Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Hall Ball: The Ultimate Baseball Connection

Of the Hall of Fame's three missions--"preserving history, honoring greatness, connecting generations"--the last has always seemed the most important to me. When I worked at the Hall of Fame's library from 2002-2010, my own mission focused on helping visitors, many of whom regarded their visit to Cooperstown as a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to baseball's mecca, celebrate their own connections to the sport. Sometimes I found box scores of the first game they remembered attending, other times the records of ancestors who had played minor league ball, and occasionally artifacts that symbolized their own baseball legacy.

Most memorably, I met former ballplayers and their families or the descendants of long-gone Hall of Famers. I have talked with relatives (mainly grandchildren) of, among others, Babe Ruth, Lefty Grove, George Sisler, Harry Heilmann, Three Finger Brown, Lefty Gomez, and even Alexander Cartwright. Each of those meetings memorably connected me with players my father had told me about watching when he was young.

There is a special joy for those of us involved with baseball history in making those spiritual connections tangible. So much of baseball is tangled with myth, starting with its vague origins, that we crave physical objects which provide evidence that baseball is not just a field of dreams but a real world in which actual men have achieved wondrous things. Thus the baseball card and memorabilia explosion, however fraught it is with fraud and greed. It has satisfied fans' craving for objects that encapsulate both baseball's romance and reality.

I know of no single object that represents the joys of baseball connection more than The Hall Ball, so designated by Ralph Carhart and celebrated in his book of the same title,  published by McFarland. You should hasten to latch onto this book (which can be ordered at Do yourself a favor and share in Carhart's extraordinary quest to use one object--a used baseball his wife, Anna, spotted in the creek that runs past Doubleday Field during their own 2010 pilgrimage to Cooperstown--to unite all of the members of the Hall of Fame.

What did Ralph Carhart do? The book's subtitle is apt: "One Fan's Journey to Unite Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball." He set out to photograph that baseball, with THE HALL BALL its lone adornment, in the hands of every living Hall of Famer and at the gravesite of every deceased one. This eight-year quest ultimately saw him seek out and immortalize all but a handful of the 323 Hall of Famers when he turned in 2018 from the quest to chronicling it in this terrific book.

A theater director and manager from New York City, Carhart used vacation time and long weekends to track down immortals in 34 states, Puerto Rico and, most memorably, Cuba, logging over 20,000 miles in his eight-year odyssey. His wife frequently accompanied him and shared in each connection commemorated, proving quite adept at locating poorly marked graves, and sometimes their two young children came along. All those helping hands are visible in one or another of the 320 or so photographs that are just one of the main treats of Carhart's book. Along the way, he created a website, blogging about his travels and posting photos along the way, turning this into something of a communal quest.

I'd be happy to rhapsodize over the quest itself, but this book review should focus on the book. The story is told chronologically, with separate chapters for each state visited, several chapters covering the living Hall of Famers, and a few special cases. It creates a half-dozen levels of exploration that proceed throughout the chronicle of more than 300 encounters, with only 60 or so involving living Hall of Famers. Here they are:

  • Protoball: Carhart begins his account of his travels in each state with a brief summary of what SABR folks call "Protoball," that is the history of baseball before it was played professionally. This grounds us in time and place, showing the grass-root basis of bat-and-ball games that grew into the national sport.
  • Travelogue: We come to know Ralph Carhart and his cohorts as they get from one place to another over 20,000+ miles. He doesn't burden us with unnecessary details and logistics, discussing them mainly to illustrate such things as quirks photographs and the sense of urgency that often overtook him as he completed ambitious missions on every trip. 
  • Access: Closely related to travel logistics is actual access to all these Hall of Famers. Getting to the living proved more difficult than reaching the dead, and we sympathize with Carhart as he deals with the hyper-commerce of card shows, a lamb among carnivores. In time, every photo he secures is a victory, and the looks on some of the Hall of Famers' faces tell us what tough adversaries they were.
  • Careers: Every Hall of Famer gets a paragraph about his achievements, statistical or otherwise, that got him into the Hall. This kind of thing appears in lots of books, and their treatment here is better than most I have seen. They are especially helpful for readers who don't know enough about the lesser immortals (even Carhart admits knowing almost nothing about Kiki Cuyler, for example). This is good history, placed in context, and written in entertaining fashion.
  • The Graves: Visiting over 200 graves, Carhart discovered a wide variety of resting places, from massive mausoleums to unmarked, communal graves. Each tells a story, and Carhart is sensitive to their souls as he describes how he located each grave, figured out how to take the photo (some are a dozen feet above ground), and commemorated the event. We learn so much about how these Hall of Famers fared in life, how important baseball and the Hall of Fame were to those who composed their headstones, and how well these places are maintained.
  • Photos: The taking of the photos is another strong part of the narrative. Location, weather, sunlight, and even a convenient place to put the ball often presented problems. Again, we are right alongside Carhart as he navigates the kind of thing all we amateurs experience in trying to capture a good photo or two of a baseball occasion -- but he achieves it nearly 300 times, all over the country. I also applaud the photo captions, one-sentence nuggets which add something to each Hall of Famer's story that is not mentioned elsewhere.
  • Ethics: Anyone who reads this book will admire Carhart's ethical approach to this project. He was straightforward with everyone he approached, explaining his goal of taking a photo of every Hall of Famer with the ball, dead or alive (prompting Pat Gillick's quip, "I'd rather you got me on this side than the other"). Many times, he questioned the propriety of what he might have to do in order to get a photo. As an author, he is forthright about everything that gave him pause, just one more way in which we find ourselves rooting for him to fulfill his quest. Thus, when toward the end he gives the ball to a man he just met who might get the photo he needs of Hank Aaron, we admire his faith in goodwill and smile at the resulting photo.
Above all, to amplify that last item, what Ralph Carhart did in his quest, and what he does in this book, is to "do right by" all the people he commemorated as well as those he encountered along the way. This is particularly true of some of the special cases he discusses. There's a great chapter of "symbolic" shots he staged for those who were cremated and did not have graves where he could stage a photo. These became mini-pilgrimages, for instance to the remote wildlife center established by Tom Yawkey, for a wonderful photo with an egret looking on. These personal homages include photos of third base at Wrigley Field for Ron Santo, statues of Kirby Puckett and Larry Doby, the abandoned Illinois coal mine where Al Barlick umpired his first games, and the beach in Puerto Rico where part of the plane that killed Roberto Clemente washed ashore.

How many baseball fans would go to that much trouble to make such meaningful connections with people he could never know? 

Ralph Carhart did it, and he tells the story in a book that abounds with neat details that make his journey seem both intensely personal and ultimately universal. He takes us along with him all the way, as the thing takes on a life of its own, a wide-open daydream at the start, hardened by travel and other difficulties and fueled by epiphanies and endless connections, eventually dwindling down to the end of the list (except for just a handful of White Whales). 

Epiphanies? Here's just one: Carhart played catch in Cuba at the memorial honoring Cuba's baseball greats--with Martin Dihigo Jr. Match that in your baseball travels! Well, Carhart can top it. The highest drama of the book also occurred in Cuba as Carhart and others unraveled the mystery of where Cristobal Torriente was buried. Having traipsed all over the New York area, where Torriente supposedly rested, Carhart found himself back in Cuba tracking down more leads, eventually holding in his hands what might well have been Torriente's skull.

One important by-product of The Hall Ball's journey was Carhart's growing awareness of how time and neglect have tarnished the eternity of so many forgotten baseball greats. Carhart soon become involved with SABR's Negro Leagues Baseball Grave Marker Project and later helped create the 19th-Century Grave Marker Project. Thus his commitment to the memories of these men became more personal, taking him well beyond his original purpose of gathering photographs. And here's where he and I have a one-of-a-kind connection: Carhart composed the text that accompanied the stone placed at the grave of Sol White; I composed the text of White's plaque after his 2006 election to the Hall of Fame. 

Wisely, Carhart does not try to force each photo's story to serve all of those ongoing narratives. Not every experience was profound; some were distinctly unpleasant. One thing that charmed me was how often Carhart's brief interactions with Hall of Famers matched my own impressions. Our good guys included Jim Thome and Joe Torre (also high on his list was Pedro Martinez, whom I've never met); bad impressions were made on both of us by Johnny Bench, Whitey Herzog, Whitey Ford, and Jim Bunning. He takes his tales as they come, letting the narrative threads accumulate where they will.

Whether Carhart got what he wanted in a few minutes or it took hours, we know how he felt about it. I knew nothing about The Hall Ball before this year, but now I feel like I've known Ralph and Anna Carhart for a long time, and that is a decidedly good thing. You'll be glad to share in their travels as they prove once again that in a long trip toward a distant goal, what you experience along the way is far more vivid and rewarding than what awaits you at the end. Fittingly, what Carhart expected to happen to The Hall Ball did not happen, and The Hall Ball ends with that artifact headed for a place that seems just as perfect as its journey.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Lifetime of Witnessing Greatness

A couple of weeks ago, to celebration my birthday on a day when no public events were scheduled, I posted a list of famous and outstanding performers I have seen in person during my lifetime. I wanted to celebrate the greatness I have beheld, which after all is one of the genuine pleasures of this world. We don't have time to achieve everything, hence the vicarious pleasure of seeing what other people can do by devoting themselves to this or that talent.

The list contained 69 performers, one for each year of my life. Naturally, after it was posted and got lots of responses, I thought of another 10-20 people who should have made the list.

I had been fairly conservative in order to hold that list down to 69 athletes, actors, and musicians. I listed only four of the 20 groups I saw at Woodstock, and not more than a half-dozen baseball Hall of Famers, when I've seen dozens. I wanted to diversify the list. In this blog, I want to expand that list, add a couple of other lists, throw in a few numbers, and tell a bit more about about all these fantastic performers I have managed to see over the course of a half-century and then some.

First up is the original posted list of 69. All I posted was their names, but here I'll add where and when and sometimes why.

Hank Aaron – at Polo Grounds and Shea Stadium
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – I was there when he broke Chamberlain's career scoring record -- in Las Vegas!
Chuck Berry – Fillmore East, 1968 or 1969
Larry Bird – most memorably from court level at Phoenix in 1981
Blue Man Group – NY City, 2001
Victory Borge – Royal Albert Hall, London, 1979
Bill Bradley – Knicks, Madison Square Garden
George Carlin – Las Vegas, late 1980s
Roberto Clemente – 1964 All-Star Game
Van Cliburn – New Jersey, c. 1957 – I just remember him sitting there
Bob Cousy – old Madison Square Garden, 1962
Cream – Madison Square Garden, 1968
Rodney Dangerfield – at his nightclub in Manhattan, New Year’s Eve, mid-70s
Judi Dench – early 1970s, London, Royal Shakespeare Company
Joe DiMaggio – I saw him hit a double at a Yankee Stadium Old-Timers Day in the late 1950s
Eddie Feigner – Hawley, Pennsylvania, late 1970s, an astonishing performer
Ella Fitzgerald – San Francisco, 1982, St. Francis Hotel, I think
Pancho Gonzalez – mid-1960s, Madison Square Garden pro exhibition
Wayne Gretzky – with LA Kings, once saw him and Lemieux in same game
Alec Guinness –London 1971, “A Voyage Around My Father” (with Jeremy Brett)
Lionel Hampton – Los Angeles, big outdoor venue, late 1980s
Jimi Hendrix – Woodstock, Monday morning
Earl “Fatha” Hines –Village Vanguard, NY City, 1977
Anthony Hopkins – in “Macbeth” in London, 1973
Howlin’ Wolf – nightclub in Manhattan on my 18th birthday in 1969
Ichiro Suzuki – Seattle, 2006, one of seven people on this list I have spoken with
Magic Johnson – lots in LA in the 80s
Janis Joplin – Woodstock, from right in front of the stage
Deborah Kerr – London, 1971
B.B. King – Central Park, 1969
Billie Jean King – tournament in London, 1971
Sam Kinison – twice in Las Vegas, late 1980s
Leo Kottke – twice in upstate NY, 2006 and 2011
Rod Laver – in London in 1971 tournament
Led Zeppelin – old Pavilion at NY World’s Fair Site, 1970 or 1971
Mario Lemieux – at LA, late 80s
Jack Lemmon – in a drama called “A Sense of Humor” in LA, early 1984
Meadowlark Lemon – Madison Square Garden, sometime as a kid
Greg Maddux – several times, most memorably in Atlanta, 1998
Mickey Mantle – I witnessed his last great game, 5-for-5 with two HR, Memorial Day, 1968
Juan Marichal – winner of the 1964 All-Star Game, and the most gracious Hall of Famer I’ve met
Steve Martin – believe it or not, a performance in Missoula, Montana, in 1978
Willie Mays – many times, from his days as a NY Giant to a HR at Candlestick Park in 1970
Paul McCartney – Las Vegas Silver Bowl on my birthday in 1993
Ian McKellan – as Hamlet in London, 1971, and as Salieri in “Amadeus” in NY, late 70s
Yehudi Menuhin – London 1979
Dudley Moore – London 1971, in a revue titled “Behind the Fridge,” forerunners of Monty Python
Mothers of Invention – Central Park, 1969
Jack Nicklaus – National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach, early 1990s
Leonard Nimoy – in “Equus” on Broadway, around 1979
Laurence Olivier – twice in London in 1971, first as Shylock and then in “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” 
Max Patkin – Las Vegas, 1980s, incomparable
Vanessa Redgrave – at the Young Vic in 1971
Diana Rigg – as Lady Macbeth to Anthony Hopkins’ Macbeth
Oscar Robertson – old Madison Square Garden
Frank Robinson – Polo Grounds
Pete Rose – many times, but notably when he broke the NL record by hitting in his 38th straight game,  Shea Stadium, 1978
Bill Russell – old Madison Square Garden, 1962
Dolph Schayes – the same night as Russell, an old-time NBA doubleheader
Paul Scofield – the best performance I saw in London,1971, in “The Captain of Kopenick”
Tom Seaver – many times
Ravi Shankar – Edinburgh Festival, 1971
Maggie Smith – London, 1971
Isaac Stern – London, 1979
Patrick Stewart – many plays in London 1971, in Royal Shakespear Company
The Who – Fillmore East, Woodstock, and a one-day rock festival in 1971 at the Kensington Oval cricket ground in London – that was quite a semester
Luis Tiant – Fenway Park, my first game there in 1974
Steven Wright – Las Vegas, 1988
Neil Young – many times in California and NY state--solo, with Crazy Horse, and in 2016 with       Promise of the Real

That takes care of the original list. Since my birthday was the 14th, here are 14 more special performances, or at least 14 omitted from the original list, a few out-of-the-way performers who are worth writing about. I'll present those in chronological order:

  • 1963: I'm pretty sure that the only Hall of Famer I ever competed against was Ed Marinaro, a member of the College Football HOF. We played Little League ball together in New Milford, New Jersey. I remember him very well, the tallest kid in the league, an unhittable pitcher in my book. I also saw him compete in 1970 when he was at Cornell and I was at Colgate. He rushed for his usual 200 yards, but Colgate won.
  • 1969: I do have to mention the most surprising performance at Woodstock. I think most of the attendees who stayed near the stage like I did knew most of the performers, but the crowd had thinned out by 6:30 AM Monday morning. Paul Butterfield had performed awhile ago, and I had dozed off while perched on a narrow board perched atop two garbage cans, about 30 yards from the stage. I was started out of my catnap by harsh shouts of "Tough! Tough! Tough!" That was Sha-Na-Na testing their microphones, and for an hour we were energized awake by their hilariously choreographed and beautifully harmonized send-ups. Totally unexpected.
  • 1971: How often does a fan get to hear a competitor say something hilarious in the heat of battle? At that tennis tournament I attended in London in 1971, one day I was one of five or six spectators for an early-round match between Tom Gorman (later the US Davis Cup captain) and Egyptian star Ismael El-Shafei. I was sitting in the front row over the end of the court where Gorman was. Nobody else was near me. They got in a very long rally, back and forth, and El-Shafei hit a terrific shot to Gorman's backhand corner. Gorman made this running, lunging, desperate backhand passing shot right down the line. The umpire did not hear the linesman's call, and just as Gorman passed below me to grab a towel, the umpire called out, "Was that shot good?" Only I could hear Gorman mutter to himself, "No, it was fuckin' great!" 
  • 1971: Remember Werner Klemperer, who played Colonel Klink on "Hogan's Heroes"? His father, Otto Klemperor, was a renowned conducted, one of the European greats. Born in 1885, he was nearly burned to death in 1939 and later suffered a number of strokes. When I saw him conduct in London, he was 85 years old and mostly paralyzed. I will not forget the sight of him being carried on stage by two attendants--he was a gaunt 6'5"--and deposited in a high stool from which he conducted. A conductor's job is done mainly in rehearsal, hence the need for Klemperer to do little more than wiggle the baton. The music was wonderful.
  • 1975: When I went to graduate school in Eugene, Oregon, I became a track and field fan like everyone else there. So I could add a dozen or more huge names in that realm to my list of fantastic performers. But I'll single one out here because the meet was so special, the kind of thing you'd see only at Hayward Field in Eugene. It was a two-day, three-country decathlon meet: the US, USSR, and Poland. Two dozens or so decathletes, and that was it. The USSR had the second-best athlete at the meet, Sergei Avilov, who pushed the winner to a new world record: Bruce Jenner.
  • 1978: PDQ Bach is an acquired taste, and I acquired that taste early. I appreciate the combination of deadpan humor and musical ingenuity; PDQ Bach was portrayed by Peter Schickele, a Juilliard professor who wrote the score to one of my favorite cult films, "Silent Running". I had memorized a few of his albums by the time I saw him during his annual week at Carnegie Hall just before New Year's. I was hoping he'd perform "The Stoned Guest" but happily settled for "Iphigenia in Brooklyn". 
  • 1979: One obituary called Carmelo Bene "the enfant terrible of Italian stage and screen," an avant-garde figure best known for his controversial deconstructions of Shakespeare. I happened to see his most famous performance in Rome, his version of "Othello," an absolutely riveting performance (though I didn't speak Italian). He spent most of Act V playing with handkerchiefs. If you don't believe me, here's an eight-minute snippet:
  • 1983: You knew I'd get some more baseball in here, and here come two items. The San Diego Padres put their AAA minor league team in Las Vegas in 1983, and it was a great place to watch hitters feast on the desert air. I saw a performance that has not been duplicated often in the world of baseball: John Kruk hit for the cycle plus an extra triple! Try that at home. 
  • 1985: June 4, to be exact, when I witnessed the best pitching duel I can recall. It was Fernando Valenzuela vs. Dwight Gooden at Dodger Stadium, 1-1 through seven innings on a pair of solo homers. In the bottom of the 8th, the Dodgers loaded the bases with nobody out, and Gooden got the next three Dodgers on a strikeout, foul popup, and strikeout. In the top of the 9th, the Mets loaded the bases with nobody out--and they got three runs, the last on Gooden's RBI single. He went the distance, fanning 12 to win, 4-1.
  • 1987: I've gone to only one pro football game, but I have gone to two bowl games. This one was the Fiesta Bowl, Penn State vs. Miami (with Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde). I went with three Penn State alums and saw Penn State intercept Testaverde five times to upset them for the national title. After the game, we danced on the 50-yard line with the Penn State cheerleaders, singing the lyrics I had written for the occasion, to the tune of "Walk on the Wild Side" (I still remember the start: Vinny came from Miami, F-L-A/Passin' his way across the USA/A touchdown here, a Heisman there/But Tempe's where they said, "Hey Vinny, take a seat on your backside!")
  • 1988: I went with some friends to the Comedy Store in LA. In front of the stage was a table with six drunk, heckling lummoxes. They heckled everybody. Bill Maher got out there, sparred with them for 30 seconds, said "fuck it," and walked off. I can picture the scene backstage as the comedians are in a dither about those hecklers. One voice rings out: "I'll handle this!" Next out on stage was Paula Poundstone, who reduced the whole bunch of them to noiseless rubble in just a couple of minutes. Fantastic.
  • 1991: I grabbed a sandwich one day and headed over to Doubleday Field in Cooperstown to sit in the stands and enjoy some sun. The field was empty, but pretty soon a bus pulled up, and out piled twenty or thirty women. I didn't realize it until later, but I was witnessing the reunion of players from the AAGPBL (1943-1954), which was held in conjunction with the filming of scenes in Cooperstown for "A League of Their Own". (You can add Penny Marshall to the big list, since I watched her direct a scene from the film in the museum.) For a couple of hours, I watched these women work out, pitching to each other, hitting, fielding, throwing, some of them for the first time in decades. It was a glorious day for them, and joyous for me simply to watch them having so much fun getting to play some ball again, just like in the good old days.
  • 2000: One more baseball celebration caps this excursion. I had heard about Eddie Frierson's one-man show, "Matty," for a long time before I was lucky enough to catch a performance in San Francisco. Eddie is still presenting his superb portrayal of Christy Mathewson here and there, and catch it if you can. The highlight is his exhibition of Charles "Victory" Faust's initial tryout with the Giants, racing around the bases on-stage and sliding into a splintery home plate. Seeing it was a special treat for me, as Faust was the subject of my first book, which was published earlier that year.
  • 2006: I probably should mention the only Nobel Prize winner I've seen in person, a guy who never moved from his piano and never looked at the audience during the first concert ever held at Doubleday Field. I was much more impressed by the opening act, a friendly fella named Willie Nelson. 
All right. That takes us up to 83 names that I've dropped, so I may as well round it out to an even 100. I'll just throw the names at you, and if you want to know more, just ask. Here you go: Lewis Black, Blind Faith, Doyle Brunson, Haystacks Calhoun, Cirque du Soleil, Tim Curry, Sabrina Ionescu, Roland Kirk, Frank Langella, Moody Blues, Jim Parsons, Christopher Plummer, George Shearing, Maureen Stapleton, Alex Trebek, and Stu Ungar. I'd better stop there. 

Since I can't help playing with numbers, I have tallied a few to give some idea of the depth of my obsessions with assorted outlets of talent over the years.

Baseball Hall of Fame: I know I've seen 54 Hall of Famers play, plus assorted managers and umpires. I have interviewed five: Marvin Miller, Joe Torre, Juan Marichal, Goose Gossage, and Dennis Eckersley. In the course of my job at the Hall of Fame, I had conversations with a couple of dozen Hall of Famers and future Hall of Famers. The only two which were distinctly unpleasant were with Johnny Bench and Whitey Ford.

Basketball Hall of Fame: By counting coaches and a few other non-players, I saw at least 50 of them in action. I wish I could be sure that I saw Wilt Chamberlain, but I can't count him, just as I can't summon specific memories of some baseball immortals I'm sure I must have seen, like Nolan Ryan, Duke Snider, and Warren Spahn.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: I was a bit surprised that I've seen only 29 acts enshrined in Cleveland. Only about one-third of them were at Woodstock.

Poker Hall of Fame: In my previous incarnation as a poker dealer (on and off from 1980-2000), I dealt five years at the World Series of Poker. As a result, of the 56 inductees in the Poker HOF, I dealt to 35 of them. Two special poker legends, Doyle Brunson and Stu Ungar, are listed above. 

Oscars: I have seen 14 Oscar winners perform on stage: Peggy Ashcroft, Judi Dench, Olympia Dukakis, Alec Guinness, Anthony Hopkins, Ben Kingsley, Jack Lemmon, Helen Mirren, Laurence Olivier, Christopher Plummer, Vanessa Redgrave, Paul Scofield, Maggie Smith, and Peter Ustinov.

The final note concerns the only time I was ever interviewed by a Hall of Famer. It happened twice, once for each of my first two books: Victory Faust and Unhittable! The interviewer was a fellow New Jersey native I saw play a zillion times on television, though not indelibly in person. Nevertheless, he was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1987. Of all the several radio hosts who interviewed me on the air, this guy was the most enthusiastic as well as by far the most likely to ask questions based on having read and absorbed the book. I still have cassettes of those two interviews from the early 2000s. Thank you, Rick Barry.

And thank you for joining me on this nostalgic journey through memories of greatness.