The REAL Baseball Hall of Fame
By Rick Soisson
The REAL Baseball Hall of Fame opened July 4th, 2020, in midtown Manhattan, and for a while the press had great fun with the sophomoric rendering of “real” in capitals, but eventually everybody got used to that. The brainchild of long-retired superstars Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds, REALHOF (as it came to be known) occupied the first ten floors of what was once the “Bear Stearns World Headquarters,” easily accessible to many who likely would have brushed away the whiff of irony even had they smelled it.
The premise behind REALHOF was simple enough: The numbers are the numbers. Indeed, directly under the three-foot high, always-on LED sign identifying The REAL Baseball Hall of Fame, over its main entrance, were the foot-high legends:
NUMBERS ARE NUMBERS.
HERE ARE ALL OUR STARS.
The foundation of those simple declarations were only slightly more complicated. First, the generation that had followed the stars of the so-called Golden Era of the game—those who cheered for Mays, Mantle, the Robinsons, Aaron, Clemente and Gibson—were either dead, dying, or roughly seventy to seventy-five years old. Second, since 2011 only five players had been inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York: Greg Maddux, Ken Griffey, Jr., Omar Vizquel, Jim Thome, and Chipper Jones. Albert Pujols would be eligible in 2021, Chase Utley in 2023. Third, in five separate years no one had been inducted, and that seriously depressed everybody who loved the game. This depression was fueled, at times, by the very (ancient) sportswriters who refused to vote in the “tainted players” from the Steroid Era of the game that spanned from roughly 1985 to 2010. Their articles had titles like “Another NO for Bonds” and “Gloom Shrouds 2016 Ballot.” Against the keepers of the Cooperstown gate, however, stood millions and millions of fans who had paid truckloads of money to watch the cheats of the tainted days and did not care a whit about what they had put into their bodies. The average fan in the street instinctively “understood” that no drug creates the reflexes or hand-eye coordination necessary to hit a 97-mph cut fastball.
Also, unlike Cooperstown, it didn’t hurt that REALHOF wasn’t a four-hour drive away from, well, just about everywhere.
Oh, there were incidents early on. On July 5th, 2020, 101-year-old Bob Feller led a march on REALHOF, and there was an uncomfortable moment when he came face to face with an over-muscled youngster in the employ of Blackwater Urban Security. BUS was out front in force before the fairly ancient crowd of about 1,000 had come within a block of the site.
The guard in question had learned his stuff, though—like all Blackwater guards at the museum, he knew what Feller looked like, even at 101. (There was a test before employment was offered. Applicants were given two weeks to cram.) Faced with the ancient fireballer, he simply said, “Mr. Feller, it’s good to see you. Your admission is free, of course. Since your friends have come with a Hall of Famer, they will receive five dollars off the regular admission price.”
Feller blinked and retreated a half block with the march’s other organizers, who scratched their bald heads, then finally decided to send in a delegation to see “what kind of disgraces are in there.” The delegation was led by the best singles hitter ever, Rod Carew. The great Carew moved slowly, pretty erectly, but with a cane, toward the entrance.
He would never admit to anyone that he was slightly grateful for the discounted admission.
Between them, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens had made, of course, over $200 million on the field of play alone, and such deep pockets made various possibilities realities. They weren’t revealed as the money behind the project until 2032—this is why the term “shell corporation” exists—and by then their “baby” had been widely hailed by both the tainted players and the public, the latter of whom voted with their feet and money. Moreover, All the Stars, Inc., the parent company, had touched all the bases, as defined by very expensive public relations consultants.
To begin with, almost all of the inductees to the original Hall of Fame were also inducted into REALHOF. (Rabbit Maranville didn’t make the cut. Neither did Earl Averill.)
Next, with the notable exceptions of Bonds and Clemens, all the dirty laundry was aired, after a fashion. More accurately, a very effective smokescreen was employed, a smokescreen all the more effective because there wasn’t a very good answer to it. Rather than defend the enhancement of power and recovery through steroid and HGH use, REALHOF emphasized the near universal use of “drugs” for decades. Just beyond the admission booths inside the main entrance was an exhibit called “The Elephant in the Room.” In the center of the circular hallway with multiple doors leading elsewhere was a huge bronze plaque fifteen feet tall and twenty feet wide. The copy of the top three lines of the plaque was a foot high and began, “WHEN HALL OF FAME SLUGGER RALPH KINER RETURNED to the Pittsburgh Pirates after flying Navy seaplanes, he found amphetamines in the training room.” Few passing this huge monument to altered states actually knew who Ralph Kiner was, and fewer still read the next twenty-five lines that presented a rather convincing case for amphetamines being the real drug problem in baseball and one ignored for about half a century. Three significant players were quoted about widespread speed use, and it was duly noted that USA Today found in 2008 that 35 percent of MLB players estimated that half of their peers were using amphetamines. The last four lines of the plaque briefly addressed the drinking habits of Babe Ruth and Grover Cleveland Alexander, which were “abetted by their teams, as very well-documented.” The visitors, however, all headed in a rush to the Alex Rodriguez exhibit, which supposedly featured nude photos of A-Rod and Madonna. They were partially disappointed; only the better part of one breast was actually visible.
Finally, everybody who had “the numbers” was included, inducted en masse in a televised event that included shots of the directors of the hall voting. As entertainment, it was roughly equal to the NFL draft or the NBA All-Star Game, but millions watched. On camera, some of the directors wore T-shirts reading “NO SELIGISM” over dress shirts and ties. One wore a sweatshirt that read, “We don’t turn a blind eye to ‘cheating,’ THEN call the act illegal.” Thus, in the end, there were separate exhibits for Pete Rose, Mark McGwire, Bonds and Clemens, as well as for A-Rod, who had retired in 2019 with 889 home runs. Unlike Cooperstown, there was no five-year waiting period before a player could be voted on.
One of the curiosities of REALHOF was the separate exhibit dedicated to Shoeless Joe Jackson and Buck Weaver, two of the 1919 Black Sox. They were lumped together because, while the museum made it fairly clear that Jackson was a vastly superior player, it allowed the new hall to elevate a player in Weaver who had likely been tarred and feathered unfairly. Again, most missed the irony of this particular museum defending an unjustly designated “cheater.”
Also, the managers of the museum never ignored the will of the people who would ultimately fund the institution, the visitors. After passing through the Jackson/Weaver exhibit that led naturally to the Pete Rose Hit King Room, visitors were asked two questions by paper ballot: Was what Jackson did worse than what Rose did? Yes. No. And: Would you remove either of these players from The REAL Baseball Hall of Fame, and if so, which one, or both? After depositing their ballots, fans had their hands stamped by a Blackwater employee to prevent double voting. There were similar exhibits elsewhere, and even Bonds and Clemens were subjected to a vote on a mass ballot near the hall’s exit door. Any player gathering 50,000 “out” votes in a year would be booted. By 2032, the highest annual total for any inductee was Jose Canseco’s 24,449.
So, on a sunny, mid-August day in 2020, Tommy Hatfield and Chip Bonzer, both from Follansbee, West Virginia, stood in line at REALHOF. Like many former second-line high school athletes, they were obsessed with their former sport—baseball, of course—and they had debated with friends the merit of the museum they were about to visit. Bonzer, who worked on Wall Street and came from more money than the rest of Follansbee put together, had invited his old bench-warming pal to spend a few days in New York.
Hatfield wore his old Follansbee game jersey, which he had stolen after his last game. Bonzer had removed an expensive tie from a button-down, cream-colored oxford shirt. He had taken a half day off. Although both were nearing 30, they were bouncing around like six-year-olds, barely maintaining their spots in the three-abreast line. The third in their rank was an older gentleman they could not have known once had played parts of quite a few seasons for bad teams in Philadelphia (and once hit .309 for San Diego in 124 games). Bonzer and Hatfield chattered on about the “awesome” A-Rod exhibit and the chance to meet Sammy Sosa, the day’s designated REALHOF autograph signer (“A Different Star Every Day—FREE”).
As Bonzer, Hatfield and the older gentleman reached the ticket booths together, Bonzer declared loudly that Sosa was, for three years, the greatest slugger in the game’s history. Tickets in hand, the old friends debated this point and headed left from the booths. The older gentleman apparently had decided to go right. They momentarily faced each other, the former bench-warmers making no effort to move aside, as Hatfield fairly yelled in his friend’s face, “A-Rod is a god—Sosa doesn’t even deserve a spot near him!” They turned and looked at the old man in front of them…
… who slapped Hatfield—hard—and moved around him and his friend without comment. Half an hour of their nonsense was apparently enough.
Hatfield and Bonzer were silent.
Hatfield blinked and put his hand up to his face. “Shit. What was that about?!”
The friends thought, after a fashion.
“He probably thinks, you know, like Sandy Koufax was something special.”
Bonzer agreed. “Really. What’d that guy play, like two years?”
“He probably thinks, like, Dick Cheney was a war criminal or something.” Hatfield was trying to impress his old running buddy—Chip was a real student of history.
“Dim old fart.”
About the author
Rick Soisson was born and raised in Pittsburgh, took two degrees from Villanova, and has lived in the Philadelphia area most of his adult life, currently in the East Falls section of the city. At present he teaches writing and literature at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia and at Montgomery County (PA) Community College. His essays, cartoons, illustrations and ad art have appeared in a number of print and online publications, from the Inquirer to Studies in Contemporary Satire to The Broad Street Review. His poem “Aaron Rowand” appeared in The Chicago Baseball Museum Newsletter in 2007.