Baseball

Why Curt Schilling Has No Place In Cooperstown

Content warning: Racism, Violence

Hall of Fame ballots are out, which means it’s the start of the two-month-long march to Cooperstown that typically keeps us occupied during the offseason. As always, there’s an explosion of debate about this year’s potential electees. It can be a lot of fun! The seriousness of our Hall of Fame debates is one of the things that makes baseball unique. For some, it’s part of what it means to be a baseball fan.

Lately, however, the annual Hall of Fame debate has turned in some part into a repetitive cycle of hand-wringing, angst, and discomfort about the candidacies of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling. The reasons for their failure to hit the required 75% vote threshold are well-known, but I’ll let others carry out the PED discussion. That’s not the reason we’re still talking about Curt Schilling, and it’s Schilling that I want to give some thought to here.

You’ve probably already got some idea of why Schilling has been lumped in with the steroid users. If you don’t, we’ll get there in a second. What’s important is that unlike the other two, Schilling has already reached the very cusp of induction, appearing on 70% of last year’s ballots, including 74% of those made publicly available. Schilling is considered a likely bet to cross the 75% threshold this winter, so get ready to hear from a number of different sources over the next month-and-change about how it’s time to give him his due and send him to Cooperstown.

There will be interviews, panels, and oodles of painful internet discourse about whether the “off-the-field stuff” that’s kept him out of the Hall matters enough to continue keeping him out. There might even be a media redemption tour from the man himself, like the fluffy sit-down he did with Bob Costas last December. It’s enough to make reasonable people roll their eyes.

But let’s never lose sight of why these tortured theatrics will even be necessary. Why do we need to have these conversations when more or less nothing has occurred to make Curt Schilling any more deserving of the Hall of Fame than he was eight years ago? To begin to understand why the Baseball Writers’ Association of America’s (BBWAA) softening of their stance on Schilling is simultaneously confusing, damaging, and unacceptable, let’s do a quick rundown of how he’s spent his time post-retirement.

By the time he first appeared on a ballot in 2013, Schilling was embroiled in a massive lawsuit with the state of Rhode Island after a scandal involving misuse and default on a $75 million loan granted by the state to a gaming company fronted by Schilling. At the time, it appeared he’d have significant difficulty overcoming the Hall’s infamous character clause. Already unpopular with the press after years of feuding with teammates, executives, and media members alike, he garnered just 39% of the vote on his first go-around, falling to 29% the next year.

Since then, however, the Schilling vote has steadily increased, culminating in his 70% share in last year’s election. This is despite the increasingly problematic—to be generous—nature of his behavior since his first ballot. Already known for his fringe views, Schilling first flared back into the spotlight in 2014, when then-ESPN prospect analyst Keith Law was suspended from the network following a Twitter exchange with Schilling in which the latter repeatedly denied evolution.

The following year, Schilling himself was suspended from broadcast duties (in the midst of calling the Little League World Series, no less) when he shared memes and an incoherent diatribe likening Muslims to Nazis. He was finally fired from the network in 2016 after sharing more hateful posts targeting trans and other LGBTQ+ communities.

That’s only the beginning. Since then, Schilling has fully embraced his alt-right persona. Some of the more notable ways in which he’s used his sizable platform include sharing tweets and Facebook posts advocating for the lynching of journalists, agreeing with and promoting white supremacists on his Breitbart radio show, peddling QAnon takes, and generally spending his days regurgitating racist tropes and abuse across his social media accounts. As of yesterday, he still thinks the election was rigged and/or stolen. Make of that what you will.

I don’t want to overcite the conspiracy-minded rot that Schilling has ceaselessly produced for his hundreds of thousands of followers over the last several years. It’s well-documented across all corners of the internet. By now, we know who Schilling is. This isn’t about making a moral judgment on Schilling himself, because that should be a foregone conclusion at this point. It is, however, a judgment on the Hall of Fame and the writers of the BBWAA, who are increasingly and alarmingly failing to come to terms with the damage Schilling does.

It feels preposterous that we would even consider giving a man of his character a plaque, medal, and platform when Black athletes across all sports have been blackballed, ostracized, and abused for daring to even kneel in protest of the violence Schilling encourages. But as the argument always goes, there are plenty of repulsive characters already in the Hall of Fame.

Ty Cobb is the most popular example, despite the alleged embellishment of his racist tendencies, but Tris Speaker and Cap Anson are frequently cited as well. It’s true that the earliest legends of the game—and some of the later ones as well—sometimes embodied the worst values of their times, and the baseball writers of those times chose to disregard it.

But it is baffling that the BBWAA of 2020 has seemingly concluded that they have no choice but to follow the mistakes of their predecessors, simply because that’s how they did it. Let Ryan Fagan of the Sporting News tell you, as he explained his vote for Schilling ten months ago:

“As for Schilling’s public heel turn, lets just say I will not listen to his Hall of Fame acceptance speech, and I kind of hate that my vote will help eventually give him that stage. But what he did on the field—with his 3,116 strikeouts and 79.9 WAR leading his resume—undeniably earned a spot in Cooperstown.”

Fagan appears to believe that voting against Schilling will be held against him at the Pearly Gates. There are so, so many issues with statements like these, but what’s especially unclear to me is what invisible forces are compelling the BBWAA to uphold voting standards of the 1940s and 50s.

The early founders of the Hall of Fame operated by the rules of a society that made second-class citizens out of everyone not a cisgender, heterosexual white man, and that’s reflected in their criteria for who deserves to be enshrined. For writers to act as if they’re helpless to not abide by those criteria is, well, dumb. Times change and standards with them, and as Fagan is clearly aware, the standards of today dictate that Schilling is not worth celebrating under any circumstances.

For better or worse, the positioning of the Hall of Fame as purely about on-field merit is part of what makes it meaningful. The mythologies of all American sports are premised on the idea that performance on the field is ultimately the great equalizer, no matter your identity.

But it’s both ludicrous and irresponsible to suggest that Schilling’s exclusion would somehow make the Hall of Fame less legitimate, or damage its legacy. Ryan Fagan can make himself feel better by turning and looking away, but it doesn’t change the fact that Schilling will give his speech all the same, and he will forever be on a literal pedestal among players whose very humanity he would throw dirt on.

What makes this cowardice, apparently shared by the majority of the voting BBWAA, particularly gross is that real, tangible harm is caused by the lies, abuse, and invective that Schilling willingly stands for. Words matter. Documented hate crimes are at a modern-day high. People are dying thanks to the violence incited by Schilling and his allies. For the writers to act as if the imagined sanctity of a museum is somehow more important than the damage done to real, human lives is not only callous and cruel, but an active endorsement of the numerous -isms and phobias Schilling promotes.

Needless to say, the overwhelmingly white and male BBWAA broadcasting their indifference to the violence suffered by people of color and the LGBTQ+ community makes for some incredibly disturbing optics. As Yahoo’s Chris Cwik succinctly reminded us last year in a column that you should also read, “every vote that pushes Schilling closer to induction is complicit in both normalizing and rewarding his reprehensible behavior.” After 2020, I’m curious to know whether Fagan still thinks those 3,116 strikeouts are enough of a justification to give Schilling that stage he speaks of. This kind of indifference is not only immoral, it’s lethal.

At the end of the day, neither the Hall of Fame nor MLB are equipped to deal with Curt Schilling in a way that won’t be an affirmation of his racism. They have yet to address their enabling of racism and white supremacy in the past, much less the present! Kenesaw Mountain Landis’s racism was no secret, and neither was his aversion to integration. Yet it was only eight weeks ago that the BBWAA saw fit to remove Landis’s name from baseball’s MVP award.

His Hall of Fame page makes no mention of his role in maintaining segregation. Nor does such an acknowledgment appear for any Jim Crow-era owner or executive, including Tom Yawkey, an owner so virulently racist that the city of Boston had to re-title the street outside Fenway Park bearing his name. Similarly, the Hall’s treatment of Black and Negro Leagues players is incomplete, revisionist history. Not only are there far fewer of them inducted than there probably should be, but their plaques and biographies also make virtually no reference to MLB’s role in excluding them from mainstream baseball history.

To add Schilling to this collection of injustices (of which there are many more) is flat-out unnecessary. Moreover, it’s brutally insulting to all of the players who were systematically excluded from baseball for decades because of people like Schilling, and also to the people who continue to do outstanding work keeping those players’ memories alive.

Those are just the Hall of Fame’s problems. Among the many other things newly re-exposed by 2020 is MLB’s woeful inadequacy at addressing the racism and discrimination still pervasive throughout all levels of baseball culture. In recent months we’ve seen teams, executives, and journalists bungle their tepid responses to incidents as frighteningly overt as Nazi salutes, on-air homophobic slurs, and targeted harassment of women. What will they do when confronted with Schilling’s enthusiasm for all of those things?

What will they do when confronted with Schilling’s endorsement of the hatred spewed by everyone from the President to Aubrey Huff to Alex Jones?

What will they do when confronted with the disrespect and alienation felt by every player and fan belonging to a group targeted and harmed by Schilling and his ilk?

The answer is probably nothing. And it will be the people who have already been excluded the most by baseball that will continue to bear the worst of it, while Schilling gets his perks. No, MLB and the Hall of Fame and especially the BBWAA clearly aren’t ready to deal with that. Their implicit support of Schilling’s views and actions is already a disgrace, and they’ll have nobody to blame but themselves for the fallout.

So don’t buy it. Not the Bob Costas interviews, the takes from former teammates, the wishy-washy debates on MLB Network, or the assertions from clueless journalists that these things are irrelevant. Whatever they talk about, it’s not important.

What matters is that Schilling continues to attack and hurt people on a daily basis and that the BBWAA continues to enable it by treating it like nothing more than a distasteful sideshow. Don’t let them trick you into thinking this is a reasonable debate, because it isn’t, and this shouldn’t be a difficult choice.

Neither the writers nor the Hall of Fame have ever hesitated to use their clout and the character clause as they see fit. Whether it’s spiting steroid users, Roberto Alomar, or non-association writers with the audacity to ask questions in post-game press conferences, the BBWAA has always taken pride in positioning itself as the all-knowing moral arbiter of baseball. It’s been little but self-aggrandizement in the past, but now is the time for the BBWAA to put their high horse to use.

Rather than casting their votes and turning away from the consequences, the writers have an opportunity to, for once, make a profound statement about what we value in baseball. The kind of statement they think they’ve been making this whole time. They can reaffirm that humanity is ultimately what matters. That might be idealistic, but it’s the message we want to send nonetheless.

My hopes aren’t high, but I’m pleading with the BBWAA to snap back to reality and overcome their obsession with purity and tradition. Don’t be complicit in baseball turning its back on marginalized people even more than it already has.

Don’t place yet another stain of racism and malice on the game.

Don’t make hatred compatible with greatness.

Photo by Sporting News/ZUMA Press/Icon Sportswire | Design by Daniel Pearson (@persondaniel)




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