No unlucky 13 for the Baseball Reliquary

As we neared “The Day” (as devotees of the Baseball Reliquary are wont to call that third Sunday in July when the world’s most anti-institutional institution convenes to celebrate baseball with both broad and tender devotion), ominous signs were on the horizon.

First, it was Year 13 for the Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals ceremony. While sabermetricians never worry about the symbolic content of numbers, some with a more superstitious bent were exhibiting knitted brows. What if the patented Reliquary formula had somehow run itself out? What then?

Second, there was the complicating scenario of a major Los Angeles freeway closure that had been scheduled for the same weekend as the Reliquary event. With “Carmaggedon” looming, would anyone be able to show up for the ceremony?

Go to your illustrated dictionary and look up the word “unflappable.” Next to the definition, you will see a picture of Terry Cannon, the Reliquary’s Executive Director. A past master at analyzing and dissecting hype, Terry has not only invented his own incarnation of it (how else could an organization with no permanent home outside of a post office box be so influential?) but he knows the difference between what he likes to term “real hype” and “phony hype.”

“We’ll be fine,” he said.

And so it was. “Carmageddon” (or whatever it was) failed to materialize, and when the doors opened to the auditorium in the Pasadena Public Library at 1:30 pm, an even longer-than-usual line of attendees had queued up.

“Phony hype,” foiled again.

The folks had come to see two real-life inductees appear and find their own way into the ineffable Reliquary formula of unabashed but not uncritical love—the ministrations of an eternally precocious child who is more adult than the grownups around him while still preferring to wear an existential set of swaddling clothes.

The fans still line up for Maury. (Photos by Jeff Levie)

And these two real-life inductees were special, even by Reliquary standards. Maury Wills, always first, arrived early and worked the crowd, who lined up for autographs. Ted Giannoulas (aka the Famous Chicken, formerly the San Diego Chicken) burst in through the side door in full regalia to a boisterous ovation. He had raced the clock due to his still-hectic schedule and, thanks to the fizzle of “Carmageddon,” had made it just in the nick of time.

The basic recipe for a Reliquary induction ceremony is well known by now: Two parts anarchy, five parts love, two parts anti-establishment eye-rolling. It is, as Kirk Douglas said about Robert Mitchum’s character in Out of the Past, time-proof and weather-proof. (And yes, Carmageddon-proof.)

Chris Eskine (Jeff Levie)

There is the Ringing of the Cowbell, followed by Cannon’s observations about the raucous Hilda Chester—remarks that are both more loving and more derogatory every year.

There are the Special Awards, for “fandom beyond the call of duty,” given this year to the Los Angeles Times’ Chris Erskine, one of that newspaper’s last remaining treasures, a writer who can live in the world of well-known images and knows how to turn a cliché on its ear, and who lives for baseball.

And for “contribution to the literature and knowledge of the game,” awarded to one of the true giants of baseball lore, Paul Dickson, whose Baseball Dictionary is the seminal reference book about the game.

The Reliquary microphone seems to cast a spell of grace and humor over all, and it was no exception for these two vastly different but essential writers: The Reliquary’s skill at contrast works in both broad and subtle ways.

Jean Hastings Ardell carried the heaviest burden of the day, delivering the Keynote Address, which in some way must summarize the mission of the Reliquary without turning it into the fuddy-duddy institution that it so adroitly evades.

Ms. Ardell takes both baseball and American culture seriously, and her shadings emphasized the critical component of engagement with history. There can be no love that is starry-eyed, she suggested, and proposed a provocative metaphor: Patriotism.

A full-blown examination and discussion of a people’s history and culture is needed to preserve the ongoing vitality of that culture—and the Reliquary’s continuation of such a dialogue about baseball and its participation in American life is what Ms. Ardell championed as a just and necessary endeavor.

A ceremonial anti-ceremony, a series of challenging, thought-provoking, issues-engaging exhibitions, a celebration of baseball’s unique ability to poke fun at itself (a trait virtually absent in every other professional sport). These are the tools of a true engagement, a full-blooded patriotism.

The Chicken Speaks (Jeff Levie)

And it was no surprise that as these weighty words still echoed in the air, the Chicken came to the Podium. From patriotism to pandemonium in ten seconds flat! Given a splendid, effervescent introduction by Andy Strasberg (former marketing director of the San Diego Padres), Ted Giannoulas managed to separate himself from his persona without physically revealing himself.

His story is so quintessentially American that it seems that it must be a parody—a fan plucked (ha, ha) out of the stands becomes a media sensation dressed up in a wacky mascot costume, suffers the slings and arrows of fame (read: lawsuits, backlash, and the omnipresent threat of plucked feathers), and settles in to a long-term career that literally could not exist in any other nation that has ever been on the face of the earth.

Giannoulas reminded us that the bond between baseball and the fan is laughter. While his work has come to encompass many sports over the years, he acknowledged that it could never have happened in the first place had there not been a sport like baseball. A game that needs a 900-plus-page dictionary to explicate its language and origins is one that is so deeply rooted within a collective psyche that it cannot help but learn to poke fun at itself.

Giannoulas showed how the game itself sparked his own creativity, relating how one of his most famous gags (confronting an umpire with an eye chart) was inspired by an actual event in a game. Then-Padre manager Roger Craig, seething at his first-ever ejection, stormed around in the clubhouse while Giannoulas was taking a break. It was Craig who pulled down an eye-chart from the trainer’s room and urged Giannoulas to use it.

If there was a weak link in the day—and, to be fair, it was but a minor one—it came during the subsequent induction of Pete Gray, the only one-armed major league baseball player. Gray perfectly embodies the troika of qualities so often found in Reliquary inductees—adversity, extremity, and otherness—and his story ranks in the top five of all extraordinary baseball narratives.

Nelson Gary, Jr., a man with a personal connection to Gray, gave an engaging speech, but it was just a bit too short on details about Gray himself. Mr. Gary, who lost an arm at the age of three but also did not let that deter him from an athletic career, did manage to impart the unprecedented nature of Gray’s achievement—”there was no one to help him, he did it all himself”—and this snapshot, while incomplete, still resonated with the Reliquary’s singular motifs.

Fred Claire and Maury Wills (Jeff Levie)

A standing ovation greeted Maury Wills when he arrived at the podium, after a graceful introduction by Fred Claire, the former Dodger General Manager who is the epitome of what that organization used to be.

While Claire strongly suggested that Wills belongs in the Hall of Fame, the bald facts are that Maury is well down the list of deserving candidates who have been overlooked.

However, as a local hero (despite its “floating crap game” status, the Reliquary is still clearly rooted in southern California), Maury’s exploits remain legendary, and the reaction of those in attendance made this abundantly clear.

The drive that permitted Wills to make use of a limited set of skills in a way that propelled him to prominence and aided the Los Angeles Dodgers to four World Series appearances in the eight years between 1959-1966 was evident in his dynamic conversation with the audience.

(And it was a conversation—Wills would occasionally ask us to supply him with the right word or phrase to fashion his thoughts as precisely as possible—and he would grin with approval when he reapplied the suggestion into his remarks.)

The title of his talk, echoing Claire’s introduction, could have been “Maury Wills Himself Into a Major League Ballplayer.” He dug deep, into his childhood, remembering a mostly-forgotten ballplayer named Jerry Priddy (whose career was chronicled notably by Bill James in The Politics of Glory).

“All us kids in the projects,” Wills said, “were wondering what this white guy was doin’ in our neighborhood. We all decided that he’d lost a bet.” But Priddy stayed for nearly two hours working with the young black kids in the Washington D.C. projects.

Paul Dickson defines baseball (Jeff Levie)

He told Wills that he looked like he had the stuff to be a ballplayer—and Maury took those words to heart.

Willis remained determined after more than eight years in the minors, transforming himself with the assistance of a man (Bobby Bragan) who ten years earlier had refused to play on the same field with a black man.

“That’s God’s work,” Wills said. “We can all change, we can all make more out of what we are.”

Such words seem too simple to be true, too naïve, but they are the hallmark of those who simply stop talking and get to work on being more like God—whoever or whatever that being, or principle, or passage of engagement might be.

And Wills captured the essence of the Reliquary’s idea—placing faith in the power of those who overcome all obstacles, of looking for ways to improve both oneself and the world around them.

These values are not obsolete, they have not calcified into a zero-sum culture—they are alive and well deep in the hearts of ordinary people who still strive to be extraordinary.

And the message behind the impudent reverence of the Baseball Reliquary remains intact: there is no better institution than an anti-institution, lampooning pomp while celebrating circumstance. Its mere existence guarantees that the principle of transformation is alive and well, manifesting itself against all odds. No other entity pricks its own bubble, then grows a new one for the next year and does it all over again.

The secret? “Sugarless bubble gum,” says Terry Cannon, with a conspiratorial wink. “There are enough cavities in the world as it is. We’re not about decay.”

True enough. And even after its thirteenth induction ceremony, the Baseball Reliquary still gives you so much long-lasting flavor, so much to chew on.

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