When Chuck Klein's bronze plaque was unveiled at Cooperstown, N.Y., Aug. 4, it served as a monument, not to a man, but to a year.
Or maybe to a rabbit -- the rabbit ball of 1930.
Klein hit .386 that year, drove in 170 runs and hit 40 home runs over the cozy wall at Philadelphia's Baker Bowl. Yet he couldn't lead the league in any of those departments.
That was the Year of the Patsy Pitcher. Klein's own Phillies hit .315, as a team and finished last, 40 games behind the champion Cardinals.
In fact, if you hit .302 in the National League that year, you were below average. (The American League average was .292.)
Pity the poor pitchers that year. They set an all-time record for throwing their gloves in front of their faces in self-defense. Hitters just stuck their bats out and skipped merrily to first.
Hits never have come so cheap. Batting averages have never been so inflated. Bill Terry hit a modest 33 percent better than the average hitter that year. But, luckily for him, the ball was spring loaded, so he wound up with a .401 average and a ticket to Cooperstown.
Eleven years later, a better balance would be struck between defense and offense. Ted Williams hit .406, but he had to hit 52 percent better than the rest of the league to do it. In 1957 he again outperformed his peers by 52 percent, and had to settle for a .388 mark.In 1968, the best pitching year of all time, Carl Yastrzemski hit 32 percent above the league average (.231) and just managed to get over .300.
No matter. Those phony figures of 1930 look good in the record book. Klein will be the 43rd star of that hit-happy year to be immortalized in Cooperstown. That's three times as many as could make it from the 1940 rosters, a decade later.
Cooperstown's prejudice in favor of 1930 is dramatically shown when compared with the totals of other representative years.
Ten players whose names appeared on 1900 rosters were enshrined; 18 from 1910; 23 from 1920; 43 from 1930; 14 from 1940; 14 from 1950, and 20 from 1960 rosters.
There never has been a year like 1930 (except 1894, when the league average was .309 and Hugh Duffy hit .440, good for another ticket to Cooperstown).
But to a 12-year-old kid in 1930, of course, that free-hitting year was not anomalous. It was, to an impressionable boy, the norm. And every decade since, as that boy grew to manhood and finally to mature retirement, he has looked at the steadily decreasing batting averages, shaking his head. They just don't make ball players the way they used to.
Today those 12-year-old boys of 1930 are in their sixties. And they dominate the Hall of Fame veterans committee. Nostalgically they look back to their boyhood heroes -- Klein, Terry, Hack Wilson (who hit 56 homers with 190 RBI's), etc. -- and mark their Hall of Fame ballots for these mortals who had seemed like gods to them.
Ten years from now, when the teenagers of 1940 move into the veterans' committee, will they populate the Hall with their boyhood heroes too? Johnny Mize, Ernie Lombardi, Enos Slaughter, Marty Marion, Pee Wee Reese, Phil Cavarretta, Paul Derringer, Tommy Henrich, Hal Newhouser, Cecil Travis, Bobby Doerr, Joe Gordon? The vets committee of 1990 will have to name almost 30 of them to equal the number that the kids of 1930 have stuffed into the Hall.
The schoolboys of 1950 will have an equally large job when they in turn sit on the veterans committee in the year 2,000. Whom will they elect? Richie Ashburn, Gil Hodges, Tommy Holmes, Ted Kluzewski, Johnny Sain, George Kell, Larry Doby, Mickey Vernon, Mike Garcia?
A 12-year-old boy today can easily run his fingers down the big league rosters of 1980 and pick out 30 or 40 future Hall of Famers whom he will remember when his turn comes to select deserving veterans in the year 2030:
Rod Carew, Pete Rose, Yastrzemski, Willie McCovey, Tom Seaver, Fred Lynn, Johnny Bench, and Nolan Ryan will surely be elected by the writers as soon as they are eligible. But what about Ferguson Jenkins, George Brett, Graig Nettles, Rich Gossage, Steve Garvey, Bill Madlock, Dave Concepcion, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt, Jim Kaat, Don Sutton? If today's adult writers overlook them, you can be sure today's kids won't forget them in the vets' committee half a century from now.
If every generation of voters populates Cooperstown with its boyhood heroes to the same extent that the kids of 1930 have, the little village of Cooperstown won't be able to hold all the plaques.
The present veterans committee -- the boys of 1930 -- have overdone it, forcing their tastes and their prejudices on all future generations.
There were not three times as many great players in 1930 as in 1940 and 1950. Olympic records set in that era wouldn't be good enough to qualify for a bronze medal today -- in the women's events.
For one thing, the pool of players is twice as large today, considering natural population increase, plus the revolutionary addition of black and Latin stars.
No 1930 Latins made it to the Hall of Fame. Seven blacks of that year were named by a special black committee and are in addition to the 43 whites.
For another thing, today's players are pounds heavier and inches taller than their grandfathers of half a century ago. If we could put them back to 1930 to play the Kleins, the Terrys and the Wilsons, today's boys would play the oldies right off the Astro-Turf -- as they would blast them right out of the Olympic stadium as well.
It's time to bring sanity back to the Hall of Fame. An asterisk beside the name of all members who played in 1930 would be a start.