Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Wing And A Player

Did you know that 153 of the 387 members of the Baseball Hall of Fame never played a game in the major leagues? That seems like a large percentage, doesn't it, nearly 40%? What are the folks in Cooperstown thinking, putting such a major emphasis on non-players? Does that seem right to you?

Well, it isn't right--unless you believe what today's writers and broadcasters tell you. They want you to think that the winners of the Spink Award (for writing) and the Frick Award (for broadcasting) are Hall of Famers. They congratulate the winners of those awards for getting inducted into the Hall of Fame. At his year's Hall of Fame induction ceremony, Spink Award winner Bill Madden congratulated Frick Award winner Jon Miller on his "election into the broadcasters wing of the Hall of Fame." In a video posted on the website of Madden's newspaper, the New York Daily News, Madden discussed being "elected to the Hall of Fame last December" (the day the Spink Award winner was announced). Madden didn't say he won an award; he said he was elected to the Hall of Fame. He is not alone in perpetuating this myth. The Detroit Tigers media guide--to name just one of the team publications that trumpet an award winner as a Hall of Famer--states that Ernie Harwell, by winning the Frick Award in 1981, became "the first active broadcaster to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame."

Some of us know better. To date, there are 292 elected members of the Hall of Fame. Of those, 62 never played in the major leagues. The majority of those were Negro leagues stars; the rest include executives, eight of the nine enshrined umpires, and a handful of managers. That's about 21%, compared to the 39.5% we get if we count the Frick and Spink Award winners. Those number 95--61 writers plus 34 broadcasters (of whom four played in the majors). Some of those 95 believe they were elected, and they rarely waste a breath trying to disabuse others of the notion that it is otherwise.

A recent winner of the Spink Award visited here last week, and I asked him what he says when people call him a Hall of Famer. "I tell them I'm represented in the writers wing," he said matter-of-factly, as if that should clear up any confusion. But it doesn't.

It's time for a history lesson to clear up the matter of the mythological "writers wing" and "broacasters wing" at the Hall of Fame. Let's go back to 1971, when Satchel Paige was elected to the Hall of Fame, the first of the Negro leagues immortals elected. Paige had also played in the majors, but lacked the minimum ten years in the big leagues to quality for election by the BBWAA, which has always conducted the now-annual Hall of Fame elections (the BBWAA also selects the Spink Award winner).

The impetus for honoring Negro leaguers began in 1966, when Ted Williams used his induction speech as a platform for advocating the inclusion of Paige, Josh Gibson, and other Negro leagues greats in the Hall of Fame. A few years later, the Hall of Fame set up a special panel to select a set number of Negro leaguers (essentially a starting nine) during the coming years. Paige was first, and his election was announced early in February. Commissioner Bowie Kuhn made the announcement, adding that "technically he's not in the Hall of Fame," Kuhn noted. Instead, Paige would win what was termed the Negro Baseball Leagues Award.

What? That's what Kuhn said. Paige and the other Negro leaguers to be selected would have their own display in another section of the museum, apart from the plaque gallery where the actual Hall of Famers were honored--as Kuhn phrased it, "as part of a new exhibit commemorating the contributions of the Negro leagues to baseball." He reminded reporters that "the rules for selection to the Hall of Fame are very strict, and I think those standards are correct. Thru no fault of their own, these stars of the Negro leagues didn't have major league exposure."

The reaction to this relegation of Paige to what amounted to a "separate but equal" status (to use the phrase from the 1895 Supreme Court decision which paved the way for decades of Jim Crow segregation) was swift and indignant. Jackie Robinson protested, "If they're going to start up with that old segregation stuff again, they might as well forget about the whole project. They have absolutely no right to put those black oldtimers in a different part of the building."

Legendary sportswriter (and future Spink Award winner) Jim Murray was outraged, writing, "Who in the world got the bright idea to put back the 'colored only' sign in this day and age?. . .What is this--1840? Either let him in the front of the hall--or move the damn thing to Mississippi."

Other writers joined the clamor, and the Hall of Fame was peppered with letters protesting the plan. The Satchel Paige file in the Hall of Fame library contains a letter written a month after the announcement, from the then-Treasurer of the Hall of Fame, Howard Talbot, to its President, Paul Kerr. It reads, in part, "You will notice that most of them [the protest letters] run along the same theme and seem to think that Satchel Page [sic] should become a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I think the award is a deserving one and it is too bad that the press misconstruded [sic] the facts and gave the public the wrong idea behind it."

Right. It was the writers' fault for suggesting that electing someone to the Hall of Fame actually meant that he would be in the Hall of Fame. Or suggesting that his being in the Hall of Fame, even in the back of the bus, er, museum, meant that he was a Hall of Famer. To their credit, the writers kept up the hue and cry, and by the time induction day rolled around that summer, Paige got a plaque right there in the main room with Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb and the rest of the Hall of Fame players.

The writers made certain that there was a clear distinction everyone could understand: having a separate display, an exhibit in a wing somewhere apart from the Hall of Fame plaque gallery, was unacceptable, because it would mean that the people honored in such a wing were obviously not enshrined as Hall of Famers. That distinction has apparently dissolved over the years, if today's writers believe that inclusion in a display out in the museum means that they're Hall of Famers, elected like everyone else but merely in "the writers wing."

Dick Young, the 1978 Spink Award winner, summed up the distinction very well in a column published in The Sporting News on June 28, 1982. The column revisited the Paige election and emphasized the key role of the BBWAA (of which he was president at the time) in making sure that Paige got the full honor he deserved. Young got the ball rolling in 1969, he reminded his readers, by pushing to get the Negro leaguers elected. "It was easier said than done," Young wrote in 1982. "As expected, there was resistance. Directors of the Hall of Fame, among them former Commissioner Ford Frick [in 1971, the Chairman of the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors], spoke of the 'flood' of black players."

Young and others assured Frick and the Board that there wouldn't be a "flood," that in fact only eight or nine men were deemed worthy of Hall of Fame election, and they'd only be elected one or two at a time. That was the first step of the compromise that got the deal done.

What Young wrote next is what interests me most now: "Frick suggested that a special wing be set up for the Negro league players. The BBWAA flatly turned down such a thought as repulsive segretation--something we were trying to correct, not perpetuate. When discussions reached an impasse, the BBWAA threatened to withdraw voting support from the Cooperstown museum and set up its own Hall of Fame. That did it. Bowie Kuhn [the newly elected Commissioner, a post which also gave him a spot on the Hall of Fame's Board of Directors] stepped in to help resolve the situation."

That's the story. Of course, part of the compromise (of 1969) which put the process in place to elect Paige (and others) meant that Kuhn was able to announce in February, 1971, that Paige would be honored in a separate wing. Again the writers stood up for what was right, and there never was a separate wing.

That's why I'm mystified and appalled by the assorted ironies of the current penchant of the BBWAA for letting its members be thought of as legitimate Hall of Famers. Ford Frick himself was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1970. The man who wanted a separate wing for Negro leaguers, who didn't want anybody to be confused into thinking that they were real Hall of Famers like he was, now has an award named after him, and the winners of that award think that they're real Hall of Famers because they're in a separate wing.

Meanwhile, in the speech Bill Madden gave in accepting the award he believed earned him election into the Hall of Fame, cited Dick Young as his mentor and his idol as a sportswriter. Dick Young, who fought so hard to remind everyone that a "separate but equal" exhibit was repugnant, spawned a writer who thinks he now stands alongside Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle because his name is listed in a separate exhibit.

Here's an idea: lets give the next Spink Award to the first member of the BBWAA who has the integrity and the nerve to write a column saying "Sorry, my BBWAA brethren, the Spink Award may be the highest honor we can get, but it does not make us Hall of Famers. Stop fooling yourselves and letting your readers think that you got elected to the Hall of Fame. You're great writers, but you weren't elected to anything. You got an award. That's that."

That's the guy who deserves to be honored.


cheeseblab said...

Excellent presentation of the issue, and incidentally a fine review of the averted attempt to ghettoize the Negro Leagues players.

As a former sportswriter (though never a BBWAA member)--and, perhaps more to the point, editor--I applaud your calling the honorees on their own "editorial imprecision," shall we say? (A much calmer phrase than "fraudulent claims.")

WMiller81 said...

Excellent article. I always wondered about the peculiar relationship the BBWA enjoys regarding the Hall of Fame. This is the first time I've ever read anywhere that the writers once threatened to use their power to influence Hall policy. Good for them. And good for you for bringing this issue into the open.
Nicely done, Bill Miller

GaryC said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
GaryC said...

This belongs in the Bloggers wing, for sure.

lacrosse54601 said...

Nice article. I have always wondered how folks convinced themselves that annual award winners equated to Hall of Fame election. By that same logic, are the annual winners of the Cy Young award Hall of Famers? After all, their names also appear on a list in the Hall of Fame.