Does this old-timer really belong in the Hall of Fame?

I regret that it took me so long to read John Thorn’s brilliant and seminal book, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game. It’s brilliant, and seminal. The book’s been out for nearly four years now, and I count John among my friends. I should have read it immediately.

I’m glad it took me so long. Let me explain.

Alexander Cartwright, as you might know, is in Baseball’s Hall of Fame. According to his Cooperstown plaque, he was THE FATHER OF MODERN BASE BALL and a) set the bases 90 feet apart, b) established nine innings as the game length and nine players per side, and c) organized New York’s Knickerbocker club, which spread baseball to the Pacific Coast and even Hawai’i.

All of which might well merit inclusion in the Hall of Fame, if true. But little or none of it is true. Here’s a key passage from Thorn’s book:

So what may we reliably say that Cartwright did? In 1866, Charles A. Peverelly credited him thus in his book of American Pastimes: “In the spring of 1845 Mr. Alex J. Cartwright, who had become an enthusiast in the game, one day upon the field proposed a regular organization, promising to obtain several recruits. His proposal was acceded to, and Messrs. W. R. Wheaton, Cartwright, D. F. Curry, E. R. Dupignac Jr., and W. H. Tucker, formed themselves into a board of recruiting officers, and soon obtained names enough to make a respectable show.” Up to and including the Mills commission, this was the full reported extent of Cartwright’s ingenuity.

The Knickerbocker game during Cartwright’s tenure (he departed for the Gold Rush early in 1849) was almost never played with nine men to the side, but instead by as few as seven or as many as eleven. The number of innings was unspecified, as victory went to the side that was first to score twenty-one runs in equal turns at bat. The length of the baselines was imprecise, although latter-day pundits have credited Cartwright with divine-inspired prescience in determining a distance that would yield so many close plays at first. Sometimes referred to in histories of the game as an engineer even though he was a bank teller, and then a book seller, Cartwright was further credited with laying out the game on a diamond rather than a square. Yet even this was no innovation in 1845…

And so on and so forth.

So how did Cartwright get elected to the Hall of Fame in 1938. Largely through the efforts of his son Bruce and especially his grandson Bruce Jr., the latter of whom actually invented whole baseball-related passages for posthumous insertion into Cartwright’s Gold Rush diary, the original of which is actually “devoid of any remark about baseball.”

The Hall of Fame is a deeply weird place. They do so much to preserve and promote the game’s history, and yet they still find room for a page like this, which is almost entirely devoid of any real history.

Friday, Graham Womack wrote about the 10 oldest (but still living) Hall of Famers upon being elected. No. 3 is Rube Marquard, who was 83 upon his election and ranks among the very worst players in the Hall. Graham knows that, but still writes this:

There are worse things in life than a few undeserving people being in the Hall of Fame, especially with all the joy the living ones must have felt when they got that call and later stood on the Cooperstown dais. I’m certainly not in favor of kicking anyone out. It seems cruel. It also seems pointless. Wipe the slate clean on the Hall of Fame and there’d be a lousy honoree within 10-15 years.

Yes, of course there are worse things in life. There are LOTS AND LOTS of worse things in life. There are worse things in life than someone spitting on the sidewalk. That doesn’t mean we should excuse spitting on the sidewalk.

More to the point, how would it be cruel to kick Rube Marquard out of the Hall of Fame? He died almost 25 years ago. Whatever you might think of our postmortem fates, it seems highly unlikely that today ol’ Rube gives a damn about the Hall of Fame, one way or the other. His grandchildren? Okay, sure. But I really don’t think it’s our place to worry about an old ballplayer’s grandkids, who should be old enough by now to take something like this in stride. I certainly wouldn’t be averse to some procedure that reconsidered long-dead Hall of Famers. Or hell, at the very least, revising their plaques (and their Web pages) when they’re clearly in error.

I’m glad I just got around to reading Baseball in the Garden of Eden, because just last week I was in Honolulu, where Alexander Cartwright is buried downtown. I took a photo of his burial monument, which you can see at the top of this page. What you can’t see are the baseballs that … I don’t know. Is "fans" the proper word here? Does Alexander Joy Cartwright have fans? Anyway, someone’s left baseballs at the foot of his monument. And a few feet away, there’s another monument that’s specifically about baseball; like the one in Cooperstown, it’s largely fictional. 

That one doesn’t bother me in the slightest. What you want to do in your family plot is your business. But what’s in Cooperstown is our business; technically, it’s also the State of New York’s business. Maybe the governor could put his old man on the case…