Having worked at the National Baseball Hall of Fame off and on since 1995, I’ve come to admire and revere the institution for its ability to faithfully record the history of the game while honoring its greatest contributors. Along the way, I’ve also come to appreciate other organizations that are aimed at paying homage to baseball history. There’s the wonderful Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City, and, of course, the dedicated Society for American Baseball Research (which just rolled out a new web site). And then there’s a quirky but charming institution known as the Baseball Reliquary.
The Reliquary, which is based in Southern California and honors the less conventional side of the game, has its own Hall of Fame, known as the Shrine of the Eternals. Although each Shrine voter can cast ballots for up to nine candidates, the Shrine inducts only three baseball figures each year, so it’s a rather selective process. The Shrine acts as a kind of alternative Hall of Fame, basing its selections less on statistical achievement and more on an individual’s impact on the culture at large. The complete criteria are as follows:
Criteria for election shall be: the distinctiveness of play (good or bad); the uniqueness of character and personality; and the imprint that the individual has made on the baseball landscape. Electees, both on and off the diamond, shall have been responsible for developing baseball in one or more of the following ways: through athletic and/or business achievements; in terms of its larger cultural and sociological impact as a mass entertainment; and as an arena for the human imagination.
Given such wide-ranging standards, an eclectic group of players, managers, and pioneers has been elected to the Shrine since Dock Ellis became the first inductee in 1999. Jim Abbott, Jim Bouton, Roberto Clemente, Bill Lee, Buck O’Neil, Jackie Robinson and Casey Stengel are all elected members of the shrine, as are pioneers and innovators like Curt Flood, Marvin Miller, and Bill Veeck, and even writers like Roger Angell, Bill James and Lester Rodney.
The Reliquary recently released its 2011 ballot, which features 50 names, including 10 who are appearing for the first time. The first-timers include 19th century manager Frank Bancroft, SABR founder Bob Davids, former Players Association chief Donald Fehr, the mysterious 1920s-era shortstop Charlie Hollocher, former Atlanta Braves executive Bob Hope, deaf major league outfielder Curtis Pride, ex-big league left-handers David Wells and Wilbur Wood, and Negro Leagues owner J.L. Wilkinson. The ballot also contains a mythical character, “Annie Savoy,” who was famously portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the film “Bull Durham.” An 11th candidate, Glenn Burke, the first known gay player in major league history, returns to the ballot after an eight-year absence.
Of the first-time eligibles, I’m most intrigued by Hope, who is no relation to the famed comic of the same name. (The original Bob Hope was a part-owner of the Indians in the 1950s, but he’s not on the Shrine ballot.) The less famous Hope was the Braves’ public relations director during Hank Aaron’s successful chase of Babe Ruth’s home run record. After Ted Turner bought the Braves, the owner took a liking to Hope and made him his chief publicist and promoter.
Sensing that Turner preferred a wild and wacky approach to baseball, Hope began devising a series of the strangest promotions seen this side of Veeck and Charlie Finley. Hope staged motorized bathtub races, wire-walking stunts, and even ostrich races. His two most famous promotions were a wet T-shirt contest, which drew the ire of some religious groups in Atlanta, and the wonderfully dubbed “Headlocks and Wedlocks Night.” As part of the latter promotion, Hope held simultaneous wedding ceremonies for 34 couples at home plate, followed by a series of Championship Wrestling matches. Only in America.
In addition to Hope, I would register Shrine votes for Wilkinson, the innovative owner of the Kansas City Monarchs who introduced night baseball long before the Reds did in 1935, and Davids, a true pioneer among SABR researchers. Among the returning names on the ballot, I’d cast votes for Mudcat Grant (a frequent subject in this space), legendary broadcaster Ernie Harwell, and 19th century pioneer John Montgomery Ward, who organized the first professional sports union.
Yet, there are three candidates I feel even more strongly about, all of whom should be near the top of the ballot. They are three holdover candidates—an owner, a player and a doctor—who are overdue for election to the Shrine of the Eternals.
Effa Manley: This marks the 13th year that Manley has been on the Shrine ballot. In 2006, she became the first woman elected to the Hall of Fame, but the Shrine has proven more elusive. If she makes it to the Shrine, she would become the third female member, joining umpire Pam Postema and former minor league left-hander Ila Borders.
Manley was one of the most successful owners in the history of the Negro Leagues, as she guided the Newark Eagles with her husband, Abe. While Abe concentrated most of his efforts on running numbers, Effa ran the baseball operation. Working in a sport dominated by men, Manley nonetheless signed a number of the top black players of the ’30s and ’40s, including Hall of Famers Biz Mackey, Larry Doby and Monte Irvin. In 1946, Manley’s talent-laden Eagles won the Negro World Series.
A fair and principled businesswoman, Manley treated her players better than most Negro Leagues owners. She paid her players higher than the league average, while accommodating them with a luxurious $15,000 bus that made long barnstorming trips more tolerable. Manley cared about her players, but she also showed concern for the integrity of the Negro Leagues. Although Manley understood the importance of pioneers like Jackie Robinson breaking through the color barrier, she had a strong independent streak and bristled at the unwillingness of owners like Branch Rickey to compensate Negro Leagues teams for raiding their rosters. When Indians owner Bill Veeck attempted to sign Doby, Manley demanded financial compensation.
Off the field, Manley earned acclaim as a civil rights pioneer. She walked in picket lines, pushed for local businesses to provide better jobs for blacks, and served as the treasurer for the Newark chapter of the NAACP. Always a social activist, she staged Civil Rights Nights at Ruppert Stadium as a way of building support for the equal rights of African-Americans.
Vic Power: Now in his third year on the Shrine ballot, the late Power defied the stereotype of first basemen as lumbering sluggers, instead flashing the quickness of a middle infielder and the bat control of an accomplished contact hitter. Far more importantly, he challenged the stereotypes of black and Latino athletes by blending an offbeat sense of humor with a streak of courage as he tried to overcome racism in his day.
Although brilliant with the glove—some have called him the best defensive first baseman of all time—Power was unconventional in his approach to playing the position. He was a master showboat who played first base with a flash and flair rarely seen in the 1950s and ’60s. Power also became a source of controversy because he insisted on fielding ground balls and pop-ups with one hand. At the time, most other first basemen played the game the “old school” way, using two hands. In using only his glove hand, Power annoyed more than a few amateur coaches who were trying to teach their children the fundamentals back in the 1960s. Yet, Power’s one-handed approach rarely failed him.
Off the field, Power was a superbly colorful character. Unlike many Latino players of the era who struggled with their ability to speak English, Power, a native of Puerto Rico, became an attractive interview candidate because of his ability to communicate—and do so with a sense of humor. His flair for the comedic was best displayed in a conversation he had with a waitress during the 1950s. After Power sat down in a Southern restaurant, the waitress approached him and offered a few rude words. “We don’t serve Negroes,” she said bluntly. Power’s response could not have been better. “That’s OK,” Power said dryly. “I don’t eat Negroes.”
Power used humor to combat racism, but he was genuinely shocked by the Jim Crow legislation and practices of the U.S. mainland. He challenged the status quo by staying in hotels and eating in restaurants designated for whites only; when he wasn’t allowed to, he spoke out about the injustices of the American system. He also dated white women, which was frowned upon by the Yankees, who had originally signed him out of Puerto Rico before dealing him to the Philadelphia Athletics.
At a time when it wasn’t always fashionable to fight Jim Crow, especially for a player who was not a superstar, Power took a chance—and took a stand.
Dr. Frank Jobe: Now in his ninth year on the Shrine ballot, the respected surgeon never played the game and never held down a fulltime position in a team’s front office, but he’s had as much impact on the pastime as any “non-baseball” man can have over the last 35 years. Jobe invented the procedure now known as “Tommy John surgery,” in which a ligament from another part of the body (the forearm, the opposite elbow, or even the leg) is transplanted onto the elbow of the injured throwing arm.
Prior to 1974, such a ligament transplant had never been performed on a pitcher; Jobe wasn’t particularly optimistic that the operation would be successful for Tommy John, the injured Dodgers lefthander whose career appeared to have ended. In fact, Jobe gave John only a 1-in-100 chance of resuming his career after the operation, which took place in September of 1974. As it turned out, the groundbreaking procedure saved John’s career, allowing him to resume pitching in 1976 and giving him an opportunity to put up the kind of numbers that may still land him in the Hall of Fame.
Once John’s recovery established that the procedure worked, Jobe felt more confident in performing the operation on scores of other pitchers. Some of the recipients of the surgery have included Cardinals ace Chris Carpenter, Florida’s stud righthander Josh Johnson and retired stars like Jose Rijo, John Smoltz and Billy Wagner. Two of the most recent examples are Stephen Strasburg and Adam Wainwright, though it remains to be seen if they’ll respond as well as some of the past pitchers have done.
Tommy John surgery has hardly become routine (there’s no such thing as routine arm surgery for a pitcher) and does not add velocity (as the urban legend maintains), but it has emerged as an effective way to treat pitchers whose damaged elbow ligaments wouldn’t otherwise allow them to continue their professional careers.
Of course, these are merely my choices. With 50 names on the ballot, legitimate voting can take a number of different directions. Rather uniquely, the Reliquary has made voting an open process; it is not restricted to writers or broadcasters, but is available to the public. To vote, fans must purchase a one-year membership in the Reliquary, at a cost of $25, by the deadline of April 1. To become a member and receive an election packet, fans can visit the Reliquary’s web site at http://www.baseballreliquary.org.
For additional information on the Baseball Reliquary, contact executive director Terry Cannon at the following address:
The Baseball Reliquary, Inc.,
PO Box 1850
Monrovia, CA 91017