The results are in. Cooperstown has a new class. On Jan. 24, 2018, the Baseball Writers’ Association of America voted, electing Chipper Jones, Vladimir Guerrero, Jim Thome, and Trevor Hoffman to the Hall of Fame.
Once again, Roger Clemens, Barry Bonds, and Manny Ramirez, three superstars of the past whom the writers have branded “cheaters,” finished out of the running, and poor Sammy Sosa was so far down the list that he now will have to buy a ticket on StubHub to get into Wrigley Field. Baseball’s Fourth Estate, the sanctified moral arbiters of the national pastime, have spoken with righteous clarity.
For more than a decade, since former Sen. George J. Mitchell’s investigation implicated 89 Major League players for using performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs), baseball writers have tried to reclaim the mythical purity of the game. The findings of “the Mitchell Report” have complicated the way reporters view the history of baseball and how they vote players into the Hall of Fame. Voting has become “a moral debate” where journalists weigh ethical questions as much as a player’s achievements on the diamond. In the minds of many voters, baseball must be protected from players who have violated the sanctity of the national pastime.
As the gatekeepers of the Hall of Fame, these writers invoke the “character clause,” a practice of moral relativism that too often ignores the blemishes in the game’s history and the failings of baseball legends from years past. Yahoo! Sports columnist Jeff Passan recently gave up his Hall of Fame vote because he believes that Cooperstown has become “a shining beacon of divinity set upon a hill of hypocrisy.” The Hall of Fame is a museum, but too many writers, he argues, treat it as a shrine. It is filled with “racists, wife beaters, drunks, gamblers and purveyors of manifold moral turpitude.”
Excluding Bonds, Clemens, Sosa, and Mark McGwire from the Hall of Fame sanitizes and distorts the history of baseball. Without their stories how do we reconcile the age of PEDs with their records? How do we understand their place in history? How do we make sense of a time when fans celebrated some of the greatest sluggers America had ever seen?
The answers derive from the way baseball’s mythmakers have always reconstructed the game’s past, creating narratives about the purity of the national pastime and American exceptionalism. “America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers,” novelist Terrance Mann says in The Field of Dreams. “It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: It’s part of our past... It reminds us of all that was once good and could be again.”
That idea—that America was once good and could be again—is why so many Baby Boomers worship the memory of Mickey Mantle and romanticize the “golden age” of baseball. After Mickey died in 1995, Sports Illustrated’s Richard Hoffer wrote, “Mantle was the last great player on the last great team in the last great country, a postwar civilization that was booming and confident, not a trouble in the world.”
The continued nostalgia for the age of Mantle, a time of perceived innocence and simplicity, reveals a yearning for the illusory “happy days” of the 1950s, a storied time when there were no player strikes, steroid scandals, or multimillion-dollar contracts. Ballplayers rarely talked about politics or social causes and journalists did not ask their opinions about the president. They sang the national anthem and showed up to play. Back then men like Mantle supposedly played purely for the love of the game. Yet we should not forget that baseball fans knew little about players’ politics or private lives for a reason. Writers granted access to the team clubhouse, railroad cars, and hotels honored baseball’s most treasured, long-standing rule: “What you see here, what you say here, let it stay here.”
Although many current sportswriters believe that they are protecting the integrity of the game by denying cheaters a ticket to Cooperstown, in the 1950s, sportswriters believed that they too were protecting the national pastime by creating, not tearing down, sports heroes. The biggest names in sportswriting—Red Smith, Arthur Daley, Frank Graham, Dan Daniel, Milton Gross, and Jimmy Cannon—glorified the accomplishments of athletes. On long train rides across the country, they traveled with the players, drank and played cards with them, learned their flaws, and protected their secrets. Sportswriters, New York Herald-Tribune editor Stanley Woodward charged, were in the business of “Godding up those ball players.”
In 1951, when he first joined the Bronx Bombers, sportswriters anointed Mantle as the next baseball immortal, the heir apparent to Joe DiMaggio. Lionizing Mickey, reporters constructed an image of the speedy switch-hitter as “the Natural,” a Roy Hobbsian figure that could knock the cover off the ball. But in the early years of his career Mantle battled injuries and struggled to fulfill the great expectations piled upon him. Fans grumbled that he could never stay healthy, that he failed to perform in the clutch. And the New York beat writers complained that he was a dull bumpkin, moody and colorless.
Then, in 1956, it all came together for him. That year he performed magnificently, pounding tape-measure home runs into the bleachers of American League stadiums, leading the Yankees to a World Series championship, and winning the Triple Crown, a rare achievement that marked his ascendance as the best player in the game. That summer, columnists invented Mantle’s heroic image, fashioning a tale about the country boy who made good, a modest and hardworking family man who overcame injuries, immaturity, and struggles at the plate to become the embodiment of the American dream.
In many ways, sportswriters created the Mickey Mantle that Americans loved. Columnists portrayed him as the antithesis of Babe Ruth, who was remembered as an overgrown adolescent who possessed an insatiable appetite for whiskey and women. Mantle, on the other hand, “seldom drinks and still is not at ease with a cigar,” Hugh Bradley wrote. Mickey, the writer insisted, didn’t carouse and was a devoted husband. “I know what I’m talking about,” he added. “There are no secrets on a ball club.” Of course, Bradley and the other New York writers would never mention that the FBI was investigating one of Mickey’s mistresses who had tried to extort him for $15,000.
His story, the ascendance of a rugged crew-cut slugger from the heartland, sold newspapers. In Eisenhower’s America, “Mighty Mickey,” was an ideal subject for writers. Complicit in letting others mold his image, he was a malleable figure reporters shaped with their own desires. He was the strong, silent type, like John Wayne, the era’s most popular movie star, a man of action respected solely for his deeds. His towering home runs made him the perfect symbol for a nation that revered power and instant gratification. Sportswriters packaged him as an exemplary role model, the great American athlete who appealed to the nation’s youth, a generation reaching for new frontiers. By the end of 1956, journalists had crowned him “The Hero.”
Gradually, in the 1960s, however, “Godding up those ball players” went out of style. A new breed of young reporters who came of age during the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War, began questioning American institutions: government, military, corporations, even the sports leagues. Jimmy Cannon, one of the old hero-makers, derisively called the young reporters who wrote with more skepticism than sentimentality, “the chipmunks” because they were always chattering and making noise in the clubhouse. The Chipmunks—Larry Merchant, Stan Issacs, Leonard Shecter, George Vecsey, Phil Pepe, and Maury Allen—covered sports like they were covering politics.
Then, in 1970, two years after Mantle retired, his former teammate Jim Bouton published Ball Four with one of the Chipmunks—Leonard Shecter. Bouton’s diary of a season was more of an exposé, one that shattered Mickey’s heroic image and the country’s faith in the purity of the Great American Game. Bouton revealed what sportswriters concealed during the 1950s: Mickey caroused late into the night, played with hangovers, and peered into hotel room windows, leering at undressed women. Pulling back the curtain on Major League clubhouses, Bouton disclosed rampant boozing, womanizing, and drug use. Every locker room, he reported, had big bowls of amphetamine pills—“greenies”—that players swallowed like candy.
Jimmy Cannon, of course, hated Ball Four. Blaming Shecter, he fumed, “The book is ugly with the small atrocities of the chipmunk’s cruelty.” Angry critics charged that Bouton had tarnished the game. Sportswriters were outraged because, as David Halberstam suggested, they were “the creators of the myths.” Sportswriters, he explained, were “not judging the accuracy of the book, but Bouton’s right to tell... A reporter covers an institution, becomes associated with it, protective of it, and most important, the arbiter of what is right to tell.”
The same idea remains true today: The Baseball Writers Association of America has proclaimed its right to declare who belongs in the Hall of Fame, all in the name of protecting the institution. One wonders if Mantle would pass “the character test” with those same voters today. Would it matter that Max Jacobson—“Dr. Feelgood”—shot him up with amphetamines, a banned substance and a clear performance-enhancer? Near the end of his life, however, Mantle atoned for his sins and restored his heroic image. Speaking to all of his “little teammates out there,” he pleaded with them to avoid drugs and alcohol. “Don’t be like me.”
Maybe writers would be more inclined to vote for the athletes of the Steroid Era if the players followed Mantle’s 12-step program, acknowledging their shortcomings and apologizing for their ethical failures. Perhaps, then, the writers would accept that the heroes from baseball’s “golden age” are just as flawed as the voting process.
Randy Roberts and Johnny Smith are the authors of A Season in the Sun: The Rise of Mickey Mantle, and Blood Brothers: The Fatal Friendship Between Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X.