PASADENA, Calif. – For one blessed afternoon in the cool hush of a library auditorium, all things Barry Bonds gave way to charmingly offbeat tributes to a famed language-mangling catcher, an acclaimed author who mined his MLB career for material and, in the flesh, the revered godfather of statistical analysis and questioning front-office authority, none other than Bill James.
For the 200 or so in attendance, the proceedings led to a peculiar baseball nirvana, quirky yet purposeful, whimsical yet cerebral, aided by the trippy sitar noodling of a gray-haired hippie seated cross-legged on the stage. When he switched to a ukulele and performed the national anthem, everyone stood, and when he broke into "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," everyone sang.
Even Bill James. Or at least his lips moved.
By the time Yogi Berra, Jim Brosnan and James had been inducted into the Baseball Reliquary "Shrine of the Eternals," and a fresh-faced Brown University student honored for visiting all 189 minor- and major-league ballparks in 157 days, and legendary Brooklyn Dodgers fan Hilda Chester remembered by the ringing of cowbells, the Cracker Jack served in the back of the room had been transformed into something of a sacrament.
Oh, Baseball Reliquary, deliver us from Bonds, and grant us peace in our day.
The "Shrine of the Eternals" induction ceremony has been held annually since 1999 at the Pasadena Central Library by the nonprofit organization that Terry Cannon founded. Cannon combines a collector's sensibility with a keen sense of the absurd, acquiring, among hundreds of baseball artifacts, midget ballplayer Eddie Gaedel's jockstrap, a prophylactic promoted by a likeness of Ted Williams, dirt from the Elysian Fields location of the first organized baseball game and a half-eaten hot dog from 1925.
The other half was digested by Babe Ruth, as the tale goes.
So, in addition to creating the "Shrine of the Eternals" and inducting the likes of Dock Ellis (pitched a no-hitter while high on LSD), Moe Berg (a spy as well as a ballplayer) and William "Dummy" Hoy (a deaf major leaguer who stole 594 bases from 1888-1902), the Baseball Reliquary is a repository for, in Cannon's words, "objects which more conservative, timid or uninformed baseball museums have failed to bring to the public's attention."
Cannon explains his "visionary acquisitions policy" thusly: "While each artifact is approached with meticulous scholarship and veracity, the ability of an object to invoke a sense of wonderment in, and to inspire the imagination of, the viewer is of supreme importance."
All of which might explain the dozen baseballs signed by Mother Teresa.
And the flour tortilla bearing the likeness of Walter O'Malley's fleshy mug.
And a skin fragment from the inner left thigh of Abner Doubleday purportedly found in a basement refrigerator at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in 1948.
If some of Cannon's collectibles are, in fact, fake, nobody seemed to mind at the induction ceremony, where the famously reclusive James was the real deal. Introduced by fellow sabermatrician Rich Lederer of baseballanalysts.com, James ambled to the podium and nervously delivered a pleasantly halting acceptance speech that lacked the remarkable clarity of thought, incisive analysis and colorful prose he has brought to his Baseball Abstracts and other publications since 1977.
Like a pitcher with great stuff but questionable command, he tossed out cogent points and intriguing observations scattershot. The listener was left to piece it together.
"Each of us is adrift in a vast sea of ignorance," James said, and he went on to make the analogy that the stupid among us float on a boat maybe 20 inches long by 4 feet wide, while the brilliant among us have slightly more room, "about 25 inches by 5 feet."
"But the accumulated brilliance of the human race is a big ship."
James said he isn't a statistician and isn't a genius. "What I do is try to listen to the debate, and try to spot the areas of ignorance," James said. "I'm a person who deliberately doesn't know things."
And he poked fun at himself, saying, "I'm an arrogant person who believes in humility."
As far as baseball goes, James said that the widespread discounting of statistics accumulated before 1900 was a mistake, that "19th century baseball is like a photo of you at four months old," that those early years are essential in understanding what the game has become.
Baseball, of course, continues to evolve.
"Everybody who plays the game well changes the game, adding something to it," he said.
He also delivered this curious zinger: "Babe Ruth changed the game by realizing what you could do with a corked bat."
James concluded by overreaching a bit, suggesting that the racism of bygone ballplayers – and Americans at large – was generational and less of a transgression than we consider it today. He included his father as one of those guilty of holding racist views and seemed to wish him somehow absolved.
Of greater interest to the assembled Relaquarians – anybody who pays a $25 fee is a voting member, of which there are about 200 – was James anointing Berra as the greatest catcher of all time. Berra couldn't attend the induction, and his stand-in was appropriate and delightful – Charlie Silvera, the New York Yankees backup catcher from 1948 to 1956 who had only 482 career at-bats because Berra came to play nearly every day.
The awe in the room was palpable when Silvera, 83, said he actually knew Chester, the leather-lunged Dodgers follower and inspiration for the Baseball Reliquary "Hilda Award," given annually to an outstanding fan (Cass Sapir, the intrepid Brown student, won this year).
Silvera said that during the frequent World Series between the Dodgers and Yankees, Chester was merciless with her barbs aimed at the Yankees bullpen. Apparently, her moods swung as ferociously as the iron ladle she banged against a frying pan throughout games, because one day she enveloped Silvera in a bear hug and begin kissing his face.
Not that Silvera was pleased. "She looked like a test rider for a broom factory," he said.
Casey Stengel's niece also said a few words about Berra. Then it was on to the induction of Brosnan, who was unable to attend because he'd been hurt in a household mishap. The fine sportswriter John Schulian gave a heartfelt tribute to the former relief pitcher, whose nonfiction books, The Long Season and Pennant Race were written over the course of the 1959 and 1961 seasons and were groundbreaking in their candor.
"Without (Brosnan), there might have been no Ball Four by Jim Bouton a decade later," Schulian said, referencing a 2003 "Shrine of the Eternals" inductee. Bouton was pleased when he was honored, especially after perusing the list of innovators, pioneers and oddballs that are his fellow inductees. There's Roberto Clemente and Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Shoeless Joe Jackson and Jimmy Piersall, Jim Abbott and Mark Fidrych, Satchel Paige and Curt Flood. There is female umpire Pam Postema and female ballplayer Ila Borders. There is legendary college coach Rod Dedeaux and players' union boss Marvin Miller.
Wrote Bouton: "We might not win too many ballgames – unless Satchel were pitching. 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."
For all its weirdness, the Baseball Reliquary possesses a redeeming intellectual quality that appeals to the likes of James, Lederer, Brosnan, Schulian and Chicano community leader Tomas Benitez, who gave the keynote address.
Cannon has spearheaded ambitious projects such as Mexican-American Baseball in Los Angeles: From the Barrios to the Big Leagues. He currently has two exhibitions on display at the library. One is devoted to Emmett Ashford, the first African American major league umpire, and the other is titled The Times They Were A-Changin'; Baseball in the Age of Aquarius and features memorabilia and artifacts from the 1960s and 1970s, including a pennant that commemorated Hank Aaron's breaking Babe Ruth's home run record.
That was the lone reminder of Bonds and his tainted, tiresome climb to Aaron's mark of 755. Eventually, though, the Baseball Reliquary might be compelled to add something to its collection to commemorate the new home run king.
Although Bonds' oversized head might be out of the question, Cannon, as usual, had a novel idea.
"Sneak us a urine sample from Barry Bonds," he said. "That would be the classic collectible from this era."
- Baseball Reliquary
- Yogi Berra
- Bill James
- Jim Brosnan