Opinion

The Hall of Mystery

The California Museum in Sacramento. (Photo: ldabrahams, via Wikipedia)

The House of Whimsy and Mystery – otherwise known as the California Hall of Fame – conducted its annual whoop earlier this month. As in years past, it mostly produced nods but also a puzzle or two.

The Hall is run by the California Museum, which compiles a master list of potential nominees gathered from a variety of sources, including the governor and first lady, Museum board of directors, historians, past inductees and the public. (If you’re so inclined, a nomination form is available on the Museum website.)

Filling the Hall, on the other hand, seems to depend on a bit of gubernatorial whimsy. That’s not to say that inductees aren’t fine folks, their resumes chocked full of accomplishments.

Each fall, the governor and first lady pluck the final selections off that master list, which is extensive. Some 120 people have been selected for the Hall of Fame since 2006. It appears current elected officials are ineligible.

The Hall was the brainchild of former First Lady Maria Shriver, who started the master list, oversaw induction of the first class in 2006 and is now herself enshrined among the immortals (class of 2016).

The inaugural group was a Who’s Who of iconic Californians: Cesar Chavez, Walt Disney, Clint Eastwood, Frank Gehry, the Hearst family, Dr. David Ho, Billie Jean King, John Muir, David and Lucile Packard, Ronald Reagan, Sally Ride and Alice Walker. Also included was Amelia Earhart, who spent most of her life and career elsewhere but did learn to fly while in Long Beach briefly during the early 1920s. That connection was enough to meet the Hall’s criteria of living in California for a minimum of five years. Nominees also must transcend their field to make a significant contribution to the state, nation and world; embody the spirit of California and the California Dream; and inspire people through their unique stories and accomplishments.

The Class of 2018 – chosen by Jerry Brown and Ann Gust – included Joan Baez, Arlene Blum, Belva Davis, Thomas Keller, Ed Lee, Nancy McFadden, Robert Redford and Fernando Valenzuela.

The theory is high-minded: “Honor legendary people who embody California’s innovative spirit and have made their mark on history.”

Filling the Hall, on the other hand, seems to depend on a bit of gubernatorial whimsy. That’s not to say that inductees aren’t fine folks, their resumes chocked full of accomplishments. But it’s often tough to figure out why the Hall anoints some while ignores others with stronger resumes.

And don’t forget George S. Patton Jr., the legendary general of World War II, who was born in San Gabriel and attended school as a youngster in Pasadena.

Take two examples from the ‘18 list – Lee and Valenzuela.

Lee, who died unexpectedly in 2017, gets the nod because, as the Museum’s website notes, he was San Francisco’s first Asian-American mayor and because he presided over the “greatest economic recovery and investment in housing in the city’s history.”

Lee is the first California mayor – of any stripe – to be inducted. But his selection seems curious when two San Francisco predecessors – George Moscone and Willie Lewis Brown Jr. – had greater overall impacts on California. As did the late Tom Bradley of Los Angeles. For that matter, Belle Cooledge was the first woman elected mayor of a major California city – Sacramento in 1948 – and a founder of Sacramento City College.

The Hall loosely sorts inductees into seven categories (arts, education, business and labor, science, sports, philanthropy and public service). Consider these public servants: March Fong Eu, Roz Wyman, Leon Panetta, Jesse Unruh, Erin Brockovich, Fred Korematsu, Barbara Boxer, Stanley Mosk, Bill Hauck, Ed Roybal, C.L. Dellums, Gloria Molina, George Deukmejian and Phil Burton. And don’t forget George S. Patton Jr., the legendary general of World War II, who was born in San Gabriel and attended school as a youngster in Pasadena.

Tom Hanks, Cicely Tyson, Jimmy Stewart, Cher, Robin Williams, Katherine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Gene Autry, Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Hope are still waiting.

None is in the Hall.

That Ed Lee should leap-frog to the top of that list seems a bit quirky.

The mystery deepens with Fernando.

Fernando Valenzuela was a good baseball player. Over a 17-year career, he had six great seasons, four average seasons, and six bad ones. He was the best pitcher in baseball in his rookie year (1981). But he is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame because his career, while notable, wasn’t Hall-worthy. To be fair, his induction here hinges on more than baseball. A native of Mexico, he burst onto the scene in 1981 and was the center of a storm known as “Fernandomania.” He became an icon in Southern California’s Hispanic community and is rightfully credited with increasing the popularity of baseball throughout the region, especially among Hispanics. In retirement, he’s lent his name and reputation to immigration reform. At some point, he deserves the nod.

But does he deserve to jump ahead of Bill Russell, Ted Williams, Maureen Connolly, Joe DiMaggio, Louis Zamperini, Florence Griffith Joyner, Helen Wong, Don Budge, Sandy Koufax, Lisa Leslie, Don Drysdale, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Frank Robinson, Curt Flood, John Brodie, Willie McCovey, Mark Spitz, Pete Sampras, Greg LeMond, Helen Moody, Bob Mathias, Greg Louganis, Peggy Fleming, Tom Seaver, Walter O’Malley, Cheryl Miller, Pancho Gonzalez, Brandi Chastain, even Seabiscuit? Well, you get the idea.

Also consider these head-scratchers:

Actor Robert Downey Jr. was inducted in 2015. Tom Hanks, Cicely Tyson, Jimmy Stewart, Cher, Robin Williams, Katherine Hepburn, Charlie Chaplin, Gene Autry, Mary Tyler Moore and Bob Hope are still waiting. Remind me – who were the most iconic actors of their generations? Who endowed a Shakespearean theatre company in Los Angeles? Who won Academy Awards? Who spent a lifetime entertaining troops in war zones? Who created a highly-successful production company? Who has been honored by the Kennedy Center and awarded a Presidential Medal of Freedom?

But if the state is going to have a Hall of Fame, perhaps the selection process ought to identify and elect the most worthy.

Director James Cameron was inducted in 2011. Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, John Huston, Sherry Lansing, Frank Capra, Orson Welles and John Ford are still waiting. Remind me – who created the modern American western and launched John Wayne’s career? Who were among the handful of risk-takers who created “Hollywood?” Who overcame gender discrimination to co-found United Artists?

Writer Danielle Steele was inducted in 2010. Czelaw Milosz, Jack London and Maxine Hong Kingston are still waiting, as are Gertrude Stein, Dashiell Hammett, Ursula K. Le Guin, Laurence Yep, Mona Simpson, Robinson Jeffers, Berkeley Breathed, Milton Friedman and William Saroyan. Remind me – who won a Nobel Prize for Literature? Who won a Nobel Prize for Economics? Who won a Pulitzer Prize and created some of the most iconic cartoon characters ever?

NBC anchorman Lester Holt was inducted in 2015. Otis Chandler, Monica Lozano, Robert Maynard, C.K. McClatchy, Diana Marcum, Mervin Field, Nancy Hicks Maynard, Frank McCullough, Lou Cannon, Sandy Close, Carey McWilliams, Jim Murray, Herb Caen and Vin Scully cool their heels. Remind me – who was considered the most respected journalist of his generation? Who is considered the greatest sportscaster ever to sit behind a mic? Who founded a nonprofit organization that nurtured ethnic media? Who was editor of the nation’s most prominent Spanish-language newspaper? Who was the first African-American to own a major metropolitan daily?

Okay, I get it. The California Hall of Fame isn’t the most pressing issue on the table these days. But if the state is going to have a Hall of Fame, perhaps the selection process ought to identify and elect the most worthy. I know; “most worthy” is subjective, and the Hall mostly gets it right. But it also has those whimsical hiccups, and perhaps the Museum ought to have a way to vet the governor’s choices. Because it’s difficult to argue that Lester Holt belongs ahead of Robert Maynard; or that Jack LaLanne and Joe Weider are more worthy than Bill Russell, Flo-Jo and Ted Williams.

A mystery, indeed.

Editor’s Note: A.G. Block is a freelance writer from Sacramento and former editor of California Journal. He does not belong in the California Hall of Fame.

 


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