The National Baseball Hall of Fame rejected Barry Bonds for the tenth and final time yesterday. For years, Bonds’ fearsome left-handed swing redefined hitting en route to a record-breaking 762 career home runs, including a season-best 73 in 2001. He was a 7-time league MVP, 14-time All-Star, 8-time Gold Glove winner, and 12-time Silver Slugger. Bonds was once intentionally walked with the bases loaded because purposely allowing one run seemed safer than letting him swing. Barry Bonds is a legend in every sense of the word.
With just 66% of the vote from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), Bonds fell short of the 75% mark once again. The reason being, in large part, due to accusations of steroid use that tilted the competition in his favor. Voting for the Hall of Fame is based on “the players’ record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” But have these alleged guidelines – particularly questions of integrity and character – held up in the past? More importantly, is the Writers’ Association evaluation of Barry Bonds and his esteemed career fair?
The answer to both questions, in short, is no. Barry Bonds has become a scapegoat for an ideology that existed long before he entered the league. It’s time to level the playing field on the narrative around Barry Bonds and dissect the long history of performance-enhancing drug (PED) use in baseball, the right versus wrong way to cheat, and why arguing the preservation of “integrity” is rife with hypocrisy. Strap in, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.
Greenies, The Cream, and Monkey Testosterone Cocktails
It’s tough to trace exactly where this intense bias against Bonds begins, but it’s paramount to cite one key incident. In November 2017, two-time league MVP Joe Morgan (Hall of Fame Class of 1990) sent an email to voters on behalf of other Hall of Famers. Morgan spewed anti-PED propaganda, saying “We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here.” What Joe failed to acknowledge was that they were already there.
He goes on to say “It’s gotten to the point where Hall of Famers are saying that if steroid users get in, they’ll no longer come to Cooperstown for Induction Ceremonies or other events.” Joe’s idea to gatekeep the Hall of Fame and offer a version of history filtered through biases is, unfortunately, a popular school of thought. He wanted the Hall to ignore certain players in order to tell a clean, heavenly story of the game he loves. Oh Joe, do I have some news for you.
No era in the controversial history of baseball is “clean.” The Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative (BALCO) was trapping an undetectable PED known as “the cream” or “the clear” to athletes in a scandal that spread to football players and Olympic athletes. Pud Galvin (Class of 1965 and baseball’s first 300 game-winner) mixed his drinks with monkey testosterone in the 1880s. The literal Godfather of Juicing is in the Hall of Fame, but Barry Bonds is somehow the poster boy for PEDs? Jeff Bagwell, Mike Piazza, and Ivan Rodriguez all admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs at some point. All were elected to the Hall of Fame within the last ten years. Joe Morgan himself literally played during an era defined by rampant use of cocaine and pre-game amphetamines called “greenies.” PEDs – and scandals, really – are as much a part of baseball as the hot dogs at the concession stands.
The Right Versus Wrong Way to Cheat
Let’s quickly sidetrack to debunk this idea of steroids as a controversial mechanism for cheating. Much like drug use and scandals, cheating and baseball also go hand in hand. Gaylord Perry (Class of 1991) unashamedly doctored his pitches using water-soluble petroleum jelly – and everyone knew about it! That didn’t prevent him from receiving 77.2% of the vote in just his third year on the ballot. Whitey Ford (Class of 1974) doctored the baseball using a mixture of baby oil, rosin, and turpentine. Sammy Sosa (whose also ousted from the Hall for steroid use) put cork in his bat to make it lighter and speed up his swing to improve timing. Just within the last few years, pitchers used sticky foreign substances to enhance grip on the ball and increase the revolutions per minute.
Regardless of the era, players find ways to cheat all the time! The notion that steroid use is somehow a more punishable act than modifying equipment is ludicrous. In both cases, the competitive spirit of the game is undermined. Is Barry Bonds ostracized simply for choosing the wrong way to cheat? That surely couldn’t be the case. What then do we make of fellow cheaters Bagwell, Piazza, and Rodriguez?
cHAraCtEr aND iNtEGriTy
And then there’s the character clause. Who is this baseball player as a person? Are they of upstanding moral character worthy of a bronze plaque? More importantly, are they the type of individual we want to include in our telling of the sport’s history? Roberto Clemente (Class of 1973) is the most well-renowned philanthropist in the history of professional sports. He regularly did charity work in Latin America and the Caribbean during the offseasons. His life was cut short at age 38 when he died in a plane crash en route to deliver aid to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Clemente is someone who would pass the Hall’s character evaluation with flying colors.
But Roberto Clemente would be an inaccurate figurehead for the sport as a whole. We could run through the decades of segregation the MLB was founded on, featuring Rogers Hornsby (Class of 1942) and his alleged affiliation with the KKK. There’s also baseball’s ugly history with domestic violence and other forms of abuse that didn’t stop Kirby Puckett (Class of 2001) and others from their enshrinement. There’s plenty of literature on those topics that detail the events much better than I could here. So let’s search for a more recent example. Perhaps the Hall of Fame’s bar for upstanding character has been raised just within the last two decades. If integrity is the issue with Barry Bonds, surely there couldn’t be someone of even more questionable integrity going to Cooperstown this year, right?
Enter Jim Kaat, a former pitcher for twenty-five seasons before stepping into the booth as a commentator. He was a three-time All-Star and 16-time Gold Glover winner playing for five teams. Though the statistics on the back of his baseball card wouldn’t generally be considered Hall of Fame-worthy.
Last October, he was on the broadcast for a divisional playoff game between the Astros and White Sox. In the first inning, with Yoan Moncada at the plate, Kaat quipped with former Orioles manager Buck Showalter. Showalter said he jokingly asked “can we get one of those” the first time he saw Moncada play, to which Katt responded, “get a 40-acre field full of them.” The remark came less than a month after Jack Morris (Class of 2018) used an offensive fake Asian accent during a live broadcast with Shohei Ohtani at the plate. Much like Jack Morris, Kaat delivered an off-the-cuff racist remark so unnervingly candid.
This is Jim Kaat, Class of 2022. Less than two months later, on December 5th, Kaat was elected to the Hall of Fame. So much for a character clause. Though I can’t help but wonder if Joe Morgan would’ve raised any issue with attending Jim Kaat’s upcoming induction ceremony.
Preserving History is Not Subjective
The Hall of Fame functions best as a museum, telling an unbiased history of the sport. Not some elitist institution delivering moral lessons on the “right way” to conduct yourself as a ballplayer. Moreover, if you’re going to let racism and abuse decorate your halls, why draw the line at steroids? Perhaps because the former falls more in line with the ‘America’s Pastime’ label you pride yourself on. The Hall of Fame had no issue inducting players with “integrity” issues until steroid users knocked on the door. Seems like a very odd place to make a stand.
The solution can go one of two ways. Option one is to own up to your role as a museum and tell the entire history of baseball from the glorious highs to the egregious lows. Or, apply your character clause to everyone. The latter would, of course, entail removing over half the populace from the Hall of Fame, but at least you’d then have a semblance of justification for locking out Barry Bonds. In such a case, you’d still be failing to do your archival duties, just with a little more consistency in that failure. Or perhaps it’s as simple as realizing the guy with the most home runs in the history of the game should be immortalized in the Hall of Fame. You can acknowledge Barry Bonds cheated while still recognizing his greatness. Preserving history is the priority.
One more thing before I peace out: let Pete Rose in too. Baseball’s all-time hits leader received a lifetime ban in 1989 for betting on games while he served as manager of the Cincinnati Reds. Rose admitted guilt, though it’s important to note he only ever bet on himself to win. Honestly, I respect the hell out of it. Sports betting will be legal nationwide within five years, and what better way to usher in such legislation than properly recognizing the legend of Pete Rose.
Thanks for reading my rant. As always, let me know your thought in the comments section below. Lastly, for more sports, check out our NBA Midseason Superlatives.