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Friedrich Nietzsche's ideas about historical thinking can help us understand the Baseball Hall of Fame

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All engagement with the Hall of Fame can be understood as either monumental, antiquarian, or critical history. Knowing about each helps us grasp the nature of the Hall of Fame.

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The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown can rightly be said to be about history. Indeed, the website’s mission statement indicates that it is "dedicated to fostering an appreciation of the historical development of baseball and its impact on our culture." More than that, however, the Baseball Hall of Fame (HoF) exemplifies the practice of history in various forms. It is in different modes of practicing history that the HoF must be understood.

In one of his early essays, philosopher and all-around agitator Friedrich Nietzsche delineated three forms of practicing history that are advantageous to "life." According to Nietzsche, "life" is the pinnacle of human existence, and it is exemplified by the will and ability to create. This is pertinent here because the HoF can be seen as an institution always in the process of becoming; voters have a yearly plebiscite to improve the HoF in a way they see fit. Nietzsche’s three registers of historical practice are monumental, antiquarian, and critical. In short, monumental history is about activity and ambition, antiquarian history is about preservation and admiration, and critical history is about abolition and liberation. The purpose here is not to be didactic and identify a "correct" use of history regarding the HoF; instead, it’s to put a frame around the HoF as an object of history. I ultimately hope to present a firmer understanding of the nature of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

It’s first necessary to flesh out the conditions that allow for historical thinking in each of the three modes Nietzsche identifies. The two single most important foundations are the ability live unhistorically and the ability to forget. These might seem counterintuitive at first. To clarify unhistorical living, Nietzsche evokes the life of an animal. Animals live neither with memories of their birth nor with the knowledge of their eventual death — they are oblivious both to their pre-existence and their post-existence. Animals happily live unburdened lives, but they cannot create like humans can. The caveat for humans is that along with the knowledge of pre- and post-existence is the experience of life itself. In the midst of this experience, nothing has any meaning without the ability to forget the mass of useless details and live unhistorically, if only in selective moments. To use a baseball example, we remember Cal Ripken Jr. not because of Cal Ripken Jr., but because we’re able to forget Vinn Snyder and Monty Farris. The unhistorical and the ability to forget are the foundations for practicing history, but both operate differently to the monumental, antiquarian, and critical historians. Each register is evident in the HoF.

The monumentalist actively pursues the study of models of greatness that existed in the past. She or he uses the models as teachers. It is a paradoxical use of history. On the one hand, monumentalism contains a great deal of optimism because it is based on the belief that greatness has existed in all generations. The great existed once, and it can exist again. On the other hand, monumentalism tends to fetishize the greatness that once existed, and in doing so it creates an impermeable barrier between the monumental historian and present greatness. It encourages pessimism. The reason for this is that the monumentalist tends to use history to form a chain of greatness. Honus Wagner begat Babe Ruth, Babe Ruth begat Joe DiMaggio, Joe DiMaggio begat Willie Mays, and so on and so forth.

The central issue with monumental history is evident in these types of chains of greatness. First, it creates a history that belongs to the past rather than the present, which in turn denies the very possibility of present greatness. Second, and more important, the linkage of greatness is an exercise in historical equivocation. Ty Cobb didn’t play the same game as Babe Ruth did any more than Babe Ruth played the same game as Willie Mays or Barry Bonds. Chains of greatness rip individuals out of context. People say that "history repeats itself," but it doesn’t. The impossibility of historical repetition is because contexts are never the same. The game of baseball creates historical resemblance, but nothing more. The monumental historian disregards causal contexts in favor of the effects of greatness. Monunemtalism’s flaw, in short, is being too historical. It needs to be able to perceive unhistorically and interpret the present on its own terms. The unofficial motto of monumental historians, according to Nietzsche, is "let the dead bury the living."

The self-appointed task of the antiquarian historian is to preserve the past for current and future admiration. The advantage antiquarianism offers is that it advocates for the protection of history. To the antiquarian, history self-evidently has value for its own sake. An antiquarian view of the HoF softens what we find undesirable about baseball’s past and, by way of the past, its present: segregation, unfair labor practices, gambling, and drug use. Instead, it focuses on supposedly objective criteria of historical preservation and emphasizes misleadingly self-evident feats. Three thousand hits and 500 home runs are worth venerating because 3,000 hits and 500 home runs have an antique meaning. Nietzsche suggests that the monumental historian has an instinct for historical becoming — that is why it creates chains of greatness. The antiquarian historian, however, does not. Antiquarianism de-emphasizes both cause and effect by elevating the fact.

The problem of antiquarianism emerges from its purpose. It has a limited vision and runs the risk of becoming stultifying historical naval-gazing. Antiquarian history revolves around itself; antiquarian historians don’t know how to forget. "The time will finally come when everything old and past which has not totally been lost sight of," Nietzsche writes about antiquarian history, "will simply be taken as equally venerable, while whatever does not approach the old with veneration, that is, the new and growing, will be rejected and treated with hostility." In this way, antiquarianism resembles monumentalism. The difference is that the antiquarian thinks with the past and rejects the present as an incoherent threat, while the monumentalist thinks with the future but only concedes that the present might be great someday. To apply this to our theme, the HoF’s ballot rules are documentation of antiquarian history. The HoF and some voters treat the guidelines without context as if they were Moses’s third tablet: they are the object of protection and veneration rather than the changeable set of rules they really are. The most notable of which is 10-player limit on each ballot.

The critical historian seeks release through destruction. According to Nietzsche, the critical historian judges, interrogates, and ultimately condemns the past. Critical history needs to temporarily reject forgetfulness, be immersed in too much history, and destroy what deserves to be destroyed. "Occasionally," Nietzsche posits about critical history, "the same life which needs forgetfulness demands the temporary destruction of this forgetfulness; then it is to become clear how unjust is the existence of some thing, a privilege, a caste, a dynasty for example, how much this thing deserves destruction. Then its past is considered critically." The history that antiquarianism softens requires the critical historian’s exposure. In typical Nietzschean fashion, the destruction is only a precursor to creation — to make something better. When Buster Olney and Lynn Henning abstain completely from casting a ballot for the HoF, they are being critical historians working for the abolition and recreation of something antique (I wrote about Olney and Henning here and here). The same goes for any sort of strategic vote, such as leaving off Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez from a ballot because they’ll get it regardless and other players need the vote more. Both practices, when made public, are designed to liberate voters from the constraints of the past. Other critical historians with regard to the HoF are those who break with the self-evident meaning of 3,000 hits and 500 home runs. They, too, are shattering a past even if it is done in the name of antiquarian protection.

The critical historian’s dilemma is to know when to stop. Too much destruction and refashioning of the past can lead to the creation of a history desired, which can in turn have the same petrifying effect that antiquarian history has in the present. A critical historian who (arguably) goes too far might be one who wants to expunge the HoF of all players and subject each one to a vote today using an entirely new set of criteria and guidelines for admittance.

Without mentioning it directly, the HoF acknowledges that it adheres to these three registers of historical practice. I opened this essay with an excerpt from the HoF’s mission statement. The HoF is "dedicated to fostering an appreciation of the historical development of baseball and its impact on our culture … " The statement continues: "… by collecting, preserving, exhibiting, and interpreting its collections." Each of these actions means something and is guided by assumptions regarding the nature of the HoF as history. I’m not advocating for any one way. In fact, the practices overlap. Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated is the most thoughtful commentator about the HoF today, and if I had to place him I’d say he’s roughly 60 percent monumental and 40 percent critical. The point Nietzsche was trying to make in outlining these modes of historical practice was that they each have advantages and disadvantages that can be managed as long as they are known. My appeal is not to advocate for one way or the other with regard to the HoF. Instead, I hope this essay encourages more self-awareness for the privileged few with a vote and facilitates an understanding of the dynamics at work for the rest of us.

All quotations taken from Friedrich Nietzsche, "On the Advantages and Disadvantages of History for Life," translated by Peter Preuss. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1980.