In Defense of Murray Chass

In the summer of 1989, I think — give or take a year — my sleepaway camp bunkmates and I got to do something special: watch the All-Star Game.

On tape. A few days after the game.

My camp experience was one low on media usage. We had radios, but you couldn’t use them in the bunk at night (when most baseball games were played) as it’d disturb others, and there were few TVs available to campers, and certainly not on a regular basis. In order to watch the All-Star Game, a bunkmate’s family had to literally mail us a VHS of it, and even then, it wasn’t clear that we’d get to watch it. The camp wasn’t anti-TV as much as it was just scheduled and set up for other stuff — you know, like swimming and boating and actually playing sports — and the counselors had to find a time for us to watch, as well as find a time that a VCR was free.

But my friends and I were still huge baseball fans, and we were set on following the Mets. One of the buildings on camp — the name and purpose escape me — had newspapers, and we made a point of checking the box scores each day and reading the various game reports. It still amazes me how one can get a pretty vivid picture of what happened in a baseball just by perusing a box score, but that’s a story for another day.

I’m pretty sure the counselors had access to more media than we did. In my four summers at camp, I don’t think I made it to the staff lounge more than once, if that; I have absolutely not recollection of what the staff lounge looked like, and only a vague one of where it even is on the campus. I know they had movies available and the movies weren’t terribly old (unless they were classics), and I’m pretty sure they had broadcast TV if not cable. But it was 1988 or so, and while cable TV was pretty common then, it was probably only in about 50-65% of US households.

I don’t know how summer camp is nowadays but I can’t imagine it’s as light on media use. It just can’t be — there’s no way a staff made up of 18- to 30-year-olds is going to give up email, Facebook, etc. — and I’m betting that the campers therefore have a similar increase in allowed media use. They’re probably not allowed to have phones on them, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they’re allowed tablets (in bunk?), some wifi time, and maybe even a data plan for them. But that’s not why I’m telling the camp story.

One year in middle school — maybe the same one as that camp summer, maybe not, but it doesn’t matter — and two friends had put out a “zine” — Wikipedia defines it as “a small circulation self-published work of original and/or appropriated texts and images usually reproduced via photocopier” — about the upcoming baseball season. They drew pictures of Will Clark, Wally Joyner, and others, and talked about their predictions for the year. I think they sold the zine for a quarter or a dollar or maybe five. It was a great idea and another friend of mine and I copied it and made our own.

Back in 1989, a die-hard baseball fan could have the experiences I just did. But think about how incongruent they are. In the summer — the summer! baseball season! — I happily went away and had virtually no access to baseball for four or eight weeks. (We did go to a game at Fenway once, which was awesome.) And then, a few months later, I was waxing poetic about how David Cone would win a Cy Young and selling that to my friends. It’s crazy…

… for 2013.

For 1989 — especially a pre-teen then — it actually makes a ton of sense. My access to information was in books like the Baseball Encyclopedia (which was the best present my father ever received; it was a gag gift that he had no interested in but I ended up reading probably cover to cover) and the Elias Baseball Analysts I picked up from the used book cart for a dollar. There were no advanced stats available (I hadn’t heard of Bill James, nor had my friends) and it’d be until 1990 before “WAR” got a baseball context — and it was this, not the stat. The truth is that most fans didn’t have a great amount of insight into how good a player was other than what we saw on TV, and we only got to see the players who played for and against our hometown team. For a New York-area kid like me, that was pretty cool, because I got all the Mets games, all the Yankee games, all the Braves games (TBS!), and some of the Red Sox games (at times, our cable carrier had their channel). With that, This Week in Baseball!, and whatever the national games of the week were, I had a chance to watch everyone from Mike Schmidt and George Brett to Nolan Ryan and yes, Wally Joyner.

But really, we got our news from the newspaper. And because of that, we got our opinions from the newspaper. Guys like Murray Chass were the gatekeepers of what we thought about guys like Jack Morris, Bert Blyleven, Dale Murphy, Jim Rice, and Dave Concepcion. Sure, I could look up their batting averages and W-L totals, but the story behind the numbers was the newspapers’ for the telling.

When the Hall of Fame decided to let baseball writers decide who should be added to the Hall of Fame, it relied on writers because it had little other choice. No one else really had their pulse on the game — except players, managers, etc., and they were clearly too biased — and no one else was creating memories which, five to 20 years after a player’s retirement, could be used to determine if that player should be forevermore enshrined in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. And by and large, they were already determining what our collective memories were anyway. Case in point: I have almost no memory of Bobby Grich, whose career ended just a few years before my life as a baseball fan began. But I know who Rod Carew, Don Sutton, and Reggie Jackson are — even though all of them retired around the same time and, not coincidentally, all were teammates of Grich in 1985. The latter three are in the Hall of Fame. Grich didn’t even receive 5% of the vote in his first (and therefore only) year on the ballot. (And he should be in the Hall.)

It’s these memories that determine whether a guy like Chass gets your vote. Our brains form a narrative that we just can’t shake, and honestly, why should we? Why should a 50-year veteran of baseball writing, who, for decades, has been charged with trusting his memory and years-formed impressions in casing a Hall of Fame vote, change? It would take an incredibly open-minded and self-confident person to reconsider his vote against Bobby Grich 20 years ago, especially considering Grich hasn’t taken to the field in over 25. Or to doubt his contemporaneously formed belief, however baseless, that Mike Piazza used steroids. Or that Jack Morris was a sure-fire Hall of Famer. The truth is that few of us could decide that the 50 year of our life spent mentally developing a grand theory of everything baseball could be, well, wrong.

Make no mistake about it: Chass is wrong. He’s relying on something terribly faulty — his memory of events from fifteen to twenty years ago. In 1989, Jack Morris went 6-14 with an ERA over 4.86, which isn’t the line one would expect from a 34 year-old pitcher who, now, is on the cusp of entry into the Hall of Fame. Memories have a habit of selecting some things and discarding others. In 1989, my bunkmates and I were going to watch the All-Star Game, on tape, a few days after the game was actually played. But I don’t remember if we watched it. I don’t think we did, and I think it had something to do with rain, a broken VCR, and … actually, I have no idea.

But that doesn’t make my impressions of camp and middle school baseball zines any less valid. Or, at least, I don’t want them to be.

The problem with Murray Chass’ Hall of Fame vote isn’t that it’s wrong — it is — or that it’s based on the romanticized baseball universe he’s created in his own mind. We’re all guilty of that.  Jack Morris wasn’t nearly as good as Chass remembers; the so-called evidence of Piazza’s PED use wasn’t nearly as great as Chass claims.

The problem is that Murray Chass has a vote for the Hall of Fame. He does so because in 1989 — and for that matter, for decades before and years after — that made the utmost sense. But today? It’s not even close.

Blame Murray Chass for violating Wheaton’s Law — he does so in spades, and at seemingly every opportunity. Blame him for publishing a defamatory screed simply because he has a Hall of Fame vote. Blame him for his ad hominem attacks on the newer members of his hallowed group of baseball writers. Blame him for his faux elitism and insistence that he doesn’t write a blog. I agree wholeheartedly, on all counts.

But don’t blame him for casting a Hall of Fame vote the way he does. Blame the Hall for that.


Originally published on January 3, 2013