Topic: Professions & Institutions
Joe Judge’s Fifteen Years of Fame
Have you ever heard of Joe Judge? As it happens, I have: he is the slick fielding, .300 hitting first baseman in the dog-eared pack of player cards that makes up my Strat-O-Matic Baseball edition of the 1924 Washington Senators. He is also an important part of the District of Columbia’s sports history, a 17 year member of the Senators and a baseball coach at Georgetown for two decades. He is the kind of local athlete whose memory cities should keep alive, and in 1990, Joe Judge was most appropriately (and rather belatedly) inducted into D.C.’s "Hall of Stars" in RFK Stadium, where his name was placed with other local sports immortals like Sonny Jurgenson, Walter Johnson (Judge’s team mate) and Elvin Hayes.
Now, in a letter to the Washington Post, Judge’s grandson reports that the Hall of Stars is being eliminated in RFK’s preparations to open the 2005 baseball season as the home of the Washington Nationals, D.C.’s first major league baseball team since 1971. Why? But of course: the "Hall of Stars’ was taking up valuable space that could generate revenue for the District.
"History, integrity, devotion to place — I guess none of that sentimental pap is worth much anymore," the younger Judge writes sadly. "Not when somebody needs to make a buck."
The ethical problem of successor governments and community leaders disregarding commitments made by their predecessors is a frequent and distressing phenomenon, and one that cries out for some basic ethical guidelines. What are the obligations of "new management" toward the distinguished citizens whom those previously in charge had bestowed honors, memorials and monuments? Every city’s residents can point to one, and usually many, public statues of civic leaders, generals and once famous personages whose metal or marble avatars are the only things preserving any memory of their contributions to the community and the nation. When a city bestows such an honor, it is supposed to represent heartfelt gratitude, and the manifestation of the honor…a statue, a plaque, a named public building, or a place in the Hall of Stars…is a solemn promise to remember, a guarantee of some measure of immortality.
Remembrance and immortality. Those are meaningful and priceless gifts, and to withdraw them simply because money can be made is unconscionable. The commitment to honor Joe Judge wasn’t just made by individuals; it was made by individuals representing the community and city of Washington, D.C., and the community and the city is still bound by it. Not legally, no: it is a gift in the eyes of the law, and no formal and enforceable contract exists. A lawyer would say that there was no "consideration" for the honor. But this is nonsense. Joe Judge gave far more to the community than the community gave back to him. He more than earned his place in the Hall of Stars. The community’s obligation is a moral one, but no less an obligation.
But do such obligations therefore endure forever? As Ozymandias1 could testify, all monuments eventually fall (well, most: the pyramids seem to be holding up okay); by the time the memory becomes meaningless and the honor is obscure, the obligations of a community and a city have been met. If the House of Representatives becomes a dead institution because of widespread corruption and an impotent ethics committee (to pick a wild example out of the air), former House Speaker Sam Rayburn’s name on a building won’t mean much anymore. And if baseball becomes a disgraced and discarded sport because it devolves into a chemistry contest (another fanciful example, of course), Joe Judge’s name in the Hall of Stars won’t mean much either.
But Joe Judge’s honor, the "immortality" bestowed on him in gratitude by the D.C. Armory, lasted just 15 years… less than half the length of his career as a prominent and distinguished Washingtonian. The failure of the city to honor its obligations to Judge’s memory and Judge’s family is an embarrassing failure of integrity, honesty, and responsibility. If cities are not willing to stand by their commitments to recognize and remember their outstanding citizens, then they should not pretend to bestow something that looks like immortality but that is really a lie.