LOS ANGELES, CA.-
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 Ripleys 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 Cannons 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 Cannons 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 ONeil (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 ONeil being honored in Cooperstown, recent silence stoked concern that the Shrine of the Eternals might have been eternally silenced.
Absolutely not, said Mary Cannon, Terrys 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 shrines 2020 class will be inducted Nov. 5 in a public ceremony at the Los Angeles Central Librarys 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 Id better show up, because Im 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 games 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 Colleges 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 served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, crosses paths with Chicagos 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 Chicagos 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 movies 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 thats not a movie star.
Shelton and Cannon became acquainted when each was involved in experimental film groups in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s.
He was weirdly brilliant, said Shelton, whose book about the making of Bull Durham, The Church of Baseball, was published this month. I use weirdly in the most positive way. He not only had his own drummer, he had a kind of vision that went with it. The reliquary really is a work of imagination. The archive lives in your mind and sometimes in your heart.
The shrines 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 Perrys peanut farm. The sacristy box reputedly used by a priest at St. Patricks Cathedral in New York to administer last rites to a dying Babe 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.
A visual as simple as produce from a grocery store can be a powerful force to ignite the imagination. As a prank when he was at Class AA Williamsport in 1987, catcher Dave Bresnahan heaved a potato into left field during a fake pickoff throw to trick a rival into running from third base into an out at home plate. A distant nephew of Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan, he was waiting for the runner with the ball at home plate. Dave Bresnahan was promptly released and never played again. In memoriam, Mary Cannon carved two potatoes at least one of which lives in the archives here in a Mason jar.
We didnt realize formaldehyde would turn them dark brown, she said, adding: There are all of these wonderful stories but nothing there, so we tried to create tangible things for people to see.
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, Theres nothing fishy about it. When I knew who was going in with me, I thought, Wow! Thats some pretty good company. I felt honored to be remembered.
Faust was inducted in 2018, along with Tommy John and Rusty Staub.
Rusty Staubs a perfect one, right? Costas said. Hes not quite a Hall of Famer, but hes a significant player. There are other players who arent as significant, but you put Rusty Staub in before you put Chet Lemon in because Rusty Staub is Le Grande Orange.
Dr. Frank Jobe, inventor of the Tommy John surgery, preceded the pitcher into the shrine in 2012. There is a Spaceman (Bill Lee, 2000) and a Bird (Mark Fidrych, 2002). There also is rich diversity in Robinson (2005) and his widow, Rachel (2014); the first female umpire, Pam Postema (2000); and several Negro Leagues representatives.
Bouton once referred to the shrine as the peoples 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, Chesters 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 Sheltons memory, it was poet W.D. Snodgrass who, when speaking, often would tell his audience that every time he tells a story, its true.
Then he would pause, Shelton said. And say, I dont know if its true, but its better than true. Thats what the arts do. Its better than true. And thats where the reliquary lives.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times