Why’d We All Stop Going to Sports Halls of Fame?

What Canton and Cooperstown need is a dash of Kardashian.

When you were making your vacation plans for this summer, did the destinations you considered include Canton, Ohio? Cooperstown, New York? Charlotte, North Carolina? I’ll bet you money they didn’t. Those towns are the homes, respectively, of the NFL, MLB and NASCAR halls of fame, and things are getting lonely there.

According to a story in last week’s Wall Street Journal, attendance at the halls has been dropping precipitously over the past few decades — except at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which only opened in 2010. Predictions then were it would draw 800,000 visitors a year to lovely Charlotte. The WSJ says it opened with 278,000 attendees, which last year dwindled to 184,000. The Hockey Hall of Fame, in Toronto, had 500,000 visitors a year in 1980; today, it’s fewer than 300,000 annually. You may be tempted to think museum attendance generally is down. It’s not. Sixty-one percent of museums surveyed by the American Alliance of Museums said their attendance rose in 2011, compared to 57 percent in 2009. We seem to be happy to go see art, or dino skeletons, or First Ladies’ dresses. It’s sports memorabilia we no longer care about.

The Wall Street Journal offers up a couple of possible explanations for the drop in attendance. Sports halls of fame aren’t known for being interactive, and that’s how museum-goers like their experiences these days. Exhibits tend to change only when new members are added, so if you’ve been to Cooperstown once, there’s not much cause to go again. The special statistics and factoids the halls of fame once offered obsessed fans are now available online to anyone, anytime. And these museums, while considered plums to the towns where they were built when new, aren’t enough of a reason to visit somewhat out-of-the-way burgs nowadays.

I remember going to Cooperstown when I was maybe 12 or 13, with my family. My dad loved baseball; the rest of us, not so much. But like so many museums, it was more interesting than we thought it would be once we got there. I recall looking at the uniforms of olden-day players with a grudging respect. Musial, Ruth, Aaron, Robinson, DiMaggio, Mantle—they were familiar names to me; I’d heard about them all my life. They were heroes, men to look up to and emulate, even if you were a girl. They were famous for what they had achieved.

I couldn’t have been much older when I first read Ball Four, major league pitcher Jim Bouton’s memoir of his baseball career. It was published in 1970, when I was 14, and I was captivated by it. Bouton was irreverent and brutally frank in discussing players’ cheating of both the marital and illicit-drug varieties; his revelations regarding team members’ drinking and womanizing led then-baseball commissioner Bowie Kuhn to try to force him to admit the book was fictional.

Baseball heroes were never the same for me after I’d read Bouton’s shredding of Mickey Mantle’s reputation (among others). As much as any other book, Ball Four made me want to be a writer — to be that fierce and fearless about telling the truth. It also taught me not to believe everything I read; I was crushed when Bouton and his wife Bobbie, whom he’d discussed so tenderly in his book, divorced. (She was similarly crushed to discover he was as much of a philanderer as the players he’d tattled on.)

And that may be why we’re not taking our kids to sports halls of fame anymore. These days, sports scandals are so prevalent — drug-taking, signal-stealing, drunk-driving, not to mention murder and suicide — that holding any sports figure up to them as a role model seems risky at best. We’re overprotective; we don’t want little Emma or Ashton to fall in love with, oh, say, Lance Armstrong and get walloped when the truth comes out.

Funny thing, though. Ball Four is what made me love baseball. Bouton’s inside view of all that went on behind the scenes of those interminable games my father loved to watch made the men who played more real, and far more interesting to me. Maybe the halls of fame need to take a cue from Bouton, and offer up less reverence and more nitty-gritty. How about an exhibit in Cooperstown of women Mickey Mantle slept with, or members who’ve used steroids? Maybe one in Canton of hall of famers’ later days, complete with physical debilitation, pecuniary distress and dementia? The players’ reputations are already suspect; might as well give the public what it wants, which isn’t heroes so much as scandal. I’ll bet visitors would start heading for Toronto and Charlotte and Cooperstown in droves. Matter of fact, attendance at the NBA Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts, actually started going up in 2011. Gee, wasn’t that the year Kris Humphries married Kim Kardashian?