On Tuesday, Hall of Fame 2nd baseman Joe Morgan sent a letter (via a mass email) to the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America (BBWAA), asking them to deny entry to the Hall of Fame to any players who used steroids. Morgan specified that players who failed drug tests, admitted using steroids, or were identified as users in MLB’s Mitchell Report, should not get into the Hall.

Some highlights from Morgan’s letter:

“The more we Hall of Famers talk about this – and we talk about it a lot – we realize we can no longer sit silent. Many of us have come to think that silence will be considered complicity. Or that fans might think we are ok if the standards of election to the Hall of Fame are relaxed, at least relaxed enough for steroid users to enter and become members of the most sacred place in baseball.

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.

By cheating, they put up huge numbers, and they made great players who didn’t cheat look smaller by comparison, taking away from their achievements and consideration for the Hall of Fame. That’s not right.

And that’s why I, and other Hall of Famers, feel so strongly about this. 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. Some feel they can’t share a stage with players who did steroids.”

— Joe Morgan (in email sent to the members of the BBWAA, Nov. 21, 2017)

Morgan, who is the Hall’s vice chairman and a member of its board of directors, said he wasn’t speaking for all Hall of Famers but for “many” of them. Because the letter was signed as “Vice Chairman” of the Hall, many in the media have speculated that Morgan was not just speaking on behalf of fellow players but on behalf of the institution itself.

The Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors has never taken an official stance on users of PEDs (Performance Enhancing Drugs) but it is widely believed that a rule change made in July 2014 was designed to flush suspected PED users off the BBWAA ballot more quickly. That rule change shortened every player’s eligibility for the ballot from 15 years to 10. The rule took effect immediately; the first PED-linked player who was impacted by the change was Mark McGwire. Big Mac had been on the ballot for 8 years and the rule change gave him just two more bites at the BBWAA apple instead of the seven he would have otherwise had.

There are five players on the 2018 ballot who are suspected or linked to PEDs: Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Gary Sheffield and Manny Ramirez. The case for each of the five is different but it’s highly likely that increasing vote totals of Bonds and Clemens are of particular concern to Morgan and possibly the Hall of Fame itself. Take a look at the increasing vote percentages for the two tarnished legends, remembering that 75% of the vote confers a Cooperstown plaque.

Hall of Fame Voting % by Year
Barry BondsRoger Clemens
201436.2%37.6%
201534.7%35.4%
201636.8%37.5%
201744.3%45.2%
201853.8%54.1%

Let’s explain the biggest reason for the spikes in 2016 and 2017. In 2016, the electorate of the BBWAA was reduced from 549 to 440 voters. This was because of a new rule requiring that all voters need to have actively covered the sport of baseball within ten years of their vote. This purged many older voters, who were generally more likely to take a hard line against those accused of using PEDs.

The spike from 2016 (when both players were between 44% and 45%) to 2017 (each around 54%) is less easy to identify but the most likely reason is that Mike Piazza was inducted into the Hall in 2016 and many of these voters were planning to vote for Jeff Bagwell and Ivan Rodriguez in 2017. Although Piazza, Bagwell and Rodriguez were not definitively linked to PEDs all three were subject to whispers and suspicions. I-Rod in particular was named in two books by his former teammate Jose Canseco and there is no reason to think that Canseco was peddling fake news.

The point is that there is a growing realization that the Hall of Fame likely already includes players who reaped the benefits of steroids or other PEDs. If you accept that as a fact of life, what then becomes the rationale to keep out Bonds and Clemens? Both players had already accomplished enough in their careers to sail into Cooperstown even if they had never started using. This doesn’t excuse their behavior; it simply acknowledges that they each played in an era without drug testing and in a “see no evil, hear no evil” culture that permeated the game.

Joe Morgan has laid down a marker. Based on the early reactions that I’ve heard and read, it’s questionable whether any writers will be influenced by his hard-line plea.

Here’s a sample (the full piece from each writer is linked under the quotes):

“Morgan can now also enter the Hall of Hypocrisy (this is a reference to Morgan being a champion for Pete Rose to be inducted into the Hall). This would be something I would ask Morgan if he had not made himself unavailable… You mention that Hall of Famers might not attend induction ceremonies if “steroid users get in.” Is this blackmail? By the way, I didn’t notice Hall of Famers stay away from the inductions of Mike Piazza and Jeff Bagwell, and there has been a lot of suspicion on those guys. Unless you would like to get on the phone and tell me otherwise, Joe, I will put you down similar to fans who say they are never going to watch another game after a labor dispute, but come back, same as ever… Yep, it is a tricky issue, Joe, one, by the way, you didn’t make any less tricky with this dumb email.”

— Joel Sherman (New York Post)

“For decades, players used amphetamines to give themselves a little pep in their step on the field, or as a way to recover from rough nights… Morgan and his fellow old-school players didn’t use steroids, but not because they made a conscious, moral choice not to enhance their play. Steroids weren’t really around then. They don’t know for sure they would have stayed away because it wasn’t an option for them to consider.. Do we now draw the line with steroids because steroids are more effective than greenies? Do the old-school players get a pass because they were cheating but not cheating cheating?

— Ryan Fagan (The Sporting News)

“Joe Morgan is wrong… The steroid era certainly corroded the record books, artificially altered the game to render it almost unrecognizable, and turned likely journeymen into superstars. It is that part to which Morgan cannot relate. He did not face Bonds’ predicament, seeing the landscape change around him to the point that one of the dozen greatest players of all time couldn’t even crack the top 15 among home run hitters in a year the long ball ostensibly ‘saved the game.'” 

— Gabe Lacques (USA Today)

“Morgan’s letter may be sincere, but his phrasing is disingenuous. Notably, he uses term “steroids” and not “performance-enhancing drugs” in his letter. To these eyes, and to those of many other observers, it’s an attempt to sidestep fact that amphetamine usage was rampant within the game for more than four decades, long after the drugs were made illegal… If baseball couldn’t punish the likes of McGwire, Bonds and Clemens during the ‘Wild West Era,’ then voters shouldn’t be applying a retroactive morality. Which isn’t to say that they need to rubber stamp every alleged user. The should view them within the context of their times.”

— Jay Jaffe (www.si.com)

 

Not everyone feels this way, however.

“Unfortunately, Morgan’s letter comes at least one year too late, as the Baseball Writers last winter elected Pudge Rodriguez — an obvious steroids cheat if there ever was one… Hopefully Morgan’s plea will serve as a wakeup call for enough voters to keep saying no to Bonds and Clemens, although I suspect it will go on deaf ears to those who continue to vocally support them… I say bravo Joe Morgan for giving my BBWAA brethren the direction from the Hall they’ve been clamoring for. I only hope it resonates.”

— Bill Madden (New York Daily News)

“Even though I agree with Morgan and applaud him for being willing to put his name behind his beliefs, he’s a little late on this one… The other Hall of Famers who “feel so strongly” about PED users in the Hall should speak out as well… If this issue is that important to the Hall of Famers, let’s hear from the rest of them now.”

— Paul Sullivan (Chicago Tribune)

 

Just based on this limited sample, the writers seem to be staying in their respective corners. Madden and Sullivan did not vote for Bonds and Clemens in 2017; Sherman, Fagan and Lacques did. Jaffe, though one of the leading experts on the Hall of Fame, still doesn’t have a vote because he hasn’t been a BBWAA member for ten years yet. In the next month, as writers make their selections public (via Ryan Thibodeaux’s Hall of Fame tracker), we’ll see whether any are changing their positions on Bonds and Clemens.

 

Personally, I’ve always been in favor of Bonds and Clemens getting into the Hall of Fame but have wavered on whether I would actually vote for them or not were I accorded the honor of casting a ballot. If that position seems inconsistent, I’ll have much more on that topic in a month or so. You can see my reasoning as of 11 months ago on my original website, www.chrisbodig.com, in a post I wrote called Cooperstown’s Crumbling PED Wall.

For now I will say this: I’m inclined to agree with the “too little too late” aspect of Morgan’s plea to the writers. Although we don’t know for sure, it’s nearly certain that recent steroid abusers have been inducted into Cooperstown in just the last two years and highly likely that there are others from years past.

I understand Morgan’s position and wouldn’t blame him (and other older players) if there were a bit of bitterness and envy. Bonds and Clemens were obvious users and turned themselves from first-ballot Hall of Famers into all-time greats, at least statistically speaking. They also each made well over 100 million dollars while doing so. If older players don’t want Bonds and Clemens in their exclusive club, I understand how they feel even if I don’t agree with it.

Thanks for reading.

Chris Bodig

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