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The Difficult Realities of the Baseball Hall of Fame

For the first time since 2013, no players will be inducted into baseball’s Hall of Fame this year. But the class—which featured Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, and Roger Clemens—once again forced voters to reckon with the Hall’s character clause, and it seems this may be only the beginning.

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For the first time since 2013, no player reached the 75 percent vote threshold required for entry into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Curt Schilling led all players with 71.1 percent of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) vote, while Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were behind him at 61.8 and 61.6 percent, respectively. All three have one year of eligibility remaining, though none of them has moved significantly closer to the mark since the 2020 ballot.

That 2013 class remains an embarrassing footnote in the history of the Hall of Fame and baseball discourse in general. It was a doughnut hole in the Hall’s record, characterized by pettiness and infighting within the baseball community. But it also set the stage for this year’s empty class by foregrounding the most nebulous and complicated criterion for Hall of Fame eligibility: the so-called character clause. And while the 2013 class was a watershed moment that led to greater clarity and consensus among voters, the 2021 class could portend an even more contentious and confusing future for the Hall of Fame.

The Hall of Fame means more to baseball than it does to other sports, because baseball is obsessed with its own history and mythology. Sometimes this makes the sport resistant to necessary institutional change, and lends itself to “Back in my day … ”–type commentary. But baseball’s history is much more of a strength than a weakness. For almost 150 years, high-level professional baseball has been part and parcel of the American cultural landscape, chronicled in exacting detail by contemporary journalists and record-keepers. In terms of stories, numbers, and folklore, there’s more information out there about baseball than any two other American sports put together.

That rich history makes Hall of Fame season a highlight of the baseball calendar. It’s a chance to weigh the stars of the recent past against those from years gone by; in comparing Scott Rolen to Brooks Robinson, we relive the highlights of both players’ careers. We get to dig up old photos and videos, discover and rediscover old stories, and above all, share them with others who love the game as much as we do.

Most fans have, at the very least, their own heuristic understanding of what makes a Hall of Famer—if not an actual codified list of who ought to make the cut. But the electorate who puts players in or keeps them out is drawn from the BBWAA, the professional guild of people who cover the sport full time. (I’m a member of the BBWAA, but still several years from becoming a Hall of Fame voter.)

Baseball’s Hall of Fame is unique among those of the four major North American sports in that it outsources some (but not all) of its selections to an outside group of journalists, rather than giving an internally selected committee full control. Those voters are issued a detailed set of procedures and instructions, along with one very important line that explains the Hall’s main criteria for entry: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”

The bookends to that sentence are the fun stuff. Weighing Gary Sheffield’s bat against Andruw Jones’s glove; determining whether Billy Wagner’s 900-odd career innings were dominant enough to get him over the line; or gaming out how much of Todd Helton’s gaudy numbers were the result of his home ballpark.

But that middle “integrity, sportsmanship, character” section—the character clause, in contemporary vernacular—complicates matters.

About 15 years ago, the character clause went from a forgettable aside to a dictate of titanic import. That’s when the sport began dealing with the fallout from the Steroid Era. At that time, a large bloc of voters cited the character clause as a reason to exclude players whose on-field accomplishments would otherwise have easily guaranteed enshrinement. Some, like Bonds and Clemens, had clear links to PEDs but had never been suspended. Others, like Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, were made to wait based on nothing more than innuendo.

As voters rallied against the inclusion of steroid users, the ballot became backlogged. The embarrassing empty class of 2013 was just one year in which there were more deserving candidates than ballot slots. In recent years, the problem has sorted itself out to a certain extent. Piazza, Bagwell, and most of the deserving players from the 1990s are in now, while others—Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro—have fallen off the ballot. But while the Steroid Era has now more or less passed the Hall of Fame by, it brought the character clause to the forefront of public attention—just in time for an even bigger conundrum to emerge.

Curt Schilling won 216 games, struck out 3,116 batters, and posted 79.5 bWAR in a 20-year big league career. He made six All-Star teams, finished second in Cy Young voting three times, and was one of the best postseason starters of all time. In 1993, Schilling won NLCS MVP and threw a complete-game shutout in the World Series, one of only five in the past 30 years. In 2001, he was co-MVP of the World Series, and in 2004 his “bloody sock game” became an inextricable part of Red Sox folklore. In 19 postseason starts, he went 11-2 with an ERA of 2.23 and struck out 120 batters in 133 1/3 innings.

If Schilling had never spoken publicly after his retirement, he would’ve been a Hall of Famer years ago. Instead, he became one of ESPN’s lead baseball announcers, a position he lost in 2016 after he posted a transphobic statement to Facebook. He’d been suspended the season before for an anti-Muslim tweet, and gained notoriety for his collection of Nazi memorabilia. In late 2016, Schilling approvingly tweeted a picture of a man at a Trump rally who was wearing a T-shirt that called for the murder of journalists (he later deleted the tweet).

That wasn’t enough to dissuade 285 voters from ticking Schilling’s box this time around. A few expressed regret for that decision when, one week after the New Year’s Eve deadline for Hall of Fame votes to be submitted, the former pitcher expressed his support for the pro-Trump riot at the U.S. Capitol.

In the broadest sense of “integrity, sportsmanship, character,” steroid use isn’t especially condemnatory. Particularly when it happened in an era when PED use was not only an open secret, but tacitly condoned by league officials and the media. It’s a penny-ante sin—punishable, but hardly unforgivable. Schilling, though, who earned a voice because of his excellence on the baseball diamond, has espoused a doctrine of hate at a time when American democracy is wobbling like a chair with three legs. If baseball players are to be denied Hall of Fame membership for reasons of character, surely Schilling’s rhetoric qualifies.

And he’s not the only candidate whose past warrants closer consideration.

If I’d had a vote this year, and on-field achievement were the only criterion, I would have filled a 10-person ballot: Bonds, Clemens, Schilling, Rolen, Wagner, Sheffield, Helton, Manny Ramírez, Jones, and Bobby Abreu. However, at least four of those players, Schilling included, merit a second look when character comes into play.

In 2008, the New York Daily News reported that Clemens had groomed country singer Mindy McCready when she was only 15, and that the two had later carried on an affair. (Clemens denied the story.) In 2012, Jones was arrested on charges of domestic assault after police said he choked his wife, who suffered “visible injuries,” and threatened to kill her. And in 1995, Bonds’s ex-wife testified at their divorce trial that the Giants star had beaten her repeatedly throughout their marriage. (Bonds denied this.) Another serious Hall of Fame candidate, Omar Vizquel, was arrested on assault charges in 2016, a fact that came to light last month when Vizquel’s ex-wife told The Athletic he had abused her.

The imperative to consider character leaves Hall of Fame voters in an uncomfortable position. The run-up to this year’s selection featured no shortage of public soul-searching by voters left to consider men with laudable on-field achievements and shameful off-field behavior. Pieces like those are polarizing, but they’re underlined by a relatable and appropriate ambivalence. How can we conceive of a Hall of Fame without two of baseball’s greatest players? But then again, how could one consider character and cast a ballot for someone with a history of bigotry or abuse?

It’d be much easier if the Hall of Fame judged players based only on what they did on the field. But that’s not how it works.

Schilling’s support for the Capitol rioters served as a bracing reminder that behaviors euphemistically described as “off-the-field issues” are connected to the actual society we have to live in. Real life, after all, happens off the field, and sometimes even reflects back into the on-field product.

The baseball community has the opportunity to reconsider its own structure and values. Last week, the Mets fired GM Jared Porter after ESPN reported that he’d sexually harassed a female journalist. The story renewed focus on the issues of who is comfortable in the baseball world, and who’s never really safe. Of who makes the decisions that drive the sport’s culture, and how and why those decisions get made.

I hope—perhaps naively—that recent events cause us to think purposefully about what we valorize, encourage, and tolerate. About who gets elevated, and how, and what message that sends. About the distinction between a great ballplayer and a great person. The discomfort at these decisions could be an acknowledgement that these are tough determinations, and that they’re challenging to make. Or it could be a pang of conscience, reminding us to act according to our character.