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Friday, August 04, 2006

In Praise of Otherness:  Pioneer Days at the Baseball Reliquary’s Induction Ceremony

The Baseball Reliquary has always taken a different path in its kaleidoscopic assemblage of baseball history. Its activities are sometimes seen as irreverent by the baseball establishment and those who operate under its thrall. While the Reliquary and its founder, Terry Cannon, are firm believers in fun, their efforts to forge an alternative view of baseball history are proportionally more far-reaching than any other analogous organization and embrace a highly serious mission—to shine a light into all of the history of the game and its impact on American culture.

And by “American culture,” the Reliquary means that in the widest possible sense. Their recent ceremony for the Shrine of the Eternals inductees—their eighth—could not make this point more clearly. On July 23, 2006, the Reliquary and its voting membership cast a collective vote in praise of otherness—a vote for those individuals who altered the course of baseball history simply by being different.

While Jackie Robinson is (rightly) credited for his role in integrating baseball, Josh Gibson is a major symbol of what that effort was all about. As arguably the greatest player to never play in the big leagues, Gibson represents the core issue in praising otherness and providing a means for its inclusion in society. Simply put, excellence is central to the ongoing evolution of society. Gibson’s embodiment of that level of excellence is unquestionable even in light of the sketchy facts surrounding his life and career, and while the Baseball Hall of Fame honored Gibson by inducting him in 1972 (in the first of several “side-door” inclusions, another of which is occurring this year), it could easily be characterized as one of the quietest inductions ever held. The Negro League inductees in the Hall of Fame would have been better served if their inductions had been spread out over the years, so that some reasonable amount of attention could be paid to them as individuals—in the same fashion that occurs for those players voted in via “the front door.” This year’s “mass inclusion” might be the most irksome example of this “left-handed honor.”

The Reliquary solves this problem by simply voting in three individuals each year, giving them equal weight and attention in the process.

Gibson’s “otherness” is somewhat lost on us today, given that baseball integration is coming up on its sixtieth anniversary. His “otherness” might best manifest itself as “otherworldliness”—his achievements inside the lines, even in the crudity of their documentation, are so fantastic as to support this idea wholeheartedly. We are left with the legend and the sad fact that only a handful of fans may have ever heard of the greatest player in the history of the game.

Gibson’s great-grandson, Sean, on hand in Pasadena to accept the award, is acutely aware of the shrinking involvement of African-Americans in baseball, and one of the missions of the Josh Gibson Foundation, which he helms, is to reverse this trend before it becomes one of the great historical ironies of our time.

The Reliquary’s second 2006 inductee, Fernando Valenzuela, represents another slice of “otherness” that has taken hold in the game over the past quarter-century. Valenzuela’s impact on baseball greatly exceeds his career achievements—his incredible ascendance as a 20-year old rookie spawned a media frenzy that, while widely imitated in recent years, has never been duplicated.

The media frenzy was only the tip of the iceberg, however. As Tomas Benitez pointed out in his introduction, Valenzuela’s mystique and achievements brought people together in ways that simply hadn’t occurred previously. The various strands and factions of Latino culture found a unifying symbol in Fernando, and the subsequent events in Valenzuela’s rookie year (the Dodgers winning their first World Series in sixteen years) cemented his legend.

The key component in that legend, however, was Fernando’s “otherness.” While there have been innumerable “country boy” ballplayers from obscure and humble origins, Valenzuela’s initial language barrier served to intensify his mystique. A portal to a different world was opened up as a result, and another ingredient was poured into America’s often-touted “melting pot.” True to his nature, Valenzuela is now a Spanish-language announcer for the Dodgers, where his facility in his native tongue is clearly as great as his earlier ability to master the screwball. Thus has he managed to keep his identity unique and intact even as he has been assimilated into American society.

Far more encompassing as an expression of the pioneering spirit found in “otherness”, however, is Kenichi Zenimura, the final 2006 inductee. Zenimura is the pivotal figure in the creation of Japanese-American baseball in America prior to WW II, and was a prime mover in catalyzing the acceptance of the game in Japan as a result of barnstorming tours beginning as early as 1924. A born organizer, Zenimura almost single-handedly created the Nisei baseball leagues that flourished in Central California in the 1920s and 1930s. As a player, Zenimura was tenacious and versatile, able to play all nine positions on the field, and retained his skills to an age approximating that of the legendary Satchel Paige, retiring at the age of fifty-five.

Zenimura’s most memorable achievement, however, occurred during the war years, when he and his fellow Nisei were interned in prison camps soon after Pearl Harbor. At the Gila River detention camp, Zenimura conjured up yet another of his transformative ideas, and prevailed on his fellow detainees to organize a thirty-two team baseball league within the camp. To make this possible, he also masterminded the construction of a baseball facility that operated for nearly four years within the prison grounds.

In all of these actions, Zenimura found a way to transcend the situation, producing achievements where others had previously been stymied. As word of the prison camp games got out to the surrounding community, crowds began to assemble to watch prisoners of war play America’s most celebrated indigenous game. Zenimura probably had no time to waste on such an irony—there was so much else to do in finding a way to use baseball as a healing agent, as a force for celebrating—and, by doing so, conquering—“otherness.”

Author Kerry Yo Nakagawa, the indefatigable chronicler of the Nisei Leagues and the recipient of the Reliquary’s 2006 researchers’ award, said it best: “Zenimura was a man for whom the word “No” simply did not exist.” Nakagawa’s achievement as an historian is woven from the same cloth—his efforts to bring Zenimura’s story (and the rich legacy of Japanese-American baseball) to a wider audience involve a similar spirit. His forthcoming documentary on Japanese-American baseball (due for release in 2007) will be a true landmark, capturing the lost world of an immigrant culture struggling for acceptance and assimilation.

The Baseball Reliquary has honored many off-beat baseball figures in its early years—Jim Bouton, Mark Fidrych, Bill Lee, Dock Ellis—but its membership has also tried to rectify institutional biases by electing controversial figures such as Joe Jackson, Curt Flood, and Dick Allen. What is becoming the dominant trend in the voting behavior, however, is the organization’s recognition of pioneers and cultural innovators—this strain begins with figures such as Paige and the visionary left-wing writer Lester Rodney, and continues into modern times with Flood, Marvin Miller, Jim Abbott, and Ila Borders. With the addition of the class of 2006, it’s now much more than a trend—it’s a signature statement of a mature organization that grasps its mission and can execute it with unerring precision.

Sure, you’ll still find lots of levity at the ceremony: the whimsical playing of the National Anthem on the harp by the gracefully good-humored Ellie Choate, for example. And Tom Tully’s hilarious set-piece produced belly laughs as he stood in for comic legend Bill Murray, recipient of the Reliquary’s Hilda Chester Award (aka “most notable baseball fanatic”). Murray’s exasperation at discovering that there are no members of his favorite team—the long and loud-suffering Chicago Cubs—amongst the inductees of the Shrine of the Eternals was a skillful twist on a well-known tale. “EIGHT White Sox and NO Cubs?” Murray (apparently) fulminated. “Unbelievable! And they want to give ME an award??!”

As wonderful as these moments are, however, what’s more wonderful by far is the sense that a-simple-game-that-has-become-big-business can still find a way to break down cultural barriers, in a time where barriers and barricades seem to be the order of the day. Thanks to these kinds of ceremonies and the pioneering efforts they celebrate, the Baseball Reliquary insists that we will still overcome all of this—if for no other reason that the legacies of Gibson, Valenzuela, and Zenimura demand that we do so.


Sean Gibson/Kerry Yo Nakagawa photo courtesy of Jeff Levie.

Kenichi Zenimura photo courtesy of Nisei Baseball Research Project and
Zenimura Collection.

Don Malcolm Posted: August 04, 2006 at 09:08 PM | 5 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: hall of fame, history, negro leagues

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   1. Chris Dial Posted: August 05, 2006 at 01:13 AM (#2127795)
I love a Don Malcolm piece. Good to see you, Don.
   2. 185/456(GGC) Posted: August 05, 2006 at 02:02 AM (#2128009)
   3. MKT Posted: August 05, 2006 at 06:04 AM (#2128278)
Excellent write up; I've only attended one Baseball Reliquary ceremony because I keep forgetting to find out what date it is (they always seem to be in late July). But this write-up is the next best thing to being there.

His forthcoming documentary on Japanese-American baseball (due for release in 2007) will be a true landmark, capturing the lost world of an immigrant culture struggling for acceptance and assimilation.

I imagine it will indeed be a landmark, but in some ways he's been beaten to the punch by an excellent documentary about a Japanese-Canadian baseball team, "Sleeping Tigers: The Asahi Baseball Story". Japanese Canadians seem to have been subjected to even worse discrimination before and after WWII, but as with Zenimura, members of the Asahi Tigers organized teams in the camps and were even able to get "furloughs" to play local teams outside the camps. It's a fabulous story and film; it was screened in Denver in 2003 at the same time as the SABR conference. Info about the film is here and a review is here. The Asahi Tigers were inducted into the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame in 2003.
   4.  nddc Posted: August 06, 2006 at 05:20 AM (#2128893)

How does one nominate someone for induction into the Baseball Reliquary? I would love for Jim Brosnan to be recognized for his contributions to baseball literature. Where do I drop my nomination form?
   5. Lest we forget Posted: August 06, 2006 at 10:20 AM (#2128935)
Wonderful article. Thank you, Don.

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