A Dark, Quiet Hall
Suppose the Hall of Fame, which is not an institution that was created by major league baseball, but is, instead, and independent entity, didn’t exist. Would someone come along and create one?
Recently, a friend of mine wondered aloud if someone could open up their own rival Hall of Fame, honoring baseball players of their choice. If they didn’t actually use the name Hall of Fame, could they get away with it?
Would anyone come to visit? Where would you open it? Could you franchise the brand name out like Burger King?
Perhaps most importantly, could you persuade former players to actively participate in Induction Ceremonies and other events, to add credibility?
O.K., so that’s enough questions. Now let’s brainstorm some possible answers. I don’t see why an imaginative entrepreneur couldn’t test the market of baseball nostalgia by creating some sort of baseball theme park.
It could contain many interactive features such as allowing customers to create their own Virtual, customized Hall of Fame plaques of their favorite players, or even of their favorite people. It could include a Nostalgia Room, complete with baseball items that would be both for display purposes and for sale.
It could have a children’s reading room, where a staff member could read baseball themed stories to children while their parents wandered around shopping. It could also include a baseball-themed restaurant where you could order the Cal Ripken Iron Man Special (all the baby-back ribs you could eat for $24.99.)
And yes, for a steady fee, ex-baseball players would sign on and make appearances.
Look, the point is this. The Baseball Hall of Fame was founded over 70 years ago, but it doesn’t have to function like it did 70 years ago, or even twenty years ago, for that matter. The average consumer today is a lot different than the average consumer was back when Dale Murphy won his consecutive MVP awards in the early ’80’s.
For one thing, baby-boomers, the single largest driving force behind baseball nostalgia since Mickey Mantle retired, aren’t getting any younger. Young people under forty today generally do not hold baseball in the same reverential awe as their parents and uncles once did. Baseball may be “cool” to them, but no cooler than skateboarding, iPods or rap music.
Baseball in general, and the Hall of Fame in particular, needs to face the fact that there is a demographic storm just over the horizon. Baseball’s marketing plan still appears geared to white, upper middle class white males, mostly over the age of 40. This is a permanently shrinking customer base.
America is becoming increasingly Hispanic (or Latino, the term MLB prefers to use.) More residents are foreign born than at any time since the 1920’s. Thousands of immigrants and their children have never been to a baseball game, at least in part because of the expense.
So how to reconcile this inevitable demographic crisis with baseball’s trump card, its mythological connection to the past? Well, for one thing, let’s start by simplifying the existing infrastructure of the game. Here are some specific suggestions, in no particular order:
1. Combine the Veterans Committee and the Baseball Writers Association of America into one voting committee, and expand it to include, ready for this? The Fans.
Yes, that means you and me, folks. Not as a direct one-person, one-vote head count, but as a weighted part of the overall vote total for each player that appears on the ballot. We get to choose our president, don’t we? We get to vote for contestants on “American Idol,” right? So why not the Hall of Fame?
Baseball is a business, and we are the customers. Anyway, we would comprise just one segment of the voting committee. And yes, I am talking about on-line voting.
2. Do away with the fifteen years on the ballot rule, a truly arbitrary feature of this entire process if there ever was one. Currently, there is no question that some writers simply “kick the can” down the road, as it were, year after year, so they don’t really have to make the tough decision about a Jim Rice or someone else.
How is this process a good marketing strategy for baseball? And to what extent does this process undermine the integrity of the Hall of Fame?
3. Finally, Hall of Fame voters should have to publicly explain why they felt that, for example, Willie Mays did not deserve their vote. It is ridiculous that several obvious Hall of Fame players received less than 90 percent of votes cast.
Examples: Bob Gibson, 84%, Jimmie Foxx, 79%, Walter Johnson, 83% and my favorite example, Cy Young, 76%, meaning the man for whom baseball’s annual award for best pitcher is named just barely made it into The Hall. What’s with that?
5. Finally, unrelated to The Hall (at this point), but directly related to the changing demographics of baseball, begin seriously marketing America’s least appreciated natural resource, Albert Pujols.
He is already one of the top dozen players of all time, and the Hispanic community has to be wondering how a player this great can simply be so generally ignored by so-called “mainstream” America.
America is changing. Can America’s National Pastime keep up with the changes, or will baseball in general, and the Hall of Fame in particular, one day become like the cloistered monasteries of old, where sallow men scratch out names of long-forgotten players on crumbling parchment, to be remembered by no one?