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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.