A baseball museum that is ‘better than true’
By Scott Miller
Now on display at the Los Angeles Central Library through November in an exhibit titled “Something in Common”: There is a San Diego Chicken costume, a half-smoked cigar from Babe Ruth that likely — maybe? possibly? — was spirited from a Philadelphia brothel in 1924 and a baseball signed by Mother Teresa. The real Mother Teresa? Well ... maybe not.
The artifacts are on loan from the Baseball Reliquary, a real organization blending wonder and whimsy with deep reverence. Its vibe lands somewhere near the intersection of Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and Cooperstown.
The stories these gems tell belong to the ages — as now, poignantly, so does Terry Cannon, the mirthful, thoughtful, masterful doer whose curiosity, energy and passion for his projects was boundless. The nonprofit reliquary was Cannon’s brainchild in 1996. Then came the Shrine of the Eternals, a sort of distant and mischievous cousin to the baseball Hall of Fame, in 1999.
The past few years have been difficult. The pandemic hit, followed by Cannon’s death from cancer in August 2020. Then a seismic retrofitting indefinitely closed the Pasadena Central Library, where reliquary members and fans gathered annually to pay homage to inductees as wide-ranging and diverse as Jim Bouton (2001), Shoeless Joe Jackson (2002), Buck O’Neil (2008), Marvin Miller (2003) and Charlie Brown (2017).
In this baseball summer of All-Stars playing in Dodger Stadium and past greats like Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso and O’Neil being honored in Cooperstown, recent silence stoked concern that the Shrine of the Eternals might have been eternally silenced.
“Absolutely not,” said Mary Cannon, Terry’s widow and co-conspirator, noting the beginnings of a stirring comeback. “It is very much in the works.”
The website, dark since January because of technical difficulties, sprang back to life in early July. And the shrine’s 2020 class will be inducted Nov. 5 in a public ceremony at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium that will coincide with the closing of the six-month exhibit the next day. That class — broadcaster Bob Costas; Rube Foster, known as the father of black baseball; and Max Patkin, the “Clown Prince of Baseball” — has been on pause for nearly two years.
“Fantastic,” said Costas, who, like many others, assumed the reliquary was lost to the pandemic. “But I’d better show up, because I’m the only one still living. This is the Shrine of the Eternals, and the other two already are in eternity.”
The Baseball Reliquary emphasizes the game’s art, culture and characters over statistics and is financed in part by a grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Its thousands of books, periodicals, journals, historical magazines, artifacts, original paintings and correspondence now are housed at Whittier College’s Institute for Baseball Studies.
“Terry and I conceived and connived and advanced that,” said Joe Price, who accepted a request from Cannon before his death to take charge and steer the reliquary forward. With his infectious enthusiasm and impish smile, Price seems a natural choice.
Now a professor emeritus in religious studies at Whittier, Price, alongside Charles Adams, a retired professor of English at Whittier, spent the pandemic organizing and cataloging the collection of more than 4,000 books according to Library of Congress standards.
Within is where history and historical fiction playfully mingle. It is where Moe Berg, a former catcher who later was a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, crosses paths with Chicago’s 1979 Disco Demolition Night — with keepsakes from each in the archives. Alas, the yukata jacket that Berg “might” have worn in Japan and a partially melted vinyl record “allegedly” from Chicago’s Comiskey Park appear to have lost certificates of authenticity over the years.
“Academy Awards are always won by movie stars, yet everyone else who carries their water and makes them look good, the character actors, are more interesting than the movie stars,” said Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed “Bull Durham.” Shelton inducted Steve Dalkowski, the inspiration for the movie’s Nuke LaLoosh character, into the shrine in 2009. “In a certain way, the Hall of Fame honors the movie stars, though a lot of them are dishonorable characters. The reliquary is about everything that’s not a movie star.”
The shrine’s inaugural class in 1999 included Curt Flood, who took MLB to court to challenge the reserve clause preventing player movement; Dock Ellis, perhaps best known for claiming to have thrown a no-hitter while high on LSD but who was also a civil rights advocate; and Bill Veeck, a maverick owner who was a master showman.
At the ceremony, Cannon read a letter Ellis had received from Jackie Robinson praising his civil rights work that warned him that people in and out of the game eventually would turn against him. Ellis was moved to tears. Afterward, he donated a set of his hair curlers.
Those are authentic, as is the burlap peanut bag that held peanuts “packed for Gaylord Perry’s peanut farm.” The sacristy box “reputedly” used by a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to administer last rites to a dying Ruth in 1948? The jock strap “purportedly” worn by Eddie Gaedel, the smallest person to appear in an MLB game at 3 feet, 7 inches? Eyes twinkling, Price allows that the provenance of some of these items “is certainly questionable.”
“You know what was really hard to find was a child-sized jock strap,” said Mary Cannon, who added a few touches to make it seem as if it came from the 1951 St. Louis Browns. “We went to so many stores to find that thing.”
By definition, the word “reliquary” means “a container for holy relics.” To Terry Cannon and his disciples, more important than the actual authenticity of these “holy relics” is the idea of them.
Even within the baseball industry, some are unfamiliar with the Baseball Reliquary. Nancy Faust, a retired Chicago White Sox organist who created walk-up music for batters, had to look it up when she got the call for induction in 2018.
“My husband, Joe, said, ‘What is this, some kind of joke? A Baseball Aquarium?’” Faust said. “I said, ‘There’s nothing fishy about it.’ When I knew who was going in with me, I thought, ‘Wow! That’s some pretty good company.’ I felt honored to be remembered.”
Faust was inducted in 2018, along with Tommy John and Rusty Staub.
Bouton once referred to the shrine as “the people’s Hall of Fame,” and inductions traditionally started with Terry Cannon leading the audience in the clanging of cowbells in tribute to Hilda Chester, perhaps the most famous fan in history.
As Cannon noted at the 2018 ceremony, Chester’s fame began to fade when the Dodgers left New York for Los Angeles, and “while she may have died in relative obscurity in 1978, in our community of fans, Hilda is royalty. And through our annual remembrance, we can be assured that the final bell has not yet rung for Hilda Chester.”
Nor, as it turns out, has it for the reliquary. To Shelton’s memory, it was poet W.D. Snodgrass who, when speaking, often would tell his audience that every time he tells a story, it’s true.
“Then he would pause,” Shelton said. “And say, ‘I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s better than true.’ That’s what the arts do. It’s better than true. And that’s where the reliquary lives.”