MLB Hall of Fame: Don’t bet on the ineligible becoming eligible

COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 21: Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the Board of Directors of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, speaks during the 2019 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday July 21, 2019 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
COOPERSTOWN, NY - JULY 21: Jane Forbes Clark, Chairman of the Board of Directors of The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, speaks during the 2019 Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the National Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday July 21, 2019 in Cooperstown, New York. (Photo by Alex Trautwig/MLB Photos via Getty Images) /

Those ineligible players having a chance to become eligible for the MLB Hall of Fame? Don’t bet on it.

As of Sunday morning when I sat down to write, the MLB Hall of Fame Vote Tracker showed three players (Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Curt Schilling) having more than enough to qualify for Cooperstown on the known ballots (41.5 percent of 164 ballots made public and seven kept anonymous), and two (Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens) just below the needed 75 percent threshold.

Those, of course, are subject to change, particularly since the Baseball Writers Association of America‘s Hall of Fame voting is often as not like Christmas shopping, crowds surging the stores at just about the eleventh hour comparable to those suffocating New York subways during evening rush hours. Crowds of ballots are liable to jam the Hall voting station between now and deadline hour, too.

The results will be revealed come Tuesday. Allowing that the full tally is likely to show a slight drop in the percentages on Sunday morning’s tracker by voting’s end, Derek Jeter still remains in line to become the Hall’s second unanimous selection behind his teammate Mariano Rivera. Larry Walker (about as controversial as coffee at the breakfast table, other than stathead arguments) at 85.4 percent and Curt Schilling (who can provoke controversies merely by shaving every morning) at 79.5 percent may or may not hold their positions. Bonds (73.7 percent) and Clemens (72.5 percent), likewise.

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But come the weekend there was a small but somewhat profound side debate regarding Hall eligibility. On Friday a “senior MLB source” suggested to ESPN that the dead on baseball’s ineligible list could be beyond baseball jurisdiction since, after all, they’re not alive to hold employment in major league organizations. Halt right there, Hall spokesman Jon Shestakofsky said in a Saturday statement, more or less: “[The ineligible designation] remains in place after an individual’s passing.” Oops.

The Friday report, as ESPN’s Don Van Natta writes, “gave fresh hope to supporters of Shoeless Joe Jackson that he would be considered for Cooperstown later this by the Hall of Fame’s Early Era committee;” Jackson being one of the Eight Men Out thanks to the shenanigans around and during the 1919 World Series. Shestakofsky’s Saturday statement put an end to that for Jackson and for anyone else on baseball’s permanently banned list. Including, possibly though not assuredly, pitcher Eddie Cicotte, Jackson’s teammate, who has a borderline Hall case otherwise. Including, too, Pete Rose.

Rose is the reason the Hall of Fame imposed its rule barring the banned from being ballot eligible in 1991 in the first place. Despite being banned from baseball for violating Rule 21(d), it looked as though Rose would be a shoo-in BBWAA Cooperstown vote. The idea that a man no longer eligible to work anywhere within Major League Baseball could still be elected to the Hall of Fame amused the Hall’s administration about as greatly as impeachment today amuses Donald Trump.

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The Hall said, more or less, that it’s nonsense to think someone who isn’t eligible to hold a job in baseball should be allowed to stand for election to the game’s highest honorarium. Since the Hall isn’t actually owned or administered by Major League Baseball, though the baseball commissioner sits on its board of directors, the Hall was within its rights to determine its own ballot eligibility rules.

MLB’s official historian John Thorn first argued in 2016 that when a member of baseball’s ineligible list passes on, his ineligibility passes with him. Thorn has written that since “MLB removes players from the ineligible list when they die, and because the Baseball Hall of Fame aligns its balloting procedures with Major League policy, theoretically there is no barrier to Jackson’s induction.”

The key word is “theoretically.” Factually, there remain a few troublesome facts. They include Jackson’s having received and accepted an envelope containing $5,000 during the 1919 World Series. They also include that a very close look at the actual game logs of the Series shows several instances when Jackson could be seen as suspect. Could. Including but not limited to his most run-productive single-game performance, Game Eight—after Lefty Williams pitched the White Sox into an early 4-0 hole (Jackson hit the Series’ only home run in the third), and after the White Sox deficit deepened to 10-1. (Jackson’s two-run double started a four-run inning in the too-little/too-late eighth.)

Manfred rejected requests to remove Jackson from the ineligible list in 2015, the same year in which he rejected Rose’s last known application for reinstatement. Van Natta writes that Manfred demurred from Thorn’s view in the past but “does now agree” with Thorn, but the commissioner hasn’t yet acted upon it. This leaves Jackson, who died at 64 in 1951, on the outside looking in still, from wherever he is in the Elysian Fields.

And, this also leaves Rose prospectively on the outside looking in whenever he goes to his reward. Van Natta’s ESPN documentary series, Backstory, premieres an episode (“Banned for Life”) on baseball’s ineligibility thinking Sunday night. It includes Rose, asked whether he’ll go into Cooperstown posthumously, having a hearty laugh as he answers, “How’m I going to know? Can you help me with that?” We can’t, really, unless someone can know the unknowable regarding the things the Lord hath prepared for him in heaven, or the Hall of Fame is willing to change its eligibility rule to allow the banished to appear on any Hall ballot.

Whether the Hall should was answered by no less than Bill James, in Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame, when James was actually still defending Rose even as he acknowledged Rose being banished not because he was a terrible guy but because he broke the rules. “[Y]ou don’t begin [their] rehabilitation by putting [them] in the Hall of Fame,” James wrote. “That’s where you end it.”

We may believe Bonds and Clemens shouldn’t get anywhere near Cooperstown because of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, but having used whatever they used, in a time when baseball’s government and owners looked the other way and there’d been no required testing to prove what they did or didn’t use while they still played, they didn’t break the rules. (You may remember Bonds earning one conviction in the BALCO trial that was overturned in due course, by the way.) We may wish Schilling’s salivary glands secreted Kaeopectate to head his mouth off at the pass, before it runneth over into the fever swamps yet again, but he didn’t break baseball’s rules while he was in the game, either.

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One consummation devoutly to be wished would be the time to come when Hall of Fame voting periods and induction weekends will come to pass without yet more rounds of revisits, reviews, rehashes of the Jackson and Rose issues. Until or unless the Hall changes its ballot eligibility rules, you might as well wish for peace and quiet at a heavy metal concert.