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.

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