I don’t actually have any strong feelings about the Baseball Hall of Fame—I think the current way of selecting people for plaques is silly, and also don’t think my life as a fan would be improved by a better way—but I have written about Matt Cain’s career several times in this Tohu Bohu, so why not mention him again.
(Also, I’m trying out a thing where I post these shorter and ill-formed notes rather than not posting anything, in hopes that I will be more likely to write and post actual essays if they don’t have to be good enough to break three weeks of silence for.)
The thing about Matt Cain and the Hall of Fame is that no-one voted for him in his first year on the ballot, and so he is off the ballot and not eligible until some Veteran’s Committee (or whatever silly thing the Hall decides to put together to make sure that Gary Sheffield gets a plaque) re-examines his case. And Matt Cain is, I think, an excellent example of one problem with the BBWAA voting as a process, and honestly with the whole conception of Halls of Fame.
And it’s this: Matt Cain is obviously not a Hall of Famer. Nobody thinks he’s a Hall of Famer. And so nobody voted for him—why would anyone vote for him when everyone agrees he shouldn’t be inducted? On the other hand, he was a very good pitcher for a substantial amount of time, and it seems harsh that he got zero votes. Like, Huston Street got one vote. R.A. Dickey got one vote. Nobody thinks those guys belong in the Hall, either, but someone (someone with a vote) wanted to give them a vote so they wouldn’t have zero. Matt Cain got zero because someone was responsible enough to only vote for people who belong in the Hall.
The issue, really, is that when you have a Hall of Fame, and you have a list of inductees, everyone is either on the list or not on the list. I mean, there’s no almost. Scott Rolen is in; Jeff Kent is not. More people considered Jeff Kent worthy of a vote than Matt Cain is, but also someone voted for Huston Street, so that’s what that is worth.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
As a long-time participant in the Hall of Merit project, this is a topic that I think about a lot. There are many factors going on, but I think you’ve gotten to the crux of the problem: what are the consequences of creating a hierarchy that puts some people in and some people out? To what extent do institutions like the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit reinforce practices of hierarchical exclusion by setting up a select circle of people to be honored and remembered, thereby justifying the neglect of everyone else?
A simple, clear answer would be to say that such institutions should be scrapped, just like other instances of monumentalizing ancestors to make claims of authority and dominance. Have museums rather than monuments, inclusive history rather than exclusive myth. On the other hand, even history can’t do without distinctions between inclusion and exclusion: it’s impossible to record, remember, document, curate everything. So choices have to be made, and interest in human achievement seems to remain, I think, even after mythologized hierarchies are exposed and deconstructed.
“To whom and to what from the past should we pay attention, and why?” is a question that can’t be set aside and is probably better engaged explicitly. A Hall of Fame or Hall of Merit project has this benefit, at least, that its principles and/or practices of inclusion and exclusion are explicit and open to discussion and modification. It’s also the case that processes of evaluation, if they are to be meaningful and aspire to something that might be called accuracy, need history, as much history as they can get, such that to a considerable extent, the world of players being memorialized is held in memory along with them. Is the hierarchy separating but linking the memorialized to the merely remembered–so that neither drifts into the category of the forgotten or the more ominous and permanent category of the erased–justifiable? I don’t know. Could there be a better and more effective way of organizing cultural memory? Probably. Would there be cultural losses if we were to dispense with Halls of Fame? Again, probably.
From where the culture is now, it looks to me like critical uses of Halls of Fame is perhaps the better pragmatic choice that trying to scrap them, but the potential value of scrapping them, or at least consigning them to the historical wing of certain museums and not perpetuating them , should be kept in mind. Where do you think the balance of value lies?
Although Matt Cain did not get a vote for the Hall of Fame, he is now counted among the players who have appeared on a Hall of Fame ballot, which is a penumbra of the Hall of Fame: a fainter penumbra, to be sure, than that of players who got a vote but were not elected. Still, that puts him in a better position vis a vis memory than, say, Brandon Webb, whom I would say was a significantly better pitcher than Cain, but whose career ended after seven seasons due to injury, leaving him ineligible for consideration, although he may yet be remembered as part of a yet fainter Hall of Fame penumbra: the best players not eligible for election to the Hall of Fame. The high-profile excludeds–Pete Rose and Joe Jackson–keep that group in mind, but it has other members who might be noted from time to time.
This is an excellent essay, and I would like to give it the attention it deserves. My immediate answer, which I hope to refine as I give it more thought, is that not unlike the Oscars and other competitive awards for artistic endeavors, Halls of Fame may be the best useful tools for drawing attention to Good Stuff despite being inherently bullshit. The difference, however, is that in sports–certainly in baseball–there really is an objective component and a reason for saying, f’r’ex, that Matt Cain was a better pitcher than Hudson Street, or that Brandon Webb was a better pitcher than Matt Cain. The essential problem with the Hall lists, though, is that I feel like the whole business tends to imply that the purpose of that comparison is to draw an accurate line between the Deserving HoFers and the Undeserving. I don’t think that’s the highest purpose of that sort of comparison.
I feel like the whole business tends to imply that the purpose of that comparison is to draw an accurate line between the Deserving HoFers and the Undeserving.
That’s well put as an articulation of the problem, and my experience suggests that emphasis on that line may be an unavoidable artifact of the whole method. Once the process is committed to drawing a line between in and out, it has to figure out where that line goes, and because the reality is that there is not actually all that much difference between any one player and the next better or worse player, drawing that hard line between “in” and “out” is always going to be difficult: it’s an artificial and arbitrary divide drawn across the complex continuum of reality. The very difficulty of drawing that line, then, makes its proper placement the main focus of attention in the project because so much is at stake in placing players on one side of the line or on the other. That’s where the discussion and debate is going to be focused, and it can never get away from there, because the problematic and arbitrary nature of the line itself means that it will never be drawn in a way that is clearly satisfactory. Even if dividing the Deserving from the Undeserving wasn’t really the intended purpose of the comparison, there’s a strong tendency for that to become the purpose.
I don’t think that’s the highest purpose of that sort of comparison.
Do you have thoughts about what the purpose of that sort of comparison should be, or how it could be carried out without the problematic component of line-drawing that creates an in-group and an out-group? I have the questions, but I don’t have any answers of my own to suggest, at least not now.
The high purpose of that sort of comparison is (in my arrogant opinion) to heighten our appreciation of the things being compared—there is a tendency to take a lot of Good Stuff (as I call it) for granted, and I think that comparisons and awards and Halls of Fame work to focus attention on that Good Stuff. Would I have taken any time to compare Jeff Kent (reasonably reliable, mostly adequate defense and very good offense at middle infield) with Scott Rolen (mildly injury-prone, excellent defense, mostly pretty decent hitting at third base) if they hadn’t been on the same ballot? And that conversation has led me, mostly, to a greater appreciation of both of their strengths (and indeed weaknesses). I know more about the game than I did because of that, and that’s a good thing. But the cost is that, at least until they honor Jeff Kent in ten or fifteen years, there is now a Line between them and that comparison has become harder, not easier. We’ve sorted them in to the appropriate bins, and we’re done.
I do think that the value of having a Hall of Fame outweighs the costs. I also think that having (f’r’ex) Tony Awards is better than not having them. I think it’s a good idea to keep saying that both sorts of activities are inherently bullshit—that the entire business is only justified and justifiable by how much Good Stuff exists and has been overlooked or taken for granted. And then, ideally, to get ourselves to pay more attention to all the Good Stuff we can.
…I need to add, here, that it’s also valuable to some second-order conversations that are better-informed by acknowledging how bullshit the first-order conversations are. Why do fans and writers value defense so differently in different eras? What do you do about an Omar Vizquel or a Carlos Beltrán? What do we think about giving an award to the guy impersonating Michael Jackson? What purpose does separating acting categories by gender serve? When people fall in to the trap of thinking that the Hall of Fame line is or ought to be objectively correct, or that the Tony should go to the objectively Best Performance, then those conversations are worse—and when people think of those tasks as being fundamentally tools for drawing attention to and appreciating the Good Stuff, then those conversations are better.