Every Hall of Fame selection and omission changes the way we remember the game.
"Why the hell do you even care anymore?" a colleague not unreasonably asked me the day before the votes for the 2013 Hall of Fame class were tallied. "The Hall is an arbitrary concept. I appreciate the defense of critical thinking and intellectual honesty, but as an institution, it's not worth it. "
I can see how people could stop caring about the Hall of Fame. On the one side, a portion of the public, and much of the electorate, is so bitter over PEDs that they want to tar and feather the lot of ballplayers from the so-called "Steroid Era" (if you can define both the beginning and the end of said era, please feel free) before they even let them inside the city limits of Cooperstown. On the other extreme are the rabble who are livid that the best players from an entire generation are being excluded without evidence they used or that what they used helped them play better. And then there are the unwashed masses in the middle who are just tired of all the shouting.
In light of all the bickering, it's incredibly tempting to throw up one's hands and say, "Screw it." After all, we're talking about building in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York that most baseball fans are never going to visit. But to dismiss the Hall as merely a museum with a fancy club inside it is to deny the power that the label "Hall of Famer" has to shape baseball culture and history. Those words become shorthand to signal that certain careers are particularly worth remembering. Thus is the Hall not just the keeper of baseball's history, but a framer of how people will see the game they loved and how it will be perceived in the future.
It's through the lens of the Hall of Fame that the 1960s become the era of Frank Robinson, Hank Aaron, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson, and not of Norm Cash, Ken Boyer, Larry Jackson or Jim Maloney. The 1980s are about Ozzie, Brett, Schmidt, and Ripken, not Lou Whitaker, Buddy Bell, Darrell Evans, and Willie Randolph. Players like Kirby Puckett get immortalized, while Chet Lemon gets relegated to the historical dustbin. Bill Dahlen has just a single biography on sale on Amazon, while Honus Wagner has at least seven that I can count. Everyone and their father can tell you about Joe DiMaggio, but what do even diehard fans know about his brother Dominic these days? Jim Rice is "TEH MOST FEARED HITTER OF HIS ERA!!!!!111!!!1" while Dwight Evans is "he had a nice arm." We can go on and on and play that game forever, but what it ultimately boils down to time after time is, becoming a Hall of Famer immortalizes a player and solidifies his place in the game's history.
You may not see making the Hall of Fame as an achievement, but hundreds of thousands of others do. While I could care less if Jack Morris, Dale Murphy, or Lee Smith eventually gets in, I'm sad Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, and especially Kenny Lofton (who fell off the ballot) aren't getting the recognition they deserve for what they did on the field, and royally pissed at how Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza's accomplishments are diminished when they're lumped in with PEDs users despite the fact that there's no evidence implicating either of them. In defiance of my increasingly thin cynical shell, I want to believe that accomplishments are rewarded. That we get what we deserve.
The Hall is about the legacies that these players are leaving behind, and the legacies I'm passing along to my kids. That's silly and overly dramatic; believe me, I know. If I were you I would be rolling my eyes and groaning too. But a long time ago I fell for a game that I came to love, that I decided to try and understand as best I could. I bet a lot of you did too. In addition to Little League, Babe Ruth, and High School ball, I bet a lot of you read box scores, and followed batting races, and bought baseball cards, and sorted those cards into piles and albums, made teams out of them, and memorized their backs. I bet a bunch of you read Pete Palmer and Bill James and Rob Neyer and Michael Lewis and began to fundamentally question what you thought you knew.
Why does the Hall of Fame matter to me? It matters because I want all that effort to be for more than just my own enjoyment, even though that's a great end in and of itself. I want to give credit where it's due. I want to reward the just and punish the guilty. I want all of us to better understand the past so that the future is not so bleak and disappointing as yesterday's announcement that no one was elected despite there being several deserving candidates. I can't make you care about the same things I do, but if you're a baseball fan, I sure as hell think you should care about the Hall of Fame.