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December 11, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

That Holden Caulfield Kind of Crap: The Historicity of the Hall of Fame Debate

by David Roher

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

David Roher is a former co-president of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective and an intern at Deadspin. He takes steroids for nasal allergies. Follow him on Twitter @davidroher.
 

The past changes all the time. I started following baseball in 1996, during what is now known as the “Steroid Era.” It wasn’t known that way at the time—if it had been, there might not have been a Steroid Era. But just a few years later, the term became widely recognized among fans and writers, with a general consensus that it peaked around the turn of the millennium. Through a mix of new evidence, analysis, and opinion, we got a de facto title for the latest chapter of baseball history.

The study of this phenomenon—how interpretations of the past appear, evolve, and compete—is called “historiography.” While the term is only common in academic writing, the concept is as ubiquitous as history itself: it’s hard to talk about the past (or even not to talk about the past) without considering how other people have done the same. With the current debate over the Hall of Fame ballot, the historiography of baseball has never been more relevant. The writers who are voting against Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens claim to be protecting history, but are instead revising it in an ahistorical way.

A Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens would be a radical departure from tradition. The Hall is filled with cheaters like Gaylord Perry, performance-enhancing-drug users like Hank Aaron, drug abusers like Mickey Mantle, and all-around-terrible people like Ty Cobb. The voting rules have always included requirements for “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character,” but that wording has never prevented players of Bonds’ and Clemens’ caliber from getting a plaque. Nor has a vague suspicion of cheating precluded the induction of deserving players on the level of Jeff Bagwell.

Revising history can be a good thing: as new sources and analytical techniques develop, it’s important to apply them to the past as well as the present. Sabermetrics itself is revisionist. After developing better evaluation techniques in the 1980s, Bill James applied them as far back as the 19th century and found players who had been underrated for decades. Bert Byleven’s induction into the Hall is an example of historiography at work: though his historical record stayed the same, more and more writers voted for him as their interpretations of that record changed. Writers against Bonds and Clemens might argue that they are historical revisionists too, enforcing a new ethical standard that should have been in place since the beginning.

If that’s the case, then their focus should be on the whole of baseball history, not just the most recent part. Bonds’ and Clemens’ transgressions pale in comparison to those of the inductees who fought against racial integration, like Cobb and Kenesaw Mountain Landis. These writers should advocate for the removal of all players who set a bad example for children, like Mantle did with his alcoholism.

But the writers will never do that, because their case against steroid users has nothing to do with history and everything to do with their own nostalgia and insecurity. Just as the baseball establishment of the 1960s scrambled to find a way to keep Babe Ruth ahead of Roger Maris, it is now trying to find a way to keep Roger Maris ahead of Bonds and Mark McGwire. The naysayers are killing two birds with one stone: they’re assuring their inner child that Mantle and Mays are way better than the new cheaters, while assuring their outer adult that they’re mature enough to care about morality in sports.

In doing so, they’ve turned themselves into middle-aged Holden Caulfields trying to stop children from losing their innocence by pointing out all the phonies. “Things were better back then” doesn’t mean that things were better back in the ’60s, but rather that things were better when they were kids. It’s not a valid historical viewpoint.

In my opinion, the best baseball season ever was 1998, partly because of the home run chase and the Yankees’ 114 victories, but mostly because I was eight years old, and baseball will never be better than it was when I was eight years old. I was disappointed to learn that some of my favorite players had taken steroids, but I thought they were getting a raw deal from the executives who covered it up and from the media who should have seen it coming. I didn’t understand why there was moral outrage over the fact that Sammy Sosa cheated in a children’s game, but not over the fact that Sosa had to work as a child in order to support his family. The steroid scandal taught me that adults could be stupid too.

There is no point to me in visiting a Hall of Fame without the players who made me appreciate the history of baseball, and eventually history itself. Mark McGwire made me want to learn about Roger Maris. Roger Clemens got me interested in Walter Johnson. Barry Bonds led me to the sordid legacy of the sports media’s treatment of black players. They also taught me that people were flawed, and that learning from their mistakes was just as important as learning from their success. Without them, Cooperstown will be devoid of both nostalgia and history, and its selectively whitewashed interpretation of the past will become increasingly irrelevant.

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Steroids

11 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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sykojohnny
(225)
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Hank admitted to doing a Greenie one time and said he thought he was going to have a heart attack. Henry never hit 70 home runs, he never hit 50. When the league dropped the mound six inches he stayed in the 40's. Also Hank never ballooned out of his clothes the way Bonds did. If you ever saw Bonds in a suit while he was juicing, you knew immediately that something was wrong. A tiny head perched on this enormous body. Should Bonds be in the Hall of Fame? Yes. Do you have to use the argument that other HOF members like Hank used steroids in order to get him in?? Childish.

Dec 11, 2012 09:14 AM
rating: -11
 
SC

Does the author use facts to make his point? Yes. Do you distort that presentation (he didn't say Aaron used steroids) because you're angered about the portrayal of other players? Clearly. Do you have to calling someone you disagree with childish? Sadly.

Dec 11, 2012 11:46 AM
rating: 8
 
edwardarthur

This is exactly right. Part of the problem seems to be that many writers consider the HOF as primarily a reward for the players, whom they believe should be punished if they did PEDs. In my view, the HOF should be for the fans, and _we_ are being cheated by writers who would have a Hall without Bonds, Clemens, et al. When we watch the Yankees and my five-year old asks me with wide-eyed wonder if A-Rod will be a Hall of Famer, the answer should be "Yes!", and not, "Well, that's a complicated question...."

Dec 11, 2012 10:29 AM
rating: 4
 
dbohmer

The guilt of most of the "defamed" candidates is alleged, not proven. Both Bonds and Clemens never tested positive for steroids. Second, for most of their careers, MLB had no rules against the use of steroids. Unlike Pete Rose, they weren't breaking the rules of the game they played. Third, the verdict is out on just what advantage they gained from steroids. More power? How much? Able to prolong their careers? If so, weren't their earlier years enough to make them worthy. Able to recover from injuries? If so, are those who get Tommy John surgery violating the rules? Finally, a vote based on steroid use ignores the game's history of players taking substances they thoght would gain them advantages. The bottom line is the sportswriters will leave a huge gap in the game's history by excluding these players if their stats are otherwise worthy.

Dec 11, 2012 11:58 AM
rating: 8
 
daleylama
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Interesting perspective from the Deadspintern. And he's right, my Hall of Fame is different than his Hall of Fame. My guys may not hold the records, but I still like them better.

Personally, I'm in favor of the "Cheaters Wing" for the HOF - or at least acknowledgement on the plaque. And if you want to go back and put that Mantle was an alcoholic or Whitey Ford cut the ball with his wedding ring or that Henry Aaron...

What?! Henry Aaron used PEDs? Did I miss something? Oh, I forgot. Deadspin isn't necessarily about reporting. I hope the Mr. Roher's allergies are better.

Dec 11, 2012 12:47 PM
rating: -9
 
WaldoInSC

Mr. Roher, you have the rare gift of insight and command of language at 22, and a bright future indeed. A crackerjack perspective; thanks for sharing.

Dec 11, 2012 19:30 PM
rating: 1
 
BayCityM

For the simple fact that knowledge in lifting and better nutrition came around the exact same time as steroids we will never know what real impact 'roids had. Not to mention smaller parks and baseballs that jumped off the also improved bats.For that reason alone you have to let them in. If you look at baseball history almost all great records required something outside of the players pure ability to set it.

Dec 12, 2012 07:20 AM
rating: 1
 
WaldoInSC

It is worth reminding everyone that the new parks are no smaller, they just have fewer seats. That's about creating scarcity, not home runs.

Dec 16, 2012 17:46 PM
rating: -1
 
BayCityM

"In doing so, they’ve turned themselves into middle-aged Holden Caulfields trying to stop children from losing their innocence by pointing out all the phonies. “Things were better back then” doesn’t mean that things were better back in the ’60s, but rather that things were better when they were kids. It’s not a valid historical viewpoint."

Extremely insightful. Loved the article.

Dec 12, 2012 07:22 AM
rating: 2
 
yankeeduke

Right on! Put another way, if the writers had kept Mickey Mantle out of the HoF for alcoholism, amphetimine use, adultery, would those in their 50s or 60s have visited the Hall? The sanctimonious sportswriters missed the story in the '90s. Why do they get to sit in judgment in the 2010s? If you don't want Roger Clemens in the HoF, you can walk right by his plaque in Cooperstown, and go embrace Kirby Puckett!

Dec 12, 2012 15:03 PM
rating: 0
 
AWBenkert

These are the same writers who voted Bonds MVP and Clemens Cy Young winner 7 times each.

May 27, 2013 16:58 PM
rating: 0
 
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