Before launching into my manifesto proper, there are some things I need to get out of the way.
I absolutely love the Hall of Fame and consider it a lock on the Mt. Rushmore of baseball tourism. Often I see social media posts on how “the Hall of Fame sucks” because some favorite player didn’t get in (or because some other player did get in). I can only conclude that the authors of these posts have never been to the actual Hall of Fame. If you’re a baseball fan, it is impossible to spend a day and not absolutely worship the place. If you visit and your takeaway is that it sucked, you don’t hate the Hall. You hate baseball, you hate history, and you may well hate life itself.
Of course the Hall of Fame is not just a place. At least casually speaking it’s also a list–specifically a list of the greatest players, managers, executives, umpires, etc., in the long, rich history of the game. This list is of course what invites constant critiques and debate, but here’s the thing. It’s a really good list.
If we dispense with the notion that a perfect or please-everyone list could even exist, it’s hard to look down the list (or in person, the wall of plaques) and associate the word “suck” with it. About all most fans can do on a list of 300+ names is spot a couple dozen they’d personally scratch off (along with a couple dozen they’d never heard of) and imagine a few dozen they might add instead. Incremental touch-ups against a big picture that’s mostly right.
My take is a different one. I’d blow the whole thing up–the list, not the actual Shrine to Baseball.
The main thing that bothers me about the list, or at least the way the list seems to be growing, is that it’s dominated by a rather narrow aspect of greatness. Gambling, drug, and government overthrow scandals aside, Hall of Fame qualifications, debates, snubs, etc., hinge almost exclusively on a singular dimension of greatness, that of how many extra regular season games a player theoretically should have helped his hypothetical team win had his fictitious backup been of a very specific ability level.
As I understand WAR (and it’s close cousin JAWS), a grand slam is valued no higher than a solo home run; a walk-off double to win the pennant is valued no higher than a bases-empty double with your team down six runs; World Series heroics are less valuable than a walk in a meaningless game; and hypothetical wins mean more than actual ones. This all makes sense if your goal is to separate talent from circumstance, potential from accomplishment, and cause from effect.
Baseball’s Greatest Moments
Whether you brand it luck or I call it “rising to the occasion” I’d populate about 10% of Hall 2.0 with the players behind baseball’s greatest moments. Among the obvious entrants unlikely to get in through the “front door” would be Bobby Thomson, Kirk Gibson, Joe Carter, and Bill Mazeroski.
Would I worry that Bobby Thomson wasn’t as good as many of the names not in this new Hall? Not at all, since none of them ever accomplished anything as big as Bobby Thomson did.
Crazy as the idea may sound, the notion of a single event qualifying a player for the Hall of Fame is consistent with how the Hall of Fame worked before there was a Hall of Fame. Just note the second sentence on the back of this 1933 Goudey Carl Hubbell card.
There’s obviously some question as to where one draws the line. Though I respect the folks at Goudey, I would look for much more than a simple no-hitter. My sense is that truly Hall-worthy moments might happen once or twice per decade. I might even advocate that part of the the HOF voting process is a “Great Moments” vote conducted every ten years, focusing on the prior decade, and allowing for at most three winners.
Baseball’s Most Exciting Players
Obviously a huge part of baseball is winning, but if winning truly was the only thing there’d be no need to play (or watch!) the games. Computer simulations or coin flips could replace actual players, reduce game times, and save ownership a tremendous amount on salaries.
Really, baseball, like all sports, is entertainment. As such, how can we not honor the most exciting players who ever lived? Bo Jackson, Dave Parker, Eric Davis…these are just a few of the players genuinely worth the price of admission whether their team wins or loses.
Transcending entertainment, baseball is also an experience, if not a lifelong love affair built around hometown heroes or personalities we connect with as fans. Among those players not currently enshrined, Dale Murphy, Steve Garvey, Fernando Valenzuela, Will Clark, etc., are players synonymous with the childhoods of so many lifelong fans. Regarding Garvey, Bill James once had a line about him being good for selling tickets but not so good for winning games. In truth, is one really more important than the other?
I lean more sentimental than most fans who care enough to enter Hall of Fame debates, but I’d argue a ballplayer can accomplish nothing greater than to make a city and a generation fall in love. This is the fourth category I’ve listed but not because it’s fourth in importance. Think of it more like batting cleanup.
The ultimate Barrier Breaker was of course Jackie Robinson, and his place in the Hall is assured if not by WAR/JAWS then by being baseball’s most exciting player. Still, many would argue he would deserve a spot even if he batted .240 lifetime and his style of play had been unremarkable. I would go a step farther and enshrine the first Black players to integrate each of the (then) 16 MLB franchises, adding in Black players like Dave Hoskins and Felix Mantilla/Horace Garner integrating the Texas and Sally Leagues respectively. I believe Don Newcombe would deserve a spot here as well.
Breakers of barriers other than Color, such as Glenn Burke and Pam Postema, would also be recognized.
Personally I’d be okay if the list of categories was even bigger than those I put forth. Baseball’s greatest humanitarians? Fine with me. So-so players who wrote great books or invented Big League Chew? Sure, I’m good with plaques for Jim Bouton and Rob Nelson! Baseball lifers like Jimmie Reese? Why the heck not? The greatest ballpark designer and preserver of all time? Yes to Janet Marie Smith!
The beauty of the Hall of Fame–the place, not the list–is that almost everything and everyone I’ve just described is already there. The Museum and its exhibits absolutely recognize baseball greatness in all its forms. Fans can and will keep arguing that “If he got in, why not him?” and bemoaning the fact that some snub “had a WAR of 73.8!!!” but I hope just as many will consider whether that’s really all there is. What we value often turns out to be what we get, and me? I’m here for the stolen bases, diving catches, and high fives over the loveless and lifeless walkers, no matter what the numbers say.