Performance-Enhancing Drugs and the Baseball Hall of Fame

I would like to begin by summarizing a common argument regarding the use of PEDs by potential Hall of Famers:


"PEDs are illegal. Period. Even if baseball didn't prohibit them, they were illegal in the U.S., and they have obviously always constituted cheating. The older players didn't have anything like this; they played with their own, genuine ability alone. Frankly, the statistics put up by those who used PEDs are cheap, and are not worth anywhere near what they used to be. And let's not forget that the Hall of Fame has a character clause; people who cheat should not be elected. It's as simple as that. Sure, some of them have put up jaw-dropping numbers. Just look at you-know-who with the Giants: he was a great hitter, a great runner, a great fielder; he seems like one of the greatest ever. But he cheated in order to do all that. It is utterly ridiculous that such a player could be enshrined among those who were truly great."


Do you agree with this argument? Do you think it definitively shows that PED users should be kept out of the Hall?

If so, then congratulations. You have just excluded Willie Mays from the Hall of Fame.


This is one of my biggest objections to the arguments against steroid users in the HOF. Pretty much everything you can say about steroids, you can say about amphetamines, which have been a more widespread problem for a longer period of time. Like steroids, amphetamines improve a player's ability. Like steroids, amphetamines were banned by federal law, but not by baseball. Like steroids, amphetamines were not tested for, were used fairly openly, and were to a large extent encouraged by teammates, trainers, etc. And like steroids, amphetamines were frequently used because the player felt he could not complete with other users if he was clean.

Imagine if players who used "greenies" had been excluded from the Hall. How many of the legends of the 60's, 70's, and 80's would have been shut out? Can you imagine the Hall without Johnny Bench? Hank Aaron? Mike Schmidt? Tom Seaver? Joe Morgan? Ozzie Smith?


Another problem with excluding juicers is the fact that steroid use was so very widespread, this would pretty much result in an entire generation of players being blocked. A basic question to ask during the voting is, "Was he one of the best players of his day?" We do often compare candidates to HOFers (and non-HOFers) from prior eras, but because of the ever-changing face of baseball - dead ball versus lively ball, segregation versus integration, reserve clause versus free agency, multiple levels of expansion - comparing players to their contemporaries is really the only accurate way to measure their careers. To exclude all steroid users is to ignore this basic question, and thus to exclude the best (if not the totality) of an entire generation.


In a court of law, a guilty party's sentence may be reduced or even eliminated due to "mitigating circumstances." Are there any such circumstances for juicers? Would I have asked the question if there were not?

First off, this was the so-called Culture of Acceptance. Other players knew about it; managers, coaches, and trainers knew about it; owners knew about it; sportswriters knew about it; fans knew about it. Did any of them care? Not particularly. It improved the level of baseball - in particular, it increased home runs - and that was all anybody really cared about. Sure, the owners occasionally mentioned the possibility of testing during talks with the player's union, but beyond the brief mention to make themselves the "good guy," they never pushed the issue at all. When pretty much the entire baseball world looks the other way, who can blame the players for juicing?

And of course, steroids weren't just accepted; they were encouraged. Teammates would push each other to juice. Players who refused might even be shunned for not trying hard enough, not being willing to "take one (shot) for the team." And of course players feared that, if they did not use steroids, they would not be able to compete against opposing juicers, or they might lose their jobs to juicers who were called up from the minors.


And it's not like these are the only great players to ever cheat. Gaylord Perry has always been known as a spitballer. Satchel Paige's famous hesitation pitch was an illegal delivery; with men on base, it would properly be called a balk. Babe Ruth corked his bats. Ty Cobb paid opposing players to throw the game. Pud Galvin, MLB's first 300-game winner, drank a concoction which included monkey testosterone - an early, experimental precursor to the modern anabolic steroid. And how many fielders slapped their gloves to make umpires think they had the ball? How many runners "shaved" the base, not touching third in order to gain a couple of extra steps when running home? How many pitchers deliberately threw at batters in order to intimidate their opponents? How many hitters clutched their arms in "pain" when a pitch hit their sleeves, trying to get a free base? These players, dishonest one and all, lived by the maxim, "It ain't cheating if you don't get caught." To say that these people didn't cheat, simply because they did not use drugs that had not yet been developed, is outright ludicrous!

One thing that really gets me about the debate is that so many of the people who are adamantly against the election of Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens are equally adamant in favor of inducting Pete Rose. While Bonds, Clemens, and the other steroid users committed an offense which was originally not against MLB rules at all, and even now only carries a 50-game penalty for a first offense, Rose broke a cardinal rule of baseball. Every clubhouse has a large notice making it quite clear that betting on baseball is strictly prohibited and will result in permanent banishment. This is not a grey area. Furthermore, Rose is known to have used amphetamines (see above), and may have corked his bat, which was clearly illegal. And let's not forget that Rose was one of the biggest jerks ever to play the game - a fact that fans like to forget when invoking the character clause against Bonds.


Finally, there is the minor issue that we really don't know who did and didn't use steroids. A few players have been caught (though some do have plausible, if unlikely, excuses), but beyond that it's a matter of suspicion only. Jeff Bagwell is viewed as a juicer because, well, he had big muscles, he played with the Astros (considered a hotbed of steroid use), and Josť Canseco - not exactly Mr. Trustworthy - said that he juiced. On the other hand, Ken Griffey, Jr. is hailed as a paragon of clean players, because he wasn't bulky and nobody has accused him yet. Never mind that many steroid users don't get very big, or that he hit 600 homers in the steroid era despite persistent injuries. No proof, just appearance and circumstantial evidence, and that is considered enough to decide who does and doesn't get excluded from the Hall. Lou Gehrig was a huge man, massively muscled, who was one of the top home-run hitters of his day, and who played on the same team as the number one home-run hitter of his day (maybe of all time). By today's standards, he would be immediately convicted in the public eye. Can you really support a standard that would reject perhaps the most truly respected player of all time from the Hall of Fame?


Now, none of this is to say that I condone the use of steroids. It is harmful, it is illegal, and we need to discourage others from following the example that these players have set. But we also need to be understanding about those who juiced. Steroid use prior to the mid-2000's should be viewed as a minor offense, not a capital one; even now, it's basically just one strike against a player. Of course, juiced stats should not be treated as equal to the same stats if they were achieved "cleanly" - whatever that means - but that's not the same as rejecting the players entirely.

When it comes to the Hall of Fame vote, I would suggest a two-step approach. First, use your best judgment as to who did and did not use steroids. I know that is far from perfect, but it's the only judgment any of us have. Second, do not exclude these players outright; instead, take their numbers with a grain of salt, and think about how much of an unfair advantage the steroids really gave them. As an example, let's look at the stats for three players from the 2011 ballot: Mark McGwire, Rafael Palmeiro, and Jeff Bagwell. In addition to being alleged juicers, the three were contemporaries, and were all power-hitting first basemen. This makes the comparison about as simple as it can ever be.


McGwirePalmeiroBagwell
Plate Appearances7660120469431
Batting Average.263.288.297
On-Base Percentage.394.371.408
Slugging Percentage.588.515.540
OPS+163132149
HR/AB Ratio1/10.61/18.41/17.4
SO/AB Ratio1/3.881/7.771/5.00
Stolen Bases1297202
SB Success Rate60.0%70.8%72.1%
Run Total/Year (Defense)-2.0+3.3+2.0
Wins above Replacement58.766.176.7
Other Considerations500 HR, record for HR/AB3000 hit, 500 HRHighest WAR for eligible non-HOF


McGwire, of course, is all about power. He does have a high OBP - largely due to all the free passes he received from pitchers who didn't want to face him - but otherwise his numbers are very limited. He was an inconsistent hitter (low average, high strikeout rate), a weak runner, and a weak fielder. And he wasn't able to make a long career out of it, either. Great as he was, I think that without steroids, he would be a weak HOF candidate at best, so he would not get my vote.

Palmeiro doesn't have anywhere near McGwire's power; in fact, his power isn't particularly notable for a steroid-era player at all. But he was a consistent hitter, a good fielder, and a respectable runner (for a first baseman), and he maintained that high level of play for a very long career. So while he wasn't as spectacular as Big Mac, I don't think steroids were as big a part of his career, so I would cautiously vote for him.

The first thing you should notice about Bagwell is that he ranks first or second in every numerical category listed here; in particular, he was first by a wide margin in WAR. He was a good slugger, a very consistent hitter, a good runner for a first baseman, and a good fielder, and built a career of respectable length out of that. He was a fantastic all-around player, the sort that steroids can enhance but could never create. As far as I'm concerned, he should have made it in on the first ballot.


So there you have my views about steroids in the HOF. By all means, we should take steps to prevent PED use, and we should not accept juiced numbers at face value. But we should also put the transgression in perspective, and not completely ignore players for what is really a fairly minor offense. Certainly we shouldn't try to kid ourselves that Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth were paragons of virtue who would never do such a thing!

And one final observation: If everyone who uses steroids is immediately excluded from the Hall, what reason would a potential Hall of Fame candidate have to ever come clean if he had not yet been caught? An approach which encourages further lies is not in anyone's best interests.




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