Evan Grant was in Cooperstown for Pudge Rodriguez’s Hall of Fame induction and he got the chance to interview Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson. They talked about a lot of stuff, most of it not in any way controversial. At one point, however, Grant asked Idelson about his views on the famous “character clause” Hall of Fame voters are supposed to consider when assessing candidates.
People have talked about the character clause in a lot of different ways over the years. As many know, it was originally devised to give a boost to players whose on-the-field bonafides may have fallen short but who were exemplary off the field in some way. For decades it was ignored almost completely, at least in public discourse. In recent years, however, it came to be used as something of a cudgel via which otherwise worthy players were barred admittance if they were associated with performance enhancing drugs.
Idelson, however, has a different spin on it. One dealing with a couple of the most loaded and contradictory cliches in all of baseball: playing the game the “right way” and “respecting the game”:
Q: What is your definition of the “character” clause on the Hall of Fame ballot?
A: As I view it, character, integrity and sportsmanship is a guide for the writers to use when determining a players’ overall contribution to the game and it’s a part of the voting rules. I look at it as how [the player] respected the game on the field. It’s meant to be how did they treat the game, how did they respect the game? It’s not supposed to be a judgment on character away from the ballfield, although you hope everybody is a good character. Did they respect the game? Did they treat the game right, did they respect the uniform, did they play the game the right way? That’s what you want, is to make sure you don’t have somebody in here who didn’t respect the game. Did they succeed with a level playing field and achieve the level of elite athlete the right way? I’m often asked why baseball is held to this higher standard? In society, things have to have a set of standards. Why not baseball?”
We’ve talked about “playing the game the right way” and “respecting the game” for years, but no one has ever offered a definition of what those phrases means that is even remotely consistent. Most of the time it means “playing the game the way that does not piss me, the person who is mad at another player, off.” And, of course, there’s all sorts of historic racial baggage in which white players, regardless of how demonstrative they are on the field, are said to play the game the right way and black and Latin players who show exuberance and emotion are said to be “showboats” or allegedly lack respect for the game.
I do not think Idelson is trying to secretly codify a new standard of decorum for Hall of Fame induction here. I think he’s actually just leaning on some empty, shopworn cliches out of laziness. But he should know dang well that Hall of Fame voters have, for years, begged the Hall of Fame for guidance on what the “character clause” is supposed to mean and how it is supposed to be applied. If the comments of the Hall of Fame’s President cause even one voter to believe that, say, bat-flipping, celebrating or running afoul of some dumb unwritten rule is disqualifying for a player’s candidacy, he has committed a disservice to the game and to the Hall.