Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Final Words With A Hall of Fame Curator

Over the past few days, John Odell--The Director of History and Research at The National Baseball Hall of Fame--has described his role, The Hall's task; and the ever expanding position which the Sports Memorabilia Market has played in determining the long term growth of Baseball's Shrine. To reset the scene--Mr. Odell is chatting with Sohna and I in the A. Bartlett Giamatti Library. And in today's final chapter--we pick up with John discussing one of his favorite newer exhibits currently on display at the Cooperstown based museum.

On our tour the other day, you mentioned how rewarded you felt when noticing a Father and Son proudly standing in front of The Seattle Mariners Team Display on the third level of The Hall. At that very moment—you knew this particular exhibit would be a hit. (SBF)
“Yes. We have our Today’s Game Locker Room—which is composed of three different elements. One is a temporary exhibit, which is thematic--right now its 3000 Strikeouts, 3000 Hits—pitchers that threw 3000 Strikeouts in their careers and batters that stroked 3000 hits. That exhibit changes every year or every other year.

In the middle of the room, we have a ‘This Year In Baseball’ display covering all the artifacts we have obtained throughout the course of the year in baseball. Those items go in that location and there is no rhyme or reason in those displays. One of the great thrills we have is to be able to display those unique things right away. Let’s say a batter hits four home runs in a game on a Sunday and the very next Sunday the bat has come to Cooperstown, been processed, photographed and mounted on display. That is, if we are lucky—Sunday through Sunday (chuckling).”

But, the biggest part of that room (The Locker Room) is a series of 30 Lockers that surround the entire area. Each locker containing artifacts from that team’s past ten years of baseball history. This is an upgrade from another concept where we had just replica jerseys on display—in a different location. What we have now is a lot more meaningful. What this room shows is that EVERY MAJOR LEAGUE TEAM contributes to baseball history, to a greater or lesser extent. It is not just the World Series Winners that are creating baseball history. Every single club has its own history and it may not be as storied as that of, for right now, The Boston Red Sox. They are a tremendously hot team and done well of late. They have good ownership. They’ve got good management. They’ve got good players. They’ve got good chemistry—all the stars are aligning for that club right now—and good for them. But, it takes another 29 teams to help create baseball's history. If The Red Sox were the only team—they would have no one to play (all of us chuckling)."

"So, shortly after we first opened up this exhibit—I was just checking on everything and walking through—enjoying the space and ambiance. I saw a little boy, who was probably 7 or 8 years old. He wasn’t very old. Standing ramrod at attention—he had The Seattle Mariners Cap on—standing right next to The Seattle Mariners Locker. And his dad was on his knees taking pictures. Well, there is no other Seattle Mariner stuff on (public) display currently. That is the place for it, Seattle’s Nine Square Feet of history at The Hall of Fame. But, that was their spot. They had come out from Seattle, presumably to see The Hall of Fame. Here was their space, their spot. I will never forget that kid’s smile. I knew then--that The Locker Room Exhibit would be a big hit.” (Sohna and I clearly noticed how touched Mr. Odell was in speaking of this moment)

“Every other fan has their own spot in The Locker Room, also—even if their team is not doing well on the field. A part of their recent history is there. It may not be much, but ‘it’s ours’ (as that fan might say)—and that’s important. I am VERY PROUD of that exhibit.”

Sohna and I did the exact same thing for The Nationals Locker--we wanted to see it right away. (SBF).

(as a side note from the other day--Chad Cordero's Montreal Expos Cap and Picture is in The Washington Nationals Locker at The Hall for being the very last person to throw a pitch for The Expos--in Montreal, Quebec Canada).

But, if a player has been traded that's depicted in that team’s locker—what happens then? (The African Queen)

“The artifacts that are in their original locker stay there. When a player has an historic event—that’s the team the player had the historic event with. The artifact does not travel with the player as he travels around the league. There was a time and a place for that event—it’s a part of the team’s history from our perspective—not the player’s history. And this is going to go on more and more—as players move around—to make the tracking monumentally difficult. Think about this--when he retired, where would the artifact go? The team where he was last—not the team he made the historic event? A Player travels from Team A to B, to C to D, then retires. We made a decision early on—there is a player team linkage on the event—that is what we document. It’s consistent and works out well for us. It does not satisfy fans who say ‘this guy retired a long time ago—why is his artifact still in there? He’s old news.’ If he was with that team sometime over the past 10 years, we are going to keep it in there. Or, this player has gone over to play for another team."

Like your Johnny Damon story. (SBF)

“Yes, he was a World Series Hero and now he is no longer with Boston and should not his World Series Artifacts go over to The Yankees? The answer is no. NO. He was with the Red Sox when he accomplished the feat--simple as that--the history doesn't change when any player switches teams.” (On our tour of The Hall—while standing in front of The Red Sox Locker—John recalled the many Boston Fans that come to Cooperstown and DEMAND that Johnny Damon’s World Series Home Run Bat—be removed from the case—‘He’s a Traitor’ they yell (now playing for The Yankees--his personal expression describing the scene was quite funny--a highlight of our time at The Hall.) We LEAVE IT THERE!!" (Rounds of laughter)

Speaking of players—Sohna and I were surprised to learn that not many modern day players actually come here to visit? (SBF)

“No, they don’t. I think they would come here more often if we were located in New York City. But, we are 4 and ½ Hours from New York City. We are not easy to get to, never will be easy to get to. We are not on the way between here and there. Unfortunately, the visiting of players is not something that happens. During the season, and you guys know this as well as anybody, how extraordinary the schedule is. Then, when it’s not the season—November through January—the players are living with their families and they don’t get the chance to come up here. I think many of the players are focused on their careers right now. Few of them are like Ichiro. He has visited here several times. HE LOVES BASEBALL HISTORY. He has been very generous to The Baseball Hall of Fame and likes coming here. He finds it fun to come visit The Baseball Hall of Fame.” (Sohna and I were very touched to hear this remark--that a Superstar Player WANTED to see everything about the history of the Great Game he plays. We only wish more were like him)

“But most players are not like Ichiro. We do get a lot more retired players that visit. Many times they claim they always wanted to—but now they have the time.”

“Also, I don’t think in my years here, we have ever had a player show up that was in the process of being elected to The Hall of Fame. That’s a little bit of an exaggeration, but they don’t wish to be presumptuous. ‘Oh yeah, I am just going to check out my spot!!’ (Everyone busting out laughing). There is a modesty that goes along with everything.”

Speaking of The Hall of Fame inductees—how much preparation goes into putting on the weekend? (The African Queen)

“That is HUGE!! A lot of time, effort and energy go into running induction weekend. I am a very tiny cog in setting up things and taking down things. It’s a major event that always takes place during the last Sunday in July.”

And where the Cal Ripken and Tony Gwynn displays are right now—those will change for the 2008 honorees? (The African Queen)

“Yes, those Ripken and Gwynn artifacts will be rotated out and ‘Goose’ Gossage artifacts will be put in—along with the other inductees. Gossage was recently here and over at a local tavern—chatting it up—talking to any fan that came up to visit with him for a little bit. Come July—it won’t be so low key for him (everyone laughing). Maybe, for the rest of his life.”

Which reminds me of the Ripken artifacts, many of which on display are on loan--correct?. (SBF)
“He donated items during his career, but he also loaned items for his induction case. For the most part, we don’t have enough items collected for any player to fill up a whole case. Usually, we have to set up a loan. And, at the end of the loan period—those items will go back to him. Sometimes they do say--'Just keep them, if I need them--I will let you know.' And, that's OK too.”

During our tour--John Odell mentioned that when many displays come down--the pressboard artwork (non artifact items) used--is either recycled or painted over. "Because one time," he stated. "someone went into our dumpster--and the next thing you know--those disgarded pieces were up on eBay. We just can't have that happen (remember all museum's operate on a strict budget) others should not be profiting off our museum's good name."

If a player has played for multiple teams, how do you decide what to put in his special induction case? (The African Queen)

“Its fairly easy. We ask for uniforms from teams X, Y & Z. Bruce Sutter was here and played for three different teams. We had uniforms for each of his clubs. Usually, its not a problem."

I know its hard to believe, but I am heading toward the final question. When a player is inducted, how do you decide what cap he wears on his plaque? (SBF)

It is now a BIG DEAL what logo should go on the cap of the plaque. We work with the ballplayer to determine that--but we retain the final say. It comes down to where did the player make their mark on baseball history—which is a subjective thing. But, you could use a lot of subjective statistics to help determine that. You have to think long term, not just about five years ago, or ten years ago, or 15 years ago. In 50 years, when people look back on this player’s career—where will they be placing him? Babe Ruth played his last year for The Boston Braves, but you would never have a Boston Braves cap on Babe Ruth’s Plaque.”

“What becomes a little more problematic is when a player has spent roughly half his time with two separate teams. Or, in Gossage’s case—not a lot of time with anyone. But, he spent the predominate part of his career, his dominant time as a closer—redefining and creating this role as a closer—with The Yankees. So, it makes sense to go into The Hall with the “NY” on his cap.”

“Dave Winfield—when you looked at his stats—half and half—Yankees and Padres. This was a situation where either one would be fine, and he decided he wanted to go in with a Padres Cap. We don’t have a problem with that. If he had been particularly fond of the fact that he broke in with The Padres and after two years spent 10 with The Yankees, but hated The Yankees—then we wouldn’t say ‘Yeah sure—you can wear The Padres cap.’ No, not going to happen.”

Carlton Fisk had to be tough? He is recognized as Boston, but he played more games for Chicago. (SBF)

“That’s right. This is one of the times where he really did play more time in Chicago, people forget that. But, it was not a great predominance of time—it was not like 2/3rds—1/3rd—it was roughly even, something like that. Certainly, his period of greatest fame clearly came with The Red Sox. And I believe if something had happened in the post season with The White Sox that had rivaled what had happened with The Red Sox—maybe it would have made the decision even more difficult—but it wasn’t that difficult.”

Was Gary Carter fighting not to have Expos on his cap? (SBF)
“Yes, he wanted to go in as a New York Met. But, that is one of the situations where we looked at the stats. I understand you won a World Series with The Mets, and you were an important part of that team. Nobody is going to deny that, and nobody can take that away from you. But, when you look at your place in baseball history, the number of games you caught and the number of awards you won—the statistical breakdown of your career is so overwhelmingly Montreal Expos—there is no plausible case for going into the Hall as a Met."

So, you didn’t have to persuade him then? (The African Queen)

“I don’t think we ever persuaded him. That is one of the decisions where we are called on to make. We are the ultimate custodians of The Hall of Fame. We have to retain the final say. We (The Hall) did a historical analysis and it clearly came out Expos. He (Carter) said: ‘I disagree with you, but I am pleased and honored to be in The Baseball Hall of Fame (all of us busting out laughing—John shaking his head in agreement).' Yes, that's funny.”

I guess Cal Ripken was a piece of cake? (The African Queen)
“Exactly, Tony Gwynn as well (as the chuckling continues). When the guys are drafted by the team, come up with the team, get their free agency—where they can go anywhere they want, double their salary—and say: ‘No—this is my home. I want to stay because there is an opportunity to take this team to The World Series.' Then get elected to The Hall of Fame—it all makes for a great story. It’s nice when the stars align and these great ballplayers, who played in this case for their hometown teams—make The Hall--A Very, Very Special Moment.”

Are inductees involved with their Commemorative Induction Display Cases? (The African Queen)

“Yes, the cases go up well before the Induction Ceremony, usually sometime in the spring. We don’t wait for the actual ceremony for them to see the exhibit. But, they (Inductees) DO NOT SEE THE PLAQUE. The Plaque is genuinely a surprise. They don’t get a chance to see it. They don’t get a chance to have a say on the text of the wording. From our perspective—that plaque is an historical document that talks about their place in the game. Those 90 Words, plus or minus on the plaque, help future generations understand why this guy is in The Hall of Fame. He was first in this, second in this, and most in that, All-Time is this and that many All-Star Games and MVP’s. Later on—somebody may come along and break all those records—but we will not go back and change that because THAT PLAQUE DESCRIBES WHY THEY ARE HALL OF FAMERS. The fact that someone else came along and broke Babe Ruth’s Records doesn’t mean that Babe Ruth doesn’t belong in The Hall of Fame any less than he did 10 Years ago.”

We were winding down, but John wished to tell one last story--which depicts how The Sports Memorabilia Market has changed over the past 25 Years.

“This is kind of neat and relates to artifacts. I was talking to Stan Musial when he came here once for Hall of Fame weekend. We were talking about his artifacts. He is extraordinarily generous. Just look at the 1940’s Cardinals Cases and you have seen a lot of Stan Musial artifacts. He’s just great. He opens up: ‘Whatever you need—take it.’ Stan Musial has made tremendous donations to us. So much so—we will forever be grateful.”

“Anyway, Musial and I were talking about the early 1970’s. He was remodeling his house and the workers began to knock out a wall. He had to empty a closet. He came across a box with some hats, Cardinals Caps from his many roles as player, General Manager, Vice President—the many different jobs he held with the team--well after retiring as a player. Now Musial didn’t really recall where all those caps were from—but they were St. Louis Cardinals Caps. ‘I don’t need these caps. I can get caps anytime—a new cap everyday,’ Musial recalled saying to himself. So, he took this box of caps out to the garbage. As he is walking out to the front—it's garbage day—the garbage truck pulls up—Musial reaches into the box and hands the caps up to the garbage collectors in St. Louis. They put them on—very happily. For years after that—he saw (garbage) guys driving around wearing St. Louis Cardinals Caps—probably the same one’s Musial gave them (we are chuckling).”
“But, that story goes A LONG WAY to describe what people did with artifacts--back before everything had this monetary value. Musial is just doing a very nice thing. These guys are driving up, and he has them—why not give it to them. It also speaks--in volumes, very nicely--to the humility of Stan Musial. He told the story on himself.”
With that--Our Conversation With John Odell--Director of History and Research at The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum comes to its conclusion. Being involved with Historical Artifacts all his adult life, then having the pleasure of combining that love with his passion for baseball--must bring great joy to Mr. Odell's everyday life as one of The Hall's Curators. For four days--he was nothing short of gracious with his time and energy in assisting Sohna and I. Thankfully, he accepted the assignment--passing insight and knowledge along--to the very end. Sohna and I will be forever grateful.

Our heartfelt thanks to John Odell for his personal time in enhancing our Love of The Great Game Of Baseball.

And The African Queen and I hope you, the reader, are enjoying an Inside Look At The Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Finally--many others were involved in making our week at The Hall special. But, none of these stories, and those to come--would have been possible without the kind assistance of Brad Horn--Communications Director at The National Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum. From first contact, Mr. Horn was receptive and open to fresh ideas. Upon arrival in Cooperstown, Sohna and I didn't know what to expect. Just four short days later, we left for home having garnered many new lifetime memories--while forging some new friendships.


PS--Tomorrow, Hall of Fame Week continues on The Nats320 Blog with a Photo Essay of the Public Displays. And, as promised--before The Regular 2008 Championship Campaign begins for Our Washington Nationals--The History of Washington, DC Baseball--through the eyes of The Hall of Fame.

Photos--Property of Nats320--all rights reserved


Anonymous said...

It's disturbing and I just can't get past it. Why is there a Montreal Expos cap and picture of Chief in an Expos uniform in the Washington locker? Why did the HOF have to point out on the description card "Former Nickname: Montreal Expos"? Why did the HOF have to point out "Founded in 1969"? This whole question of history bugs the ever-loving-stuffing out of me. I bet if you wandered by the Minnesota Twins locker, you saw no reference to Washington! I bet if you went by the Rangers locker, you didn't see a Senators cap. When will the 33 year baseball insult to the Nation's Capitol cease. Washington DC has hosted more Major League baseball games than Minnesota and Texas. A lot of you out there are as old as me and were at least "new" Senators fans (my older brother says I'm not a "real" Senators fan, but he has an AARP card and I don't)!! I want MLB to forfeit all history and records to Washington. We in turn, can leave all Montreal history in Canada. They will need it if they ever get a relocated Tampa Bay Rays or Florida Marlins. Have I lost my mind, or does anyone else have the same opinion as me?

Screech's Best Friend said...

6th & D--This is the exact question that Mr. Odell addressed concerning Red Sox Fans not wanting Johnny Damon's World Series Bat in their locker also. The Exhibit represents the past 10 years of each team's history--not just Washington's three years in the league--presently. You can not erase the past--it happened. In Seven more years, if this display continues--you WILL NOT SEE ANY MORE EXPOS stuff.

Sohna and I have no problem with that!

The Minnesota Twins Locker DOES SAY--Formerly Washington Senators (1901-1960)

The Texas Rangers Locker DOES SAY--Formerly Washington Senators (1961-1971)

We are talking about The HALL OF FAME AND MUSEUM--THE HISTORY OF THE GAME. Should EVERYONE FORGET The Seattle Pilots existed for JUST ONE SEASON--that very year The Expos came in existence--and are now The Milwaukee Brewers? No. You can't do that. It would not be right.

How can The Hall of Fame record history--if they ignore the past? The past is history. "The Chief's" Cap is an important moment in this franchise over the past 10 years--that can not be denied.

Now--The Washington Locker DOES SAY The Now DC Based Team--DOES NOT RECOGNIZE Montreal's retired numbers. I think many Washington Fans would agree with that, also. That's a Team Decision--not A Hall of Fame Decision. If The Hall followed that--would Gary Carter's Cap have to be changed on his plaque? That's not going to happen also.