August 21st, 2011
I think I have made more than 150 visits to the Baseball Hall of Fame since my first trip there in 1973. It is a second home to me, a place where I go for business or pleasure, most often both during the same trip regardless of its ostensible purpose. In August I found myself there three times in the space of ten days, most recently to make a presentation at the quarterly Owners’ Meeting at the invitation of the Commissioner. A highlight of the occasion was a memorable dinner served in the Hall of Fame Gallery, amid the plaques of all baseball’s worthies, from the First Five (in the order of their votes received: Cobb, Ruth, Wagner, Mathewson, Johnson) to the most recent three (Alomar, Blyleven, Gillick). Words fail me here; let me simply say that this was a memorable event.
The Hall of Fame Gallery is a shrine. Walk inside; people speak in hushed tones. The cool marble gives the feel of an ancient temple, and it is indeed a holy place for those of us whose religion is baseball. The plaques may be less interesting to the baseball scholar than items that relate to a man’s life as he lived it; to fans, however, these bronze tablets are magical, like fragments from Mount Sinai.
The likenesses are uneven: some are brilliant, others less so. The words are prosaic and functional, never rising to the level of grandeur. But in the aggregate–the entire gallery, with its hundreds of plaques, or even a smaller grouping such as the First Five–the effect can only be described as poetry. No plaque praises its honoree at a decibel level that would diminish another Hall of Famer. The dignity and solemnity of the tablets are in keeping with the celebration of a life now over–even for living Hall of Famers, what has ended is the endeavor that won a man his fame. A man elected to the Hall of Fame as a player, for example, may go on to manage in the big leagues or become a distinguished executive (Henry Aaron and Joe Cronin spring to mind), but I know of no case in which a man previously enshrined in the Hall has gone on to a career of equal stature in the game.
It is impossible to do justice, in forty words or less, to the achievements, much less the style, flair, and vigor of these men or how they changed our nation and every one of us. The art of these plaques lies in not trying to do too much, in trusting to the wind to keep these players’ fame aloft. Here are the first baseball greats to be elected to the Hall of Fame, the five immortals who form the corners of Cooperstown’s home plate. Today we look on these five with awe and reverence, baseball’s equivalent of Mount Rushmore. What we forget is that their accomplishments were quite recent in the minds of those who voted for them in 1936; most of the electors had seen each of the men play, many times. And of course, of the five immortals, only one had actually gone on to his eternal reward—Mathewson, who died in 1925. (Another committee of “old-timers” wasn’t able to achieve consensus on which long-retired veterans would be inducted at the first ceremony. Cap Anson and Buck Ewing got the most votes. Both were inducted by the grand opening in 1939, along with other worthies of the near and distant past.)
Ruth had retired as an active player just one year before his election. Cobb had played his final season in 1928, Johnson in 1927, Wagner 1917, Mathewson 1916. These were legends, all right, but they were as fresh in the minds of the voters then as the five men listed below–each of whom played his last game a similar number of years prior to his induction–would be to today’s writers and fans: Roberto Alomar, Gary Carter, Ozzie Smith, Tom Seaver, Rod Carew. Think about it.
Hall of Fame plaques reproduced here appear courtesy of the Baseball Hall of Fame and are subject to Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0.