McGowan: Canceling Baseball’s Unwoke

March 26, 2021

by Richard McGowan, Ph.D.

In April, 2003, Hall of Fame President Dale Petroskey canceled a Cooperstown event celebrating the 15th anniversary of the movie “Bull Durham.” Petroskey, a former Bush administrator, did not want its stars, Tom Robbins and Susan Sarandon, famous for their opposition to the Iraq war, to appear or speak.

As Petroskey put it, “There was a chance of politics being injected into The Hall during these sensitive times, and I made a decision to not take that chance.” The cancellation generated over 28,000 email responses, around 90 percent of which were negative. One Hall staffer observed the email showed that people were “simply upset by the blatant disregard for the First Amendment.” As the editor of Elysian Fields Quarterly, the premier baseball research journal, put it, “the clearly partisan nature of Petroskey’s actions against actors Tom Robbins and Susan Sarandon seems unprecedented — and unwarranted.”  

In other words, “clearly partisan” behavior, especially where the First Amendment is concerned, should not happen. For the record, I strongly agree with that statement.  

Therefore, anyone familiar with Hall of Fame voting and baseball history might well question sportswriters for not enshrining Curt Schilling this year. On the face of it, Schilling’s non-election was outright politically motivated and “clearly partisan’” and based on his questionable comments and remarks. His exclusion is not based on his baseball record.

Since 2014, sportswriters have voted in seven starting pitchers to Cooperstown: Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine in 2014, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez in 2015, Mike Mussina and Jack Morris in 2018, and Roy Halladay in 2019. The most important (and complicated) metric or data-point for baseball players is the WAR (Wins Against Replacement). Schilling’s WAR is 80.5, dwarfed by Greg Maddux’s 106.6 but better than Glavine’s 73.9, Halladay’s 65.4 and Morris’s 43.6. In fact, Schilling’s WAR is better than 31 pitchers enshrined at Cooperstown.

Schilling ranks 15th among the 18 members of the 3,000-strikeout club. All are in the Hall except for CC Sabathia, who is not yet eligible, Justin Verlander, who is still active, and Roger Clemens. Clemens is not in the Hall because sportswriters, who vote for Hall of Fame candidates, suspect him of steroid use. If the sportswriters are correct, Clemens’s on the field behavior was egregious, since baseball fans could not trust that they were watching fair competition, thus disgracing the game.

Schilling never did anything but put forth an honest, best effort — think ‘bloody sock’ — unlike Bonds, McGwire and the Black Sox (or Eddie Cicotte would be in).

Schilling got insufficient votes because of comments well after he retired from baseball. His off-the-field and well “out of the game” comments were held against him.

The irony is that many players who were exemplary in serving their country are not in the Hall of Fame. For years, I tried to get some of those players into the Hall. Virgil Trucks is a borderline candidate and the only player to pitch two afternoon no-hitters in one season. Dom DiMaggio was a seven-time all-star and, as one Hall of Famer said, “My brother was a better fielder than me.”  Mickey Vernon had 2,495 hits and won two batting titles. Three-time, 20 game-winner Don Newcombe had a winning percentage of .623 at 149-90. 

None of the four accumulated enough success to have a high WAR; all of them lost seasons in their prime years, plural, to military service.

If what happens off the field is meaningful for exclusion from the Hall of Fame, then it should also be meaningful for inclusion. And if the First Amendment is as important as 25,000 baseball fans think it is, Curt Schilling gets a plaque. 

Richard McGowan, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation, has taught philosophy and ethics cores for more than 40 years, most recently at Butler University, and is a baseball fan of the first water.


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