Saturday, December 22, 2012

Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, and "character"

I'm in San Francisco for Christmas. One of the hot button topics on sports talk radio here is the impending vote to determine whether Barry Bonds (among other suspected or known steroid users) will enter the baseball hall of fame. Most sports talk jockeys around here think he should get in.

From the Baseball Writers Association of America guidelines for electing players to the baseball hall of fame:
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.
The electors might deny Bonds based on the integrity and character criteria, because he used steroids and was subsequently convicted for obstruction of justice.

The counter argument, which I heard several times in the last few days on KNBR, is that the "character" clause is meaningless. If someone like Ty Cobb, a known racist jerk, is in the hall of fame, how can anyone else be denied on the basis of integrity or character? Many would argue that Barry Bonds accomplished more in his career than Ty Cobb. So, if Ty Cobb is in, in spite of his "character," Barry Bonds can't be denied.

The whole argument strikes me as absurd, and it's a little disorienting to listen to. Ty Cobb was elected to the hall of fame in 1936. That's only 21 years after The Birth of a Nation, 12 years before desegregation in the U.S. Army, 18 years before Brown v. Board, 28 years before the Voting Rights Act, etc, etc. A racist, especially a racist from Georgia, might easily have been viewed as a man of great character or integrity in 1936.

"Character" means something different now than it did in 1936. Judging Barry Bonds by the standards set by Ty Cobb and the hall of fame 75 years ago does not make sense. That Ty Cobb is in the hall of fame does not mean that the hall of fame is racist or that its current electors are racist. It does mean, however, that the electors in 1936 did not find Cobb's racism enough of a mark on his character to bar him from the hall. Perhaps we should hold Barry Bonds to a different standard of character than the one Ty Cobb was held to in 1936.

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