In Defense of the Character Clause

Taking character into consideration doesn't ruin the Hall's objectivity

“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.”

— BBWAA Hall of Fame election rules

 

It’s that time of year again—although come to think of it, didn’t we just go through this? The announcement that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens (and Curt Schilling) did not meet the threshold for Hall of Fame election, this time by their peers, has kicked off another round of debate of whether the best players of their generation (which is almost uncontested) should or should not be in the Hall of Fame.

Much of the ire is directed toward the BBWAA’s “character clause,” which instructs voters to take a player’s “integrity” and “character” into consideration for election.

Beyond suspected PED use as in the case of Bonds and Clemens, several of the stronger candidates on a statistical level in this cycle’s Hall of Fame vote have raised more than enough questions about their character and integrity. These won’t be the focus of this post, but I encourage further reading and context on Bonds’ domestic abuse allegations, Clemens’ alleged “relationship” with a minor, and Curt Schilling’s noxious views in the thoughtful and well-researched pieces that are linked.

Without addressing the specific cases of the candidates considered in this round of committee voting, “cheating”—however it is defined—and broader (and more serious) character issues should be considered as part of the Hall of Fame voting process.

Consider what the Hall of Fame is. “Hall of Fame voting” refers to induction into one small wing of the Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown that honors the greatest players (and contributors) to Major League Baseball.

I don’t believe players or those around the game who brought disrepute upon the game in their time or afterward can rightfully be considered its greatest contributors, either to the game or Major League Baseball. By withholding election into the Hall of Fame honorarium, those who exhibited poor character and integrity are simply not being held up as the stewards of the best the game has to offer. The players’ accomplishments, records, and highlights are featured throughout the museum, whether or not they are “enshrined” with a Hall of Fame plaque. We can appreciate the great play or moments these players exhibited while also deciding not to bestow the greatest honor their profession provides on them.

Alternately, we can reject the premise altogether that Hall of Fame must be taken so seriously as to warrant inflamed claims of justice or injustice. In which case, we should be able to honor who we want and when we want (or perhaps more appropriately, “they” want).

The character clause is imperfect, of course. It’s entirely subjective. I would argue this is a necessary feature of any Hall of Fame.

If the end goal is to honor the best on-field performance in a vacuum, well, we have that in WAR leaderboards. I’m not opposed to that, but once we agree that there are subjective measures (and WAR itself is not without subjectivity or bias; imperfect humans, after all, are deciding what is “valuable” about the game), it’s no longer out of bounds to consider character or integrity as part of the total package of a player.

Do I believe that players can positively contribute to their team inching closer to peak performance through leadership capabilities and skills? Yes. Do I think those things are measurable? I do not.

That simple premise argues for and demands a character clause in BBWAA voting. It acknowledges there are qualities and attributes that can contribute to winning (or losing) baseball games that are not necessarily statistically measured, and so they will require a subjective examination.

Perhaps the BBWAA should be more precise in its definition or intent in the character clause. However, allowing subjective criteria in itself is not unwarranted. Nor does its removal “fix” the issue of who belongs in the Hall of Fame.

It’s true that there are terrible characters in the Hall of Fame now. The terrible things that previous commissioners, players, and others did were not appropriately taken into consideration—in our modern context or any other context. That wrong should be righted, but if it isn’t, compounding the mistake isn’t the answer.

We look at historical events and people with a critical lens all the time, as we should. Baseball shouldn’t be any different. That’s not to say all those figures should not be acknowledged or recognized for their roles, contributions, or successes. Simply, we can place those figures in their appropriate context and decide not to memorialize them as the platonic ideal of their time.

The character clause provides additional context and nuance into awarding a lifetime platform and honor for MLB players and contributors. There can be no such thing as perfect objectivity in determining such notoriety, so why not allow for as much information as possible when bestowing it?

 

Featured image by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)

Sean Roberts

Sean Roberts is a contributor to Pitcher List and writes mostly about the Brewers at Sausage Racing Form. His work has been featured on Baseball Prospectus, the Hardball Times, and October. He's still getting used to the DH in the national league.

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