Frank's Place: Baseball Hall of Fame built on lies

Baseball Hall-of-Fame first class June 12, 1939 AP 1200x800
Babe Ruth and other retired baseball stars attend the dedication of the baseball Hall of Fame on June 12, 1939. Front row, from left: Eddie Collins, Ruth, Connie Mack, and Cy Young; rear, from left: Honus Wagner, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Tris Speaker, Napoleon Lajoie, George Sisler, and Walter Johnson.

In a familiar photograph taken at Cooperstown on June 12, 1939, the day the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum was dedicated there, 10 of the 11 living Hall members are awkwardly posed.

Your eyes are drawn immediately to a vibrant force at the image's center. There, Babe Ruth appears to have tapped into an energy source his uptight and anemic companions never located.

His socks are rolled down jauntily to the ankles. He alone is not wearing a tie. And on that big wide face is an impish grin, one that suggests some mischief is afoot.

I'd like to think that the smiling Sultan of Swat realized what a sham the whole Hall of Fame enterprise was, that he saw how silly and futile it was for so many to devote so much mental energy into deciding which adult participants in a child's game should have their images hung in the dark gallery of a building on the main street of an Upstate New York farming community.

To be blunt, that 1939 ceremony in the charming village along Otsego Lake was itself a charade.

It was meant to commemorate the 100th anniversary of baseball, the American-born game that, according to its guardians, was invented in a Cooperstown cow pasture by Abner Doubleday in 1839.

Though neither baseball executives nor the 11,000 fans who flocked there that hot afternoon appeared to care, that story had more holes in it than Cody Asche's swing:

Baseball wasn't a purely American invention, but rather a derivative of English ball games like rounders and cricket. Much proof, even then, pointed to Alexander Cartwright as its creator.

As for Doubleday, he wasn't even living in Cooperstown in 1839. No one had ever seen him play baseball, ever heard him talk about baseball, or ever read anything he'd written about baseball.

And the only evidence that supported this fairy tale was a letter written by a man who later would be committed to a mental institution after killing his wife.

Fake news, it seems, is not a new construct.

The bogus origin story was the Hall's original sin. Created on a foundation of lies, the institution ever since has been tainted by controversy, disputes, and unanswered questions.

Is induction all about statistics? Should longevity count more than brief bursts of brilliance? Why did it take so long for black players to be considered? Why is the voting process restricted to writers? How many owe their membership to friends on the Veterans Committee? And, most problematic of all, how should factors such as character and integrity be weighed?

That last question has continued to resonate and cast shadows on the Hall. When the 2016 election results were revealed last week, two suspected steroid-enhanced superstars, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, were again snubbed while a third, Jeff Bagwell, was admitted.

It's amusing to hear supporters of Bonds, Clemens, and even Pete Rose argue that character shouldn't be a consideration, that baseball achievement alone should determine Hall worthiness.

The Hall's intention was just the opposite.

"[The Hall of Fame] was created without statistical criteria of any kind," wrote Zev Chafets in his illuminating 2009 book, Cooperstown Confidential. "The only criterion they insisted upon was that the members of the new Hall be men of integrity, virtue, and character."

In 1944, to help clear up the confusion, Hall officials added Rule 5. The only guidance offered to electors, it could easily be seen as lending more weight to character than statistics:

"Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team on which the player played."

Of course, except for the cases of those perceived to be the worst abusers of the steroid era, character has rarely been an issue for voters. All kinds of racists, liars, drunks, and philanderers populate the Hall.

Ruth, part of the Hall's first class in 1936, was a man of many vices. He also produced the kinds of revolutionary statistics that today would be prima facie evidence of wrongdoing.

When, for example, he exploded for 54 homers in 1921, it was more than twice the runner-up's total and more than all but one team in baseball – surprise, the Phillies – had hit.

It's doubtful, though, that the 95.1 percent of voters who included Ruth on their 1936 ballots gave that any thought. Off-the-field was off-limits. The sports section, much like the Hall of Fame, was for making - and protecting – our heroes.

It's not only the morally compromised who cheapen the Hall. There are the thoroughly undeserving. Any institution dedicated to identifying baseball immortals that includes Morgan Bulkeley has forfeited all credibility.

Bulkeley was a respected Connecticut politician and businessman, but here is his entire baseball resumé:

Two years as owner of the Hartford Dark Blues. One year as National League president.

Wake up the echoes.

Not long after that 1939 photo was taken, Ruth and the others changed into baseball uniforms. They assumed various roles in an exhibition game featuring current and past major-leaguers at Doubleday Field.

In the fifth inning, the sold-out crowd of 10,000 exploded when Ruth walked to the plate as a pinch-hitter.

The count went to 1-1 when the 44-year-old legend took a powerful cut - and fouled out to the catcher.

Mudville didn't care that Mighty Casey had failed. They cheered Ruth wildly. Later the spectators dispersed, many heading for the new Hall

Once inside, they were swallowed up by baseball's mythology. And, their illusions intact, they were happy.

ffitzpatrick@phillynews.com

@philafitz