Revelation 21 - The Baseball Hall of Fame is No Longer a Museum

Thursday, July 3, 2008

In the history of Major League Baseball, there is only one ball which was hit for a ballplayer's 756th home run. Of the arguments made for Congressional intrusion into the affairs of baseball with the steroid hearings was baseball's singular historic role in the fabric of the United States; long running and continuous, we can draw a direct line from games played during Reconstruction to games being played tonight. In my ongoing countdown of the 200 Best Major Leaguers ever, I include ballplayers who began their careers in the 1880s, the ability to adjust statistics for era allows baseball, really more than any other human endeavor, to cross space and time.

I know, I'm going all "if you build it, he will come" on you. I apologize.

But baseball, for a hundred and fifty years, has had a cultural impact on the United States which is undeniable.

And that means that the artifacts of baseball - the material culture which makes up its history - matters.

You know the story about 756; Marc Ecko, a pointless man living a trivial life, purchased the ball, used the media's insatiable need to ridicule Bonds to drum up publicity over an internet poll, and affixed it with an asterisk, a literal branding that reflects the tarnish the sports punditry and Major League Baseball have so assiduously tried to layer upon the home run record.

And now that ball is in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The arguments used to support Ecko are that the ball was his personal property (true) and he could do with it what he wished (legally true).

Consider this thought experiment if you would.

Do you know there is more than one original copy of the Declaration of Independence? Not replications - original, hand written by Thomas Jefferson hisownself, copies.

True story. And one you should know, given that Friday is the 4th of July.

Do you know who owns one of those copies?

Norman Lear. Hollywood liberal. All in the Family. People for the American Way. Normal Lear. Part of the counter-culture that Obama attacked this week.

The Declaration of Independence, the birthing document of the United States, "We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness," is owned by Norman Lear.

He bought it.

It's his personal property.

He has the legal right to annotate it - scrawl "Jefferson was a slave owning rapist" or "There is no creator, grow the hell up" or "Sure, all white property owning men are created equal - but you founding fathers sure gave the rest of the people the shaft."

And on and on and on. Right there. He could do it on the 4th of July. Could do it on PPV. Could do it on the Washington Mall.

It's his personal property after all.

And let me suggest that while we can be pretty sure Bonds took steroids, you don't have the slightest idea what impact they had on his ability to hit home runs. If you think his 755 is more tainted than Babe Ruth's 714, given that he didn't have to face African-American pitchers, you and I pray at different churches.

But while we aren't sure about Bonds - we do know about Jefferson. We do know about what "all men are created equal" meant in force and effect of law at the time of the Declaration and then after the Constitution was ratified in 1789. The expanse between the rhetoric of American freedom and the conditions of American reality are a matter of historical record and became embedded in America's game of baseball, which is why, until 1947, every single home run ever hit in the major leagues deserves an asterisk far bigger and bolder than the one the fashion designer chose to attach to Bonds.

But we don't do that. We use statistics to adjust for era, adjust for rule changes, for ballpark effects, for the wide variations in space and time in which baseball has persists. And that allows us, somewhat fictionally, but better, again, let me suggest, than in any other human endeavor, to mathematically quantify events. We don't need asterisks. We can use statistical adjustments.

Facts. Glorious facts.

Ecko's defacement of 756 was treated by the sports punditry as a joke, defended as being his "personal property."

Were Lear to annotate the Declaration - my guess is the very same people would argue that free speech and personal property be damned - he should be locked up - waterboarded - held without charge in Gitmo.

But take it a step further and imagine that the defaced Declaration was then donated to the Smithsonian, for example - and displayed, comments and all, as a symbol of American history.

What would the reaction be to that?

Marc Ecko doesn't get to change facts. His voice doesn't get to speak louder than mine on 756; his view of history doesn't count more even though he had three quarters of a million dollars to spend on a baseball and I'm clipping coupons for diet cheese.

How much will we allow the wealthy to change the truth?

The baseball is no longer the thing that happened. Now, it's a fashion designer's interpretation of the thing that happened.

He's allowed to have his view. You're allowed to have yours. You can think that Barry Bonds's home run records, both career and single season, are tarnished.

I mean, you're wrong. But you can think that.

But what we don't do is solely on the basis of one of those views being backed by money, display that defaced ball in the museum of record for that sport.

Were Norman Lear to scrawl his thoughts on the Declaration of Independence, even though they might be thoughts I agree with, Lear should be shunned from polite society. He has the right to do it, but it is wrong to do.

Marc Ecko should be treated exactly the same way.

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