Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner were not exactly role models off the field when picked eighty years ago for the first Hall class.

On January 29, 1936, members of the Baseball Writers’ Association selected the first five superstars to be installed three years later in the Hall of Fame. The writers chose well: in selecting Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, and Honus Wagner they were confirming athletic immortality more than conferring it. The founders of baseball’s Pantheon acted intelligently too. By establishing this iconic institution they used its colorful history to stake baseball’s claim as America’s national pastime.

Eighty years later, the founding five remain among baseball’s greatest players. A brilliant hitter and ruthless base runner most associated with the Detroit Tigers, Cobb retired with 43 major league regular season records. A legendary slugger and charismatic New York Yankee—after the Boston Red Sox sold him—Ruth helped popularize the game. Even though both of his biggest records have been broken, 60 homers a season and 714 in a career remain among baseball’s most magical numbers. A fastballer for the Washington Senators, Walter Johnson won 417 times, pitched 531 complete games and struck batters out 3509 times. A New York Giant who was more a crafty screwballer than a power pitcher, Christy Mathewson won 37 games one season, and pitched three shutouts during the 1905 World Series. And although today he is most famous for the million plus dollars one of his baseball cards fetches, Honus Wagner, of the Pittsburgh Pirates, was a master fielder as well as an extraordinary runner and hitter, who won the National League battle title eight times.

Obsessing about baseball history is strange. Sport’s great allure is rooted in the moment, as two teams clash while athletes try defying gravity to excel. Yet the benchmarks used to judge performance beyond the immediate outcome demand record keeping. And that’s where statistics, history, tradition, kick in.

The American sports industry developed into the behemoth it is today because it addicted readers to the daily sports pages and seemed worthy of having its own history. As the media grew, the game-to-game drama made news newsworthy. Americans learned to rush to buy the newspapers to follow their favorite teams, compare their team with their rivals, and follow the latest player sagas. Greeks had their gods; kids had their comics; fathers and sons had their sports heroes.
Beyond fascination with the physical feats, many assumed that sports strengthened character. Americans delighted in the gentlemanly qualities of a Walter Johnson and a Christy Mathewson. Johnson never quarreled with umpires, never abused his teammates. Mathewson also controlled his impulses as carefully as he controlled his curve. Mathewson’s life ended tragically, heroically, seven years after being gassed accidentally during the Great War in 1918 (which became World War I).

Of course, fans always knew that reality was messier, even in those less candid times. Honus Wagner, “The Flying Dutchman,” spent much of the 1910 season drunk, brawling constantly. Nevertheless, that year, Wagner objected to his image being placed on a card to lure young boys to buy Piedmont cigarettes, which is why his T-206 baseball card became so rare and expensive.
Babe Ruth was infamous for playing brilliantly despite over-eating, boozing, and carousing. Once, Chicago White Sox players conspired with a bartender to get “The Babe” plastered on punch. The bleary-eyed Ruth still hit well the next day, and invited his rivals out that night too.

Ty Cobb’s character was so tarnished over the years he sometimes seemed more suited to the Hall of Shame than the Hall of Fame. Cobb has been pilloried as a racist bully, a good ole’ boy from Georgia who tried to keep the game white by fighting blacks whenever he could. Charles Leehrsen’s Terrible Beauty concludes that Cobb was an equal opportunity brawler, whose intensity often erupted into fisticuffs but whose reputation as a racist reflected anti-Southern prejudice, especially because he befriended blacks and, in retirement supported Jackie Robinson’s integration of the game.

So many of these stories and judgments come from that early twentieth-century invention, the sportswriter. These chroniclers were essential cogs in the baseball myth-making machine, making it singularly appropriate that they would be honored with the power of voting players into the Hall—or not.

Today, it is fashionable to bemoan the rise of the spoiled brat athlete, overpaid, thuggish, pituitary deviants whose bad behavior demeans the sport and reflects America’s moral decline. In fact, athlete’s delinquency reflects our collective foolishness in assuming some link between physical prowess and moral virtue. Short of cheating or criminal behavior, hall of famers should be selected, as the first five were, for their on-field virtues not off the field. I wish athletes were better role models. But it’s more realistic to seek true heroes elsewhere, from real life, rather than in the artificial hothouse of our local stadiums, where sportswriters and others tell stories as part of the broader sporting imperative to entertain, as a way of selling the athletes, the sport, and the various media vehicles that track them.

America’s particular obsession with celebrity, our elaborate, artificial, often misleading, hero-creation industry, reflects a deep national craving, a vast emptiness in the heart of the American soul. The nineteenth century novelist Henry James complained that America—the homeland he abandoned for Great Britain—lacked institutional anchors. The center of the New World, he lamented, has “No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools….” Instead, Americans often use our celebrities as national bonding agents, to create a common culture with shared references, shared anchors. But athletes, movie stars, tycoons, and, today, manufactured celebs who are famous for being famous, and sometimes famous for being infamous, are particularly unstable stabilizers, unbalanced ballasts.

Henry James also taught that “Three things in human life are important: the first is to be kind; the second is to be kind; and the third is to be kind.” Much as I love baseball’s fascination with its past as a way of measuring and honoring the performance of today’s players, wouldn’t it be great to see a Hall of Fame for kindness, for smarts, for charitable acts, for feats of moral prowess not just athletic skill?