Minor League Hall of Fame.
To some, this is an inherently contradictory concept. How can there be a Hall of Fame for individuals who competed within a professional baseball realm that, by its very definition, exists only as a proving ground and launching pad for greater accomplishment?
But this line of reasoning misses the point. Minor League Baseball has roots that date back to the 19th century, and all 14 of the leagues currently operating within it boast a rich history all their own. Nearly all of baseball's immortals got their start in the Minors, and the accomplishments of individuals who posted great numbers while playing in a specific locale are worth remembering as well. And, of course, there are those who made a significant contribution in a non-playing capacity. Aren't notable Minor League managers, umpires, owners and executives worthy of some sort of league-specific Hall of Fame recognition?
Such sentiment led 11 leagues within the Minors to establish their own Halls of Fame, all of which have been launched (or relaunched, in two cases) over the last 21 years. This can be a complex undertaking, fraught with confusion and contradiction. How does one establish the criteria for a Minor League Hall of Famer? What is the voting and induction process? And will this Hall of Fame occupy a physical space or simply exist within a virtual realm?
The latest circuit to grapple with such questions is the Double-A Southern League, which inducted its inaugural Hall of Fame class during the 2014 All-Star Game in Chattanooga, Tennessee. To get more information on the process, I spoke with Jason Compton, who heads the SL's Hall of Fame Committee. The league's efforts thus far serve as a useful case study on how to deal with the conundrum that is a Minor League's Hall of Fame.
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Compton, the general manager of the Jackson Generals, said the idea to institute a Southern League Hall of Fame had been floating around for more than a decade. But idle talk transitioned to action prior to the 2014 campaign, as the Southern League was entering the 50th season of its so-called "modern era." (The Southern League was established in 1964 as the successor to the original South Atlantic League. It was pre-dated by the Southern Association, however, which fielded teams in many future Southern League markets from 1901-61.)
"With the 50th anniversary approaching, we said that this is finally the time to do it," said Compton. "[Southern League president] Lori Webb asked me to head the Hall of Fame Committee, to really make this happen. So we did a lot of research and drew up our policies and procedures, and went through several drafts of that."
Compton and the other five members of the SL's Hall of Fame Committee were guided by the work that previous leagues had done in this regard, particularly that of the International League. In 2008, the IL resurrected its Hall of Fame as part of its quasquicentennial (125th) anniversary celebrations, inducting the first of three "transition" classes (consisting of 28, 14 and seven inductees respectively) before reverting to a voter-driven process in which three individuals would be elected each year. The IL markets its Hall as a traveling exhibit, but most league Hall of Fames exist solely or primarily within the virtual realm.
The Southern League followed a similar path with the induction process, opting to enshrine 10 or more nominees a year in the early going as a means to establish the legitimacy of its hall. In 2014, the Hall of Fame Committee chose three inaugural members -- former league presidents and all-around baseball men Don Mincher, Jimmy Bragan and Billy Hitchcock -- and then let each of the league's 10 teams choose an additional inductee.
• Ben's Biz Blog: How I voted for the Southern League Hall of Fame »
"We left it up to each team. We don't care how you do it, whoever you want as the first inductee is going to get in," said Compton. "We did a pregame induction ceremony before the All-Star Game in Chattanooga, announcing the first 13 who would be going into the Hall."
This first group is certainly an eclectic bunch, one that highlights the inherent contradictions of the Minor League Hall of Fame concept. Included therein were five Major League stars, two owners, a Hall of Fame player-turned Minor League manager (Ryne Sandberg, Tennessee Smokies) and a local favorite who died far too young (Mike Darr, Mobile BayBears). And then there were the Huntsville Stars, who chose long-time administrative assistant and "team mom" Rosemary Hovatter. Muddying the mix further was the fact that two organizations (Jackson and Pensacola) chose individuals who had played in the franchise's previous location.
So, yes, it's complicated.
"There's always that question of, 'Are we doing this based on what these guys accomplished in the Southern League or on their entire baseball career?'" said Compton. "It's really supposed to be the Southern League, but some are hard to ignore. How do you keep guys that are in the Baseball Hall of Fame [in Cooperstown] out of ours?"
The Southern League has modified the induction process for 2015. Each team was asked to nominate three potential Hall of Fame candidates. This pool will be winnowed down to a class of 10 via a 31-person electorate (full disclosure -- I am one of these voters). A "special considerations" ballot has also been introduced, allowing teams to nominate any individual who has made an impact on the league (including those with Southern Association roots).
And once again, idiosyncrasies abound.
"This year, Tony LaRussa was nominated twice. He managed the Knoxville Sox in 1978, but Mobile nominated him as a player," said Compton. "I saw that, sat there and stared for a little bit. We're putting both on the ballot. ... But in putting together our policies and procedures, that sort of thing never crossed my mind."
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This year's Southern League Hall of Fame class will be recognized at the All-Star Game in Montgomery, Alabama, and each team has the option of honoring their own inductee in whatever fashion they see fit. After all, they might be able to get a celebrity appearance out of it.
"It's like [Jacksonville Suns owner] Pedro [Bragan] told me, 'If [2015 Suns nominee] Randy Johnson gets in, then I want him in my ballpark,'" said Compton. "And that makes perfect sense."
The plaques are given to the inductees themselves (or, if the individual in question is deceased, to his or her family), because there is no centralized Southern League Hall of Fame location and likely won't be for quite some time.
"One of these days, maybe one of our teams will build a new stadium and we can incorporate [the Southern League Hall of Fame] into that. But for now it's a virtual Hall of Fame, and all of the information is on our website," said Compton. "And each team can find ways to recognize their Hall of Famers internally. [In Jackson,] we have our 'Road to the Show' board, and now we'll do the same thing with our Hall of Fame board."
This speaks to what is perhaps the primary benefit of establishing a league-specific Hall of Fame. Just as a "Road to the Show" stadium display educates fans about the eventual Major Leaguers who passed through a Minor League city, a Hall of Fame serves as a further reminder that the league in question is rich in both history and talent.
"The thing is, most fans have no idea about the sort of people who have been through this league. This gives them an opportunity to start looking at the history, to see those names," said Compton. "This is something to do to give back to the league, creating something that everyone can be proud of."