It’s important that I start with a short diatribe on my philosophy regarding the Baseball Hall of Fame.
I believe the Hall is a museum of the sport. It’s not a cathedral where only the sainted may enter. It is a museum of greatness and therefore should include all of those players, executives, coaches, etc. who made a powerful and lasting impact on the game.
Not all athletes are role models. They shouldn’t have to be. They are human beings, and ones who have often been hyper-focused on chasing a specific goal their entire lives. That doesn’t necessarily breed well-rounded humans, though many baseball players are fine idols for young people. Find a Nobel-winning epidemiologist whose poster you can hang in your child’s room, if you like.
I say all of this because of the tricky “character clause”, Rule 5 handed down to Hall of Fame voters that urges them to make moral judgments on the athletes they vote into a museum. I don’t believe in keeping someone out of the Hall because he drank or swore or even committed a felony. If he is otherwise deserving, vote him in, and use his plaque to tell the truth about the person in question, warts and all.
Which brings me to the letter Joe Morgan sent to baseball writers beseeching them to bar steroid users from Cooperstown. My position on the “character clause” is to can it, but even withstanding Rule 5, is a steroid user necessarily a morally abject person? In an MLB culture where the stuff pervaded clubhouses around the league, should an entire generation of players be kept out of the museum in upstate New York? Or, is Morgan a hypocrite, galloping in astride the highest horse in the land to draw a line between those who altered their bodies with anabolic steroids and those who did it with amphetamines or cocaine or God-knows-what-else at a time when sportswriters didn’t give a hoot?
I’ll address the specific cases in the pages that follow, but I thought you should know the criteria I used to winnow down by 20: performance on the field as measured by stats, contemporary observers, and a useful tool called JAWS; and impact on the game of baseball in some off-the-field way.
*All stats per baseball-reference.com
20. Gary Sheffield
Sheffield’s ferocious bat waggle sticks in my mind as one of the most memorable batting stances of the ‘90s. Really it was more of a menacing animal warning sign, cautioning pitchers to steer clear. Largely, they weren’t able to, as Sheff went on to rack up some very impressive career counting stats: 509 home runs, 1,676 RBI, 253 steals, 2,689 hits – all while carrying a .292/.393/.514 slash line. But he was never the best player in the game, or really even in the top handful, despite a few top-five MVP finishes. Had he been a good enough defender to stick at third base, his Cooperstown case would be much stronger, but as an outfielder, his offensive numbers just don’t seem as impressive. That 500 home run threshold ain’t what it used to be, and the BBWAA voters have acknowledged that, as Sheffield has languished on the ballot, topping out at 13.3% of the vote in his third go-round last year.
19. Ted Simmons
Simmons is one of the best catchers of all time, but isn’t exactly a household name for most baseball fans. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS system has him ranked 10th out of all catchers, ahead of seven different Hall of Famers. So why did he barely get any ballot support when it was his time? He was overshadowed by Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Gary Carter during his playing days. Now the eight-time All-Star finds himself on the Modern Era Committee ballot, with a chance at the fair look that he never got. He was a stronger hitter than defender, which probably hurt his odds when the BBWAA only gave him 3.7% of the vote in 1994. He’s definitely an underdog to make it, but there’s a very valid argument here.