Ghosts enter baseball’s Hall of Fame

There’s no one else to induct as the spectre of steroid use consigns top former players to a despised list of shame, writes Rupert Cornwell in Washington

For Baseball’s holy of holies, this is the year of ghosts. On Sunday, the sport’s Hall of Fame holds its annual induction ceremony. The 2013 festivities, however, might better be repackaged as Field of Dreams, the sequel.

In the hit movie, homage to a game about which Americans wax more sentimental than any other, legendary stars of the distant past emerge from an Iowa cornfield, symbols of the hope and innocence of youth, and baseball’s hold on the collective national psyche. And so, more or less, it will be this weekend in Cooperstown in upstate New York, where Abner Doubleday is (wrongly) supposed to have invented baseball on old Elihu Phinney’s farm back in 1839, and where the sport’s most sacred shrine is today to be found.

For the first time since 1960, all three new inductees are long since dead. To fill the gap, a dozen players already in the Hall, including two of the greatest in history, will be honoured, but they too are all gone. And the reason for this odd state of affairs? It is the very real spectre that has haunted America’s national pastime for two decades now – steroids.

Membership of the Hall of Fame is baseball’s version of sainthood, and the election process is only marginally less obscure than a papal conclave. The choice is made by some 600 members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. Players first become eligible five years after they retire, and require 75 per cent support. They can remain on the ballot for 15 years, unless they fail to get five per cent, in which case they are dropped for good.

In normal circumstances 2013 would have produced two first-year certainties, in Barry Bonds, owner of baseball’s single season and career home-runs records, and Roger Clemens, the pre-eminent pitcher of his generation. But both have been caught using performance-enhancing drugs, and neither reached 40 per cent.

Conceivably, the writers will be more forgiving in future, but don’t bank on it. Sluggers Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro – like Bonds and Clemens boasting career statistics that would otherwise guarantee election, but all three tainted by drug-use allegations – have been collecting fewer votes with each passing year.

And so Sunday’s stage in Cooperstown will be occupied by ghosts. The three “new” inductees are an umpire who died in 1935, a 19th-century third baseman who died in 1939, and Jacob Ruppert, owner of the New York Yankees during the franchise’s first golden era, who also died that year. And then there are the players, a Field of Dreams line-up to have any fan salivating.

“If you build it, he will come,” murmured the voice in the movie, amid the corn stalks under the summer stars, persuading farmer Ray Kinsella to plough under his crop and build a baseball diamond. The “he” in question was of course “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, baseball’s most wretched outcast. Despite owning the third best career batting average in history, Jackson was banned for ever from the sport (and thus from Hall of Fame membership) – all because of his contested role in the thrown “Black Sox” World Series of 1919, baseball’s biggest scandal until steroids came along.

Whether Jackson did anything wrong is disputed to this day. He was the Chicago White Sox’ best performer during the tainted Series, appears not to have participated in the fix, and was convicted of no crime. “Say it ain’t so, Joe,” runs the famous line. Most likely, it wasn’t, and a campaign for Jackson’s re-instatement continues to this day. That, though, is another story.

In the Hall of Fame 2013 Field of Dreams remake, there’s no doubt who’d get the Jackson role – Lou Gehrig, a titan of baseball history, cut down in his prime by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, the incurable motor-neuron illness known to this day in the US simply as “Lou Gehrig’s disease”. Gehrig was a pillar of Ruppert’s Yankees, partner of Babe Ruth in the New York line-up of the 1920s and 1930s known as “Murderers’ Row”.

But he was forced to retire in 1939, having delivered a farewell speech to the fans at Yankee Stadium that has been called baseball’s version of the Gettysburg Address. Grizzled sports reporters wept as they heard it. In December 1939, the Hall voted Gehrig a member, but he was too ill to attend the ceremony. Eighteen months later he was dead.

This weekend, that omission will be made good for Gehrig, as well as 11 other stars never formally inducted because of World War Two – among them Rogers Hornsby, known as “the Rajah” and another of the sport’s immortals who died in 1963, with the second best life-time average in baseball history, ahead even of “Shoeless” Joe. All that’s needed is a suitable cornfield near Cooperstown and Field of Dreams II will be ready to go.

So much, however, for fantasy. Baseball’s problems with banned substances and the dodgy clinics that peddle them, are only too real and enduring. A decade ago it was Balco, a dingy San Francisco Bay food supplements concern, that provided steroids to Bonds and other baseball players (as well as a host of athletes including Dwain Chambers and the Olympic champion Marion Jones.)

Now the problem is a defunct outfit in Florida called Biogenesis, outwardly an anti-ageing clinic, in fact purveyor of human-growth hormone and other illicit susbtances to, it would seem, a score of noted players. Among them, according to reports here, are the Yankees’ Alex Rodriguez, already tarred with the steroids brush, but arguably the most gifted player of his generation, and Ryan Braun of the Milwaukee Brewers, voted the National League’s Most Valuable Player for 2011.

Not long ago, Major League Baseball was accused, rightly, of turning a blind eye to its drug problem. No longer. The game’s authorities have gone after Biogenesis with the zeal they once showed in pursuit of the Black Sox scandal. Milwaukee’s Braun was banned this week for 65 games, over a third of a season.

Even worse, perhaps, awaits Rodriguez, already 38 years old. If so, not only would his career almost certainly be over, so too, if the ghosts of 2013 are anything to go by, his chance of making the Hall of Fame.

Hall of Fame: who, what, when and where

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is located at 25 Main Street in Cooperstown, New York, and operated by private interests. It is the central point for the study of the history of baseball in the States, displays artifacts and exhibits, and honours those who have excelled in playing, managing, and serving the sport. The Hall’s motto is “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.”

The word “Cooperstown” is often used as shorthand for the Hall of Fame.

It was founded in 1939 by Stephen Carlton Clark, the owner of a local hotel. Clark sought to bring tourists to a city hurt by the Great Depression and Prohibition which ruined the local hops trade. The Hall of Fame was dedicated on 12 June 1939. Clark’s granddaughter, Jane Forbes Clark, is now chairman of the Board.

The erroneous claim that US Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented baseball on a farm near Cooperstown in 1839, made by former National League president Abraham G Mills in 1905, was instrumental in the early marketing of the Hall.

The first five elected men were Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth (below), Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson. As of January 2013, 300 people had been elected. The 2013 induction class is executive Jacob Ruppert, umpire Hank O’Day, and player Deacon White.

In addition, 12 Hall members who were not honoured at any ceremony due to World War Two travel restrictions, the most notable of whom are Lou Gehrig and Rogers Hornsby, will be recognised on Sunday.

Players are inducted through election by either the Baseball Writers’ Association of America or the Veterans’ Committee. Five years after retirement, any player with 10 years of major league experience is eligible. Any player named on 75 per cent or more of all ballots cast is elected. A player who is named on fewer than five per cent of ballots is dropped from future elections.

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