In our last installment of Hall of Fame Candidates, I asked you to make a list of the most famous ballplayers in your lifetime who are IN the Hall of Fame, then make a list of the most famous ballplayers in your lifetime who are NOT IN the Hall of Fame, and then compare the two lists.
My tentative list of Hall of Famers looked like this:
And my tentative list of non-Hall of Famers looked like this:
And I would argue that the list of non-Hall of Famers is every bit as famous as the list of players in the Hall of Fame. Maybe more famous.
The point is not to (once again) prattle on about putting the best players in the Hall of Fame. That’s covered ground.
The point is to ask this question: What happens when there are more famous players out of the Hall of Fame than in? I’m not discussing ethics, I’m simply asking from the standpoint of plausibility. Can you be the Hall of Fame when there’s more fame outside your doors?
We’re not there yet … but it’s strangely close.
The most famous player of all time is Babe Ruth.
Barry Bonds is not in the Hall of Fame.
The second-most famous player of all time is … Ted Williams? Willie Mays? Hank Aaron? Mickey Mantle? Joe DiMaggio? Yogi Berra?
Or is it Pete Rose? He is not in the Hall of Fame. Also: Mark McGwire; Sammy Sosa; Shoeless Joe Jackson; Manny Ramirez, Minnie Miñoso …
The most famous pitcher of all time is Sandy Koufax? Nolan Ryan? Satchel Paige? Walter Johnson?
Roger Clemens is not in the Hall of Fame. Curt Schilling isn’t either. Luis Tiant. Fernando Valenzuela. Don Newcombe.
Cy Young’s name lives on. He’s in the Hall. Tommy John’s name lives on. He is not.
The most famous owner in baseball history is probably George Steinbrenner. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. Billy Martin is certainly as famous as a manager can be. He’s not in the Hall of Fame. The most famous and influential off-the-field person in baseball history is Branch Rickey, and he’s in the Hall of Fame, but just behind him is Marvin Miller, who is not. The baseball writer Henry Chadwick was called the Father of Baseball, and he’s in the Hall of Fame;’ Vin Scully is many multiples more famous and he is not.*
*People often say that people who win the Spink Award (for writers) and Frick Award (for broadcasters) are Hall of Famers, and I’m good with saying that — but as numerous people in Cooperstown have told me, it’s not actually so. They are Hall of Fame award winners — Scully is a Frick award winner — but they are not actually Hall of Famers. Chadwick is a full-fledged Hall of Famer. Scully is not. Bill James isn’t either.
Buck O’Neil is one of the most famous baseball players and personalities in the history of the game. He’s not in the Hall of Fame.
You can go by decades too. You know all about how PEDs wiped out the 1990s class of famous players.
But what about the 1980s? The Simpsons “Homer at the Bat” came out in 1992, and it featured several of the most famous players of the 1980s.
Roger Clemens — NO
Wade Boggs — YES
Ken Griffey Jr. — YES
Steve Sax — NO
Ozzie Smith — YES
Jose Canseco — NO
Don Mattingly — NO
Darryl Strawberry — NO
Mike Scioscia — NO
From that decade I would add Dale Murphy, Dwight Gooden, Bo Jackson, Orel Hershiser, Fernando Valenzuela, Dan Quisenberry, all NOs.
From the 1970s? Rose and Garvey are as famous as anyone from that decade (along with Reggie Jackson and Johnny Bench and Tom Seaver), and neither are in. Also Mark Fidrych, Ron Guidry, Graig Nettles, George Foster, Thurman Munson, you get the point.
The Hall of Fame, by its nature, is exclusive. We like that. It’s also come to represent something more than baseball. And many people (most people?) would argue that quote-unquote “famous” players should not be in the Hall of Fame if they cheated or they broke a cardinal rule or their careers ended too soon for them to fully establish their greatness.
It takes much more than fame to get into the Hall. It takes a complicated and inconsistent fusion of great play, authenticity, popularity, key moments and career achievements for a player to be elected and inducted.
And because the path into the Hall of Fame is winding and vague, there will be strangeness. There’s no way around that. You can put two players right next to each other — say Harold Baines and Fred McGriff … Travis Jackson and Lou Whitaker … Lloyd Waner and Andruw Jones … Rube Marquard or Bret Saberhagen — and 75% of the people will choose one as the better player, but it’s the other one in the Hall of Fame. These are the quirks of Cooperstown. Those quirks will always be a part of the place.
But, beyond the quirks, I can’t help but wonder how long a Hall of Fame can maintain its position when it’s less than a 50-50 shot that the most famous players of your lifetime are in the plaque room.