Almost every person I know who has visited the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., has had an unusual reaction to the place: They all have found the plaque room terribly disappointing. The plaque room — as the name suggests — is where all the plaques of the Hall of Famers are arranged on the walls. The room has a sanctified aura, a bit like a church or a library reading room. Wood paneling, artful lighting. There should be a fireplace and stained glass windows.
But that’s not the disappointing part.
The dark plaques are arranged in a seemingly incomprehensible order, not unlike the Star Wars movies. To find the plaque you want to see — Willie Mays or Stan Musial or Cal Ripken or people like that — you more or less have to either use the available map (which is like trying to find the Brookstone at your local mall) or wander around aimlessly until you just run into it.
But that’s not the disappointing part, either.
No, the disappointing part is that, in a baseball fan’s mind, the Hall of Fame is not a museum. It is an idea, a visualization of — corny as it sounds — what baseball heaven might look like. Induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame might be the closest American equivalent to British knighthood.
“Kneel, Ken Griffey.”
“Arise, Sir George Kenneth Griffey Jr.!”
And so you go to the plaque room to walk among the immortals. The Kid. The Mick. The Big Train. Satch. Mr. October. And they are all there. But they are all there surrounded by a bunch of people you absolutely have never heard of.
Wel, I shouldn’t say that. Maybe you are a committed baseball historian and know them all intimately. Here’s a little quiz — 20 baseball names. You tell me which ones are in the Hall of Fame:
1. Jimmy Collins
2. Buck O’Neil
3. Buck Ewing
4. King Kong Keller
5. Elmer Flick
6. Tony Mullane
7. Cal Hubbard
8. Jim McCormick
9. Frank Selee
10. Hardy Richardson
11. Ben Taylor
12. Riggs Stephenson
13. Dave Bancroft
14. Bingo DeMoss
15. Tom Connolly
16. Tony Oliva
17. Pete Hill
18. George Uhle
19. Will Harridge
20. Cy Seymour
If you are shrewd — and I know you are — you might have figured out that the odd-numbered people are in the Hall of Fame and the even-numbered people are not. But I can tell you as someone who spends way too much time thinking about baseball, I would have missed a bunch of these.
Now, of course, one of the missions of the National Baseball Hall of Fame is to teach the history of game. So learning about great Negro Leagues players like Pete Hill, or finding out that Jimmy Collins pioneered the way third basemen field bunts should be part of the experience. But I suspect that few people wander around the plaque room looking to learn about players they don’t know. They come to experience the feeling of walking among the greatest who ever played. And that’s the disappointment. There are so many people in there who are not among the greatest who ever played.
And now we get to the question: What is the Hall of Fame?
Answer: It is whatever you want it to be.
The board at the National Baseball Hall of Fame undoubtedly wants it to be a mythical place, filled with not only the greatest players but also gentlemen and scholars. This mythology has always been an important part of baseball and the Hall. Heck, the place is located in Cooperstown because of the fairy tale that baseball was invented there by a future Civil War hero, who generously taught it to children in the neighborhood. The mythology suggests that the National Baseball Hall of Fame is somehow purer than, say, the Pro Football Hall of Fame because, in baseball, voters are directed to consider character and integrity and sportsmanship.
I can tell you, having grown up near Canton (we went to the Pro Football Hall of Fame for our class trip every year), that the football Hall has few delusions. It is a museum along a potholed highway in Northeast Ohio. The ethos of the place is grittiness, mud, teamwork, violence — the stuff that makes pro football. The football Hall is in Canton not because of some myth but because that is where the American Pro Football Association was founded and that’s where the Canton Bulldogs, coached by Jim Thorpe, played winning football in the early days. The football Hall does not anoint saints. It celebrates blood-and-guts football players.
The National Baseball Hall of Fame would like you to believe that only the worthiest of players and men are celebrated in its hallowed room. Then you go in there and are drowned in a sea of Kellys (George Kelly? Joe Kelley? King Kelly?) and cynical executives (Bowie Kuhn? Tom Yawkey? Alex Pompez?) and many, many players who, in retrospect, did not stand out in their own time (Ross Youngs? Catfish Hunter? Jesse Haines? Rube Marquard? Jim Bottomley? We can go at this for a long time).
It’s a disappointment. But it’s a reality. The National Baseball Hall of Fame has 310 people in it.
And integrity? Character? Sportsmanship? Are you kidding me? Ty Cobb was essentially the first man elected — there’s a paragon of sportsmanship. The Hall of Fame has someone who hit an umpire, one who spit at an umpire, another who threw a wad of tobacco juice at an umpire and several who petulantly kicked dirt on umpires while screaming the foulest obscenities. There are players who used illegal bats, who scuffed and spat on baseballs, who stole signs, who took performance-enhancing drugs (including steroids and monkey testicles), who gambled, who gave less than their best, who went into the crowd after fans, who threw baseballs at opponents’ heads and who refused to sign players who were black. The collection of people in the National Baseball Hall of Fame is no less flawed, no more sanctified, than the collection of players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame or the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame or the Hockey Hall of Fame. It’s just that the National Baseball Hall of Fame talks a lot more about character.
It’s the hypocrisy that irritates me. I love the rough-and-tumble history of baseball. I think it should be celebrated. I believe that Cap Anson should be in the Hall of Fame. Yes, he was an inveterate racist who played a significant role in keeping the game lily white for a half century. He was also a fantastic player who, in many ways, saved baseball in the last part of the 19th Century when the game was on shaky financial ground. The Hall of Fame, in my view, should reflect history, not try to whitewash it. The imagined history of Babe Ruth as a hot-dog eating wiseacre who hit home runs for sick children in hospitals isn’t just wrong, or Mickey Mantle as a lovable rascal who hung out with the boys and then showed up at the park mildly hung over and ready to hit tape-measure homers isn’t just wrong. It’s boring as hell.
Look: Baseball’s darkest stain — the unwritten pact to keep black players out of the Major Leagues — sparked some of Baseball’s most wonderful moments. It led to the Negro Leagues, the many pitches of Satchel Paige, the raw power of Josh Gibson, the speed of Cool Papa Bell, the storytelling of Buck O’Neil and the unvarnished fury of Oscar Charleston. It inspired a righteous and cynical baseball man named Branch Rickey to revolt, and it called for the fierce daring of Jackie Robinson, along with the spirit of Larry Doby and Minnie Minoso and Willie Mays and Henry Aaron and Roberto Clemente and so many others.
Ruth was, in fact, an incredible pain in the neck who never believed that the rules applied to him. Mantle was an alcoholic who spent a career playing in ferocious pain (he once had a doctor inject him with steroids) and fought his many demons. Cobb was a ferocious man who gambled on the World Series (back when lots of players did), was involved in a different gambling scandal that rocked baseball and played the game with both an admirable and frightening fury. Every Hall of Famer has a real story, and that is so much more fascinating than any folkloric one people can come up with.
That gets to my personal vision for the Hall of Fame: It should be a place where the greatest players ever should be remembered for who they were and for the time when they played. Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens were two of the best players in the history of the game, of this is there is no question. There is powerful evidence that both used illegal drugs to play better. There is also powerful evidence that they were encouraged to take those drugs by the game itself. There was no drug testing. There was no drug education. There were no punishments in place. The managers — some who have been elected to the Hall of Fame — did not (as far as anybody knows) try to put a stop to steroid use. The player agents did not either. The general managers and owners kept paying higher and higher salaries to those who used PEDs. The executives of the game kept signing more expensive television contracts and kept raising ticket prices as the game fully recovered from the shameful cancellation of the 1994 World Series. And, yes, there was almost nothing written about drugs in the media, and I include myself in that.
All of this is quite appalling. But it’s a part of the game’s history and keeping two of the greatest players who ever lived out of the Hall of Fame will not change that history. In many ways, it is insulting to think that it will. Baseball is not what the dreamers and poets want to make it. Baseball is joyous, flawed, generous, cruel, honorable, crooked, respectable, selfish and, most of all, real. Bonds and Clemens cheated. Well, baseball has long celebrated cheaters. The Hall of Fame is full of them. I vote for Bonds and Clemens because they were overwhelming baseball players, the best I ever saw.
And the Hall of Fame should feature the greatest players of all time. If not, you are left with a plaque room of unknown names and a bunch of disappointed baseball fans who go home yawning.