Year 20: A Dangling Sweet Spot for the Baseball Reliquary

Head of the Eddie Geadel Society, Tom Keefe, with his cowbell at the ready at last year’s induction. (via Jesse Saucedo)

As crazy as the 1970s were to live through (and some readers—young and old— will have to take that on faith), those past times now seem placid in comparison to our current moment. For baseball, the “timeless” sport, there is often an inevitable (and uneasy) compartmentalization of history, the type of telescoping millennials and boomers alike are grappling with in a time of unique tumult. On the eve of its twentieth annual induction ceremony, the Baseball Reliquary—perhaps moreso than other organizations that dispense public judgments concerning baseball’s relationship to American history—finds itself in a contemplative mood.

Until recent political events, the Reliquary—conceived as an “art project” that grew beyond itself once it created a quirky alternative to the Hall of Fame in 1999—had always found sure footing in its own “dialectic of low-key irreverence.” From its inception, the Reliquary has defined itself as a cultural institution, dedicated to “exploring the national pastime’s unparalleled creative possibilities.” This allowed for an encompassing synthesis of baseball and American social history, as exemplified by artistic kindred spirit Ben Sakoguchi, whose colorful and often incendiary “orange crate” paintings tied the Reliquary to a different definition of “baseball immortality.”

They call it the Shrine of the Eternals, and this year’s troika of inductees—a Vietnam/Watergate electoral slate of Tommy John, Rusty Staub and Nancy Faust—mark an unusual shift for the Reliquary voters, who seem to be taking a breath before resuming with a more overtly progressive induction agenda.

The shifting voter base, originating in Southern California, found a way to honor individuals who ran the gamut from the dusty pre-professional years all the way to the present, with a level of tolerance that transcended statistics and mainstream moral judgment of the time. Dick Allen, left at the side gate of Cooperstown due to a series of sociological and sabermetric stutter-steps, was seen as a key figure in the tonal change the U.S. endured over his time in the major leagues—and became a highly popular selection for the Reliquary’s Shrine.

Similarly, the voters permitted Joe Jackson to transcend his reputation as a scoundrel and join the Eternals, thanks to the voters sensing that to be eternally punished is a fate best decided by poets, not baseball fans. Freed of the staid tone of the official Baseball Hall, the induction ceremonies are always an uproarious celebration of baseball lives well-lived.

The full set of Shrine inductees has a quixotic but dialectical logic to it—the full list is best parsed either by the yearly troikas, or by the social-existential imperatives that operate on the honorees. I’ve discussed “extremity,” “adversity” and “otherness” as the forces at work on Shrine inductees in numerous articles. It’s been a constant ebb and flow between these as the Shrine has grown in size; with this year’s inductees, the total reaches 60.

But here, in Year 20, there is something a bit different at work with the selections. While Tommy John clearly represents a triumph over adversity, his inclusion is based less on social connections than has often been the case for Shrine inductees (Jim Eisenreich, for instance, was a 2009 inductee who overcame Tourette’s syndrome to have a productive major league career). We wander further away from that template with Rusty Staub. Staub, born in New Orleans, was best known as a fine hitter but also proved his mettle as a supportive teammate of black ballplayers such as Joe Morgan and Jimmy Wynn during his early years in Houston in the 1960s. He later demonstrated a range of social interests that went far beyond the generic expectations commonly posited for athletes.

Nancy Faust, while qualifying in the mostly male world of baseball under the category of “otherness,” was not the first female baseball organist. She occupied a different place in the game than prior female Shrine inductees Rachel Robinson, Pam Postema and Ila Borders, offering an unparalleled range of musical proficiency, rising above the gimmicky nature of her hiring to stretch the hokiest of ballpark accoutrements into something witty and creative. She is a perfect fit for Reliquary voters seeking to honor all of baseball’s historical and iconographic elements.

The 1970s proved to be a tumultuous era. Baseball was undergoing a transformation, from a labor system somewhat akin to a plantationst enterprise into a mogul’s inferno. It was a time when human rights were demonstrably on the rise, but there were many who were merely along for the ride. That might well be the case with the Reliquary’s inductees in its 20th year—three individuals whose connection to the upheaval of those times, both in the U.S. as a whole and in baseball itself, is more tenuous than usual.

But what we can say about Tommy John, Rusty Staub and Nancy Faust is this: They shared an optimism about the prospects for America’s improvement they saw manifesting in baseball. The spirit of the game, which permitted it to break out ahead of the nation in terms of integration, was a potent force as both entities grappled with rapid change and the aftermath of racial and generational divisiveness. Like the nation itself, the inductees could not know the idealism that managed to survive Vietnam and Watergate would prove itself to be tragically fragile. It is a time whose echos grow increasingly less faint in our current moment, requiring reflection as we consider who and what to celebrate, to elevate.

It’s no different for the Baseball Reliquary, which has relied on a particular set of social assumptions to define its mission—assumptions rooted in their formative years of the Vietnam/Watergate era. The voting bloc, the racial demographics of which largely mirror America as a whole, remains committed to honoring women and people of color. Reliquary voters have strongly viewed baseball through the lens of equality throughout the evolution of their offbeat Shrine, but this is the first year in which those principles seem to be lacking their usual level of focus.

It is abundantly clear to those who know Tommy John and Nancy Faust, and knew Rusty Staub (who, sadly, passed away in March before learning of his induction as an Eternal), that these are individuals who believe in those precepts, partook of them in their careers in baseball, and have a reverence for the legacy of baseball as a progressive force in American society. That we are now fighting against incidences of backlash within present-day baseball is troubling, but the legacy and current practice of the game adheres to the idea of baseball as an ongoing, if imperfect, beachhead of tolerance and solidarity that rings as loud as Hilda Chester’s cowbell at the start of each and every Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremony.

For those of us who came of age in the 1970s —when a common sense of moral outrage contributed to the end of a war and to calls for investigations against troubling governmental figures—Year 20 is a bittersweet reminder of how time has marched on, leaving home run records and what felt like a greater sense of decency reeling in the dust. Therefore, we should understand that the Reliquary, like so many of us, needs to give itself a summing-up moment. I see it as the closing of a door on a particular phase of its efforts and a need now to seek and seize a new direction in what, in Year 21, will prove to be the Reliquary’s true coming-of-age moment.

What would that direction be? The following is all yours truly clearing the mists from his “crystal horsehide.” I see a bold return into the way baseball continues to integrate, coupled with a cautionary reminder about those involved with baseball who gave their lives in the effort to pursue social justice. In 2019, Reliquary voting members can bypass Western Union and send a message to those who would sidestep baseball’s ongoing role as a litmus test for tolerance and solidarity. They can do so by electing a trio that represents the past, present and future of baseball’s social continuum.

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Past: Octavius Catto, 19th-century baseball player and martyred Reconstruction Era politician.
Present: Lisa Fernandez, arguably the greatest softball pitcher of all time.
Future: Mo’ne Davis, symbol of women’s ongoing march into mainstream sports.

Some may raise an eyebrow at my inclusion of Davis, whose young life seems to be directing her away from baseball. But the Reliquary has always championed those whose time of impact may have been short or fleeting but that represents a goal or desire for transformation. In an age of saturated, embedded and prickly media, we actually have a greater need than ever for true folk heroes whose efforts, even if brief in duration, set a standard others can emulate and elevate. I submit that Davis is one of those individuals, and that her “candle in the wind” moment is one to preserve in our memory as something to build on.

All three candidates are “bubbling under” in the most recent Shrine balloting, so the prospects for such a timely gear-shift are at hand. The Baseball Reliquary and its voters have made bold social pronouncements couched within their irreverent worship of the game in years past: They have enshrined progressive (and sometimes controversial) figures such as Marvin Miller, Lester Rodney, Rachel Robinson, Bill Veeck and Jim Bouton. Given which way the wind might be blowing in 2019, the course of action recommended above may well be both timely and profound. It might also bring baseball’s most glorious but still little-known “anti-organization” into the limelight as a leading force in “telling it like it is” as regards baseball and American history.

So take a deep breath with the Reliquary and its Shrine ceremony this year. For us, as well as them, it’s time to get our second wind.

The 20th annual Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremony, conducted by the Baseball Reliquary, occurs on Sunday, July 22, 2018 in Pasadena, California. For more information, please visit www.baseballreliquary.org.


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Nancy Faust is the answer to an old Chicago trivia question: Who’s the only person to play for the White Sox, Bulls, and Blackhawks?

Yehoshua Friedman
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Yehoshua Friedman

If I were from Chicago, I suppose I would be inured to this clever trivia, but that not being the case, I say priceless!