Can Cooperstown Save Baseball?

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

The museum also features a ball from every no-hitter thrown since the Hall's inception in 1939, every World Series program since 1903, and a mesmerizing case of World Series rings (subtlety is never the objective here, but it's still impossible not to stare in horrified awe at the Florida Marlins' enormous, square, gem- encrusted 2003 monstrosity. Just wearing it for a few hours was probably enough to give Carl Pavano permanent arm and back problems).

Fortunately for the Hall, and its curator, the museum doesn't have to concern itself too much with thorny moral issues; it just needs to record what happened and, preferably, snag a pair of spikes or a ball from the event. Ted Spencer, who showed me some of the collection's highlights, has worked at the Hall since 1981 (a Boston native, named after the Splendid Splinter, he maintains objectivity in the office, but on a personal level is clearly still elated over the 2004 Series). Spencer describes his staff as "witnesses, not judges," explaining that "we have an obligation as an educational institution." To that end, the Black Sox scandal and Pete Rose are in their proper places in the timeline, and steroids might be part of a future exhibit, though Spencer says it's still too soon to understand their real impact: "History's going to decide where this era fits." Of course, the museum is still very clearly meant to be a celebration of the game, as it should be. But no one's asking for an exposé—just a little honesty.

The Hall, on the other hand, has always been a bit of a whitewash, which I suppose is part of its charm. The word "colorful" appears often, plaque-speak for everything from "cheated every chance he got with absolutely no shame" (King Kelly) to "drunk and very possibly emotionally disturbed" (Rube Waddell).

Baseball is not especially well suited to short, condensed sentiments on bronze plaques (but then, what is?). How can anyone encapsulate Jackie Robinson or, for that matter, Mordecai "Three-Finger" Brown in a couple of sentences? The players, umpires, managers, and owners in the Hall represent the peak of their professions, but removed from all context, they lose the spark that made them interesting in the first place. As a devoted fan of King Kelly and Wahoo Sam Crawford, I was thrilled to find their plaques on the wall—but someone seeing their names for the first time wouldn't get much of an inkling about why they should care.

Informality is integral to baseball, and permeates the displays of bats and balls and programs upstairs, but it's squashed in the gallery. The forced pomp and ceremony is highlighted by the Hall's plethora of nicknames: Joseph Medwick was a great player and fully deserves his spot on the wall, but as his contemporaries noted, he had a distinctive waddle, and there's just something absurd about seeing the words "Ducky Wucky" engraved in bronze. (I collect weird baseball nicknames and was delighted to discover two of Spencer's favorites: Hank "Bow Wow" Arft and renowned 19th-century fielder Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson. I'm going to go ahead and see if I can't get that last one to stick to Endy Chavez this season.)

It's still impossible to resist the urge to rub Babe Ruth's shiny bronze forehead when you reach the far end of the Hall of Fame Gallery (according to Spencer, his plaque used to need repairs every couple of years, but metal technologies have improved since then). And calling someone a Hall of Famer still says an awful lot in just three words. But that may not be true much longer.

At a time when it's harder and harder to glorify anyone, baseball players or otherwise, and when chemistry has raced too far ahead of major league baseball for us to make any clear assessment of the last 20 years, the Hall's days as a meaningful institution—if it ever was one—are dwindling. Fans seem willing to move past gambling and steroids and anything else you can throw at the game, but simply pretending that none of it ever happened is no way to maintain credibility; the Hall needs to embrace history and let the lionizing fall by the wayside.

Besides, when your pantheon includes people called "High Pockets," "Orator Jim," "Rabbit," "Rube," "Gettysburg Eddie," "Little Poison" and "Big Poison," "Old Eagle Eye," "Dizzy," and "Poosh 'Em Up," it's probably time to loosen up a little.

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