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July 22, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Cooperstown's Backhanded Compliment

by Jay Jaffe

Technically, they're not Hall of Famers. The broadcasters and writers honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame are recipients of the Ford C. Frick and J.G. Taylor Spink Awards, the highest honors in their respective fields. Voted upon on an annual basis by a committee of previous award winners, historians, and columnists in the case of the former, and by the Baseball Writers Association of America in the case of the latter, they are recognized at the Cooperstown mecca not with the bronze plaques that players, managers, executives, and pioneers receive, the ones that hang in the hallowed Hall of Fame Gallery. Rather, a portrait of each recipient is included in the "Scribes & Mikemen" exhibit in the Hall's library. As the Class of 2011 is inducted this weekend, those honorees are being pushed even further from the limelight.

In a press release released to little fanfare on Tuesday, the Hall of Fame announced that the recipients of the Frick and Spink Awards will no longer be part of the Sunday induction ceremony. They buried the lede by announcing the creation of a separate Saturday event:

Fifty-three Hall of Famers will return to the July 22-25 Induction Weekend in Cooperstown as Roberto Alomar, Bert Blyleven and Pat Gillick are enshrined as the Class of 2011 at the Baseball Hall of Fame. But the day before the July 24 Induction Ceremony, award winners Bill Conlin, Roland Hemond and Dave Van Horne will experience the crowning achievement of their professional careers at the inaugural Hall of Fame Awards Ceremony at Doubleday Field.

The Saturday, July 23 events at historic Doubleday Field will begin with the new Hall of Fame Spotlight Series, which will feature Hall of Famers participating in interactive discussions on topics such as Scribes and Mikemen, Talent Evaluation, The Art of Pitching and The Batter's Eye. Hall of Famers scheduled to participate include Tommy Lasorda, Paul Molitor, Gaylord Perry, Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Earl Weaver. The Hall of Fame Spotlight Series, which runs from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., is free and open to the public.

The Hall of Fame Awards Presentation will follow at 4:30 p.m. The one-hour program will feature the presentation of the J.G. Taylor Spink Award for meritorious contributions to baseball writing to Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News; the Buck O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award to veteran baseball executive Roland Hemond; and the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcast excellence to longtime Expos and Marlins announcer Dave Van Horne. Also as part of the Awards Presentation, singer/songwriter Terry Cashman will perform his classic hit "Talkin' Baseball (Willie, Mickey and The Duke)" in recognition of the 30-year anniversary of this legendary tune. The Awards Presentation is free and open to the public.

[emphasis in original]

While Saturday's ceremony sounds like a perfectly nice event in and of itself, but by cordoning off the Frick and Spink winners (as well as that of the O'Neil Lifetime Achievement Award, of which Hemond is the first recipient since the museum posthumously honored the man for who it was named in 2008) for a separate day, the Hall is greatly diminishing the number of people who can attend or view the ceremony. Consider that Cooperstown, New York is a village of a mere 1,852 according to the 2010 census. It is typically overrun by around 10 times that number for the induction ceremony, though crowds can be much bigger. The 1999 induction of George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount set a record by drawing 50,000 people. The 2007 induction of Cal Ripken Jr. and Tony Gwynn upped the ante to an estimated 75,000. As big as upstate New York's tourism industry may be, that's far more than the immediate area can accommodate for an overnight stay. If you're driving from a considerable distance away and can only pick one day to attend the Hall of Fame weekend, the choice is obvious, and if you're traveling in general, by now you may not have the flexibility to alter your plans.

Seating is unlimited for Sunday's festivities, which are held on the grounds of the Clark Sports Center, with screens projecting the event for those not close enough to view it first-hand. The event is also broadcast live on television, satellite radio, and the Internet; one way or another, it's tough to miss. By contrast, Saturday's ceremony takes place at Doubleday Field, a ballpark that officially seats 9,791 people. Nowhere in the release does it say the event will be broadcast by any means, and the relatively late announcement limits time for media to plan accordingly.

In a way, the separate festivities make them not unlike the Oscars' Scientific and Technical Awards, which are presented at a dinner ceremony separate from the annual telecast, and reduced to a rattled-off and quickly forgotten list for viewers of the main event. In another way, they're reminiscent of an even more backhanded slap, a reminder of second-class citizenship.

It's a stretch to say that this arrangement is on the order of the you-gotta-be-kidding-me "separate but equal" recognition the Hall had planned for Negro League honorees back in 1971. Citing the Hall's rules that players must have spent 10 seasons in the major leagues, commissioner Bowie Kuhn declared that Satchel Paige and subsequent honorees would win what was termed the Negro Baseball Leagues Award. Paige, never at a loss for words, wasn't having it: "Iain't going in the back doorto the Hall of Fame." Jackie Robinson was outraged, and Los Angeles Timescolumnist and future Spink Award winner Jim Murray wrote, "This notion of Jim Crow in Baseball's Heaven is appalling. What is this—1840? Either let him in the front of the Hall—or move the damn thing to Mississippi."

By the time the ceremony came around, the powers that be had come to their senses. Ironically, the cause was helped by Kuhn, who in publicly exposing the rigidity of the Hall's policy had actually made an end run around the institution's board of directors, which was then headed by—wait for it—Frick. This new arrangement is not a slight on that order, but steering an award named for a Negro League player into a sidelight away from the main action should raise an eyebrow or two.

What's behind this decision to split into two ceremonies? The official line comes via Brad Horn, the Hall's senior director of communication and education, who responded to my questions via email. To Horn, the event "is a natural evolution of Hall of Fame Weekend, as we continue to evaluate the game's history and our role in celebrating its excellence. The Awards Presentation is a standalone, marquee event, that brings a spotlight focus to the Award winners of the Hall of Fame."

Not everybody views it so sunnily. One source with knowledge of the situation says that the Hall of Famers present for last year's ceremony complained that it went on too long, with the likes of Frick winner Jon Miller and Spink winner Bill Madden—not to mention musician John Fogerty, who sang along to a recording of his song "Centerfield" to cringeworthy effect—adding another 45 to 50 minutes to a ceremony that with three honorees (Andre Dawson, Whitey Herzog, and Doug Harvey) ran about 90 minutes already. In the heat of late July, among a group of men in their fifties, sixties and upwards, the extra time isn't a trivial consideration, though the Hall of Famers have access to tents and air conditioned areas if they leave their special seating area.

Said the source of the split ceremonies, "It's extremely disappointing that this is the way they're handling it, and particularly that it's being done in a way that will result in less media coverage for the honorees."

Horn feels otherwise. "Awardees now are no longer just 'part of the program' on Sunday," he wrote. "They are the entire program on Saturday. The events of Saturday bring great shine to the Award winners, from an entire day of pre-event promotion, to the actual spotlight, to leading the Parade of Legends that immediately follows the program. We believe that this year's Award winners will receive more coverage and interest than any previous class of award winners."

As to the attendance for the event, it sounds as though the Hall is at least expecting a relatively full ballpark. "We do not have projections. Saturday is always a popular day in Cooperstown," wrote Horn. "[W]e believe that the majority of Cooperstown visitors will fill the ballpark to catch a glimpse of the 50+ Hall of Famers that will be on stage, while enjoying the speeches of this year's award winners." Given the Hall of Famers' complaints, it remains to be seen whether they'll turn out in full force for the additional day, particularly with the weather set to challenge the date's record high of 90 degrees (Cooperstown's location on a lake does have its advantages).

Pulling back from the nuts and bolts of the two days, and thinking about the institution's role in honoring baseball history, there's a level at which it seems silly not to consider the writers and broadcasters to be bona fide Hall of Famers. Did they wear uniforms? No, but then neither did general managers George Weiss and Pat Gillick, commissioners Kuhn and Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, pioneers Alexander Cartwright and Henry Chadwick, all of whom earned their bronze for something besides hitting a round ball with a round bat squarely or trying to prevent others from doing the same. The Hall has never been simply a players-only club; by the time the first induction ceremonies were held in 1939, a total of 10 pioneers, executives and managers had been voted in alongside 16 players.

Not all of the Frick and Spink winners enjoy the same stature nationally. Madden is no Peter Gammons (2004 Spink winner), and longtime Royals broadcaster Denny Matthews (2007 Frick winner) isn't a household name like Miller. Nonetheless, the impact that such men have had on the game is indelible, their reach across both regions and generations remarkable. They've been tremendously important to expanding baseball's appeal to broader audiences, quite possibly responsible for more fannies in seats, more talk around barstools and water coolers than most players.

Would anyone care to argue that Vin Scully is less important to baseball history than Don Sutton, or even Duke Snider? Can anyone justify why 1996 Veterans Committee inductee Jim Bunning has a bronze plaque but Ernie Harwell, the man who called his later years at the head of a four-decade run in Detroit, does not? Does anyone revere Heinie Manush's body of work the way they do that of Red Smith? Would Bruce Sutter even have a plaque if it weren't for Jerome Holtzman, creator of the save rule? And say what you will about local whipping boy Murray Chass, but his coverage of the business side of baseball had a greater impact on the game's history than the play of another favorite around these parts, Jim Rice.

It's a pipe dream to think that the Hall of Fame would so drastically reverse course as to grant the Frick, Spink, and O'Neill award winners full member status, not with nearly a half-century of honorees setting a precedent. Certainly, there's no way this year's schedule is being altered to return these award winners to the main event. It will be interesting to see how well the Saturday event draws. If it must be separate, let us at least hope that the Hall and the media can throw a larger spotlight on the show next time around, investing more energy in affording these honorees the attention appropriate to those at the zenith of their careers. After all, you only get voted into Cooperstown once, even if it's just the damn library.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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