The Baseball Hall of Fame shapes the narrative of baseball history.
Crucially, while the Hall shapes baseball’s history, its decisions of induction and rejection do not create it. A significant portion of the reaction from the sabermetric and thoughtful corners of the baseball world against the lack of admissions in the Hall’s most recent vote seems to be concerned that the Baseball Writers Association of America is denying the existence of 20 years of baseball history.
Many of the writers who cast blank ballots, left off unindicted but muscle-bound stars, and allowed subjective moral codes to rule their vote are undoubtedly trying to erase the so-called “Steroid Era” from the game’s history. But what they have failed to realize is that by intentionally failing to admit these accomplished men they are not erasing them from history, they are merely making their own poorly reasoned arguments the next chapter in each player’s narrative.
The Hall of Fame vote does not merely serve as a stamp of approval on a player’s career, mainly because the Hall, like all mediums of sorting and recording history, is part of the history that it attempts to document. How historical events are discussed in museum exhibits, scholarly papers, and university courses reflects not just the importance of the events or people at issue, but also the biases and concerns of the society discussing them.
Discussions of slavery in textbooks written in the early 20th century by southern authors tell modern historians a great deal not only about how certain people at that time felt about a polarizing issue, but also offer insight into the society that produced those thought processes. I believe that the argument over Performance Enhancing Drug (PED) use by the baseball intelligentsia falls within the same framework. (Yes I just compared slavery to steroids). As much as votes against Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Jeff Bagwell, and Mike Piazza attempt to minimize their statistical accomplishments and gloss over their historical impact on the game, they simultaneously provide a great deal of insight into the moral structure of the majority of baseball writers, and by extension, baseball itself.
The travesty of a vote this afternoon has not erased the history of the steroid era, it has added to it: the moralizing, apologizing, and finger-pointing of our present generation will become part of the narrative of baseball. If Bonds and Clemens are denied entry to the Hall after fifteen years on the ballot, as McGwire and Sosa almost certainly will, their accomplishments will no more be lost to history as those of Shoeless Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, Dick Allen, Lou Whitacker, Keith Hernandez and the countless other players who for one reason or another failed the Hall’s standards.
The Hall’s decision on each player adds to his history and shapes the narrative of each man’s career. Even the (arguably) worst of these decisions- Jackson’s ban, has only made the story of the Black Sox of 1919 all the more memorable.
The anti-PED votes cast today will not erase the last two decades of history, but they will add to it, and I sincerely believe that forty years from now the votes of the Baseball Writers Association of America today will seem precisely as inexplicable as the decision of dozens of voters forty years ago to leave Jackie Robinson off their ballots.