Hall of Fame Ethics: The Jeff Bagwell Dilemma

Members of the Baseball Writers Association of America have been turning in their ballots for the Hall of Fame, their collective totals eventually determining which retired major league baseball stars will have plaques in Cooperstown. If you follow baseball closely, you are aware of the big debates this year: Is Tim Raines worthy? Will Bert Blyleven finally make it? Has Alan Trammel been unfairly neglected? What about Jack Morris and Roberto Alomar? If you don’t follow baseball, you couldn’t care less, and I pity you. One controversy this year, however, should be of interest to non-fans as well as fans, because it involves the proper application of the ethical principles of fairness and equity in an environment of doubt. It is the Jeff Bagwell dilemma.

Bagwell, who played first base for the Houston Astros from 1991 to 2005, compiled lifetime batting statistics that warrant election to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. There are some fans, even some writers, who will argue that point, but they are simply wrong. He was a dominant offensive player in the National League, playing much of his career in a terrible hitter’s park, who did not become especially famous because he stayed with one, not very prominent, not very popular, not very good team for his whole career. If he had played in Boston, New York or Los Angeles, he would have been as familiar and as famous as Alex Rodriquez or Manny Ramirez.

Yet he will not be elected to the Hall this year, and the reason is this: Jeff Bagwell played his entire career during the so-called steroid era, when players like Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and others chemically mutated themselves into ball-crushing behemoths using illegal and banned substances, aided and abetted by a lazy press, complicit team mates, negligent baseball officials, and shady drug dealers. Those players were cheaters, and harmed the game of baseball and the integrity of the sport grievously. They should be denied admission to the Hall of Fame on that basis alone, whatever their unenhanced talents may have been, or how long they used drugs, or why. The standards for Hall enshrinement are very clear on this point:

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.

Integrity, sportsmanship, and character are not consistent with cheating. If you don’t like that criteria, fine: change it. Football’s Hall of Fame has no such character requirements. But as long as baseball’s Hall does, the writers who argue that steroid use shouldn’t matter are ignoring the official qualifications.

It is settled, then: baseball’s steroid-users do not belong in the Hall of Fame, no matter how great their achievements on the field were, no matter how much or how little they were helped by their drug use, and no matter what rationalizations they have adopted to excuse it. There is, however, no evidence that Jeff Bagwell used steroids or any other banned substance.


Suspicion? Oh, there is plenty of that, though nothing approaching the mega-mountain of circumstantial evidence that has all but the most stubborn Barry Bonds defenders convinced that he was truly baseball’s king of performance enhancing drug abuse. In contrast, Bagwell’s imputed cheating rests on five dubious factors:

  1. He started out slim, and became huge during his prime, a pattern which other steroid users exhibited.
  2. He lifted weights like a bodybuilder, and bodybuilders often use steroids.
  3. He played during an era in which many of the sluggers who put up equivalent power numbers were later shown to have used PED’s.
  4. Late in his career, when there was increased emphasis on drug-testing and anti-steroid enforcement, Bagwell became noticeably lighter, suggesting to some that he had abandoned illegal substances to avoid being caught.
  5. His body finally broke down, as many steroid users’ bodies do.

In short, guilt by association. He was an impressive slugger at a time when many of the impressive sluggers cheated. Bagwell never tested positive for banned drugs. His name was not mentioned in the Mitchell Report, Major League Baseball’s admittedly incomplete and flawed study of PED abuse by players during Bagwell’s era. No player or former player, including Designated Vengeful Snitch Jose Canseco, ever accused him of using steroids. He lifted weights like a bodybuilder, but weight training, separately from weight training with steroids, was and is an accepted method of improving athletic performance. Bagwell got big, but he trained and ate to get big, and could have done so by those factors alone…plus natural maturation. He lost weight later in his career, but aging players have chosen to slim down to compensate for diminishing mobility and ailing joints for decades. His body indeed broke down, but that happens to drug cheats and clean players alike.

What is keeping Bagwell off of Hall of Fame ballots right now is the widespread belief that because of the dishonest, surreptitious, egregious use of illegal substances by so many of his colleagues, outstanding performers from his era are presumed to be cheats absent any evidence whatsoever. I understand the impulse. This is what Bonds, McGwire, Clemens et al. have done to their colleagues, and it stinks. It is also one more reason why their steroid use should not be forgiven or excused, ever. What is happening to Bagwell now, however, is no more or less than bigotry…a projection of individual misconduct onto the group the individuals belong to as a group characteristic, which is then imputed to all other members of the group. Islamic radicals commit terrorist acts; they are Muslims; Muslims are then presumed to be potential terrorists, making every Muslim, without any other evidence, a potential terrorist. Is it more likely that Bagwell, playing during the steroid era as he did, used banned performance enhancing drugs than a slugger from the 1940’s, just as an individual Muslim is more likely to harbor terrorist plans than a Methodist? Of course. If I can only test a segment of players for drug use, is it reasonable to want to test the players who hit and look like Jeff Bagwell, rather than guys who weigh 170 and hit 12 home runs a year? Sure, just as it is reasonable to choose to screen Middle Eastern men in their 20’s rather than Norwegian pre-teens at airports.

Withholding an honor, however, based on nothing more than membership in a group containing misbehaving individuals cannot be defended. Many Hall of Fame voters are taking what they call a “wait and see” approach, fearful that they will anoint Bagwell or another player only to have it subsequently revealed that he was indeed a steroid cheat.  That is unfair, when there is no pending controversy to be decided. Pass a rule that allows the BBWAA to throw cheats out of the Hall of Fame when and if new evidence comes out, whenever it comes out. Then, at least, a player will be excluded based on facts rather than random suspicion.

I am not, I have to emphasize, making the argument being floated by some supporters of Bagwell who are also steroid apologists, who assert that it would be a travesty for a whole generation of outstanding players to be excluded from baseball’s Hall of Fame because of the steroid scourge. A travesty? The travesty would be including in a Hall of Fame, created to honor sportsmen and heroes, individuals who lied, cheated, and stole from fans, fellow players and the game they represented. If every single player who starred in the steroid era was juiced, then none of them are worthy of the Hall. Keep them out.

Jeff Bagwell, however, deserves to be treated as a baseball great who did none of those things, because there is no evidence to the contrary. It is unethical to keep him out of the Hall of Fame because of the bad character of his colleagues.

3 thoughts on “Hall of Fame Ethics: The Jeff Bagwell Dilemma

  1. Using substances before they were banned, as many players did, is different than using them after they were banned. If the first case is cheating, all the players who used greenies from the 40s on need to be out of the Hall of Fame as well. There’s a long history in Baseball of using performance enhancing drugs. it was an open secret. Once substances were banned though, further use was clearly cheating. Of the players that used pre-ban, any that adamantly claimed they didn’t use (see Palmeiro) would still have violated the general ethics. I’m fine with them being held out.

    Whether Bags used or didn’t use while it was legal seems immaterial to me. If naysayers are going to use his weight changes as extremely circumstantial evidence of his guilt, I would respond that it is evidence of his honesty and willingness to play by the rules as they exist on any given day. Do we keep 1920s spitballers out of the Hall of Fame? Of course not.

    • I’ve written so many pieces on this issue, I’m not up for re-hashing it now, except for this: if he substances were illegal (and they were), banning them was simply a formality. Baseball can’t negate a law by not endorsing it. Using an illegal PED that isn’t officially banned is as much cheating as using one that is…a law-abiding player should not be at a disadvantage. The greenie vs, steroid issue is a lot tougher for me; I think steroids are worse, but I’m not yet secure enough in my reasoning to explain why. Actually, I’ve promised an article on this to another website.

      But the banned vs unbanned argument…not Barry’s strongest.

      • Barry was subverting the rules. There’s no question on him.

        Greenies were widely used while they were illegal in the U.S., so that to me seems a level worse than players using Andro or other legal steroids. The major difference between how we look at greenies and steroids is based on how they were reported. There was no media kerfluffle around greenies, but there was one around steroids. I want to make steroids worse, but I can’t figure out how to do it.

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