The Baseball Reliquary’s Never-Ending Sizzle Ups the Stakes

Don Newcombe, Bo Jackson and Arnold Hano will be inducted in this year's Shrine of the Eternals. (via Don Malcolm)

Don Newcombe, Bo Jackson and Arnold Hano will be inducted in this year’s Shrine of the Eternals. (via Don Malcolm)

The second act of the 2016 baseball season is upon us, and that tiny but vast world is caught up in the ongoing drama of the Chicago Cubs, whose exploits this year have recently careened from invincible to unmentionable, with no one certain as to which way it will all wind up. After all, there’s more than a hundred years of “outside-looking-in” still on the table…

“Outside-looking-in” is not a condition so fraught with anxiety for the Baseball Reliquary, however. As that unique organization enters into full-fledged adulthood (2016 marks its 21st year of existence) there is an increasingly serene sense of purpose behind its often-antic efforts. You’ll notice it when you visit its website, which has left the 1990s behind at last, but still retains a strong echo of its original homespun aura.

And “aura” is what the Reliquary does best. Its alchemical wedding of baseball, art and cultural history is a blending of sizzle and steak, a benevolent sleight-of-hand that leaves you as pleasingly puzzled as was the case when the great magicians of yore would hide their tricks in plain sight and let you do all the misdirecting by yourself.

Terry Cannon’s cowbell is the catalyst for the yearly trek into the day-glo netherworld of the Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals, a ceremony held in Pasadena the week before the Baseball Hall of Fame ceremony in Cooperstown. As many have noted, the Shrine is the only such honorarium where the fans—those who join the Reliquary’s membership list and pay their dues—decide who gets in.

And in each year for 18 years, the Reliquary has brought three unusual, offbeat and utterly deserving individuals into the dappled pantheon—a roster of Eternals that, with the additions of Don Newcombe, Bo Jackson and Arnold Hano, now numbers 54. The favorite formulation for the qualities possessed by the Reliquary inductees—adversity, extremity, otherness—remains front and center in these three, with this year bringing a rich blending of those attributes in each of the honorees.

Writers are especially welcome in the shaded groves of the Shrine, and Hano—still with us at age 94—adds immeasurable luster to this wing, which includes insider autobiographers (Jim Bouton, Jim Brosnan), pioneering muckrakers (Lester Rodney, Bill James) and prized stylists (Roger Angell). Hano’s energetic muscularity, as exemplified in the pungent prose of A Day in the Bleachers, is a welcome counterpoint to these voices.

And yet—it’s that thing we call aura that adds a mysterious magic to the inductees who radiated it on the playing field. Newcombe and Jackson, each in their own way, separated in time but linked by a reclaimed cultural birthright, are as steeped in that “it factor” as any of those they join in the Shrine. “It” goes beyond statistics: it’s all about life force, presence, impact. In a manner descended from magic and magicians, these are men (and women) who transform whatever space they inhabit.

You can feel it in the auditorium at the Pasadena Central Library where the faithful come, to be reverent and offbeat all at once, steeped in ancient lore but committed to the level playing field of history. It is folk religion with a pagan twist, where art drives commerce and not vice-versa.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 10.23.22 AMAnd you can see it in the Reliquary’s very own merchandise—especially its moody, aura-laden black T-shirt, where an ordinary artifact (the baseball) is imbued with a brooding, intangible essence that borders on mysticism.

In that world, so unlike the one we live in—where the Chicago Cubs face off against a history that casts doubt-ridden shadows over their travails in the second act of the 2016 season—the Reliquary and its members can bask in the knowledge that there are no “losers” in their history.

Neftalie Williams (via USC Annenberg)

Neftalie Williams (via USC Annenberg)

The Reliquary continues to reinvent how to view the history of the game, and these efforts proceed apace in their new home, with an increasing cast of patrons (Paul Dickson) and partners (David Kipen). And perhaps an exceptional young man named Neftalie Williams, who is currently transforming the nature of baseball memory with his work on the African-American Experience in Major League Baseball (AAEMLB) Oral History Project, will partner with the Reliquary in future years, assisting in implementing ideas for innovative media approaches to history that will synthesize all of the efforts that this most unique “anti-organization” has been gearing up to do ever since it became a gleam in Terry Cannon’s eye. For now the Reliquary will honor him with its history award, the Tony Salin Award, at this year’s ceremony.

So, as we recoil from the events of this fractious year and wait for an October that might redeem November—and it is a sad reality to note that virtually no one thinks the opposite is remotely possible—let’s give thanks for the miraculous full-blown adulthood of the Baseball Reliquary, agelessly wise beyond its years, and still brimming with the “snap, go, fling” of a timeless game that bonds us with our vibrant, fleeting youth. If you go to Pasadena this Sunday—and you should—be sure to wear some pine tar in your hair.

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Alex Bensky
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Alex Bensky
I should like to note that among this year’s honorees is my friend, Tom Derry, founder and moving spirit behind the Navin Fields Grounds Crew. When Tiger Stadium was razed the field was left empty and weed-choked. Tom, at his own expense, got people together to cut down the weeds and bring out again the playing field. Despite uninterest and occasional hostility from the city, for six years the site became common ground yet again, where people got together to maintain something they loved; people came from far and wide to help out, play some ball, and even get married.… Read more »
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