Say It Ain’t So, Joe: Character Clause May Bar Any Candidate from Election to Baseball Hall of Fame This Year

Say It Ain’t So, Joe: Character Clause May Bar Any Candidate from Election to Baseball Hall of Fame This Year 1

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

The WSJ reports today that the membership of baseball’s Hall of Fame has shrunk over the last year in Baseball’s Hall of Fame Vote Becomes a Test of ‘Character Clause’, with seven members dying in 2020 and three more thus far in 2021.

The results of the latest balloting by Baseball Writers’ Association of America will be announced this week. Yet few, if any, retired baseball players are expected to make the cut, not because they lack the career performance – as reflected in statistics – that would have in the past led to their induction into the Hall of Fame. Yet being welcomed into that elite company is way tougher than making it into the show – as tough as that task is. Players need to secure a 75% majority  of ballots cast to get elected. And each candidate has ten chances to be inducted.

Allow me a short digression, one of my favorite scenes, from a favourite movie:

But this post isn’t about making it to the show, but getting into the Hall of Fame.

So, what’s the hurdle? What’s keeping the best of those who made it to the show and compiled Hall of Fame statistics, from their appointment in Cooperstown?

Over to the WSJ:

The reason: The best candidates are failing the Hall’s character test, signaling a new era in how voters treat the most nebulous—and controversial—barrier to entry for baseball’s highest honor.

Eligible members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America receive Hall-of-Fame ballots every autumn instructing them to choose candidates not only based on their performance on the field, but also on their integrity, sportsmanship and character. Some variation of those words have been part of the criteria for 75 years and have caused confusion and fierce debate ever since.

This year has put the meaning of the “character clause” to the ultimate test. Virtually all of the players on the ballot with the most obvious Hall-worthy statistics have something on their résumés that, depending on one’s interpretation of the character clause, could disqualify them from induction into Cooperstown.

When vote totals are unveiled Tuesday, the result could well be that no players reach the necessary 75% for enshrinement. That would be just the fourth time since 1960 that the BBWAA failed to vote anybody into the Hall.

Now, regular readers may be aware that my I’m a third-generation New York Yankee fan. One reason I think that my grandfather Scofield stayed sharp until he passed away one month shy of his 95th birthday is that he obsessively studied baseball statistics. He was happy to share details of how those statistics intersected with his life to anyone who seemed interested. Not only had he seen Babe Ruth play – a highlight of that life that was as significant to him as being on a ship that sank and passing through the Panama Canal. But he could – and did – tell you just how many times he’d seen the Babe play.  He  also knew how many home runs he saw Babe hit. Not to mention the number of times that he saw the Babe hit a home run, followed by Lou Gehrig smacking one out of the park as well. And he would also tell you how many times that had occurred overall in their careers. As well as lots of facts and figures about Yankee baseball.

I don’t think Grandpa would be a big fan of something as unquantifiable as a character test.

What Is Character Anyway?

I suppose it all turns on what one looks at for assessing the character clause.  If it’s interpreted to include things that affect the integrity of the game of baseball- by that, I mean the legitimacy of results – I guess at least in theory I’d support a character test. But I would still be sceptical about letting sportswriters assess character, retrospectively, based on vague criteria.

Let’s look at two character issues that potentially distort the outcome of a baseball game. The first would be for a player to take a payoff to affect results. The low point in that regard was the 1919 World Series, the infamous Black Sox scandal. If you don’t know the story, you could do worse than view the film Eight Man Out. But the bottom line is that after that scandal, baseball installed a tough commissioner, Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, banned the accused players from further professional play  – even though they had been acquitted by a jury IIRC of losing the World Series deliberately. The bottom line is that ‘throwing” fixtures is not a problem in the modern game – or at least we don’t think it is.

The second type of integrity problem is a much more tangible issue and rumours and concerns about it are thwarting the efforts of certain standout talents – Barry Bonds, who holds baseball’s home run record, Roger Clemens, known for his pitching prowess and winning a record seven Cy Young awards. On a statistical basis alone, each of these two would have been elected to the Hall on his first try.

What’s the hold-up?. Let me turn to the WSJ again:

One group of players’ extraordinary accomplishments have been shrouded in accusations that they used performance-enhancing drugs during their careers, an issue that has polarized voters for years. Leading this class are Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. Bonds has hit more home runs than anybody in major-league history. Clemens won a record seven Cy Young awards. The specter of PEDs has kept them out, with enough voters concluding that their alleged use violates the character clause.

Bonds and Clemens are in their ninth year on the ballot, meaning they have just one more year of eligibility left. Their vote total has risen steadily, from the mid-30% range in 2013 to just over 60% last year. But [Ryan Thibodaux, whom the WSJ describes as an Oakland Athletics fan who tracks publicly available ballots] said that judging from the available data, voters’ opinions on how to handle PEDs is largely “set in stone,” and there’s no indication that there are any more minds to change. Other sluggers who have been linked to PEDs—like Manny Ramírez, Gary Sheffield and Sammy Sosa—have also failed to generate much support.

I really don’t know where I come out on this. I mean, it sure doesn’t seem fair that some players benefitted from using PEDs, to the detriment of of others who didn’t. But I’m not sure barring the doors to the Hall of Fame, retrospectively, after a player has finished his career, is the way to tackle  the issue either. It was clear to anyone who was watching that baseball had a big steroids problem. You only had to look at how  the bodies of players had changed to see that. And the sudden surge in crowd pleasing hime runs, especially in 1998,  when Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa vied  to break the on-year home run record – whether you think that was held by Babe Ruth (60) or Roger Maris (61, with an asterisk). The changes in bodies and the impact they had on baseball records didn’t come about as a result of better diet and training regimens alone. But the baseball industry benefitted hugely from the way steroids use transformed baseball into more of a slugging game, and pitching into hurling fire. Rather than playing small ball or exercising guile. Everyone knew the teams  needed to decide on and impose some form of drug testing regime. But as long as crowds crowded into see juiced players slug balls out of stadiums, an effective testing regime was a long time in coming.

I’m not sure letting sportswriters make decisions, post hoc, based on their individual perceptions.of whether or not a player’s stats were juiced, is a system I can get behind. It seems to violate  the most elementary due process considerations. Readers?

Other Character Issues

Still, at least the issue of steroid use, no matter how flawed the process for assessing that question may be – does concern the integrity of the results. Over to the WSJ:

Jay Jaffe, the author of “The Cooperstown Casebook” and the creator of the popular Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score metric for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates, said that though the character clause has existed since the mid-1940s, voters largely ignored it for decades. It was seen as vague and subjective and was rarely, if ever, invoked as a mechanism to keep players out.

That suddenly changed when players from the Steroid Era started appearing on the ballot.

“It became an excuse to bar the door to PED users,” Jaffe said. “We don’t have a long history of the character clause being invoked as a determinant.”

Yet the situation gets even murkier when we look at alleged character flaws, no matter how deplorable they may be, that have nothing to do with the integrity of baseball results. Per the Journal:

Recently, the character clause has risen to the forefront for reasons that extend far beyond baseball, inspired by the larger cultural turmoil around issues that past voters dismissed. In some cases, these off-field actions could make the difference between being elected to Cooperstown and falling short.

Consider Omar Vizquel, one of the best defensive shortstops in major-league history and the winner of 11 Gold Gloves. He appeared on 52.6% of ballots last year and seemed to have a path to eventually reach the 75% threshold. Then in December, with voting already in progress, The Athletic published an article detailing accusations from Vizquel’s wife that he physically abused her. Vizquel denied the allegations

Nonetheless, Thibodaux’s tracker has recorded 11 writers who voted for Vizquel last year but dropped him this year. Some writers who submitted their ballots before The Athletic’s article came out said later that they wouldn’t have voted for Vizquel if they had read it.

“Omar Vizquel is not the first player with domestic-violence accusations,” Thibodaux said. “But it feels like the first time that a large number of voters are reckoning with that and making decisions based on it. I think it’s more at the forefront now than it’s ever been before.

I don’t think I would endorse defining character in such a way that rumour and innuendo about domestic abuse would qualify. Would I keep someone out who had been convicted of a domestic abuse charge.  I still think not. I guess when I think about the issue, I’m not a fan of including a character test at all, particularly if the character element doesn’t relate to the integrity of the game.

And the final example, and one it especially pains this Yankee fame to consider, is the case of Curt Schilling.  Which will force me to recall as painful as it still is to me his epic 2004 performance – the case of the bloody sock – and the infamous swipe by Yankee third baseman Schilling’s bloody sock the bridge to history that helped knock my Yankees out of the postseason when they originally took a 3:0 lead in the best of seven series:

The first time it felt like the Yankees might actually come back and win Game 6 was in the bottom of the eighth, just after they had clipped the deficit to 4-2. With Miguel Cairo on second and Derek Jeter at first and nobody out, A-Rod hit a tapper to the right side of the mound, toward the first-base line. Reliever Bronson Arroyo picked it up and went to tag Rodriguez. Suddenly, the ball traveled all the way down the right-field line and it looked like Cairo had scored, with Jeter roaring to third and A-Rod taking second.

But plenty of people — including most of the umpires — saw what actually did happen. Rodriguez, in a pure act of desperation, flat-out swatted the ball out of Arroyo’s hand as he went for the tag.

Now, it pains me to say this. You have no idea how much. But Curt Schilling beat us, fair and square. And on the basis of his pitching career, he deserves to be voted into the Hall of Fame. I would vote for his Hall of Fame admission if I were a sportswriter and had a vote (even though it would make for some awkward conversations at Scofield family reunions if my apostasy ever came to light.)

But I don’t have a vote and Schilling may not be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Over to the WSJ:

He was on a clear trajectory for Cooperstown, receiving 52.3% of the vote in 2016. Later that year, he posted a tweet with a photograph of a T-shirt endorsing the lynching of journalists. His vote total dropped to 45% in 2017. More recently, he tweeted in support of the Capitol rioters earlier this month. After that, one voter went as far as to ask the Hall of Fame to rescind his vote for Schilling after it was cast, a person familiar with the matter said, but was denied.

The support for Schilling, now in his ninth year on the ballot, climbed back to 70% in 2020, putting him within just 20 votes of enshrinement. He still could get in, either this year or next. Had it not been for voters invoking the character clause, it wouldn’t be a debate.

“Without a Twitter account, Schilling probably would either be in the Hall of Fame or would be in the Hall of Fame this year,” Thibodaux said.

With the benefit of hindsight, I realize how unusual my childhood was – especially the way I was brought up to idolize men who, really, despite their obvious skills in pitching a ball or hitting a ball with a bat perhaps had little more to recommend them.

But when it comes to lauding baseball players for their career achievements, I don’t think it’s all that much better to allow sportswriters to employ a vague character test to vote to exclude  candidates for what in essence are their political beliefs.  (And I also hear my father’s voice, murmuring softly, in his self-effacing way, yet nonetheless criticising for Schilling being what Dad would have called a “jackass”. I cannot remember the details but I recall some ill-considered, to say the least, remarks about the Olsen twins.)

Cancel culture has expanded to take in baseball – and this Yankee fan has to stand up and criticize that. Even if the person being cancelled is the obnoxious Curt Schilling, from the arch-enemy Boston Red Sox.

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