The Baseball Reliquary: So who needs Cooperstown?
Los Angeles Times
PASADENA, Calif. — Take, for instance, the yarn about the Babe's stogie.
As the story goes, Babe Ruth was smoking a cigar at a Philadelphia brothel owned by one Rose Hicks on April 27, 1924. When he tamped out the stogie to move on to other business, it's "believed" someone picked it up as a souvenir that eventually found its way to the Baseball Reliquary.
And then there is the "Eddie Gaedel Athletic Supporter," supposedly the property of the 3-foot-7, 65-pounder who in 1951 pinch-hit for the old St. Louis Browns as a gag. That, too, gravitated to the reliquary, whose members always have their tongues planted firmly in cheek.
The reliquary, which bills itself as a fun-loving alternative to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., is a group of 200 or so members who have paid the princely sum of $25 to join, giving them the right to vote on who will be inducted each year into the high-sounding "Shrine of the Eternals."
Made up mostly of artists and writers, the reliquary (definition: a container for religious relics) is the brainchild of Terry Cannon, whose three passions are jazz, film and baseball, in no particular order. He is the editor and publisher of Skinned Knuckles, a magazine that specializes in car restoration.
For lore of the game
But for Cannon's avocation, it's not batting averages, homes runs or pitching victories that matter, but the lore of baseball.
"I like to think what we're doing is creating a kind of people's history of baseball," he said, sitting in his modest Pasadena home, where many of the artifacts (both real and otherwise) are stored. "We want to keep alive some of the great stories and folklore of baseball that seem to be pushing further and further into the recesses of the game."
Not that it's all fun and games. The reliquary is working with California State University, Los Angeles, on a project detailing the influence of baseball on Southern California's Mexican-American community. And the organization is weighty enough to be supported by a small grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission.
The idea of the reliquary came to Cannon in 1996, but it was not until 1999 that the first members were inducted into the "Shrine of the Eternals."
Since then, the likes of pitcher Jim Bouton, whose tell-all diary of his 1969 season with the Seattle Pilots and Houston Astros, "Ball Four," including his recollection of his New York Yankee days from 1962-68, remains a classic inside view of the national pastime, have been inducted.
So, too, have Detroit Tiger pitcher Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, named for Big Bird of "Sesame Street," whose antics on the mound included conversations with himself; labor organizer Marvin Miller; the ageless pitcher Satchel Paige; and Ila Borders, the first woman to play men's professional baseball.
In his most recent book, the self-published "Foul Ball," Bouton fondly recalled his induction, as well as others who had already been enshrined, including Moe Berg, who spied on the Germans during World War II after his baseball career was over.
"We might not win too many ballgames — unless Satchel were pitching," he wrote. "But we could certainly out-spy, outtalk, outthink, outwit, out-write, out-promote and out-hallucinate any nine guys from the regular Hall of Fame."
"The reliquary is to honor rebels, radicals and reprobates, which gave me three shots at it," Bouton said, laughing. "I like the fact that fans are involved in this. And that it captures the lore of the game and honors the stories. That's what's fun about it."
The reliquary has no permanent home, but Cannon has used public libraries throughout Southern California to display his memorabilia. His most recent exhibit, "Life After Baseball: From Espionage to Evangelism," was at the Burbank Public Library.
The display featured the likes of Chuck Connors, who played pro ball before turning to acting, most notably in "The Rifleman" television series, which first aired in 1958. Another Hollywood success story is Ron Shelton, who played minor-league ball for five years before turning to screenwriting and directing. One of his scripts was for "Bull Durham," one of the most popular baseball movies ever made.
Other players in the display became ministers, restaurant owners and politicians.
A fair number of reliquary artifacts are simply amusing, odd or both. A vial of dirt supposedly came from the site of Elysian Fields, where it is believed the first baseball game was played in 1846. The Babe Ruth sacristy box purportedly was used at his funeral in 1948. Then there's the wooden leg of maverick baseball team owner Bill Veeck, which is often lent to the reliquary by collector Bob Colleary for library displays.
Colleary, a television writer, said the leg hung on the wall of Little Richie's, a Chicago Ridge, Ill., bar, from 1985-99 before finally finding its way to the auction block. The inscription with it reads: "To Rich, you can't beat the mileage. Hope it fits, Bill Veeck."
A flamboyant figure
Veeck, who at various times owned the Cleveland Indians, the Browns and the Chicago White Sox, was an inveterate showman who introduced exploding scoreboards and ballpark fireworks, and who hired the diminutive Gaedel to play for the Browns. He also hired the American League's first black player, Larry Doby, in 1947, and baseball's oldest rookie, Paige, the following year.
Colleary said Cannon and Veeck would have liked each other because of their mutual love of fun and disdain for stuffed shirts. So when Cannon asks Colleary for the leg or some other item for a display, he almost always obliges.
As for Cooperstown, Colleary said the official baseball shrine is taken "all too seriously. But that's their job. I think it's good there is an alternative."
Miller, who spent 18 years as executive director of the Major League Baseball Players Association, said the first thing that struck him when he heard of his election was the "Shrine of the Eternals" designation.
"I never thought of myself as such an institution," said the 88-year-old Miller, who was the key player in turning the players association into one of the strongest unions in the United States. "But as I looked at the names of those elected before me, it seemed an interesting institution devoted to the anti-establishment ... and that was fine with me."
Dock Ellis chokes up
Cannon wasn't sure how the whole reliquary concept would go over when the first induction was held in 1999. One of those who got the nod was pitcher Dock Ellis, who spent much of his career as an outspoken opponent of racism in the game. (He also said he once pitched a no-hitter while on LSD.) In the course of the ceremony, Cannon read a letter that had been written to Ellis by Brooklyn Dodger great Jackie Robinson in 1970, praising his outspokenness but warning that few honors would come his way because of it. Cannon said he looked over at Ellis, who was crying.
"I realized he'd never had any kind of honor like this," Cannon said. "I knew we were really on to something."
The list of candidates for this year has already been sent out. It includes such familiar names as Yogi Berra, Dizzy Dean, Josh Gibson, Casey Stengel and Fernando Valenzuela, all of whom, except for Valenzuela, are enshrined in Cooperstown.
There are other names that are not so familiar, except to the true baseball aficionado. One is Spottswood "Spot" Poles, known as the "Black Ty Cobb," who may have been the fastest player in the Negro Leagues. Another is Lipman Pike, considered the greatest Jewish player of the 19th century.
As for the Babe's cigar, that one he supposedly left in the brothel? The more detailed explanation given by the reliquary places the Babe in an upstairs room with a brunette on one knee and a blonde on the other, with both ladies of the night shampooing the baseball great's hair with champagne.
The Babe reportedly smiled and said, "Anybody who doesn't like this life is crazy."
And how did Cannon know all that?
"We don't divulge where we get some of our stuff," he said with a twinkle in his eye.
Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company