The first bit of baseball trivia I ever committed to memory was the Hall of Fame’s inaugural class: Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Babe Ruth and Honus Wagner. I was around 10, and at the time, Cooperstown was my Mecca. Now it’s more like my Minneapolis, a place I’d gladly visit but without any real sense of awe.
A lot changed between the days when I treated the first Hall of Famers as deities and today, when I shrugged my shoulders at the announcement that Pedro Martinez, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Craig Biggio will be enshrined in June. Chiefly, Cooperstown transformed from a museum meant to recognize baseball’s greatest players into a museum meant to recognize baseball’s greatest players who adhered to an arbitrary moral code. It was an unexpected turn for an institution that’s inducted dozens of amoral assholes, but the Baseball Writers' Association of America has gotten mighty conservative in its old age. How else to explain excluding players who took banned substances while allowing kids to lionize a racist prick who once stabbed a black hotel employee?
The irony of the BBWAA’s sanctimonious stand is that leaving out players like Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens hasn’t kept the Hall pure; it’s delegitimized it. Bonds and Clemens are arguably the greatest hitter and pitcher to ever play the game. That they used performance enhancing substances to achieve those distinctions is hardly relevant. Especially when you consider the number of other players doing those same substances at the same time. Especially when you consider the substance habits of unimpeachable greats like Hank Aaron. Especially when you consider the difference between drugs that keep you healthy and drugs that help you hit a slider, which don’t exist.
This arbitrary line, which extends far beyond known users, isn’t just weakening the Hall of Fame by who it excludes. It’s also allowing writers to enshrine fringe candidates like Jim Rice and Andre Dawson. Before a bumper crop of worthy candidates became eligible last year, the BBWAA’s abhorrence of PEDs had them scrambling for guys to let into the Hall. Nevermind that they denied Rice entry 14 times before finally deciding that it was better to enshrine a untainted good player than a juiced-up great one.
Ultimately, I can’t help but come back to one sentiment every time I find myself mired in a debate about the sanctity of the Hall of Fame or a particular player’s worthiness: It doesn’t really matter. If baseball writers want the Hall of Fame to be about morality, that’s their prerogative. But as a fan, it’s hard to care too much about who’s in the Hall of Fame. A plaque in Cooperstown, or the absence of one, doesn’t change my memories of player’s greatness. Take Mike Piazza, who I adored when I was growing up. Watching a catcher drafted in the 62nd round hit .360 is part of the reason I’m obsessed with baseball today. That Piazza will not be in Cooperstown come June, changes none of that.
Photos by The Sporting News / Getty Images