Pity poor Major League Baseball; some of its most hallowed career records are in the hands of ne’er-do-wells:
And there are many near misses: Eddie Cicotte has one of the lowest career earned run averages; he was a gambler, game-fixer, member of the 1919 Black Sox, and was banned for life. He still is in the top 25 for career earned run average. Joe Jackson is 17th in career on base percentage. Et cetera.
So what made Ty Cobb acceptable to the Hall of Fame voters? Was over-the-top public racism more acceptable than gambling or throwing games or violent behavior or, apparently, steroid use? In a word, Yes.
At the time Cobb was elected, blacks were barred from the major leagues and gambling was considered the biggest threat to the game. Times change, and now steroids threaten more careers than gambling; someone with such radically racist views as Cobb might not even get employment in baseball, let alone earn a place in the Hall of Fame.
What does this mean for the Hall of Fame?
Holders of major records, whether currently or in the past, should be considered for Hall of Fame membership based on a combination of contemporary and modern ethical standards, using the latest scholarship and statistical analysis available. If statistical analysis accounts for changes in the game since the 19th century, why can’t the ethical discussion?
Blanket rules regarding Hall of Fame eligibility based on off-field behavior simply don’t work, because the ethical target is always shifting. For proof of this, consider the mercifully temporary and long-forgotten ban imposed on Ferguson Jenkins in 1980 for possessing marijuana and cocaine. He is now in the Hall of Fame.
Using this model, Pete Rose still fails — but we would at least open his case to discussion, with the honest possibility that he could eventually get into the Hall of Fame, the lifetime ban from baseball not withstanding.