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.