Few things pass the time more agreeably, when waiting for one’s bar trivia scores to be tabulated or sitting in line at your local international film festival or when finding one’s self lamentably lacking in dominoes, to argue about the Hall of Fame. It’s like an extra layer of fandom, a diluted political acumen; each person has their methodology, their candidates, and their unconquerable opinions. And like politics, everyone can agree on the fact that the system of the Hall of Fame is deeply flawed. The writers, after all, are wizened luddites with food rotting in their patchy, tangled beards. The veterans are busy handing out free passes to the Hall to old friends, drunk off appletinis at Mickey Mantle’s Restaurant. And the nerds… oh, the nerds.
Each year we have the conventions, the rallies. Soon the Blylevenites will toss their collective weight behind the Elect Raines by 2021 Committee, while the Jack Morris and Lee Smith crusaders will fire up their 56K modems to denounce them. The same thirty people who vote for Harold Baines every year will meet up at a Best Western in Charleston to swap stories. Eventually, Election Day will come, we’ll have the headlines, one last enraged argument, and one writer from a farm town in the Midwest will be burnt in effigy for writing Dale Sveum into his ballot. It’s high drama, and there’s certainly fun to be had. But is it useful?
I rarely use the first person in this little blog. But in a typically belated response to the Barry Bonds trial and the pre-emptive handwringing over his potential eligibility in 2012, I feel obligated for the sake of transparency to elaborate on my own baseball-political values. Should known steroids users like McGwire and Bonds be included in the Hall of Fame? Should Pete Rose, whose crimes are considered by some far less damning for some reason? Should Jim DeShaies have received a vote? How would I, Faceless Internet Blogger #7964, solve the eternal dilemma that is the Hall of Fame?
I would abolish the Hall of Fame.
Well, not all of it. The plaques are nice, and we may as well hold on to the memorabilia, since we’ve gone to all the trouble of collecting it. But as far as the Hall of Fame as the average fan considers it, a roped-off collection of the Greatest Players Who Ever Played the Greatest Game Greatly, I don’t think we should bother anymore. Here are some of the reasons why:
There is no objective standard for greatness. One of the wonderful things about baseball is that it wields a dichotomy of objectivity and subjectivity. On the one hand, we have numbers, and on the other, we have aesthetics; either without the other would be useless. But when it comes to the Hall debate, there are those who want a "Small Hall" filled only with the Ruths and the Seavers and the Matthewses (they would make room for poor forgotten Eddie Matthews, right?). And then we have the "Large Hall" people who want to reward Bob Grich and Dwight Evans and Darrell Evans and Terry Shumpert. Then we have the people who celebrate championships and want to enshrine every member of the 1975 Reds, and would shun Edgar Martinez because he "didn’t know how to win" and "didn’t know how to get his manager to stick him at third even though he wasn’t very good at it and seriously you’re starting Russ Davis". We have the secret mustache cabal and its sworn, equally invisible enemies. And none of these opinions are definitively wrong. They’re each an individually devised conception of greatness.
The flaw in the idea that there is an objective definition of a Hall of Fame player is that such a cutoff is entirely arbitrary. It would be different if there were a natural break in the curve, a noticeable separation between the "great" and the "good". Instead we have a gentle sloping curve, and the fence that lets in the Orlando Cepedas of the world and keeps out the Carlos Delgados is constructed of two materials: precedent and self-justification. For the vast majority of voters (and fans), players either "feel" like a Hall of Famer or they don’t, based on whichever unquestioned assumptions they carry into the argument. In his book, Politics of Glory, Bill James explains it thusly:
The Hall of Fame begins right at the point where the curve flattens out. It’s where it has to begin (or where it has to end), because if you let it go down further into the curve, the number of candidates just gets out of hand. If that line is drawn at Point G there may be three players there – but if you move it back to Point F there will be six or seven players, and if you move it to Point E there will be a hundred or two hundred. The Hall of Fame has to stop before it reaches that point.
It’s as good an argument for a small hall as any, but it leaves a few threads undone: it doesn’t really preclude moving the line to Point F, just Point G, the point at which we’re drowning in plaques. The other problem is that James is insinuating that there is no halfway point between the F and G. The reality is more of a slippery slope, a Zeno’s Paradox of talent, an annual scraping of a couple of players off the top of the pool. As long as the Hall exists, the temptation to do this will continue. And as long as voters are over-strict with eligible players, as I’ll argue below, the assignment of glory will be made by old, unqualified ballplayers with rose-colored glasses and personal agendas.
Even if there were an objective standard, we haven’t been following it. The flaw in the small hall argument is that it’s already a large hall. James does an impeccable job of presenting the ever-changing, deeply flawed voting systems designed to confer greatness. The 75% rule and limitations on the number of players a writer can vote for leads to bottlenecks and logjams, and the 5% cutoff rule serves to weed out underappreciated players before they can even have time to be discussed. There are dozens of inductees shuttled through the back door by the Veteran’s Committee, forcing the writers to restrict passage through the front. What we’re left with are "legends" far inferior to the men sitting at the doorstep. True advocates of a small hall would have to be willing to tear some plaques down, and that’s an argument that’s rarely made. The precedent has already been set. There are three possibilities: Phil Rizzuto doesn’t belong in the Hall, Alan Trammell does, or the Hall of Fame is incoherent and broken.
An objective standard for greatness is pointless anyway. There’s this neat little statistic called Wins Above Replacement. With it, you can compare any two players in history, setting aside anything that might skew the numbers, like the era, the ballpark, or the southeasterly winds in any given at-bat. Sure, it doesn’t calculate dirty uniforms or poor investment skills, and it’s not too great at evaluating pitch selection by catchers. But for the most part, it’s a pretty effective way of categorizing every single baseball player in the history of mankind, and putting their life’s work in perfect numerical ranking. Was Bruce Bochte a better baseball player than Royce Clayton? We can find that out for you.
So if statistics are your bent, there’s no real need for a Hall of Fame to tell you what that spreadsheet already shows. Take your list, move people up and down a little based on your own preferences, decide on your own arbitrary cutoff and you’ve got yourself a Hall of Fame. Smirk all you want, but at least the spreadsheet knows how to deal with Rube Marquard, and your children wouldn’t be stuck having to explain Bruce Sutter and Jim Rice. I acknowledge that there was a time, amongst the newsprint and the transistor radio and the polio, where the Hall of Fame did fulfill a role of cataloging greatness for the casual fan. Nowadays, that role can be ably represented by a Bleacher Report slide show.
The Hall of Fame fails to confer the glory it’s designed for. The vast majority of baseball fans would be hard-pressed to name a third of the players in the Hall of Fame, even ignoring the managers, executives and broadcasters. Jimmy Foxx was enshrined sixty years ago, and most people still don’t know a lick about him. On the whole it seems strange to me, in a way, that the glory of these great ballplayers is celebrated by a faceless corporate conglomeration in a town in the middle of nowhere. Kirby Puckett doesn’t belong to baseball; he belongs to the city of Minnesota, the place where he became a hero and where so many children grew up idolizing him. Let his shrine be there; let that be the place where people make their pilgrimage.
Baseball belongs in a museum. The debate over steroids and amphetamines seems somewhat silly to me: if we elect these players to the Hall of Fame, the logic goes, they’ll receive exactly the same amount of honor as the "clean" players. The easiest way to solve this is not to try to weigh each player’s transgressions in some clumsy public court. It’s to remove the honor. Baseball is an infinitely complicated, beautiful game, and one of its simple truths is that there are as many losers as there are winners. An edifice that only celebrates greatness is nothing more than propaganda. The Hall should remember all of it, from the champions to the lowliest of Mariners teams, the heroes and the villains alike.
Put Pete Rose in the museum. Describe exactly what he did: include the 200-hit seasons, the awful sideburns, the gambling, and the general idiocy that followed. Leave a copy of My Prison Without Bars out on a table. Let the fan see for him or herself, let them come to their own decision, and let them appreciate the game of baseball in their own way. Because they will, regardless.