It's okay to ignore the Baseball Hall of Fame

January 21, 2022

The thing about the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is that the Hall of Fame has lost most of its meaning in recent years, and the museum is thoroughly mediocre — or at least it was when I went, in 2016. Both problems are tied to how fans consume baseball today and, by extension, how consensus develops about certain players’ greatness and overall worthiness.

Back in 1970, if I was growing up outside New York, I would have had minimal opportunity to watch Mickey Mantle play baseball the previous two decades. Moreover, I would have had minimal opportunity to see anything having to do with him and would have been forced to rely largely on the recollections of others who did see him play. That still happens, of course, but even though I’ve been fortunate enough to see Shohei Ohtani play twice, I’m also able to watch literally every at bat and every inning pitched of his last few seasons if I pony up for MLB.TV, and during the season, any time any player does something interesting, it will likely be documented on Twitter or somewhere else online.

Thus, the museum portion of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum faces a kind of crisis that I imagine other museums dedicated to pop culture face: What should they do when anything they would exhibit is functionally available at home to anyone who might be interested in it? In a world where the local public library might have a periodical collection in which an interested fan might be able to dig up material on the Mick, the museum was in position to gather Mantle memorabilia and information all together in one place to better contextualize and lionize the great player, and that exhibit would have been truly unique.

In less than five minutes, I’ve found an hourlong HBO documentary about Mantle, various other videos, and all sorts of other fascinating material that, previously, might have formed the backbone of a Mantle museum exhibit, but today are just kind of out there. Yet, when I visited the museum, the overall effect felt as if the institution conceived of itself as a Baseball Wikipedia for people looking to learn about Henry Aaron, Mike Piazza, or the San Diego Chicken. It was disorienting, like watching a movie you half-remembered seeing as a child, such that you couldn’t say for sure what was next, but neither was anything surprising or dynamic.

The Baseball Hall of Fame has a different, though related, problem. Lots of people have argued and explained why and how the Hall’s voting has changed in recent years, but, to me, the most underappreciated change is that for more than three decades Major League Baseball has aired more and more national games to the point that entire generations of baseball fans had ample opportunity to watch Derek Jeter, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki, Andruw Jones, David Ortiz, Mark McGwire, and countless others. If you didn’t ever see them play on television, it was because you weren’t that interested in baseball. That, in turn, has utterly sapped the justification for letting the Baseball Writers Association of America be Hall voters, because having a professional reason to watch a lot of baseball games no longer works as a good proxy for watching more baseball than members of the general public.

In combination with a proliferation of public information and data about baseball creating entirely new classes of experts, the end result is a voting group that can’t credibly claim to have significantly more subject-matter expertise than broad swathes of the public based on their qualifications for gaining the vote. Therefore, the Hall of Fame, itself, loses luster. How highly do you regard the collective opinion of a group of people if you and I are as equipped to have an informed discussion as they are?

That’s not to say the BBWAA “gets it wrong” or that attention-seekers like Dan Shaughnessy sully the process — in any large enough group coming to honest conclusions, there will be outliers in opinion, and the writers don’t elect players who obviously and patently don’t belong in the same category as previously-elected Hall of Famers. But it is to say that in evaluating Scott Rolen’s candidacy, if you were a baseball fan over the past two decades, you probably saw him play multiple times, whether for the Phillies, Cardinals, or Reds (and you can be forgiven if you forgot he briefly played for the Blue Jays), and there is a wealth of public data to bolster your argument one way or the other.

Jay Jaffe, of Fangraphs, put together the ballot that makes the most sense to me. But at the same time, if I were given the opportunity to submit a ballot, I would decline. The primary reason to wield the ballot today is to get a bigger platform to express one’s values via their Hall of Fame vote. That matters! However, if I were an active journalist, I don’t think it would outweigh my desire to report on and analyze baseball rather than make baseball news, and generally, I think the importance of induction has been so diluted by voters’ collective lack of credibility that I’d rather not spend time and energy on it.

It would be nice to receive external validation that Buster Posey was among the very best baseball players to have ever lived. But the BBWAA doesn’t validate Posey’s stature among Giants fans. It doesn’t validate my feelings. I watched him play. I can look at his statistical record and recordings of his feats and celebrate him any time I wish.

(Photo: "Cooperstown, NY" by Dan Gaken. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)