Was the Baseball Hall of Fame Sending a Message with Babe Ruth’s Plaque?

Babe Ruth’s Hall of Fame plaque is a bronze study in understatement:

“The greatest drawing card in the history of baseball. Holder of many home run and other records. Gathered 714 home runs in addition to fifteen in World Series.”

“Holder of many home run and other records.”

Sure, you could say that. But why would you say it like that? This is saying Bill Gates “was successful in the computer business,” that Shakespeare “wrote a number of well-received plays.”

In retrospect, it seems impossible that the Hall of Fame thought these 28 words did justice to the Babe’s career. Did the writer decide that Ruth’s accomplishments were just too numerous to list? Was the terse inscription a sly wink — or rebuke — to Ruth’s out-sized personality and Rabelaisian appetites?

Or were the HOF directors trying to diminish the Babe while conferring glory to fellow inductees Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner, master craftsmen who played the game “the right way?” Ruth’s power game was dismissed in some quarters as inferior to the “one-base-at-a-time” style that defined the game from 1900–1920. Wagner and Cobb dominated with speed, bat control, athleticism and intelligence — they lanced with surgeon’s scalpels, while Ruth wielded a blacksmith’s hammer. It wasn’t until the late-20s that the rest of baseball started to rely on the home run as the dominant offensive weapon. Perhaps the HOF voters were pushing back against the revolution ushered in by Ruth?

Sadly, the real story lacks such conspiratorial intrigue. According to James L. Gates Jr., Library Director at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, this was no repudiation of the Babe as a player or a person. “Don’t read too much into it,” says Gates. “Those preparing these first plaques were basically inventing a genre. They had no idea of the cultural significance that these plaques would gain over the ensuing decades.”

Indeed, Ruth’s inscription isn’t notable for its brevity when compared to his fellow inductees:

Ty Cobb’s inscription was even more succinct, at 25 words:[1]

“Led American League in batting twelve times and created or equaled more major league records than any other player. Retired with 4191 major league hits.”

Walter Johnson was allotted 30 words:

“Conceded to be the fastest ball pitcher in the history of the game. Won 414 games with losing team behind him many years. Holder of strikeout and shut out records.”

Honus Wagner’s inscription comes in at a flabby 46 words:

“The greatest shortstop in baseball history. Born Carnegie, PA, Feb 24, 1874. Known to fame as “Honus,” Hans” and “The Flying Dutchman.” Retired in 1917, having scored more runs, made more hits and stolen more bases than any other player in the history of his league.”

Christy Mathewson exhausts the reader with a Proustian 50 words:

“Born Factoryville, PA, August 12, 1880. Greatest of all the great pitchers in the 20th century’s first quarter. Pitched 3 shutouts in 1905 World Series. First pitcher of the century ever to win 30 games in 3 successive years. Won 37 games in 1908. ‘Matty was master of them all’.”

Compare these monuments to understatement with the latter-day inscription of, say, Frank Thomas (91 words):

“An imposing figure at the plate and in the field, combined powerful swing and exceptional batting eye to become one of the game’s most feared hitters. In each of his first seven full seasons, posted .300 average, 100 walks, 100 runs, 100 RBI and 20 home runs, a first. Won back-to-back A.L. Most Valuable Player awards in 1993–94. Led A.L. in on-base percentage four times, walks four times and claimed batting title in 1997. A .301 lifetime batter. Five-time All-Star whose drive for excellence produced 521 home runs and 1,704 RBI.”

Contributing to the expanded text on today’s plaques is our contemporary obsession with statistics. “It’s only in the last 30–40 years that we have developed the need to see every stat ever created,” says Gates. “And this is reflected in the text. All the numbers we look at today were just not that important in the 1930s, and the plaque authors saw no need to include them.”

The first HOF class averaged a mere 36.6 words per inscription; the 2014 class of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Thomas averaged 83.3 (Maddux, the most accomplished of the three, received a svelte 75 words). 2016 inductees Mike Piazza and Ken Griffey Jr. check in at 84 and 93 words, respectively. As casting and engraving technology continue to improve, we can probably expect future efforts to exceed the 100-word mark.[2]

While today’s inscriptions provide a fuller account of a player’s resume, there is an elegance attendant to some of the earliest efforts: “Conceded to be the fastest ball pitcher in the history of the game” tells us more about the Big Train than, say, the opening line on Don Sutton’s plaque: “A stalwart on the mound for 23 major league seasons, his impressive pitching record includes 324 victories, 3574 strikeouts and a 3.26 ERA.”

Sutton’s plaque gives us more facts, but Johnson’s plaque rings more true.

Jeremy Lehrman is the author of Baseball’s Most Baffling MVP Ballots. For more baseball, click here.

[1] The shortest inscription (24 words) belongs to Tris Speaker, class of 1937.

[2] As of this writing, Jackie Robinson’s plaque displays the longest inscription in the Hall of Fame. Robinson’s original plaque, hung in 1962, contained 55 words — none of which made mention of his place in history. The plaque was replaced in 2008, with a new inscription (98 words) that ends with “Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense adversity.” I hope the HOF never exceeds this word count.

UPDATE (2017): Bud Selig now holds the record for the longest inscription (104 words) in the Hall of Fame.

Bud Selig.