Baseball appeared early enough in history that it has evolved right along with the rest of America. The faces of the game have shifted across time, but one of the few mainstays of its entire existence is that since the beginning of it all, we’ve been talking about its integrity.
In November 1919, a coven of major league owners declared war on American League president Ban Johnson, with White Sox owner Charles Comiskey writing, “We have reached the conclusion that Mr. Johnson is endangering not only the value of our properties, but the integrity of baseball…” (Philadelphia Inquirer, November 22, 1919)
Five years later in 1924, it was Johnson’s turn to point baseball’s innocence like an index finger, as he insisted upon a federal investigation after some attempted bribery between players, saying the misconduct was a “menace to the integrity of baseball.” (The Associated Press, October 3, 1924)
Peter Ueberroth said it before he stepped into the commissioner’s office: “Baseball has more integrity than any other game.” His successor, A. Bartlet Giamatti, brought it up a lot when talking-but-not-talking about Pete Rose. Bud Selig kept saying it, until the word had lost all meaning.
Once more, in the ongoing fallout of baseball’s latest scandal, it’s everywhere: Isn’t the integrity of the game at stake? Has the integrity of the game been damaged beyond repair? What of the integrity, I ask you?!? But the real question isn’t how we can protect it, or what’s been done to it; the question is, at this point in baseball’s history, what the hell is its integrity?
When we say “the integrity of the game,” we’re not talking about its honesty or purity, but the structure in which it’s contained; the basic operations like swinging and fielding and running and pitching. But by 2020 in baseball, we are also talking about the way that all of those things have been warped by steroids and lighter baseballs and gambling, which have all been heaped upon the integrity of a sport that struggles to stay up but will never fully collapse.
And while the phrase “integrity of the game” looks good in a quote when you are trying to appear as baseball’s Royal Protector, the truth is, the sport fights with its integrity every second of its existence. It kicks at the support beams. It rips up the floor boards. It nods in understanding of the rules and then immediately looks for the best way to dig under them or run through them or slip by them. So it’s really not even the honorable construct within which the sport operates; a lot of the time, it’s the obstacle in the path of its most unscrupulous innovators.
With the Astros (and who knows who else) cheating scandal upon us, the curtain has again been pulled back: It’s just humans out there, playing the game, blowing their lives up with misguided mistakes, getting away or not getting away with acts of fraud. It’s a delusion we create, that these nine guys are, every night, as in love with the sport as they were the first time they picked up a glove. And that delusion was created for a reason: Who would want to talk about this? But we do every time something like this happens, because it spoils the fun by forcing us to ask ourselves: If baseball can’t even stand on its own long-trumpeted integrity, why do we even bother watching?
“I think the nature of other sports encourages, to some degree, an element of cheating. But in baseball, when players cork their bats or put slippery elm on the ball, people are outraged. The rules are regarded as more sacred as opposed to other sports,” said Bill McGill to the AP in September 1998.
This was during the heat of the McGwire/Sosa home run race, before steroids had even become the focus. The questions about integrity were regarding whether or not opposing pitchers were ruining the game by not pitching to the sluggers, or if the sluggers were ruining it by swinging for the fences on every hittable pitch.
Integrity in baseball is based on assumption and perception, that when somebody’s not doing the wrong thing right in front of us, then, presumably, they’re doing the right thing. But again, this is a sport played by humans: It’s going to be political, it’s going to be problematic, and it’s going to disappoint us, and not just because of the score. So what to do with baseball’s precious integrity, which has been in question since its beginnings, and grown more laughable every year since?
The answer is simple: we break it. Just kick the whole integrity down. Let this be a game played by war criminals in a moral sewer. And then slowly, after a generation of fans are traumatized by rampant deception and in-game executions, we let fandom die out entirely. Another decade goes by and suddenly, the sport now fully staffed by beer leaguers and prisoners on work release is cool again to teens rebelling against how engaged their parents are by other, better sports.
Or, the more realistic answer: We accept that the cheating is the game. The computers and cameras are the game. The trash can is the game, the buzzers are the game, the suspensions and fines are the game, the permanent stain on everything is the game. Former players (and their probably-not-actually relatives) sharing ominous foreshadowing are the game.
Strap in, cause this isn’t close to being over….. pic.twitter.com/hawAZKCRXb
— Cody Decker (@Decker6) January 16, 2020
That doesn’t make it a good game, or a game we necessarily want to watch. But it’s all cemented into the sport’s integrity, and it won’t be the last time we find a skeleton in the walls. There is no separation between what happens on the field and the scandals that break off of it, no matter how desperately we try to convince ourselves there is.
Michael Madden of the Boston Globe went off on baseball’s integrity in 1989, when baseball faced the twin scourges of Pete Rose betting on games and Wade Boggs having an extramarital affair, saying that the game on the field is “pure wonder and joy,” but it had long been without the integrity that was once more being wailed about:
“But do not be fooled by the cries about saving the integrity of baseball. Boggs is the best singles and doubles hitter in the game, but he is not the only baseball player to cheat on his wife. His personal integrity should be questioned but not baseball’s.” (Boston Globe, March 27, 1989)
In every apology we get from those at the center of this cheating scandal, we’ve seen the same word. But it’s been in the personal context Madden talked about, and not that of the sport itself.
Jeff Luhnow: “I am not a cheater. Anybody who has worked closely with me during my 32-year career inside and outside baseball can attest to my integrity.”
AJ Hinch: “As a leader and Major League Manager, it is my responsibility to lead players and staff with integrity that represents the game in the best possible way.”
This is, of course, silly: The players make up baseball, so their personal integrity helps comprise that of the sport. But when baseball is at its best, we don’t have to talk about what it’s made of. We just talk about who is and isn’t a groundball pitcher and breathe in the scent of the nearest meat.
In between baseball’s various chunks of self-destruction, the integrity is spackled together by the moments in which it isn’t actively trying to break itself. When it isn’t reminding us that this is just a needless three-hour excursion across a series of boxes on a warm Sunday afternoon. When good players do amazing things and we all sit there and say, “Holy crap, what an exciting sequence of nanoseconds that we could barely see from up here.” The moments when baseball isn’t lying or cheating or filling the balls with anti-gravity juice or filling the players with amphetamines and lets us forget that these dudes are just dudes and they are going to warp or destroy or taint their legacies with decisions they regret, but only when they’ve been found out.
The integrity of baseball is strongest in those little pockets where it actually is the sport we pretend it is. Sometimes, you’ve got to wait a while to see it. In a few years, or sooner, we’ll be back here, talking about how the [throws dart] White Sox have been [throws second dart] learning how to control the weather. And hopefully we’ll have a few more of those moments to support a little more weight.
Justin is a contributor to FanGraphs and a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.