Not long ago I wrote a post about Roberto Clemente and what may have been had he not died in the plane crash. This sparked a conversation about great players who were even better people. Lou Gehrig’s name was mentioned. Dale Murphy’s too. Let me add Jackie Robinson’s. There are others, for sure, but the mention of Dale Murphy got me thinking about character and the Hall. I know I’ve written about this in other places, but it’s probably worth mentioning again how Eric and I have made decisions about character and up/down votes.
Dale Murphy and Character
Since his playing career ended, Murphy has worked to help kids, curb steroid use, support his church, and Wikipedia adds the following about him, “In 2008, he was appointed to the National Advisory Board for the national children’s charity Operation Kids. Murphy serves as a National Advisor to ASCEND: A Humanitarian Alliance. Murphy is a long time supporter of Operation Smile and also currently serves on the organization’s Board of Governors.”
C’mon, he’s a great guy.
He’s also, for my money, about the 38th best center fielder ever. He tops Hall of Famers Earl Averill, Edd Roush, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson, and Lloyd Waner. But he’s behind some I think about just about no-brainers who aren’t in, guys like Paul Hines, Kenny Lofton, and Jimmy Wynn. Overall, his profile looks a lot like that of Torii Hunter or Mike Cameron.
So how much should Dale Murphy’s character count? For me, I don’t think it can. The real reason is that I can’t possibly quantify what character means to a team in wins or WAR or anything else. But let’s pretend I could. Let’s just say Murphy’s presence was worth exactly 1 WAR every year he played. That would move him from 38th at the position all the way up to 19th. He’d be within an eyelash of HoMEr, Willie Davis. And if we actually thought Murphy was worth a win every year, we’d very much consider him for HoME inclusion.
Joe Jackson, Pete Rose, and Character
This is stickier. No I don’t think Jackson and Rose should be clumped together, but many do. So I will here.
My position on Jackson is simple. Even though I think he agreed to cheat, I don’t believe he actually cheated. Even with the lifetime ban before he could play his age-33 season, he’s 11th on my career left field list. To me, he’s an easy call.
As for Rose, I wouldn’t give him a Hall vote because he broke the one baseball law that cannot be broken. And he did it knowingly, even if it was because of a disease. But as a player, he reaches my mark. I don’t pay attention to his post-playing career as a HoME voter. And for a statistical Hall like the Hall of Miller and Eric, I don’t even hold betting while he played against him. It’s all about the numbers, and Rose ranks 10th at first base. He’s an easy call regardless of his gambling indiscretions.
Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Character
If I had a Hall vote, I’d give it to them. And they’re both already in the HoME. They were fully formed Hall of Famers before anyone speculates they used PEDs. That’s good enough for me. I don’t even need to think about a character issue since such issues, if they even matter, came after each accumulated enough value to get in. Bonds is the best left fielder ever, while Clemens is the third best pitcher by my numbers.
To keep Bonds and Clemens off of your ballot, you have to believe at least two things. First, you have to believe that integrity, sportsmanship, and character somehow are more important to your voting decision than the player’s record, playing ability, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played. That’s stuff is straight from BBWAA Hall rule #5 that’s so foolishly mentioned by moralizing writers. Second, you have to believe that in their pre-PED years, they hadn’t yet reached Hall level. Clearly, they had. I suppose you could also believe that if a player fails on any of those levels, he cannot be inducted into the Hall of Fame.
Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, Sammy Sosa, and Character
This is far more difficult territory. All three of these guys are in the HoME. None are in the Hall. And all are borderline cases by their numbers. I have Palmeiro 17th at first base. That’s not borderline, but a reasonable person could point to the lack of peak in his case. McGwire is 26th at first base. He’s my lowest ranked guy who’s in. And Sammy Sosa is 22nd in right field, perhaps falling behind Ichiro this season.
Reasonable people could keep any of them out based on differences in the way we calculate greatness. And folks who try to measure the value of steroids could bump them below my in/out line without too much wiggling. Of course, to do so you’d have to believe that PED use has enough impact on character to matter.
Or you could ignore the character issue altogether and believe that PED use has enough impact on numbers. That’s not unreasonable.
Manny Ramirez and Character
Yeah, he’s a character.
Eddie Cicotte and Character
Eric and I both rank the Black Sox star starter inside HoME-level, but we voted to write him an obituary as soon as he was eligible. It can certainly be said that we made a character call on him. Without spending the time to retell the story here, we believe that he helped to throw the 1919 World Series. Doing so could have destroyed the game of baseball. Yes, we drew a line. My decision, I must admit, was far more about the potential harm he could have done to the game than it was about throwing the opening game of the World Series.
My Views on Character
Yes, I voted Cicotte down because of the damage his actions could have done to the game we all love. Maybe I’m just using that as a rationalization because I don’t want to judge others, and I think I can justify voting him down for a reason other than his character. But the truth is that I just don’t think I can make calls about the character of others. Who am I? I consider myself honorable and ethical, but I haven’t walked a mile in the shoes of Pete Rose or Barry Bonds or Eddie Cicotte.
Recently there was a controversy at my college when the Twitter account of a member of the Board of Trustees was found to have what some would call hateful thoughts in the form of tweets and likes on it. The Trustee said his account was hacked. About six months later, the prosecutor’s office in my county said there was no evidence of hacking. The Trustee finally did resign. Anyway, in the six months after this was discovered, many faculty members, such as myself, and many students spoke in public out against this person’s comments. But not one single administrator did. Not one. Not in six months.
If you think what the Trustee did was reprehensible, perhaps you think that administrators not speaking up was reprehensible too. I don’t. Not at all. Students have the protection of being students. Faculty have the protection of tenure. Administrators have no protection. They can be fired pretty much at any time.
Would you have the courage to speak up if you could lose your job at any time? What is more ethical, to speak your truth, or to make sure you can pay the mortgage and put food on your family’s table?
If I were a major league baseball player, I suspect I would have used PEDs. If I were a manager, I don’t think I would have bet on baseball games, but I’m not addicted to gambling either. What if I were? I don’t know what I would or would not have done. And as for throwing the World Series, well, I certainly wouldn’t if I were in the bigs today. But 100 years ago? When I didn’t suspect I’d get caught, when I thought I’d just fade away if I did, when I thought I was being cheated by my boss, when I had no union protection? I’d like to think I know what I’d do, but I don’t.
There are so many contributing factors to the decisions we make. I don’t blame my friends in administration at my college for not standing up against something they believed was wrong. And I don’t blame baseball players for not making the choices many of us would suggest they make. I don’t blame them because I don’t know what I’d do, or because I think I’d do exactly what they did.
In baseball, we like to make statistics context neutral. That’s a good idea. Too bad we can’t do the same thing with character.