Willie, Mickey and...the Scooter?

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What we really need is a Baseball Hall of Names. So much melodrama and vaudeville echo in the monikers of old-time players: Lu Blue, Pebbly Jack Glasscock, Orval Overall, Baby Doll Jacobson, Heinie Manush. Sometimes a player finds a namemate from another era and forges a powerful link in baseball's memory chain. So this year let us induct Harvard Eddie Grant and Parisian Bob Caruthers, Goose Goslin and Goose Gossage, Rollie Fingers and Mordecai Peter Centennial (Three Finger) Brown. Not to forget those matching tabloid headlines, Urban Shocker and Country Slaughter.

Some of these names are embossed on bronze plaques in the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. All the names can be found in Bill James' new book, The Politics of Glory: How Baseball's Hall of Fame Really Works (Macmillan; $25). For 452 sizzling pages, the game's premier stats solon and most passionate fan stir-fries the old debate about who does and doesn't deserve to be there. "The Hall of Fame," he writes, "has never really thought through the issue of how to identify the most worthy Hall of Famers." His evidence: comparison of players' records and eyewitness testimony. Exhibit A: Yankee shortstop Phil Rizzuto, whose exclusion from the Hall stoked a 30-year ruckus.

Sunday the Scooter will be in Cooperstown, to be honored along with the late manager Leo Durocher and Phillie fireballer Steve Carlton. They will join the 216 players, managers, umpires, executives and Negro League stars elected to the Hall of Fame since 1936. In its august glamour, this citation is a combination Nobel Prize for phys ed and Palm Springs retirement home. Rizzuto will surely feel he belongs there. But does he?

For decades the powerful New York baseball press has engaged in what James calls "a Rizzuto Exaltathon." By now the "Holy Cow!" boy is better known for the sprung poetry of his patter on Yankees TV broadcasts -- and for his call of "backseat petting" on Meat Loaf's hit song Paradise by the Dashboard Light -- than for his great-field, great-bunt playing days. But even then, James persuasively argues, he didn't have the numbers or the earned renown of Pee Wee Reese, a Hall of Famer, or of George Davis and Vern Stephens, who are faint memories.

At first you wonder why James, who blended statistical analysis and critical writing so brilliantly in his annual editions of The Baseball Abstract and later The Baseball Book (now, alas, replaced by a volume that merely handicaps players), would want to spend a year picking apart the Cooperstown selections. It's as if Pauline Kael were to write a book-length excoriation of the Golden Globe Awards. In his splendid Historical Baseball Abstract (1985), James wrote that for years he had been "refusing to comment on who should be in the Hall of Fame and who should not, for a simple reason: I don't care. It doesn't make any difference who they select."

But to players and fans, it does make a difference. Each year the announcement of the Hall of Fame selections provokes both exultation and bitterness. Yet these responses can be based on deeply flawed judgment, on boosterism from the fans and cronyism by the players. The Hall of Fame voters can be myopic too; they have ignored important stats (like the size of the player's home park) and packed the Hall with sluggers from the 1920-45 era. James' mission has always been to bring reason to heated baseball debates. That's what he does in his new book, dispersing the mist around the careers of those who haven't made it and those who have. He also proposes a much broader selection process, involving writers, players, executives, fans and baseball historians.

The book percolates with wit. On the qualifications for writers to serve on one of the early committees: "I suspect it was defined by career alcohol consumption." On those revisionists who would forgive Shoeless Joe Jackson's complicity in the 1919 Black Sox scandal: "The people who want to put Joe Jackson in the Hall of Fame are baseball's answer to those women who show up at murder trials wanting to marry the cute murderer." On the burghers of Cooperstown: "They're just local guys who stumbled into this golden, glowing idea, the Hall of Fame." Could that be why you won't find The Politics of Glory on sale at the Hall of Fame gift shop? (A bookstore down the street sold 24 copies in a week.)

We have to realize that the Hall of Fame is two things: a seal of approval for some very good athletes and a three-story attic full of artifacts and photographs -- the collective baseball memory made visible. "The best thing about baseball today," sports historian Lawrence Ritter has written, "is its yesterdays." And Cooperstown, an upstate village (pop. 2,300) named for James Fenimore Cooper, offers validation for America's dream of a bucolic past. On the undulating farmland that radiates for miles in any direction, the main crop seems to be grass, as luscious as a Rousseau forest; it could, and should, replace the carpet in every turf stadium. A banner draped across Cooperstown's main street (called, of course, Main Street) lures locals to the Junior Livestock Show.

Nearly everything else on Main Street is dedicated to the relics of baseball. Shop for fetishes at the Dugout, Cap City or the "Where It All Began" Bat Company. Have a Cooperstown Christmas in July: one store sells tree ornaments year-round, including an angel in a ball-club uniform. Enjoy a historic night's sleep at the Baseball Town Motel, rooms from $48. Dine amid more memorabilia at Mickey's Place (for Mantle) or at the Doubleday Cafe.

It was Abner Doubleday who in 1839, according to Cooperstown legend, laid out a diamond-shaped path at the local Phinney's Field (now Doubleday Field) and decided that for nine innings nine men would play a game rather like baseball. That cow pasture was the very spot, as James writes, "where baseball could have been invented if only all those other people hadn't invented it first." The Hall of Fame, proposed 60 years ago this spring, was erected nearby.

James is right that the Hall of Fame, like the Miss America Pageant or the Mount Rushmore sculptures, was essentially a Chamber of Commerce inspiration to lure tourists. But when the Hall opened in 1939, it became a secular shrine, the Lourdes of baseball. It still is. The place evokes a simpler time of grace and grit and innocence, when players didn't seem so greedy or owners so stupid and when both sides apparently realized that the franchise they held was on loan from the fans who had invested so much of themselves in it. This vision is partly fantasy -- the sport excluded blacks and kept even its top stars in indentured servitude -- but to a fan, soft-focus reverie can be as real and pungent as Phil Rizzuto's laugh.

Take a walk through the Hall of Fame gallery, where the elect are commemorated with an all-American mixture of hoke and majesty. Guys try explaining to their wives some athletic epiphany in the career of a stranger. One swing of a bat, one sliding catch, a third strike from a half-century past can mist an old man's eyes. And just as a player can win a game by coming home, so the old teach baseball memory to the young. Last week a boy stared at a three-panel portrait of Mays, Mantle and Snider; the caption read "Willie, Mickey & the Duke Triptych." Looking up at his mother, the boy asked, "Who is Duke Triptych?"

Why, he's the next inductee, son, in the Baseball Hall of Names.