Cooperstown: What Kind of Museum Are You Running, Anyway?

Over the Christmas break, there is a lot of talk about the Hall of Fame ballot, and which players deserve to be enshrined in Cooperstown. The Hall’s voting members have to submit ballots by December 31st, the results are tabulated and released in early January. Combine that with the fact that active players are about as far away from baseball fields as they can be. In addition, gainfully employed executives are taking the same kind of turkey and cranberry filled time as the rest of us. The Hall of Fame debate fills some of the empty space in the baseball news sphere.

I’m not the type of person to make the same sorts of arguments as the many, many other journalists out there, about who should or shouldn’t get votes in a particular year. If you wanted to read something like that, the excellent Jay Jaffe goes to great lengths to talk about that in more detail than I could ever afford to. Go, read, educate yourself. If that’s the kind of talk you are into, more power to you. I read those articles all the time, and I’m sure I don’t have anythign groundbreaking to add. Lately, I began to think about the purpose behind the ballot, and I’d like to take a few minutes to ask if we’ve been having the wrong kind of vote for a long time.

First things first. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum does not operate under the auspices of Major League Baseball. It is a private museum. The Baseball Writers Association of America votes on the Hall. They are not owned by the Hall, nor do they own it. The BBWAA are also not owned of directed by Major League Baseball. So, we have 3 different organisations, independendtly owned and operated, working in concert within a system that is mutually beneficial to all of them.

MLB has their retired members honoured, the BBWAA gains esteem and prominence by administering an important function, and the HoF people sell tickets to their museum.

Now, a 2014 ballot of Hall candidates approaches, stuffed full of excellent players, including players who’s reputation’s are tainted by  cheating (read PED use), allegations. In the next few years there may be a period in which the Hall itself, the ultimate gatekeeper of who is admitted and omitted, may not benefit by the current process. The Hall won’t be bringing in people like it might want to be. Why do I say this? I think we can start with the Hall of Fame motto: “Preserving History, Honoring Excellence, Connecting Generations.

Given that motto as a starting point, I think the currnet  view of Hall of Fame election, as a personal award for the skill of a particular player, is flawed. Critically flawed, in fact. If the motto were to be taken seriously, there would be little point in any of the kinds of debates we usually read about. membership would not be solely about who amassed the most record-breaking career. If membership were based on the motto, it might be driven by criteria more like what follow.

The questions for enshrinement in the Hall would boil down to 3 things, and none of them need a whole lot of sabermetric comparisons of multiple eras of existing Hall and non-Hall players.

Question 1, Historical Impact: Did this player have signifcant impact on the history of the game?  Was he the face of a franchise, good or bad, for many years? Did a group of teammates win together for an unusual amount of time? Did he make significant plays to help or prevent his team from winning in the playoffs. In short, does history remember the player as much as the teams he played on?

Did he have an impact on how the game was played on the field? If he impacted the strategy of other teams, causing defensive shifts, or dominating with only 1 pitch in the late inning, these things matter.

Did he have an impact on how the game worked off of the field. From Curt Flood to Albert Pujols, record contracts and free agent demands are an important facet of the game’s history.

Did he have a unique personality to go along with his talent? Mark Fidrych, Al Hraboski, Dock Ellis. Where would our concept of the game be without their kind of colourful contribution? They are an important part of the history of the game.

Question 2, Personal Excellence: Did he achieve a level of excellence? Did he set a lot of records? Win a lot of awards?  These are similar questions that we ask now, but we need not compare Rickey Henderson and Babe Ruth with one number. They both played at a level above their peers for a long time.

Did a player have his remarkable moments in a long consistent string, or was his career punctuated with failures and comebacks. These are all stories of excellence, in one form of another. They deserve a prominent place in the story told by the hall.

Question 3, Generational Players: Do they represent something unique about their generation of player? Bobby Bonds hit 30 homers and stole 30 bases when nobody else had ever done it. Jack Morris, who I feel has a dubious case under current voting criteria, is the only starting pitcher who debuted and lasted through the the 1980’s without succumbing to injury. His resilience is a generational accomplishment.

All of this would make for a very different Hall of Fame, I know that. I don’t expect anyone to make these changes, but it would open up the recognition to a lot of different players.

If I take a friend or relative to the Hall, in the current format, how do I explain the absence of both the all time hit leader and the all time home run leader? Also, the single season home run champ, and the guy who hit the second most in a season…. and the third most. That’s like going to a Presidential museum and leaving out Calvin Coolidge because ‘he wasn’t very interesting’. You would be missing the point. You’d also be missing out on part of history.

If the Hall of Fame was serious about Preserving History, Honouring Excellence, and Connecting Genereations, there wouldn’t be four hundred-odd writers pretending that four or five checkmarks on a ballot every December fulfilled that motto at all.

If you want a list of the best players in the game, there are a lot of objective ways to measure that. Sportswriters with a lifetime ballot and 10 unweighted votes every year, do not make my top 5 ways of achieving that. If you want to showcase players who wrote a large part of the history of the game, giving writers who may or may not include a player based on their personal relationship with him do not fit the bill. If you want to connect one generation of fans to the next, a process which nearly resulted in no new additions for the Hall during 1960’s seems to run counter to that whole goal.

The Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is not a public trust, it is a private museum. It self funds and self mandates. I know that there is no political pressure or even a particular point to having them look at their elections process. If, however, they are motivated by keeping attendance high in the years to come, they will have to make sure all baseball eras are represented, including those I was a fan of in my childhood.

A Hall without Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens? It’s certainly possible, and considering that they were the standard bearers for hitting and pitching for over a decade, it’s totally ridiculous.

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3 thoughts on “Cooperstown: What Kind of Museum Are You Running, Anyway?

  1. While I take your point about the HOF potentially missing out on the current hitting and pitching standouts, I cannot condone having them put in the hall as equals to the greats who earned their spots chemically free. By your standards perhaps the Tour de France museum needs to include Lance Armstrong just for his accomplishments and the Olympics need a whole wing for the East German swim team. I could see them being voted into the HOF but only in a special category or wing for dubious honour and if you do that then the number one guy in that wing should be Pete Rose who’s mistake was betting not drug-induced record breaking. Perhaps we need to include Brian McNamee on a special plaque as the records are as much his as Clements and Bonds.

    • So many problems with your stance. Number one, define chemically free. Amphetamines are a chemical, they were not illegal in MLB clubhouses in the 60’s and 70’s, and they have been proven to affect perfomance. So, which of the admitted users would you like to remove from the Hall?

      Armstrong, the East Germans, they broke existing rules designed to prevent these abuses. Baseball had no drug testing policy or rules at the time. Remember, none of these hall candidates were ever suspended or disciplined for their use. You have convicted them after their careers were over, in a punative structure that did not exist at the time.

      Also, pretending nobody won the Tour de France in the years which Armstrong did is pretty silly in my eyes anyway.

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