Andre Dawson is the only player who will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this weekend and will join 202 players who came before him with a bust in Cooperstown.
Dawson certainly deserves to be in the Hall of Fame based on the current criteria. In fact, if you compare his numbers to those already in the Hall, it’s a wonder it took the voters this long to get him in. But there’s just something about 203 players in the Hall of Fame – 292 members if you include managers, umpires, owners and other contributors – that seems a bit over-inflated. Can we compare everyone in baseball to Babe Ruth? Of course not, and I wouldn’t expect you to read something that in any way tries to make that argument. Certainly a player can be great without being the greatest.
The problem, of course, is that the run of inductees will never stop. There are 292 members now, and that number will certainly break 300 in the next two or three years. By the time our kids are bringing their kids to Cooperstown, we could be celebrating 500 people in the Hall of Fame.
Again, the point of this is not to suggest that the current 292 or the theoretical 500 won’t be worthy of honors and won’t be part of the very best in the history of the sport. But how many becomes too many to be considered historically "great"?
Baseball isn’t the only offender of the idea of opening up Hall of Fame doors for something less than the greatest of the great. The Hockey Hall of Fame boasts 244 players, 98 builders and 15 referees and linesmen. The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame has 290 members, which includes men and women’s players and all the Harlem Globetrotters. The Pro Football Hall of Fame has 260 members. That’s nearly 1,100 Hall of Famers in the four major sports, and that’s not including niche-specific halls like the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame – which introduced its 2010 class this week – the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame or any of the college halls of fame.
We sure do like to celebrate our athletes.
But maybe that’s the point of the Hall of Fame. It’s not, actually, the The Hall of Great. It’s the Hall of Fame, which means the criteria for induction could be nothing more than being the best at getting noticed. Heck, Chad Ochocinco may not have the numbers to be considered an all-time great wide receiver, but nobody can deny he’s made himself one of the most "famous" personalities of his generation. Keep in mind that Dick Vitale is in the Basketball Hall of Fame, after all. It’s semantics, perhaps, but it’s still worth noting that greatness is not necessarily a prerequisite for induction into a museum that celebrates "fame."
That sure felt like 450 words of complaining, didn’t it? How then, to turn this into something more than just writing a column to steal Andre Dawson’s thunder on a weekend when he absolutely deserves to be celebrated?
I can answer that with this: I worked in an athletic department for a major college for 10 years, and there were some years that way too many people got into the Hall of Fame. It was ridiculous, and started to marginalize the award for people who actually deserved to be in there. So, about seven or eight years ago, I suggested we create a universal roundtable for the elite Hall of Famers. If there are 292 people in the Hall of Fame, reboot the sucker and pick the 10 best and give them their own room. If someone comes along and deserves to be sitting at that table, they can be added to the room. Then, continue voting in those who deserve to be in the regular Hall of Fame under the current criteria, knowing that the absolute elite won’t get lost in the growth.
Of course, the politics at a college never allowed this idea to happen – mostly centered around the potential slight to those HOFers who may be willing to donate back to the department – but it could work for the professional sports.
Then again, when I suggested this idea to some friends in the industry it was met with "that’s a terrible idea" and "the Hall of Fame is fine how it is" and "didn’t Bill Simmons suggest this a few years ago?" Those points may all be true; it may be nothing more than a terrible idea that’s a re-tread of what’s already been written. Or, maybe you’ll remember the idea in 50 years when you take your grandkids to the Hall of Fame for the first time and have to walk past 498 other plaques to get from Hank Aaron to Ted Williams. (Note: I anticipate that in 50 years all old people will get around in some sort of space-age hover chair, but that’s a totally different column. The point is still germane.)
The greats deserved to be honored – and Dawson deserves his day – but we need to make sure it’s not eventually at the expense of the elite.
You can read/listen to more from Dan Levy at OntheDLpodcast.com and follow him on Twitter @onthedlpodcast