One of my favorite lies is the Cooperstown Myth, the story that baseball was invented by Civil War general Abner Doubleday in an upstate New York hamlet in 1839. This conclusion was promulgated by the Mills Commission, an early-20th century committee tasked with investigating the origins of baseball (and to make sure those origins were purely American in nature) after former National League president Abraham Mills received a letter relating the Doulbleday story from Colorado resident Abner Graves. Graves almost certainly fabricated his tale given that he would have been five at the time, Doubleday was away at West Point that summer, and Graves proved to be mentally unstable, murdering his wife and dying in an asylum. Nevertheless, without further investigation, the story became an integral part of the game's history for the better part of the last century. That's not to say the Mills Commission's finding isn't valuable, however; indeed inaccuracies and the reasons they're accepted can tell us almost as much as the stone-cold truth.
The fabrications of old ballplayers are no less valuable. Almost invariably, the ex-athletes overestimate their own abilities and wax poetic about the eras they played in. One of the great baseball books is The Glory of Their Times, an oral history of the game at the beginning of the 20th century compiled by Lawrence Ritter. It's a wonderfully evocative book, but it requires a great deal of trust in the memories of old men remembering their twenties from the vantage point of their 60s and upwards. And as you'd expect, the book is full of historical inaccuracies.
Similarly, there is Babe Ruth's famous "called shot" in the 1932 World Series. There are roughly as many versions of that story as there were people at Wrigley Field that day, and no resolving these distinct interpretations of what happened, because human memory is incurably flawed (and the film, inconclusive, is no help at all).
Despite the lessons we learn about the fallibility of memory, more than any sport, baseball relies on it to tell its history. We all recount plays we saw and players we loved, but there's peril in asking people to recount and criticize the culture in which they participate: While much of baseball's popularity is due to our nostalgic view of the past, our recollections need to be rigorously scrutinized. Nevertheless, reporters like Barry Rozner and Marc Allard repeatedly turn to their former heroes and allow them to roam their pasts unchallenged by questions of bias, forgetfulness, or inaccuracy.
Andre Dawson, for instance, apparently doesn't think very highly about the quality of his competition, telling Rozner, "The thing is, I played a long time in the majors, and a couple more in the minors, and I didn't play with that many Hall of Fame-caliber ballplayers. I didn't play against more than a few Hall of Famers." For the record, here is the complete list of the Hall of Famers that Andre Dawson played against:
Lou Brock, Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Gaylord Perry, Fergie Jenkins, Rollie Fingers, Carl Yastrzemski, Johnny Bench, Tony Perez, Joe Morgan, Rod Carew, Tom Seaver, Phil Niekro, Reggie Jackson, Don Sutton, Steve Carlton, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, Mike Schmidt, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Gary Carter, Robin Yount, Carlton Fisk, George Brett, Goose Gossage, Dave Winfield, Kirby Puckett, Ryne Sandberg, Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, Paul Molitor, Dennis Eckersley, Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken, Tony Gwynn, Rickey Henderson, Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar
That's 39 future Hall of Famers Dawson played against. There would be more, but Dawson spent the vast majority of his career in the National League before Interleague Play, and never got to face Hank Aaron, Billy Williams, Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, or Jim Palmer, except perhaps in Spring Training. That seems like a bunch to me, but he may not be counting guys like himself, borderline cases, guys like Sutton, Gossage, Puckett, Perez, Sutter, Rice, and Eckersley. Maybe Andre Dawson is a "small hall" guy.
Continuing on, Dawson points out how ludicrous the PED eruption made offensive statistics seem: "You don't just suddenly have 20 or 30 Hall of Famers in both leagues at one time, but that's what the numbers said." Actually, you can have more than that, and long before the so-called steroids era kicked off. Consider just how many future Hall of Famers were active in the big leagues at any one time during Dawson's career:
Those Hall of Famers multiplied like rabbits in Dawson's day, peaking with 36 in 1982 -- in a 26-team league, no less. That's 18 in each league, which isn't 20, but it's fairly close. Over the first 10 years of Dawson's career, there were an average of approximately 34 Hall of Famers in the league at any given time. Assume 26 teams with a 25 man roster each (650 total players), and that's roughly 5.2 percent of the players during the early years of Dawson's career that were subsequently inducted into the Hall of Fame -- and who knows how many could still go in via the Veterans Committee.
Baseball has expanded twice times since Dawson's early years, adding four more teams and another 100 roster spoots. Assuming that the rate of Hall of Fame-level players in the game is roughly constant, that's an average of 39 in the league at any one time. As such, it would be perfectly normal for each league to have between 20 and 25 Hall of Famers at any given moment.
Throughout the Rozner interview, Dawson considers the 400-home-run mark as the lower boundary for a Hall of Famer prior to what he considers our current age of inflation. One suspects that he places it there because it leaves him over the line -- someone should let Darrell Evans know the good news. We are not similarly bound by such basic information, because in our age of statistics we can compare players to one another across eras, relative to the competition and environment they played against and in, respectively, and adjust accordingly. Similarly, Dawson's lamentation that, "Hank and Willie and Mickey... worked really, really hard to get to a certain level. They did it with drugs," [emphasis added] is laughable, given that both Aaron and Mays were noted users of amphetamines and Mantle was an enthusiastic user of chemical enhancements of many kinds. In other words, there may be an argument about the Hall of Fame in here somewhere, but these are not the tools with which to make it and therefore need not be treated as wisdom from on Cooperstown high.
Obviously, this is not entirely Dawson's fault. He's no historian, and he's no statistics wonk. He's a guy, trying to remember the way things were 30 or 40 years ago. Dawson may be able to perfectly recall pitchers he faced, plays he made, and guys he joked with, but he's not qualified to encapsulate an entire era of baseball history, even when he was an integral part of it. Putting a microphone in front of his face and asking him to sum up 40 years of history is fundamentally unfair. It is a fundamental misuse of a so-called "expert witness." Dawson can testify to things he saw or was part of, but his understanding of the competitive ecology of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s suffers from his limited vantage point as well as the biases that are apparently an inevitable part of the aging athlete's psyche. Case in point: Jim Rice.
At least Dawson seems more sincere than fellow Hall of Famer Rice, who performed astounding tricks of selective memory when he recently said, "There are no fundamentals in the game anymore. That's why I really enjoyed the game was because of the fundamentals. We had to do fundamentals. If you didn't know the fundamentals, you weren't playing" and "When you give guys five-, six-, seven-, 10-year contracts, they don't have to change. Their money is in the bank. And if the thing doesn't go right, who do they blame?" As many others have pointed out, Rice himself was considered a horrible defensive outfielder and double-play machine when he was playing and once signed a seven-year contract extension to stay in Boston from 1979-1985 immediately following his MVP season.
Around Hall of Fame election time, so much is made of the qualifications of the voters and how their access allows them insights that the rest of us lack. If that access results in a revisionist history that places subjective memory over facts, what good is it? If reporters and columnists can't or won't push back against the self-serving comments of their subjects, or worse, if they can't see them as self-serving in the first place, then that access does the game more harm than good. It might be too much to ask journalists to be historians, and perhaps it's bad form for them to comment on the blatantly incorrect or hypocritical comments of their subjects as well. Yet, journalist or historian, above all they have a responsibility to the truth, and that is particularly true when relying on the faulty memories of an "eyewitnesses" who can offer only opinions on things they didn't actually see.