CSS Button No Image Css3Menu.com

Baseball Prospectus home
  
  
Click here to log in Click here for forgotten password Click here to subscribe

Premium and Super Premium Subscribers Get a 20% Discount at MLB.tv!

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Punk Hits: Why Do We F... (12/11)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Baseball ProGUESTus: A... (12/04)
Next Column >>
Baseball ProGUESTus: R... (12/18)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Western Front: Padres ... (12/11)

December 11, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

That Holden Caulfield Kind of Crap: The Historicity of the Hall of Fame Debate

by David Roher

Most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

David Roher is a former co-president of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective and an intern at Deadspin. He takes steroids for nasal allergies. Follow him on Twitter @davidroher.
 

The past changes all the time. I started following baseball in 1996, during what is now known as the “Steroid Era.” It wasn’t known that way at the time—if it had been, there might not have been a Steroid Era. But just a few years later, the term became widely recognized among fans and writers, with a general consensus that it peaked around the turn of the millennium. Through a mix of new evidence, analysis, and opinion, we got a de facto title for the latest chapter of baseball history.

The study of this phenomenon—how interpretations of the past appear, evolve, and compete—is called “historiography.” While the term is only common in academic writing, the concept is as ubiquitous as history itself: it’s hard to talk about the past (or even not to talk about the past) without considering how other people have done the same. With the current debate over the Hall of Fame ballot, the historiography of baseball has never been more relevant. The writers who are voting against Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens claim to be protecting history, but are instead revising it in an ahistorical way.

A Hall of Fame without Bonds and Clemens would be a radical departure from tradition. The Hall is filled with cheaters like Gaylord Perry, performance-enhancing-drug users like Hank Aaron, drug abusers like Mickey Mantle, and all-around-terrible people like Ty Cobb. The voting rules have always included requirements for “integrity, sportsmanship, [and] character,” but that wording has never prevented players of Bonds’ and Clemens’ caliber from getting a plaque. Nor has a vague suspicion of cheating precluded the induction of deserving players on the level of Jeff Bagwell.

Revising history can be a good thing: as new sources and analytical techniques develop, it’s important to apply them to the past as well as the present. Sabermetrics itself is revisionist. After developing better evaluation techniques in the 1980s, Bill James applied them as far back as the 19th century and found players who had been underrated for decades. Bert Byleven’s induction into the Hall is an example of historiography at work: though his historical record stayed the same, more and more writers voted for him as their interpretations of that record changed. Writers against Bonds and Clemens might argue that they are historical revisionists too, enforcing a new ethical standard that should have been in place since the beginning.

If that’s the case, then their focus should be on the whole of baseball history, not just the most recent part. Bonds’ and Clemens’ transgressions pale in comparison to those of the inductees who fought against racial integration, like Cobb and Kenesaw Mountain Landis. These writers should advocate for the removal of all players who set a bad example for children, like Mantle did with his alcoholism.

But the writers will never do that, because their case against steroid users has nothing to do with history and everything to do with their own nostalgia and insecurity. Just as the baseball establishment of the 1960s scrambled to find a way to keep Babe Ruth ahead of Roger Maris, it is now trying to find a way to keep Roger Maris ahead of Bonds and Mark McGwire. The naysayers are killing two birds with one stone: they’re assuring their inner child that Mantle and Mays are way better than the new cheaters, while assuring their outer adult that they’re mature enough to care about morality in sports.

In doing so, they’ve turned themselves into middle-aged Holden Caulfields trying to stop children from losing their innocence by pointing out all the phonies. “Things were better back then” doesn’t mean that things were better back in the ’60s, but rather that things were better when they were kids. It’s not a valid historical viewpoint.

In my opinion, the best baseball season ever was 1998, partly because of the home run chase and the Yankees’ 114 victories, but mostly because I was eight years old, and baseball will never be better than it was when I was eight years old. I was disappointed to learn that some of my favorite players had taken steroids, but I thought they were getting a raw deal from the executives who covered it up and from the media who should have seen it coming. I didn’t understand why there was moral outrage over the fact that Sammy Sosa cheated in a children’s game, but not over the fact that Sosa had to work as a child in order to support his family. The steroid scandal taught me that adults could be stupid too.

There is no point to me in visiting a Hall of Fame without the players who made me appreciate the history of baseball, and eventually history itself. Mark McGwire made me want to learn about Roger Maris. Roger Clemens got me interested in Walter Johnson. Barry Bonds led me to the sordid legacy of the sports media’s treatment of black players. They also taught me that people were flawed, and that learning from their mistakes was just as important as learning from their success. Without them, Cooperstown will be devoid of both nostalgia and history, and its selectively whitewashed interpretation of the past will become increasingly irrelevant.

Related Content:  Hall Of Fame,  Steroids

11 comments have been left for this article.

<< Previous Article
Premium Article Punk Hits: Why Do We F... (12/11)
<< Previous Column
Premium Article Baseball ProGUESTus: A... (12/04)
Next Column >>
Baseball ProGUESTus: R... (12/18)
Next Article >>
Premium Article Western Front: Padres ... (12/11)

RECENTLY AT BASEBALL PROSPECTUS
Premium Article What You Need to Know: August 27, 2014
Premium Article Minor League Update: Games of Tuesday, Augus...
Premium Article The Prospectus Hit List: Wednesday, August 2...
Fantasy Article Dynasty Dynamics: Progress Report: Prospect ...
Fantasy Article They Hold No Quarter: Third Basemen
Premium Article AFL 2014
The Lineup Card: Seven September Call-ups We...

MORE FROM DECEMBER 11, 2012
Overthinking It: The Royals, the Rays, and t...
Premium Article Rumor Roundup: Tuesday, December 11
Premium Article Western Front: Padres Break Bank, Won't Pay ...
Premium Article Punk Hits: Why Do We Fear The Beard?
Fantasy Article The Keeper Reaper: Second, Short, and Catche...

MORE BY DAVID ROHER
2012-12-11 - Baseball ProGUESTus: That Holden Caulfield K...
More...

MORE BASEBALL PROGUESTUS
2013-01-15 - Baseball ProGUESTus: Why Baseball Players Ge...
2013-01-08 - Baseball ProGUESTus: How Far Did That Fly Ba...
2012-12-18 - Baseball ProGUESTus: Remembering the 2003 Ti...
2012-12-11 - Baseball ProGUESTus: That Holden Caulfield K...
2012-12-04 - Premium Article Baseball ProGUESTus: Anatomy of a Trade: The...
2012-11-27 - Baseball ProGUESTus: What Mainstream Basebal...
2012-11-20 - Baseball ProGUESTus: The Value of Good Coach...
More...