What is the Hall of Fame?
In America’s pastime, it is the common thread that weaves generations together and sets the bar for excellence in a game built on failure. It is a display of the standard bearers, the outliers, the mold breakers. It is the spool of thread that binds together the legends of our grandparents, the heroes of our youth, and the stars of today. It is as close to sacred as those who don’t frequent a house of worship can get.
It should not surprise anyone, then, that like those houses of worship, when you peel back that first layer of idealism … it gets complicated.
Religion and baseball often suffer from the same delusion: that imperfect beings can craft a perfect institution. Their tenets are riddled with contradictions. While they both profess these tenets to be timeless, context and critical thinking have since proven those principles less divine than once believed. The former is a little stickier of a situation than I’m willing to navigate (this is, after all, a baseball site), so I’ll stick to what I know and talk about the latter.
Let us begin with what inspired this rant: The IBWAA Hall of Fame Voting Results.
To the reader who may not be aware, let’s back up for a second. The IBWAA (Internet Baseball Writers Association of America) is an unofficial but well-organized counterpoint to the BBWAA (same thing, but ya know … no I), which is the official voting body of the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame. Entry into the non-internet variety of writers’ club is a difficult (read: impossible) task for the hobbyist or active blogger, so the IBWAA has served as a voice for the informed but less established baseball writer. Their electorate tends to be more reflective of contemporary baseball culture: analytically driven and less prone to the pitfalls of nostalgia or the subjectivity of having seen the game from a press box. This was a selling point when I joined the organization a couple of years ago. A fresh, objective viewpoint from writers who relish the opportunity to enshrine the greatest of our times. A welcome change from the self-aggrandizing silliness that seemed to engulf the official voting body, with members submitting single vote or even blank ballots while clutching the pearls of morality—in a society built on hypocrisy and a game clothed in racism.
The IBWAA has touted their fresh outlook on this sacred responsibility, frequently noting that controversial figures Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens do not appear on their ballot—because their forward-thinking electorate voted them in—while the antiquated BBWAA has left them on their ballots due to ignorance, indecision, or what have you. They would never fall prey to the same sort of aforementioned foolishness the official body has taken to over the years …
Then the results landed on January 19th, 2021.
🚨 IBWAA 2021 HOF Announcement 🚨
This year the IBWAA elects… nobody! pic.twitter.com/f5zlXj9hEL
— IBWAA (@IBWAA) January 19, 2021
No one. The so-called progressive electorate had failed to elect anyone to their Hall of Fame. I, as a member of said electorate, am floored.
I will concede this is not a slam-dunk ballot. There is no Rivera, Griffey Jr., or even a sabermetric darling like Larry Walker to make this easy on voters. The ballot is riddled with domestic abusers, PED accusations (of varying credibility), and underperformers. Fine. I’ll meet you half way on that. No Scott Rolen, though? Was SCOTT ROLEN not worthy of your vote? Was there not enough space on a ballot that included Dan Haren and LaTroy Hawkins; was it too crowded?! A 70 rWAR, 21 dWAR player with 8 Gold Gloves and a WS ring couldn’t muster the votes to get in, by the group that’s supposed to be more forward-thinking?
It’s about time we got honest with what the Hall of Fame is and what it isn’t.
What it ISN’T: A Place for the Greatest and Purist
Of all the souls who have donned a Major League uniform, roughly 2% are immortalized in Cooperstown, New York. That level of exclusivity in any sports history is notable, but is especially marked in baseball, given how long the game has been played at this level. The responsibility, of those who choose whom populates these halls, is one of great seriousness, and I will not pretend it’s an easy task. That said, if the goal of this place is to showcase only the best, that ship sailed long ago—most notably with Harold Baines. The outfielder/DH wasn’t elected by the BBWAA, but was rather brought in by the veterans committee, a voting body encompassing former players and managers. They take players who missed their traditional eligibility requirements and give them another look, from an “on-field” perspective. In 2019, the committee selected Baines to Cooperstown, and in doing so precipitously dropped the standards for greatness in the hall. Baines was not a bad player; in fact he was a good one. Hall of Fame worthy? I would wager that, objectively, he’s not even close.
Baines is not the only sub-par entry into the Hall (Jack Morris comes to mind), but his case for entry may be the weakest of all time, and shines a light on the subjectivity of these committees, and on how players are inducted in general. If your argument is that the Hall is reserved for only the greatest players, then cold, hard, objective statistical thresholds have to be put in place. Otherwise, there is room for interpretation. In a game of numbers, greatness should transcend interpretation.
In terms of the so-called “purity” of the game, or more specifically “the character clause” that has given so many pause recently, well …
It’s horse shit.
The “don’t let bad people into the hall” ship sailed before the docks were even built, thanks to an inaugural induction class of white, racist men and the game’s overall refusal to acknowledge people of color until 1947. Not only that, they, by their own definition, put the accomplishments of players of color on an even keel with their white counterparts until 20 fucking 20. PEDs? That argument can be cast aside as well, when the context of earlier generations (cocaine use, lack of minority representation in the game, no cross-coast travel, “greenies,” etc.) reveals stains of equal or greater size among the players so revered by those who clutch pearls over things like “character clauses” (which, by the way, was created by Kenesaw Mountain Landis, a certified racist in the highest form). It’s time to let go of the child-like fantasies that Cooperstown is a sort of utopic shrine of purity and greatness that is nice and easy to explain to generations of young fans that walk its halls.
Instead, let’s call it …
What it IS: A Time Capsule Of the Game and the Country
Life in America is complicated, and its most quintessential institutions are no exception. The Constitution is riddled with contradictions and leaves enough leeway for injustices, those it claims to prevent, to thrive. Jazz’s story is one of racism, drug addiction, and endless struggle. Baseball is no different, and its characters no less complicated. It continues to tangle with racism, drug use, contradictory policies, and its place in American society. That story, though, however imperfect it may be, needs to be told in its entirety. To do that, you need heroes, but you also need villains. You need Ben Chapman to tell Jackie Robinson’s story. For as good as Hank Aaron made us feel in that spring night in 1974, it took Al Campanis to remind us how far we still had to go.
Honesty is a difficult thing to grapple with, especially when looking through the lens of history. Honesty is the recognition that the characters in the stories we tell are just as complicated as the times they lived in, and that those times aren’t getting any simpler. It’s critical that those of us in the present, who have the luxury of hindsight, examine and learn from the past. To do this honestly, we have to paint the entire picture. The parts we love are all too often inspired by the parts that make us shudder.
Time capsules are great examples of this. They are frozen in the context of the immediate, not having the benefit of being edited or curtailed based on how time passes. The best part about these capsules is that what gets put in cannot be taken back out, so the thought process behind their entry becomes just as important as the items themselves.
This is what the Hall of Fame should be. The thread that has woven the history of baseball together is tangled, and to try and cut out parts of it leaves holes with no context or lesson to learn from. It is up to us, as fans, to explain the Hall to our children. To explain these complicated people and why, on one hand, they made an incredible impact in the game, and on the other, did or said terrible things that should never be accepted. Curt Schilling is a necessary piece of baseball history. He almost single-handedly changed the course of it in 2001, and again in 2004. He is also a truly awful person (like, for real, total trash). To present this duality is not to excuse one side of it, but rather to learn from it. It is possible to do that.
It should be noted that the counterpoint to this entire argument is completely valid. It is an understandable point that placing bad people in good places could be a form of validating their horribleness. This is not a request to take a “side” per se, because all of this is changing constantly (after I voted for him in December, I even went so far as to call for Schilling to be removed from future ballots after his enabling of conspiracy theories regarding the insurrection at the US capitol this month), much like the country itself.
To view the Hall as a sort of time capsule, for good or ill, is to force these conversations to continue—to put this sort of duality on display and allow people to see these players for what they are: humans. Sometimes terrible ones.
Bad people don’t wear a uniform that says so. History has taught us that, just as experiences in our daily lives have. If this truly is an American game, then it should be presented and preserved the way America should be.
Honestly. Even if, at times, it’s ugly.
It should be noted: this article, while apparently critical of the IBWAA, is not an indictment of its management, nor any writers personally. It should also be noted that this is by no means a defense or celebration of any transgressions, behaviors, or otherwise total shitty-ness of anyone.