Hall of Fame voters chasing character are hunting a chimera, and not only because the bad guys are already in, but because the good guys are bad guys too.
The Baseball Hall of Fame wasn't originally conceptualized as a building or a museum. The initial thought was that Baseball would plant a statue on the Mall in Washington with the names of the elected inscribed around the plinth. Think of the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia. That's the one that depicts the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. Next time you visit, note how the names of every major battle the Marine Corps has participated in are inscribed on the base, and how much room is left for more -- the blank area is like a negative-space coming-attractions reel for our next national tragedy.
The Baseball Hall of Fame was intended to be something like that, a kind of gigantic immobile version of the Stanley Cup -- and yes, it would have been called "The Hall of Fame" despite the conspicuous lack of an actual hall. It might have been amusing watching the visitors file past the signs saying "Welcome to the Hall of Fame" only to queue helplessly around the base, ineffectively pawing at the rock, asking, "Where's the entrance?" and fainting from heat exhaustion.
The evolution of the Hall into an actual hall in New York instead of a statue in the District of Columbia required a combination of baseball's usual inertia and the desperate need of Cooperstown for a tourist attraction while suffering from the twin scourges of the Great Depression and Prohibition. Their need for a museum of something collided with the Doubleday myth and Baseball's interest in memorializing its great players, and suddenly the nation's capital had lost out on what could have been baseball's version of The Motherland Calls (imagine a 300-foot concrete sneering Ty Cobb striding towards you, spikes first) and Baseball had gained a heavily-subsidized brick-and-mortar albatross in a place so inaccessible that Gandalf himself wouldn't lead you there in winter.
In assenting to this transformation, the Hall's creators were inspired by the existence of predecessor Halls of Fame. The Germans have had one going back to 1807. We had one here in America, as well. The Hall of Fame for Great Americans was founded on a Bronx campus of New York University in 1891, and its physical space was dedicated in 1901. It ran out of money when NYU abandoned the borough in the 1970s, and though the memorial and its various busts still exist, no election has been held since 1976; either that, or we ran out of great Americans as of the Bicentennial, take your pick. The busts of 97 of its 102 inductees languish on what is now the campus of the Bronx Community College, providing a handy spot for students sneaking a cigarette between classes to get out of the rain. As the New York Times reported in 1991, the "bronze busts, greenish with age, have braved the elements, the guano, and until recently, an unhealthy dose of neglect." I understand they have been cleaned up a bit since then; it's not quite Shelley's Ozymandias, but it's close.
During the HOFGA's lifetime, somewhere over 100 electors "representing the academic and professional disciplines, politics and the cultural and business worlds" (the initial group of voters included Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson) participated in a quadrennial election in which they were given ballots listing more than 200 potential nominees, each dead for a minimum of 25 years, "suggested by citizens and seconded by a member of the N.Y.U. Senate." They could each vote for up to seven candidates. Those candidates who received a majority vote were elected, but -- if I'm understanding this correctly -- only the top seven vote-getters were enshrined. It's a bit confusing: According to the Times report on the 1965 election, 63 candidates received a majority vote, but only four winners were named: Jane Addams, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., Sylvanus Thayer, and Orville Wright.
The relatively obscure General Thayer's presence should be a clue that many of the members in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans are not exactly household names. There are a good number of presidents, war heroes, and authors that we still remember, but there are many more who even the most adept historian or trivia buff would have a hard time naming. (I consider myself both a historian and a trivia buff and I had to look up about a quarter of them.) This says something about the vastly overestimated value of the whole Hall of Fame enterprise and the disproportionate weight we place on arguing about the sanctity of a place where, given a few years, almost all of the plaques except a select few take on equal weight in memory, which is to say none at all: whatever their relative merits as players, today Bobby Wallace equals Earl Averill equals Gabby Hartnett equals Sliding Billy Hamilton equals Joe Sewell. And, despite the recent good feelings associated with their gaining long-sought election, someday soon Bert Blyleven and Ron Santo will be on that list.
We fight these battles to vindicate some concept of quality that is important to us, but our lives are short and our memories shorter; the debate ends, the world turns, the argument is forgotten, and the plaque becomes just a picture of a dead stranger on the wall of a museum that not many visit. This applies to any object in any museum, really. That piece of jewelry, that sculpture, that table, that human skull were made by someone, cherished for awhile, added value to their lives, and then were forgotten. What you see in the museum is Ah! So pretty! but it is divorced from the actual value it had when it interacted with human beings and thus just a thing in a glass case. So too with the plaques in Cooperstown; the faces stamped on those plates require living memory to animate them. Once that's gone, they're just objects.
Think about it this way. The people who run Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, had to commission a film for their visitor's center to tell visitors who George Washington was. Baseball fans are a little more dedicated than America fans, so I doubt that the Hall of Fame will be having to explain to its visitors who Babe Ruth was any time soon, but you can't take knowledge of almost anyone else for granted.
A special note, not for the "Small Hall" or "Big Hall" people, but for the "Pure Hall" guys, those baseball writers who feel that they are qualified to make judgments about PED-era players and their worthiness for the Hall of Fame ... Parenthetically, this should be a very small group. I have often said that none of us who write about this sport for a living majored in baseball in college. I have meant this to be a positive thing, that we writers have non-sports knowledge that we can bring to bear on the situations that we write about, but it also implies a limitation. Several days ago I listened to the veteran New York sportswriter Marty Noble speculating on Mike Piazza's possible steroid use during an interview with Casey Stern on SiriusXM. His evidence included (1) the way Piazza wore his postgame towels, (2) his changing amount of back hair, and (3) how much acne was present beneath that hair.
Now, I don't know what Marty Noble's education prepared him to do in life, but I'm 99-percent certain he didn't study forensic science sufficiently to qualify him to serve as an investigator on "CSI: Mike Piazza." Even if he had, we have clearly lost all perspective and vanished down the rabbit hole. There must be a better way for the self-appointed guardians of the game to go about their work than scrutinizing a living player's hairy epidermis. I want to get beyond that, though, to the true pointlessness of the mission: even if doing so somehow allowed you to know who cheated and who didn't, we cannot and probably will not ever know the efficacy of that cheating. It is very possible that it was cheating in intention rather than in deed.
You want to punish intention, fine. There are laws that do that for all kinds of things -- the failure to execute a crime is still a crime, and sometimes so is the mere contemplation of a crime. But purity is a hard standard to maintain. Don't worry -- I'm not going to bore you with a recapitulation of Cobb's racism or Tris Speaker's Klan membership or Babe Ruth willful and repeated violations of the Volstead Act, and commingling of the flesh with women not his wife. Instead, I'd like to go back to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. Just like the Baseball Hall of Fame, which combined the first four member classes into one gala induction of 26, the HOFGA locked up 29 great Americans for its first class in 1900. In doing so, they picked some pretty obvious guys, the people Bill James would have called the inner-circle Hall of Famers.
The HOFGA voters weren't limited to just baseball players. They had the whole population of American history from which to choose. They could have excluded any questionable person and still had hundreds of notable Americans to choose from. And yet, as you go down that list, it's not hard to encounter some morally reprehensible people. A few examples:
George Washington: Owned slaves.
Daniel Webster: Raging alcoholic, took bribes.
Benjamin Franklin: Owned slaves, fathered a child out of wedlock.
Ulysses S. Grant: Owned slaves; alcoholic.
Thomas Jefferson: "Owned slaves" doesn't quite do him justice.
Samuel F. B. Morse: virulent racist and anti-Catholic, defender of slavery.
Henry Clay: Owned slaves, participated in the preservation of slavery.
Nathaniel Hawthorne: Seems pretty likely he commingled the flesh with his sister.
Robert E. Lee: Owned slaves, arranged for a good many American soldiers to die.
Henry Ward Beecher: Famous adulterer.
John Adams: Signed into law the Alien and Sedition acts, undermining the Bill of Rights.
That's 12 of 29 "disqualified," and that was without doing any actual research. Imagine how much further we could go with a little effort, looking into the rest of the pool. Thing is, they're not really disqualified at all. This highly-selective group portrait leaves so, so much unsaid. All of these men were flawed. All men are flawed. Perhaps they were flawed due to the circumstances of their time, or due to some highly-localized moral weakness. Perhaps they were flawed at one moment in time, not at another. Maybe they learned something. Washington did, I think. Franklin did.
Does that serve as exculpation for their failings? That's really up to you. All I know is that the best among us are also the worst, always and forever. That's the lesson heroes are meant to teach: they're meant to be there for you ... until that moment when they can't. Paragons of virtue they may be, but we learn from them only when they fall down. Imitating a saint is next to impossible. Following someone who doesn't always live up to their highest ideals? That's achievable.
There is no escaping that truth either in life or in building your Hall of Fame, be it one of priests or presidents, authors or arsonists, baseball players or baseball players. Scrutinize any of them too closely, or, Heaven forfend, count their back hairs, and the whole thing falls apart. The Bible tells us you can't find even 10 good men in Sodom. There is wisdom in that; stop looking for what you can't see and can't know, because chances are it's there. Accept it and move on.