For Some Players, Not Reaching the Hall Just Brings More Fame
Shoeless Joe Jackson was, by any measure, the top contributor for the Chicago White Sox in the World Series 100 years ago. With his trademark coiled swing, he tallied a dozen hits and Chicago’s lone home run in a five-games-to-three loss to the Cincinnati Reds that October.
Two years later he was barred from the league along with seven other White Sox players accused of accepting money from gamblers to throw that 1919 Series. M.L.B. expelled the so-called Black Sox in 1921, and Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis placed the players on an ineligible list, forbidding their association with professional baseball.
But far from being expunged from public memory, Jackson’s name has endured beyond those of nearly all his peers. He has been evoked in a Broadway musical and movies like “Field of Dreams.” A museum dedicated to his life stands in his hometown.
Jackson will almost certainly never be welcomed to the Hall of Fame, which will add six new members this weekend, but he stands nonetheless as an early example of an increasingly prominent baseball-historical archetype: the player all the more well-known for institutional efforts not to remember him.
“It’s the law of unintended consequences,” John Thorn, the official M.L.B. historian, said in an interview, “that if you want to remove or restrict a man’s eligibility for official fame, you may accord him an unofficial fame that’s even greater.”
The pattern spans generations. Pete Rose’s barring for gambling has only cemented in the minds of many fans the images of his all-in style of play. The outsize numbers and accusations of performance-enhancing drug use attached to Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens have made these players the emblems of an era of moonshot home runs and worn-out radar guns.
At the heart of baseball’s complicated memorializing is the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., which has the dual tasks of recording the sport’s complex history and, by way of an annual vote by the Baseball Writers Association of America, deciding who merits enshrinement. When the induction ceremony rolls around each year, ostracized figures are brought back into the news cycle in debates about whether they should be included.
As the class of 2019 is honored on Sunday afternoon, the tension between the Hall’s roles will be on display. Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Edgar Martinez and Mike Mussina will be inducted along with Harold Baines and Lee Smith, who were picked by the Today’s Game Era committee; Bonds and Clemens, in their seventh year of eligibility (out of 10), will not. Jackson and Rose remain ineligible for consideration.
“Right now, you’ve got the guy with seven Cy Youngs, the guy with the most home runs, and the guy with the most hits not in your Hall of Fame,” Rose said in a phone interview from Cooperstown on Thursday, referring to Clemens, Bonds and himself.
Baseball’s Hall of Fame, established in 1936, sets itself apart as much with its stringent standards as it does with its lengthy history. “There is a sanctity to being elected to the Hall,” Joe Morgan, the vice chairman of the Baseball Hall of Fame (and former Rose teammate), wrote in a 2017 letter urging voters not to elect known steroid users. “It is revered. It is the hardest Hall of Fame to enter, of any sport in America.”
While Rose remains ineligible, the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986 welcomed the former Green Bay Packers running back Paul Hornung despite a similar scandal. Hornung, the N.F.L.’s most valuable player in 1961, was barred indefinitely in 1963 for betting on the league’s games, then reinstated a year later.
Baseball’s shadow figures are in the spotlight now, and will be so again this time next year. When Martinez and Mussina fade to the background as the class of 2020 arrives next summer, sports talk shows will be discussing Bonds and Clemens as loudly as ever, rolling clips of the uppercut swing and the riding fastball as they debate the Hall of Fame’s obligations.
One camp that skews toward a younger generation of fans and media members believes the institution’s role is to tell the story of the sport via its best players, misdeeds and all. Another camp holds that moral failings offset on-field accomplishment, invoking the “character clause” included in the instructions to voters.
One thing both sides seems to agree on is that omission amounts to punishment, a post hoc retraction of playing-day success. But the legacies of Jackson and his heirs suggest otherwise.
“When someone reaches the point of infamy — being famous for something negative, so to speak — it very often does garner greater success, more attention, and a more secure place in the history books,” said Donna Rockwell, a clinical psychologist who specializes in fame and celebrity psychology.
The 87,000 visitors to Jackson’s page on Baseball-Reference.com over the past 12 months far exceed the number of visits to Nap Lajoie’s and Tris Speaker’s, his similarly talented contemporaries (and Hall of Famers both). More than a million people have visited Bonds’ page in the past year, the highest number of any retired player. As recently as 2014, Rose was routinely selling more than $10,000 of signed merchandise per day, according to the website FiveThirtyEight.
There is a Bonnie-and-Clyde aspect to the ostracized group, the widespread allure of the countercultural figure.
“The rebel appeals to somebody who rebels against institutions,” said Jeff Greenberg, a professor of psychology at the University of Arizona, “and we all have frustrations about various institutions.”
Rose recognizes the perspective: “A lot of my fans who watched me play, I’m kind of a victim in their eyes.”
Whether they ever make it to the Hall or not means little to Thorn in his role as a historian.
“The Hall of Fame plaque is the Betty Crocker seal of approval,” he said. “It does not tell anybody whether Bonds or Clemens were great. We know they were great.”
If patterns hold, more people may come to know of these players’ accomplishments as the Hall continues to exclude them. The Hall, then, does the job its name suggests — albeit in a backward way in the cases of those it closes its doors to.
“It’s the Baseball Hall of Fame,” Thorn said, adding, “Were you famous? There’s your clue.”
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