On Performance Enhancement and the Rights of Private Institutions

Every July, the National Baseball Hall of Fame inducts a new class of players, coaches, front office personnel and media members into its ranks. The 2013 ballot included the following newly eligible players:

A. A five-time Silver Slugger Award1winner, a four-time Gold Glove Award2 winner, a seven-time All-Star with 3,060 hits (21st all-time), 1,844 runs scored (15thall-time), 668 doubles (5th all-time), and the only player in Major League Baseball (MLB) history with at least 3,000 hits, 600 doubles, 400 stolen bases and 250 home runs
B. Owner of 609 career home runs (8thall-time) and 1,667 runs batted in (27th all-time) with three of the top-ten single-season home run totals ever (66 in 1998, 64 in 2001 and 63 in 1999)
C. The single season (73 in 2001) and all-time (762) home run leader with 2,227 runs scored (3rd all-time), 1,996 runs batted in (4th all-time), a career Wins Above Replacement Player (WAR)3 of 162.5 (2nd all-time), with two single-season WARs in the top ten all-time (2nd only to the legendary Babe Ruth)
D. A ten-time Silver Slugger Award winner and 12-time All-Star with the most home runs (396), highest slugging percentage4(.545) and highest on-base plus slugging percentage5 (.922) among catchers all-time
E. A pitcher with 354 career wins (9thall-time), a 139.4 career WAR (3rd all-time), 4,672 career strikeouts (3rd all-time), 7 Cy Young Awards6 (most all-time), and 1 American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award
F. A pitcher with an 80.7 career WAR (26thall-time), 3,116 strikeouts (15th all-time), and a career 11-2 post-season record with a 2.23 earned run average7,8,9

By all accounts, it is one of the most accomplished first-ballot groups ever. And this month none of them, nor any other player on the ballot, will enter the Hall of Fame.

On Performance Enhancement and the Rights of Private Institutions
Barry Bonds [12]
Inductees are elected to the Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA). Each year, writers may vote for zero to ten eligible players, with voting based “upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”10 According to BBWAA writer Tom Verducci, “when I vote for a player I am upholding him for the highest individual honor possible. My vote is an endorsement of a career, not part of it, and how it was achieved.”11 Of the six newly eligible players above, Sammy Sosa (Player B), Barry Bonds (C), Mike Piazza (D) and Roger Clemens (E) have all been linked to steroid use. Craig Biggio (A) and Curt Schilling (F) have largely escaped suspicion. Yet by their voting, it appears many BBWAA writers believe an entire era of baseball history bears the stain of steroid use.

But even if conclusive proof existed that a certain player used steroids or other artificial enhancements during his career, should that act alone preclude him from admission to the Hall? Consider the following definition of “cheat” from Collins English dictionary:

  1. to deceive or practise deceit, esp for one’s own gain; trick or swindle (someone) …
  2. intr to obtain unfair advantage by trickery, as in a game of cards.13

So did steroid users cheat? Did they commit acts of deception? It is hard to argue users deceived other players. 1996 National League MVP and admitted steroid user Ken Caminiti estimated about half his coworkers were using some form of performance-enhancing drug during the 1990s.14 Former slugger and steroid user Jose Canseco put the number as high as 85%.15 Players can’t help but know who’s using when they all share the same locker room.

Members of the media do not have quite the same level of access as do players, but reporters did discover a bottle of the supplement androstenedione in Mark McGwire’s locker during his 1998 chase of the then-single-season home run record. Now banned by MLB and most other competitive athletics organizations, andro was legal in 1998 and could be bought over the counter. In any case, reporters were not completely in the dark about the use of performance-enhancing supplements in baseball.

Fans, despite having even less insider access than the media, were not entirely deceived either. We read the news stories. We could surmise there might be a larger problem that a single bottle of an OTC supplement in one player’s locker. Many of us chose to ignore the issue. Perhaps more players than we imagined used steroids, but we cannot claim we were ignorant of their use altogether.

Did steroid users obtain an unfair advantage? Until 1991, when Commissioner Fay Vincent issued a memo to team owners prohibiting steroids, Major League Baseball did not explicitly ban steroids and similar performance-enhancing drugs, although steroid use remained illegal in the United States. And between 1991 and 2002, no MLB player was penalized for steroid use.16 As an analogy, imagine the speed limit in your state is fifty-five miles per hour, but your home city does not post speed limit signs or enforce violations within fifteen miles per hour of the legal limit. If you are driving on a highway in your city and the majority of traffic is traveling at about sixty-five miles per hour, do you obtain an unfair advantage by driving sixty-five? While one could easily make a case that taking the shoulder to avoid traffic would be obtaining an unfair advantage, it is more difficult to argue that you obtain an unfair advantage by driving sixty-five, even though doing so technically violates the state limit. Taking the shoulder when everyone else is stuck in traffic benefits you alone, while others are expected to obey the law. Driving sixty-five miles an hour along with the majority of traffic does not similarly advantage you to the detriment of others.

Mere rule-breaking is not sufficient for a charge of cheating. A batter who runs from home plate to third base breaks the rule of baseball that directs him to run to first, but he does not cheat because he does not gain an advantage by this infraction. Likewise, baseball players routinely act as though they have caught a fly ball that has actually touched the ground, thereby contradicting the rule that a fly ball must be caught in the air to be considered an out. Yet this act is cheating only in the sense that the player attempts to deceive the umpire. The player obtains an advantage by his act, but since this practice is so common in baseball it can hardly be deemed unfair. Because it is commonly accepted that fielders will attempt this ploy, doing so does not constitute an unfair advantage.

Yet while steroid users may not have been cheaters in the strictest sense of the term, they did use an illegal, banned product to exaggerate whatever accomplishments they might have attained naturally. And that choice, for writers like Verducci, is enough to bar them from admission to the Hall. “This one ballot is my judgment,” he writes. “I am being asked to be ‘judge’ or juror, in the parlance of some writers uncomfortable with responsibility, but I am only one of many hundreds.”17 Verducci points to the Hall’s instructions to its voters, a clause inspired by Alexander Cleland, the man with the original idea for the Hall of Fame. On learning of plans to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the invention of baseball in 1939 in Cooperstown, New York, Cleland proposed building a baseball museum in Cooperstown with a wing dedicated to the game’s all-time greats. Cleland’s initial instructions for voters included consideration of a player’s character.18

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is exactly what its title proclaims, a museum and a hall of fame. Museums are objective, physical exhibitions of history. Halls of fame, by the subjective nature of “fame,” are not governed by the same criteria. While Bonds’ records and his presumed use of performance enhancers exist as facts in a complete history of baseball, there is room for debate about his worthiness for the Hall of Fame. The part of the National Baseball Museum reserved for the Hall of Fame acts like a private institution in which membership is granted based on standards created and interpreted by a group of individuals. As such, it seems to fall under the same ethical standards as other private institutions.

By way of comparison, the objective history of Catholicism includes both the Crusades and the acts of the saints. Yet the Catholic Church can choose how it interprets and values these events and can restrict membership to those it deems worthy. As a private institution, it can refuse to perform or recognize same-sex marriages. The Church defines the term “marriage” to signify the union between a man and a woman, just as the Hall of Fame defines the term “fame” to signify both playing ability and integrity of character.19 But private institutions cannot infringe on the policies of public or other private institutions. The Catholic Church can no more prevent a Jewish temple from performing same-sex marriages than the Hall of Fame and BBWAA can prevent a separate baseball museum from including steroid users in a wing dedicated to the game’s all-time greats.

On Performance Enhancement and the Rights of Private Institutions
Roger Clemens [20]
Public institutions, on the other hand, are (or should be) required to safeguard equal rights for all. Same-sex couples who wish to wed should receive all the rights enjoyed by heterosexual pairs, just as all races and genders should share an equal right to vote. Yet just as churches reserve the right to limit membership and perform religious ceremonies to those they choose, so too may the Hall of Fame determine the standards for enshrinement. Same-sex couples may find another venue to certify their union. Those who admire the accomplishments of Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, artificially-enhanced and otherwise, may find their own way to honor them if the Hall deems them unworthy. But whatever private institutions decide, no one will erase the facts of historical record or the truths of race, gender and sexuality.

Tom Verducci offers an eloquent defense of the integrity of character of those enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Many writers and fans share his view, while others hold that exceptional statistical achievements alone merit a player’s entry, perhaps with certain caveats added to chemically-enhanced records to moderate their brilliance. That both views are legitimate highlights the different rights of public and private institutions. Because private bodies may govern themselves according to subjective inclinations, there is room for debate as to how to weigh and apply these inclinations. A similar debate exists within public bodies, but this discourse is based on different interpretations of the natural rights of individuals and not on personal feeling or bias. As a private institution, the National Baseball Hall of Fame has the right to impose its own criteria for enshrinement and to interpret these criteria however it sees fit.


  1. The Silver Slugger Awards are given annually to the best offensive player at each position in each league.
  2. The Gold Glove Awards are given annually to the best defensive player at each position in each league.
  3. WAR is “a single number that presents the number of wins the player added to the team above what a replacement player [minor leaguer or bench player] would add.” (“Single-Season Leaders & Records for Wins Above Replacement.” Baseball-Reference.com. 2013. Online. 1 June 2013. http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/WAR_season.shtml.)
  4. Slugging percentage is the average number of bases a hitter earns per plate-appearance.
  5. On base plus slugging percentage is the sum of on-base percentage, or how often a hitter reaches base per plate appearance, and slugging percentage.
  6. The Cy Young Award is given annually to the best pitcher in each league.
  7. Earned run average is the number of runs a pitcher allows which are not the result of a fielding error per nine innings
  8. Perry, Dayn. “Ranking the 2013 Hall of Fame candidates.” CBSSports.com Eye on Baseball. 28 Dec. 2012. Online. 1 June 2013. http://www.cbssports.com/mlb/blog/eye-on-baseball/21463726/ranking-the-2013-hall-of-fame-candidates.
  9. “Overall Baseball Leaders & Baseball Records.” Baseball-Reference.com. 2013. Online. 1 June 2013. http://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders.
  10. “BBWAA Election Rules.” National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. Online. 1 June 2013. http://baseballhall.org/hall-famers/rules-election/bbwaa.
  11. Verducci, Tom. “Why I’ll never vote for a known steroids user for the Hall of Fame.” Sports Illustrated Inside Baseball. 8 Jan. 2013. Online. 1 June 2013. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/mlb/news/20130108/hall-of-fame-ballot-steroids-mark-mcgwire-barry-bonds-roger-clemens/?sct=uk_t11_a4#all.
  12. “bonds.” Image. Online. 15 June 2013. http://0.tqn.com/d/baseball/1/0/t/P/-/-/bonds.jpg.
  13. “Cheat.” Collins English Dictionary. http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/cheat.
  14. Verducci, 2013.
  15. Canseco, Jose. Juiced: Wild Times, Rampant ‘Roids, Smash Hits, and How Baseball Got Big. New York: It Books, 2006.
  16. Epstein, David. “The Rules, the Law, the Reality: A primer on baseball’s steroid policy throughout the years.” Sports Illustrated. 16 Feb. 2009. Online. 3 June 2013. http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/ MAG1151761/.
  17. Verducci, 2013.
  18. Ibid.
  19. I use this analogy to draw comparisons between the rights of private institutions to restrict memberships, not to suggest homosexuality is a defect of character or lapse of integrity, as some believe of steroid use.
  20. “roger_clemens_2004_walking_off_mound_photofile.” Image. Online. 15 June 2013. http://www.posters.ws/images/933986/roger_clemens_2004_walking_off_mound_photofile.jpg.