Monthly Archives: January 2013

An Exercise in Rubbish Theory

A most valuable and elusive book.

A most valuable and elusive book.

Back when I was working on the dissertation that later became Cash for Your Trash, Marty Melosi suggested I deepen my theoretical understanding of waste and value by reading Michael Thompson’s 1979 book Rubbish Theory: The Creation and Destruction of Value. I checked a copy out of the library and was so taken by it that I spent a couple of hours in the department office making a copy of the entire book. (More on why I chose to do that in a minute.)

Thompson’s discussion of how the value of an object is dynamic, rising and falling depending upon context as it ages was perfectly suited to my study of scrap recycling markets. Most objects will decline in value, but perceived scarcity or other changes of valuation might cause prices to rise as the object ages. Sometimes we see this in antiques, vintage automobiles, and real estate pricing. Thompson’s work remains relevant, earning separate entries for the book and author in the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste.

The history of Rubbish Theory (the book) is also an object lesson in rubbish theory (the theory). Oxford University Press published the book in 1979, listing the hardback for £7.50. The book went out of print, presumably because the market was a handful of academics and libraries, and most who were likely to purchase the book had already done so while it was in print.

Most, but not all.  Over the years, used copies sold for many times the list price. By the time I became familiar with the work, it was well out of my price range. (And I looked. Scouring used book stores and online outlets earned me great bargains like Edwin Barringer’s The Story of Scrap for $3, and Charles Lipsett’s 100 Years of Recycling History for $5. No such luck, however, for Rubbish Theory.)

About a decade ago, once I started teaching Thompson to my undergraduates, I devised a little exercise in rubbish theory. Since the students were now experienced internet shoppers, I instructed them to go out and see who could find the lowest price for the book. Using Amazon, Abebooks, and other outlets, students found the price of the book varied with its condition, but uniformly, all copies were expensive.

Most years, students found the book for about $200. Occasionally, one would find a copy as cheap as $120. Those $120 copies were more frequent after the economic meltdown in 2008, but as late as 2010 (when I last taught my Waste seminar at Roosevelt University), the book tended to price in the $160-$170 range.  The value remained largely stable for years.

I’m teaching a new seminar (Production, Consumption, and Waste) at Pratt this semester. The first three weeks are devoted to theoretical understandings of waste, so we discussed rubbish theory (and Rubbish Theory) last week. Turning to Abebooks and Amazon, we found variations in the book’s price. $250. $181.  $128.  $103. (Hey, that’s pretty good.) $74. $48. $42.

$42? And listed in very good condition? The students were not yet out the door to lunch when I placed my order.

At long last, my own copy!

At long last, my own copy!

Rubbish Theory arrived in the mail this week. My copy, a hardback lacking a dust jacket, had been remaindered from an academic library. Despite the low price, it is in excellent condition – the binding is intact, and the pages are neither torn nor (to any serious extent) marked up. For whatever reason, the perceived value of the book has declined to the point that I can finally own a copy without feeling like I chose the book over paying for food for the week.

My long exercise in the dynamic value of objects has a happy ending. I no longer need to rely on the dog-eared copies I made, and I can add a chapter to the story I tell students when we do this exercise. Perhaps Oxford University Press can add another chapter to the story by reprinting the book after 34 years. Might that reduce the value of my copy (more copies in print) or increase it (the relative scarcity of a first edition at a time with heightened interest in the book)?

Time, as Thompson points out, may tell.

Veterans of the Memphis Strike March for Sanitation Workers’ Rights in Atlanta 45 Years Later

DeKalbsanitationmarch2013On the observation of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, I posted about the significance of the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. Today comes word that two of the men who marched for the right to organize 45 years ago, Alvin Turner and Baxter Leach, are now marching with Atlanta-area sanitation workers who are fighting for their right to organize.

DeKalb sanitation workers want better pay and working conditions. Turner and Leach says it’s the same thing they fought for more than 40 years ago.

“This brings back the memories that happened in 1968. The same thing is happening now that happened then,” Turner said.

“It just fills my heart to see how they carry on Martin Luther King’s dream…They made me almost cry,” said Leach.

DeKalb sanitation workers say they have not received a raise in more than four years. The workers have been meeting with the county commission about recognizing their newly formed union.

In Going Down Jericho Road, Michael Honey discusses the legacy of the Memphis strike, including some of the limitations placed on public-sector unions in the years after the Memphis workers won their right to organize. The DeKalb County action is a reminder that the struggles of history continue today.

President Obama Argues for More Sustainable Society in Inaugural Address

obama-inauguration-dais-cropped-proto-custom_28President Obama delivered his second and final inaugural address on the day the nation observed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday.  Fittingly, this address advocated the respect and protection of civil rights, as well as the respect and protection of the environment.  If we define sustainability as the three Es of the environment, economy, and equity, this speech was the most explicitly sustainable speech any American president has delivered.

The full transcript is online.  Here are a few choice passages.

America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive; diversity and openness; an endless capacity for risk and a gift for reinvention. My fellow Americans, we are made for this moment, and we will seize it – so long as we seize it together.

For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it. We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class. We know that America thrives when every person can find independence and pride in their work; when the wages of honest labor liberate families from the brink of hardship. We are true to our creed when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American, she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.


We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries – we must claim its promise. That’s how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure – our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.


We, the people, declare today that the most evident of truths – that all of us are created equal – is the star that guides us still; just as it guided our forebears through Seneca Falls, and Selma, and Stonewall; just as it guided all those men and women, sung and unsung, who left footprints along this great Mall, to hear a preacher say that we cannot walk alone; to hear a King proclaim that our individual freedom is inextricably bound to the freedom of every soul on Earth.

It is now our generation’s task to carry on what those pioneers began. For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well. Our journey is not complete until no citizen is forced to wait for hours to exercise the right to vote. Our journey is not complete until we find a better way to welcome the striving, hopeful immigrants who still see America as a land of opportunity; until bright young students and engineers are enlisted in our workforce rather than expelled from our country. Our journey is not complete until all our children, from the streets of Detroit to the hills of Appalachia to the quiet lanes of Newtown, know that they are cared for, and cherished, and always safe from harm.

Today Ta-Nehisi Coates observed that the president’s rhetoric will now go down as part of the historical record. “There was a time when merely stating the ideas Obama put forth would have gotten you killed….Obama’s speech is different. To some extent it exposes people to new ideas. But to a greater extent, perhaps, it shows how movements which only a few years ago were thought to be on the run have, in at least one major party, carried the day. This is not a small thing.”

Many challenges lay ahead in ensuring the laws of the United States of America afford the protections outlined in today’s speech. But the attention to social equity, more comprehensive environmental protections and a more just economy lay out a vision for sustainability from Barack Obama at the midway point of his presidency.

Observing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Birthday: All Labor Has Dignity

MLKMarch_on_WashingtonToday is the observed holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. It is also the day celebrating the second inauguration of President Barack Obama. Much has been — and will be — said about an African-American reaching the highest job in the land as a fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream; I want to observe this day with a reminder of Dr. King’s quest to ensure that all workers’ dignity be respected.  (Including a quote from our current president.)  This post is adapted from a series I wrote in 2008 on the fortieth anniversary of the Memphis strike.

The Memphis sanitation workers strike is remembered most frequently as part of the series of events that led to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in that city in April 1968. The site of that national tragedy, the Lorraine Motel, is now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum. Yet while Dr. King’s death is an understandably dominant aspect to the historical memory of the Memphis strike, historians, labor, and at least one national politician also focus, as Michael Honey’s magnificent book Going Down Jericho Road shows, on why the strike happened, and on its effects on labor, race, and the environment in the United States.

The event that triggered the strike took place on February 1, 1968. Two workers, Echol Cole and Robert Walker, were on a garbage truck. By “on” I mean they were riding on the back of the truck as was procedure in Memphis’s Department of Public Works. In a pouring rain, the two men tried to take cover as best they could by climbing onto a perch between a hydraulic ram used to compact the garbage and the inner wall of the truck. Somewhere along the drive, the ram activated, crushing the two men to death. One had tried to escape, but the mechanism caught his raincoat and pulled him back to his death.

The deaths angered union organizer T.O. Jones, who called them “a disgrace and a sin.” In the days ahead, workers, local clergy such as James Lawson, and union activists mobilized to demand safer work conditions, better pay, and the right of union representation. When Echol Cole and Robert Walker died, a movement was born.

In reality, though, those men’s deaths merely were the culmination of decades of subjugation, made worse by recent worsening of treatment by the mayor’s office. The subjugation was not simply of working people, but of African Americans. In Memphis, African Americans were the sanitation department — more than 1,300 black workers, some who grew up in the city, others who had left the crushing poverty of the cotton fields in Mississippi, picked up the garbage and yard wastes of all Memphians.

Effective sanitation services are vital to all cities, but the sanitation department in Memphis has a special place in that city’s history. Memphis, a hot humid city, suffered from epidemic diseases as it grew in the mid-nineteenth century. Yellow fever almost wiped the city off the map in the 1870s; after thousands died, more fled, and almost every person who stayed became infected in 1878, the state of Tennessee repealed the city’s charter. The creation of the Sanitation Department under Col. George Waring in order to build modern sewers, pick up garbage, keep the streets clean and reduce the presence of infectious materials in the community as much as possible literally saved Memphis in the 1880s. (Waring later revolutionized New York City’s streets and sanitation department. His work protected hundreds of thousands of lives and established the model of modern municipal sanitation in the United States that we enjoy today, but that is a story for another time.)

Though the work was vital to the city’s well-being, it was dangerous, brutal, and ill-paying. The workers were not respected by their employers, or by many of the residents and businesses who benefited from waste removal. Aside from the hazards the trucks posed, sanitation workers had to handle all sorts of materials from tree limbs to broken glass to biological wastes that could infect, poison, or injure them. In the Memphis summers, this work was conducted under temperatures regularly exceeding 90 degrees often without shade or breaks to get water. Winter conditions were such that the risk Cole and Walker took in that truck seems understandable in context. Sanitation workers could be maimed at any time, and crippling injuries were common. Once disabled on the job, the worker had little recourse for compensation and was vulnerable to a life of poverty.

This was work white people in Memphis considered beneath them. The city found this out the hard way when it tried to recruit whites to fill the jobs during the strike. In Memphis, the necessary, vital work of keeping the neighborhoods clean was not respected by the government, nor by most of the citizens. It was dirty work, done by inferiors as far out of sight and out of mind as possible. Even as garbage piled up, the city (and in particular the staunch anti-union Mayor Henry Loeb) demeaned the workers as infantile and disrespectful, treatment that inspired the proud, defiant strike slogan: I AM A MAN!


memphisstrikeIt needed to be shouted, it needed to be repeated on hundreds of tongues and hundreds of signs. It needed to be said over and over, because it was believed by too few. Too many in February of 1968 took for granted and demeaned the people who made their lives better. As all residents of Memphis quickly learned, the work was necessary to their quality of life, and tensions rapidly escalated just days into the standoff.

The strike quickly became a national focal point for labor activism and civil rights. Memphis’s churches and local NAACP chapter saw it as the launching point to address the systemic ills of segregation plaguing the city. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), caught by surprise by the sudden walkout, saw it as an opportunity to unionize municipal workers in a city that had resisted unionization. Dr. King saw the strike as an ideal forum for his Poor People’s Campaign, as he had in recent months pushed the notion of economic opportunity as crucial to the realization of civil rights now that voting rights had received federal protection.

The timeline of events in the strike that lasted from February to April is too rich to recount in a diary: AFSCME has a brief chronology online, but a true appreciation of the diverse interests and activists brought together in Memphis requires a longer read. I recommend (again) reading Michael Honey’s Going Down Jericho Road to gain an appreciation of why thousands of people in Memphis and nationwide mobilized as a result of the strike. It is as engrossing and moving as any American history book I have read in the past two years, and Honey articulates why so many people were spurred to take action despite the risks.

The labor action that resulted faced many problems. The local media, sympathetic to to the mayor, branded the strikers as shiftless and Communist. The city’s refusal to negotiate sparked a consumer boycott of Memphis businesses, and as tensions escalated, so did the city’s willingness to suppress the movement with violence. A march on March 28 was broken up with violence and tear gas, leading to the death of a 16-year-old boy named Larry Payne at the hands of the police. Dr. King’s reputation suffered because of this march with critics mocking his calls for nonviolent activism as hollow. Picketing continued after the march was broken up, but under conditions that belied America’s reputation as a free society. The city’s stance against the strike was literally militant, forcing picketers to march in single file in the wake of overwhelming security.
Memphis strike 2

Dr. King regrouped to speak at one more rally in early April, delivering the “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech that serves as the culmination of his life’s work. The speech should be read (or better yet, heard) unabridged to appreciate Dr. King’s call to economic and nonviolent action, but a brief quote makes clear he understood the stakes in the charged atmosphere of Memphis:

The issue is injustice. The issue is the refusal of Memphis to be fair and honest in its dealings with its public servants, who happen to be sanitation workers. Now, we’ve got to keep attention on that. That’s always the problem with a little violence. You know what happened the other day, and the press dealt only with the window-breaking. I read the articles. They very seldom got around to mentioning the fact that one thousand, three hundred sanitation workers were on strike, and that Memphis is not being fair to them, and that Mayor Loeb is in dire need of a doctor. They didn’t get around to that….

Now, let me say as I move to my conclusion that we’ve got to give ourselves to this struggle until the end. Nothing would be more tragic than to stop at this point, in Memphis. We’ve got to see it through. And when we have our march, you need to be there. Be concerned about your brother. You may not be on strike. But either we go up together, or we go down together….

And they were telling me, now it doesn’t matter now. It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us, the pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.”

And then I got to Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

We know what happened the next day. When Americans hear the words “MLK” and “Memphis” together, minds inevitably turn to the details of Dr. King’s death. Too often, though, we forget what Dr. King was doing in Memphis (and that his death effectively ended the strike as the city recognized the union’s right to exist in the wake of the overwhelming grief and rage that gripped the nation). We forget how the events of early 1968 reflected his concerns not just at the end of his life, but how they represent what he had fought to accomplish in the previous decade and what challenges remained for Americans that April.

Today, the Memphis strike is part of the lexicon of American politics. AFSCME proudly places the strike in a central place in the union’s history, as its website indicates. The union’s depiction of this part of its history puts workers in the forefront of the history of the civil rights movement, and civil rights activists in the forefront of the labor movement. As David Roediger has discussed, such a relationship was not always possible in American history, but it is part of the dream Dr. King explicitly hoped for in the weeks before his death.

The union is not alone in depicting the Memphis strike as a crucial uniting of the labor movement and the civil rights movement. When speaking to the AFSCME National Convention in August 2006, Senator Barack Obama invoked memories of the strike in his vision of 21st-century activism:

In the middle of the last century, on the restless streets of Memphis, it was a group of AFSCME sanitation workers who took up this charge. For years they had served their city without complaint, picking up other people’s trash for little pay and even less respect. Passers-by would call them “walking buzzards,” and in the segregated South, most were forced to use separate drinking fountains and bathrooms.

But as the civil rights movement gained steam and they watched the marches and saw the boycotts and heard about the passage of voting rights, the workers in Memphis decided that they’d had enough, and in 1968, over 1,000 went on strike.

Their demands were simple. Recognition of their union. The right to bargain. A few cents more an hour.

But the opposition was fierce. Their vigils were met with handcuffs. Their protests turned back with mace. One march was interrupted by police gunfire and tear gas, and when the smoke cleared, 280 had been arrested, 60 were wounded, and one 16-year old boy lay dead.

And still, the city would not give in.

Now, the workers could have gone home, or they could’ve gone back to work, or they could’ve waited for someone else to help them, but they didn’t. They kept marching. They drew ministers and high school students and civil rights activists to their cause, and at the beginning of the third straight month, Dr. King himself came down to Memphis.

At this point, the story of the sanitation workers merges with the larger saga of the Civil Rights Movement. On April 3rd, we know that King gave his “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” sermon. On April 4th, he was shot and killed by James Earl Ray as he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. And on April 8th, a day before he was buried, his wife Coretta led the sanitation workers on one final march through the city of Memphis – a march that would culminate in the union contract that the workers had sought for so long.

This is the legacy you inherit today. It’s a legacy of courage, a legacy of action, a legacy of achieving the greatest triumphs amidst the greatest odds. It’s a story as American as any – that at the edge of despair, in the shadow of hopelessness, ordinary people make the extraordinary decision that if we stand together, we rise together.

What those workers made real in Memphis – and what we have to make real today – is the idea that in this country, we value the labor of every American. That we’re willing to respect that labor and reward it with a few basic guarantees – wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.

Today, forty-five years after the strike, its imagery has been embraced by our president. Though demonized by the municipal government in Memphis, and investigated by the police and FBI, the power of the movement in the streets has influenced those seeking power in the halls of Washington.

Despite AFSCME’s efforts and this rhetoric, much work remains to ensure “wages that can raise a family, health care if we get sick, a retirement that’s dignified, working conditions that are safe.” Today, people of color continue to make up a disproportionate amount of the labor force handling Americans’ waste. Though most communities do not have equipment as dangerous as the truck that killed, the work remains fettered with hazards. Too often we keep the people who do this important work out of sight and out of mind. It is altogether too common that the waste facilities we use taxpayer money to build and manage, whether they are garbage incinerators, sanitary landfills, hazardous waste dumps, or recycling sorting facilities, are placed in communities of color where not only the workers who handle the hazards of disposal are affected, but the sounds, smells, and toxins that may be released affect neighboring residents. Though the strike in Memphis addressed several concerns, many of the injustices that led to the strike are common aspects of the American landscape, years after all of the strikers have retired, and many — including T.O. Jones, who died too young in 1981 — have passed away.

The injustices are still in place, but one change over the past forty-five years is a recognition of how widespread those injustices are. Fourteen years after Memphis, an African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina decided it would not stand for a PCB dump to be placed next to their homes and they laid down on the road in front of bulldozers to prevent the digging. These Americans made history as the first people in the United States to be arrested preventing the construction of a dump.

The residents of Afton, North Carolina failed to prevent the dump’s siting, but in the months and years that followed, the environmental justice movement emerged to fight back against the decades of discrimination that made shunting the dirty work of garbage collection to blacks “normal” in Memphis. As I argued when we observed Dr. King’s birthday in January, the rhetoric and tactics used in the Memphis strike influenced the activism of the environmental justice movement. Though that movement has evolved and grown over the past twenty-five years, it owes debts to the sanitation workers who decided that enough was enough in February of 1968.

Today, let us remember that forty-five years ago, several hundred such people rose up for respect, for dignity, and for a more just society. Let us remember the sacrifices of Dr. King, yes, but also of Echol Cole, of Robert Walker, of Larry Payne. Let us remember the courage and resolve of T.O. Jones and every preacher, every union member, every activist, and every person who worked to bring a measure of justice to Memphis forty-five years ago. Let us remember, and let us try to use their example to make our own communities more just today and in the days ahead.

Update on Spring Sustainability Courses

The first week of Spring semester is ending at the Pratt Institute, and there are still a few seats available in one of my sustainability courses.  While SS 490-03 Power, Pollution, and Profit and SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste  have reached their enrollment capacity, SUST 201P The Sustainable Core  still, as of Thursday evening, has four seats available.  The next meeting of SUST 201P is next Wednesday, so there’s time to catch up on the readings if you wish to add the course in Week 2.

If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about SUST 201P, please feel free to contact me at czimring (at) pratt (dot) edu.

No Such Thing as Clean: Purity and Danger in the Baseball Hall of Fame

No one will walk into Cooperstown and be honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. Players among the career leaders in home runs and victories were eligible for induction, but no one will be welcomed into the Hall this year.

Headline on ESPN's MLB page the day before Hall of Fame voting was announced.

Headline on ESPN’s MLB page the day before Hall of Fame voting was announced.

The proffered reason for the lack of inductees this year was cheating. In an article headlined “Keep It Clean,” ESPN reporter Wallace Matthews (one of the members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America who determine the inductees) opined that steroid users, as cheaters, were not worthy of selection, and his voting choices eliminated any players suspected of using steroids. Other writers, either wary of sorting the evidence of who used steroids and who did not, or disgusted by the idea of voting in any player active in an era affected so much by steroid users, submitted blank ballots. Since a player requires 75% of all ballots cast to gain induction, a blank ballot counts against all. Denial of induction to any player from the “steroid era” thus ensures the Hall is clean.

This stance is interesting for several reasons. Baseball has kept cheaters out of the Hall in the past. Although Joe Jackson’s hitting performance as an American League outfielder measures up to several of his contemporary early twentieth century players who are in the Hall, his ban in 1920 for involvement with gamblers in the fixing of the 1919 World Series meant he was never seriously considered for induction. More recently, all-time hit leader Pete Rose was banned for his association with gambling, a ban that has prevented him from ever being eligible for consideration. A clear precedent exists for keeping cheaters out.

Not all cheaters, but some cheaters. Steroids are now considered by MLB as Performance Enhancing Drugs (PEDs), a wide variety of substances banned because they are considered to provide their users unfair advantages against clean opponents. Some of these substances are based upon hormones made in the human body, others are synthetic compounds that affect metabolism. All are perceived to provide short-or long-term affects on the human body that significantly alter athletic performance in ways deemed to be unnatural or unfair. This model is used in Olympic competition and medal winners are frequently stripped of their awards after failing drug tests. Similar sanctions were recently levied against cyclist Lance Armstrong years after his seven Tour de France championships.

If an anti-PED stance is common in the Olympics and cycling, professional baseball is unique among American team sports in considering PED use as a disqualification in Hall of Fame voting. Despite the growth in size, speed, and musculature (as well as performance statistics) in the NFL, NBA, college football, and college basketball over the past quarter century, little concern over PED use affects those sports’ Hall of Fame inductions. The NFL now prohibits players from being selected to the Pro Bowl in the same year when the player tests positive for steroids, but to date football voters have not considered PED use as a mark against prospective Hall of Fame candidates. Inducted members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame likely include men who have used steroids. The same is true of the College Football Hall of Fame, Basketball Hall of Fame, and Hockey Hall of Fame.

Baseball’s stance on PED use in the twenty-first century runs counter to its taboos and norms in the twentieth century. Joe Jackson and Pete Rose are outside the Hall due to gambling (though gambling and association with gamblers did not keep legends such as Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker out of the Hall despite being forced to resign their jobs as managers due to gambling allegations in 1926). The scandal that ended Jackson’s career was the revelation that members of the 1919 Chicago White Sox took money from gambling interests and may have deliberately lost the World Series. Deliberately losing threatened public interest in baseball as a competition, and the scandal’s results included the creation of a new position (commissioner) to police the game and a rule banning association with gamblers that was posted, Ten Commandments-style, in every major-league clubhouse. If throwing games defiled the sport, the ban on gambling was an attempt to cleanse baseball of its sins.

Until the current era, the Original Sin of gambling has been the taboo disqualifying prospective Hall of Fame members. Players were not been denied induction for forms of cheating which gave them a better chance to win games. Although use of the spitball was banned before he was born, Gaylord Perry flaunted his association with the pitch, even writing an autobiography titled Me and the Spitter during his career. Gaylord Perry is lauded as a 300-game winner and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1991. Nor was PED use in baseball novel in the 1990s. Following widespread use of amphetamines in the US military during World War II and the Korean War, these stimulants made their way into baseball clubhouses, assisting performance in an era when westward expansion and (after 1960) longer seasons made greater demands on players’ endurance. Players from this “golden era,” including Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, and the acclaimed fighter pilot Ted Williams, are characterized as the greatest of players despite playing in a time rife with illegal amphetamine use (widely credited with improving concentration and endurance). In the 40 years after World War II, career records in home runs and stolen bases were broken by men who easily won enshrinement in the Hall. Amphetamine use was considered widespread throughout the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, and sanctions for amphetamine use by active players are the same as the sanctions against steroid users.

The same cannot be said about the BWAA’s treatment of retired players from the era of widespread amphetamine use. Little in the way of suspicion or sanction ever mentions amphetamines, and association with an “amphetamine era” does not taint the legacies of such Hall of Famers as Joe Morgan, Nolan Ryan, Reggie Jackson, or George Brett. The case against all-time hit king Pete Rose has everything to do with his association with gambling and nothing to do with the greenies that fueled Charlie Hustle’s play into his mid-40s. Perhaps steroids in football and amphetamines in baseball are perceived as enhancements rather than blights on their respective games, and thus not worthy of historical sanction. Steroids in baseball, conversely, are now perceived by journalists as distinctively corrupting that sport over the past twenty years.

A Hall without inductees in 2013 is considered a clean Hall because voters attached stigma to any and all players associated with the steroid era. Cleanliness (as Mary Douglas emphasized in 1966’s Purity and Danger) is about power, about fear, and about establishing norms. The history of the baseball Hall of Fame, with its spitballers and speed-freaks reminds us that true cleanliness is illusory. In the biological realm, we know this to be true. Our obsession with disinfectants result in superbugs; our need to constantly remove waste from our bodies and homes puts tons of excrement and synthetic garbage in our waterways and landfills. Absolute purity is impossible to reach, there is no such thing as clean. Even if defining purity in the Hall of Fame is simply a lack of PEDs, it is hard to argue that the current hall is not already populated by players who have augmented their bodies with these substances.

Not that the writers’ reaction has much to do with the defiling of players’ bodies. While public service announcements broadcast during baseball games warn young athletes of the health hazards of steroid use, voters do not much express much worry over whether or not Barry Bonds will die of heart disease or cancer related to steroid use. Nor do voters state concerns over amphetamine use (which has had serious health consequences for far more Americans than steroid use does). Purity of the players’ bodies is less a concern than purity over the official record of the game’s statistics. It is no accident that the man who purchased Bonds’s record-breaking 756th career home run ball branded a giant asterisk onto it. The asterisk attempted to explain, even delegitimize, a number of potentially great historical significance. (In a sport, it seems, where such numbers have more emotional resonance than do numbers demarcating performance in football, basketball, and hockey, if we can judge by the rhetoric of journalists covering these sports.) To say that the experience of this historical moment is messier than a number by itself might reveal.

History can serve as a cleanser. No living men will enter the Hall if Fame this summer, but three plaques will be added to its walls. The Veterans Committee voted to admit the long-dead umpire Hank O’Day, nineteenth-century player Deacon White, and Col. Jacob Ruppert, who owned the Yankees back when Babe Ruth made a mockery of the existing record books. None of these men will make a speech, and nothing these men can do now will receive approbation, absent the remote chances their corpses are exhumed to test for illicit substances. Dead men, it is believed, tell no lies. These inductions of men who lived and died before World War II seem safe, even if the game was hardly pure in their time.  Their legacies somehow gained in stature in 2012 through no new work of their own, but because their past contributions were viewed through a new lens.

Perhaps the players passed over in the voting this year will receive different consideration in the future. Perhaps writers distanced from the speculative frenzy of who doped and who did not will grow to see the inflated power totals of the past two decades as similar to the decade of widespread gambling, or the inflated offensive statistics of the 1930s.  Or perhaps they will consider the effects of PEDs in this particular era singularly tainting to the sport (despite increased attendance at major league parks during the period).  However the voting develops over the next several years as several players with historic achievements gain consideration by a now-vigilant electorate, this is an historic time to witness how notions of purity are shaping the way baseball history is told.