Monday, January 9, 2012

The Baseball Hall of Notoriety

Later today, after weeks of columns on the topic, the results of Hall of Fame voting will be announced—and immediately afterward, everyone will undoubtedly parse and complain about them. I obviously don't have a vote for the Hall of Fame, and I'm kind of glad about that, because I truthfully have no idea how I would fill out my ballot. It seems like today's Hall of Fame elections are marked by divisive debates that didn't exist, or at least were not so flamboyantly public, even five or 10 years ago. Is Jack Morris worthy of induction because he was the best pitcher of the 1980s? Should suspicion that Jeff Bagwell took steroids mean voters should reserve judgment on him, or is he innocent until proven guilty? And, of course, the big one: Is there any place in the Hall of Fame for known PED users? [Hyperlinks omitted due to overwhelming number of articles to choose from.]

As a disciple of the written word, in times like these I look to language to help illuminate the way. While I suspect that most of the writers with actual votes are way beyond this question, if I were given a ballot I would start by asking, "What is a Hall of Fame?" and "What is it for?"

At the risk of sounding like a terrible snob, the Oxford English Dictionary gives the following definitions for the most common usage of the word "fame": "The character attributed to a person or thing by report or generally entertained; reputation. Usually in good sense." and "The condition of being much talked about. Chiefly in good sense: Reputation derived from great achievements; celebrity, honour, renown."

Many writers break their Hall of Fame ballots into "Hall of Fame" and, for those who just missed the cut, "Hall of the Very Good." In this way they're using "fame" as a synonym for "excellent." However, as we can see from the OED, that's a questionable connection to draw. While the connotation of the word "fame" is indeed "chiefly in a good sense," its actual denotation hinges on reputation, renown, and consequence. Put another way, a given player's "fame" can be measured by the impact they had on the game and its history. I'm sure a lot of writers would tell you that they vote on this very basis, but the reams of Hall of Fame columns say otherwise: the elaborate explanations based on statistics, the moralizing over steroid use, and other elements. Almost to a man (there are unfortunately precious few women voters), these columns either imply or outright state that election to the Hall of Fame is an honor. Maybe it shouldn't be. Maybe it should just be a time capsule.

Indeed, to segue into the second question ("What is it for?"), I think the point of the Hall of Fame (as reinforced by its tendency to eat up any history-making baseball or bat within minutes of a legendary game or event) is to memorialize baseball. In 1,000 years, when aliens excavate upstate New York, the National Baseball Hall of Fame—and Museum—should contain all that we wish to pass on about our glorious pastime. When telling the story of baseball, we tell about the giants of the game—the prodigious hitters, but also the scoundrels, the larger-than-life personalities, even the historically bad. We should immortalize all of these things in the Hall.

Put these thoughts together, and you get an interesting hypothesis: a player should be elected to the Hall of Fame based on fame, and all that that means: reputation, renown, celebrity, notoriety, name recognition. It's a Hall of Fame that would include Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron but also Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire. Stan Musial would be in there, but so would Pete Rose. It would include Jackie Robinson even in an alternate universe in which he was actually a really bad player. It would include the Legend of Doc Gooden, because even though his career was much less impressive than many others, he's a name we remember today. Even Mario Mendoza—he did nothing to warrant it, but he is an important part of baseballology.

Everyone on every side of the aforementioned divisive debates would probably have a problem with these criteria. It would unquestionably mean putting some of the biggest names in steroid use in the Hall. It would also upset the statheads, because it would mean narrative-driven candidates are not only permitted, but also encouraged. And it would probably upset everyone to put players in Cooperstown just because they played for the famous Yankees and not equally legendary players who didn't get high media exposure in Colorado or Seattle—which would inevitably happen under such a system.

I'm not advocating this voting strategy; clearly it's a kooky approach to something that many people take very seriously. It's just an interesting idea, and it's probably as good a strategy as any of the other arbitrary parsings that BBWAA members have devised for muddling through the mess that is the balloting process these days. Good thing other election processes in this country make more sense. Oh, wait...

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