Defining the Baseball Hall of Fame

It’s mid-September. Football season has begun, and basketball season is a couple of months away. The baseball playoffs haven’t yet begun, but the teams who will compete for the World Series have essentially been determined. Which makes this a perfect time to talk about the baseball Hall of Fame.

Rob Manfred, the new Commissioner of Baseball, recently made an announcement that got no publicity and surprised essentially no one. He wrote the officials of the Joe Jackson Museum in Greenville South Carolina, to tell them that he would not reconsider the long-standing decision to ban “Shoeless” Joe Jackson from the baseball Hall of Fame.

For the sake of you who aren’t baseball fans, Joe Jackson was one of the best players in baseball from 1908-1920. But in the 1919 World Series, he was one of several players for the Chicago White Sox who conspired with gamblers to throw the series–to lose on purpose. After a year’s investigation, Jackson, and his fellow ‘Black Sox’ were banned for life from the game. That ban included induction into the American Professional Baseball Hall of Fame. Jackson was, by any statistical measure, a genuine great player. And that subset of baseball fans who continue to agitate for his induction point out that ‘Black Sox’ case was adjudicated in federal court, and Jackson and his teammates were exonerated. Still, he’s out.

I’m not going to argue for or against Joe Jackson. This recent decision by Commissioner Manfred, however, points up a serious problem that the baseball Hall of Fame continues to have, which is growing exponentially worse.  It’s a problem of definition.

What is the Baseball Hall of Fame? Here are two possible answers. One is this: it’s essentially a pantheon. It’s intended to honor the greatest players who have ever played the game. You visit the Hall of Fame primarily to see the room where they keep all the plaques.

But ‘greatest’ is a contested term. It would easy enough to construct a statistical measure of everyone who has played, induct the guys who are above some line of achievement, and not induct the guys who fall short. But the pantheon is about human beings, not stat lines; there are other accomplishments besides hitting or pitching stats that can provide a larger context. Character should also count. So a guy like Joe Jackson, who accepted money from gamblers, who threw games, committed the ultimate sin, the sin against the Holy Ghost, kind of. Not that he was a bad guy generally; by all accounts, he was a genial companion and a generous and kindly individual. But for a sport to survive as a commercial enterprise requires, at the very least, for fans to believe that the players are honestly competing. When the Dodgers play the Giants, our emotional investment in that game depends on our sense that the players on both teams are really trying to win. The Black Sox scandal had to be contained, and the players punished. The continued survival of baseball as a sport depended on it.

That leads me to the second definition of the Hall of Fame; it’s a museum. It’s the principal museum for the sport of professional baseball. When you go to the Hall of Fame, you spend most of your time looking at the various exhibits there, the artifacts and the displays. And it has a library with an unparalleled collection of materials. Anyone doing genuine historical research would have to spend considerable time there.

And that’s also true. I’ve been to the Hall of Fame, and yes, you do spend some time in the plaque room. But mostly, you look at the exhibits. The history of baseball is, certainly, about Willie Mays and Babe Ruth and Mickie Mantle–the great players. But it’s also about Moe Berg, and “Super” Joe Charboneau, and Bob Uecker and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. It’s about ‘Casey at the Bat,’ and Major League, and John Fogerty singing ‘Centerfield.’ It’s about the quirks and oddities of a sport that thrives on them. It’s a museum.

So which is it, first and foremost? A pantheon or a museum? Well, for decades, the HOF got along perfectly well without deciding. The pantheon function attracted visitors (which isn’t all that easy, considering its location–tiny town, upstate New York), and then the museum part entertained them. (And then the gift shop sucked their wallets empty). It was a pantheon, minus one guy who should probably be there, but honestly, who really cares that much about Joe Jackson?

And then the Joe Jackson omission (which happened for good reasons), became the precedent by which Pete Rose could also be kept out. And at one level, omitting Pete Rose makes all kinds of sense. He bet on baseball. Against the rules–rules established in the wake of the Black Sox scandal. Of course, to create a pantheon of the Greatest Players Ever that didn’t include Pete Rose is absurd. He was a great and unique and tremendous player. But, still, fine: it’s a Hall of Fame of everyone except two guys. And Pete set up a booth outside the Hall in Cooperstown, and did a brisk business signing his autograph. Reminding us of who he was.

But then came the home run binge of the late ’90s, and rumors, now proven true, of wide-spread steroid use by most of the best players in the game. And the ‘Pantheon’ function of the Hall of Fame is rapidly becoming completely absurd.

The greatest hitter I ever saw play, and statistically, the great offensive force in the history of the game, was Barry Bonds. He isn’t in the Hall of Fame, and won’t be, because he took steroids.

The greatest power pitcher of the last forty years was either Randy Johnson or Roger Clemens. You could make a strong case for either guy. Johnson was just inducted. Clemens won’t be, because he took steroids.

Sammy Sosa. Mark McGwire. Their home run race, in 1998, was the most exciting thing in the sport, and may have saved it, because so many fans had tuned out after a labor dispute caused the ’94 World Series to be cancelled. Sosa and McGwire have credentials that should make them automatic Hall of Famers. Neither will be inducted, because they juiced.

They aren’t the only ones, but they’re the biggest names. We’ve reached a point where the greatest hitters and pitchers in the history of baseball aren’t in the Hall of Fame. Why? Because “they cheated.”

(We do not know how many players in the ’90s used steroids. The pitcher Eric Gagne says over 80% of the guys he played with during his years in baseball were users. Jose Canseco says over 80%. Other estimates range from 40-60%)

But see, that’s exactly the kind of thing a museum is very good at; providing context and historical perspective. Yes, the steroids era happened. Let’s talk about that. Let’s also talk about the widespread use of amphetimines (uppers), in the ’50s and ’60s, and cocaine in the ’70s and ’80s. Let’s create a super informative display, right there in the museum.

And in the meantime, let’s put the game’s greatest players ever in the pantheon. And yes, that includes Pete Rose and Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens. And yes, it probably also includes Joe Jackson.

One thought on “Defining the Baseball Hall of Fame

  1. Michaela Stephens

    Good point. The public shaming of the internet has led to our society wanting a person in office that seems impervious to shaming. However, this also has a problem to it if Trump wins. He might be unashamed of verbal insensitivities, but what I’m really worried about is whether he will use presidential power badly and then be unashamed of that. What damage might he do to this nation?


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