What If They Held an Induction and No One Came?
Back in January, when Hall of Fame President Jeff Idelson announced that the BBWAA had resisted the temptation to elect the all-time home run champ, a seven-time Cy Young Award winner, two guys with more than 3,000 hits, and other significant ballplayers to the Hall of Fame, I sent him an e-mail. It read: “For the first time since you’ve been at the Hall, you’ll be able to give an accurate count of the attendance at the induction ceremony. All you have to do is count the legs and divide by two.” To Jeff’s credit, within an hour of facing the national cameras with his no-news-is-bad-news, he responded with this witty note: “Not if Bill Veeck shows up,” since Veeck’s wooden leg would screw up the arithmetic. I replied, “If you can get Bill Veeck here, you’ll have a record crowd.”
Alas, Veeck did not rise from the dead, though the three inductees did: umpire Hank O’Day (who died in 1935), Yankees owner Jacob Ruppert (who died in 1939, several months before the Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony), and 19th-century catching pioneer James “Deacon” White (who also died in 1939, 25 days after that initial ceremony). They were represented by descendants who weren’t even alive in the 1930s, but all gave heartfelt, welcome speeches, most notably Jerry Watkins, White’s great-grandson, who was one of roughly 50 family members to attend the ceremony.
That heavy turnout by the White clan may be what pushed the crowd over the magical 1,000 mark. About 20 minutes before the scheduled 1:30 starting time (which was pushed back about 50 minutes because of rain), I did my best to count the number of legs outside the fenced-in VIP seating sections and divide by two. I quit counting when I got to 658 people–because there was nobody else to count. Add to that a few hundred people in the seating sections (with far more empty seats than those with asses in them), and it was around 1,000. As my father (who saw O’Day umpire) would have said, “Look at all the people who aren’t there!” That was before the rain fell at 1:30. Once the ceremony began, the throng was considerably smaller. The Hall of Fame later announced a crowd of 2,500, which means that Jeff Idelson kept his streak intact of inflating the attendance figure. Sometimes he has done it to make a disappointing crowd (say 6,000) look respectable (10,000). In this case, it made a dreadful crowd sound merely less dreadful. But those of us who were there had come to see these particular men honored, and for us it was still a celebration even if the front-running fans of still-breathing immortals stayed away.
After the BBWAA pitched its shutout and the folks who run the Hall of Fame realized there would be no living inductees, they went all-out to find all the dead ones they could honor. They had been planning to give Lou Gehrig the formal induction he never got (elected by acclaim after the 1939 Induction, he was dead by the time there was another ceremony) in 2014, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Hall, but moved that up by a year to give some folks some kind of excuse to show up. While they were at it, they decided to honor all the other players who never got their own induction ceremony because of World War II travel restrictions.That included Rogers Hornsby, the only electee in 1942, and the ten men elected in 1945 by an earlier incarnation of the Veterans Committee.
With only 34 living Hall of Famers returning for this year’s ceremony–the lowest number in many, many years, after a peak of more than 60 a few years ago–the ceremony was already going to be significantly shorter because of fewer introductions. With film tributes to the 12 overdue honorees, plus a current Hall of Famer reading the text of each of their plaques, the ceremony lasted about an hour and 45 minutes. It was a fine little ceremony, and we enjoyed it.
But it was not without some strange moments, some odd, discordant notes. My favorite involved the choice of current Hall of Famers to read the plaques. As much as possible, the Hall matched them up very well by position and/or team. Cal Ripken ended the afternoon by reading Gehrig’s plaque; Tommy Lasorda read the plaque of earlier Dodgers manager Wilbert Robinson; Wade Boggs read third baseman Jimmy Collins’ text, and so on. Then came the Hornsby plaque, the last before Gehrig’s. That “honor” went to Hall of Fame Vice Chairman Joe Morgan, presumably because both players were second basemen. But I couldn’t help flinching when I learned that the Hall was asking an African American to honor an avowed member of the Ku Klux Klan. I’m guessing that Morgan has no idea that Hornsby was in the Klan, or that anybody bothered to tell him. Maybe Jeff Idelson didn’t know it either. One of the Hall’s three missions is to “preserve history,” but that doesn’t mean its president has to preserve history in his own head. Suppose someone had told Morgan that Hornsby was in the KKK; would he still have read the plaque? Well, he did read it.
My second-favorite strange moment came during the filmed tributes to the 12 honorees. The guys in the Hall’s video department–Bruce Broderson, Nate Owens, and Roger Lansing–did their usual fine job of highlighting the inductees’ achievements, an assignment made tougher this year by the scarcity of filmed action of O’Day, Ruppert, and White. We don’t have any footage of O’Day making the “Merkle’s boner” call in 1908, of White mangling his hands while catching barehanded in the 1870s, or of Ruppert badmouthing Gehrig for daring to ask for a raise after hitting over .350 for the umpteenth season.
The films were fine, except for one startling gaffe in the voice-over to the Ed Delahanty tribute. That was the reference to the records Delahanty held “when he retired.” When he retired? For the record, Delahanty did not retire, unless you count the likely utterance of something like “I’m a goner” as he tumbled over Niagara Falls in the middle of the night on July 2, 1903. Thrown off a train for being drunk and disorderly, he got into an argument and then a scuffle with the night watchman on the bridge over the falls. He was either pushed or fell on his own off the bridge, so he “retired” either when he landed in the water or when, a moment later, he went over the falls. They found his body two days later. If you know anything about Delahanty, you know he wasn’t the retiring type.
Taking the bronze medal for awkward moments was the pre-ceremony favorite, Commissioner Bud Selig, who still insists that Abner Doubleday invented baseball (the equivalent of Pope Francis declaring that the Sun moves around the Earth). Pretty much his only duty on induction day is to read the plaques of the new inductees. As usual, he read them as if seeing them for the first time, although I’ve heard that ignoring your employees’ drug abuse can impair reading ability.
All Hall of Famer plaques start with a listing of every team they played for, including years and leagues. The leagues are abbreviated on the plaques, so that, for instance, Babe Ruth’s plaque says “Boston, A.L.” and “Boston, N.L.” Well, it happened that two of this year’s three inductees finished their playing careers in the Players’ League, which operated only during 1890. Deacon White played for Buffalo as a 42-year-old, and Hank O’Day won 22 games pitching for New York before he turned to umpiring.
So both plaques have a “P.L.” at the end. Both times, Selig dutifully informed us that these men played in the “Pacific League.” Never mind that there never was a “Pacific League” in the United States (there has been a Pacific League in Japan since 1980). Maybe Selig thought he was telling us that they played in the Pacific Coast League–though that wasn’t created until 1903. Maybe he thought it was some pioneering league founded by Abner Doubleday.
I don’t know what he was thinking, but I’d like to know what Jane Forbes Clark, Jeff Idelson, and the other powers-that-be were thinking when they let him get out there (twice, about fifteen minutes apart) and butcher the history of the sport he has run for the last two decades. Is the answer that they just don’t care? Were they tip-toeing around history, pretending that Ed Delahanty really did retire, that it doesn’t matter that Rogers Hornsby was in the KKK, and that the names of leagues aren’t important?
There we were in idyllic Cooperstown, where locals walking down the street say “How are you?” to other locals and don’t wait for an answer, where descendants giving acceptance speeches had to have those speeches vetted first by Hall of Fame officials, and where the sky was cloudy all day but it didn’t rain too hard once the crowd was thinned out to a cozy few hundred. “Forgive him,” MLB’s official historian, John Thorn, said to me right after the ceremony when I asked if he knew anything about the Pacific League. Oh, I do forgive him. But first I had to mock him.
After the ceremony, I presided over the annual induction evening meeting of the local SABR chapter. This was the first time that someone has gone directly from delivering an acceptance speech to the SABR meeting. Jerry Watkins was joined by two sons and other family members at the meeting, which began with a terrific discussion with Tom Simon and Peter Morris. They are the first bona fide historians to participate in the Veterans Committee. By “bona fide historians” I mean that they have no official connection to MLB (as did the several beat writers and BBWAA members of the VC) and no excuse for being asked to serve on the committee other than their reputations as historians. Peter is a foremost scholar of 19th-century baseball and the origins of just about every aspect of the game, and Tom founded SABR’s Deadball Era Committee a dozen years ago.
At the meeting, they discussed the process by which O’Day, Ruppert, and White were elected. They did plenty of homework in advance and were impressed by how much preparation the other 14 committee members did, especially Bert Blyleven, one of the four Hall of Fame players on the committee. They hoped to build a consensus on a few candidates they strongly supported, and they must have succeeded, because the math is stacked against electing as many as three men at once. The 16 committee members voted for a maximum of four candidates, there were 10 candidates, and 12 votes were needed for election. So if each member voted for four candidates, the average tally would be 6.4 votes per candidates. For this committee to reach such a strong consensus on three candidates (with a fourth, Bill Dahlen, missing election by only two votes) was pretty remarkable.
They took their time deciding, too. During the morning session, Tom Simon told the SABR gathering, each candidates was discussed for at least a half-hour, sometimes much longer. All the arguments for and against were made, and then they went to lunch. After lunch, they discussed each candidate again, summing up the main points. Then they voted. And agreed.
Our SABR discussion also included about ten minutes with Jerry Watkins. I asked him about the long wait for Deacon White’s election, about the disappointment of earlier Veterans Committees neglecting to elect White ahead of five other pre-1900 figures who were elected in the late 1990s, and about White’s legacy as a ballplayer. Watkins was still beaming from the ceremony, still basking in the glow of his family finally getting to share in their beloved ancestor’s glory. As I noted before Watkins had to leave for the placing of Deacon White’s plaque on the wall of the gallery in the Hall of Fame, his family has waited for several generations for this moment, but think of how many future generations will get to come here and see that plaque.
That’s the point of having the Hall of Fame in the first place, of course. At any given point in history, we will visit that plaque gallery to celebrate baseball immortals. Some we saw in action ourselves, some we heard about all our lives, and some we only heard about because those plaques keep their memory alive. I’ve been to about a dozen induction ceremonies now, from the Ripken-Gwynn version of Woodstock when at least 70,000 people descended on a village of 1,800, to this year’s intimate gathering. I’m always happy to have gone there to celebrate the game, its finest, and its history.