While almost every sport has a way of honoring all-time greats, there’s something special about the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. As any fan can tell you, though, it’s not easy deciding who deserves a plaque; while there are statistical thresholds that serve as general guidelines, nothing is cut and dry. In recent years, the “character clause, rather than batting average or pitching wins, has been at the heart of most debates.
But standard actually determines who deserves to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame? As of now, no one seems to be sure.
What is the Baseball Hall of Fame’s character clause?
When most sports fans consider all-time great players, they refer to cold, hard statistics. The Baseball Hall of Fame, however, encourages electors to consider another factor.
According to the Hall of Fame’s election rules, “voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.” That guideline, commonly known as the character clause, might sound simple, but it’s at the heart of countless disagreements.
Record, playing ability, and contributions to the team are all measurable; while you can argue whether wins, ERA, or any other metric best represents a pitcher’s contribution, there are tangible ways to support your beliefs. Integrity, sportsmanship, and character, however, are more hazy.
Gaylord Perry, for example, made it to the Hall of Fame despite doctoring baseballs. Countless players took “greenies” during their playing days but still reached Cooperstown. Neither of those actions, however, were apparently considered to damage anyone’s character or integrity.
Issues on the 2020 Hall of Fame Ballot
The most obvious sticking point is steroid use. Players like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, Manny Ramirez, and Roger Clemens all posted impressive numbers, but have also been accused of taking steroids. While Ramirez was suspended twice by Major League Baseball, the other men deny using performance-enhancing drugs. The issue is further complicated by the fact that Major Leauge Baseball looked the other way during the steroid era; if players weren’t punished at the time, should they be held accountable now?
The character clause has also been invoked around Curt Schilling. In 2012, the pitcher was sued by the state of Rhode Island after his video game company defaulted on a $75 million loan. More recently, he’s also shared plenty of hateful content—including transphobic, racist, and threatening memes and blog posts—on his social media channels.
The character clause comes down to how you feel about sports
When it comes to the Baseball Hall of Fame’s character clause, there are two schools of thought. One holds that pure performance trumps everything else; players are in Cooperstown for their on-field feats more than anything else. If someone like Shilling didn’t do anything wrong as a player, he shouldn’t be punished. The opposite argument contends that the character clause exists for a reason. Being enshrined in the Hall of Fame is an honor, and players need to live up to a certain standard both on and off the field; hateful behavior is still hateful behavior, whether it happened on the pitcher’s mound or well into retirement.
Things are further complicated by past precedent. Is Barry Bonds’ alleged steroid use, for example, different that amphetamine use? If performance-enhancing drugs are cheating, what about doctoring a ball?
At the end of the day, though, it’s up to each elector to decide how to enforce the character clause. No matter which side of the aisle you fall on, we’ll be having this debate for years to come.