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What Story Does The Baseball Hall Of Fame Want To Tell?

When the right story gets told.
Photo: Stephen Dunn (Allsport)

The National Baseball Hall of Fame is a museum commemorating a particular professional iteration of an old American game; the long room of bronze plaques featuring the ballplayers that various groups of voters have decided over the years have sufficient “fame” is a part of it, but also something very different. Increasingly, the two seem to be not just divergent but actively at odds. It doesn’t have to be that way.

Museum collections are theoretically infinite, but museum space is decidedly not. To pick just one example out of thousands of possibilities, the Smithsonian American Art Museum has Morris Kantor’s Baseball at Night (1934) on display (well, when the government isn’t shut down) but keeps Charles L. Goeller’s Third Avenue  (1934) stuffed in a closet somewhere, although each makes a contrasting comment about the exact same moment in American life. They also have paintings by Edward Hoppers and Andrew Wyeth and Willem de Kooning in storage that have greater name-recognition value than either. This is all by choice, which seems obvious until you remember how shocked some people were when the Smithsonian put the Enola Gay on display. The argument about displaying the Enola Gay was not as to its importance—the deadliest bomb ever dropped on humans fell from that plane, the importance is self-evident—but the way the bomber’s mission was placed in a context that represented an editorial point of view. All museums, no matter what their subject, must make decisions on how to fulfill their storytelling responsibilities.

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What museums generally don’t do is rank the subjects of their exhibits in terms of importance. Were the Smithsonian to acquire Van Gogh’s The Starry Night from the Museum of Modern Art and hang it next to Baseball at Night, they wouldn’t pin a badge saying “IMPORTANT WORK” on it. They would let the painting make that argument on its own behalf. The National World War II Museum lines up gun, uniforms, and a four-engine bomber or two, but it doesn’t set up a gallery explaining that General Omar Bradley is in because he oversaw the successful invasion of Europe via Operation Overlord, whereas Mark Clark (the general, not the New York Met) is out because he botched the Italian campaign, while George Patton remains forever on the bubble because, while he did some things worthy of enshrinement, he also committed a Performance Deflating Act in slapping an enlisted man he perceived to be malingering. Those men are all part of the story, and if the museum were to treat them as severable it would do a disservice to the whole and fail in its mission in the most basic sense. It would be acting not like a museum, but like the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

By treating a popularity contest as an authoritative historical validation of a player, manager, or executive, the Hall of Fame also makes a storytelling choice. On Tuesday, some new players will be added to that story—if present trends continue, and given that Ryan Thibodaux is the Steve Kornacki of Cooperstown vote-tabulation there’s no reason to assume they won’t, then Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, and Mariano Rivera will join the already-announced “Today’s Game” committee enshrinees Harold Baines and Lee Smith in Cooperstown. This means that a number of notable players won’t: Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Curt Schilling will all fall just shy of the 75 percent vote threshold required, and Larry Walker, in his penultimate year on the ballot, will fall a little shorter than that. The cognitive dissonance that results from all this is jarring, and tantamount to saying that Jesse Haines is more important to baseball’s story than Tommy John, or Hank Greenberg than Dick Allen, Craig Biggio than Bobby Grich, or the obscure, largely mute Bobby Wallace than the great storyteller Buck O’Neil. The “truth” of these comparisons is both impossible and irrelevant, and so the story becomes incoherent.

A different path was possible. Had the Hall maintained a very high standard, inducting only players in the Babe Ruth/Willie Mays/Tom Seaver class—players whose careers had both height (a high peak), breadth (a long span), and depth (historical significance)—these conflicts would have been avoided. From the beginning, though, the Hall cast a wider net. That’s a good thing, but it also opened up an unanswerable question: If anyone can receive a career achievement award, who should get one? In attempting to answer that question, the Hall split into two camps, which broadly can be described as The Standards and The Feels. The former is primarily the domain of Baseball Writers Association of America and the latter the province of the Veterans Committee in all its various incarnations.

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The Standards group tends to hew to numerical markers—big round numbers like 500 or 3,000 or 300, but also newfangled stats like WAR and JAWS. That reliance on numbers would be fine if players were admitted based on reaching certain statistical thresholds. There would be no real reason to vote; the numbers tell you what to think. You can see the problems with this—where did those numbers come from and why are they special and who said that 3,000 meaningless hits outweighs one big home run in a World Series game? The answer to all of these questions, The Standards gang will tell you, is, “please shut up.” It’s true because it’s true. This is baseball fundamentalism.

The Feels group is different. This camp can and has voted for everybody except the batboys, and would do that if they could get away with it; it’s easy imagine Tony La Russa grumbling that any argument against 1988 Oakland A’s clubhouse man Carl “Jowls” Loganberry was “weak-ass superficial bullshit.” It would be hard to argue with him, because in the Feels universe a candidate’s statistics, which can be lined up on a which-one-is-not-like-the-others continuum, mean less than the candidate’s gestalt; if he made you feel good, he is good.

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Weirdly, this makes the Feels the realists in this debate, because they’re not trying to prove the unprovable by defining and quantifying “fame.” The rising vote totals of Bonds, Clemens, and Schilling demonstrate this, because in a sense the two groups have switched positions. The Feels will readily admit that Bonds and Clemens demonstrated at the very least a bent sense of baseball ethics, while Schilling consistently models the qualities that even today cause Hall critics to ask why we can’t pull long-dead ex-heroes like Ty Cobb and Cap Anson off the wall. But for all the respective mitigating factors, these players involved are so important to the story of baseball from the mid-’90s to the early 2000s that they can’t be wholly dismissed. The numbers are frozen in time, and they’re still as weird and bloated as they used to be. Twelve years ago, when Bonds and Clemens retired, voters couldn’t tolerate the slightest suggestion that the record book had been tainted. Now they practically admit that infamy still has a little fame in it. The story got louder as voters’ indignation wilted.

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This year’s vote suggests that the Hall voters may be starting to come to terms with their role as storytellers and not rote assessors of large numbers. On a WAR basis, Mariano Rivera barely signifies because closers work relatively infrequently, and when they do it’s often at the wrong times. As such, the saves statistic must be heavily discounted. The voters—well, except for this guy—understand that Rivera embodied a rare sustained excellence of which the saves record was a mere byproduct. Edgar Martinez, Mussina, and Halladay are both examples of players who were dominant but lack the time-honored but meaningless big numbers; Martinez also has to contend with being a designated hitter, a denigrated species despite the position being on the books for nearly half a century. All of them had, in addition to quantifiable dominance, an ineffable quality that will put them over the top.

You can tell it’s ineffable because of how hard it is to eff. According to JAWS, which weighs both a player’s career and peak-period WAR to give a better sense of his metaphorical height and width, Roy Halladay was just the 43rd-best starting pitcher of all time, about even with Kevin Brown and Rick Reuschel, or where the soon-to-be 31-year-old Clayton Kershaw stands if he were to retire today. It’s more than stats that are pushing Halladay forward, and that’s as it should be.

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Conversely, Fred McGriff, who was consistently excellent in an unspectacular way, is about to vanish from the ballot after 10 tries; Lance Berkman, who had one of the top 30 on-base percentages of the post-1901 period, which is something we’re supposed to value, is going to be one and done. Neither was an all-time great when measured against Mays or Mantle, but as Halladay demonstrates, that shouldn’t be what gets in the way. And, in both their cases, it isn’t. It’s the ancillary things outside the numbers that give you the Feels, and it’s there that those two fall short.

And that’s fine! One of many reasons why the Smithsonian puts one picture on the wall and another in the basement is that history isn’t about having a complete collection—it’s about the details you can’t do without. If Hall voters can acknowledge that they’ve reached this point, then they can finally be clear to vote on Dick Allen or Bobby Grich or Buck O’Neil, or Bill James, Bernie Williams, Ben Zobrist some day, and, sure, that jowly 1988 Oakland A’s clubbie. For the Hall of Fame to work as a museum—for it to work at all—it has to include the people that are the fixed parts of baseball’s greater story. We diminish those contributors by ranking them. We delude ourselves by excluding them. The Hall of Fame can’t include everyone or everything, but it should be as big as baseball itself.

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Steven Goldman is a writer, editor, and host of the Infinite Inning podcast.

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