Part I: Expanding the Boundaries of Recognition
As admirers of a game steeped in recondite statistics and their relentless over-analysis, baseball aficionados and professional sports writers have never been at a loss for a friendly argument (or a raging debate) over who deserves “enshrinement” in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. But if we look closely at the present function of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, what was once chiefly a monument to the game’s greatest players and their personal memorabilia has evolved into a museum dedicated to the cultural history of baseball, one in which teams, individual players, managers, commissioners--and even ballparks--are recognized as having participated in the game’s most notable—if not unforgettable--moments; and, yes, finally, dedicated to those players who have recorded the game’s most exceptional achievements. A close look at the mission statement of the Hall, taken from their website1 indicates that the selection of players to the “Hall of Fame” is itself not the main purpose of the museum:
“The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is a not-for-profit educational institution dedicated to fostering an appreciation of the historical development of the game and its impact on our culture by collecting, preserving, exhibiting and interpreting its collections for a global audience, as well as honoring those who have made outstanding contributions to our National Pastime.”
What, then, constitutes “its collections?”—Hall of Fame Plaques? The mission statement continues:
“Through its mission, the Museum is committed to:
Collecting, through donation, baseball artifacts, works of art, literature, photographs, memorabilia and related materials which focus on the history of the game over time, its players, and those elected to the Hall of Fame.
Preserving the collections by adhering to professional museum standards with respect to conservation and maintaining a permanent record of holdings through documentation, study, research, cataloging and publication.
Exhibiting material in permanent gallery space, organizing on-site changing exhibitions on various themes, with works from the Hall of Fame collections or other sources, working with other individuals or organizations to exhibit loaned material of significance to baseball and providing related research facilities.
Interpreting artifacts through its exhibition and education programs to enhance awareness, understanding and appreciation of the game for a diverse audience.
Honoring, by enshrinement, those individuals who had exceptional careers, and recognizing others for their significant achievements.
If we look carefully at the language of the mission statement, we find that in the first of its five commitments, the Hall seeks to “focus on the history of the game over time, its players, and those elected to the Hall of Fame.” It strikes me as relevant that “those elected to the Hall of Fame” is last among those aims listed in the first bulleted mission of the museum, whereas the last bulleted statement does not exclusively focus on Hall of Fame inductees, but recognizes “others for their significant achievements.” The history of the game and its players and the contribution of baseball to American culture are really the chief concerns of the museum exhibitions, historical archives and memorabilia. In fact, if we look at exhibits at the Hall such as those featuring the history of the Negro Leagues, the Women’s baseball league, and the debates over the origin of the game, one begins to understand the Hall of Fame as what it has become—a museum of American cultural history and not simply a “shrine” in which those “elected” to the Hall are worshipped through their fetish clothing alongside faded bubble-gum cards depicting our favorite old-timers crooked sideward in their nostalgically awkward poses.
This brings me to the subject of this essay series. The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, as it today stands, and as its mission states, is to “enhance awareness” by adhering to “professional museum standards” through its education and exhibition spaces. However, when one thinks of the Hall of Fame, one does not normally think of the A. Bartlett Giamatti Research Center, its photo department (with over half-a-million images, not to mention films) or the many exhibits on the game’s cultural history. One thinks instead—if I may be permitted to generalize a bit—of plaques bearing the names of the great players alongside filthy jockstraps dangling from inside antique wooden lockers—yes, and a lot of very interesting old-time memorabilia. Now, while I won’t deny the fetish appeal of seeing Shoeless Joe’s glove, Lou Gehrig’s jersey, or an old, hand-scored program from game five of the 1911 World Series, and while I certainly enjoy all of these artifacts and appreciate the wonderful job of preservation done by historians at the Hall of Fame Museum, if the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is to live up to its mission statement, it must also recognize the many players not elected to the Hall who nonetheless deserve special recognition for excellence during their era. Although many sports analysts, pundits, and beat writers close to the game may be inclined to declaim “near miss” players as undeserving of election (certain to “water down” the Hall’s immortals), and “character” players with short but famous careers to be unmeritous of plaque-and-pomp enshrinement, I propose a simple solution to all of the hemming and hawing over lifetime statistics: the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum should consider erecting an exhibition wing devoted to the greatest players of their era whose “career” numbers belie either their cultural significance to the game during their era, or their contribution as one of the greatest (or most memorable) players of their decade. This exhibit might be supplemented with an exhibit on the greatest teams of each era, with emphasis on the significance of these featured players to those teams.
Every year during the Hall of Fame voting period, sportswriter Moss Klein repeats a hortatory truism in his column in the Newark Star-Ledger, one that I agree with, but with some hesitation: “The Hall of Fame is for the very great and not for the very good.” Although few would disagree that the Hall of Fame proper is for the game’s very greatest players, the Hall of Fame and Museum would violate its the mission statement if it failed to recognize players who were great for several years, but were forced to retire as a result of injuries, or perhaps, were not brought up quickly enough to amass big lifetime numbers; players who were such cornerstones of consistency that they deserve special lifetime recognition (despite having failed to achieve the game’s highest perennial honors, the so-called “Black Ink” numbers); and players who were so superb defensively that no museum of baseball culture could possibly fail to recognize their achievements, particularly players who were also quite good offensively. After all, the Hall’s mission is “honoring by enshrinement, those individuals who had exceptional careers, and recognizing others for their significant achievements.” Finally, in an era of free agency, the Hall needs to recognize those players who played for many teams and were indeed a primary factor in the post-season successes of those teams--but may themselves have been “near-miss” hall of famers (one thinks here of a David Cone or a Dave Parker). You might add to that a “forgotten heroes” collection of World Series and Playoff performers who exceeded their otherwise solid, or even mediocre careers. Finally, an interest in “greatest teams” might enable this concept to be one into which many of these other exhibits could be built.
All sportswriters have their favorite players whom they believe are deserving and unrewarded—and some marginal players have been admitted to the Hall in so-called “weak” years. Many have accused the Hall of Fame veterans committees of electing marginally-deserving players; but, perhaps the election of today’s “near great” players is merely a generation away as future veteran’s committees will recognize players based upon a different, if not more personal standard than sportswriters of a past generation. How will today’s “near miss” players fare? About 57% of the 254 players in the Hall of Fame were elected by the veteran’s committee. And if not selected by a future veterans committee, will Don Mattingly, Keith Hernandez, and Steve Garvey be elected to a 1970-1990 “Hall of Prominence” among first basemen, rather than “enshrined” in the “Hall of Fame?” Of course, this distinction raises new problems. Arguments will immediately erupt about extremely marginal players who do not receive the sustained support of a Mattingly or Garvey on the Hall of Fame ballot, and are removed for lack of support (5% on all ballots is required), but are instead considered for candidacy in such a Hall of Prominence where a Garvey or a Mattingly surely belong, if not in the Hall of Fame itself.
Many knee-jerk oppositions to such a “Hall of Prominence” will give us the, “it’s-watered-down, now-everybody’s-in-the-Hall” argument. But I would like to see players like Hernandez and Mattingly honored somewhere—there are others as well. The Hall of Fame is a museum, not a shrine (the word “enshrinement” in the last bullet of the mission statement uses the now jaded rhetoric of the sacred), and although Baseball holds a sacred status among many fans, the truth is that fans of the game know an “all-time” great (e.g., Babe Ruth or Tris Speaker) from a great (e.g., Orlando Cepeda or Jim Bottomly). Seeing lesser players inducted by veterans committees—and seeing criteria change—is part of why the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum needs, as its mission statement says, to “exhibit material in a permanent gallery space… and interpret artifacts through its exhibition and education programs to enhance awareness, understanding and appreciation of the game for a diverse audience.” Passionate fans know the stats and argue over them year in and year out—and this too is part of the pastime of baseball—but the Hall of Fame is not, and should no longer be, merely a public platform for ranting one’s personal convictions about “Greatest Ever” players. Serious fans, and baseball insiders can generally agree on who the greatest players were, and understand the nuances of era, differences in ballparks, the effects of expansion, differences in the leagues, difficulty of schedules, strength of opposing pitchers faced, domes & turf, and non-box score intangibles (was he a good baserunner? Did he get to a lot of hard-hit balls? Could he turn the double play? Was he exceptional in the clutch? Did he always move the runner over?-- and the like). But so many players with interesting—even briefly dominant careers—deserve the attention of fans interested in the game’s history. The Hall of Fame is not merely a “hall of glory” but a hall of remembrance.
The Hall of Fame has thus evolved, at least theoretically, from a monumentalized “hall of Caesars” to a twenty-first century cultural museum. Yet, Major League Baseball continues to use this monumentalizing strategy as a marketing tool. McGwire, Bonds, Ripken, Pedro, Johnson & Schilling, Alex Rodriguez. The game of baseball is marketed to casual fans as a game of superstars ticketed to the Hall of Fame, or shot down by injuries and cocaine. Fans of the game understand that unlike Ice Hockey or Basketball, no one great player can control the game, every day, minute by minute. Only a great starting pitcher may give the appearance of such dominance—and then perhaps at most only every four days. When the Yankees became consistent winners from as far back as 1994 through their last World Series appearance in 2001, they did so primarily because of pitching depth, quality at every position, and their lack of reliance on a central superstar. This is even truer of the 2002 Angels, whose grit, consistency and desire overcame a far better Yankee pitching staff in the first round, and beat the heroic Bonds, in spite of his many home runs. Baseball is about great teams, not merely about great players. This is why the Hall of Fame should install a permanent exhibition on the greatest teams of all time, and within that exhibit, the Keith Hernandez, the Orel Hersheiser, the El Duque, the Luis Gonzales—the Darrin Erstad—will be remembered as the man of the moment—and maybe, even, as a great player briefly during his era, or—God forbid—a very, very good player for a very, very long time.
1 Read it on-line at: http://www.baseballhalloffame.org/about/mission.htm