Do doctors belong in the Hall of Fame?

Win McNamee

I can be pretty damned sentimental. About dogs, especially. Babies. Little kids. Penguins. Other stuff. When it comes to the Hall of Fame, though, I'm hard-hearted. I loved Frank White, but that doesn't mean I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame. If I were a Tigers fan, I would feel exactly the same about Jack Morris. I'm also fairly hard-hearted after someone's finished living a long and (apparently) happy life. I'll take a few hours off, but then I'm ready to sign up for the Truth Commission.

Some of you aren't comfortable with that. But as one of Frank White's wiser teammates liked to say, "A man's got to do what a man's got to do."

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Lewis Yocum died. The encomia were immediate and widespread. Yocum, it seems, was more than just a brilliant surgeon; he seemed to genuinely care for his patients, hundreds of whom played professional baseball and owed their careers to procedures that Yocum performed. His personal stamp is all over the last few decades of the sport's history. The encomia were perfectly appropriate, especially considering how modern surgical techniques have transformed the game. Other than the Yankees probably winning a ton of games over the last 40 years either way, it's safe to say that almost everything else would be different if guys like Frank Jobe and Lewis Yocum hadn't been performing career-saving surgeries for the last few decades.

Some of those encomia, though, made a logical leap that I just got to address...

On a practical level, Dr. Yocum's plaque in the Hall will be waiting for a long, long time. There's just no precedent for electing anyone like him, and the Hall of Fame is entirely about precedent. Anyway, the line starts well behind Frank Jobe. While Jobe recently suggested that Yocum could perform Tommy John Surgery better than Jobe himself, it's Jobe who invented the procedure. A lot of pitchers threw better curveballs than Candy Cummings, but it's Cummings who's in the Hall of Fame. A lot of writers wrote better than Harry Chadwick, but it's Chadwick who's in the Hall of Fame.

Granted, most of the people who said Yocum should be in the Hall of Fame also said that Jobe and perhaps James Andrews belong there, too. Fair enough, but there seems to be a general opinion that baseball doctoring didn't exist until the 1970s. Which just isn't true. According to one source, John "Bonesetter" Reese's patients included 28 future Hall of Famers. He didn't invent any surgeries, in fact he didn't perform any surgeries at all. But his patients swore by him, with many claiming that he saved their careers.

Then there was Dr. Robert Hyland. Like Yocum, Hyland served as a team physician (in his case, for the Cardinals) but treated players from around the majors, and performed surgeries on the likes of Pete Reiser, Earl Combs, and many, many others. It's actually difficult to read a book about 1930s or '40s baseball without running across Hyland's name a few times. Just like Reese before him, Hyland for many years was the baseball doctor.

There is no obvious mechanism for electing doctors to the Hall of Fame. I have argued more than once that Jobe does belong in the Hall of Fame, in the "pioneer" category. But a) nobody's been elected as a pioneer in a long, long time, and b) even if the Hall were to encourage such elections, the bar should be very, very high. I believe Jobe clears that bar, and I believe Bill James clears that bar. Perhaps Marvin Miller, if that's what it takes. But that's it.

Frank Jobe was a pioneer who changed the game. Yocum was a highly competent professional within the context of his times, much like Bonesetter Reese and Robert Hyland and James Andrews. If the Hall of Fame wants to start putting doctors and pitching coaches and trainers and scouts in the Hall of Fame, we can have that discussion. But once you get past Jobe, there's a long line of medical professionals and other non-uniformed personnel who have a claim on baseball's highest honor if the doors are someday thrown open.

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