Thursday, January 6, 2011

Is Jeff Idelson Lying or Incompetent? Either Way, He's Trying to Ruin the Hall

I sat down this evening and was all set to write a nice, light-hearted (if, hopefully, thought-provoking and properly shaming) response to The Common Man’s elegant but misguided manifesto on Morris and Hall of Fame voting from the other day.  I was looking forward to that, and I’ll still do it, maybe tomorrow.  

But just as I was sitting down to write that nice light-hearted post, I saw this Joe Posnanski piece in which he recaps a brief interview with Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson.  And as someone who, for whatever reason, cares deeply about the Hall of Fame and its history, standards and (continued or restored) relevance, this made me...saddened?  Angered?  Terrified?  Finally consider saving my sanity and abandoning the institution altogether?  Yeah, I suppose, all those things and then some.

See, it’s just a few quotes, but they were enough to make a few things clear.  One, Idelson either has no idea or is blatantly lying about the history of the institution for which he’s serving as president.  Two, Idelson has no problem simply making up things that are not true when it fits more neatly into his moral code.  And three...well, I’m not sure there needs to be a third thing.  That’s enough, isn’t it?

Let’s walk through it:

“Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong,” he says. “There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame.”  

What do you suppose he means by this?  More people care about various fairness and morality issues in baseball than in any other sport.  I think that’s true.  What’s clear is that these standards, historically, have not applied to the Hall of Fame, and that whatever else you might say was required of Hall of Famers, “integrity” has never been a part of it.

Really: I challenge you to name one player, not currently on the ballot, who plainly meets the Hall’s performance standards but was kept out due to “integrity” (or more generically, any “character”) reasons.  There’s Dick Allen (who peaked at 19%), but as amazing as Allen’s offensive line is, he was hardly a no-doubter, especially under the standards of the time.  Fewer than 2000 hits, fewer than 400 homers, fewer than 1200 RBI.  People make similar claims about Belle, but while Allen’s case based on his performance alone was borderline, Belle’s was just plain weak.  

On the other hand, think of all the great players about whom character and “integrity” certainly could have been a sticking point, but clearly were not.  Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby.  Tris Speaker was likely a KKK member.  Wade Boggs had that whole ugly “sex addict” thing.  Babe Ruth’s affinity for prostitution and all manner of other sins, of course, was well known by the writers when he was elected.  Ferguson Jenkins had drug problems.  And so on.

I don’t doubt that some writers view character as one minor consideration to be applied to guys who are on the borderline (at best) to begin with.  Maybe it helps keep Belle and Allen out, and helps get Kirby Puckett in.  But there’s a reason no one with 583 home runs or 3000 hits and 500 homers has ever been kept out by the BBWAA, and that reason, in a nutshell, is that Idelson is either lying here or just hopelessly ignorant about his own institution.  Historically, "integrity" just has not been a Hall of Fame issue.

“The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn’t there to evaluate and judge players socially. It’s there to relate to the game on the field.”

You’ll note that I cheated a little bit.  This quote immediately follows the above, and clearly anticipates the arguments I just made.  The reason I went through the above anyway, though, is that this is just clearly, unquestionably, 100% fabricated.  There is no support for this assertion, anywhere, period.  This is something you make up because you want to justify excluding a bunch of players under a theory that has never been applied before, despite countless opportunities to do so; without that, this is something that is simply never said.  It’s utter nonsense.

The “character clause” exists in this form: ““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.”  Really, it’s not a “clause” so much as three independent words: “integrity, sportsmanship, character.”  One of those, the middle one, pretty clearly refers to “the game on the field”; the other two sure seem to apply universally, and “character,” in particular, is a pretty difficult concept to apply to “the game on the field.”

And, of course, just as above, it’s never been applied that way.  There are two players, as everyone knows, who have been kept out for matters involving their integrity and/or character, but both were on MLB's permanently ineligible list before becoming eligible for the Hall, and I'm sorry, deciding not to bestow baseball's highest honor on someone who baseball has declared is unfit to be associated with the sport ever again isn't a character judgment, it's common sense.  We have no reason to believe that both Jackson and Rose wouldn't have sailed into the Hall had they not been on that list, with no change in the behavior that put them there.  

As Posnanski pointed out in a blog post the other day, he and Bill James both have a theory for how the “clause” came into being: “Our guess is that Kenesaw Mountain Landis may have written the Hall of Fame character clause to encourage people to vote for Eddie Grant,” a thoroughly mediocre player whose character and integrity Landis publicly admired after Grant was killed in World War I.  As Poz says, “it seems likely the clause was not put in to exclude as much as INCLUDE.”  And of course, dying in World War I is not something that "relate[s] to the game on the field."

The utter lack of precedent for excluding a player from the Hall based on character, on-field or off, certainly supports that construction.  And, of course, Grant never came close to getting in, and I don’t think anyone who wasn’t already at least borderline has ever gotten in because of character.  Really, the character clause appears to be most like one of those crazy laws you sometimes hear about, like that you’re legally prohibited from marrying your pet carrier pigeon in Michigan or something.  It's there, technically, but it serves no purpose at all.

Whatever you think its purpose was, though, it’s just blindingly, mind-explodingly clear that the character clause was not limited to actions on the field, and was certainly not intended to exclude players based on their on-the-field “character” or “integrity.”  Consider: Gaylord Perry’s regular cheating was viewed as a kind of joke, even while he was still active.  Many Hall of Famers from the 1960s and 70s were known to take amphetamines, a substance which undoubtedly enhanced their performance.  We all know about Roberto Alomar’s little display of character, of course.  Later-career Whitey Ford threw baseballs doctored by his catcher.  Cobb and John McGraw (a vets’ committee selection, but still) cheated in every possible way they could during baseball’s dirtiest decade.  Juan Marichal was standing right there on-field, using a piece of game equipment, when he tried to take another player’s head off.  Ruth got in fights with umpires, opponents, teammates, everybody.  These players all had real character and/or integrity issues, all relating to “the game on the field,” and had no real difficulty getting in.  Using the character clause in the way suggested by Idelson is completely without precedent, and runs counter to the established standards of the institution.

“When you look at the Hall of Fame elections,” he said, “you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time. We believe they work.”

I actually agree with this, almost completely.  There’s an era imbalance thanks to the Veterans’ Committee (interesting stuff on that here), but all in all, they -- especially the BBWAA -- have done a good job.  The players in the Hall of Fame, with some superfluous extras and a handful of puzzling omissions, do in fact represent the best of baseball in each era.  

So what’s puzzling, then, is why Idelson is totally okay with and seems to be advocating destroying that whole thing completely.  The reason that those who are elected are representative of the era and that the standards work is that those standards have not included this crazy, fabricated, moralizing, hopelessly subjective version of the character clause that Idelson unveils for the first time in world history in this interview.  

As Craig Calcaterra eloquently pointed out on Twitter (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), this stance threatens to completely undo exactly that continuous, representative nature Idelson is praising here.  The Hall president has no power to elect players, of course, but this warped and misleading view of the Hall's history and purpose has the potential to provide excellent fodder for writers who are already up in arms about steroids and searching for a way to justify their own over-the-top moralizing and hypocrisy.

If Idelson's view describes the way writers are going to be voting all of a sudden (and I guess they've kind of been doing it since 2007 already), you’re likely looking at a Hall where, among other things, the best position player and best pitcher of an entire era -- and both among the five or so best of all time, any way you slice it -- will go unrepresented in the institution meant to recognize the best players from each era.  And not for, say, breaking a rule posted in every clubhouse the punishment for which is known to be a permanent ban from the game -- not for breaking any rule of baseball at all -- but rather, because some writers got all haughty and decided that this would be a good time to invoke that heretofore totally dormant character clause.  

The Hall wouldn’t feel right had the writers in the 30s and 40s been a bunch of teetotalers and decided that Ruth’s character ought to keep him out.  Heck, it would seem weird without Cobb -- not because the man is particularly worth celebrating or remembering, but because his accomplishments most certainly are.  It would/will be similarly empty without Bonds or Clemens.  There was a reason the character clause was completely ignored back then, and as Idelson himself points out, that’s all worked out pretty well so far -- it’s a bit hard to think of a reason to go completely changing things now.

“I think when you look at who the writers have voted into the Hall of Fame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t belong there.”

Come on, man.  Now you’re just effing with us, right?


Chipmaker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chipmaker said...


Swing and miss on Jackson as candidate, though. Yes, the 1991 codification of Hall eligibility shuts him out, but he had already been shut out long ago. Jackson, while eligible, got two votes (2!) in the first election in 1936, and two more votes in the 1946 nominating election. And some of those earliest voters must have witnessed the 1919 World Series live and in person, giving them a first-hand perspective that cannot be recaptured.

Despite continued, mawkish, misplaced sentiment about the good hitter with the cute and memorable nickname, there is no standing for considering overturning history's long-rendered judgment upon Jackson's candidacy. He was dismissed in his turn.

The ban just gave Jackson proponents incentive to rail all the harder, as if some grave injustice were being perpetrated, which was not so.

Dale Sams said...

"this warped and misleading view of the Hall's history and purpose has the potential to provide excellent fodder for writers"

While I don't nessecerily agree with some of the hyperbole in this well-written post, I agree with the above 100%. The HOF should be edging towards helping us get past this era, and one way to do this is to get Bonds and Clemons in. By doing the opposite, we're gonna be debating this until doomsday.

lar said...

Excellent work, Bill. Not sure I can say much more than I agree with you.

I'm impressed you were able to come up with such a convincing argument using good examples of low-integrity/character guys with only a fleeting mention of Cobb. He is, after all, the poster boy of all of that. Being able to cite so many non-Cobbs just makes it better.

The Hammer said...

Puckett probably not the best exmaple to use when saying character helped him get in. It's like using O.J. as an example of a likable, charismatic guy. You may recall Kirby had more than his share of character issues later in life.

Bill said...

Chipmaker - yeah, I overreached a little on that one. I'll edit that.

The Hammer - you may recall that Puckett was already in the HOF later in life when those character issues arose. I don't think there's room for debate that the perception of his character, ca. 2001, helped him get in.

Mark Smith said...

Crap. Smackdown laid. It might be also noted that, while the writers haven't whiffed too much on who entered the Hall, they've whiffed on several who should be in.

Charles from Macon said...

I agree with the article in principle but I think what Idelson was getting at when he spoke to Posnanski was that there is a difference between being inducted into the Hall of Fame and having accomplishments noted in the Hall of Fame Museum.

You know this … as you walk through Cooperstown, you have the history museum where every facet of the game is represented,”
“That will not change. That’s the celebratory nature of the Cooperstown experience. But when it comes to players inducted, we feel strongly that the rules for election need to be where they are. …

Joe Jackson and Pete Rose are both noted in the Hall of Fame Museum despite their ineligibility to be inducted in the Hall of Fame. Bonds and Clemens may be no different (other than they will remain eligible).

The players that are perceived to be "clean" (Ken Griffey, Greg Maddux, randy Johnson, etc.) will be the ones that he may be referring to when he said,

“Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong,”
“There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

Rollo said...

I don't think the character clause is as big a factor as some believe. Let's say the character clause wasn't there. I think the voters, ordered to choose players based strictly on the numbers, would then say, ok, those numbers are fraudulent - I'm still not voting for the guy.

It's not that taking steroids reflects a character failing on the part of players who took them. In the context of Hall of Fame voting, it reflects a lack of authenticity in the statistics that supposedly are the basis of a player's Hall of Fame worthiness. It's not that everybody who played in the 1990s was an unsavory character, it's that the numbers the hitters put up in those years need to be questioned. Much the way a player hitting .330 every year in Coors Field should have his numbers questioned. They can't be trusted.

Incidentally, I used to live with Jeff Idelson's brother many years ago, and I met Jeff a few times. Real nice guy. He rose to the Hall's presidency from its public relations department, and I believe whatever stance he takes is in the interest of keeping the institution's image in good standing with the general public. And so he has taken this "uncontroversial" position. Not uncontroversial to Joe Posnanski, or scores of baseball bloggers, but uncontroversial to Joe Q Public, to whom Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro have been painted as the bad guys for many years now. Despite what these writers want, it's not Jeff Idelson's place to get on a soapbox and argue whether McGwire and Bagwell and others are being unfairly singled out. It's his job to present the Hall of Fame as a fun place, an uncontroversial place.

Bill said...

I won't deal with the "need to be questioned" idea (again), but let me just say this:

It's not my desire to impugn Idelson as a person in any way. I know absolutely nothing about him other than what appeared in Posnanski's article, and I'm sure he's a fine person and a passionate baseball fan. It's the comments I have a problem with, not the person.

And so he has taken this "uncontroversial" position. Not uncontroversial to Joe Posnanski, or scores of baseball bloggers, but uncontroversial to Joe Q Public, to whom Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmeiro have been painted as the bad guys for many years now.

People keep conflating the "postition" Idelson takes with the general condemnation of Mark McGwire and such. If that were what it was, I'd agree that it's uncontroversioal (if still wrong). But no, that's not what this article is about at all. It's that the things he said contained a number of blatantly obvious untruths about the Hall's historical standards, suggesting that there's any precedent at all for what the writers are doing right now. That doesn't strike me as "uncontroversial." It's just factually incorrect.