How I learned to stop worrying and love the Dale Murphy Hall of Fame case
When it comes to voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the discourse each year is less and less about a player’s on-field accomplishments and more and more about the “character clause.” We have to put it in quotes because there’s nothing actually called the character clause in the Hall’s rules. In fact, of the 665 words under “BBWAA Rules for Election” on the Hall of Fame’s website, only 26 of them actually pertain to how voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America should determine whom to vote for:
5. Voting: 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.
That’s it — s the “character clause” is actually just the character word, leaving voting writers to determine what constitutes character and how much it counts compared to the other criteria. Some voters have relinquished their voting rights over this; others grapple with it either publicly or privately.
There’s definitely no consensus on what it means, though. Just in this most recent election, the character clause was invoked to some degree on at least nine candidates: Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Omar Vizquel, Todd Helton, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa and Andy Pettitte. There’s a decent chance that, for at least some voters, the personalities of Jeff Kent and Scott Rolen came into play, too. When you have 25 players on the ballot and all of the best ones have some sort of character clause concerns, that’s a recipe for zero elections, which is what we got this year.
I don’t think I’m even saying that’s a bad thing. I definitely don’t think it’s a good thing, though.
Part of this is just the Hall’s unwillingness or inability to formally decide what it wants to be. The character clause has been part of the formal voting criteria from the time it was first written down in the 1940s and part of the informal criteria for the decade elections were held before that. Yet, there are cheaters in the Hall of Fame. There are racists, bad teammates and drug users, including almost certainly performance-enhancing drugs. A poorly defined and unevenly enforced policy is probably a bad policy.
But that’s a column for another day.
What I want to talk about today is this: Why do we only use the character clause to keep players out of the Hall of Fame?