1971 “will be the year Yogi Berra, the Montclair Millionaire, makes the Hall of Fame.” ~ The New York Daily News, January 1, 1971
It was not.
On January 21, 1971, the Baseball Writers Association of America chose to elect no one to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.
Not even Yogi Berra.
On January 26, 2021, the Baseball Writers Association of America – for the ninth time in history – elected no one to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
(I’ll get back to 1971 and Yogi, I promise.)
In a pandemic year when nothing is normal, the Hall of Fame’s non-election election this year seemed, well, pretty normal.
I could write about Curt Schilling – controversial, cranky, insolent, nogoodnik – who was among those not elected in 2021.
There are so many Curt’ish things we could discuss …
… the hurtful, hateful things he says that color his character and his worthiness to join the greats of Cooperstown … or
… his worthy statistics that stand up fine against other pitchers in the Hall. 11-2 in the post-season, alone. 11-2! … or
… how you weren’t surprised – because you weren’t, were you? – when Schilling, almost immediately after the Hall of Fame’s no-election announcement, released an obsequious, but quite polite, letter to the Hall requesting he be removed from consideration in 2022.
We could spend the rest of today coming up with ways to describe Curt Schilling … and we could call him a sore-loser lunkhead idiot, but, better, let’s call him a hoddydoddy or a jobbernowl because I spent a lot of time digging up those words and I don’t want them to go to waste.
Schilling wouldn’t be the first jerk in the Hall of Fame.
The Hall has its share of drunkards and carousers, racists, bullies, and homophobes, Klansmen and crooks, adulterers, cheaters, and scoundrels. A drug smuggler and, possibly, even a murderer.
Let’s just say, if every member of the Baseball Hall of Fame were still alive and they all came to your house for dinner, you’d do well to count the silverware when they left.
I was all ready to say in one all-bold declarative sentence …
Curt Schilling is an enormous jerk, and if the Hall of Fame really believes that character and integrity are standards for induction, then leave him out.
I was all ready to say that. Now, I’m not so sure.
And, it was all because of Ty Cobb.
One of the greatest ballplayers ever, Cobb was, among other things, a prodigious basestealer. His 54 career steals of home is still an MLB record. (The story goes that a manager once asked his catcher what he would do if Ty Cobb broke for second. “I’d throw to third,” the catcher responded.)
Cobb was also a notorious, violent, foul-tempered hothead who once attacked a crippled fan during a game, and once slashed a Black hotel worker with a knife over a misunderstanding that occurred during a Detroit road trip. (Cobb was later fined $100 for the slashing.)
And, those were just two footnotes in a life that included a slew of documented fights, incidents of rage, and violent assaults, many with obvious racist overtones.
And, yet, there he is – enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Henry Aaron, Satchel Paige.
Do we take Cobb out?
Or, do we leave him in … a testament to how baseball reflects more than just what’s written in a box score, showing who we are as a people at a given moment in history, and, in Cobb’s case, is a reflection of our nation’s racist and violent past?
(I’m going to put this in parenthesis, but I think it’s important to note that late in his life, Cobb became an outspoken proponent for baseball’s integration at a time when most in baseball found it easier to just keep silent.)
So, what to do about jerks like Curt Schilling or PED cheaters like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds?
Do we keep them all out because … ewwww? Do we distinguish jerks from cheaters? Where’s the line? What about the Hall’s “character clause,” adopted in 1945, that requires sportsmanship, integrity, and character be considered along with playing ability?
Or, do we put them in, not only for their accomplishments but also for what their character and intregity – or lack thereof – tell future generations about baseball’s rich, but also often ugly, history?
You’re going to yell at me, perhaps, about why Clemens and Bonds – proven PED cheaters – have no place in baseball’s Hall of Fame.
And, I am going to say this in reply: Bud Selig, the MLB commissioner during baseball’s PED era who knew – knew – that players were doping and cheating, but did nothing because he also knew that baseball was making a fortune off of the thick-muscled cheaters and their mind-blowing home runs was, despite all this, inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2017.
I guess, like an umpire calling balls and strikes, one’s worthiness to be in the Hall of Fame is subjective.
I don’t know the right answer. Or, if there even is a right answer.
I still don’t like Curt Schilling, though. Or, Ty Cobb. Jerks.
Anyway, back to Yogi Berra.
1971 was one of those years, like this year, when the baseball writers elected no one to the Hall of Fame. (The Veteran’s Committee, on the other hand, inducted four that summer, including Satchel Paige.)
Berra was one of that year’s non-inductees.
18-time All-Star. 10-time World Series Champion. 3-time American League MVP. He was a great defensive catcher and a clutch hitter who rarely struck out. (Rarely, rarely. In five seasons, he had more home runs than strike outs. Seriously.)
But, he wasn’t good enough in 1971, falling 28 votes shy of the 75 percent required for induction.
What did Yogi have to say when reporters caught up with him at a New Jersey golf club after the announcement?
“Yeah, it’s been a tough day all around,” he told reporters. “I don’t get into the Hall of Fame this morning. This afternoon, I’m over here losing at gin rummy.”
Leave it to Yogi to put things in perspective.
Yogi Berra and Satchel Paige at an Old Timer’s Game in 1971.
(Yogi Berra was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972.)