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Baseball's Hall of Fame Scores in Effort to Explain—Not Erase—History

I am a former sports editor and currently serve as a historian with the Society of American Baseball Research and manage a valet operation.

Cap Anson, baseball's first prominent superstar, is one figure whose role in baseball's segregation has been acknowledged by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Cap Anson, baseball's first prominent superstar, is one figure whose role in baseball's segregation has been acknowledged by the Baseball Hall of Fame.

How Is the Baseball Hall of Fame Handling Theories of Revisionist History?

Throughout 2020, efforts were made by individuals and organizations to edit out the messy parts of America's history. Cities and states—as well as protesters who took their own illegal actions—routinely removed and toppled statues and monuments deemed "offensive" by today's standards.

This isn't a new process, but the chaos of 2020 definitely seemed to renew the urgency behind "revisionist history." And sports aren’t immune—as an example, Yawkey Way in Boston was renamed Jersey Street in 2018 when current Red Sox ownership tried to distance itself from the racist views held by late former owner, Tom Yawkey. Political correctness like this isn't going away—for example, the Cleveland Indians announced in December 2020 they will be changing their name for the 2021 season, and questions exist about other baseball names like the Texas Rangers and Atlanta Braves—but there is a stark difference between changing something that has soured over time (like a team name) versus refusing to contextualize the dirty part of a society in the past (like scrubbing away the accomplishments of a racist baseball player and pretending none of what he did on the field ever happened simply because he was outwardly racist).

Perhaps the most prominent arena where baseball could have been impacted by the new societal shift is the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York. Luckily, the Hall of Fame has refused to join in with the revisionist version of American history and has elected to instead contextualize the more problematic aspects of baseball's long history rather than simply pretend those things never happened.

According to a New York Times article, there were calls for the Hall of Fame to revoke enshrinement of inductees like Cap Anson and Kennesaw Mountain Landis, a player and a commissioner who had tremendous impact on the game's history but also famously contributed to the segregation of Major League Baseball. Anson is known for his refusal to take part in any game in which a Black person was playing, and Landis staunchly refused to be a leader in an effort to push fickle owners to integrate the Major Leagues. Three years after Landis died, Jackie Robinson debuted as the first modern African-American player in baseball.

Instead of editing the verbiage on either Anson's or Landis's plaques, the Hall of Fame instead added context to several areas of the museum. This, to me, is an excellent decision, especially considering the views expressed by Landis and Anson were (albeit sadly) commonplace at the time—and surely shared by many of the famous but less outspoken figures in baseball history.

“I think what we’re going to do to enhance our look at all of these people and explore deeper their histories and their impact, it’s going to make a big difference,” said Jane Forbes Clark, the Hall of Fame’s chairman of the board of directors. “I think it’s the right thing to do” (Kepner, 2020).

A prominent example is a sign installed in July 2020 at the entrance to the plaque gallery, which reads:

“Enshrinement into the National Baseball Hall of Fame reflects the perspective of voters at the time of election. The plaques on these walls recognize Members for their accomplishments in the game.

"Our Museum exhibits, Library archives, and educational resources address the totality of their careers, as both part of a society and a game that always strive to improve.

"The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s mission is to Preserve History, which is what we seek to do throughout the Museum.”

Additionally, a separate museum display about Anson notates his views on baseball’s segregation, while also introducing him as one of the first true superstars of the game.

“Cap Anson, one of the sport’s first national celebrities, has a complicated legacy in segregated baseball. As a dominant figure in 19th-century baseball, Anson was a legendary hitter, manager, and innovator, but he also used his stature to drive minorities from the game.

“Anson was the first player to attain 3,000 career hits, and when he retired in 1987, he held major league records for games, hits, doubles, runs, and managerial wins. As manager of the Chicago White Stockings/Colts (today’s Cubs) for 19 seasons, Anson led the club to five National League pennants and almost 1,300 career victories. A great modernizer of the game, he popularized strategies such as the hit-and-run and the pitching rotation. Many credit the future Hall of Famer for helping to save the game when its fate in the late 1870s was in doubt.

“Yet, an objective study of Anson’s career must also include his role in the game’s segregation. Hall of Famer Sol White, historian of early Black baseball and player-manager for the all-Black Philadelphia Giants, emphasized Cap Anson’s part in keeping big league baseball segregated, recalling that the white manager claimed he would never step on a field that also had a Black man on it.

“During Anson’s tenure as Chicago’s manager, he refused to play against teams with Black players, including an exhibition game in 1887 versus a Newark team featuring an all-Black battery of Moses Fleetwood Walker and George Stovey. Anson’s racism may have been common by the day’s standards, but his influence and prominence gave his actions additional impact and supported the segregationist attitudes that impeded the game for another six decades.”

That explanation gives a clearer historical context of where Anson fits into baseball history and American history—a much-needed expansion of his Hall of Fame plaque, which was written in 1939 and delves into only his on-field accomplishments: “Greatest hitter and greatest National League player-manager of 19th century. Started with Chicagos (sic) in National League’s first year in 1876. Chicago manager from 1879 to 1897, winning 5 pennants. Was .300 class hitter 20 years, batting champion 4 times.” Notably, at the time of this writing, an extended biography on the Hall of Fame’s website does not mention Anson’s impact on baseball’s segregation.

“I don’t feel in any context that one should expunge history, that one should erase history,” Clark said. “Part of our mission is not only to honor excellence and connect generations, but it’s to preserve the history of the game, and that’s what we’re doing: We’re reacting to the evolution of society and society wanting a deeper understanding of underlying racism—its causes, its history, and how it continues to affect the game” (Kepner, 2020).

As someone passionate about the history and future of baseball, I was ecstatic to read that efforts have been made in Cooperstown to stay true to and honest about what actually happened in times when society differed from modern times. Because if we just erase our history, it's impossible to learn from it. Do I like that Blacks were segregated to the Negro Leagues or that attitudes like Anson's existed? Of course not. However, it would be inconsiderate to those who experienced those slights (and to those who continue to experience similar slights) to pretend it never happened.

If anything, we should celebrate the stories of how minorities have overcome unfair treatment and use those examples to ask ourselves: Has enough progress has been made?

Works Cited

Kepner, Tyler. "The Hall of Fame Tries to Contextualize Baseball’s Racist Past." New York Times. Dec. 21, 2020.

Cap Anson's Hall of Fame Biography.

© 2020 Andrew Harner

Comments

CJ Kelly from the PNW on December 23, 2020:

Very important hub. I only recently learned of Cap Anson's beliefs. While I understand he reflected his times, it is still a bad look. That's why i get so angry when I see the anti-Bonds/Clemens crowd yelling abut the "integrity of the game."

Sharing. Have a good holiday.

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