Major League Baseball, Forgivability, and List Ethics


Bleacher Reports is an enjoyable sports website, and it gives opportunities to aspiring writers and bloggers, some of whom are quite talented.  In addition to typical opinion pieces and reporting, the site has a fondness for lists, often trivial to the extreme, like “The 50 Ugliest Athletes of All Time.” The titles are all misnomers, because there is almost never any criteria given for the choices or their relative ranking. An accurate title would be, “The Fifty Athletes I Think Are The Ugliest.”  And of course, who cares? (Don Mossi, by the way, was the ugliest athlete ever, no matter what anybody says.)

A recent list, however did bother me. It is called “The Fifty Most Unforgivable Acts in Baseball History,“ and much of the problem with it lies in the title itself. If you are going to write about history, there is a duty perform diligent research, even for a silly online list. Misrepresentations online have a large probability of misleading people.  The title is a misrepresentation, like “The 50 Ugliest Athletes,” but unlike that list, there is some harm done. The list isn’t close to complete; it isn’t consistent; it isn’t well-researched. I’d bet that the author, Robert Knapel, wrote it off the top of his head.  Anyone who looked at the list and assumed, as the author represents, that these are truly the low points—“the dark side,” as the author puts it—of major league baseball would be seriously misinformed.

There are unequivocally, probably universally recognized incidents and events that are infinitely worse that most of the items on the list.  Just a  few samples:

  • During the 1973 World Series, Oakland A’s owner Charlie Finley forced second baseman Mike Andrews to sign a false affidavit saying he was injured after Andrews committed two consecutive errors in the 12th inning of the A’s Game Two loss to the Mets.  The affidavit  would have allowed the A’s to replace Andrews with another player, which the rules prohibited without an injury. Other team members, manager Dick Williams, and the media rallied to Andrews’ defense, causing the plot to fail.
  • In 1919, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees, in part because Frazee was deep in debt and needed some business loans. The sale, together with other player transfers between the teams for more cash, permanently altered the history of both franchises, and turned Boston from a perennial champion to an also-ran for the better part of a century.
  • During Hank Aaron’s chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record, Aaron was deluged with death threats and racist letters excoriating him because they believed  a black man shouldn’t hold the great Ruth’s record. The experience made Aaron very bitter, and also made what should have been the highlight of his career a miserable ordeal.
  • When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record. Commissioner Ford Frick, a fan of Ruth’s, demanded that an asterisk be placed by Maris’s record in the record book noting that he achieved his 61 homers in a 162 game season, while Ruth played in a 154 game season.

There are lots more. The article ignores these for such quirky list inclusions as #50., “The Chicago White Sox Wear Shorts During a Game.” I know—Knapel is making a facetious point, that the Bill Veeck-approved variation on the traditional uniform (in the 70’s, when all the uniforms were horrid) was an offense to taste and tradition…which it was. It was also funny, lasted only one game (unlike the awful Padres mustard yellow uniforms, the Indians blood red outfits—Boog Powell said that they made him look like a clot—and the hideous Astros rainbow suits, usually regarded as the bottom of the barrel) and was part of the Bill Veeck legend, which included sending a midget to the plate. Is the list about real outrages, or is it about the author’s personal hot buttons? Obvious the latter.

More important from as ethics perspective, he degrades the term “unforgivable.” I doubt there are fifty truly unforgivable acts in the history of major league baseball, but I know that most of the inclusions on Knapel’s list, including the shorts, don’t remotely qualify as “unforgivable.” Unforgivable means that these actions represent such undeniably unethical conduct that they cannot and should not be forgiven, ever. That’s a very tough standard, but either the author is unusually unforgiving, doesn’t know what the word means, or he doesn’t care, and is dishonestly using the word to attract readers. It certainly worked in my case.

Eight of the items on the list, for example, were accidents or in-game blunders. Bill Buckner’s error, for example, is #46. I know there are some idiots who will always blame Bill Buckner for the Red Sox losing the 1986 World Series because he let Mookie Wilson’s grounder roll through his legs…but they are idiots. Do you want the whole defense? Fine: 1) Buckner shouldn’t have been playing; he was hurt. His foolish manager sent him out to play first so he could be on the field for the celebration. 2) It was catcher Rich Gedman who let a catchable pitch get by him to score the tying run. 3) Relief pitcher Calvin Schiraldi choked, and since he had been choking the whole post[season, had no business being called on to close the game. 4) Even with all that, the Red Sox blew a lead in the final game the next night, which is really why they lost the Series. The fact that many jerks want to hold Buckner to blame for the whole team’s collapse when he was playing, as Billy Buck always did, as hard as he could, doesn’t change the fact that his error was eminently “forgivable,” as proven by the fact that the vast majority of rational Boston fans have indeed forgiven him.

Even worse is #9, the 1920 fatal beaning of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman. Who is it that Knapel thinks should never be forgiven? The pitcher, Carl Mays, didn’t throw the pitch intentionally. Thousands of players have been hit in the head and seriously injured by pitches; that it was Mays’ pitch that killed someone was bad moral luck, nothing more.

Indeed, Knapel’s standards are contradictory and inconsistent. You would think that he cares deeply about the integrity of the game, since he designates the American League’s adoption of the designated hitter, a bugaboo of baseball purists, as #43. But he assigns Pete Rose’s betting on his own team, as well as running up gambling debts that could have easily made him prey to gamblers, to a lower slot, #48.  This act of Rose’s  was unforgivable (he also lied about it for over a decade), and is in fact unlikely to be forgiven—Rose is banned from baseball and the Hall of Fame.

I guess Knapel is soft on gambling. After all, he assigns #29 to Commissioner Bowie Kuhn banning Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays for associating with casinos—and Kuhn was 100% right. (See? I’ve forgiven him.) No, wait—that can’t be it—he places the Black Sox scandal, when gamblers fixed the World Series, all the way up at #2. (Where it unquestionably belongs, if not #1)

Okay, I’ve got it…he likes Pete Rose! Except that the author rates Barry Bonds and the steroid scandals that have wrecked baseball’s record book, distorted its seasons, cheated honest players out of careers and all but destroyed baseball integrity as only #35 on the “unforgivable” scale, while Rose’s slide into catcher Ray Fosse at the 1970 All Star Game is all the way up at #29! Utter nonsense. Rose’s play was clean, fair, great baseball, and won the game, the kind of exhilarating moment that has been missing from that game for too long. I know Ray Fosse hasn’t forgiven Pete, but Rose had nothing to be forgiven for…at least not in that game.

In short, the list is a mess, because Knabel assembled it without any ethical standards. “Management bad, labor good” isn’t a standard, for example. Knabel thinks it was unforgivable for MLB’s management to begin assembling teams of non-union players during the 1994 lock-out, a necessary step at the time to give management some bargaining leverage. I guess he wanted another season to be ruined, like the one before.

I would even argue that his #1, baseball’s color barrier, is a poor choice for an “unforgivable” act. Racism in America, Jim Crow and segregation were products of history, culture and ignorance. In being segregated, baseball was just mirroring society, which was wrong, but slowly learning. Baseball, in fact, played a major role in ending segregation. “Unforgivable” suggests knowing, intentional, shameless and inexcusable evil-doing, and the vast majority of Americans in the first part of the 20th Century believed that segregation was not only right but natural. I don’t think ignorance is unforgivable. What’s unforgivable is making no effort to change when the truth is known. It is nearly unforgivable to condemn past conduct by the measurements of current knowledge and practices. And unforgivably smug.

I know these lists are all intended in good fun. When one is dealing with history, however, fun doesn’t excuse advancing misinformation at the cost of enlightenment, and that’s what lists like “The Fifty Most Unforgivable Acts in Baseball History” do.

 Here is the whole list.  You can view the slideshow and read the author’s commentary here.

1) Segregation

2) Black Sox Scandal

3) Barney Doyle Killed at the Polo Grounds 4) Eddie Waitkus Shot by an Obsessed Fan

5) Giants Fan Bryan Stow Attacked Outside of Dodger Stadium

 6) Royals First Base Coach Tom Gamboa Attacked

 7) Collusion in the 1980s

 8) The Reserve Clause

 9) Ray Chapman Killed by a Pitch

10) Disco Demolition Night

11) 10-Cent Beer Night

 12) Protesters Try to Burn US Flag

 13) Players Strike in 1994, Owners Hire Replacement Players

14) 2002 Major League All-Star Game

15) Cap Anson Refuses to Play Against African-Americans

 16) Ty Cobb Punches One-Handed Heckler

17) Babe Ruth Hits an Umpire

18) Juan Marichal Attacks Johnny Roseboro

19) Tigers Fans Throw Garbage at Ducky Medwick

20) Los Angeles Dodgers Bankruptcy

21) Ben Chapman’s Instructions to His Team About Jackie Robinson

22) New York Mutuals and Philadelphia Athletics Expelled from NL

23) Commissioner Bowie Kuhn Banning Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays

24) Pedro Martinez vs. Don Zimmer

25) Pete Rose Taking Out Ray Fosse in the 1970 All-Star Game

26) George Moriarty vs. the Chicago White

27) George Steinbrenner Hires Howie Spira to Spy on Dave Winfield

28) Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants Move to California

29) Marge Schott Makes Racist Slurs and Supports Hitler

30) John Rocker Speaks His Mind and Calls Out New York City

31) Pilots Leave Seattle After One Season

32) Montreal Expos Move to Washington, D.C.

33) Pittsburgh Drug Trials 

34) Steve Bartman Incident

35) Barry Bonds Steroid Saga 

36) Rafael Palmeiro Wagging His Finger and Lying to Congress 

37) Roger Clemens Perjury

38) Roberto Alomar Spits on Umpire 

39) Roger Clemens Throws Bat at Mike Piazza 

40) Chuck Knoblauch Arguing a Call Instead of Chasing the Ball

41) Braves-Padres Brawl

42) Billy Goat Kicked Out of Wrigley Field by Philip Wrigley 

43) American League Introduces the Designated Hitter 

44) Chan Ho Park Drop-Kicks Tim Belcher 

45) Merkle’s Boner

46) Ball Goes Through Buckner’s Legs 

47) Dave Kingman Sends a Rat to a Female Reporter 

48) Pete Rose Bets on Baseball 

49) Lee Elia’s Tirade About Wrigley Field Fans 

50) Chicago White Sox Wear Shorts During a Game


* NO! #24 on the list, the altercation between Pedro Martinez of the Red Sox  and Yankee coach Don Zimmer during the 2003 ALCS was just unfortunate. Zimmer, in his 70’s, charged Martinez, who sidestepped him and pushed Zimmer away, causing him to fall on his face and sparking a brief fracas between the clubs. What exactly are you supposed to do when you are attacked by a rotund old man? Run? Let him hit you? Laugh? Pedro’s response was defensive and reasonable. Zimmer apologized (tearfully) and took all responsibility for the incident. He obviously forgave Pedro, and everyone forgave Zimmer. What was unforgivable?

The author is obviously a Yankee fan.

9 thoughts on “Major League Baseball, Forgivability, and List Ethics

  1. Pingback: Major League Baseball, Forgivability, and List Ethics | Ethics Alarms |

  2. I feel like I’m repeating myself, so I’ll be brief. Top 10 Lists, Top 50 Lists, or Top Whatever lists should be written from a well-versed perspective, be entirely personal (My Least Favorite Madonna Albums Of The 1980s), or should be avoided. Maybe they should be given thorough editing perspective, as one thing is compared to another and we think, “Is #6 REALLY worse/better than #7?”

    But people love ’em. I guess.

    • I hate them. They almost always tick me off. I don’t mind the eccentric opinions, but I do mind the laziness and lack of research. And that they aspire to expertise when, as you say, they are completely subjective.

      Your rules are excellent. And Phew—I thought nobody was going to read the damn post, and I worked hard on it. Thanks, As Saroyan said, if one person sings your song, you haven’t lived in vain.

  3. Well. I believe that Jim Gray’s snarky ambush of Mr. Rose at the 1999 world series is one of the most dispicable things I’ve seen in baseball, so far.

    • Yes, that’s one for the list. It doesn’t include any broadcaster misdeeds, like Gary Thorne suggesting that Curt Schilling’s heroic moment, “The Bloody Sock”, was a fraud. Despicable.

  4. I take issue with the hyperbolic language, that Finley “forced” Andrews to sign a false affadavit. How did he “force” him? Hold a gun to his head and say, “Sign this or die.”? He may have told him sign or be fired, I don’t know, but Andrews still had the option of being fired, instead of perjuring himself.

    • Well, in a sense, nobody can be forced to anything. “Go ahead, pull the trigger!” For a reserve clause era player at the end of his career, Andrews was pretty vulnerable. This would be called signing under duress or coercion, surely not a free and open declaration. I think “forced” is fair.

  5. I was a ‘Stros fan back when they wore the rainbows. Yes, we know they’re awful NOW, but that’s the lens of today. Hindsight isn’t 20/20, it’s 20/15. At the time, we liked the rainbows because they were cool. Isn’t that judgment like judging historical figures with the rules of today?

    • I thought they were awful, awful awful THEN. Every time they came on the TV, my Dad would break out laughing. No new standards for me—I hated all the 70’s uniforms, but a few were especially horrible.

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