At the risk of being immodest, I have a proposal for major league baseball that could help repair its reputation: let my grandfather into the Hall of Fame.
Baseball is still under assault by people still shocked that Buck O’Neil, the great Negro League player and promoter, was passed over in the recent voting. These are the same type of guys who continue to keep my grandfather, who played for the Washington Senators from 1915 to 1932 and coached for 20 more years after that, out of the Hall. Gramps’s crime? He told the truth. He actually had the guts to announce that the Hall of Fame is full of guys who don’t belong there — and that sluggers who were good for only one thing — the long ball — were no good for baseball. More than forty years after he wrote those words people still aren’t paying attention.
Joe Judge played first base for the Washington Senators from 1915 to 1932, and while his stats justify a place in the Hall — his 18 years in major league baseball in which he had a .298 batting average, 2352 hits, 433 doubles, 1037 RBI, 1500 double plays, American League fielding leader five times — he should be honored not only for that but for what he, like Buck O’Neil, was: a gentleman ball player.
These days, Joe Judge is largely forgotten. This is largely due to the fact that he was not the kind of player, or the kind of man, who drew a lot of attention to himself. Family, friends, sportswriters all describe my grandfather the same way: polite, taciturn, unassuming, humble. A 1925 article in Baseball magazine described him as “the sheet anchor of the Washington infield.” Off the field, Judge was apparently the most sober and even-tempered man in any room. Relatives, players he coached, journalists — everyone he came in contact with or who has read about him all describe him the same way: as a gentleman. It’s the kind of behavior that keeps you off the front page and out of the Hall of Fame.
My grandfather’s career was between 1915 and 1934, which means it partly took place in the “dead ball era” before the 1920s. He learned to play a game that was about singles, bunts, fielding and defense, not the loud, vulgar, pyrotechnic power spectacle that baseball became in the 1920s, with the arrival of Babe Ruth. Ruth was a gigantic talent and an outsized personality, the forerunner of today’s spoiled brat athlete. “The route to the common man’s heart is paved with ribaldry and excess,” baseball historian Harold Seymour wrote of Ruth’s hold on baseball fans. “What English king was more famous than Henry VIII?” One reporter noted that “Ruth is just a great, big, overgrown boy. He loves a good time, and… there are always scores of admirers on hand to see that it does not suffer any pangs of ennui.”
Ruth was a rock star before rock and roll — or maybe describing him as a rapper, with that genre’s fetish for cash and women, would be more appropriate. “Sports was annexed by the burgeoning entertainment industry of the 1920s,” historian Ann Douglas observes in her book Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s, “and the man most responsible for their transformation was Babe Ruth, ‘our national exaggeration,’ as the sports writer Bill McGeehan called him. ‘All or nothing,’ was his motto, and he epitomized the ‘watch me — I’m a wow!’ ethos. The Babe endorsed everything from baseball cards to cigars and cars.”
Unlike Ruth, Joe Judge has never made it into the Hall of Fame. This might have something to do with something my grandfather published in 1959, four years before his death. It’s long been an open secret in the family that the article was actually written by my father, who at the time was a writer for Life magazine. Called “Verdict Against the Hall of Fame,” it was published in the June 6, 1959 issue of Sports Illustrated. It argued strenuously that the Hall of Fame was letting in players who didn’t deserve to be there. “The Hall has lost some of its meaning and much of its glory in recent years,” it read. My grandfather — or my father — named players who were in the Hall for inappropriate reasons. Players Joe Tinker, Johnny Evers and Frank Chance, were in simply because of the ring of their double-play combination, Tinker to Evers to Chance. Tinker’s lifetime average is .264, Evers’ .270. The article pointed to catcher Ray Schacht, lifetime average .253, and shortstop Rabbit Maranville, who never hit over .300. The essay then blasted the growing tendency to favor players with more personality than talent: “To be a credit to the game of baseball, a man need not have got off a record number of wise cracks or assembled a record number of feature-stories. There are a lot of colorful palookas.”
He went on:
In my day, by the time the infield was finished spitting tobacco juice and licorice and rubbing the ball down with mud, especially on a dark afternoon, the ball would come at you looking like a clump of coal. A great hitter would lay the wood on it regardless of the side it was thrown from or the stuff on it. That same man could steal the base that made the difference. He was fast enough so that the hit-and-run and bunt-and-run were always possible. And when he got back to his position he would come up with a great catch, the great save, the great throw that meant winning instead of losing.
Today many so-called sluggers couldn’t steal a base if they were alone in the park. They are not expected to throw too well or run too fast as long as they can belt the ball out of the park when their one moment of usefulness arrives. The idea of being a team member sometimes is lost completely, and what we have is an association of specialist businessmen investing their specific talents and carefully watching their own special interests, upon which they hope to declare a dividend the following year.
My grandfather would be dead within four years of the SI article. He died after suffering a heart attack while shoveling snow on March 11, 1963. The papers reported the news, calling him “The greatest of all the Senators’ first basemen.” Columnist George Clifford of the Washington Daily News summed him up this way: “Joe Judge was not a character in the clownish, bittersweet fashion of sports. The stories about him become legends simply because of his ability.” Perhaps the best line to summarize my grandfather came from Sam Rice, the great Senators outfielder. When Rice learned of Joe Judge’s death, Rice said, “There was no play he couldn’t make.”
Actually, there was one he couldn’t — the play where you leap from all-time baseball great and role model to honoree in the Hall of Fame.