Are you familiar with the Hall of Fame for Great Americans, located on the campus of Bronx Community College in New York City? Not many people are. It was formally dedicated in May, 1901, as place to honor prominent Americans who had a significant impact on U.S. history and culture. Modeled on the Pantheon in Rome, its 630 foot open-air colonnade was conceived as a place where marble busts of America’s most significant writers, presidents, inventors, and the like would be commemorated for all time. A very serious blue ribbon panel of 100 men was cobbled together to make initial nominations, and for several decades, the landmark was taken quite seriously.
As you have probably guessed by now, the existence of this Hall of Fame put the seed of an idea into the head of Ford Frick, who passed this idea along to Stephen Clark (of the Cooperstown Clarks), whose very wealthy local family connections paved the way for this unlikely caper to come to fruition. Stephen saw this as an idea to bring business to Cooperstown, suffering from the ravages of the Great Depression, and nearly overnight, this quaint little village was dedicated as hallowed ground where the Abner Doubleday legend also conveniently took root. That there was no easy way to transport people to Cooperstown to visit the proposed new shrine doesn’t seem to have fazed Clark.
Meanwhile, while the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown was just getting off the ground, the more established, high-brow Hall down in the Bronx (on what was then the campus of New York University) was in its heyday. The New York Bar Association went so far as advocating for certain of its members, and newspapers breathlessly covered the annual inductions.
In a fantastic little article I recently discovered, Baltimore Sun columnist Joe Mathews (August 1, 1997), wrote, in a sentence that could serve as a cautionary tale for the institution up in Cooperstown, “The 97-year old monument is a shrine not only to [them], but to an ideal of fame that, like the hall itself, is dusty and decaying.”
Apropos to nothing, my favorite sentence in the article is, “The first hall of fame was the brainchild of a Presbyterian minister who was influenced by his concern for prostitution, democracy, and the Roman Empire.” (emphasis added.) Mets brass, take note. Want to put asses in the seats at Citi Field next season? Why not go with “Prostitution, Democracy and the Roman Empire” as next season’s slogan? It’s certainly much more compelling than “Show up at Shea” (1998), or “Experience It” (2003).
Now, back to our story.
Hardly anyone ever visits The Hall of Fame for Great Americans these days anymore, even though it sits on an easily accessible college campus. Its committee of electors made its final official inductions in 1976. Among the four final inductees were a horticulturist and a judge. None of the final four have yet had a bronze bust built in their honor. Its Board of Trustees formally dissolved in 1979. Since then, the colonnade has been far more popular with pigeons than with people. You may still visit the 98 bronze busts in existence. Self-guided tours are available daily from 10:00-5:00, with a suggested donation of $2.00 per person.
Attendance to the Baseball Hall of Fame has steadily declined over the past twenty years, from a high of over 400,000 in the early 1990’s to around 260,000 last year. Although the Hall of Fame is a non-profit institution, and is, in effect, a ward of the State of New York, it appears that its operating budget was over two million dollars in the red in its last fiscal year. Over the past decade, the HOF has more often than not lost money.
Outwardly, the Baseball Hall of Fame appears to be a healthy, thriving entity. It has a modern website, a Board of Directors featuring such luminaries as Tom Seaver and Joe Morgan, and disproportionate influence on how the game itself is remembered from one generation to the next. Its solid brick exterior and its pastoral location connote classical American values such as fortitude, temperance and diligence. And it contains part of the original facade of Ebbet’s Field. What can go wrong?
By all means, consider the official Hall of Fame ballot a sacred totem of a mystical shrine, if you will, but consider this: Will our choices result in a stronger institution, more relevant to modern American sensibilities of entertainment and utility, or will they further contribute to the atrophy that apparently is slowly setting in?
Having said that, and while chafing at the ten-player limit arbitrarily imposed on actual BBWAA voters, here are my choices, in no particular order, for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame:
1) Greg Maddux
2) Mike Piazza
3) Craig Biggio
4) Jeff Bagwell
5) Tim Raines
6) Tom Glavine
7) Mike Mussina
8) Alan Trammell
9) Frank Thomas
10) Don Mattingly
I’m sure the most controversial pick on this list will be Don Mattingly. Fine. Up until I set about typing this post, I would not have included him among this group, either. But in light of all the previous paragraphs I’ve written about The Hall in this article, the relevant question is, would the enshrinement of Donnie Baseball be a good thing for the future viability of The Hall, or would it somehow be a “bad” thing.
1) Was Don Mattingly ever the best player in the game during his career?
2) Did Don Mattingly represent the game, his team, and himself with nothing but respect both on the field and off?
3) Did he meet the 10-year minimum length career criteria for Hall eligibility?
The answer to each of these questions is yes. From 1984-87, there was no better player in the American League than Don Mattingly. He was always nothing but professional. He played for 14 seasons. At various times in his career, he led his league in hits, doubles, RBI, batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, OPS+, and total bases. From 1984-89, he averaged 330 total bases per season. Perhaps most impressively, however, he never struck out more than 43 times in any single full season in his career.
In his only playoff appearance, in 1995, vs. Seattle, he batted .417 in 25 plate appearances. He was a six time All Star, won three Silver Sluggers, nine Gold Gloves, and his .996 Fielding Percentage is among the ten best all-time at his position. He won an MVP award, and finished runner-up once as well. If he picked up a bat today, at age 52, he would probably still outhit Ike Davis.
Perhaps more to the point, Mattingly has legions of loyal fans who might just possibly trek all the way up to Cooperstown to see their hero enshrined, and to listen to his acceptance speech. Years from now, dads might still be taking their kids to see Mattingly’s plaque at The Hall. How many parents do you think bring their kids all the way up to Cooperstown each year to stand in awe of the plaques of HOF “immortals” such as Herb Pennock, Rick Ferrell, Lloyd Waner, or Dave Bancroft?
Explain to me, then, how inducting Don Mattingly into the Baseball Hall of Fame would be bad for baseball, or for The Hall itself?
In the final analysis, the Hall of Fame is an idea as much as it is a place. All baseball fans, in their heart of hearts, have their own idea as to what constitutes fame in this context. When the chasm between what fans believe in their hearts is legitimate fame relative to the actual composition of the institution itself grows too wide, then the fans, faced with an untenable choice, will always follow one and ignore the other. Should that happen, The Baseball Hall of Fame may one day bear an uncanny resemblance to that other unfortunately failed Hall of Fame further downstate on a bluff overlooking the indifferent Harlem River.