The earliest possible third Sunday in July found an overflow crowd in Pasadena as the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals ceremony turned 14. As seamless and satisfying as ever, the reverently irreverent anti-institution guided by Terry Cannon brought laughter, pathos, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cupcakes (supplied by Terry’s tireless wife, Mary).
As sweet as the frosting proved to be, however, the participants (speakers, performers, honorees and audience) were blessed by the one-of-a-kind tartness that mysteriously emerges from the ceremony every year. For 2012, the musical kickoff was provided by a barbershop quartet calling itself American Pastime, with a blend somewhere between the Four Freshman and the Beach Boys, pushing the National Anthem into an unexpected vocal complexity. They followed with a bittersweet original, “There Used To Be A Ballpark,” that pushed further and visibly affected the entire audience, moving the usually dead-pan Cannon to enthusiastic praise as the quartet left the dais to thunderous applause.
Many had come in hopes of seeing a full complement of Eternals on hand for their induction. Alas, Luis Tiant was a no-show, due to a previous commitment. However, there was no lack of star power at the ceremony, what with Tommy John making a much-anticipated appearance to introduce inductee Dr. Frank Jobe.
|Mr. Mudcat (Jeff Levie)|
John had the unenviable task of following the warm, assured presence of Jim Mudcat Grant , whose humanitarian work and singular personality have only added to the luster of a big-league career most notable for his 21-win season in 1965 for the Minnesota Twins. (He thus became the first African-American pitcher with 20+ wins in the American League). John didn’t miss a beat, tying his own history in with Grant and Tiant, explaining to the audience that it was his miserable 2-9 record as a young pitcher in 1964 that provided Tiant with the opportunity to reach the majors and embark on his 229-win career.
And talk about dovetailing: As Grant concluded his remarks (laden with the type of baseball stories that are all but extinct in today’s game—as the Mudcat kept repeating: “They’d throw us out if we did this today”), Terry Cannon came to the microphone a good bit more quickly than usual, and added a remarkable story of his own.
“It was 1966, and I was a 13-year-old fan in Anaheim to watch the Angels play the defending AL champion Twins. I was on the field with a group of kids trying to get autographs, and as you came by I started to hand you my autograph book. I was jostled by another fan and bumped into you. You were holding a bottle of Coca-Cola in your hand, and as a result of my contact, you dropped the bottle and it spilled on the ground. You looked at me and said: ‘Young man, that’s going to cost you 10 cents.’ But before I could react, you laughed and gave me a wink. And then you signed my autograph book anyway.”
Cannon paused for effect, and then continued. “I’ve never forgotten that, ever since it happened more than 40 years ago. So I’m really glad you are here with us today and have become a member of the Shrine of the Eternals, because I’ve been waiting all this time to give you your dime back.” At which point Terry pulled out a dime, and handed it to Grant. The 77-year old author of The Black Aces, a highly-regarded research work dedicated to the group of African-American pitchers who’ve won 20 or more games in a season, broke out into his trademark grin, one undiminished by the passage of time.
Moments such as these, so the credit card commercial asserts, are priceless. But they are also timeless, demonstrating to us that baseball’s greatest gift is to heal the vicissitudes of life and aging by stopping time in its tracks, celebrating the exuberance of its still unyielding place as America’s “hurrah game.” While such time–stopping moments are both fewer and further between than was the case in an age where the media and the pace of life itself were less overwhelming, the Baseball Reliquary insists that they are not lost.
Stories and their contexts provide the engine for connecting baseball to real life, as keynote speaker Kelly Candaele noted in his thoughtful address. 2006 Eternals inductee Bill James once humorously deconstructed the Houston Astros via his bewilderment with jazz; Candaele, after relating several hilarious stories about his younger brother Casey, a nine-year major league journeyman but Hall of Fame-level prankster, turned the tables on James’s formulation and showed how the musical teamwork necessary to jazz was analogous to the workings of a baseball team.
It was an analogy as elegant as a piano solo by Bud Powell, or the magical footwork of a great double-play combination. If only life were so easily explained, or so flexible…
But the flexibility of the Reliquary’s anti-institutional stance allows it to repurpose its other awards to honor outstanding individuals whose lives and deeds have been bound up by an unquenchable love for the game. Thus writer Arnold Hano, turning 90 this year and a baseball fan for 86 of those years, is recognized under the Reliquary’s most elemental award—the Hilda, as it’s abbreviated.
|Mr. Hano (Jeff Levie)|
It’s an award for the most notable and noteworthy fan (it’s named after Hilda Chester, the legendary, leather-lunged, cowbell-wielding fanatic who was a fixture for years in Ebbets Field)—proving that love and irreverence can co-exist, as they did in Hano’s great baseball masterpiece, A Day In The Bleachers.
Hano, a still-vigorous nonagenarian, expressed his gratitude while sending sympathy to legendary Dodgers announcer Vin Scully. “I hear poor Vin is thinking about quitting… after all, he’s turning 84.” (Scully, who mentioned the Baseball Reliquary on the Dodger broadcast the night before the Eternals ceremony, really ought to be considered for the Eternals himself.)
Doubling down on the above premise, the Religuary’s Tony Salin Award—given to the person who has contributed substantially to the preservation of baseball history—was given to Dave Kelly, recently retired from his post as chief sports librarian for the Library of Congress. Kelly, a diffident man with a neatly trimmed white beard, has been the catalyst behind many of baseball’s most significant historical projects for the past 30 years. Paul Dickson, one of baseball’s most accomplished historian/authors, dedicated his recent biography of Bill Veeck to Kelly. These are the people who do more than protect and defend baseball’s living legacy—they preserve it by opening our eyes to stories that have hitherto been hidden from our view.
|Mr. John introducing Mr. Jobe (Jeff Levie)|
It was another white-haired man, however, whose acceptance speech closed the ceremony with a consummately simple grace. Dr. Frank Jobe, whose pioneering work in orthopedic surgery has literally reshaped the arc of hundreds of major league careers, is a most unassuming revolutionary. Reminding us that the odds in 1974 were thought to be a hundred to one against success for the procedure that has come to be known as “Tommy John surgery,” Jobe attributed the lion’s share of the outcome to the dedication and perseverance of his first patient.
“We had the right man at the right time,” Jobe said simply, smiling at John with an unmistakable twinkle in his eye. He evoked the enduring mystery of chance and opportunity, of design and the residue of good fortune it can sometimes bestow; and he exemplified a life lived well in the service of knowledge and of others.
The Shrine of the Eternals, at 14, is entering an ever-more complicated age—the years that determine the shape and fate of adult lives. While it has been a brilliant child prodigy, its next phase, ensuring its adulthood and sustaining its early success, matters at a point where more orthodox successful institutions often find themselves running on auto-pilot. The Reliquary voters and the incomparable brain trust of Terry Cannon and Albert (Buddy) Kilchesty have created a Shrine that captures a delicate balance of irreverence, historical acumen, and sheer celebration, but there are some signs that the supply of candidates is beginning to wear thin.
So in the spirit of support and concern for ensuring that the next 14 years of the Shrine are equal to its first 14, we’ve taken the liberty of compiling the names of 10 individuals who deserve serious consideration but have yet to appear on the Reliquary ballot. (More details can be found at the Big Bad Baseball blog, in the entry entitled Ten For Eternity.)
Unlike the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Reliquary is a group that allows the people to participate in the enshrinement process. You are urged to visit the Reliquary web site to learn more about baseball’s most unique anti-institution, whose Shrine is based on imagination, personality, and the more elusive qualities of character that have so often surfaced in the game despite any and all efforts to suppress it. And you are invited to attend the ceremony in person, for there is no way to fully grasp its alchemy otherwise. Each year, when Terry Cannon’s cowbell cuts through the noise of the crowd and demands the audience’s attention, the Baseball Reliquary reminds us that the clamor of baseball is, against all odds, a healing and soothing sound indeed.