Can Cooperstown Save Baseball?


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.

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.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on February 20, 2007

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