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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Thursday, August 05, 2004
A Reliquary for All Seasons
The “Alternative Hall of Fame” makes its move.
There are so many things that one learns at a Shrine of the Eternals Induction Day that it is almost impossible to remember them all, much less recount them.
That’s the charm and quiet power of the Baseball Reliquary, that offbeat alternative to the Hall of Fame. Founder and executive director Terry Cannon is one part showman, one part baseball scholar, and one part committed social historian, and the blending of elements that he and his organization achieves is remarkable for its unity-within-diversity.
There is so much to learn that it’s hard to know where to begin. The ceremony, which inducted Roberto Clemente, pioneering nineteenth century outfielder William “Dummy” Hoy, and Dick Allen, was filled to the brim with free-floating insights and fascinating facts. Some were prosaic, others sublime, but they were all pieces of the crazy quilt that is baseball at its antinomian best.
Here are few of them:
—-Hoy, the first deaf player in major league history, was so indefatigable in later life that he was still pruning his own trees at the age of 93.
—-The National Anthem, as played on the erhu (a.k.a. the “Chinese violin”) at the opening of the ceremony by musician Ji Shih, is just as psychedelic as the more well-known rendition by Jimi Hendrix.
—-Bill Weiss, the 2004 recipient of the baseball historical preservation award honoring the late Tony Salin, single-handedly saved almost one-fourth of the statistical/biographical information that we have about minor league ballplayers.
—-Keynote speaker Lester Rodney, the fiery leftist sportswriter who is now 93 years young, is one of only two writers still alive who were in the Ebbets Field press box on April 15, 1947, the day that Jackie Robinson played his first big league game (a day that Rodney was immeasurably helpful in making happen).
And, of course, there is so much more. The Baseball Reliquary membership, building on what is an already-impressive platform for a more inclusive and broadly considered set of criteria for enshrinement, continues to provide a viable alternative to the “official” Hall of Fame, with its not-so-subtle biases and administrative miasmas.
The election of Hoy, one of the game’s most intriguing pioneers, is one strain of this pattern of inclusion that distinguishes the Reliquary from all other organizations. Jennie Reiff, the winner of the Reliquary’s fan award (named after Brooklyn legend Hilda Chester), was gracious in her tribute to Hoy, even as she made it clear that her man was Ed Delahanty. Poignant and galvanizing at the same time, too, was the presence of many members of the deaf community, who turned out in large numbers for a hero whose last appearance in a major league game was more than a century ago.
Far closer to our own time, but still somehow elusive to us, is Roberto Clemente, a man whose gifts to others were as abundant as his on-field skills. Due in some measure to the park he played in for most of his career (Forbes Field), Clemente is a link to an earlier age and style of offense, when the home run was not so prominent. As great as his humanitarianism was (and it was all that and more), it is somehow sad that he is not better remembered as a player whose style of play was a brilliant distillation of a bygone era.
And speaking of bygones, it’s more than time for bygones to be bygones in the case of Dick Allen. Reliquary voters, following the same instincts that resulted in the earlier enshrinements of Minnie Minoso and Joe Jackson, made the strongest statement possible by electing Allen with one of the highest vote percentages in the organization’s history. The man who introduced Allen to an enthusiastic audience, sports agent Victor Reichman, was candid in his assessment of his long-time friend: “He wasn’t always a saint, but he could hit the hell out of a baseball.” Amen, brother.
And then there was the man himself—-dressed to the nines, a smiling, mild-voiced man who still moves like someone much younger than his age (62). A man who listened carefully to the oration of keynote speaker Rodney, and understood immediately the distinction the legendary writer/activist made between Jackie Robinson’s hallowed image and the far more interesting, complex, and occasionally contradictory man behind that image. A man who recognized the arc of American history as a double-edged sword, and who could smile at having survived the thrusts that it had made in his direction.
And, on the dais in Pasadena, he proved as ambitious as he’d been as a player, extemporizing from prepared remarks to acknowledge the speeches and comments made by those who had preceded him. He wasn’t flawless: there were a couple of moments where he stumbled, as surely happened now and then when he was rounding second trying to leg out a triple in Connie Mack Stadium. But a sense of grace, of gratitude, and inner peace was present throughout as Allen took his well-deserved and long-overdue bow. Allen’s speech was, all in all, an excellent model for the one he should be allowed to make at Cooperstown.
And it is just possible that the Baseball Reliquary—-and its small but tenaciously open-minded voting membership—-can move us closer to the tipping point for players such as Allen and Minoso (and, yes, Dummy Hoy, too). While the mainstream media tends to hook into the Reliquary because of their more offbeat activities and induction selections, we should not ignore their more serious and significant enterprise—-to jettison the baggage that clouds our understanding of baseball’s complex and fascinating interaction with American history. A day such as the one in Pasadena, CA, on July 18, 2004, may be as significant for our future view of baseball’s social history as Jackie Robinson’s first appearance in a major-league game was for American history as a whole.
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