Image via OpenLibrary.org.
Image via OpenLibrary.org.
A trip to Cooperstown at age 12 produced two family photos that I treasure dearly to this day. One features a life-size cutout of Babe Ruth in his classic pose, enormous bat on his shoulder, eyelids heavy with purpose, while my younger brother raises a foot to kick the cardboard Bambino in the crotch. The other photo is of a large mural picturing Kenesaw Mountain Landis, the commissioner who banned the 1919 “Black Sox” from the game for life. As the wild-haired commissioner lifts a baseball in his right hand, readying himself to throw out the first pitch with a gaze stern and unyielding, my cousin mimes sticking a finger up his nose.
I loved baseball fiercely at that age, but I also possessed a blasphemous contempt for some of its most sanctified figures. I knew that Ruth was a boozing whoremonger whose saintly image was a press-sponsored myth, and I knew that Landis was a sanctimonious hypocrite who looked the other way for other accused gamblers like Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb yet would never consider pardoning Shoeless Joe Jackson. In fact, by the time I made this visit to Cooperstown, I was well aware of the fact that the story about Abner Doubleday creating the game in that picturesque upstate New York town was a risible fraud, concocted to give the sport “all-American” origins despite all evidence to the contrary.
That cynicism was entirely the fault of The Baseball Hall of Shame, a series of books that briefly grew into a sarcastic multimedia empire, and in many ways set the tone and format for the modern sports blogosphere.
The Baseball Hall of Shame was the brainchild of co-authors Bruce Nash and Allan Zullo, a pair of baseball fans who had already collaborated on a few projects when they hit upon their idea in the early 1980s. In a phone interview, Zullo, who grew up a Cubs fan, told me the inspiration came when he recalled with a mixture of humor and horror some of the players he was forced to root for in his youth.
"Some of those guys should have been in the hall of shame," he opined at the time, and the phrase stuck. He and Nash thought the concept had potential, although he conceded that he, "had no idea it was going to become an industry." And yet, because baseball needed it—and because it was the right idea at the right time—that is exactly what it became.
The 1980s were a golden era for mistake-related entertainment, both in terms of disasters-in-action such as 1985's Gymkata and shows such as TV’s Bloopers and Practical Jokes. There may be a broad, sociological explanation for this – something broader than the explosion in home video allowing a generation to watch and re-watch accidental uncle-suffers-nutshot moments—but regardless of the trend's cause, The Baseball Hall of Shame series was firmly rooted in it. And yet, Nash and Zullo's book proposal was rejected 16 times before Simon & Schuster finally took a chance on it, publishing the first installment in 1985.
Hall of Shame probably took so long to find a home because it contained more than just a litany of bloopers and practical jokes, or slip-ups and mental miscues—though there were plenty of these, all of them described in a pithy, engaging style. What set the book apart was the fact that it took its title quite literally, and tackled some genuinely shameful moments in the sport. In the pre-internet age, most of these unfortunate stories were not well known. To address them at all—let alone to do so alongside puckish treatments of various goofier lowlights—was antithetical to the genuflecting pose of sportswriting in general and baseball's usual reverent mode in particular.
No institution enjoys confronting its darker aspects, of course, but none hates doing it more than baseball. Even today, in the most jaundiced and nakedly sluttiest moment in the history of our culture, baseball is still very much invested in its own sepia-tone mythology, and does not let go its fairy tales easily. As recently as last year, Bud Selig insisted with a straight face that he believed the ridiculous Abner Doubleday creation myth. The commissioner's stubborn resistance to instant replay, too, is emblematic of how the sport has always felt about its own missteps: baseball would far rather stay wrong in a way it has always been wrong than change and concede it made a mistake.
In stark contrast, Nash and Zullo introduced the first installment of The Baseball Hall of Shame thusly: "Who really makes the grand old game so entertaining, rousing, and exciting? The losers, the cheaters, the flakes, the buffoons, the boneheads, the inept, the outrageous, the obnoxious." In an interview given shortly after its publication, Zullo added, "We figured winners, nice guys, are boring."
Zullo says the books were not really intended for children, further evidenced by the fact that "Young Fans" versions were eventually published. Whatever the intended audience, The Baseball Hall of Shame had clear appeal to the tween smartass set, the type of kids enamored of Mad Magazine, Monty Python, and Weird Al. Longtime Mad artist Jack Davis painted the cover for each installment, a detail that gave kids of a certain bent a clue about the book's philosophy and content.
There were plenty of entries in the series that were right in a kid's wheelhouse. At the time when Billy Ripken’s “Fuck Face” baseball card was causing a stir, the Hall of Shame showed this was nothing new with an entry on Astros pitcher Claude Raymond, who somehow managed to pose for his Topps card with his fly wide open—two years in a row. It also featured many tales of players going berserk and engaging in brawls or causing moderate-to-serious property damage. Kids find few things funnier than an adult completely losing it, and The Baseball Hall of Shame had many such tales; the cover of the third volume depicted George Brett destroying a toilet with a Louisville Slugger.
Kids drawn in by scenes of shattered plumbing were then treated to a more sophisticated, fascinating survey of skullduggery and prejudice across baseball history. They could read about the Baltimore Orioles of the 1890s, a team that brawled and cheated to such an insane extent that it actually spurred the creation of the American League as a "clean" alternative. They could learn how the Red Sox gave Jackie Robinson a sham tryout to maintain the fiction they might possibly sign a black player, then insisted it was "against team policy" to give contracts to players after such a short tryout, as if the length of said tryout was beyond their control. They could peruse a complete rundown of George Steinbrenner's many offenses to date, a report that most sportswriters—especially the latter-day Boss-sentimentalists in New York—would do well to brush up on these days.
At a time when sportswriting brooked very little humor or perspective, The Baseball Hall of Shame chronicled failure, debauchery, and subterfuge of all kinds across the ages, and did so in segments that were bite-size, easily readable without being condescending, and in many cases, laugh-out-loud funny. It taught its readers that the "golden age" of baseball had plenty of tarnish on it, and was straight-up gold plate in certain spots; that even the best of us fail more often than we succeed; that sports could do with a little more levity and little less hero worship.
If any or all of that seems familiar, that would be because it is the ethos of much of contemporary sportswriting for the web: healthy skepticism for tales of unvarnished heroism, mixed with a recognition that no matter how much we love these games, they are still just games. It's difficult for me to imagine the sport blogosphere sounding the way it does had The Baseball Hall of Shame not provided this primitive sound check.
"It was so tongue-in-cheek about serious topics," Deadspin founding editor Will Leitch told me via email. "Cheating players, greedy owners, players punching other players … For a kid whose Little League coaches were constantly telling him to Play The Game The Right Way, it was irresistible to see that grownups rarely did that themselves. Good lesson for life, really."
Jon Bois, editor at SB Nation and one of the creators of The Dugout, also admits loving the books as a kid, for much the same reason. "When we Internet types laugh at an athlete's spectacular episode of malfunction—and we do this a lot—it doesn't necessarily come from a snarky place," he said. "I don't take joy from their suffering so much as I genuinely relish in the comedy that any ballplayer will treat you to if you give him enough time."
The first Baseball Hall of Shame became enormously successful, leading to many sequels and offshoots. There were eventually four baseball books, two on football, and one-off surveys of basketball, golf, and fishing, as well as a few similar tomes like Baseball Confidential and The Baseball Hall of Shame's Warped Record Book. The books were further mined for a daily comic strip, sort of a Ripley's Believe It or Not meets The Far Side. There was even a short-lived syndicated TV show, Nash and Zullo's Offbeat Sports Beat, which Zullo says "was seen in most of the top 50 markets, but at the wee hours of the morning or during rain delays of baseball game telecasts."
If readers young and old loved the books, reception among players "immortalized" in its pages was mixed. Zullo reports that two-time MVP Dale Murphy was "a good sport" about his inclusion for the throwing yips he suffered as a rookie catcher. When he was a coach with the Braves, Hall of Famer Willie Stargell couldn't wait to show his young charges his entry about how he attempted to forestall a lumbering, doomed attempt to steal a base by calling time mid-slide.
Others were less pleased. Steve Sax walked out on Nash and Zullo mid-interview. Earl Weaver literally threw a copy of the book in the authors' faces. And at least one person complained about not being included. Jimmy Piersall insisted he had instigated several incidents worthy of induction, such as celebrating his 100th career home run by jogging backwards around the bases, or taking the field in a Beatles wig. (He made the cut in Volume 2.)
The baseball establishment was, for the most part, not pleased. Nash and Zullo were frequently denied media passes by humorless executives and were even kicked out of the press box at Three Rivers Stadium during a Mets-Pirates game in 1985. "Apparently," the authors reported, "management was afraid that, from our press box vantage point, we would see just how shamefully the Pirates were playing."
Of course, this "outlaw" status only endeared The Hall of Shame to its fans even more. At the height of its popularity, however, the series was undone by a sea change in the sports world. By the time the fourth baseball book came out in 1991, Zullo noticed a shift among the pro athlete class. He notes that many were "taking themselves too seriously. Characters were no longer in abundance."
The obvious culprit was money. Escalating salaries meant that players had more to lose, which made them more image-conscious and therefore less reluctant to discuss the embarrassing aspects of their careers. Players also became less accessible in general, wrapped in layers of media-savvy agents and isolating entourages. Ironically, just as the culture began to appreciate that beloved athletes could still be laughed at on occasion, those same athletes decided it was in their best interests to be fulsomely revered, full stop.
With a wealth of material already mined and clubhouse doors closing, The Hall of Shame's multiverse slowly petered out. Zullo continued to pen books in numerous genres, while Nash went on to found the production company behind such reality shows as For Love or Money and Who Wants to Be a Superhero?
The books faded from the charts, but they remained beloved by a generation of kids who read them, a fact Zullo calls "humbling." Twenty years after the last Baseball Hall of Shame installment was released, today's kids will get their own volume: The Best of Blooperstown, set to come out in March of 2012. ("Bruce had been bugging me to do another one," Zullo says). It will feature choice cuts from the four baseball volumes, plus some of the incidents that have been piling up undocumented for the last 20 years. Zullo is grateful that the advent of the internet and the proliferation of video have made research infinitely easier, and although athletes tend to be more guarded than they once were, he has been surprised by a few good sports (David Ortiz, a prime example).
As in previous volumes, the new book will attempt to cover over 100 years of baseball history. This time, though, concessions have been made to the relatively young audience likely to read it; some of the uglier, more violent, and seamier episodes will be excluded from the new collection. (I'm going to go out on a limb and say the tale of the wife-swapping Yankees of the early 1970s, which appeared in Volume 1, will probably not make the cut.)
As a parent, I understand this impulse. As a fan of the game and the books, however, I hope at least some of the darker incidents will remain. One of the great joys of reading the Hall of Shame books as a kid was that they served as a Secret History of baseball, a forbidden peek at the (wizened, self-important, blooper-prone) man behind the curtain. In that sense, the Halls of Shame gave young fans a glimpse of the adult world in all its stumbling, hypocritical anti-glory. More than that, the books suggested a truth that baseball still seems reluctant to admit—that even the most meticulously stage-managed things are not quite what they seem and that, in any case, it was best not to take any of it too seriously. If the opportunity presents itself to stick a finger up Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis's nose, in other words, you might as well do it.