It was a very surreal experience visiting Cooperstown on the cusp of the World Series. I know, I know, we have all offseason to talk about the Hall of Fame and who deserves and doesn’t deserve to get in, but that wasn’t really my mindset when visiting. Sorry if my timing doesn’t align with yours! It’s just that being at the end of the year, like any end-of-year calendar, you get very introspective and meta-analytical about how what you are seeing will be remembered, especially when you see it in real life.
So I just so happened to be in the Cooperstown area, visiting my brother who goes to school in the region. We only had about a half-day or so to see the museum, and frankly, I wasn’t sure how big or small it actually was. I hadn’t seen it in a decade, so I didn’t know what kind of sprawl this would entail. Which leads me to...
Lesson #1: The Hall of Fame is really, really small.
It was honestly, laugh-out-loud funny looking at the size of this place in comparison to how people talk about the Hall of Fame, and how it’s discussed aspirationally as “big” or “small.” It’s the latter, no matter if people think it’s accepting people of dubious quality. We walked the facility in a good... two and a half hours or so? And we saw pretty much everything. One wing for Babe Ruth. One wing for Ty Cobb. One wing for Hank Aaron. One wing for postseason moments. One wing for the deadball era. One wing for the plaques. One wing for the modern baseball. That’s about it. The latter was probably the most interesting, mostly because since I was last there I honestly don’t remember (someone correct me if I’m wrong) full sections devoted to PEDs and its legacy in the game. Which leads me to...
Lesson #2: The Hall of Fame reckons with the past... on its face.
There were some strange touchscreens all over the museum, usually posing it as a “game” in the form of “questions.” In the case regarding PEDs, there was a section honoring and remembering the Mark McGwire/Sammy Sosa home run chase, the Alex Rodriguez saga, and the Balco investigation. On the touchscreen, you could vote on whether PEDs enforcement was better, or “fun” was better. Not mentioned was the league’s explicit condoning of PEDs until it was revealed publicly, as if steroids merely hit the Earth as a meteor and not as a consequence of the league’s own policies.
There was another odd touchscreen talking about labor, and the (I’m paraphrasing, so don’t mind the quotes) “push and pull” between management and labor. They ask questions like “should there be more roster spots” or “should there be a salary cap” only for the game to break if you choose options that are too slanted for either owner or player, showing a slider between “lockout” and “strike” with a golden “compromise” between. Left unsaid, of course, were the league’s explicit policies that created and upheld the reserve clause, and then forced the 1994 strike because of the aforementioned salary cap trying to be forced on the game. There’s no mention of the existing soft salary cap.
On race and gender, there’s at least a little more reckoning, but still a bit left to be desired. There was talk of Jackie Mitchell striking out Lou Gehrig and Babe Ruth and her contract being voided by Kennesaw Mountain Landis, as well as the hardships that the Negro Leagues faced in pre-integration. Left unsaid, once again, were the owners’ and players’ culpability in upholding segregation. The Yawkey family, and Cap Anson, for example, are not mentioned as part of this discussion.
To get back to my point on modern baseball again, though, because there are some other things they do right...
Lesson #3: The Hall of Fame embraces analytics.
Cooperstown’s explicit goal is to be a promotion of the sport and its more traditionalist elements; there’s a good reason people playing the touchscreen game are voting down the DH by a large margin. Yet when you walk down the modern wing, there’s a section dedicated to the infamous 2012 Mike Trout vs. Miguel Cabrera, WAR vs. Triple Crown debate. And in the 15-minute movie that leads you into the front of the museum, the script is written by Joe Posnanski with interviews and voice-overs from Bill James. I didn’t expect to see it at all, and I don’t expect to see much more of it in the future, but just seeing it in print confirms that analytics is inexplicably tied in with the sport’s history. If that is truly case, that what is shown in the Hall is then cemented into its legacy, then my final lesson is...
Lesson #4: No worthy player can be banned or excluded from the Hall of Fame.
Right there in the section on all of the records in baseball, in black ink, is Pete Rose and his hit record. Others like Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Roger Clemens, and Shoeless Joe Jackson may have been removed from the sport, ripped off like an unneeded appendage, but it is physically impossible to remove it from history. It happened. Because the building is so small, and because it in many ways follows the Descartian model of “think it, then it exists” then Rose is already in the Hall of Fame.
Which is why I have a lesson to give to the Hall in what I still considered a very fascinating and refreshing trip. The Hall of Fame shouldn’t be a place to store a trophy and wipe off the blemishes. It should be accepting the players admitted, and all those who inhabit the museum, blemishes and all. Baseball is as complicated as American society itself, so by tackling steroids, and the reserve clause, and sabermetrics (and its excesses), and sexism (and especially domestic violence), and institutional racism, and including more players from the NPB and KBO, people will come out of it even more enlightened and interested in its history than what it thinks its trying to instill.
In a way the euphemistic way it talks of its complications makes sense considering the fact the sport hosts its physical capital rested atop a total myth, which is why it should embrace its many pitfalls and myths, as it so often flirts with throughout its halls.