I had dinner last night with a couple of friends visiting from out of town, and told two of my favorite Hall of Fame library stories. They're dandies, so I may as well tell the rest of the world. The stories have two things in common. Both involved telephone inquiries from people who were entirely clueless. Yet each call had one moment of seeming clarity, when the callers were so certain of their knowledge that they felt compelled to enlighten me. The results were two brief instants--sadly fleeting--in which the brilliance of their misguided certitude left me speechless.
The first happened in 2003, my first year as a researcher at the Hall of Fame library. A woman called from Orlando, Florida, with a seemingly simple request. "My boss recently bought four baseballs at an auction," she explained. "Each one is signed by a Hall of Famer, and we're getting ready to mount them on the office wall. We're making plaques, and we're wondering if you can provide some text we could include about each player being in the Hall of Fame."
"Sure, we can do that," I replied. "Who are they?"
"I'm sorry, but there's no Jose Alvarez in the Hall of Fame."
"It says here on the certificate that he was inducted in 1992."
"I'm sorry, but I was here in 1992 [I attended the induction ceremony], and there's no Jose Alvarez in the Hall of Fame."
"Well, maybe you're too young."
That one threw me for a loop. Too young to have heard of Cy Young? Too green to have heard of Danny Green? Too fresh to have heard of "The Freshest Man on Earth," Arlie Latham? What do you say to that? The truth, I guessed.
"Well, I'm the oldest one here, and there's still no Jose Alvarez in the Hall of Fame."
"Can you hold on a minute? The guy who's making the plaques is here, and he knows more about this than I do." I couldn't argue that. I could make out her voice in the distance, telling him "the guy from the Hall of Fame says. . . ." I waited a minute for her to return. She sounded relieved.
"I'm sorry," she purred. "It's Jesus Alvarez."
!!!! She was so glad to have solved the mystery for me. It was just a matter of jogging my memory, as if she had said "Marty Mantle" the first time and I simply hadn't made the connection. I can only report that she was very disappointed to learn that we don't have a Jesus Alvarez plaque here either. That was the last I heard from her. I'm willing to bet that those other three balls were signed by Stew Musial, Ben Feller, and Augie Berra.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
The other memorable phone call came a couple of years ago from an elderly gentleman from Ontario. His inquiry was straightforward: "Do you still have Lincoln's chair on exhibit?"
"Lincoln's chair from the Ford Theater that he was sitting in when he was shot. I saw it at your museum about thirty years ago."
"This is the Baseball Hall of Fame, sir. We wouldn't have Lincoln's chair."
"Oh, but you did. It was right out there in the museum. It was inside a glass case."
"But why would it be here?"
"Well, maybe you just had it until you got some other stuff."
Wow! What a moment of clarity! Of course, we were a fledgling museum then, baseball history was still brief and there simply weren't enough baseball artifacts to fill the space. So we dragged Lincoln's chair into the lobby to draw visitors. Maybe that wasn't so far-fetched, since Cooperstown is still the place where the "Cardiff Giant" (the great 19th-century hoax) is still on exhibit (at the Farmers Museum). Still. . .
"Are you sure you saw it here?"
"Oh yeah, right there in Cooperstown, right in the middle of the museum."
"Okay, I'll look into it and call you back."
It took just a few minutes for me to learn that Lincoln's chair has been housed in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan since the 1920s. That isn't far from Ontario, so he must have seen it there on the same trip where he visited Cooperstown. His confusion was clear--to me. I called him back to explain, but he wasn't buying it.
"It's in the Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan."
"That may be so, but I saw it at the Hall of Fame there in Cooperstown."
"I don't think so. They've had it since the 1920s."
"They must've let you have it for awhile, then, because that's where I saw it."
"There's no record here that we've ever had it."
"But you did have it. That's where I saw it." (At least he didn't tell me I was too young.)
"I don't know. The closest thing we have here is the chair that Whitey Ford was sitting in when he bought his first Lincoln."
"Well then, you got yourselves a mystery."
That I couldn't argue.