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Insider

Hall of Fame voters have hijacked the character clause

The character clause seemed to take on new meaning when Mark McGwire's name first appeared on the ballot in 2007. Peter Newcomb/AFP/Getty Images

If Hall of Fame voters need more evidence that the so-called character clause has been a mostly dormant handful of words, they might want to think about this: Jackie Robinson was named on only 77.5 percent of Hall of Fame ballots in the year he first became eligible.

The man broke baseball's color barrier, and he faced horrific racism and repeated assaults hidden underneath the guise of competition (he led the league in being hit by pitches in his second season). And not only did he endure, but he thrived. If anybody in baseball history deserved an accounting under the character clause, it was Robinson. Hank Aaron blasted 755 homers, Cy Young won 511 games, and Robinson established a character standard for history that cannot be defined by any metric.

But Robinson barely garnered the 75 percent of votes needed for induction. Larry Doby, a seven-time All-Star who was the AL's first black player, never polled higher than 3.4 percent. The character clause had no bearing on his candidacy or on almost any player in six decades of Hall of Fame voting.

Somewhere along the way, long after Robinson's induction and death, some writers determined that the scant phrasing in the character clause could be used to eliminate candidates, but apparently not used to elevate them -- a practice which seems to violate the wording and to underscore its absurdly subjective nature.