The dangers of baseball's Hall of Fame
John JeansonneJohn Jeansonne
Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since
Web linksMLB Hall of Fame 2014: Who is worthy?
One way around baseball's deep discomfort over what to do about mounting evidence of doping superstars was Sunday's Hall of Fame enshrinement of three men long deceased.
It was easy for Hall officials and family representatives to speak no evil of the dead. Each of the immortalized ghosts -- Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert, pioneer catcher Deacon White and the World Series' first umpire, Hank O'Day -- has been gone for more than 70 years.
So, without actually having known them, their descendants could offer the kind of unalloyed praise that Dennis McNamara had for his great-grand uncle O'Day: "Uncle Hank died seven years before I was born, but he was an almost mythic figure in our family.
"Honesty and integrity brought Hank O'Day to the Hall of Fame."
Among the minuscule crowd -- estimated between 1,000 and 2,000, roughly 10 percent of normal induction-day attendance -- everyone understood such a tribute also served as an oblique reference to the moral turpitude of some of the most accomplished players in the modern game.
Everyone got the not-so-veiled reference: Baseball writers, faced with the first-year candidacies of Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa and others with tainted accomplishments, couldn't bring themselves to elect anyone. (The 2013 Hall class of the long-departed was chosen by a special committee.)
And, although many of the sport's insiders believe that matters will return to "normal" next year, with such widely admired first-time eligibles as Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas, the fact is that an increasingly clogged ballot could spread votes so thin that the 75-percent threshold for induction again will not be reached by anyone.
That would be a serious blow to the economic model that allows Cooperstown to thrive, with merchants in the village of 1,800 residents fondly recalling the 75,000 visitors to the 2007 induction of Cal Ripken Jr., and the average induction-weekend crowds between 10,000 and 20,000. That's a lot of hotel and restaurant money.
But this is the danger of affording venerated status to really good athletes, their plaques hung in a reverential hall and their grand statistics somehow conferring on them the title of Great Men. And it's the trouble with a group of baseball writers deputized to determine which of them should enter Cooperstown's pearly gates.
Again, then, comes my call to demystify Cooperstown, to limit matters to the museum aspect, and skip the canonization of ballplayers. The Hall already is a fabulous depository of history and artifacts, good and bad. (Even persona non grata figures Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose have some personal items in the museum.)
We shouldn't forget things, neither the fact that Barry Bonds hit more home runs than any man -- 762 -- nor the well-documented testimony that he did so powered by banned substances.
To replace annual induction ceremonies, the Hall already has the tradition of old stars appearing to sign autographs and shake hands along Main Street. It actually could increase the players' interaction with fans with storytelling hours, possibly even having past stars lead tours through the museum, expanding on their personal place in history.
Of course, many are lured to the Hall through fans' attachment to name players -- though that is almost entirely a one-way street. Ultimately, the deep affection that folks have for baseball, a significant piece of our culture, is better exemplified by Cooperstown's bronze statue of the "Sand Lot Kid" -- a love of the game, however unlovable some players -- than by million-dollar professionals performing in the big-time entertainment business.
At this point, hero worship is just too risky. What best applies to the deeds of even the most honest of ballplayers, accompanied to the top of their profession by honesty and integrity, is a quote attributed to the late Toshi Seeger, wife of folk-singing legend Pete Seeger:
"I hate it when people romanticize him," she said. "He's like anybody good at his craft, like a good bulldozer operator."
That should be fame enough. It's just baseball.