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The Baseball Reliquary Survived and Is ‘Higher than True’


LOS ANGELES — Now on display on the Los Angeles Central Library through November in an exhibit entitled “Something in Common.” There’s a San Diego Chicken costume, a half-smoked cigar from Babe Ruth that likely — possibly? possibly? — was spirited from a Philadelphia brothel in 1924 and a baseball signed by Mother Teresa. The true Mother Teresa? Well … possibly not.

The artifacts are on loan from the Baseball Reliquary, an actual organization mixing wonder and whimsy with deep reverence. Its vibe lands somewhere near the intersection of Cooperstown and Ripley’s Consider It or Not.

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 fervour for his projects was boundless. The nonprofit Reliquary was Cannon’s brainchild in 1996. Then got here the Shrine of the Eternals, a form of distant and mischievous cousin to the baseball Hall of Fame, in 1999.

The previous couple of 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).

On 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 Eternals may need been eternally silenced.

“Absolutely not,” said Mary Cannon, Terry’s widow and co-conspirator, noting the beginnings of a stirring comeback. “It is extremely much within the works.”

The web site, dark since January due to technical difficulties, sprang back to life in early July. And the Shrine’s 2020 class shall be inducted on Nov. 5 in a public ceremony on the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium that can coincide with the closing of the six-month exhibit the subsequent day. That class — the broadcaster Bob Costas; Rube Foster, referred to as the Father of Black Baseball; and Max Patkin, the “Clown Prince of Baseball” — has been on pause for nearly two years.

“Implausible,” said Costas, who, like many others, assumed the Reliquary was lost to the pandemic. “But I’d higher show up, because I’m the just one still living. That is the Shrine of the Eternals, and the opposite two already are in eternity.”

The Baseball Reliquary emphasizes the sport’s art, culture and characters over statistics and is financed partly by a grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Its hundreds 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. Along with his infectious enthusiasm and impish smile, Price seems a natural selection.

Now a professor emeritus in religious studies at Whitter, Price, alongside Charles Adams, a retired professor of English at Whittier, spent the pandemic organizing and cataloging the gathering of greater than 4,000 books in response to Library of Congress standards.

Inside is where history and historical fiction playfully mingle. It’s where Moe Berg, the previous catcher who later served as 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 within the archives. Alas, the yukata jacket that Berg “might” have worn in Japan and a partially melted vinyl record “allegedly” from Comiskey Park appear to have lost certificates of authenticity through the years.

“Academy Awards are all the time 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 loads of them are dishonorable characters. The Reliquary is about all the things that’s not a movie star.”

Shelton and Cannon became acquainted when each was involved in experimental film groups within the Los Angeles area within the Nineteen Seventies.

“He was weirdly good,” said Shelton, whose book concerning the making of Bull Durham, “The Church of Baseball,” was published this month. “I exploit weirdly in essentially the most positive way. He not only had his own drummer, he had a sort of vision that went with it. The Reliquary really is a piece of imagination. The archive lives in your mind and sometimes in your heart.”

The Shrine’s inaugural class in 1999 included Curt Flood, who took M.L.B. to court to challenge the reserve clause stopping 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, the maverick owner who was a master showman.

On the ceremony, Cannon read a letter Ellis had received from Jackie Robinson praising his civil rights work that warned him that folks out and in of the sport 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” utilized by a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Latest York to manage last rites to a dying Babe Ruth in 1948? The jock strap “purportedly” worn by Eddie Gaedel, the smallest person to seem in an MLB game at 3 feet 7 inches? Eyes twinkling, Price allows that the provenance of a few of this stuff “is definitely questionable.”

“ what was really hard to seek out was a child-sized jock strap,” said Mary Cannon, who added a couple of touches to make it seem as if it got here from the 1951 St. Louis Browns. “We went to so many stores to seek out that thing.”

By definition, the word “reliquary” means “a container for holy relics.” To Terry Cannon and his disciples, more necessary than the actual authenticity of those “holy relics” is the concept of them.

A visible so simple as produce from a food market generally is 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 the Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan, Dave was waiting for the runner with the ball at home plate. He was promptly released and never played again. In memoriam, Mary Cannon carved two potatoes — at the very least one in every of which lives within the archives here in a Mason jar.

“We didn’t realize formaldehyde would turn them dark brown,” she said, adding: “There are all of those wonderful stories but nothing there, so we tried to create tangible things for people to see.”

Even throughout the baseball industry, some are unfamiliar with the Reliquary. Nancy Faust, the retired Chicago White Sox organist who created walk-up music for batters, needed to look it up when she got the decision for induction in 2018.

“My husband, Joe, said, ‘What is that this, some sort of joke? A Baseball Aquarium?’” Faust said. “I said, ‘There’s nothing fishy about it.’ After I knew who was getting into with me, I assumed, ‘Wow! That’s some pretty good company.’ I felt honored to be remembered.”

Faust was inducted in 2018, together with Tommy John and Rusty Staub.

“Rusty Staub’s an ideal one, right?” Costas said. “He’s not quite a Hall of Famer, but he’s a big player. There are other players who aren’t as significant, but you set Rusty Staub in before you set Chet Lemon in because Rusty Staub is ‘Le Grande Orange.’”

Dr. Frank Jobe, the inventor of the Tommy John surgery, preceded the pitcher into the Shrine in 2012. There’s a Spaceman (Bill Lee, 2000) and a Bird (Mark Fidrych, 2002). There is also wealthy diversity in Jackie Robinson (2005) and his widow, Rachel (2014), the primary female umpire, Pam Postema (2000), and several other Negro Leagues representatives.

Bouton once referred to the Shrine as “the people’s Hall of Fame, and inductions traditionally began with Terry Cannon leading the audience within the clanging of cowbells in tribute to Hilda Chester, perhaps essentially the most famous fan in history.

As Cannon noted on the 2018 ceremony, Chester’s fame began to fade when the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles and “while she could have died in relative obscurity in 1978, in our community of fans, Hilda is royalty. And thru our annual remembrance, we may be assured that the ultimate bell has not yet rung for Hilda Chester.”

Nor, because it seems, has it for the Reliquary. To Shelton’s memory, it was the poet W.D. Snodgrass who, when speaking, often would tell his audience that each time he tells a story, it’s true.

“Then he would pause,” Shelton said. “And say, ‘I don’t know if it’s true, however it’s higher than true.’ That’s what the humanities do. It’s higher than true. And that’s where the Reliquary lives.”

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