History never changes, but our interpretation of it can.
While the basic facts of historical events are immutable, time and distance can alter the context from which they are viewed.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Let’s start at the beginning.
A couple weeks ago, Jeff Klein, copy editor extraordinaire for The Columbian Sports department, took a trip to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
Using his keen powers of journalistic observation, Jeff noticed that some of the plaques for the inductees looked a bit out of place. For example, the plaque for Jackie Robinson — who was inducted in 1962 — did not appear to be 50 years old.
So, Jeff sent an email inquiring about that, and I thought the reply was fascinating. Donny Lowe, manager of Web and Digital Media for the Hall of Fame, wrote back:
“Robinson requested in 1962 that the writers only consider his exploits on the playing field for his election. However, in light of obvious historical events the plaque was recast in 2008 with the support of his widow Rachel. This is a very rare occurrence.”
So, Jackie Robinson’s original Hall of Fame plaque made no mention of the fact that he broke the major leagues’ color barrier.
It’s understandable that Robinson would wish to be acknowledged solely for his ability on the field — which clearly was Hall-of-Fame caliber — but it’s also rather absurd. It’s like summarizing Led Zeppelin’s career without mentioning “Stairway to Heaven.”
In addition to detailing his on-field exploits, Robinson’s plaque now includes the words, “Displayed tremendous courage and poise in 1947 when he integrated the modern major leagues in the face of intense adversity.”
Considering that the Hall of Fame is actually the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, and that a museum’s role is to preserve and interpret history, integrating the major leagues is a rather significant part of Robinson’s story.
Lowe, the Hall of Fame representative, said that the recasting of plaques is rare, but he didn’t specify how rare. So I did a little research.
According to the Internet, in 2000, Roberto Clemente’s plaque was recast so that his name reads “Roberto Clemente Walker,” expressed in the proper Hispanic format. In 2010, the plaque of former Negro Leagues star Pete Hill was recast so that his name reads “John Preston Hill,” reflecting updated genealogical research.
There likely have been other changes to plaques over the years, but those were the two examples that I found. In each case, history didn’t change, but our understanding of it or the context in which we view it had been altered.
Which makes me think that maybe Ted Williams’ plaque should be changed. Williams is best known for being perhaps the greatest hitter who ever lived, for missing nearly five seasons while serving as a fighter pilot, and for being a cantankerous iconoclast.
But my favorite Ted Williams story involves his own Hall of Fame induction speech in 1966.
“I hope that one day Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson will be voted into the Hall of Fame as symbols of the great Negro players who are not here only because they weren’t given the chance,” Williams said.
It was a courageous and surprising declaration, arriving at the height of the Civil Rights movement yet at a time when the former Negro Leagues received little formal recognition from organized baseball.
Five years later, a special Negro Leagues Committee made Paige the first such player to be inducted. The following year, he was joined by Gibson and Buck Leonard, with other Negro Leagues players following in subsequent years.
The inclusion of Negro Leagues greats wasn’t solely a result of Williams’ speech, but he surely played a small role in altering how those players were viewed by baseball’s establishment.
You see, history never changes. But sometimes our perspective on it does.