This summer, for the 51st straight year, baseball's highest priest, its commissioner, will lead thousands of fans to the shade-dappled lawn beside the Hall of Fame in bucolic Cooperstown, N.Y., to renew one of the game's most treasured ceremonies. Following a clerical blessing, the game's living immortals will file onto the dais -- Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Sandy Koufax, Warren Spahn, Roy Campanella, Cool Papa Bell -- acknowledging the worshipful applause. They'll be followed by four new immortals -- Johnny Bench, Carl Yastrzemski, Red Schoendienst and umpire Al Barlick -- the latest to be officially welcomed by new commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti into the company of heroes.
Afterward, the Immortals, old and new, will sit beneath a canopy to receive a steady line of devotees who will file slowly past, seeking relics in the form of autographs.
If baseball is America's secular religion, then Cooperstown is its shrine, and its annual induction ceremony the beatification of saints.
In this 50th-birthday summer of America's most famous sports museum, the Hall of Fame will have 204 plaques enshrined in it. At that rate, 100 years from now, it will have 612. By immortalizing so many, have we diminished everyone? Now Ty Cobb (lifetime batting average .367) has been brought down to the level of Schoendienst (.289); Babe Ruth (714 home runs) is equated with Rick Ferrell (28). Every year the shrine's Veterans' Committee rachets the value down another notch.
Sportswriter Bob Broeg, a member of the Cooperstown board of directors, points out that the Hall has enshrined only about 1 percent of all the men who have ever played major-league baseball. "That's not a high percent," he says.
Yet baseball's Hall of Fame is modeled after New York University's Hall of Fame for Great Americans, and the NYU shrine has admitted only 105 political, literary, scientific and other figures in the last 89 years. Even Franklin Roosevelt didn't make it until 1973, and Dwight Eisenhower is still waiting to get in. In fact, no one has been admitted in the last 13 years.
Ironically, many of the real giants of baseball have not been admitted to the Cooperstown Hall -- men with the stature of Walter Johnson, Jimmie Foxx, Lefty Grove, Mickey Cochrane, etc. There are also the stars of the pre-Jackie Robinson Negro leagues, only 11 of whom have so far been elected; these men would raise the standards of the Hall, not lower them. But in the eyes of traditionalists, the Negro leagues are not a part of the True Religion.
Meanwhile, the church has cheapened itself by naming a confusing welter of saints. There are several reasons:
-- Cronyism. For years Frankie Frisch was the dean of the vets' committee, and during his tenure hardly one of his old Cardinal and New York Giant teammates was left outside -- including Pop Haines, Chick Hafey, Jim Bottomley, Highpockets Kelly, Freddie Lindstrom, none of whom is a household name, even among fairly well-informed fans.
-- Geography. The tyranny of New York, which controls the national magazines and networks, remains unbreakable. Lefty Gomez won 189 games for the perennial powerhouse Yankees. Take away the "NY" from his cap and put him in a St. Louis Browns or Philadelphia Phils uniform, and Lefty would have been waiting in line for Cooperstown autographs with the rest of the unsainted worshippers. The same could be said for a dozen other Yankees.
Broeg, a St. Louisian who is also a member of the vets' committee, agrees that New York has more than its share of immortals. Back in the first election, he points out, New York's Christy Mathewson beat out Washington's Walter Johnson, even though Matty won 373 games with a perennially first-place team and Sir Walter won 414 with a second-division club. "I had a feeling part of them didn't do their homework," Broeg says.
-- Demographics. Most of the recent and present vets' committee members were kids or young men in 1930, and as a result have flooded the Hall with heroes of their boyhood. If every year had as many Hall of Famers as 1930, the wall space would already be filled. Twenty years from now, when the kids of the 1950s move up to the vets' committee, look for a big influx of '50s players -- Phil Rizzuto, Bill Mazeroski, Nellie Fox, Minnie Minoso, Pete Runnels, Al Dark, Richie Ashburn, Jackie Jenson, Jim Lemon, Orlando Cepeda, Rocky Colavito, Larry Doby, Roy Sievers and so on -- to begin shining as stars.
-- Statistics. There are very few 1930 pitchers in the Hall. That's because, in those days, the game favored the offense: .303 was the National League average in 1930. Since we baseball faithful worship numbers, we worship the batting saints of 1930 far beyond their deserts.
-- Myth. Enos Slaughter is in Cooperstown thanks to one 10-second run in the 1946 World Series. Actually, he merely scored from first on a double, a routine play. But his run has been elevated to a myth. Without it, Enos would be joining Lefty Gomez out on the lawn.