The Hall of Fame and engaging history


Wednesday’s announcement that no players would receive the honor of induction into the Hall of Fame was easy to see coming. Still, the bitter feeling of emptiness, the sense that the squabbling between various factions would result in nothing–no honorees at all–was newly galling all the same.

Not only were Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens rather emphatically denied, but vote totals were depressed for those simply associated with the offensive boom of the era, and old-school-friendly speedster Kenny Lofton couldn’t even scrape the five percent necessary to stay on the ballot. No could even be bothered to rally behind Alan Trammel.

An attempt to memorialize worthy players while simultaneously taking a hard line against PEDs would have been awkward and incomplete, but instead in their confusion, hand-wringing and scattershot protests, BBWAA voters produced a blank void.

Maybe that’s the intention, to shut out the whole era from the Hall, and all the ambiguity and disillusion it brought. It’s certainly a more feasible plan than to attempt to retroactively prosecute and judge an unregulated era with scant evidence available. But when it comes to dealing with difficult moments in history by refusing to acknowledge it, I abhor the method far more than I could the motivation.

In a beautifully evocative piece on Crashburn Alley, Bill Baer recalled watching Barry Bonds at his prime, and emphasized the permanence of those memories over all subjective accolades.

"“Bonds’ not being inducted into the Hall of Fame does not diminish my memory of that night, or of him as a player or as a person.…Kenny Lofton, for example, received only 3.2 percent of the vote and will not have another chance despite compelling credentials. Will you forget about Lofton’s incredible defense? Will you forget about the sheer terror he created for pitchers when he was on the base paths (622 career steals, 79.5 percent success rate)?…The Hall of Fame is not the Ministry of Truth. The emotions you felt watching these players — the excitement, the frustration, the joy — was real, and an organization of self-indulgent sportswriters will never have agency over that.”"

The steroid era happened. It was part of our collective baseball history, and figured prominently in the legacies of some of the greatest players over a period that stretched over a decade. To attempt to scrub it away and refuse to process and assess what happened is not just dishonest, Colin Wyers points out that it’s against the stated purpose of the institution:

"“The Hall is dedicated to preserving history, honoring excellence and connecting generations of baseball fans.The debate over the latest slate of players focuses on the second point, and focuses on the idea of honoring rather than the idea of excellence. Writers seem reticent to honor players who they believe engaged in questionable conduct, and that’s understandable and, to an extent, admirable.But that narrow focus ignores the other parts of the Hall’s mission.”"

Involving Bonds and Clemens-types in the Hall shouldn’t be done without context. Indeed, it should be done with as much as possible, and it’s easy to see why the idea of a joyous and jubilant induction ceremony strikes the wrong chord in this regard.

But the alternative that the BBWAA stepped toward offers no resolution at all, it simply pushes the issue down the road for the Hall itself to determine the proper treatment. For a period of baseball history as transformative and influential to the way the game is conceived today, that just won’t do.

Follow James Fegan on Twitter @JRFegan