involved.

I understand how good people can be driven to such a position in a society as corrupt as ours, where the dirtier you are the better you do and where moral and ethical fiber is for punks. Trust me, I get that. I work in goddamn marketing, okay? I’ve had talks with myself where I confronted the ways in which my integrity was putting me at a competitive disadvantage. If I were willing to play the corporate game the way Barry Bonds played baseball odds are my life would be very different.

There are days where I want to cheat so badly I can barely stand it. But when all is said and done, I have to hold myself accountable to the values I think matter in life.

I can’t divorce athletics from society in general. And as such, I can’t accept that its okay to accept, let alone honor, our sporting heroes when they do things we’d punish our children for doing.

8 replies »

  1. Again, the whole thing about a pitcher not having to face Josh Gibson or a batter not having to face Satchel Paige misses the point. That same white pitcher had to face the Babe more often because both leagues were much smaller then. If the Negro Leagues and the Major Leagues both had talent, then it’s more like a player being in the American League or National League before interleague play. No one makes light of Dimaggio’s hitting streak because he didn’t face Koufax.

    Picking the best and using those as your proof point is a goofy, emotional, and un-statistical argument. Think of the argument reversed: Babe could have hit a 1000 homers if he’d been playing in the Negro Leagues, which had teams that were semi-pros at best. Probably not, but Gibson’s stats are just as inflated by weak competition as the Babe’s. To make your argument work, you’d have to be convinced the average of the NL was better than the average of white baseball, and no one has ever said that.

    Assume though, your fragile logic notwithstanding, that your macropoint is right: We should discourage cheating. If so, why is it the job of sportswriters to do it? Why not other players? Owners? Fans? The legal system (as the Armstrong case has shown, the cheaters are committing fraud)? Why sportswriters?

    And if so, why do gambling and PEDs get you banned from baseball, but murder gets you a gig on national TV after your football career is over (Ray Lewis)? Do baseball sportswriters have a higher sense of morality than football writers?

    • Your observations on the Negro Leagues stuff would make for an interesting discussion all its own. But you’re doing the same thing in your comment that Matt did in his original post – you’re conflating that with the actual question, which is PED use. His argument, while full of merit, is nonetheless irrelevant, for the reasons I note, and the same goes for your response here. It’s an informed, thoughtful take on a completely separate discussion.

      Onto the remainder. Your position on the responsibility of sportswriters will vary depending on how you view a lot of things. If you think people who call themselves journalists should act like journalists, then you’re going to have problems with them. Even if you don’t hold them to that standard, you still have to admit that all the sanctimony now is a bit much coming from people who never uttered a damned word at the time. Some of my friends want to take the HoF vote away from any writer who was working during the roid era for just that reason.

      I think the main point that has to be made here is that a lot of people, Matt included, are treating this like it’s an either/or question. It wasn’t the athletes because it was the system. MLB turned a blind eye, writers turned a blind eye, fans turned a blind eye, so how can we punish the players?

      It isn’t either/or. It’s both/and. MLB was complicit. The writers were complicit. Fans got caught up in the excitement, I guess. Guilty, guilty, guilty. But this doesn’t mean the players didn’t do what they did, which was to engage in a premeditated campaign to alter games through cheating.

      I’m making a bit argument here about the integrity of the game and suggesting it has something to do with the integrity of the culture, and it does. The game and the society are intertwined. By the same token, the individual and the system are inextricably intertwined. In a system where cheating is tolerated (even celebrated) the individual is more likely to cheat. When the cheating individual attains wealth and status, it affects the tolerance levels of the system as a whole. It’s one big multi-faceted soup of causality and counter-causality.

      If you want to guarantee more cheating in the future, condone what McGwire, Sosa, Fat Bastard, Bonds, Palmeiro and the rest did. Then when your kids cheat, tell yourself that there’s no connection.

  2. I love baseball more than any other sport (even tennis, Sam) hands down. I believe, without proof all you debaters, this is a matter of faith, that baseball reflects the character of America more accurately than any of our other sports. Football and basketball, coming as they did from college backgrounds, were already so rife with cheating (they were doing movies about cheating in football in the 1920’s – Harold Lloyd stars in one, for God’s sake) that they came to us tainted. And the point shaving scandal in college basketball of the early 50’s simply opened the door to the piss poor sport we have now – overpaid pros and cheating college coaches playing a game that has more in common with pro wrestling than a sport.

    But I digress.

    The steroid era did a great harm to the American psyche – it tainted the sport that America BELIEVED was its “national pastime” – the sport that described us, as cricket describes the Brits or soccer the Italians or cycling the French. I think all the weeping/wailing/teeth gnashing we have seen – and will continue to see – over this painful ethical/moral/philosophical question reflects a realization that something has gone very wrong for us as a nation and that we don’t quite know how to respond. I don’t think it’s an accident of timing that the steroid era parallels the shift in the American values toward cynicism, selfishness, disdain for “the others” – and mockery of those who try to live in any sort of principled fashion without constantly looking for “the main chance” – mine for me, and if you didn’t get yours, fuck you. That attitude – which raises its ugly head with regularity in American thought – flies in the face of our idealization of ourselves as free, as good, as fair, as heroic. Do we try to live up to some ideal – or do we accept/condone/promulgate the “reality,” however unpleasant/confused/troubling?

    Arguing that steroid users should/should not be admitted to the HOF because Ty Cobb was a practicing racist in a more overtly (and therefore more honestly) racist age than ours or that Babe Ruth was a superstar player for the same reason or that Hack Wilson’s manager gave him a pint of whiskey to drink during games because he hit better drunk is misguided at best, spurious at worst. Arguing about the past always is. Bonds hit those homers. Clemens won those games. Over and done.

    All this mewling and puking about the athletes’ behavior hides the real issue – asking ourselves if what we allowed to happen to baseball is about baseball – or about us. However we decide this question, we are saying this is what we think about something that happened that we can’t go back and change. That, I believe, is our real dilemma.

    • You know how I follow pro wrestling, right? I do so because I grew up a redneck Southern kid who just loved it. But also, as an adult with a PhD from a program that focused heavily on cultural studies, I understand that it’s a genre that tells us a great deal about ourselves as a people.

      I mention this because I find myself thinking about what the industry was up to during the roid era, which peaked with the 1998 Mike McGwire/Sammy Sooser pursuit of Roger Maris. Perfect, because in1996 or so WCW signed Kevin Nash, Scott Hall and Hulk Hogan away from WWE and launched the nWo invasion – the era of the “cool heel.” The bad guy that the crowd loved more than the good guy, who was often seen as a goody two-shoes punk. Sort of like the devil in Medieval cycle plays, updated for an edgier time.

      WWF, which had dominated the industry, found itself on the ropes. The old Hulk Hogan take your vitamins and say your prayers brand of Saturday morning cartoon wrestling was toast, and Vince McMahon realized it. The WWF (now WWE) responded with the Attitude Era, the most explosively successful period in the history of “sports entertainment.” Stone Cold Steve Austin flipped the bird to the crowd. Degeneration X chopped their crotches and told the crowd to “suck it.” Edge was the Rated R Superstar. Golddust was an unnerving homoerotic perv. The Rock told you to know your role and shut your mouth.

      Bad guys were good guys and good guys were losers. Frankly, good guys still haven’t recovered, and we’re now seeing a generation of adults who grew up on the Attitude Era. When I think about all the smart people making the let ’em into the HoF argument, it’s remarkable just how many of them are of this generation. I don’t know that they imprinted on the nWo, but clearly they are the children of a certain gestalt.

  3. Jim

    Baseball was just as rife with cheating as any of those other sports. Gaylord’s in the HOF and his autobio is called Spitter.

    But I think you’re onto something. The reason baseball is different is because we have idealized it as a way of idealizing ourselves. We dont want to believe the reality of the game. Sportswriters created a mythic, pefect, sepia toned world for us and we loved it. Hollywood made baseball movies every bit as false and dishonest as Gone with the Wind was false about history. Everyone combined to create this great lie and we all held onto it like a winning lottery ticket.

    However much we want baseball to reflect the ideal of ourselves, what it really reflects is the reality of us. The overuse of drugs by athletes is an exact reflection on the overuse of drugs by every guy our age who uses viagra, rogaine and the patch. We depend on drugs to perform and so does baseball.

    Perhaps rather than being mad at the cheats, we should be mad at the sportswriters. For decades they lied to us, making baseball seem purer and more perfect than it is, hiding the cheating and seamy side. Now they decide to tell the truth? Fuck em. Let’s tell them to stop doing PED stories and keep on lying to us. That would solve everything.

    • As I said earlier, being mad at cheats and being mad at sportswriters is not an either/or, it’s a both/and. Ain’t no “instead of.” I’m down with my friends who want to strip those jackasses who ignored it at the time of their HoF votes, but that doesn’t mean I think we need to let Bonds in the Hall.

  4. Otherwise,

    That’s the dilemma, isn’t it? We vote to accept the reality of what went on – or we vote to reject that behavior and wipe out a generation of guys who would have been HOFers without ‘roids.

    I’m not mad at any of them – more deeply saddened by how accurately the baseball mess reflects the mess we are as a culture and a country.

    As for sportswriters, Sam, to paraphrase GB Shaw, the more I see of them the better I like dogs….

  5. i personally believe everyone should have, and a right to their own opinion. i am not a religious person, but my parents instilled in me high moral values. i do not lie, cheat, steal. i am not perfect i have made mistakes. i do try to do better all the time and i am getting better at it. the drug testing is a relatively new thing in sports. i will also state that i do not watch baseball, basketball, and football. i am more of an individual sports watcher not type of guy.

    i have no kids but believe if you do you should teach them right and wrong, it has nothing to do with religion. that should be a parents job to 18 years, and hopefully after that you have instilled in them a good character. after 18 it is their decisions right or wrong and they have to live with the results. murder is bad very very bad and this has nothing to do with what we are talking about.

    i reached 18 in the 60’s and did and have made bad choices in my life, but i always strive to do better. my mother was given speed by doctors for 20 or 30 years and it took it toll on her. it destroyed her life. cigarettes are one of the worst things you can do. i believe you have the right to make those decisions not the government. if you want to shoot heroin that is your decision, no one else’s. there are a lot of bad laws that should be changed. prohibition only makes things worse. we should have learned that by now. hell, now we have the government watching us 24/7.

    if you can play sports and do a better job then the next guy, that is all that matters. a soft drink use to contain cocaine. speed was readily given out by doctors from the 40’s to the 70’s, i think it was the 70’s, round that time my dad made the doctor my mom got her prescription from stop prescribing it to her. i was born addicted to speed, the doctors gave my mother, speed to control her weight while pregnant. do you think the old time players did not use drugs? that is good it they did not. if you can play better on downers then someone else, who’s business is it. if you are not controlling the out come of the game, it is no ones business if you gamble but your own.

    steroids! everyone is born with a both female and male hormones in there system some women have more male and some men have more female hormones. more male hormones will give someone male or female an advantage in sports. steroids increase the male hormone and helps build muscle and strength. i personally have never used them. is it right or wrong for a person to use drugs while he participates in sports? i do not believe it is. we have no way of providing info on any drugs used by older players. i would bet that some of the greats did. whether it was drinking a soft drink or just taking them. some drugs would interfere with how someone played. if they still played better, does that make it wrong for them to do it. i am sure there were some of those also back in the day that used all kinds of drugs. pot might or might not help, but there seems to be a lot of profession players that use it also. i believe it is a persons own choice as to what they do and their performance is what really matters. if someone is trying to improve on what mother nature gave them i do not see the problem. it is ridiculous to think that the old players did not use drugs, maybe not steroids i do not know how old that those supplements are, but i am sure they could have gotten similar results from certain plants. so who knows, maybe they used of steroids, it might go a long ways back. i think it is performance not what you do or the choices you make. are we going to do this to give our young role models. if you need to be a proper role model to play, that seems over the top. once 18 the kids will have to make their own decisions. hopefully they have been instilled with the proper moral character. i guess we can all agree to disagree.