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Why The Hall of Fame Matters

The Hall of Fame announced its 2013 ballot last week, and was nearly drowned out by a choir of angry crickets. The Hall is now facing its own equivalent of the fiscal cliff: fifteen players have legitimate arguments for induction, the writers can vote for a maximum of ten, and will probably vote for one or two.

Frustrations have been boiling over on Twitter, baseball’s stream of consciousness, where events played out like a Syd Finch textbook. You have your old, out-of-touch former baseball writer playing the part of the troll, trumpeting his ability to keep out “the druggies”; you have your young, impassioned bloggers desperate to feed him; and you have your eventual eyerolling from those above (or behind) the fray. This is stupid, they said collectively, each removing and polishing their metaphorical pince-nez. Personal awards are stupid. Caring about the Hall of Fame is stupid.

The Hall of Fame is stupid. But caring about it isn’t. The Hall of Fame, flawed as it is, is important.

For the last couple of months, I’ve been currently reading a biography of Adlai Stevenson, former statesman and bald person. Stevenson ran for President twice, in 1952 and 1956, and lost to the same guy both times by about the same margin. He had a gentle face and a keen wit: when he was on the campaign trail, he was once told that he had the vote of every thinking man in America. “That’s not enough,” he replied. “I need a majority.”

But as strong a president as he might have been, he was every bit as awful as a candidate.* He wrote and re-wrote overlong speeches full of facts. He cared about issues. He refused to rattle sabers. He turned away money from anyone who might ask for a favor. In other words, he never stood a chance.

At this point, only septuagenarians and political science majors remember Stevenson, but many of his ideas and proposals have become basic elements of modern government. His proposed nuclear test ban, reforms of Social Security, and his theories about the future of the Middle East and Asia were all quietly phased in by the politicians who followed him, and listened to him. And they only did so because he was willing to lose votes by talking about the important stuff.

The Hall of Fame is a somewhat less democratic but equally flawed election. The baseball fan has next to no say in who earns the title of his or her game’s highest honor. And when the people who do arbitrarily hold that power make ridiculous, uneducated comments, the initial anger inevitably crumbles into resignation. Why waste time and energy on something over which we have no control?

To make things worse, time has its usual confounding effects. The low road Stevenson refused to take in 1952 would be paved in the clouds compared to the political climate of 2012. And the Hall of Fame debates of yesteryear seem equally quaint in comparison. With every cycle, the chasm seems to widen, sending any hope for rational debate or compromise hurtling in the void. In a way, the sabermetric revolution acted as a Tower of Babel, fracturing the language of baseball discourse itself in the process. The WAR puns alone are proof of this. We can’t even understand each other.

Like it or not, the Hall of Fame is our shared history, and history is every bit as political as an election. It’s also as undemocratic as the Hall. It’s written by individual historians telling their individual stories, but those historians are guided and shaped by the culture, the dialogues and criticism of public opinion. Nature may or may not have imprinted on all the idea of God, but the RBI was entirely constructed by man. As such, it can be socially deconstructed as well.

It can be difficult for supporters of Alan Trammell (as it was for Adlai) to face the wall of opposition and be satisfied with making a few cracks. For guys like Trammell, Edmonds and Grich, change will come too late. But to abandon the cause and the Hall of Fame, to say that the task of creating a single shared history is impossible – that’s too cynical a declaration for even me. Because for the game itself to mean anything, we need to be able to talk about it. And it’s that talk, more than the Hall of Fame itself, that is the reason why it matters.

*I’ll allow myself one more anecdote, as related by biographer Porter McKeever:

“Harry Ashmore tells of an incident representative of his aversion to being something he wasn’t. As they were leaving a small town in Florida, Ashmore told him it had been a successful stop, except for one thing:

‘When you are shaking hands in a supermarket and a little girl in a starched dress steps out of the crowd and hands you a stuffed alligator, what you say is, ‘Thanks very much, I’ve always wanted one of these for the mantelpiece at Libertyville.’ What you don’t say is what you did say: ‘For Christ’s sake, what’s this?’

According to Ashmore, Adlai was so delighted at this advice that he told it on himself at the next stop, ‘thereby losing another hundred votes to Kefauver, who was born knowing what to do with stuffed alligators.”