By JOHN THORN
Published: March 12, 2006
WHO'S in? Who's out? Who should be barred at the door? The Baseball Hall of Fame has been a lightning rod for outrage these past two weeks, with attendant confusion about the currency by which one obtains sporting immortality. First came the uproar over the Hall's election of 17 dead obscurities of African-American baseball while neglecting Buck O'Neil, who at 94 is the living symbol of the Negro Leagues and, since his star turn in Ken Burns's documentary "Baseball," a national hero.
Now come the calls for Barry Bonds to have his records stripped, his carcass flayed and his path to the Hall blocked because of revelations or allegations (depending upon one's point of view or, it has been suggested, race) that he has for years been souping up his engine with substances dangerous to his own health as well as that of pitchers.
Buck O'Neil is a modest man of high character whose playing statistics evidently fell short of immortality — no matter that it was the coattails of his celebrity that the fortunate 17 rode to their newfound glory. The shimmer of statistics, which the Hall's specially appointed committee on Negro League baseball had spent years in excavating, appeared to have blinded the electors to the attribute that should have been their beacon: fame.
Barry Bonds is, by news media consent, a selfish lout whose unparalleled statistics may now be dismissed as the product of weak character and brazen swindle. He wanted not merely to be good or great, Sports Illustrated tells us; he wished to be a god. Many fans, including many who might occasionally reach for the Viagra, are angry with him because he may have tinkered with performance enhancers. Baseball moralists point to his alleged flouting of the marital and tax codes. Mellow enthusiasts of the game who might overlook a little marijuana smoking by their heroes can still object that his nonrecreational drugs endangered baseball's integrity.
But all who are down on Bonds right now are united in this: they believe that he is a cheat, and they know that they feel cheated. Whether he has broken baseball's law or that of the land, he has exposed their credulity, their belief that in baseball, if nowhere else in America, life is fair.
O'Neil and Bonds both could play, and the history of the game cannot be told without them. O'Neil's absence from last week's list of the newly notable raises questions not about the man but about the institution. In Bonds's case, if the current Ox-Bow gang prevails and he proves to be legislated or blackballed out, the Hall will be seen to be not about fame, or merit or proficiency, but scorn.
My personal Hall of Fame includes all the best players, without ex post facto point deductions for violating the Volstead Act, the Sherman Act or the All Around Bad Actor Act; Gaylord Perry and Whitey Ford's admitted cheating will not displace their plaques from my walls, and Bonds's will be there too. I recognize, however, that the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum is sensitive to constituencies while I am not.
Baseball itself is a vibrant anachronism, the museum for our archaic and most endangered values. We expect Cooperstown to embody the qualities we believe made America great and to rectify injustices in the game, even those long past cure, like the color bar.
Yet the Hall operates, like Augusta National, as a private club. Within the confines of civil law, it may admit or bar whom it pleases by whatever electoral mechanism. It may include questionable choices like Rick Ferrell, George Kelly and Warren Giles; it may exclude the arguably more deserving Ron Santo, Dick Allen and Bert Blyleven. It may create rules by which Joe Jackson is banned for life and unforgiven thereafter. It may dismiss the hobgoblin of consistency by inducting Alex Pompez, a numbers kingpin and mobster, while holding Pete Rose at arm's length.
As mature adults, the rest of us ought not to be upset by what this august institution does — and yet we are. We take special pride when one of our favorites wins a plaque, the Good Hallkeeping Seal of Approval, thus confirming our good taste as well as our illusions about the golden age, when giants walked the earth.
It is the fate of Buck O'Neil and Barry Bonds to form bookends around the Fat Guy, the one we pretend to ignore in the current controversy. Babe Ruth will always be the greatest of all baseball players, not for his statistics but for his aura and his era. Ruth may have been better than any baseball player ever was or will be (though I think not), but it defies reason to claim that his opposition was likewise better than any since.
African-Americans never graced the same field as Ruth; had they been allowed to do so, many white players would have lost their positions, the overall level of competition would have risen, Ruth's statistical dominance would have narrowed, and many players from the golden age now in the Hall would instead be recalled only by their statistical entries in the baseball encyclopedias. Buck O'Neil and the 17 he elevated to fame would all have been in the Hall long ago. And Willie Mays or Hank Aaron ... or Barry Bonds ... might now be seen as the greatest baseball player who ever lived.
John Thorn is the editor of "Total Baseball."