By stern on Oct 01, 2007
Unfortunately, the Hall feels like a museum, which it is, rather than a glimpse into the collective memory and celebration of the National Pastime. Less than 10% of the balls, bats, bases and beauty of the collection is on display at any time, and the organization of the displays makes it hard to formulate a story out of what's there. Baseball tradition, like religious tradition, is passed on through storytelling and personal action; it's parents telling their kids about famous players, great plays, or playing the sport. It's my father telling my son about a mutual friend who played for Honus Wagner in Pittsburgh, or me telling my kids why and how Willie Stargell inspired me to choose #8 when possible (even when going through toll booths), and at some point in the future, my daughter telling my grandchildren about the night we went to the Giants game to hope that Barry hit 756 into our section of the bleachers (we were a night early, but the memories will remain sans asterisque). It's the equal mix of seriousness and silliness that led me to hand out free ice pops to any Little League baseball or softball player wearing jersey #8, provided they let me say "for Willie Stargell".
Walking through the three floors of the Hall, I found Willie Stargell's plaque, a solo shot in the 1988 inductee class. Around the corner is one of his baseball cards as part of an exhibit geared toward younger kids, and upstairs in the legends of the game alleys, you'll find a Willie Stargell jersey paired with an exhibit about Roberto Clemente. So far, so good, and again, what anyone would expect from a first-rate museum. But on the third floor, the subtleties and opportunities for telling stories emerge. A 1970s World Series program has a page showing the buttons worn by Pirates fans, including "Chicken on the Hill," Willie Stargell's off-season employment and passion. Around the corner, there's the bat Stargell used in the 1979 World Series, where he was voted MVP, next to one of Kent Tekulve's Pirates hats. Sewn around the bucket-shaped lid, and across its top, are "Stargell Stars", player recognition given out by Stargell for particularly good play.
What was most disturbing was the lack of informed help at the Hall. Twice I asked logo-wearing employees where I might find Ron Bloomberg's bat (used in the first at-bat by a designated hitter), and was told it probably wasn't on display (it is, on the third floor in the records room, behind that of 1969 Met Art Shamsky, another item we sought). Conversely, every visitor had his or her own reasons to search something out, to tell its story of relative importance, and to take pictures that will highlight the next time those memories are revisited. While the inductees are selected by the Baseball Writers, it is the individual scribes of the game that truly relate the history of the game.
What's missing from the exhibit room is a place for all of us to share our own experiences with these tools of the baseball trade. To borrow a phrase from Tim O'Reilly, the Hall of Fame lacks an architecture for participation, a Hall of Fame 2.0, where user-generated content including pictures, stories, and our own interpretations can embellish the tools of the trade on display. Here's my ideal Hall of Fame experience: Knowing that you want to revel in Willie Stargell legend and lore, you can find all of the references to "Pops" and plan your own exhibit guide. Posted on the Hall's website would be an email from Stargell's niece explaining how Stargell stars were the one item his family asked for, more than autographs or baseballs, a reward to be given out. It makes Tekulve's hat more impressive, and more personal, perched next to Stargell's bat. I'd have a link to the Chicken on the Hill dining experience at PNC Park where a bit of Willie lives on, so that the World Series program makes sense in contexts both current and three decades old. I'd point to my Facebook picture album of number 8s from around the world, for the same reason NASCAR fans put driver numbers on their rides? Over time, as Willie Stargell said, the number comes to represent you in real life and not just on the roster. And finally, we'd have real merchandising, a place to locate the stores along Cooperstown's Main Street that sell licensed Stargell t-shirts, something to make the 4-hour trip home more comfortable.
The Hall of Fame board of directors is full of baseball management and talent, but no fans. No participation. Not even a hint of technology, from a sport that has always raced to utilize technology for the good of the game. Isn't it time that the fans share their knowledge and emotion, sometimes with religious fervor, in the shrine dedicated to the game's long-term history?