The Insignificant Hall of Fame

At Baseball Daily Digest last year, I wrote an article by the same title in which I expressed the reasons why I no longer cared about the Hall of Fame. Last night, I was a guest on Steve Keane’s (of the Kranepool Society blog) podcast, and we discussed the Hall of Fame at the end. I expressed similar sentiment about my finding the Hall pretty much irrelevant.

Update: Craig Calcaterra, Jason Rosenberg, and Bill from The Platoon Advantage have tackled the issue as well. Click on over for some more anti-HOF sentiment.

Today, after Roberto Alomar and Saberist-favorite Bert Blyleven were elected in the Class of 2011, Joe Posnanski wrote a column that includes some eye-opening quotes from Jeff Idelson, president of baseball’s Hall of Fame. Those are excerpted below:

“Baseball has historically been held to a very high standard, right or wrong,” he says. “There’s a certain integrity required when it comes to baseball’s highest honor, which is being inducted into the Hall of Fame. The character clause exists as it relates to the game on the field. The character clause isn’t there to evaluate and judge players socially. It’s there to relate to the game on the field. … The voters should have the freedom to measure that however they see fit.”

[…]

It seems clear to me from what he says here that the Hall of Fame has no problem with the exclusion of known steroid users or even strongly suspected steroid users.

“When you look at the Hall of Fame elections,” he said, “you see that those who are elected are representative of that era. The Hall of Fame election is a continuum. And the standards have upheld the test of time. We believe they work. We believe the voters have exercised a great understanding about the candidates in the Hall of Fame. I think when you look at who the writers have voted into the Hall of Fame, you would be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t belong there.”

[…]

“You know this … as you walk through Cooperstown, you have the history museum where every facet of the game is represented,” he said. “That will not change. That’s the celebratory nature of the Cooperstown experience. But when it comes to players inducted, we feel strongly that the rules for election need to be where they are. … There’s no question that in many ways, this is an odd time. But at the end of the day, we want to maintain the high standards of the Hall.”

When baseball fans traverse to Cooperstown, New York, they are going to an institution called the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. What is the purpose of a museum, you ask? The International Council of Museums defines it as a:

permanent institution in the service of society and of its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment, for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment.

A typical jaunt to a museum may include browsing the history of the universe, or taking a gander at dinosaur fossils. You don’t go to a museum to receive a biased point of view on history, whatever the subject may be; you go for a learning experience, to gather enough facts to make your own interpretations.

Museums have been that way for a long time. That is, until the Creation Museum. The Creation Museum takes the story of the Bible and forces it backwards into the history of our planet — in essence, the exact opposite of what a museum should do. PZ Myers of the science blog Pharyngula visited the Creation Museum in August 2009 and wrote a recap of the experience:

We were asked to sign a document before we entered that required us to be “respectful” of their facilities, which apparently meant more than simply appropriately regarding their building as private property. One of our atheists was in an entirely friendly conversation about evolution with a creationist visitor, when one of the guards came up and asked them to stop, saying that we had signed an agreement not to even discuss anything in the building where others could hear. (To his credit, the creationist said that he welcomed the discussion the guards wanted to silence, and they continued outside.) They knew we disagreed with them, and they were clearly on edge…and they knew that their beliefs could not stand up in the face of free speech.

[…]

They have a script you’re supposed to follow. There is a single route that snakes through the building with a series of exhibits with a linear agenda. You are supposed to get their Sunday School lesson plan of the 7 C’s (creation, corruption, catastrophe, confusion, Christ, cross, and consummation). Exploration is not an option. You will follow their track. There is no interactivity, either — it’s a chain of displays, dioramas, and little scenes, supplemented with frequent videos that tell you what to think.

I am deeply concerned that the baseball Hall of Fame is going down this sad path that the Creation Museum paved. Rather than simply providing information for passers-by, Idelson is fine with the Baseball Writers Association of America using incomplete — and often completely biased, hypocritical, or even nonexistent — information which is used to pass judgment on individual players, their teams, and the era in which they played.

In essence, Idelson doesn’t give baseball fans enough credit to make their own judgments about the so-called “steroids era”. Instead, he needs to fill in the gaps with what he believes are the correct answers. The problem is that he has no way of knowing, much less proving, that his point of view is correct and thus that it should be the official view of the time period heretofore.

So what should we do about this?

First and foremost, we need to be very vocal about how objectively wrong Idelson’s stance is, that it is unfair to use such questionable information to make firm judgments. The Internet does a great job of this, but we need more than snarky blog posts.

Secondly, stop giving the Hall of Fame your patronage. As much as it may sting to not take that annual trip to Cooperstown with your family, find another fun venue where your money will be put to better use.

Finally, we can ignore the Hall of Fame entirely. In reality, it doesn’t matter at all, even ignoring Idelson’s comments. You don’t need the Hall of Fame’s validation to recognize that a player was among the best of his time, or that a player was chronically overrated. The off-season is boring enough that the Hall debates are great time-fillers, but they are ultimately meaningless.

Baseball does not need a Hall of Fame. When the institution is run properly, it can be a great asset that people can use to better understand the various time periods and cultural mores. However, it is not a necessity. In fact, the Hall of Fame needs us a lot more than we need it.

If Idelson’s comments struck you as intellectually dishonest and offensive, make yourself heard. As Myers suggests regarding Ken Ham’s Creation Museum:

Don’t give it [respect] to him. All his carnival act deserves is profound disrespect and ridicule. Go to his “museum” as you would to a cheap freak show, and laugh, laugh, laugh…and go home to publicly mock and heap scorn upon it.

Irreverence is our answer, not dumb humble deference.

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17 comments

  1. Danny

    January 05, 2011 11:30 PM

    What should we do?

    Should writers admit that they’ve made mistakes? Should they remind you that they’ve done this before? Should we give you a history lesson?

    Should we really believe the Hall of Fame has ruined its credibility? Should the HOF tell you its not a role model?

    Seriously, what should they do?

    Should the writers tell you they hate sabermetrics? Base it on wins, ERA or big game record? Should the writers accept their role as a villain? Should they just disappear?

    Should the writers stop listening to the fans? They’re the fans!

    Should we just clear the deck and start over?

    What should we do? Should the Hall of Fame be what you want it to be?

  2. Danny

    January 05, 2011 11:37 PM

    On a more serious note….

    I’ve been to the Hall of Fame/Museum one time, and it was last summer. After taking two long days to walk through every single inch, I can say that the “Hall of Fame” part is the worst part of the entire place.

    It’s called “The Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.” Two different entities. One is awesome, and one kinda sucks.

    The Museum is amazingly put together and is worth paying the price of admission repeatedly. I think the elimination of such an institution would be terrible.

    The Hall part is where I spent the least amount of time. I looked around to see some of the big ones and the original class, which is separated from everyone else, but for the most part I was bored while walking through.

    I think we should start to distinguish between the two places, although they happen to reside in the same building. The museum does a great job at highlighting the game’s history, while the plaque area is filled with bias and differing opinions.

    So while I agree that we should probably just be apathetic over who gets into the Hall, don’t stop that from pouring your money into the museum, which is very much worth your time.

    I spent 95% of my time in Cooperstown in the museum and 5% in the Hall. I think we should start distinguishing between the two.

  3. Richard

    January 06, 2011 09:04 AM

    Danny’s right, of course, the physical “Hall of Fame” part of the Museum is boring. Really, the Hall is just a list of names, an honorific. Honorifics aren’t terrible, but they do have to have meaning. If Barry Bonds or Roger Clemens do not get elected to the Hall of Fame (and, frankly, if they are not elected in their first year), the Hall completely ceases to have meaning.

    Officially, I don’t care, but there is still that combined small child/”there’s someone wrong on the internet” voice that gets very upset by it all.

  4. Tim

    January 06, 2011 10:29 AM

    Yeah, I’m with Danny too. The Museum is a great asset to baseball, and it’s admirable in it’s attempt to include all of baseball history. The Museum has no problem displaying the Barry Bonds ball that that guy branded the asterisk on, and that’s the way it should be.

    But for better or worse, the Hall of Fame portion is separate. It’s not representative of the entirety of baseball history, and its guidelines specifically state that integrity, character, and sportsmanship are among the criteria for admission. Now I can get mad at the writers for applying those criteria poorly (as in Jeff “Guilty By Association” Bagwell) or inconsistently, but I can’t get mad at them for including them in their decisions, because, according to the rules, they’re supposed to.

    Personally, when it comes to someone like Bonds, the integrity/sportsmanship/character goes against him, but I feel that he was so unbelievably good that it gets trumped by the other criteria (see Cobb, Ty, or heck even Roberto Alomar who definitely got punished for the whole spitting thing). I also feel like if you’re going to apply the integrity criteria negatively against a guy like McGwire or Palmeiro, then you should also give a guy like Mike Mussina a boost. But that probably won’t happen.

  5. Richard Hershberger

    January 06, 2011 01:45 PM

    Here I thought I was going to be posting a minority opinion, and it turns out that I am part of a chorus. The Hall of Fame part is boring and pretentious. The museum part rocks.

    We should add to this the research library. This isn’t the sort of library you browse through. It is the sort of library where you go through the online catalog ahead of time and request in advance the stuff you want to look at. There are some libraries with excellent baseball collections (the New York Public Library in particular) but nothing like what the Hall has. And the staff won’t think you are weird for being a bit too interested in this stuff.

  6. Western Dave

    January 06, 2011 02:30 PM

    Like others, I thought the HoF part was boring and liked the museum. But as a working historian, former museum worker, and history teacher I have to take issue with your idea that history is just the facts. Facts are facts. What historians do is those facts to try to prove theses about causes and effects. Most famously, in American history, there is Turner’s The Frontier Thesis presented in his famous address to the AHA at the Columbian exposition and later published as “The Significance of the Frontier in American History.” Turner was wrong, of course, we now know. But all his facts were right (or most of them anyway, at least at the time he wrote). But historians are constantly developing and publishing new theses. And other historians respond to them sometimes examining the same evidence, sometimes different evidence. Our understanding of what makes a great baseball player is fluid, and technology and era-dependent. The Hall itself reflects that acts as a starting place for that discussion, not the ending place for it.

  7. Kellie

    January 06, 2011 02:31 PM

    I also agree with Danny that there is a big difference between the museum aspect of the Hall of Fame and the list of names. We choose to honor people in different professions and hold a different list of qualifications for those honors. Baseball players know full well that character and off the field decisions will impact their ability to be in the Hall of Fame someday. The steriods era will be well documented at the HOF museum, even if players from that era are not honored as HOF inductees.

    If the fans and writers feel a great player deserves the honor, he will get in. If not, then he won’t. I, for one, am very pleased that the writers are hesitant to include players suspected of steroid use. The steroid era really changed my love for the game of baseball…and it just seems wrong to bestow such a high honor on players who changed the game in a very negative way. You are free to disagree with me, and time will tell whether the writers side with my opinion or your own, but to say the museum isn’t historically accurate because the list of HOF inductees doesn’t include great players who used steroids is really overstating the case.

    Say what you will, character is important, in every aspect of society. When our culture bestows a great honor on an individual, I think it is important to look at the entire picture.

    The historical accuracy of the museum will continue with or without steroids era players receiving HOF induction.

  8. Bill Baer

    January 06, 2011 02:57 PM

    @Western Dave

    You raise valid points. However, with academic museums, you don’t have the president pushing his interpretation down the throats of the patrons. He may think that the recent invasion of Iraq was a justified decision, but you will never see a museum portray the Bush administration as a clown or has an infallible hero. Gray area? Absolutely, but no black-and-white.

    Idelson’s comments express a black-and-white view of the steroid era, just as the Creation Museum expresses a black-and-white view of the origin of man and of this planet.

  9. phatti

    January 06, 2011 05:05 PM

    Bill,

    I don’t get what you see in Idelson’s comments that is so offensive.

    In the first paragraph, he essentially says that he thinks it’s appropriate to have a character clause. and that it’s up to the writers/voters to interpret that clause

    In the second paragraph, he’s saying that the BBWAA’s standards have been high and they should be. In the third paragraph he says that the museum portion of the hall will always reflect the history, warts and all and that the rules (i.e. the character clause) should remain in place.

    Where does he say “writers, don’t vote in any steroid users” or “the museum is going to pretend that the steroid era never happened?” Maybe I’m missing something, but I just don’t see him saying what you think he is saying.

  10. Joe Gualtieri

    January 06, 2011 05:38 PM

    “A typical jaunt to a museum may include browsing the history of the universe, or taking a gander at dinosaur fossils. You don’t go to a museum to receive a biased point of view on history, whatever the subject may be; you go for a learning experience, to gather enough facts to make your own interpretations. Museums have been that way for a long time. That is, until the Creation Museum. ”

    That’s utterly ridiculous. Have you ever been to an art museum? It’s standard practice for there to be editorial comments about each work or exhibit. Museums always choose what to show or not show, and their options in that regard are dictated by market forces as well as the biases of the curators.

    You’ve also, in the specific case of the Baseball HoF and Museum, got to distinguish between the Hall and the Museum. PED users aren’t being exiled from the Museum, just the Hall.

  11. Bill Baer

    January 06, 2011 11:03 PM

    Joe,

    I had a similar debate with Danny, who posted in the first two comments, on Twitter about this.

    To me, unless they’re run by two separate people/groups and the money is separated, then I agree that one needs to separate between the two entities. If not, then you can’t simply ignore the diseased part of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum because you like the other side.

    As for “editorial comments”, as I said to Western Dave, there are certainly gray areas where people take the opportunity to provide their own color. However, what you don’t see is blatant distortion of black and white.

    @Phatti

    The problem with Idelson’s comments is that they are blatantly hypocritical. Check out the evisceration of Idelson done by Bill from The Platoon Advantage, linked above.

  12. Tim

    January 07, 2011 11:38 AM

    I still don’t have a huge problem with Idelson’s comments (which is not to say that I actually agree with him). I think he’s kind of saying what he has to say as the administrator of this institution, and it’s a difficult position when his job is to defend a very flawed voting system that he doesn’t really have the power to change (imagine the uproar if he came out and said there were players that didn’t belong in the Hall – he has to say everyone deserves to be in there).

    And even though they’re run by the same institution and housed in the same space, the HOF itself is clearly separate from the history side of the museum, and there are clearly different standards for what gets included in which part (historians and curators decide on one, and the BBWAA/Veterans Committee decide on the other one).

    I think the Creation Museum is an unfair comparison. Maybe if the Museum side were full of laudatory exhibits about how Abner Doubleday started the game it would be apt, but I think the museum’s standards are rigorous, and they do make an effort to include all aspects of the game.

    Though if the Creation Museum also had a Hall of Biblical Figure Fame section that didn’t include Methusalah… that’s when I’d raise a real ruckus.

  13. CG Hudson

    January 07, 2011 01:00 PM

    Looking at Idleson’s bio on the HOF web site, I see that his background is in PR. That certainly goes along way towards explaining his viewpoint (but not excusing it).

  14. NeedleFactory

    January 08, 2011 12:59 PM

    I began ignoring the Hall of Fame years ago, mostly because Pete Rose is ineligible. Whether one thinks Rose to be a good guy or a bad guy, it seems clear that he is a famous guy, so he belongs in a “Hall of Fame.” Perhaps not in a “Hall of Famous Nice Guys” or a “Hall of Famous Honest Guys”, or whatever. You get my point.

    Ironically, the refusal to admit Rose to the Hall of Fame merely makes him even more famous…

  15. Mr City

    January 09, 2011 01:43 PM

    The Hall of Fame is not separate from the Museum, it is the centerpiece installation in the Museum. But there are plenty of other installations that look at the more cotroversial or shameful poritons of the baseball history.

    What I find surprrising is how frequently people assume the Hall of Fame must equate with “The List of the Best Who Ever Played”. It’s not called the “Hall of the Greatest” it is the Hall Of Fame. It is about bestowing an honor, not creating a quantative list. The name of the place and the charcter clause make that clear.

    As such I do not see why it is wrong bestow the honor on a slightly second tier player who was beloved and part of the ganes overall history (like Rizzuto, Mazeroski or, ahem, Richie Ashburn) or who also has remarkable post-season accomplishment (like eventually Schilling). It is also not wrong to exclude a guy whose numbers are good enough to get in but who, under the Hall’s criteria, probably should be not honored.

    There is no doubt that a players accomplishments should be at the core of the decision. Statistical analysis should continue to force all fans to recognize where the assumptions about a players accompishment may be misguided (I have been floored by some of the evidence against Jack Morris I have read recently, but I cannot dispute it). But nowhere has it ever said that the Hall of Fame is meant to be (just) the definitive list of the best player.

    Personally, I feel Bagwell’s treatment was disgraceful, I am not bothered in the least about McGwire or Paleimro. , Paliemero, McGthe

  16. David

    January 11, 2011 12:46 PM

    Relativism is bogus.

  17. Western Dave

    January 12, 2011 10:57 PM

    I go to a lot of history musuems that make my head spin with how bad their interpretations are. And have you never heard of the Enola Gay controversy? Funders change the rules on exhibits all the time, and in art museums it’s even worse. Nobody agrees on aesthetics. But part of what makes the Hall of Fame fun is that everyone has their own criteria and it’s completely subjective and fun to fight about whose criteria are right. Personally, I think the biggest guy who got robbed was Marvin Miller, but it’s hard to quantify his impact on the game.

    What makes the Creation Mueseum beyond the pale is that it is presenting something as science that scientists don’t believe. The Hall of Fame presents a semi-coherent vision of what a bunch of relatively knowledgeable people about baseball believe fulfills a set of vague criteria.

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