Monday, July 26, 2010

Unfortunately, I Was Right

In 2004, long-time Bay Area sports announcer Lon Simmons won the Ford Frick Award presented annually at the Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Cooperstown. From that moment, Jon Miller, who idolized Simmons since childhood from listening to him broadcast Giants games, began referring to Simmons as a "Hall of Fame announcer". Miller, I was sure, knew better than to think Simmons was actually elected to the Hall of Fame. He had to know, as anyone does who has paid even a little attention to the matter, that the annual winners of the Frick Award (given to announcers) and the Spink Award (given to writers) are just that: award winners. Winning an award is not the same as getting elected to the Hall of Fame.

However, Miller chose to call his colleague a Hall of Famer, and I told people I knew why. "Miller says that because when he wins the Frick Award, he hopes people will make the same mistake and call him a Hall of Famer."

Unfortunately, I was right. Yesterday Miller received the Frick Award at the induction ceremony in Cooperstown. In his speech, he did not refer to himself as a Hall of Famer, as more than one recipient of the award has dared to do. However, fifteen minutes later, Bill Madden, this year's winner of the Spink Award, took a moment to congratulate Miller for being inducted "into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." Sure enough, I believe Miller's wish had come true. Right there on the same stage, in front of the 47 bona fide members of the Baseball Hall of Fame who had returned for the ceremony and in front of the three new inductees, an esteemed baseball writer, an award winner himself, told the baseball world that Miller is now in the "broadcasters wing," presumably located in the vicinity of the "writers wing" which Madden no doubt hopes his colleagues will tell people that he is now similarly honored.

We need to get one thing straight here. There is NO SUCH THING as the broadcasters wing or the writers wing of the Hall of Fame. If you have visited the Hall of Fame, I defy you to tell me where it is. If you haven't visited (and you should), and someone tells you he or she has seen the broadcasters or writers wing at the Hall of Fame, do us all a favor. Ask that person where it is, and let me know what the answer is.

The closest thing you'll get to an accurate answer is that Miller's name is on a display in an exhibit that can be reached from the Plaque Gallery (where the actual Hall of Famers' plaques are permanently displayed) by going up a curved walkway and making a turn to the right. I walk past there every day, on the way to and from my job in the Hall of Fame library. I see that exhibit--unless I blink. If my eyes close long enough to blink, I miss it. If the only thing there was the display of winners of the Frick and Spink Awards (say that ten times quickly!), I could generously describe it as the "broadcasters and writers nook," but there is more there. We have displays about the history of baseball on radio and television, in newspapers and cartoons, and in movies. In the middle of the room is a two-sided board devoted to the award winners. The Frick Award winners are on one side and the Spink Award winners on the other. For each winner, there is a photo, his name, and a short paragraph about his career. That is it. There is no plaque and no carved portrait, as there are for the Hall of Famers. For each new award winner, the award proclamation read at the ceremony is displayed for one year, until next year's new winner arrives.

And that's it. That's all, folks. Jon Miller, Lon Simmons, Bill Madden, and the rest, as revered as they are in their professions, are not members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. There are numerous associations of announcers and writers which designate electees as Hall of Famers. You can google them online and find many lists of inductees. The one I'm looking at now--the Radio Hall of Fame--includes 11 men who have also won the Frick Award. Red Barber, Vin Scully, Harry Caray, and Bob Uecker are a few of them. Lon Simmons and Jon Miller are not.

Then there's the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association, an organization which began its Hall of Fame in 1962 with the election of Grantland Rice (also an early winner of the Spink Award). There is a sizable overlap between the NSSA's 49 years' worth of inductees and the Frick and Spink Award winners, even though all sports are represented. (So are John Wayne, Lou Gehrig, and Ronald Reagan. Don't ask me why.) This year's NSSA inductees, for instance, are Peter Gammons and John Madden. And Jon Miller, I'm happy to report, was elected in 1999.

My beef has nothing to do with Miller and Madden personally. Miller is more fun to listen to than any announcer I know; if you haven't heard him on the radio, you don't know how good he really is. Madden is from my hometown; we went to the same high school, and he's been a top-notch reporter for decades, not to mention a good guy. They're great, but they're not members of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Sorry, Virginia--there is no broadcasters or writers wing in Cooperstown.

I suggest that you do what I do when people within earshot refer to a Frick or Spink Award winner as a Hall of Famer. I ask, "which Hall of Fame?" If they say the one in Cooperstown, I correct them. Trust me, that's what they always say.

I also know what you might be saying now: "What difference does it make? Everybody thinks they're Hall of Famers, and it's a harmless mistake that makes people feel good for their favorite announcer."

Here's the problem. It isn't harmless. It's dangerous to think it's okay to regard something as the truth simply because ten or a hundred or a thousand people say it's so, or because one person says ten or a hundred or a thousand times that it's so. Can you say "weapons of mass destruction"? The people running our country said it so often that we believed it and our elected representatives believed it, resulting in a war that is still killing Americans nearly a decade later.

People are weak, helpless, and deluded when they agree to accept something as truth simply because others assert it. If you know what you're hearing is not true--whether it's about something as (probably) benign as sports or about something more vital to our well-being--you are obligated to point out what is the truth. If you let small untruths pass unchallenged, they can only grow larger, until the big untruths go unchallenged because they are well-buttressed and resting on that foundation of fibs.

In the world of baseball reporting, you wind up with a statement like this one, from a column about Jon Miller receiving the Frick Award posted last Thursday on by a writer named Chris Haft. Wrote Haft, "Miller hasn't completely grasped that he'll essentially be joining baseball's immortals. Though he'll be represented in the shrine's broadcasters' wing, he'll forever be considered as much of a Hall of Famer as Babe Ruth or Ty Cobb."

That's what he wrote, sports fans. You and I can sit here and see how preposterous that claim is, but I can also see 200 years down the road and a time when 200 years of misrepresentation catches up with history, a time when nobody alive knows anybody who ever knew anybody who saw Ty Cobb play or read a Damon Runyon game account the day it was published or listened to Vin Scully or Jon Miller call a ballgame. We're already not far from lacking living witnesses to the first two, and the exploits of fantastic players like Tris Speaker and George Sisler are already largely forgotten. Two centuries hence, if the only listing on the intergalacticnet has the names of 900 people enshrined in the Hall of Fame, with Jim Rice following Grantland Rice and Dan Cobb (the 2137 winner of the Frick Award) following Ty Cobb, I honestly hope there's some nitpicky little pest like me going around telling people that "actually, Ty Cobb was one of the handful of greatest players of his generation, but Dan Cobb only won the Frick Award and wasn't much known outside of the Sea of Tranquility and its suburbs. He wasn't really elected to the Hall of Fame."

Are Jon Miller and Bill Madden in the Hall of Fame? Yes, they are. They are, in the same sense that Pete Rose and Joe Jackson are in the Hall of Fame. They are all included in exhibits in the museum. You can see their images in the museum, and you can examine their clipping and photo files in the library. Have any of them been elected to the Hall of Fame? The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, that is? No. Sorry about that.

You might as well say that "in 2000 Al Gore was elected President" or that he invented the internet or can save the planet whether we want him to or not. You can wish all you want to, and believe what you want. Some people will tell you that there really were all those weapons of mass destruction but we just didn't find them (yet). Some professional announcers still tell their listeners that Abner Doubleday invented baseball, in the same breath they use to inform us that today's starting pitcher has a 2.75 ERA in the first inning over the past three seasons. In the maelstrom of facts, myths, misconceptions, rumors, and lies that comes our way every day, it's difficult to figure out exactly what is true. When we do know something, we deceive and cheat ourselves if we don't assert that truth when it can un-deceive someone else.

People will tell you all kinds of things. It might be because they can gain something by having you believe it. It might be because they honestly feel it will help you to believe it. Or it might because they are flat-out wrong and keep saying it because they don't know any better. Does Jon Miller actually believe he has been elected to the Hall of Fame? I don't know. That absurd statement by Chris Haft at was followed by a quote from Miller, ostensibly (because it's the next sentence) in response to Haft's claim. "I guess that part of it hasn't really sunk in yet," said Miller. I hope for his sake that it doesn't sink in so deeply that he believes it.

I'm curious to see what happens on ESPN next Sunday night, when Miller and Joe Morgan (who introduced him and read the proclamation at the induction ceremony without making any mention of Miller being a Hall of Famer) are back in the booth. They have been joined this season by Orel Hershiser, and is anybody out there prepared to bet that Hershiser won't say something along the lines of "what a privilege it is to share the booth with two Hall of Famers"? I don't think he'll be referring to the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. Maybe he'll even phrase it to note that they're enshrined in Cooperstown.

What I'm waiting to see is whether Joe Morgan, who is not only an elected inductee in Cooperstown but also the Vice-Chairman of the Hall of Fame, will say, "Actually, Orel, I'm in the Hall of Fame. Jon won the Frick Award, but that's different." Or will he say, "Thank you, Orel. I'm just proud to be considered as much of a Hall of Famer as the man sitting next to me."

Stay tuned.


blackmagic said...

I cannot recall the exact context, but the studio hosts at the MLB Network were making similar statements about Miller and Madden. I found myself talking to the TV, correcting them. Miller and Madden are as much Hall of Famers as Jesus Alvarez.

And aren't the broadcasters and writers wings where the milkmen are?

Unknown said...

Miller who is accurate to a fault, should be correcting these introductions. If he doesn't, he belongs on 24/7 political shows, not ESPN baseball.

Unknown said...

I'd be willing to bet that Miller will not correct anyone on the assumption.