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Tuesday, January 6, 2004
Updated: January 7, 3:24 PM ET
 



SHOULD SOME DEAD WEIGHT BE BOOTED FROM THE HALL OF FAME?


The Baseball Hall of Fame is an exclusive club, but not exclusive enough. While the rest of the sports world focuses on the Hall's newest members -- and one who would be the Hall's Hit King -- the Writers' Bloc ponders who should be booted out.

As it turns out, there are a lot of unworthy candidates for that distinction, most spectacularly the man who "saved baseball."

A mountain of a mistake | From Chuck Hirshberg
The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is un-American.

Yes, I am serious.

It is un-American because it's an aristocracy -- an elite brotherhood of dead people, the same as Hell, or England's House of Lords. Once a guy is admitted to the Hall, he's there for eternity, even if any fool can see he doesn't belong. Surely, the Hall of Fame ought to be a democracy. Inductees should be elected to terms of, say, 20 years or so. At the end of each term, a new generation of Americans should have the right to decide whether, for instance, Rabbit Marinville deserves another term, or whether his plaque should be respectfully retired and used as a paper weight. There are now more than 200 gentlemen enshrined in Cooperstown, and some of them have no more business being there than Barney the Dinosaur.

So what do you say, Wildcats? Who should be evicted from the Hall? First, I say, let's kill a commissioner or two. More than 10 percent of baseball's current Hall of Famers are there for alleged contributions to the business end of MLB. Doubtless, some deserve it, but some don't. In fact, some deserve to be roasted on a spit, like so many Ball Park Franks, and none more than baseball's first Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, whose Cooperstown plaque reads thus:

The truth is, Kenesaw Mountain Landis (his father lost a leg at the Battle of Kinnesaw Mountain, and was a poor speller) had about as much as INTEGRITY as Manuel Noriega. And had he never been born, the American people's esteem for baseball could not possibly have suffered.

Kenesaw Mountain Landis
First to go: Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

It's hard to say which Landis harmed more -- America's National Pastime, or its Common Decency. He was ghoulish even to look at, "a wasted man," wrote John Reed, "with untidy white hair and an emaciated face in which two burning eyes [were] set like jewels, [his] parchment skin split by a crack for a mouth -- the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead." For two decades, this succubus sat on the federal bench, torturing the poor and defenseless. Anyone who displeased him was sentenced to jail. He even sentenced a U. S. Congressman, Victor Berger, to 20 years in Leavenworth for speaking in opposition to America's involvement in World War I. The Supreme Court overruled Landis on that one, but he was used to being overruled and later complained that "the laws of this country should have permitted me to have Berger lined up against the wall and shot." You can see why he appealed to baseball owners.

Virtually every hateful outrage in baseball history can be ascribed, in some measure, to Landis' INTEGRITY AND LEADERSHIP. It started around 1915, when competition from the upstart Federal League threatened to undo the notorious "reserve clause," which bound each player to his team like an indentured servant. The clause was laughably illegal, an obvious violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act, but Landis took care of that. First, he arranged a backroom deal in which the Federals were paid off and the monopoly restored; then, in a breathtaking masterstroke, Landis almost certainly used his influence to obtain baseball's antitrust exemption from the Supreme Court. With competition gone and players stripped of all legal protection, he was soon able to suspend Babe Ruth for having the audacity to play ball in the offseason. All the sordid details can be found in a marvelous scholarly paper called "Larceny and Old Leather" by Prof. Eldon Ham of Chicago-Kent Law School. Ham also pronounces Landis "the game's chief racist," and notes that it is no coincidence that desegregation occurred only after Landis' death.

Of course, Landis is best known for imposing a lifetime ban on eight members of the Chicago "Black Sox," who accepted bribes from gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series. He is still sometimes praised for this, but only by fans unfamiliar with the antics of another Hall-of-Famer, White Sox owner Charles Comiskey. The Chisox first became known as the "Black Sox" not because they were corrupt, but because, as Nelson Algren wrote, their owner "was so begrudging about his laundry bills that his players looked as if they put on their uniforms Opening Day in the coal yard behind Mr. Comiskey's park, and hadn't changed them since." Ring Lardner described in detail how Comiskey would mercilessly exploit his players' lack of education, signing them to outrageously unfair contracts, which he would later amend by fiat, always to his own advantage. After all, who could a fleeced White Sox player turn to for justice? Kenesaw Mountain Landis? Comiskey was so miserly, he allowed his players only $3 a day for meals, at a time when every other team paid $4. If you've never read any of this before, there's a reason: "The old man didn't stint sportswriters," wrote Algren. "He loaded press tables with liquor and food."

By far the most scandalous aspect of the Black Sox scandal was not the fix, but the legal proceedings that followed it. Three players confessed and eight were indicted, but before the case went to trial, the grand jury records, complete with confessions, went a-missin'. They turned up four years later in the possession of one George Hudnall, who just happened to be Charles Comiskey's lawyer. Apparently, someone, or several someones, had decided that a public trial would be bad for the baseball business. So the players were acquitted; but Landis, in a final insult to American justice, banned them from baseball for life, as he put it, "regardless of the verdict of juries."

Now, no one expects the Hall of Fame to be a Hall of Righteousness. But Landis himself once said that "Baseball is something more than a game to an American boy. It is his training field for life work. Destroy his faith in its squareness and honesty and you have destroyed something more; you have planted suspicion of all things in his heart."

Squareness? Comiskey? Honesty? Landis?

Ladies and gentleman of the Writers' Bloc, the prosecution rests.


Robert Lipsyte
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Keep them in -- as a lesson and reminder

I come not to defend Landis and Comiskey, who are, as Brother Chuck eloquently and brilliantly persuades, indefensible, but to defend the Hall of Fame's sacrosanct status as that rarest of institutions, a museum of democratically elected elites.

The Hall of Fame reflects the myth at the moment of election. It is a roster of baseball's political and emotional heroes. To purge anyone would be a Stalinist stain on our history. The Hall reminds us who we were, with the implicit hope that we can progress from there.

Instead of chucking those now deemed unworthy, we could Hirshberg them (links to the truth behind the myth) or even create an alternate Hall.

But to tamper with the present Hall would be as dangerous a precedent as removing certain Gods and Goddesses from Bullfinch based on current religious conflicts or dropping a few 19th and 20th Century Presidents who might not have supported the war in Iraq.

Keep Landis and Comiskey in the Hall for no other reason than to keep voiding on their plaques as a warning to those who follow.

Furthermore, it is very important not to confuse their presence with any debate over Pete Rose. He should be kept out or allowed in based totally on current morality and myth-making. A century from now, the decision made on Rose will be a useful clue to who we are now.


Jim Caple
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Just one worthy executive

Still, I say we ban all executives not named Veeck.


Steve Wulf
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Speaking of lessons ...

I have this recurring dream. I am in the Baseball Hall of Fame, in the dead of night, long after everyone has left. With a flashlight, I scan the plaques. When I come to one I don't think belongs, I go to work, unscrewing it from its mooring, then replacing it with ones I have secreted under my parka. But before I can finish -- there are many such plaques -- I am apprehended by a security guard who looks astonishingly like Gates Brown. I wake up in a cold sweat.

Jim Rice
Jim Rice continues to fall short of Hall of Fame induction.

I am actually of two minds about the Hall of Fame. On the one hand, I would like to winnow out the unworthies: Candy Cummings, who's in for the dubious claim of inventing the curveball; Morgan Bulkeley, who was just a political figurehead who happened to serve as the first president of the National League; Rick Ferrell, a catcher who had 10 fewer homers than his brother Wes, who was a pitcher!; George Kelly, who couldn't carry Steve Garvey's jockstrap, not that he'd want to; Rabbit Maranville, who was the Mike Bordick of his day; Tommy McCarthy, who must have known where Ed Delahanty was buried.

But then I think how much it means to these guys, or at least their families, and I think, why not open the doors a little wider? Come on in, Ken Keltner and Roger Maris and Ron Santo and Steve Garvey and Bert Blyleven and Dave Parker and Jack Morris and Jim Rice and Ryne Sandberg and Dan Quisenberry and Alan Trammell and Dale Murphy and Larry Bowa and Rich Gossage and Don Mattingly and Lee Smith & Let's make it a big Woodstock-like, love-in.

That way, we can make Pete Rose feel even worse that he's not allowed. And given the latest Charlie Hustle -- the "tell-all" book he's releasing two days after today's Hall of Fame vote -- the man needs to be taught another lesson.


Patrick Hruby
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Question

Voters of the WB, help me out: Can the Hall of Fame include inanimate objects, like the carbon rod that won Employee of the Week honors on "The Simpsons"?

If so, I'd like to see Landis' vacated spot filled by the Bullpen Car.


Tim Keown
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: A Hall with a capital H

God, I love the Hall of Fame. It's such a stubborn, unreasonable institution, its gates guarded by blustering and phlegmatic writers whose capricious opinions run counter to today's growing hurt-no-feelings, everybody-gets-to-play ethic.

Fair? Here's your fair, buddy.

Bill Mazeroski
Sorry, Bill, you can keep the home run, but we may have to remove your plaque.

(I can say that because I have the bluster and the phlegm but not, regrettably, the vote. I ended up one year short of the 10 years of BBWAA membership needed to become a voter. It hurts, because I wanted to be one of the guys who says no to Bruce Sutter but yes to Goose Gossage, just because nobody with an ounce of sense wanted to face Gossage from '77 to '86.)

It's the inconsistency we should love and cherish. The football hall lets in way too many people, and I think my high school coach is in the basketball hall for almost winning a league title in the early '80s. But baseball is the only capital-H Hall.

So sanitize it if you want. Toss Landis and Maranville and Candy Cummings. Don't forget Mazeroski. And in the interest of capriciousness, I saw Gary Carter play for the Giants. Was Luis Aparicio better than Alan Trammell? Kick Luis out, too. If you've got Stan Coveleski, you gotta have Hershiser. If not, boot Stan.

And open the gate for the bullpen car, but don't forget the organist in San Diego from the early '90s who pounded that damned thing so hard his fingers bled by the fifth inning.

After all, it's only fair.


Chuck Hirshberg
To: Tim Keown
Subject: And your point?

Well, Tim, you make a good, um, a good & lotta words there. But I'm curious about these "blustering and phlegmatic writers whose capricious opinions run counter to today's growing hurt-no-feelings, everybody-gets-to-play ethic." I never met one and they sound scary. Why are they in favor of hurting people's feelings? And, being writers and all, they've doubtless read Johan Huizinga's classic work "Homo Ludens," so they know that play is absolutely crucial to both individual development, and the development of civilization. Why shouldn't everybody get to do it?

Your befuddled little friend, Chuck


Tim Keown
To: Chuck Hirshberg
Subject: Lesson learned from the master

Chuck, to be deemed wordy by the master ... be still, my heart. Now I can go to work on pretentiousness.

The blustering and phlegmatic guard not only the Hall but its standards. It's remarkable -- and heartening -- to see how seriously they take the responsibility. Sentiment is rarely a big consideration.

I agree with you on Landis, but I suspect his induction had everything to do with perceived integrity. It was misplaced, as you say, but his hard-line decision on the Black Sox was seen as upholding baseball's lofty standards. Many people at the time believed baseball's golden age of the 1920s wouldn't have been possible without his tough stance. Looking back, we might think it had more to do with Ruth, Gehrig and the Yankees.

And the voters probably haven't read "Homo Ludens." Shockingly, they may never get around to it.

Same for the collected works of Prof. Eldon Ham. Shame, though.


Chuck Hirshberg
To: Tim Keown
Subject: You're a funny guy, Tim

Call me "pretentious" if you like. Such pejoratives drop from me like water off a Phi Beta Kappa duck's back. (And did I mention that duck is also a member of Mensa and scored a perfect 1600 on its SAT's?)

But for crying out loud: Lay off of poor Professor Ham. He didn't deserve that.


Dan Shanoff
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Boot the voters!

If anyone should be booted, it's the voters.

I want to see every ballot (WITH explanations, both for the "yes" and the "no" votes). I want to know their biases, and I want them in a sortable database, so I can see how far some of the writers sit from reality. I want an annual review, weeding out the dead weight.

Mostly, though, I want to expand the pool of who gets to vote. As if 10 consecutive years of covering baseball somehow anoints this particular voting block with a mystic eye for Hall-worthiness. Grossly outsized power concentrated in the hands of a relative few.

I want the SABR guys (any baseball-media voting group that doesn't include Rob Neyer is laughable); I want historians; I want crusty ballpark vendors with at least 10 consecutive years of service.

Here's the kicker: It would be nice to see a batch of fans rotated into the mix every year. Put them through hellish selection tests -- it would be a lot more legit than the current voters' qualification process.


Steve Wulf
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Let's call it the Base Ball Hall of Fame

Dan's right about the membership problem. They call themselves the Baseball Writers Association of America, but they can't fish-wrap their minds around the concept of a MAGAZINE writer like Roger Angell belonging. There's also this: They call themselves the BBWAA, and the last person to write Base Ball as two words was Henry Chadwick.


David Schoenfield
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject: Let's get some names out there

Yes, the 'Cats are supposed to claw and fight each other, but Tim is right. The Hall of Fame is perfectly imperfect.

Dan and Steve are right, too: Over 500 writers are "qualified" to vote, but Bob Costas and Bill James are not.

Drysdale
Hmm, 209 wins for Drysdale? (Not to mention only 165 for Koufax.)

It doesn't really matter, though. Didn't get elected by the writers? No problem. Once your buddies get onto the Veterans Committee, you'll get in (that's you, Dave Concepcion).

There are no rules, no guidelines, no definitions, really, on what even qualifies one to be a Hall of Famer. Heck, look at this year's ballot: with the exception perhaps of Jim Eisenreich, every player on it is better than somebody already in the Hall of Fame.

The debate itself is the great fun. More fun would be subtracting one Hall of Famer for every one which gets elected.

By the way: Don Drysdale, Rube Marquard, Tony Perez, Tinker, Evers and Chance, all of Frankie Frisch's pals, Lloyd Waner (but not Paul Waner), Dom DiMaggio (pre-emptive strike to when he does get elected) and all executives not named Veeck AND Rickey.


Jim Caple
To: Writers' Bloc
Subject:Hey, voting isn't so easy

OK, Wildcats, as an actual voter, I've suffered your slings and arrows. Now, let me say this:

First, you're right, we SHOULD remove the poll tax and expand the voter list. Broadcasters should be allowed to vote (but as club employees, they should recluse themselves from voting on players who played more than a couple years with their team). A representative (or several) from SABR should be allowed in. Writers such as Roger Angell and Rob Neyer deserve a vote, as well.

(Of course, the whole BBWAA membership issue is messed up. Jayson Stark and I are lifetime members because we worked for newspapers for 10 years, but we wouldn't be eligible as dot.commers even though we write more about baseball -- Jayson especially -- than most members. But too many old members don't even want to acknowledge the Internet exists, perhaps because they're still pissed off that they can't transmit their stories via Western Union anymore.)

Second, while having a Hall of Fame vote is an incredible honor, it's also a whole lot harder than it appears from the outside.

Oh, voting for a player is easy enough (it was a pleasure placing a check next to Paul Molitor's name this winter). The difficulty lies in not voting for a player.

I have never left a voting booth wondering whether I should have voted for the other presidential candidate -- the choice is always as obvious to me as it is to those morons who voted for the other guy. But I have never sent in my Hall of Fame ballot without thinking that I left off a deserving player.

Bert Blyleven
Bert Blyleven is fifth all-time with 3,701 strikeouts.

Consider Bert Blyleven. Every year, I waver on whether to vote for him. He retired with 287 victories, 3,701 strikeouts, 60 shutouts and a 3.31 ERA. He threw a no-hitter and won two World Series. So I feel like I should vote for him.

But he also lost 250 games, only won 20 games once, only made two All-Star teams and never finished higher than third in the Cy Young voting. So I feel like I shouldn't vote for him.

But he also played for a lot of bad teams, so it's not difficult to think he would have reached 300 wins with a little more help from better teammates. So I feel like I should vote for him.

But he didn't pitch for that many bad teams. He pitched for two world champions, three division winners, three second-place teams, five third-place teams and 10 winning teams. And surely, when a Hall of Fame pitcher is on the mound, doesn't every team instantly become a very good team, as long as it hits and fields at an average level? So I feel I shouldn't vote for him.

But he also had the curveball against which all others are still judged. So, I feel like I should vote for him.

I look at the stats. I read the e-mails from his supporters. I talk to his peers. I talk to Neyer. I talk to Jayson. I debate with other voters.

So how do I vote? This year, for the first time, I voted for Blyleven. And I haven't second-guessed that vote once.

Of course, maybe that's because I'm too busy second-guessing myself for not voting for Andre Dawson and Steve Garvey.

And cussing out my fellow voters who didn't vote for Ryne Sandberg, Jack Morris, Alan Trammell and Jim Rice.