The Hall of Fame's fuzzy standards

Updated: September 12, 2010, 12:14 PM ET
By Buster Olney

When the Hall of Fame ballots are sent to writers every year, a 23-word paragraph that describes the voting standards is included:

    Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contribution to the team(s) on which the player played.

Two words in the middle of that paragraph -- "sportsmanship" and "character" -- are probably the reason Pete Rose's name was kept off the Hall of Fame ballot. Those two words are destined to shape the voting for the rest of our lives as the names of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rafael Palmeiro appear on the ballot.

There is no evidence that anybody has made it into the Hall of Fame based on his sportsmanship or character. Gil Hodges was, by all accounts, one of the game's best people, rock-solid in his treatment of others and the sport and deeply respected, and he was a pretty good player and manager. Yet his sportsmanship and character weren't given enough weight by the voters to earn him induction.

Dale Murphy was an MVP and a winner of the Gold Glove Award, but above and beyond his general excellence as a player, he was widely considered to be the pre-eminent representative of sportsmanship and character in his sport. Murphy may have been the Abraham Lincoln of sportsmanship and character; Murphy was a sportsmanship and character giant. Yet he's never gotten close to being inducted into the Hall of Fame.

So what do sportsmanship and"character really mean, based on the players who have gained induction?

Well, your guess is as good as mine.

Ty Cobb had a reputation as a virulent racist who was hated by teammates and opponents, and he once went into the stands to attack a disabled fan. He may have bet on a game but was cleared. He passed the sportsmanship and character tests for 98.23 percent of the voters.

Babe Ruth was a notorious womanizer who occasionally indulged himself so thoroughly that he was unable to play; the same was true for Mickey Mantle. They passed the sportsmanship and character tests.

Generations of players have used amphetamines, which would earn you a suspension today, and among those players are many current Hall of Famers. Many writers were aware of this, certainly, but that prodigious drug use wasn't enough to disqualify those players for a lack of sportsmanship or character.

Hell, Gaylord Perry has long admitted that he cheated; he wrote the book on cheating, which you can order here. And in 1991, he was deemed to have had enough sportsmanship or character to be voted into the Hall.

Joe DiMaggio was thought to be an indifferent teammate; Cal Ripken stayed in a separate hotel from the rest of the Orioles in the last years of his career; Ted Williams spat in the direction of fans. They all had enough sportsmanship and character to be inducted.

To review: Based on the precedents established in past voting, the acts of cheating, betting, beating, spitting, drinking, philandering and doping up do not earn disqualification on the sportsmanship and character standards.

Pete Rose bet on baseball, and for years, he lied about whether he bet on baseball. On Saturday, he broke down in tears and said he disrespected the game of baseball.

Is he sincere? Does he have real regret for betting and lies, or only over the fact that he was caught and that the consequences have been enormous?

I don't know.

But I do know that his conduct falls within the blurry bounds of the sportsmanship and character standards of other Hall of Famers -- standards so indefinite that they have been rendered meaningless. Except in the cases when the writers choose to invoke them, like bouncers standing outside an exclusive club and picking and choosing between the beautiful and the more beautiful and the most beautiful.

Sorry, but you don't have enough sportsmanship or character for my taste and are not worthy of joining Mr. Cobb or Mr. Ruth or Mr. Perry.

Rose had more hits than anybody in the history of the game. Give him a plaque in the Hall of Fame and include the No. 4,256 in bronze as well as the cold reality that he accepted lifetime banishment. Give Barry Bonds a plaque, include his home run and MVP totals and the fact that he was indicted for perjury related to testimony about steroids use.

Baseball history is not something that can be eliminated by sportsmanship and character.

After Rose was honored, he thanked the commissioner.

The Rose roast was mostly a lovefest.