The Baseball Reliquary and the Eternals 2013

There are advantages to being an anti-institution, particularly when the subject is baseball. And, in 2013, with a full fifteen years of its Shrine of the Eternals under its belt, the Baseball Reliquary has been crushing its uber-institutional counterpart for several years now.

Even those who’ve rolled up their eyes at the impish upstart over the years would be hard-pressed to argue with the assertion that it’s the Reliquary, and not the overstuffed traditionalists at Cooperstown, who have the hotter ticket this year. Another packed house for the Reliquary’s annual ceremony this past Sunday (July 21) in Pasadena (home of the organization’s shadowy mail drop) made that point clear with little fuss (or muss).

Some will argue that this is the fault of the BBWAA, who failed to find a living person to induct this year. True, a year in which Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio were inducted into the Hall of Fame would be good for business in Cooperstown. But there is something about the format that the Reliquary uses to select its inductees—three per year, selected by a cross-section of fans around the world who are dues-paying members—that adds an indefinable aura to the process, that transcends mere on-field greatness.

Banzai, O’Doul: the man in the green suit brought a different kind of reconstruction to Japan after WWII. (Jeff Levie)

The Reliquary voting membership has the advantage of taking note of the gaps in logic, the ripples of exclusionary politics, and the blinkered historical and cultural thinking that cripples Cooperstown. But what makes the Shrine’s slow but steady accretion of unusual and compelling individuals who made their unique mark on baseball history so powerful is that it follows an unspoken residue of design. Reliquary voters let those gaps slowly fill in: they observe the political exclusions and address them in a measured way, and they respond to the Reliquary braintrust’s unique approach to baseball as a cultural force in ways that link personal narratives with the forces of American history.

It’s those three new presences per year that put the Reliquary’s Shrine into a different realm than any other such honorarium. Every year, the voters continue to defy probability and elect a trio whose personalities, achievements, and symbolic presences blend and clash simultaneously, who revolve around three elemental forces—adversity, extremity, and otherness—that drive any anti-institution toward its inchoate but highly resonant selection template.

Year 15 was no exception. The inductees—Lefty O’Doul, Eddie Feigner, and Manny Mota—make for an especially inspired trio, as each embodies elements of all three forces. Baseball’s assimilative power is exemplified in differing ways in each man.

All have international narratives, a strain of life experience that also strongly tends to embrace the three forces. Each added a humanitarian component to their efforts on the field. They all overcame hardships via a hold on life that opened them to possibilities through the prism of baseball. And all three accomplished things on the field that were not only astonishing, but were beyond the imaginations of ordinary human beings.

A FOURTH force emerged linking together the Year 15 Eternals: you could call it, for lack of a better term, outreach. Consider:

{exp:list_maker}Feigner single-handedly kept his version of the game (we call it softball, he—quite rightly—called it “fastball”) alive for decades beyond the point that it would have otherwise disappeared.
O’Doul was a born problem-solver, as historian and filmmaker Kerry Yo Nakagawa pointed out in his introductory speech. (Even more cogent was Nakagawa’s use of the term “reinvention,” something that O’Doul did constantly throughout his life, from pitcher to hitter to batting champion to manager to cultural ambassador to sage.)
Mota transcended his limited skill set as a hitter to become the personification of clutch hitting, a man feared by the opposition at least as much as his team’s middle-of-the-order hitters. {/exp:list_maker}

Queen Anne Marie: As God was to Eddie Feigner, so was the King to His Queen. (Jeff Levie)

And while Feigner’s effusive widow Queen Anne Marie, still girlish in her sixth decade—and still gushing with unbounded enthusiasm over the exploits and the memory of her husband—dominated a good bit of the podium time at this year’s ceremony with reminiscences that were both rambling and riveting, it was Mota’s presence that gave the proceedings their ideal weight and design.

Introduced by his eldest son, Jose (who had a brief major league career before becoming a successful broadcaster), Mota’s life and times were engagingly outlined, with the intersection between “otherness” and “adversity” emerging as the focal point. Jose’s effortless bilingual fluency in recounting his father’s life was an eloquent testimony to the ongoing assimilative power that remains a hallmark of American society. While polarized politics and escalating omens of economic inequality dominate much of America’s cultural discussion, it’s instructive to see just how many people of color continue to see this country as a beacon of opportunity.

And this was the overarching theme embedded in Mota’s own brief but heartfelt acceptance speech, during which he fought back tears to intone with a precision aided palpably by the rhythm and lilt of his native language. A man who taught himself to live in the moment during his remarkable career twilight as a spectacularly successful pinch-hitter, Manny Mota is a man who lives in two worlds, two vital and vibrant “nows” at the same time: the American one that he has ascended into via hard work and accomplishment, and the tight-knit island world he has never abandoned.

Mota clearly has an exact measure of his “otherness”—and he has clearly always chosen to meet it head on, in the here and now. But he clearly recognized the troubling notion that “otherness” never seems to escape being a source of division, even in a nation that symbolizes assimilation and opportunity. His concern for future generations and their continued ability to have access to a life free from the crushing constraints of poverty was prefigured in the powerful, cautionary lamentations of keynote speaker Dave Zirin, who had preceded Mota to the podium. The first-ever sports reporter for The Nation connected the dots between recent troubling events in race relations and the unresolved problems of “otherness” in a country that has not yet come to grips with these issues despite a half-century of change.

Manny Mota and Dave Zirin share a personal–and cultural–moment. (Jeff Levie)

Zirin didn’t come out and state that outreach—as practiced in its various forms by each of the Year 15 Eternals—would vanquish the inchoate, implacable forces of backlash. But he noted, as part of a stinging critique of institutional baseball’s tendency to rest on its laurels with respect to the question of race, that the Reliquary is the only organization in baseball that continues to push forward with these notions. Both in terms of the programs it creates and in how its inductees exemplify the three forces that inhabit baseball as a dynamic snapshot of the ongoing American condition, the Baseball Reliquary has reached a level of discourse that is much richer and deeper than its initial image as a bunch of irreverent weirdos from the West Coast. (Dismissals of this type must now be considered officially passé.)

And there was clearly a greater sense of seriousness that emerged from the Year 15 ceremony. Though no less amusing, the screwball comedy moments were fewer and farther between; undertones of a more urgent sense of identity emerged (accompanied by a more overt post-ceremony plea for funding to support the Reliquary’s increasingly ambitious curatorial efforts). An increased Internet presence was hinted at, as well as projects/products that would offset the organization’s lack of a permanent home.

So yes, Virginia, there was definitely something different in the air this time round—something signaling that the Baseball Reliquary’s glorious beginning had mysteriously ripened and was ready for a transition into an even more dogged, determined, palpable presence in the world of baseball. While “fun” will always remain synonymous with the organization, founded as it is on the deadpan humor of Executive Director Terry Cannon and right-hand man Albert Kilchesty, no one should be surprised if something truly astonishing emerges from the Baseball Reliquary in the next few years: watch this space.

The hands of baseball’s greatest pinch-hitter, in a different kind of ritual action. (Jeff Levie)

References & Resources
Photos by Jeff Levie

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Emma Amaya
10 years ago

Wonderful article!  Bravo!!  My only regret is that I did not join the Baseball Reliquary since its foundation. I have learned more about baseball and its rich history thru it. I have also met incredible knowledgable and fun people. Induction Day is an event that I look forward to every year and going out to dinner afterwards with Terry, Mary and a bunch of Reliquarian members have also become a beautiful tradition.
-Emma Amaya
Proud member of the Baseball Reliquary

george grella
10 years ago

An interesting and useful essay, though I disagree with some of the comments about Cooperstown.  One of the problems with the Hall of Fame voting, as with voting for MVP, Cy Young, Rookie of the Year, etc., is its dependence on sportswriters, many of whom are simply hometown rooters, politically involved, or often don’t even understand the sport they write about.