The Baseball Writers of America
There had been months of speculation over whether the baseball writers would give former slugger Mark McGwire sufficient votes to get him into the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility. McGwire had almost 600 home runs in his career, and he shattered the single season record for homers in 1998 with 70. But his evasive answers during a 2005 Congressional hearing on steroid use in baseball made it obvious to all but the willfully blind that his records were set by using illegal and prohibited performance enhancing drugs, and debate raged over whether this disqualified him for enshrinement. On January 9, 2007, that question was answered emphatically by the 76.5% of baseball writers who left Big Mac off their ballots while electing un-tainted stars Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn. By attracting less than a third of the support he needed to enter the Hall, McGwire was been officially informed that his conduct was unacceptable, and that his prospects of ever making it to Cooperstown are dim at best.
The writers reached this conclusion, the ethically correct one, despite a barrage of pro-McGwire rationalizations and flawed arguments from former players and cynical or misguided sportswriters including some of the most respected in the game, such as ESPN’s Peter Gammons. Among their ethically ignorant excuses were that McGwire was just one of many steroid abusers (“Everybody does it!”); that he was innocent until “proven guilty,” erroneously applying a judicial standard to an ethics matter; that it would be unfair to punish McGwire while other players who also cheated may escape punishment (“If one person gets away with misconduct, everyone should.”); that McGwire only took advantage of management’s contrived ignorance of steroid use (“If a rule isn’t enforced, you can’t blame someone for breaking it.”); that holding McGwire accountable would set a precedent that would become increasingly controversial as other steroid using stars like Barry Bonds came up for consideration (“If you can’t enforce a standard perfectly, don’t enforce it all.”) and others. To their credit, the majority of voters applied the admission standards of the Hall, which includes not only how players performed on the field, but also their character, integrity, sportsmanship, and contributions to the game.
Mark McGwire did not have the character to be forthright about his steroid use when asked about it in Congress; he didn’t have the integrity to play by baseball’s rules. He didn’t have the sportsmanship to rely on his own ability rather than chemical enhancements; and he harmed the game by using forbidden methods to break one of baseball’s most hallowed records. As Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaunessey pointed out, pro football has no such character standards for its Hall of Fame. He might have added that this could be why so many NFL players are arrested, tried and often convicted of felonies every season with so little protest from the league. As for steroids, the NFL’s response to a player recently caught using them was to suspend him for four games and elect him to the Pro Bowl. Football’s Hall of Fame is for athletes, and felons and cheaters are welcome after all, O. J. Simpson is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But baseball’s Hall of Fame is for heroes.
This year it took some heroics by the voters to keep it that way.