Steven Goldman at Baseball Prospectus argues that the Hall of Fame should kick out ten members for racism. Specifically, he argues in favor of “a calculated insult to these player’s and executive’s memories” for their roles in resisting the integration of the game (or, in one case, drawing the color line in the first place). This is misguided in two ways. One, particularly in honoring ballplayers, the Hall should principally be in the business of memorializing the greats as players, not passing judgment on them as men. Two, once you open the door to Goldman’s “tear his plaque off the wall, melt it down, and pretend it was never there to begin with” posture, you can never again promise anyone immortality. The Pandora’s Box of making every plaque subject to revision can’t be closed again.
On the first point, I’ve been arguing for two decades now that people such as Pete Rose and Barry Bonds should be on the walls in Cooperstown, not because they are morally deserving recipients (even on the field), but because the Hall’s pretense to be a collection of the game’s greatest is mocked by their absence. (The only exception I make is for Shoeless Joe Jackson, who actually tried to lose baseball games.) I personally do not want Rose or Bonds or Roger Clemens to feel honored, but the Hall is not primarily for the players; it is, like the game itself, primarily for the fans. If the Hall is keeping out a raft of modern greats for gambling and performance-enhancing drugs and (in Curt Schilling’s case) for abrasive right-wingery and it starts ripping down the plaques of Cap Anson, Eddie Collins, and Joe Cronin, pretty soon you just have to give up on the idea that a visitor to the Hall is being presented with a definitive exhibit on the greatest players the game has produced.
The dilemma gets worse the further you expand the list of sins — do we count people with racist opinions who weren’t active in preventing the game’s integration? Does it matter if they actively helped the game integrate? Tris Speaker may well have been a member of the Klan in the 1920s, but he also helped Larry Doby when Doby was integrating the American League. The Hall is truly doomed if we start looking too closely at how many of its members treated women. (The Pro Football Hall of Fame still includes O. J. Simpson). Goldman’s standard — “only a few get massive marble-clad monuments . . . the gallery has no obligation to memorialize history’s villains” — neither offers nor accepts a limiting principle. In fact, by reaching for sexual impropriety at the end of the column, he seems to be keeping a foot wedged to hold that door perpetually open.
Goldman is on more solid ground complaining about the enshrinement of executives who are not honored for on-field performance; men such as Larry MacPhail and Tom Yawkey are honored for how they caused the game to be played, not how they played or managed it themselves. Yawkey’s enshrinement really is a scandal; unlike MacPhail or Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, he has no particularly important accomplishments to set alongside his sins. But that brings us to the other problem: pulling down plaques that are already up. There is simply no way to cabin this to a one-time thing (nor does Goldman argue that it should be); in one stroke, the ongoing membership of the Hall would be put up for perpetual revision.
Earl Warren, at the end of his momentous Chief Justiceship in 1968, was quoted by Sports Illustrated: “I always turn to the sports section first. The sports section records man’s accomplishments; the front page has nothing but man’s failures.” That’s an aspirational standard, but the Baseball Hall of Fame was always intended to be aspirational. The moralizing impulse has already kept too many men out over PEDs, degrading the Hall. It’s not too late to change that. But if we start tearing down plaques, there will be no going back to the diamond.