National / Sports / January 12, 2011

Hubris, ignorance, and false purity drive Hall of Fame voters

I’ve been to Cooperstown. It’s, you know, a place. The occasion for my trip was a surprise from my brother—in the summer of 2008—and all I really remember is staying in a ratty hotel in Oneonta and learning, on the way to the Baseball Hall of Fame, that Sarah Palin would be John McCain’s running mate.

And those are the memories. It’s not that the area isn’t charming; it truly is, in a “Sling Blade” sort of way. Upstate New York, however nice it sounds, really is just rural Georgia with more snow and no peaches.

But when I navigated the halls of Cooperstown (after plunking down a sizeable fee to enter), I didn’t feel reverence for the game. There were times when my emotions were aroused for Roberto Clemente and Jackie Robinson. By this time in my life, however, I was well aware of what Cooperstown represented: the collective output of a bunch of overfed, overpaid and overvalued sportswriters who believe their vote for the Hall of Fame allows them to be judges of morality.

Ross Newham, former columnist for the L.A. Times, recently argued that writers like him were “the morality police” and the “custodians of the game’s history.”

Now, Newham has already been filleted at great length for being so simultaneously high-minded and obtuse—by writers far more distinguished and knowledgeable than myself, but whatever. Sometimes, it’s worth piling on.

Newham, along with writers like Murray Chass and Jeff Pearlman, is part of the Baseball Writers Association of America. This grandiose organization regularly slams men like Rafael Palmeiro and Mark McGwire for consuming incredible amounts of performance enhancing drugs during the 1990s. Of course, these are the same idiots—Newham, Chass and Pearlman—who lauded McGwire (and Sammy Sosa) for dragging baseball out of its post-strike nadir with their late 1990s feats of home run hitting.

These are the same men who regularly rationalize the actions of subhuman turds like Ty Cobb and Tom Yawkey—baseball men of the golden age of racism. These were men who, against all available sensibility and logic, prevented black men from playing a game.

Of course, arguing that Cobb and Yawkey were terrible people doesn’t arouse much disagreement. It is universally agreed that they were undesirable characters. (Though there is a faction of baseball historians who plead that Cobb was, in fact, not a racist because he donated lots of money to black hospitals as an old man.) But some would argue that Barry Bonds and McGwire stole records from honest and upstanding gentleman. Whereas Cobb was just a jerk! (I’ve seen this argument before. My head spun.)

Here’s my favorite Ty Cobb anecdote, just to give you an idea of the man: Cobb was upset at a black elevator operator, called him “uppity,” and slapped him in the face. When the night manager—also a black man—intervened with his nightstick, Ty did him one better. He stabbed him! They later settled out of court.

And that guy is beloved. That vile, racist, stabbing piece of garbage is in the Hall of Fame—and he is revered for his no-nonsense competitiveness. “He used to slide spikes up! He used to fist-fight the umpires!”

Alright, second favorite Ty Cobb anecdote: In New York, there was a fan by the name of Claude Lueker who often heckled Cobb. When Lueker got under Cobb’s skin in 1912, Cobb climbed into the stands and beat Lueker. But Cobb, apparently, was unaware that Lueker had only one hand—with just two fingers. When onlookers shouted at Cobb about Lueker’s handicap, Cobb allegedly fired back “I don’t care if he got no feet!”

So when Newham or Chass or Pearlman make a point of saying that they have some special power, or some special stake in the game’s history, don’t listen. The game has an ugly history—like America. It’s a fact of life. There’s no use in revising it.

But where these idiots want to extend their false high-mindedness is especially galling. Jeff Bagwell, one of the better right-handed hitters ever, failed to make the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Pearlman, at least, is on record saying he didn’t vote for Bagwell because of suspicions. Bagwell, since he got huge in the early 1990s, must have been on something.

When, again, the Hall of Fame is filled wall-to-wall with men who would not let black men play the game. But, of course, the sorts of self-righteous windbags who get to vote for the Hall of Fame will just say that Cobb or Yawkey or any other random racist was a product of their time. Whereas Jeff Bagwell, a giant baseball hitting machine—who, by the way, never tested positive for steroids—is a villain for even being associated with the steroid era.

Now, I don’t consider myself a moralist by any means, especially when it comes to something as insignificant as baseball. That said, I’ll take the steroid era over the entire pre-1947 era. All of it. I would have rather an umpire injected Mike Piazza’s naked ass with Stanozolol before every one of his 633 plate appearances in 1997—a year Piazza hit .362/.431/.638—than live through an era where black men were barred from baseball.

Again, a child’s game. Not water fountains. Not deli counters. But a game. How stupid were people before Jackie Robinson? I mean, I know that racism in the game did not end when Jackie finally broke the color barrier, but can you imagine the complete suspension of intelligence that must go into barring complete races from competing in a sport.

I guess this is where I mention that Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time, probably won’t make the Hall of Fame—at least not right away. He and Bagwell both will probably remain on the outside looking in.

I hope they’re okay with it, at least, because baseball will atone someday. They’ve gone way overboard to scrub the game of its racist history, painting Robinson as a hero who had the courage to break the color barrier, retiring his number for every team. While it was certainly a courageous feat, it would be nice if the powers that be shifted the paradigm a bit, focusing on the societal ills that led to the unwritten barring of black men from the game. Maybe it would put things in perspective—and the true villains of baseball would be revealed.

Maybe then, the guardians of the game’s false piety might recognize their foolishness.

Kevin Morris

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