A Purpose Pitch For The Ages

The Shrine of the Eternals ceremony is always highly anticipated for the Baseball Reliquary.

The Shrine of the Eternals ceremony is always highly anticipated for the Baseball Reliquary.

Accommodating all viewpoints without either endorsing them or falling victim to the homogenization so prevalent in other public institutions, the Baseball Reliquary soldiers on as the game’s most unique entity. In 2016, it will begin its third decade of existence, a span of time that has seen it rise from the specter of improbability and the slough of whimsy into a potent force for the examination of baseball’s role in American culture.

Yes, that was a mouthful. And, it must be said: it is not there just yet. And it’s possible that it never will be.

Such would be a greater loss than the cancellation of the 1994 World Series.

Why is it so important that such a small, semi-obscure “anti-organization” develop into a national-level presence for the historical/cultural preservation of baseball? Just how does it differ from all the other endeavors chartered to do the same? Why is it so?

Because we need accessible, alternative sources for history and culture that maintain a critical distance from established and endowed institutions. In the little world of baseball, the Baseball Reliquary is by far the best shot to synthesize all the material necessary for such an ongoing mission.

Thanks to its matchless combination of deadpan humor (stemming from executive director Terry Cannon) and flamboyant prose (emanating from chief historian Albert “Buddy” Kilchesty), the Reliquary has been bubbling under a national identity for much of its second decade. It may now be poised to move forward into such a realm without sacrificing its original vision.

But to do so, it will need to move forward on several fronts.

To understand this in sufficient detail, let’s provide a brief interpretive history of the Baseball Reliquary:

1996—The organization comes into being as a form of “modern art project” by Cannon and Kilchesty. The former demonstrates an unparalleled talent at curating museum exhibitions and events. The latter conjures the irreverent wackiness that gives the organization its zany edge. This combination quickly captures the imagination of many like-minded writers and artists in search of the appropriate means of expression for their love of baseball.

1997—The Reliquary brain trust becomes acquainted with Japanese-American artist Ben Sakoguchi, who is beginning what will eventually become an epic series of 200+ “orange crate art” paintings depicting an alternately edgy and humorous “unauthorized history of baseball.” The symbiosis between the Reliquary’s mission and Sakoguchi’s ongoing project (still in progress as of this writing) would swiftly turn into something beyond uncanny.

1999—The Reliquary begins its alternative Hall of Fame, the Shrine of the Eternals, which would become its signature event on the weekend prior to the induction ceremonies in Cooperstown. It quickly established its “outsider” bona fides and reiterated its connection to the flamboyant side of the game by selecting the following troika as its first set of inductees: Curt Flood, Bill Veeck, Dock Ellis.

2000—Reliquary voters induct the first woman (umpire Pam Postema) to their Shrine, signaling the range of their difference in approach from other “anointing organizations.”

2003—The Reliquary begins its associations with researchers exploring baseball history as viewed through the lens of minorities (Mexican-Americans and Nisei). This year’s Shrine inductees are a brilliant amalgam of the organization’s alternative vision: Jim Abbott, Ila Borders, Marvin Miller.

2005Jackie Robinson, along with the Reliquary, a fellow Pasadena, Calif. native, is elected to the Shrine of the Eternals.

Bill Buckner: Another View
Crediting an oft-criticized player with what he accomplished.

2006—“Pioneer” days are inaugurated by the Reliquary voters as Josh Gibson, Fernando Valenzuela and Kenichi Zenimura are inducted into the Shrine.

2008—The Reliquary museum and outreach programs reach full maturity with the release of the Mexican-American Baseball Project; Buck O’Neil, snubbed by Cooperstown, finds a home in the Shrine of the Eternals.

2009—Local controversy in Los Angeles occurs before, during and after the Reliquary’s “let the people decide” participatory event “Lasordapalooza.”

2011—One-armed outfielder Pete Gray, who’d finished just out of the running (fourth place) in the initial Shrine voting back in 1999, is finally enshrined. He embodies the highest collective total of the three key “forces” embodied by Shrine inductees: adversity, extremity, otherness.

2012Dr. Frank Jobe, who arguably changed the landscape of modern baseball more than anyone with his ligament replacement surgery, is inducted into the Shrine of the Eternals; a documentary about the Reliquary, “Not Exactly Cooperstown,” is released.

2014—Reliquary voters complete their commemoration of baseball’s struggle for integration and further demonstrate that essential baseball matters occur outside the playing field by inducting Rachel Robinson into the Shrine of the Eternals; the Reliquary announces a partnership with Whittier College for an Institute of Baseball Studies that will feature its research materials.

This is a quietly impressive amount of accomplishment for an organization far more monetarily impoverished than what’s implied by the term “underfunded.” Oddly, though, the experimental filmmaking background that informs a goodly portion of the Reliquary’s approach (as embodied in the earlier careers of Cannon and Kilchesty, past masters at “analog subversion”) has likely served to impede the Reliquary’s ascent in an increasingly digital world.

That may change over the next 18 months, though, as its association with Whittier College ramps up. But an online presence for its adjunct collaboration in the Institute for Baseball Studies might not provide the level of élan that the Reliquary needs to make a transition into national consciousness over the next decade.

Peter Dreier stops the show with his "Rachel the Riveter" illustration that captured the ongoing "can do" spirit of Rachel Robinson.

Peter Dreier stops the show with his “Rachel the Riveter” illustration that captured the ongoing “can do” spirit of Rachel Robinson.

The 2014 Shrine Ceremony offered some tantalizing clues as to what might be in store. In addition to the finely honed but highly traditional keynote address by Whittier College professor of religion Joseph Price, there were more searching elements of advocacy, such as Peter Dreier’s stirring call for a Jackie Robinson Museum in Pasadena—a stunning oversight that has languished for far too long and is something of a blight on Los Angeles and its self-perception as a bastion of progressivism.

Such moments, along with the various manifestations of surrealist comedy and well-wrought prose delivered with deadpan conviction (as exemplified this year by legendary writer John Schulian in his masterful disquisition on 2014 Shrine inductee Dizzy Dean), would be the lifeblood of the Reliquary if they were only more accessible to the masses.

John Schulian recites his masterful prose while introducing Dizzy Dean--whose comment upon hearing that he'd been inducted to the Shrine (according to John) would have been "what took you so long?"

John Schulian recites his masterful prose while introducing Dizzy Dean–whose comment upon hearing that he’d been inducted to the Shrine (according to John) would have been “what took you so long?”

Which, today, means being available for viewing on the Internet. These moments (and many more) have all been videotaped, but the vast backlog of this material—save for portions of it used in “Not Exactly Cooperstown”—lie dormant.

Such a situation must change, of course. The Whitter connection can help in this regard, but it’s clear that a more encompassing strategy will need to be implemented to give the Reliquary its deserved shot at the big time. The key to such a strategy is actually hidden in plain sight, in the approach exemplified in the Reliquary’s most ambitious and revelatory effort at self-definition: the “Purpose Pitch” exhibit earlier in 2014 that explored its symbiosis with Ben Sakoguchi.

But before we explore that further and make our own “purpose pitch” for the necessary growth and influence of the Baseball Reliquary, let’s examine two key caveats that continue to lurk around the organization and its endeavors.

First, is the Reliquary really equipped to be a national organization? “Not Exactly Cooperstown” revealed, perhaps unwittingly, a side of things that casts some doubt on just how feasible this is—not only in how the documentary kept emphasizing its regionalism, but also in the larger scheme of how an organization needs to operate depending on its level of public exposure.

Second, will the Reliquary’s core concepts and its unique ability to absorb competing viewpoints without any baggage survive a significant uptick in success and scrutiny? There are countless tales, particularly in America, of wonderful ideas and innovations that are sullied by too much success: just how vulnerable is the Reliquary to similar potential pitfalls? If, say, 30,000 people become members, will the Shrine of the Eternals lose its precious, precarious balance between the three outsider forces (adversity, extremity, otherness) that have primarily guided its selection process? Will a mass audience push the Reliquary away from its “old-school town hall surrealism” to something more like “arena rock”?

These are outcomes to be avoided, to be sure, but not at the expense of making the attempt to take a brilliant concept and provide it with the level of status and attention that it deserves. There is a path through that forest, and we’ll attempt to outline it. The actions taken while on that path will require resources beyond the current scope of Reliquary operations, but there are ways to make that happen—and the Internet is one of those ways.

So here’s the “purpose pitch” for how to make the Baseball Reliquary a viable “critical companion” to the institutional lotus-eatery that is Cooperstown:

1) Negotiate a long-term agreement to lease/own the bulk of Ben Sakoguchi’s “Unauthorized History of Baseball” as the anchoring exhibit in a series of museum projects, including traveling shows.

Ben Sakoguchi's "The Unauthorized History of Baseball" series covers a wide swath of baseball and takes no prisoners. It catalogs the good, bad, ugly, and infamous; but it also celebrates the indomitable spirit of those who found their personal and cultural identity through baseball. Sakoguchi's newest work ("Bum Rap Brand," "Low Ball Brand") shows that his stuff is still intact.

Ben Sakoguchi’s “The Unauthorized History of Baseball” series covers a wide swath of baseball and takes no prisoners. It catalogs the good, bad, ugly, and infamous; but it also celebrates the indomitable spirit of those who found their personal and cultural identity through baseball. Sakoguchi’s newest work (“Bum Rap Brand,” “Low Ball Brand”) shows that his stuff is still intact.

The “Purpose Pitch” exhibit held earlier this year reiterates the essential symbiosis between the Reliquary and this major component of Sakoguchi’s work. The comprehensive exhibit of Ben’s baseball work that will occur at the Skirball Museum in Los Angeles in 2016 could (and should) be the springboard for a fund-raising campaign that can establish at least a semi-permanent working arrangement and revenue stream for both the Reliquary and a “Sakoguchi foundation” (or something akin to it).

The “Unauthorized History of Baseball” should not be broken up and sold to individuals; it should be kept as intact as possible (and this owner of four Sakoguchi paintings is ready and willing to donate his to such an arrangement). The Reliquary, in conjunction with a “Sakoguchi foundation,” should ensure that its power to delight and shock will be maximized over the years via an ongoing series of traveling exhibitions.

2) Develop and maintain a state-of-the-art Baseball Reliquary web site that can make available all of the materials that make the “anti-organization” so unique.

The visual strength of the Reliquary’s work is unparalleled, but it is virtually unavailable to the Internet user. Not only will this create a groundswell of additional support, it will open the eyes of the national media to the Reliquary’s unique approach.

All of the Reliquary’s video materials from the Shrine ceremonies can be housed here, making its existing and ongoing legacy available to millions of baseball fans around the world.

3) Go beyond mere videography and create a “live feed” for the 2015 Shrine of the Eternals ceremony.

The more people who can watch from remote locations, the more likely it is that the intimacy of the Shrine ceremony can be retained. Remote members of the Reliquary can watch from wherever they are without tipping the balance between earnestness and irreverence that would be necessarily lost in a large throng. (And yes, that’s throng, not thong.)

4) Create a “Children’s Reliquary” that can allow young fans to have the earliest possible glimpse of the organization’s unique approach to the game and its place in American culture.

Begin with children’s art and essay programs, and continue with subsidies for “Children’s Reliquary” days at ballparks, beginning in the Southern California home base and expanding as soon as feasible.

5) Develop and implement a publishing program to support and augment the work being done under the auspices of the Reliquary’s areas of interest.

A “Guide to the Reliquary Collections” would be a great place to start. A chapbook about the Shrine, with essays collected from the widest possible range of Reliquary supporters and utilizing Sakoguchi “orange crate art” paintings depicting the inductees (which number nearly four dozen), would be another fine addition to a publishing effort that could also work in tandem with the Children’s Reliquary.

This concludes our “purpose pitch for the ages.” It is dedicated to the proposition that the Baseball Reliquary is one of those singular ideas that has the power to do more than simply be another institution—it can move minds and hearts, restore faith as something that is “eyes wide open” as opposed to the standard-issue variety, and provide a platform for voices who might not otherwise be heard. Its success at doing this over its first 19 years, while limited to a relatively small scale, has been astonishing enough that those who understand the power of baseball to provide a path to both truthfulness and transcendence will not want to look up in another 10 to 15 years and see that the opportunity for such self-sustaining benevolent subversion was squandered—again.

This is a consummation not only devoutly to be wished, but one that is worth fighting for. The moral is contained in the motto that will (hopefully) become increasingly universal in the decade to come: If you are a baseball fan, you are also a Reliquarian.

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Jim S.
Jim S.

Jackie Robinson was born in Cairo, Georgia.


NotGraphs has extremity and otherness. The decision to exterminate it instantly creates adversity.


Jim, yes Jackie was born in Cairo, Grorgia but his mom moved to Pasadena when Jackie was one year old.

Lyn Jensen
Lyn Jensen

It looks like much of this story has to do with keeping technology current. If you’re talking about material on VHS tape or film that you want to convert to disc, you’ll need a conversion lab. I get the impression that Whittier College will be helping with updating the technology, and the college will (hopefully) serve as an archive beyond any one person running the Reliquary. I also advise caution about making the induction ceremony into a Web cast. If people can watch it on the Web anytime, what’s the point of attending in person?

Don Malcolm

Lyn, thanks for the comment. As the essay states, the Reliquary would move forward best not only by catching up with new technology, but by cementing a core cultural/aesthetic symbiosis (Ben Sakoguchi’s work) that will assist in widening its national profile. That was why it was placed as the #1 item on the “to do” list. I think the answer to your question/concern about the web cast can be analogized to the game of baseball and television: people still go to the games despite an increasing number of venues giving them remote visual access. I foresee no danger in lack… Read more »

Chuck Manning
Chuck Manning

How can I buy a Sakoguchi baseball print? I tried to figure it out via internet searches, but did not find such a link.

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