Rabbit Remembered

The weird importance of halls of fame
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People take pictures of each other to prove that they really existed.

“You mean for your all-time All-American fayvrut player you pick a guy who gets excited on the close ones?”

“I didn’t know it was for all time,” was all I could think to reply. “I thought it was just for this year.”

“What kind of American are you anyhow?” he wanted to know. He had me. I didn’t know what kind I was.

Nelson Algren, Chicago: City on the Make

Rabbit Maranville was a shortstop, mostly, for the Boston Braves, mostly. Rabbit Maranville is in the Hall of Fame, but eventually we will forget who he was. His signal will degrade in stages. Maybe rabbits will go extinct and we will forget what his nickname implies. Maybe after that written language will also go extinct and no one will bother to translate Maranville’s heroics into porn-hieroglyphics or whatever the language of the future is. Maybe instead of going extinct, rabbits will level up, evolution-wise, and take over. Maybe humans will become prey to giant, vengeful rodents. Our descendants will be too busy cowering in fear to worry about preserving antique sports history.

It is also possible that Maranville’s Baseball-Reference page and all backups thereof will be deleted to make room for .mkvs of the platinum jubilee season of Degrassi in the year 3001. Maybe during the third George X. Bush administration, the concept of “history” will be sold to China and maybe also most of the baseball stuff will get deleted on principle by the Politburo. Most likely the number of people and amounts of money interested in baseball will slowly decline in a sad two-step, and eventually the Hall of Fame will crumble. Bandits will make off with Maranville’s bronze plaque and smelt it into either weapons or a fancy lamp that gets sold on some post-Long Emergency version of Etsy.

Rabbit was a decent player, though, and worth remembering while we can afford to. His 39.4 cumulative wins above replacement is tied with John Candelaria, and 0.1 WARs ahead of Jack Morris. For all his mild virtue, Rabbit annoys me slightly, seeing that he is in the Hall of Fame, as Kenny Lofton, the mitochondria of the great team I grew up watching, racked up 64.9 wins above replacement and probably won’t make it to Cooperstown.

But I can deal with that trivial injustice. But Rabbit Maranville, maybe the least remarkable player in the Hall of Fame, got me thinking about how dumb and boneless the politics of glory are, or rather, how dumb I thought they were. I was pretty sure that the Hall of Fame—and the stampy, knotted sanctimony around who gets in—had outlived its value. People born early in the 20th century mostly consumed baseball via newsprint and scratchy shortwave—a spectacular All-Star Game made sense for their much-less-connected world, and a Hall of Fame museum dedicated to preserving the delicate tissues of the game’s past was only logical.

The Boomer generation has nicely backfilled that framework with legends of their own, captured by Halberstams and Angells and a million live memories of Mantle or Mays or Reggie, and it left people my age and younger a rad sports patrimony sandbox to play in. My generation has scurried forward quckly from games on regional cable and highlights on ESPN to the everloving and infinite present, our cultural databanks absorbent enough to remember and relive everything at a few clicks—I watched Kenny Lofton score from second in the 1995 ALCS just now, and I'll probably do it again in a year or two. I have an old Costacos Brothers poster of the ~'95 Tribe in my office (one panel of which is photographed at the head of this article). The poster fills me with nostalgia, for the corny, earnest fanhood it represents as much as for Belle and Baerga. I am aware of all baseball traditions. It's cool to see the actual sweaty relics in Cooperstown, but the shrine of membership itself I felt no need to worship. Who needs the Hall of Fame anymore—the world is our museum.

Besides, the annual clusterflock around who gets tapped for the super special winner's club is little more than an annoying angst festival. Olds versus youngs, sentiment versus math, tradition vs fuck-you, PED relativists versus spazzy idealists. BBWAA crusties in mom jeans scoff at sabermetrics; mom's basement types roll out aggrieved sneers that would make Comic Book Guy blush. A bunch of shouty guys refight the Enlightenment over Jack Morris and it sucks all the fun out of talking about sports. Hall of Fame voting is broken anyway (see Posnanski on the sausage getting not-made or Tim Marchman for a radically simple fix)—but it's always been a politicized battleground for warring values and personal tastes, and likely always will be, whatever format it takes. Just like with other malfunctioning institutions (free-market capitalism, gun laws, NBA League Pass), we use cynicism to disinfect or insulate ourselves from the foibles of Cooperstown admissions. So do we consign the Hall of Fame to hate-watch status, or do we just accept its flaws, the same way we accept commercial breaks and traffic jams?

The BBWWA has a life peerage as the guardian spirits of who gets to be in the Hall, the deciders of who gets to represent baseball's finest for us. They're very busy dad-shouting themselves into irrelevance. When newspapers finish going out of business, it’s hard to say who will take over the votes of the traditional beat writers. It never has been and it never will be clear why the choosers get to choose, and the same will be said of the next generation. All-Star Game-style universal democracy for Cooperstown  would be fun, but would also result in weird, mutant enshrinements and snubs.

But I've come to see those weird mutations—both the overly generous inductions and the pariahization of worthies—as the point, or a hint at it. Rabbit Maranville was famous enough, in a certain light and with a certain set of eyes, so we put him in a hall. The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc—any hall of fame, really—is a weird, essential place. The hall is both a tourist trap, and a working and serious museum, an idiosyncratic secular shrine of a certain kind of success in a certain sport as decided by certain sets of people. It captures in its workings and its not-workings the sprawling, wonderful, often unbearable American stage show. The Hall of Fame is about baseball, but it’s also about us. The debates might be tiresome (they are), but they're definitely about us, too. Yelling about Pete Rose or Barry Bonds or Buck Weaver expresses the whole spectrum of what sports can mean, just in a little subspecies of theater inside baseball. We troll each other because we want our special guys in the Hall and your guys out, because we want our special guys to live forever.

***

Jack London ragged on immortality a “yearned-for bauble of feeble souls,” and it's true that eventually we all have to reconcile our fear of beefing it with the reality that we are already dying, fast or slow. We would like to party forever, but we can't, so we make up stuff to feel OK about leaving early. Memory, and history, and the play-within-a-play of the Hall of Fame, are ways of stitching together our neutered ambitions of eternal life into a few chains, so that their glory of our times might live on.

Speaking of mortality: I remember exactly where I was when I realized I was going to die. I was in a booth at Burger King restaurant #498 on Front Street in Berea, Ohio. I was maybe 9 or 10, can’t say for sure. I was eating dinner with my dad and my sister. They were chatting and I was just thinking about stuff as I munched away on my Whopper Jr. I realized that when I died, my mind and existence would just sort of go out, I imagined with the pleasing tungsten death-fart of a spent light bulb. Except I wouldn’t even hear the death-fart, because I would be dead. I was immediately filled with terror and sadness but I got over it, as much as anybody does.

Four or five years later, late in the evening of April 29, 1994, my dad and I visited the drive-through window of that same Burger King. We were on our way home from our first-ever visit to the Indians’ new stadium. The new park was magical, but the game went to extra innings, and we needed to get home, so we left during the top of the 10th. It wasn’t a school night but I remember being OK with our decision. Maybe it was cold out.

Between ordering those burgers and eating them, Kenny Lofton smacked a pitch from Jay Howell into the right-field seats in the bottom of the 12th. I can’t be certain what Tom Hamilton on WTAM yelled regarding this home run, but I would guess that it was something like SWUNG ON AND BELTED! Herb Score probably said something grandfatherly and not entirely coherent. My dad and I expressed happiness that our early and slightly disloyal departure hadn't jinxed the Tribe.

I never saw a highlight of that Kenny Lofton home run, never saw the celebratory beatdown or the perfunctory shot of the crowd going bonkers. I never felt like I needed to, either, because I could then and can still see now Kenny Lofton hitting a home run without much strain to my imagination. When Kenny swung for power, he grimaced, his teeth bared in concentration. The cords in his neck jumped into relief and his left arm flew up as a counterbalance, his right arm sweeping the bat like a sword. His thin gold chain spilled out of his jersey’s neckhole, and his legs began to tear around the bases, extremely insistent on getting back to where it was starting from. On the ratty old Costacos Brothers poster in my office, Kenny is frozen in that exact pose, the Willie Mays Hayes uppercut, for as long as I need him to be. 

***

Somewhere else on the space-time continuum, a kid in old, weird Boston or Philly is watching Rabbit Maranville tear ass around a muddy, malarial infield, or reading about it in a newspaper, or poring over a card from a cigar box. Or maybe he's hearing about Maranville from an old-timer. Also possible is that the old-timer in question doesn't know shit from sugar as far as baseball goes, but that doesn't matter. Maybe the kid is reading a tarnished, mostly ignored plaque in upstate NY and wondering why this scrofulous-looking slap hitter has a spot. The Hall of Fame is another one of our imperfect stages, but it still tells us extremely necessary stories.

The All-Star Game, on the other hand, is just dumb.


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Edgar Renteria's single 1997. WWKD?