Crème de la crème

    My new book, Cooperstown at the Crossroads, offers a nine-point plan to reinvigorate the National Baseball Hall of Fame. (The book is now available from Niawanda Books.) I’m going into detail about each of my nine proposals on successive Fridays in this newsletter. Today — Point No. 7, elite recognition.

    Joe Morgan was unfamiliar with failure. He tackled — and succeeded at — a variety of baseball-related jobs. Morgan played 22 seasons in the big leagues, winning two Most Valuable Player Awards, amassing an excellent quality score (64 points), and entrenching himself as one of the greatest second basemen of all time. He spent two decades at ESPN, serving as an announcer on its primary television crew. He joined the Hall of Fame’s board of directors, rising to become its vice chairman.

    It’s easy to understand why Morgan never seemed to be threatened by the success of others, why he felt comfortable at any gathering of baseball people, why he considered Cooperstown an idyllic place where everybody was equally deserving of respect. “Here,” he said expansively, “no player was better than anyone else. We are all peers.”

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    Morgan painted a pleasant picture, though not an accurate one. Most of his fellow inductees — especially those who failed to match his high level of achievement — were more realistic. They acknowledged that the Hall of Fame’s roster has always been stratified, rather than uniform. Listen to these witnesses:

    Sam Rice (1963): “If it were a real Hall of Fame, you’d say [Ty] Cobb, [Tris] Speaker, Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and a few others belonged, and then you’d let your voice soften to a mere whisper.”

    Earl Averill (1975): “I’m convinced my record speaks for itself and that I was qualified to become a member. Not that I think of myself walking in the light of Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, or Rogers Hornsby. But then, who else could stand beside those giants?”

    Pee Wee Reese (1984): “I always looked at the Hall of Fame as the DiMaggios, the Cobbs, the Ruths, the Ted Williamses.”

    Reggie Jackson (1993): “There’s Hall of Famers, and then there’s really Hall of Famers.”

    Bruce Sutter (2006): “It still doesn’t sound right to me: Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax, and Bruce Sutter. But I guess I’m going to be there with them.”

    Jim Kaat (2022): “There’s got to be degrees of the Hall of Fame. I think they probably have a back row for me, and I’ll wave to those guys up there.”

    Critics have seized on these statements, citing them to support proposals for the hall’s downsizing.

    Peter Clark, writing in the Sporting News in 2002, suggested a drastic cut that would have exiled all but 25 members. “The Hall of Fame should be reserved only for the greatest of the great,” he insisted.

    A 2014 Newsweek article called for the elimination of any inductee who wasn’t a certified legend. “We know who baseball’s legends are,” wrote John Walters. “They’re surnames: Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio, Feller, Koufax, Gibson, Rose (yes, Rose), Maddux. They’re nicknames: Babe, the Iron Horse, Teddy Ballgame, Hammerin’ Hank, the Say Hey Kid, the Big Hurt.” Everybody else, by implication, was supposed to hit the bricks.

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    My new system doesn’t go as far as Clark or Walters would have liked — don’t forget that we’ve already imposed a general amnesty — but it does recognize the underlying validity of their assertions. Yes, they’re right. The Hall of Fame has gotten too big. It had 340 members after the 2022 election, and that was before we elevated 119 writers and broadcasters to official status, hiking the total to 459. It’s possible that the number of honorees will pass 500 by 2030.

    That leaves us with this dilemma: How can we maintain such a large (and growing) Hall of Fame without eclipsing the radiance of its most brilliant members? How can we properly acknowledge the players at the apex of what Jim Kaat calls the “degrees of the Hall of Fame,” ensuring that they don’t become lost in the crowd?

    The answer can be found in an obscure historical episode that involved academia and its arcane internal politics.

    Let me briefly explain. The National Institute of Arts and Letters was founded in 1898. Its stated goal was to promote the “advancement of art and literature” in the United States, though its actual purpose was to serve as an honor society. Two hundred and fifty architects, artists, musicians, and writers were elected as lifetime members. They luxuriated in their status as the nation’s intellectual and creative paragons, the outstanding men and women in their chosen fields.

    But their excitement faded rather quickly. Many members, according to literary historian Malcolm Cowley, came to believe that 250 was simply too big a number. “One of the first arguments was occasioned by the size of the institute,” Cowley wrote. “Wasn’t it too large to confer enough dignity on its individual members?”

    A solid consensus gradually emerged on this ticklish question, with most members agreeing that the institute was insufficiently exclusive. It was simply too big. But advocates understood that a reduction would not be easily accomplished. Expelling honorees was an unthinkable option, given that they possessed lifetime tenure. And nobody was offering to step aside for the benefit of his or her colleagues.

    The institute’s sharpest minds eventually fashioned a solution. They proposed the creation of a second body, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, which would be restricted to 50 members. All academy members would be drawn from the institute’s roster of 250. The chosen 50 would constitute the crème de la crème, the highest intellectual echelon in the United States. This new two-tiered system — institute and academy — was implemented in 1904.

    Here is the model for baseball to emulate. The Hall of Fame will continue its inexorable growth toward 500 members and beyond — there’s no reason to stop it — but the very best will be elevated to another tier. Exceptional inductees will retain their plaques in the main gallery, while also being welcomed to an exclusive club restricted to the greatest players of all time, known as the Elite 100.

    There will be a separate display, of course. I hesitate to recommend the construction of yet another wing — my previous proposals have already taxed the Hall of Fame’s budget and available territory — but the Elite 100 will quickly become the hall’s prime attraction. It will definitely need its own space.

    The Elite 100 will be confined to players, since they are the stars who draw a large majority of Cooperstown’s annual visitors. The proposed Selection Committee will scrutinize the records of all players in the hall — 268 at current count — and tap 100 for this ultimate honor. The basic principle is the one that the National Institute of Arts and Letters followed in spinning off the smaller, more exclusive American Academy.

    Yet there’s also a key difference. Members of the academy received lifetime tenure, but players in the Elite 100 will serve 10-year terms, subject to reelection. (They will retain perpetual membership in the hall itself, regardless of any success or failure at the elite level.)

    The screening subcommittee will construct the ballot, nominating a group of 10 players from a common era and set of positions. The Selection Committee will render its verdict in the early spring, after each voter has designated his five choices. (This will be a straight pick-five-of-10 election, not involving the four-point scale.) The top five vote-getters in each group will be admitted to the Elite 100. Elections for two groups will be conducted simultaneously on a yearly basis.

    The initial membership of the Elite 100 will be determined during its first decade, as 10 new inductees are added annually. The reelection cycle will begin in the 11th year, with the incumbents in the first two groups returning to face challengers picked by the subcommittee.

    Imagine the excitement that will be stirred up by each year’s balloting for the Elite 100 — the media profiles of great players from the past, the heated debates over their relative merits, the intense anticipation of the election results. The annual enshrinement of 10 elite honorees will become an important element of the induction ceremony in July.

    I have presumed to simulate these elections, making my own nominations. I matched the distribution of positional groups to the breakdown of the hall’s 268 players:

    Infielders, including catchers: 108 (40 percent)

    Outfielders, including designated hitters: 77 (29 percent)

    Pitchers: 83 (31 percent)

    Eight groups, as a result, consist of infielders, while six apiece are allocated to outfielders and pitchers. All of these groups are divided by eras, with the middle year of each player’s career serving as a rough guide.

    First baseman Cap Anson, for instance, entered the major leagues in 1871 and played through 1897, giving him a midpoint of 1884. That qualified him for Group A, which comprises 10 infielders with midpoints between 1871 and 1901. (I chose time spans that were roughly equivalent in their distributions of Hall of Famers. The subcommittee, I imagine, will be more subjective when it assigns a span to each group.)

    Players elected to the Elite 100 will not be listed as representatives of specific groups. They will installed as peers, very much in the spirit voiced by Joe Morgan. The only purpose of the groups is to guarantee a fair representation of all positions and eras.

    The Selection Committee will be instructed to consider all of a player’s accomplishments, even if he played different positions or extended his career beyond his given span. Any candidate for the Elite 100, of course, must already be a member of the Hall of Fame.

    Sorry to end with a letdown, but there simply isn’t enough space here to post my 20 lists of potential candidates for the Elite 100. If you’re interested, you’ll find complete rundowns in Cooperstown at the Crossroads.

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