How baseball writers contributed to steroid and sign-stealing scandals

Published 6:21 pm Monday, January 20, 2020

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By John Tures
Political science professor at LaGrange College

This week, you’ll find plenty of stories of baseball writers pointing their fingers, condemning the managers, general managers, and players with the Houston Astros and Boston Red Sox for their sophisticated electronic sign-stealing methods that enabled each franchise to win a World Series title.  Yet it is the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA) and its fraudulent Hall-of-Fame votes which encouraged such illegal behavior, and even played its own role in the steroid crisis that nearly destroyed Major League Baseball.

Decades ago, lawbreaking was punished severely in sports. Any fan of baseball can remember that 100 years ago, the 1919 World Series was fixed by gamblers working with several players of the Chicago White Sox to create a fraud. 

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Baseball Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis’ lifetime ban of those guilty players was so severe that only the most daring player would even think of corking a bat or throwing a spitball.

But along came Pete Rose, with his gambling, fixing games as manager, and repeated lying which led to a similarly severe punishment by the late Baseball Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti … another lifetime ban.

It was the right call, in the tradition of Landis. 

Punishing a player with Rose’s credentials would show that nobody is above the law, and we don’t hold some to a different standard. This embarrassment to the sport would not be repeated.

But then came the BBWAA, and other writers, who began a campaign for Rose to be reinstated. He received Hall-of-Fame votes from sportswriters who made excuses for his illegal behavior. Even putting his name on the ballot, and allowing write-in votes, continued the shameful behavior. Around this time, the movie “Field of Dreams” came out, along with a number of sportswriters who clamored for that 1919 White Sox cheater “Shoeless Joe” Jackson, featured in the film, to be reinstated as well, demanding that everyone overlook the damage he and his teammates did to the game. A column I read today called for Jackson to be put into the HoF.

Rose and Jackson received their BBWAA supporters, as well as cheers from other sports journalists in the early and mid-1990s. During that very time, a number of batters and pitchers had a choice to make.

Should they cheat and use steroids and prolong their careers, while juicing their numbers, or play the game the honest way? That loud, unmistakable campaign for Rose and Jackson told them all they needed to know about the support they would get when their own behavior would be judged.

Last year, the worst abusers, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, received nearly 60% of the vote for the Hall-of-Fame from the BBWAA. Several other cheaters have also received votes, stealing support from more deserving candidates who played the game honestly, like Dale Murphy, Don Mattingly and Fred McGriff.

And these rulebreakers still get the loudest support every year that there’s a Baseball Hall-of-Fame vote.

Are we surprised that we still have steroid abusers in baseball? Are we surprised when teams cheat to win the World Series by stealing signs illegally, even when they are warned about it? Sportswriters have tried to blame everyone else for these cheating scandals: the players, managers, GMs and even the fans.

It ignores the huge culpability these writers have played in excusing, and even enabling such scandals, leading us to look with shame on this proud sport.