Old-timers

Much as expected, nobody got elevated to the Baseball Hall of Fame when the newly revamped and entirely hopeless Veterans’ committee did its thing last week. In existence six years, the revised Electoral College for the old-timers has achieved its stated purpose, which is to elect no one. One hopes they’re pleased with themselves.

So much for the bad news. The good news is that the committee -- as it is presently and foolishly contrived -- is toast. When the Hall of Fame Directors meet next week, they are almost certain to change the system allowing for at least an occasional new enshrinee.

One hides behind the modifier “almost certain” because there are sure to be objections from shriveled hardliners who remain determined to restrict Cooperstown to the elitest of the elite. But people don’t want to hear that. Lovers of the game don’t want to see their Hall of Fame watered down as basketball’s version has become or as permissive as football’s has always been. But they do want a regular flow of honorees. They enjoy the sweet mood of the moment and the affirmation it gives to their own cherished notions. They don’t want to hear that only demi-gods need apply.

Most of all they love the discussion, the give and take, the eternal debate. More than a half-century after all four are dead and gone, true believers gladly wrangle over who more deserves the honor, George Davis or Bill Dahlen, Red Faber or Carl Mays. It’s what sets baseball apart and always has. Mess with it, and you mess with the core essence.

Apparently, this message is reaching the directors up at Cooperstown, a mercenary and politically motivated lot only thinly steeped in baseball history. I doubt a one of them could seriously argue the Davis versus Dahlen issue but they do know where their bread is buttered and do seem to recognize change is necessary.

It’s not known whether any inspiration comes from Czar Bud Selig who has argued that Cooperstown is none of MLB’s business which, while technically true, would not prevent him from meddling if he wished to. Currently pre-occupied with the steroid fiasco and fretting about how to save face when Bobby Bonds breaks the home run record, Selig probably has no time for this relatively minor matter. When the hang-up on the Vets’ Committee keeps him out of Cooperstown, he may change his tune.

There were 82 voting members on the committee this time; 61 old players who are living Hall of Famers plus 21 “illustrious” writers and broadcasters who’ve been named to the Pantheon’s media wing. The media guys are superbly qualified and must be retained as electors under any new system. But the players are -- with rare exceptions -- not qualified and should certainly not -- as a pure voting bloc -- have anywhere near the influence they presently have, which is overwhelming.

This may surprise you. But if you’ve ever been on the beat, or spent much time around major league baseball players, you can not fail to be amazed how little most of them know about their game. They are funny cats. Pitchers know pitching. Hitters know hitting. And they view one another largely with degrees of disdain even when they are teammates. The gulf is even wider between sluggers and defensive specialists, role-players and stars. It is properly called “an individual game.” Players have their special interests and personal agendas but they rarely have a sense of the organic whole or the big picture. And stars, for the most part, are the narrowest characters in the cast, which is the main reason so very few of them turn out to be good managers.

You sit around chatting with big league ballplayers and they laugh at you if you start wandering back into the past. Baseball players simply do not view their game as fans do. With stray exceptions they have no sense of baseball history and no feeling for the mystique and lore that so enchants the rest of us. If the conversation turns to the past, they laugh at you if you spout facts and figures, or draw from the game’s immense precedent, or cite ancient warriors from the Dark Ages which, for them, is a period that ended just before they began playing. Invariably, the discussion ends with a player saying, “How can you remember all that crap?” I must have heard that a hundred times.

I guarantee that if you took a plebiscite of today’s major leaguers not 10 percent could identify Heinie Manush or Johnny Mize let alone make an argument for whether Don Newcombe or Minnie Minoso should be in the Hall of Fame. Do you think Babe Ruth would have qualified to vote on this issue? Why, he didn’t even know the names of most of his teammates, which is why he called them all, “Kid,” or “Babe.” Moreover, players can be bitterly subjective, even petty. Any problem you might have with “cronyism” or “personal vendettas” in the ranks of the writers increases five-fold with the players.

Note well that I said, again and again, with rare exceptions. Because there are exceptions and they are notable. Ted Williams, for example, was an avid, open-minded, and generously disposed student who couldn’t get enough of the stuff. It was one of his finer qualities. Joe DiMaggio, on the other hand, couldn’t have cared less.

This is not intended as an indictment of baseball players, although I am not above that. It is just that they are different from other athletes. Hockey players, by and large, are passionate about their game’s culture and history. They know it. They love it. You can’t sit around an old boxing gym without drifting into anecdotes about a Kid Gavilan or even a Kid Chocolate. Golfers and tennis players constantly measure themselves against the ghosts of the past. But baseball players are different. The mind-set of the ballplayer and the mind-set of those who root for them, write about them, or analyze them is very different.

The old players should be a small and minor voice on any new panel they come up with. They gained control in a nifty power-grab orchestrated by Joe Morgan, the Reds’ superb second-baseman, who apparently got a burr under his saddle when his old rival Bill Mazeroski finally made it. Little Joe doesn’t think Maz was good enough and while it’s a fact Maz was barely half as good as Joe on offense, he was about twice the player on defense which pretty much evens it up in my book.

Joe is a hard-liner. But he did vote for five contenders this time and lobbied strenuously on behalf of Marvin Miller, the Herculean labor-leader who not only revolutionized baseball but changed the face of American Sport. It’s all about impact. If Marvin Miller doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame then neither does Babe Ruth. So what if he never played a game. Neither did Judge Landis, Tom Yawkey, Morgan Bulkeley, Ban Johnson or Ford Frick, not one of whom had an ounce of Marvin’s soul, wit, intelligence or character.

Backing such a giant is a no-brainer. But 31 of the 82 voters did not pick him and the majority -- allegedly -- were the old ballplayers. You would have thought they would want to honor the man who brought fabulous riches to their profession even if they personally didn’t benefit much. Was some sort of twisted bias at work here? As I warned, the old boys can be petty.

Poor Marvin. Some day he’ll make it although nearing 90, he may be denied the satisfaction in this lifetime. That’s another of the games they play in this oddly obtuse and archaic process. Weep not for Marvin. He’s an old pro. Taking it rather harder is Ron Santo, the venerable Cubs’ third baseman who is withering away from diabetes, and the family of Gil Hodges, which has been through this wringer every year for the last three decades. Talk of your cruel and unusual punishment.

It’s time for a change. It’s time to get it right!

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