Can Cooperstown Save Baseball?

The Hall of Fame's mountains of memorabilia might not be enough to salvage the sport's tarnished legacy

Like many celebrities, the Baseball Hall of Fame looks smaller than you'd expect in person—a restrained brick building no more imposing than the local post office. Cooperstown in February is a pretty, rural, peaceful little town, but it's only biding its time until the summer, when it will turn into a hotspot of voracious yet picturesque baseball-themed capitalism. It's a short walk to the Triple Play Café, the Doubleday Diner, the Short Stop restaurant, Mickey's Place ("We have all the cards your mother threw away!") and the Heroes of Baseball Wax Museum.

The Hall was built in Cooperstown because the town was famous as the birthplace of baseball, where future union general Abner Doubleday invented its rules as a lad during a game of "town ball" in 1839. This story is, as it turns out, completely untrue, which means that the Hall might as well have been built in some other equally bucolic American town; but as Hall of Fame curator Ted Spencer says, "Try and move it."

It seems appropriate; the best baseball stories are usually apocryphal. (The history of the Doubleday myth deserves its own article but, in short: It seems to have started with a 1905 letter from Abner Graves, who claimed to have been present at baseball's creation in 1839. He seems to have been confused, but his letter was quickly taken up by

A.G. Spalding, the sporting-goods entrepreneur, who was looking for proof that baseball was purely American, which was much better for business than the truth—that it evolved from a British game called rounders. The "Doubleday ball," donated by a Hall of Fame co-founder, is still part of the collection, despite clearly not being the actual "Doubleday ball," since there is none. That doesn't seem to make the ball any less awe-inspiring, though. It's the ultimate baseball artifact.)

Mythologizing is one of the things baseball does best, but not as well as it used to. The Hall of Fame is a fairly recent institution (the first class was inducted in 1939), but it didn't take long for the subjective exercise to take on the air of omniscient authority.

Today, though, between the saturating media coverage of players and, thanks to steroids, the sudden unreliability of statistics, the Hall has lost its aura of infallibility. The museum is still very much a mecca for fans and history buffs, and most likely always will be—but the Hall of Fame Gallery itself, ostensibly the centerpiece, is on its way to irrelevance.

Unlike the museum, which features Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose in its timeline and displays, the Hall is meant to represent only the very best about the game. Gambling on baseball may merit a ban, and Mark McGwire's probable steroid use might make him unpalatable, but Rose and Jackson were both a huge part of baseball, and their absence from any institution dedicated to it is startling. And McGwire, of course, is only the tip of the steroid iceberg.

Voters are instructed to consider "integrity, sportsmanship, character" along with talent and on-field achievements, but once you start making morality a factor, things get ugly fast. After all, one of the Hall's first inductees was Ty Cobb, a transcendent hitter but a violent, trigger-happy racist who claimed to have beaten a mugger to death in an alley and whose own authorized biographer, Al Stump, described him as "a badly disturbed personality." (" 'Psychotic' is not a word I'd care to use,' wrote Stump, but only after pages of careful consideration.)

I don't think that steroids have ruined baseball—eventually, although it will take a while, they'll come up with some more-or-less efficient regulations. But it's probably the end of the Hall of Fame as an institution that can claim to be definitive: How will we ever be able to figure out who took what, when, and to precisely what effect? To vote in players like Bonds and McGwire is to reward them for cheating, at the expense of the borderline players who didn't. To keep them out is to punish them for being caught while subtler or luckier users may find themselves enshrined, and to ignore what, for better or worse, they accomplished. We're soon going to have a Hall that doesn't include the game's all-time leaders in hits or home runs, or any of the three highest single-season home run record holders, and there's simply no good way to resolve the issue.

Meanwhile, the Hall of Fame Museum is pulling itself toward modernity, with planned overhauls and an increase in interactive exhibits. I'm not so sure that it matters, though; Babe Ruth's bat is Babe Ruth's bat whatever its surroundings. And the place is full of the kind of fascinating trivia that a certain kind of baseball fan (OK, fine, a geek like me) loves to stow away. I didn't know, or perhaps had forgotten, that Candy Cummings is usually credited with inventing the curveball in Brooklyn in 1867. I've seen a lot of baseball movies, but had somehow missed the story of Rhubarb the Millionaire Tom Cat, who inherits a professional team in the film Rhubarb—which appears, sadly, to be unavailable on Netflix.

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