What Is a Hall of Famer?

Mark McGwire
Saint Louis Cardinals batting coach, Mark McGwire, recently admitted to using performance enhancing substances during his playing days.

With Mark McGwire’s revelation of one the worst kept secrets in the baseball, there has been much discussion about what is a Hall of Famer. Is McGwire one? Should he and others, such as Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa and Manny Ramirez get into the Hall regardless of any proof or allegations of performance enhancing? Does this compare to players banned from the game for gambling associations, such as Pete Rose and “Shoeless” Joe Jackson? How about Gaylord Perry? He’s a Hall of Famer and celebrated as a novelty because he blatantly doctored the baseball. Does he belong there?

There are the well-known standards for the Hall of Fame – 500 home runs or 3,000 hits for a “position player,” 300 wins or 3,000 strikeouts for a starting pitcher. (Please don’t bring up standards for saves…overrated stat.) But players in the “Steroid Era” have blown the power standards out of the water. In case you haven’t been paying attention to the career home run list over the past ten years, the top 15 now include Bonds (1st with 762 home runs), Sosa (6th with 609), McGwire, Rodriguez (both tied for 8th with 583), Palmeiro (11th with 569) and Ramirez (15th with 546). And the logical conclusion is that this recent, synthetic power surge has had an adverse affect on pitching standards. (By the way, over-managing has also had an adverse affect on pitching standards, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

So these standards are fast becoming obsolete. Whether it is performance enhancing substances, corked bats, smaller ballparks, diluted pitching resulting from expansion, it’s clear there must be other criteria for which to judge the game’s historical elite. Of course, my favorite is the “Gut Test.” As in, “What does your gut tell you?” Sandy Koufax pitched 12 seasons, with only about four of them being Hall of Fame caliber. But, in those four years, he averaged 24 wins, 307 strikeouts, a 1.85 ERA, won three Cy Young Awards (coming in 3rd in voting another year) and an MVP Award (coming in 2nd two other years). But, more importantly, he was considered as one of the most dominant pitchers of his era, if not in history. Perhaps this is an extreme example. After all, Koufax was extremely dominant once he figured out his control. Kirby Puckett is a milder, and more recent, example of someone considered one of the best of his era without posting overwhelming career numbers. Even though he didn’t reach 3,000-hits or 500 home runs (he finished with 2,304 and 207, respectively), he did have a .318 career batting average, led the American League in hits four times, was in the top five in MVP voting three times and was pivotal in the Twins’ championships in 1987 and 1991. Though glaucoma forced an early end to his career, at age 35, he still passes the Gut Test. Others such as Andre Dawson (who will be inducted this year), Jim Rice, Ryne Sandberg, Gary Carter, Willie Stargell and Don Drysdale were either considered the best of their era or at their position in a historical context.

You also find the opposite — players who hung on long enough to hit those career milestone numbers, but may not otherwise be considered Hall of Famers. Take Don Sutton for example. He did top 200 strikeouts in a season five times, however, all before age 29…and he pitched until he was 43! In his 23 seasons, he only won 20 or more games only once. But he finished with 324 wins (tied for 14th all-time) and 3,574 strikeouts (7th). So, clearly, Mr. Sutton benefits from his longevity more than anything. In most professions, longevity will get you a $50 gift card to Chili’s at your retirement party. Or maybe you’ll get a caricature drawn of you sitting on a rocking chair. But, in this case, you’re immortalized in bronze. You could also come to this conclusion with others, such as Robin Yount (3,142 hits in 20 seasons, no batting titles and one season over 200 hits) and Phil Niekro (318 wins in 24 seasons, two seasons of 20 wins or more and 274 losses).

And then there’s Gaylord Perry. He finished his career with 314 wins, a 3.11 ERA, had 20 or more wins four times, 3,534 strikeouts (good for 8th all-time), topping 200 in a season eight times. He also won two Cy Young Awards and came in 2nd another time. Not bad, except for he was famous for doctoring the baseball, throwing some form of a “spitter” or “Vaseline ball.” Though he wasn’t actually caught cheating during a game until his 21st season, there’s a big question mark there. But the doctoring of balls goes back a long time, was routinely practiced by some the early 20th Century’s greats, and an interesting study…for another time.

Then you have those who are in the Hall of Fame for the intangibles. Either they were on-field leaders (Pee Wee Reese), clutch performers (Billy Martin), pioneers (Jackie Robinson), an integral part of championship teams (Tony Perez) or even known for historical, big plays (Bill Mazeroski). These players seem to be woven into the fabric and folklore of the game so much, their inclusion in the Hall transcends numbers.

But allow me to circle back to those I mentioned at the beginning — those whose accomplishments are tainted by performance enhancers. Yes, the actual “Hall” where all the bronze plaques reside is but one, relatively smaller part of the entire building. Most of the rest is a museum. It’s my opinion we recognize this Steroid Era there, talk about the video game-like numbers put up during that time and discuss the rise and fall of the game’s superstars. After all, this was just an era just like any other experienced during the 135-or-so years professionals have played baseball. But let’s not reward these players with Hall of Fame induction. Keep their numbers in the record books. After all, revisionist history is just about as unsavory as cheating. But let’s reserve the Hall for those who will stand the test of time, those who displayed competitive integrity. And let us not glorify those who artificially achieved greatness. After all, most players guilty of this probably didn’t do it so much for a shot at baseball immortality, but rather, to be financially set for life (or multiple lifetimes) or maybe even to just stay in the game.

Yes, baseball is just a game, but that’s not an excuse to give people an ethical free pass and to not hold them to a higher standard.