Storytelling and the Hall of Fame

So the National Baseball Hall of Fame is going through its selection process again on the heels of a year where no player was chosen through the regular means, and it certainly seems that writers will again signal their disapproval of any player who competed at a high level in the 1990s and into the 2000s by avoiding the “Steroid Era” almost completely. Of course, this time of year also brings the annual arguments writers advance about a player being better-suited for the “Hall of Very Good,” and an increasing population of analysts who will point to numbers alone to determine a player’s worth, and it leaves me to wonder a little bit, what are they voting on, anyway?

It used to be that the Hall of Fame had certain golden landmarks that, if a player were to pass them, would surely get a plaque bearing their name put up next to Babe Ruth’s. Now, with steroid and performance enhancing drug suspicions, it’s like Home Runs vanished as an important statistic. Not only have Barry Bonds (762) and Sammy Sosa (609) not made it in, but let’s take the case of Frank Thomas. Thomas is entering his first year of eligibility, has not had any credible report against him for PEDs, and is a member of the 500 Home Run Club with 521. I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen much publicity for that number from a man who is considered to be a “clean” player, despite the 500 figure being one of those golden landmarks.

Instead, the Baseball Writers have chosen to enshrine nobody in the 2013 season, and just three players in the last three years combined – Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar, and Bert Blyleven. Larkin and Alomar were both middle infielders with career OPS+ values of 116, and just five combined seasons with an OPS+ above 140 out of 36 total seasons. In case you don’t follow that number closely, that 116 value falls in between the career marks of Jay Bruce and Ben Zobrist. Guys you don’t mind on your fantasy team, but not Hall-of-Fame caliber offensive players. Check in at 140 and you start seeing legitimate terrors like Vlad Guerrero, Andrew McCutchen, and Prince Fielder. Above-average offense is always nice from the middle infield but these weren’t once-in-a-generation bats that were being elected. These guys were voted in on their fielding values, too.

A lot of people might see this and say, hey, let’s just take the top players by Wins Above Replacement, enshrine them, and call it a day. I have a problem with this approach, too. One of the best parts of talking about the Hall of Fame is figuring out who’s worthy. We all get to talk about our favorite players, their defining moments, how they compare to already-honored players, and how we went to the park with our parents one day when we were kids and saw Our Guy Do Something Special. We get to share about Babe Ruth’s gregariousness, Ty Cobb being the kind of guy you don’t want to cross, Ted Williams never acknowledging his admirers at the ballpark, and Jackie Robinson’s dignity.

It’s too bad the Hall of Fame hasn’t set itself up to do this well. It seems to me that perhaps it worries so much about its numbers that it trips on the way of telling the story. Let’s use Hank Aaron’s plaque for an example:

Hit 755 home runs in 23-year career to become Majors’ all-time Homer King. Had 20 or more for 20 consecutive years, at least 30 in 15 seasons and 40 or better eight times. Also set records for Games Played (3,298), At Bats (12,364), Long Hits (1,477), Total Bases (6,856), Runs Batted In (2,297). Paced N.L. in Batting twice and Homers, Runs Batted In and Slugging Pct. four times each. Won Most Valuable Player award in N.L. in 1957.

Okay, clearly an all-time great player and inner-circle Hall of Famer, but what does that really tell you about Hammerin’ Hank? We get a lot of numbers here but nothing about his cultural impact. Nothing about how he played in the Negro Leagues. Nothing about his three Home Runs in the ’57 World Series where the then-Milwaukee Braves beat the Mantle-and-Berra Yankees. Nothing about the outward racism he faced in chasing Ruth through the 1973 and the very beginning of the ’74 season. I think the numbers tell you why a player made it, but not how, and that how can be just as important.

I never saw players like Freddie Linstrom, Kiki Cuyler, Ray Schalk, or Hoyt Wilhelm. Some of these guys I never heard of. In other cases, I don’t know how you distinguish a Cap Anson from an Eddie Collins just by looking at their numbers. I think the Hall is missing an opportunity here to talk about the importance of these players to the game, to their teams, to their cities, and to the lives of the people who watched them. Clearly, the voters think so too, because if it were all about numbers like Aaron’s plaque suggests, Bonds would have been inducted already.

Induction into the Hall of Fame is baseball’s highest individual honor. It’s an opportunity to tell the stories of players past. If we look at it less as celebrating numbers and more about celebrating stories, wouldn’t we want to tell the Curt Schilling bloody sock story with the 2004 Red Sox? Wouldn’t we want to talk about Edgar Martinez not being given a real opportunity to play Big League ball until he was 27, then hitting like one of the greatest right-handed batters in history for more than a decade? Wouldn’t we want to talk about the rise and fall (and rise again) of Mark McGwire, or the creator of a job and a statistical category like Lee Smith? Those are just four of the 17 players returning to the ballot this year, who might not make it in a sea of incredible ballplayers due to make an appearance in the next few seasons like Greg Maddux, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Trevor Hoffman. Maybe we should make some room for these stories, too.

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5 Responses to Storytelling and the Hall of Fame

  1. Megan Shear says:

    Excellent work, once again. 🙂
    I think as far as the HoF is concerned, as a physical space, the numbers are plaqued because those stories ARE told, they’re just told elsewhere in the Museum (which actually has on display that sock! Ew, I says to myself.) I get why they go by the numbers, because it’s a short story that can fit on a small-ish brass plaque in a room that is quickly filling up with the whos and whats of the game. But if what you say about Thomas is true (admittedly, I haven’t been paying attention this year), then that is lame, and makes the numbers game more confusing. 527 HR is a lot, and Thomas was a much-loved player during his tenure in the game. I sort of feel like the writer’s association should have nothing to do with this, and that maybe an impartial team of statisticians should just have a go at it, particularly if numbers is all we’re looking at. Get a bunch of non-baseball nerds on the job, throw some numbers at them and see what happens; because there will be bias among writers, and that is starting to sound like kind of a problem with the voting.

    • The Hall of Fame Museum does have a room devoted to Babe Ruth and to Hank Aaron, which is great, but I found myself really amazed by the comparative dearth of Jackie Robinson stuff. I am of the opinion that Robinson was the most important sports figure in the 20th Century, though.

      I guess I have another way of taking this. I have a ton of friends who are not interested in baseball. Throw all the numbers out and you’re just gonna lose ’em. I want to be able to take someone to the Hall and have them appreciate it, even if they aren’t a baseball fan. I think the numbers are clearly important, because it’s the superstar-level talent that makes a player so widely known, but if the Hall is losing me on a couple of these guys, imagine how glazed over non-fans will get.

      • Megan Shear says:

        Well, if it makes a difference, Tom enjoyed it while he was there; the history and artifacts they have in the museum are wonderful. As for Robinson, I don’t know why the building suffers for a lack of stuff from his time in the game. They do have a room devoted to integration, but it is sort of oddly set aside, and you have to almost go backwards after you realized you’ve missed something (actually, I think you and I might have discussed this before). :/
        I guess it’s hard for me to be impartial or objective because the Hall was so much more than I ever imagined it would be, so I have a “how could you not like that?!?” attitude about it. haha

  2. frightwig says:

    Good stuff, particularly on the point of Hank Aaron’s plaque. I’d just like to note that Bruce Sutter tends to be credited as the first prominent 1-inning closer, who made Saves an important statistic, and that probably is the main reason he is in the Hall of Fame. I haven’t looked up his plaque to see if that story is told there, though.

    • Sutter’s plaque does mention him as a dominant closer who revolutionized… the split-finger fastball. The online biography is better for him, saying, “Bruce Sutter was on the fringes of professional baseball, a struggling Minor League pitcher with an injured arm, until he received a gift that changed his life forever. A wise, old man of the game taught him a new pitch — a split-fingered fastball — and in a matter of years, Sutter took this new weapon and blazed a trail as one of the game’s top relief pitchers.”

      I’m not sure if I’d actually put Lee Smith in the Hall of Fame, but I certainly think he was worth a shout-out as the All Time Saves leader and 13 consecutive seasons of posting at least 25 saves. Sutter was a couple years ahead of Smith, but you could certainly argue that Smith did it better if you wanted.

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