Friday, February 06, 2009

"But that's why it's the hall of FAME"

What a lousy argument: a good player whose credentials are in order is deemed by many to be unworthy of the hall of fame because that player was not sufficiently famous during their playing career.

What does fame mean? Reputation, renown, report, rumor. Fame concerns public/popular discourse.

Why is there a Hall of Fame for baseball (or any number of things)? What is suggested by the argument "It's the Hall of FAME, not the hall of (excellence/outstanding achievements/value/etc.)" is that the HOF commemorates fame that has already been accrued. If you were famous enough, then a decade or two later, you will get a plaque!

This seems a transparently poor interpretation of the meaning of fame. Fame is not merely an arbitrary social phenomenon. Fame has to do with a universal characteristic of human language and hence social communication: famous people are used to demonstrate desirable and undesirable traits, and famous people permeate the discourse on human possibility. Fame is one of the many tools human societies use to invent members of their societies. That fame may typically go hand in hand with exaggeration as well as omission is telling, in that the general discourse of fame is not used to define the famous people in question but rather to assist in defining the society and the possibilities it offers for its people. Famous people are stories that we tell to develop people (some of whom attain fame and most of whom do not).

So, while some commentators explicitly or implicitly call for the Hall of Fame to catalogue which players were at one time famous, the Hall's criteria and patient selection process would seem to indicate that the Hall is designed to institutionally create and propagate fame, rather than to record it. The under-defined purpose of the Hall of Fame, to me, appears to be to have a way to remember those players that serve as a model for what players should strive for.

The Hall of Fame tells stories, and induction into it is about story-telling. The writers tell all sorts of stories that indicate that some players' contribution to their teams' victories are overlooked because other players exemplified different characteristics. It is fine that the writers want to
valorize milestones and want to valorize players who earned acclaim during their own time. But what stat-heads who are trying to evaluate players in terms of their value toward team winning are showing is that the writers are advancing stories that are less exemplary of what it takes to be a good ballplayer than the stories of Tim Raines, Bert Blyleven, et cetera.

Some people would prefer to have a baseball Hall of Fame that commemorates individual achievements in the form of particular types of acclaim or accomplishments in particular statistics. If the Hall of Fame is ultimately about encouraging players to win awards during their careers, or rack up a lot of singles, or to get good run support, then it seems quite logical that the writers/HOF voters would honor these accomplishments.

When these writers honor players who rack up singles or BBWAA awards but exclude players whose contribution to team wins is far superior, they are ultimately telling a story about the game of baseball and how it is played (and, crucially, how it should be played) that people such as myself find to be, at best, lacking. What is at stake is that the HOF truly does, as I see it, serve as an institution for creating and propagating fame and not merely as an institution for recording it. Like it or not, the Hall of Fame has been a major institution in baseball history, and I think it is strikingly naive to argue that it merely reflects the vagaries of the times when it seems to shape so much of it.

Roberto Petagine never got a real shot at the majors while Jeff Francoeur got gifted not just a cup of coffee but several caffeinated gallons (and the support of a delirious hackademic). Some would say that the HOF has no role in these realities, but I find that argument largely untenable. The HOF has played a major role in shaping what people expect from a baseball career; it is a substantial part of the episteme, and its influence on thought doesn't wash off once a player's career is over and they go into management or scouting.

But the point I am trying to make is not that the HOF has done baseball history a disservice by honoring the players it has and excluding other worthy players whose contributions were not better understood by selectors. We need not worry about what the Hall has wrought, and we need not criticize it for not having the technological blessings bestowed upon contemporary baseball analysts. All we need to worry about is what knowledge about the past and present we want to pass on in order to shape the future, as well as how to pass it on. And the question is, if we can show that Bert Blyleven and Tim Raines were flat out better ballplayers than Jim Rice or whomever, don't we want to use our institution for fame-making to honor these ballplayers? Don't we want to use an institution whose judgments are seen as relatively timeless to decide on whether players met the timeless standard of helping their team's win? Why should we use such an institution to confer timeless honor on players whose acclaim and fame stemmed more from the viewpoints of their time than from their contributions in that time?

We don't need a Hall of Fame to tell us who the most feared hitter of the 70's was. Nor do we need it to know who should have been the most feared hitter of the 70's. We need it to tell us who the great players of baseball history have been so we can build the great players of tomorrow.


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