Should the “Character Clause” Only Be Invoked for Bad Character?

Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Dale Murphy Hall of Fame Case

When it comes to voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the discourse each year is less and less about a player’s on-field accomplishments and more and more about the “Character Clause.” We have to put it in quotes because there’s nothing actually called the Character Clause in the Hall’s rules. In fact, of the 665 words under “BBWAA Rules for Election” on the Hall of Fame’s website, only 26 of them actually pertain to how voting members of the Baseball Writers Association of America should determine whom to vote for:

5. Voting: Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

That’s it. So the “Character Clause” is actually just the Character Word, leaving voting writers to determine what constitutes character and how much it counts compared to the other criteria. Some voters have relinquished their voting rights over this; others grapple with it either publicly or privately.

There’s definitely no consensus on what it means, though. Just in this most recent election, the Character Clause was invoked to some degree on at least nine candidates: Curt Schilling, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Omar Vizquel, Todd Helton, Gary Sheffield, Manny Ramirez, Sammy Sosa, and Andy Pettitte. There’s a decent chance that, for at least some voters, the personalities of Jeff Kent and Scott Rolen came into play, too. When you have 25 players on the ballot and all of the best ones have some sort of Character Clause concerns, that’s a recipe for zero elections, which is what we got this year.

I don’t think I’m even saying that’s a bad thing. I definitely don’t think it’s a good thing, though.

Part of this is just the Hall’s unwillingness or inability to formally decide what it wants to be. The Character Clause has been part of the formal voting criteria from the time it was first written down in the 1940s, and part of the informal criteria for the decade elections were held before that. And yet, there are cheaters in the Hall of Fame. There are racists, bad teammates, and drug users, including almost certainly performance-enhancing drugs. A poorly defined and unevenly enforced policy is probably a bad policy.

But that’s a column for another day.

What I want to talk about today is this: How come we only use the Character Clause to keep players out of the Hall of Fame?

If Bonds’ alleged use of PEDs is enough to keep him out of the Hall of Fame despite the numbers overwhelmingly qualifying him, why can’t Dale Murphy get a Character Clause bump?

From 1980 through 1987, Murphy was absolutely a “future Hall of Famer.” He won two Most Valuable Player Awards, led the league in homers twice, and won five straight Gold Gloves in center field. He played pretty much every day. He was, by all accounts, the best teammate you could hope for. And he was so good at baseball.

Through his age 31 season, Murphy had a 132 OPS+ (the same as Hall of Famers Tony Gwynn, Joe Morgan, and Jackie Robinson, better than Wade Boggs, Rod Carew, Dave Winfield, Carl Yastrzemski, Roberto Clemente, Eddie Murray, Rickey Henderson, and dozens of other Hall of Famers). He had 310 career homers, 145 stolen bases, seven All-Star Game appearances, and the five Gold Gloves. Even an average decline phase would have left him with 450+ homers, 200+ stolen bases, a dozen or so All-Star Games, and a career OPS+ in the 124-127 range of Henderson, Willie Keeler, Yogi Berra, and Kirby Puckett.

Instead, Murphy’s career trajectory fell off a cliff. Injury and ineffectiveness left him with just 88 home runs and 16 stolen bases in his final six seasons, dropping his career OPS+ down to 121 (which, to be fair, is still better than Andre Dawson, Derek Jeter, Robin Yount, Ryne Sandberg, Craig Biggio, and a lot of other deserving Hall of Famers). Murphy’s career Wins Above Replacement (46.5 on Baseball-Reference, 44.3 on FanGraphs) falls short of what we expect from a Hall of Famer, but at his peak, he was every bit deserving.

And, oh yeah, the Character Clause. Regardless of what definition you have for “character,” Dale Murphy fits it. Of the six criteria listed (player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played), Murphy scores off the charts on everything except “player’s record,” where he falls a little short. He won the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award in 1985; Sports Illustrated‘s “Sportsman of the Year” in 1987 for his work with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, the Georgia March of Dimes, and the American Heart Association; the Roberto Clemente Award in 1988; the Bart Giamatti Community Service Award in 1991; and was elected to the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in 1991. He did get a speeding ticket once — he was running late to speak to a church group.

I’m not saying being a great person is enough to get into the Hall of Fame. But if the word “character” is enough to keep Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens — two of the best players in baseball history — out of the Hall, shouldn’t it be enough to bump a borderline guy like Dale Murphy over the top? Especially when it was that character that caused him to accept his not-so-graceful decline rather than turning to pharmaceuticals to extend his career.

Any institution would be better for having Murphy in it, and that includes the Hall of Fame.

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