But that consensus is cracking. Part of the reason is that the hundreds of writers who vote are, as a whole, becoming younger and seemingly less inclined to take an unyielding stance on steroid cheats.
And part of the reason appears to be the decision last month to induct Bud Selig into the Hall. Selig, who served as commissioner of baseball as the record books were being obliterated by bulked-up players, was granted entry into Cooperstown by a veterans’ committee that is separate from the writers’ bloc.
Selig had long been criticized for failing to combat the doping scourge sooner. Now he was headed to Cooperstown, joining, among others, the former manager Tony La Russa, who was inducted in 2014 and who oversaw a number of highly successful teams that benefited from the presence of steroid users.
All of it “just kind of struck a nerve with me,” said Kevin Cooney, a voter from The Courier Times in Bucks County, Pa.
“To me, it would be hypocritical to put the commissioner of the steroid era and a manager who had connections with the steroid era in and leave out the greatest pitcher and the greatest hitter of that time,” Cooney said in explaining why he had now decided to vote for Bonds and Clemens.
Another writer, Susan Slusser of The San Francisco Chronicle, posted a pointed message on social media after Selig’s induction. In it, Slusser, a former president of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America, said the induction had now compelled her to reconsider how she would vote on this year’s ballot for the Hall.
She argued that if Selig was being inducted, it was “senseless” to keep out players who were accused of using drugs.
As a longtime beat writer for The Chronicle, Slusser is well respected by her fellow writers. Her statement got their attention and seemed to contribute to the shift now taking place.
“There is nothing good about the whole era,” Slusser said in a telephone interview. “And I just decided that if you honor the central figures of the era — the execs and managers and players and media people are all going in — then it’s putting the entire wrongs of that era on two guys.”
Other voters clearly share Slusser and Cooney’s thinking, and that shift is reflected in the vote totals tabulated on Ryan Thibodaux’s BBHOF ballot tracker, which lists Hall of Fame ballots that writers have made public in advance of the announcement of the final vote totals later this month.
Of the more than 150 voters who have taken the public route — representing a little over a third of the electorate — 21 voted for Bonds for the first time after previously declining to do so, and 22 did the same for Clemens.
That growing support has left Bonds and Clemens closing in on the 75 percent threshold needed for induction. As of Monday evening, each had been named on 111 of the 158 ballots on Thibodaux’s site, or 70.3 percent.
Based on previous voting patterns, the percentages for Bonds and Clemens are expected to come down some — to somewhere above 60 percent — when all the votes are tabulated. Still, a pathway to induction has come into focus for the two men midway through their 10 years of ballot eligibility.
Last year, Clemens received 45.2 percent of the vote and Bonds 44.3. It was the best they had done to date, but still far short of where they needed to get. But if they can get over 60 percent this time, with five more years left on the ballot, they may pick up enough momentum to eventually get the necessary three-quarters of the vote. Other players have followed a similar trajectory into the Hall.
Then again, other players do not carry the baggage that Bonds and Clemens do. Not only were they linked to illicit drugs, but both ended up facing criminal charges that they lied about their drug use in legal settings.
Bonds was charged with perjury and obstruction of justice for statements he made before a federal grand jury and was initially convicted of the latter charge before the verdict was overturned. Clemens, whose denial of drug use led to a nationally televised hearing before a congressional panel, was ultimately acquitted of perjury and other charges in a federal trial.
But even with all those unsettling facts to consider, some writers are changing their minds.
Steve Buckley of The Boston Herald said he pictured himself sitting in the audience at Cooperstown for future induction ceremonies and looking out at Selig and La Russa and others who he said benefited from the steroid era and wondering why the two best players of the time were barred.
“I’m not saying Bud turned a blind eye to it or that he knew it was happening,” Buckley said of the drug use under Selig’s watch. “I’m simply saying that Clemens and Bonds and others took the performance-enhancing drugs and did the steroids and all those evil things, and at the end of the day, the game did prosper, and they are on the outside looking in, and I have an issue with that.”
But then there is Gordon Wittenmyer of The Chicago Sun-Times, who did not vote for Bonds or Clemens this time, either, and who said that comparing Selig to the two former stars did not make sense.
He recalled that before his first vote a few years ago, when another tainted slugger, Mark McGwire, was still on the ballot, he described the voting process to his son, who was 12 at the time. Wittenmyer described each player’s biography and what he had seen from them up close as a writer. Then he explained the steroid issue.
“His response was, ‘Well, Dad, isn’t that cheating?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it was,’” Wittenmyer said. “If that’s the easy conclusion a 12-year-old draws, it really is that simple.” But how many voters still feel like Wittenmyer has become an intriguing question.