And the Pope wears a pointy hat. And the sun rises in the east. And a bear drops a deuce in the woods. What I’m saying is, it’s yet another installment in the Coop Poops the Bed. Usually Miller covers this beat, but today you’re stuck with me, and I’m on something of a rant.
See I’m a word guy. Here’s how the word pioneer is defined at Merriam-Webster.com:
- a person who helps create or develop new ideas, methods, etc.
- someone who is one of the first people to move to and live in a new area.
When we look at the Hall of Fame’s pioneers, it’s not entirely clear which use of the word the electorate has made its decisions by. The Homestead Act of 1862 ushered in one of America’s greatest periods of westward expansion and pioneering, and just happened to coincide with baseball’s great Civil-War period expansion and eventual professionalization. I went to baseballhall.org and looked at the actual plaques of the 28 me enshrined under the label pioneer/executive. Things are awfully hazy, especially because the Hall’s site considers everyone in this category an executive.
- Alexander Cartwright’s plaque says only “Father of Baseball”
- George Wright’s plaque refers to “baseball’s pioneer years”
- Harry Wright’s plaque lists lots of firsts associated with those same pioneer years
- Candy Cummings’s plaque says he invented the curveball in the 1860s
- Al Spalding’s plaque mentions those same pioneer days.
- Morgan Bulkeley’s plaque talks about the founding of the NL
- So does William Hulbert’s
- Hendry Chadwick’s plaque also talks about pioneer times.
So eight of the 28 fellows in this wing of the Hall (about 30%) are people from the Pioneer Era in American history. But as our first definition above indicates, pioneering is about ideas, not just settling open spaces (or taking them from the natives). Heck, on Roger Bresnahan’s plaque, no mention at all is made of his equipment innovations, which have saved countless games of wear and tear across time.
This is not well reflected in the Hall’s Era Committee voting rules. Here’s what they say about this group of potential honorees:
Executives retired for at least five years. Active executives 65 years or older are eligible for consideration.
So, nothing about pioneers at all.
Now, we should probably interpret Larry MacPhail’s plaque as bearing some pioneer status (“originated” appears in it) and Branch Rickey’s (“brought Jackie Robinson to Brooklyn”). And if we do, we might be led to believe that all innovation in baseball stopped in 1947. An idea that seems as foolish to write as it is for you to read.
The truth, of course, is that baseball is constantly evolving, and that many evolutions and revolutions have shaped its path. If you don’t like today’s high-strikeout, pitching-dominated brand of the game, you won’t have to wait long. The competitive nature of the game demands that individuals and teams find ways to beat the prevailing conditions, and when they do, everyone else adopts their idea or method (in time). Just look at the sabrmetric revolution. No front office now, not even the Phillies, lack a statistical analyst. On the field, pioneers exist in equipment, tactics, styles of play. Off the field in safety and injury prevention or intervention. Around the field in things like stadium building, lighting, and more. Innovations occur frequently and with lasting results.
Consider something as subtle as the webbed glove. Its introduction in the early 1920s coincides with a rise in double play rates and the resultant swapping of second and third basemen on the defensive spectrum. It also helped cut down error rates, driving down unearned runs. One might argue that it allowed more athletic players to get at more balls because they no longer required two hands to corral the ball. Error avoidance becomes less important when webbing provides extra insurance against fumbles. Cardinals pitcher Bill Doak is widely credited with introducing the idea of the webbed glove, and we’ll be considering him. Whether we elect him or not, this kind of seemingly small innovation leads to changes in the very engine of the game. Imagine what baseball would look like today if we still used those old-fashioned puffy gloves with no pocket and webbing!
The Hall of Fame has failed repeatedly with pioneers. It has failed primarily by not defining what pioneer means and by defaulting to a definition that appears in most cases time bound. It reserves the idea of pioneering for baseball’s primordial era and strangely avoids seeking those whose changed things for the better. When suggestions about people like scouts or Frank Jobe come up, they are quickly brushed aside with “there’s no defined path for them.” Rubbish. They may very well fit under the pioneers rubric, if the Hall would simply start using it again.
So that’s where we’re coming from. We see pioneering not as a thing done at a certain time but a certain thing done that has an effect for all time. We want to identify and honor those people whose ingenuity has led to the best game on Earth being what it is today. We hope you’ll agree that by doing so, we make the category of pioneers a more exciting, living document of what’s important in baseball.
I haven’t even addressed the quality of the Hall’s selections. In the interest of brevity, let us simply say that of the eight men bulleted out above, two (the Wrights) are already HoME members and can’t be elected to this wing by our decree, and three of the remainder are complete wastes of bronze. We think Spalding, Hulbert, and Chadwick are all reasonable selections. Well, 38% ain’t that bad, I guess….