Cap Anson and the BR Hall of Fame
There are many things that I’m picking up from this BR Hall of Fame voting -- I’m sure I’ll have a 250-part series when the voting is done.
One thing is this: The more I see the voting, the more I believe the best baseball players should be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Period. That’s all. I’ve wavered on this over the years, waffled on this, considered numerous other points about character and fair play and honor. I believe deeply in those things, and believe they should be considered when judging a players career (more to support a player’s candidacy than to detract from it). But as I look at the way people are voting, I realize more clearly than ever that I don’t want a white-washed Hall of Fame. I don’t want a Hall of Fame strained by the moral standards of the day. Baseball is a game played by human beings, some of them wonderful people, some of them rascals, some of them downright mean and spiteful. It is part of what makes the game.
In short: I don’t want a Baseball Hall of Fame without Cap Anson in it.
And I don’t want a Baseball Hall of Fame without Oscar Charleston in it.
Right now, neither man has 75% of the vote to get into the BR Hall of Fame.
Anson was one of the dominant players of the 1800s, perhaps the dominant player. He played 27 years, hit .334 for his career, led the league in RBIs eight times, in on-base percentage four, was the first to collect 3,000 hits and at the same time he served as manager and owner. He was a hugely popular figure at the time -- he would travel the vaudeville circuits where he would sing and dance and tell stories. He, perhaps more than any player of his time, built the game of baseball into the National Pastime.
And: He was a virulent racist who refused to play even in exhibitions if there was an African American on the field. There is -- and will continue to be -- a lot of debate about how big a role Anson played in the “gentleman’s agreement” that kept black players out of baseball for more than a half century. But based on his actions you get the sense that Anson would happily accept any and all accountability for that agreement -- he wanted black players out of the game. Even in an America that was deeply racist, Cap Anson stood out.
Oscar Charleston, surely, was one of the best players who ever lived. People who saw him play or faced him say there has never been a player who combined hitter, power, speed and defense the way Charleston did. Buck O’Neil (we’ll get back to him in a minute) would say: “The greatest major league player I ever saw was Willie Mays. But the greatest PLAYER I ever saw was Oscar Charleston. For those who couldn’t see Oscar Charleston, Willie Mays was the next-best thing.” In his time, Charleston was often compared with Ty Cobb, only with more power, Tris Speaker, only with even more speed. Bill James, in the New Historical Abstract, called Charleston the fourth-best player who ever lived, and told me that if we could have seen him in the big leagues, he might actually have been the best.
And: Charleston played in the Negro Leagues, so surviving statistics are meager. Stories about his greatness are scarce. There has never been an in-depth book written about Charleston because so little information about him exists. He was, by surviving accounts, a fiery man, violent, with a nearly uncontrollable temper. Truth is, many baseball fans have never heard of him.
So, I suspect people are not voting Anson because of his racism and they’re not voting Charleston because of their unfamiliarity … and I can’t help but think these are two sides of the same coin. You leave out one because he was a racist, you open the door for someone else to leave out the other because they don’t acknowledge the Negro Leagues. When you start relying too heavily on your own moral judgments, you leave open the door for others to impose their own code.
And, in the end, shouldn’t it be about the game? It’s baseball. A game. We lose that perspective so quickly. The vitriol people express toward Alex Rodriguez is astonishing -- he took performance enhancing drugs so he could be a great baseball player, and he lied about it so that he wouldn’t get caught. It’s against the rules, and it offends sensibilities, but you would think based on some of the words people used -- deranged, crook, pariah, fraud, bum and so on -- that he blew up a planet and brought mayhem on Gotham City and sent flying monkeys after Dorothy and stole Christmas.
History isn’t better told when cleaned up. Libraries aren’t better when you keep out offensive books. Movies aren’t better when they are cleansed of challenging and difficult topics. Think how uninteresting the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would be if you kept out the drug users and criminals and lowlifes. I always loved the letter the Sex Pistols sent to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when learning they were elected: “Next to the SEX PISTOLS, rock and roll and that hall of fame is a piss stain. Your museum. Urine in wine. We’re not coming. We’re not your monkeys.”
The letter was read out loud as the Hall of Fame inducted them into the Hall.
Baseball is baseball. The game’s history has its embarrassments, its scandals, its disgraces. We might not like the racists and cheaters and chemical enhancers, but they played. Some of them played very well. But they are part of the game. The history of Cap Anson as a racist should absolutely be told. And it should be told in the Hall of Fame because he was one of the greatest players who ever lived. The history of Oscar Charleston should be told -- in the Hall of Fame because he too was one of the greatest players who ever lived and too few people know his story.
In the end, I wonder if we hurt the Hall of Fame by thinking of it as a “reward” for the players. I’ve heard from many people who believe, unquestionably, that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens belong in the Hall of Fame, but they simply cannot get over the image of them up on that stage, accepting the honor, that part really bothers them. “It would be like they got away with it,” one person close to the Hall of Fame told me.
I think that’s a little bit petty, but more to the point, I think it’s misguided. Were they or were they not two of the greatest baseball players who ever lived? I often think about what Buck O’Neil said about Enos Slaughter, a reputed racist who apparently led the racial taunting toward Jackie Robinson (and once spiked him on the field). O’Neil was one of the leading voices in getting Slaughter elected into the Hall of Fame, and when asked if it was because Slaughter in his later years expressed regret, Buck said: “No. It’s because he could play ball.”
It seems to me that a Hall of Fame without the detestable Cap Anson in it isn’t a Hall of Fame at all.