The Baseball Hall of Fame Is Exclusive For Fans, Too
Unfortunately, the Baseball Hall of Fame isn't just for one percent of former players—it's for one percent of fans. For a game that is at its best when it's diverse and inclusive, that's a problem.
Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports
On Sunday, I gathered with 50,000 baseball fans on a big grass field in upstate New York to watch Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza get inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a perfect day for an emotional baseball ceremony: all sunshine and distant pine-covered hills, and sweaty New York Mets fans toting lawn chairs. It was Woodstock for baseball nerds.
In visiting Cooperstown, I was fulfilling a lifelong dream as a baseball nerd. The town is somehow even more quaint and more scenic than I expected, and the Hall museum even more extensive and fascinating. The Cooperstown experience is itself an effective argument for baseball as the National Pastime—it's Baseball Disneyland, and I mean that as a compliment.
We talk about it a lot in the media, but as Gary Thorne stood at the dais and introduced living Hall of Famers to various levels of applause (roars for Pedro Martinez; polite clapping at best for Jim Bunning) it occurred to me just how exclusive enshrinement really is. Until you see Billy Williams laughing it up with Orlando Cepeda or Fergie Jenkins, it's hard to really conceptualize the invisible line that the Hall has drawn between him and, say, Dick Allen.
Enshrinement is an exclusive deal. Just one percent of all players get in, said Hall of Fame chair Jane Forbes Clark during her speech. And while that's not my ideal for celebrating baseball—I'm more of a "let them all in" guy—I get that. The problem is that it isn't just enshrinement that's exclusive: visiting the National Baseball Hall of Fame is prohibitively expensive for many baseball fans. This is especially true on induction weekend, when rooms in motels and bed and breakfasts 30 miles from Cooperstown still run upwards of $200 a night.
The Hall of Fame isn't just for one percent of former players, it's for one percent of fans. During his speech at Sunday's ceremonies, Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson called Cooperstown "the soul of baseball." That is a nice sentiment, but if baseball is going to continue to be a thing that large numbers of people enjoy, it can never ever be true. The soul of baseball—no disrespect to Idelson or the fans in Cooperstown this past weekend, who were nearly all white and American—is in fans and players and coaches and umpires around the United States and the world.
Piazza captured this as well as anybody could in his speech. He talked about being sent down to the Dodgers' academy in the Dominican Republic to learn how to communicate with Spanish-speaking pitchers. He told the story of how former Dodgers hitting coach Reggie Smith honed his swing with drills he had learned during a stint in Japan.
Griffey Jr. captured it every day of his career—drawing people into the game by letting its lowest instincts slide right off his back. When baseball is good, it looks like Ken Griffey Jr. hitting long home runs, and sounds like him quoting Will Smith during his Hall of Fame induction speech. When baseball is good, it's vibrant and international and diverse and accessible.
The Hall of Fame was founded in 1936 by Jane Forbes Clark's grandfather Stephen Carlton Clark as a way to draw more tourists to Cooperstown as it emerged from the Great Depression. The elder Clark was a collector of great works of art and co-founder of the Singer Sewing Machine company. He knew a good marketing opportunity when he saw one: the myth of Abner Doubleday inventing baseball in a Cooperstown pasture presented such an opportunity.
It's a testament to the Clark family that the Baseball Hall has evolved from a tourist trap to a world class museum. It's a testament to them that they have taken their artifacts on the road over the last fifteen years. But let's not mistake a town, or a building, or a plaque inside that building with something else.
The difference between Cooperstown and Disneyland is that nobody working at the latter has ever claimed Anaheim as the soul of cartoon fun. The folks at Disney know—somehow better than the folks in the baseball establishment—that selling their product means making it accessible to everyone in all places. So long as baseball continues to ascribe mythical powers to non-mythical things, it will leave behind fans who can't afford to go to Cooperstown, or weren't raised reading the same scriptures.
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