Baseball gold spun from thin air

Like any practitioner of magic, the Baseball Reliquary and its “Shrine of the Eternals ceremony” defy rational description. The third Sunday in July has become synonymous with the Reliquary’s annual feat of multivalent sleight-of-hand, where baseball becomes a conduit for a communion unlike any other.

Even for the faithful, however, the Reliquary’s 10th ceremony, held Sunday, July 20, at the Pasadena Public Library (just a mile or two away from where Jackie Robinson began his march to a similarly unique baseball destiny), looked to be shaping up as something of a retrenchment from the bold, brilliant juxtapositions that had characterized the organization’s inductees over the past four years.

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Neale “Bobo” Henderson sang “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” with Buck O’Neil and is still in great voice 60 years later.

This year’s trio (Buck O’Neil, Emmett Ashford and Bill Buckner), at first glance, didn’t appear to have the panache of the 2007 class (Yogi Berra, Jim Brosnan and Bill James), or the thematic depth exhibited in the 2006 crop (Josh Gibson, Fernando Valenzuela and Kenichi Zenimura).

Once the ceremony began, however, with Reliquary Executive Director Terry Cannon bringing the proceedings to order with the ritual ringing of a cowbell (juxtaposing high seriousness with the fervid crudity of Ebbets Field legend Hilda Chester), any skepticism concerning the alchemical forces at work was quickly dispelled.

The properties that make the Baseball Reliquary such a potent “alternative” to conventional/institutional approaches to baseball’s cultural history do not depend on any single inductee. Instead, an indefinable warmth begins to suffuse the Donald R. Wright auditorium; it builds into an ad-hoc concerto of celebration and remembrance, its rhythm altered and set loose upon the audience as each participant brings his or her own personality and set of experiences into play.

First inning: Cannon rings the cowbell, and the Reliquary’s off-beat trademark—the playing of baseball’s two most familiar musical showpieces (the National Anthem and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”)—comes off flawlessly as Doug Livingston renders each with especial panache on the pedal steel guitar. (Cannon promises that next year’s instrumental choices will push the envelope even further.)

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Legendary Indians noisemaker John Adams never leaves home without his tom-toms…

Second inning: The Hilda Award, given to a fan whose devotion to baseball is almost deviant in intensity. Cannon regales the audience with new documentation of Hilda Chester’s eternal supremacy as baseball’s most flagrant fan, and introduces John Adams, Cleveland’s insouciant, indefatigable cheerleader, who has brought his bass drum to Indians’ games for 35 years, becoming so much of a local fixture that his trusty instrument has its own season ticket.

Adams’ passion for baseball, and his appreciation of the bonhomie of the bleachers, ignites the proceedings with the sparkle of shared experience. Those of us in the seats can sense that we’ve got a special game going on in front of us today, and we sit up straighter to soak it all in.

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Retrosheet czar David Smith has re-stitched baseball history, and was aptly awarded: a baseball from better days…

Third inning: The Tony Salin Award, given to the person or organization deserving of acclaim for the preservation of baseball history. And there is no one more worthy of such a salute than David Smith, the founder of Retrosheet. Baseball’s play-by-play history had been left in the dust by those in charge, and in the mid-1980s it simply seemed unrecoverable. Enter Smith and his band of plucky volunteers—and, by 2008, more than 100,000 games have been recorded and made freely available on the Internet.

Smith’s deeply personal commitment to baseball history brings tears to his eyes and to many in the audience as he relates how he interacted with gruff baseball beat writer Bob Stevens, who permitted Retrosheet to copy more than 30 years of his scoresheets. Stevens allowed as how he’d never known why he’d never discarded these old mementoes—but he floored Smith by a sudden, unexpected shift in tone as he suggested that he must have been saving them for just such an effort.

The audience was floored, too.

Fourth inning: Albert Kilchesty, the mysterious “other half” of the Baseball Reliquary brain trust, delivers a brilliantly unorthodox keynote address that operates as a perfect cadenza—the rough equivalent of a “split-fingered knuckleball.” Joining together a schoolgirl’s crudely evocative description of a Reliquary art installation with his own pun-laden metaphorical phantasmagoria about the most extreme example of a reliquary known to mortal man, Kilchesty comes closer than anyone in articulating the almost sub-atomic cultural juxtapositions that make the Reliquary so unmistakably unique.

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Adrienne Ashford, daughter of pioneering umpire Emmett Ashford, has her dad’s smile; she, too, calls ‘em as she sees ‘em.

Fifth inning: A quick 1-2-3 as some of us in the audience are transfixed by the swirling verve in the arm motions of Mary Cannon (Terry’s wife), who is “signing” for the members of the audience who are without hearing. We see her unsuccessful attempt to suppress a smile as she attempts to appropriately convey Kilchesty’s most outrageous pun concerning a reliquary whose signature item is (according to him, at least) the actual foreskin of the Son of God: “Everyone was interested in a potential piece of the profit from a piece of the Prophet.”

The hearing-impaired laugh right along with the rest of us.

Sixth inning: Buck O’Neil, spurned by the Hall of Fame, enters the Shrine of the Eternals with the highest vote percentage in the Reliquary’s 10-year history. Negro League veteran Neale “Bobo” Henderson, who met O’Neil at the age of seven, belies his advancing age by sharing some timeless memories of his first encounter with the incandescent player-manager and future ambassador extraordinaire.

Seventh inning: Emmett Ashford, baseball’s first African-American umpire, is celebrated for his love of baseball. His daughter, Adrienne, charms the audience with a speech brimming with grace and warmth. With a wry smile, she acknowledges her father’s “theatrical” tendencies, reminding us that baseball contains a multitude of “performance art” possibilities.

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Not quite the Buckner you were expecting: daughter Brittany pinch-hits for her dad.

Eighth inning: The healing of Bill Buckner, Part One, in the immensely capable hands of writer/historian John Schulian. In his beautifully crafted address, Schulian gently but firmly reminds us that there is much, much more to Buckner’s story than that one ghastly ground ball in the 1986 World Series. Although Schulian doesn’t give us the exact numbers, it turns out that his comments about Buckner’s “never let up” attitude are spot-on, confirmed by the stats available thanks to Retrosheet: Buckner hit better in August and September, in both the “dog days” and when the chips were down.

Another interesting stat: After being traded by his first team (the Dodgers), he beat them like a drum, hitting .348 against them.

In short, Buckner’s heart—and his pride—were more important reasons for his success than his natural talent, and these were the things that sustained him in a career beset by a nagging ankle injury.

Accepting on his behalf, his lovely young actress daughter, Brittany, remembered how he would soak his injured ankle in a tub filled with ice before going to the ballpark, in water so cold that “I don’t know how he could stand it so long.”

Ninth inning: The healing of Bill Buckner, Part Two, an absolution in rhythm delivered with ecstatic precision by poet Jack McCarthy, reminding us of how cruelly unfair it is to focus a single event, a random memory, into a so-called “collective summary” for anyone. The healing power of time, and our need to embrace it in our everyday lives, was the theme driving McCarthy’s prayer-like admonition to all of us who would judge too quickly, and who would caricature the human condition to seek a free pass from the pain of existence.

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Two writers at the top of their games, Jack McCarthy and John Schulian, swap baseball metaphors.

It was a moment like no other in any baseball ceremony, and, spellbound in the wake of McCarthy’s magnificent performance, a hush grew to a murmur, as the emotional recognition swirled in the air like a collective lasso, squeezing the audience to its feet for a final salvo of thanks.

Terry Cannon had called it again: McCarthy was the ceremony’s “closer,” bringing home victory and vindication with a vivid, vigorous flourish, galvanizing the audience into a commingled consciousness through the closure of a mysterious but sacred ritual, the simultaneous sense of a “peace that passeth understanding” but that was somehow still recognized by all.

Such a ceremony is like the best baseball game you have ever attended, with details and nuances that cannot be transmitted via mere description. Such alchemy must truly be witnessed to be believed… but if you come to Pasadena on the third Sunday in July with an open heart, you will indeed see gold spun from thin air before your eyes.

References & Resources
The photos were provided by Jeff Levie.

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