The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, based in Cooperstown, New York, is a semi-official museum operated by private interests that serves as the central point for the study of the history of baseball in North America, the display of baseball-related artifacts and exhibits, and the honoring of persons who have excelled in playing, managing, and serving the sport. In articles and discussions on baseball, the phrase "Hall of Fame" refers most often to the list of these honorees, rather than the physical museum.

The Hall of Fame was opened in 1939 by the Clark Foundation, a private fortune based in Cooperstown that traces its money to the original Singer Sewing Machine company. The Foundation sought to bring tourists to Cooperstown, which had been doubly damaged by the Great Depression, which decimated the local tourist trade, and Prohibition, which was devastating to the local hops industry. A legend that U.S. Civil War hero Abner Doubleday invented baseball in Cooperstown was instrumental in the early marketing of the Hall, though in fact the story is completely false.

The Major Leagues, seeing the marketing opportunity, soon began cooperating with the Hall of Fame in marketing it and acquiring artifacts for display there. Today the Hall of Fame features many exhibits on the game's history. An extensive collection of memorabilia is on display to the public as well, including historic home run balls, scorecards, and bats, caps, and uniforms used by the game's greatest players. The Hall of Fame also includes an art collection and a substantial research library with online search capabilities. The town of Cooperstown also includes Doubleday Field, where the "Hall of Fame Game" featuring two major league teams is held every year on the same weekend as the annual induction ceremony.

Among baseball fans, "Hall of Fame" means not only the museum and facility in Cooperstown, but also the pantheon of players, managers, umpires and builders who have been named to enshrinement there. The first five men elected were superstars Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson and Honus Wagner, named in 1936. As of 2004, 258 men had been elected or appointed to the Hall of Fame, including 210 players, 17 managers (many of whom also played), eight umpires, and 23 builders, executives, and organizers. 26 men have also been awarded the Ford Frick Award for excellence in broadcasting.

Players are inducted into the Hall of Fame through election by either the Baseball Writers Association of America (or BBWAA), or the Veterans Committee, which is composed mainly of former players. Five years after retirement, any player with 10 years of major league experience, who passes a screening committee (which weeds out players who were benchwarmers for most of their careers) is eligible to be elected by BBWAA members with 10 years' membership or more. Each writer may vote from anywhere from 0 to 10 players. Any player named on 75% or more of all ballots cast is elected. A player who is named on fewer than 5% of ballots is dropped from future elections. If a player fails to be elected by the BBWAA, he may be selected by the Veterans Committee, which votes every two years, provided the player has been retired for 21 years or more. The Veterans Committee also votes on candidates from among managers, umpires, builders, or Negro Leagues players.

Predictably, the selection process catalyzes endless debate among baseball fans over the merits of various candidates. Even players already elected remain for years the subjects of discussions as to whether or not their elections were in error.

A major controversy facing the Hall of Fame is that of the status of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Jackson and Rose were both permanently banned from baseball for actions related to gambling on their own teams - Jackson for conspiring to lose the 1919 World Series on purpose, and Rose voluntarily accepted a permanent spot on the ineligible list in return for MLB's promise to make no finding in relation to alleged betting on the Cincinnati Reds when he was their manager in the 1980s. (Baseball's Rule 21 mandates permanent banishment for having a gambling interest of any sort on a game a player or manager is directly involved in.) While Jackson and Rose had careers that would merit Hall of Fame induction, the Hall of Fame disallows election of anyone on the permanent suspension list. (Many others were permanently suspended, but none have the Hall of Fame credentials of Rose and Jackson.) Baseball fans are deeply split on the issue of whether these two should be exonerated, remain banned, or (in the case of Rose, who is still living) be inducted with the caveat that he cannot reenter the game in any other way.

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