If asked, how would you capture the essence of a Hall of Fame baseball life? If told you had a limit of 50 words to immortalize and stamp Stan Musial’s career, for example, what would you say? What numbers would you select? What achievements or moments would you focus upon? Some time over the past six months, these questions have been pondered and answered for the 2008 Hall of Fame Class: Goose Gossage, Dick Williams, Billy Southworth, Bowie Kuhn, Walter O’Malley, and Barney Dreyfuss. The question can be difficult, for there are myriad ingredients that mix and blend into a legendary career or place in baseball history. Some players become securely attached to a singular number: Hank Aaron and 755; Lou Gehrig and 2130; Ted Williams and .406; Cy Young and 511. Others rest their foundation on a singular moment: Bill Mazeroski’s bottom of the ninth home run in game seven of the 1960 World Series that enabled the Pirates to vanquish the mighty Yankees; Christy Mathewson’s three shutouts in the 1905 World Series; Carl Hubbell’s five straight strikeouts of five future Hall of Famers in the 1934 All-Star Game, Carlton Fisk’s arm-directed pleading for his ball to stay fair in the 1975 World Series. Others don’t have a unique moment or number to serve as the beacon: Don Sutton employed an amazing consistency and remarkable durability on his way to 324 wins: 20 straight seasons of 200 innings pitched, Sutton reached double-digits in wins in 21 of his 23 years; Eddie Murray would churn out home runs and RBI like clockwork, each year looking amazingly like the one previous, no particular season leaping to the forefront: yet, when all was said and done, Murray placed himself alongside Hank Aaron and Willie Mays as only the third player in history to accumulate 3000 hits and 500 home runs. Still, any exercise in which we try to extract the heart and soul of a Hall of Fame career cannot rest solely on any one of these elements alone. Lou Gehrig’s true story lies beyond the 2130 straight games; Hank Aaron’s puzzle contains countless pieces, Christy Mathewson’s extraordinary time in the Majors begins before and continues long after his 1905 World Series performance, and to truly understand what Don Sutton or Eddie Murray meant to the game, particular moments can be placed under the microscope for examination and celebration.
The greatness lies in the stories and memories that surround the special ballplayers – those dictionary definitions and encyclopedia images that seek to add breadth to the statistical foundations. In those stories and images, we can gain perspective and add context, and a ballplayer can leap from the page and take on thickening dimension. A story from Dock Ellis on what is was like to watch Bill Mazeroski receive a throw from Gene Alley and turn the pivot on a double play transforms Maz from a Goliath-slaying David into something fuller and more appreciable. Ted Williams’ magical run and attainment of a .400 batting average expands in the mythology when we look into the final day of the season, when he played in a doubleheader in Philadelphia and collected six hits in eight at-bats to speed by .400 and park at .406. Carl Hubbell’s mastery of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons and Joe Cronin on July 10, 1934 retains a degree of the mystical until we seek to learn about his screwball and we hear the story of Lou Gehrig muttering to Foxx after the Iron Horse struck out, “You might as well cut away. It won’t get any higher. That guy won’t give you anything to hit.”
Of course, a Hall of Fame plaque cannot meander through these trails – in its outline of the ballplayer’s career, the words must draw out the core and proclaim the essential. For the plaques at the National Baseball Hall of Fame serve as abstracts: sketches that introduce, bow, and then (hoping we will follow) turn to begin the journey toward deeper understanding and appreciation. The plaques and their words are invitations to the millions of people who pass by every year: inducements to seek other sources of stories and images that bring our baseball heroes to life.
Later this week, I will be traveling to Cooperstown for the Hall of Fame Induction Weekend. For two days, I will have the privilege of sitting down with some of the Hall of Famers and listening to their stories. No matter what tales are told, what memories are awakened, or what moments are recalled, the game’s history will be brought back to life. I will sit there with a widening smile, and with each phrase, sentence, and storyline, the plaques in my mind will expand and take on a more discernible texture and a deeper substance. But there are other sources available for those of you who aren’t so lucky. Five books sit in my library at home: they are smudged with fingerprints, roughed at the edges, and their dust jackets are holding on for dear life, but the contents remain vibrant and clear. These five books – oral Histories compiled and edited by Lawrence Ritter and Donald Honig – bring the game’s history to life. I heartily recommend any and all of them to anyone who has ever looked at a Hall of Fame plaque and wondered about the stories that are not mentioned.