Baseball reliquary survived and is ‘better than true’

LOS ANGELES – Now on display at the Los Angeles Central Library through November in an exhibit called “Something in Common.” There’s a San Diego chicken costume, a half-smoked Babe Ruth cigar that’s probably – maybe? maybe? — was feisty about a 1924 Philadelphia brothel and a baseball signed by Mother Teresa. The real Mother Teresa? Well… maybe not.

The artifacts are on loan from the Baseball Reliquary, a true organization blending wonder and fantasy with deep reverence. Its vibe lands somewhere near the intersection of Cooperstown and Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

The stories these gems tell belong to times – like today, poignantly, just like Terry Cannon, the cheerful, thoughtful and masterful actor whose curiosity, energy and passion for his projects knew no bounds. The nonprofit Shrine was the brainchild of Cannon in 1996. Then came the Shrine of the Eternals, a kind of mischievous distant cousin to the Baseball Hall of Fame, in 1999.

The last few years have been difficult. The pandemic struck, followed by Cannon’s death from cancer in August 2020. Then a seismic renovation closed the Pasadena Central Library indefinitely, where Reliquary members and fans have gathered each year to pay their respects to inductees as varied and diverse as Jim Button (2001), Shoeless Joe Jackson (2002), Buck O’Neil (2008), Marvin Miller (2003) and Charlie Brown (2017).

In this summer of baseball when All Stars play at Dodger Stadium and former greats like Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Minnie Miñoso and O’Neil are honored in Cooperstown, the recent silence has raised concern that the shrine of the Eternals could be eternally silenced.

“Absolutely not,” said Mary Cannon, Terry’s widow and co-conspirator, noting the start of an emotional comeback. “It’s very ongoing.”

The site, dark since January due to technical difficulties, came back to life in early July. And the Shrine’s Class of 2020 will be inducted Nov. 1. 5 in a public ceremony at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium to coincide with the closing of the six-month exhibition the following day. This class – broadcaster Bob Costas; Rube Foster, known as the father of black baseball; and Max Patkin, the “clown prince of baseball” – has been on hiatus for nearly two years.

“Fantastic,” said Costas, who like many others assumed the reliquary had been lost to the pandemic. “But I better show myself, because I’m the only one still alive. This is the Sanctuary of the Eternals, and the other two are already in eternity.

The Baseball Reliquary emphasizes the art, culture, and characters of the game rather than statistics and is supported in part by a grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. His thousands of books, periodicals, journals, historical magazines, artifacts, original paintings, and correspondence are now housed in the Institute for Baseball Studies at Whittier College.

“Terry and I engineered and colluded and advanced this,” said Joe Price, who accepted a request from Cannon before his death to take charge and lead the Reliquary forward. With his contagious enthusiasm and impish smile, Price seems a natural fit.

Now professor emeritus of religious studies at Whittier, Price, alongside Charles Adams, a retired English professor at Whittier, has spent the pandemic organizing and cataloging the collection of more than 4,000 books according to the standards of the Library of Congress.

This is where history and historical fiction mingle in a playful way. This is where Moe Berg, the former catcher who later served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, crosses paths with 1979’s Disco Demolition Night in Chicago – with memories of each in archives. Alas, the yukata jacket Berg “could have” worn in Japan and a partially melted vinyl record “allegedly” from Comiskey Park seem to have lost certificates of authenticity over the years.

“The Oscars are always won by movie stars, but anyone who wears their water and makes them look good – character actors are more interesting than movie stars,” said Ron Shelton, who wrote and directed Bull Durham. Shelton inducted Steve Dalkowski, the inspiration for the character of Nuke LaLoosh, into the Sanctuary in 2009. “In a way, the Hall of Fame honors movie stars, even though a lot of them are dishonorable characters. The Reliquary is about everything that isn’t a movie star.

Shelton and Cannon met when each was involved in experimental film groups in the Los Angeles area in the 1970s.

“He was strangely brilliant,” said Shelton, whose book on the creation of Bull Durham, “The Church of Baseball,” was published this month. “I use weird in the most positive way. It didn’t just have its own drummer, it had some sort of vision to go with it. The Reliquary is really a work of the imagination. The archive lives in your mind and sometimes in your heart.

The Shrine’s inaugural class in 1999 included Curt Flood, who sued MLB to challenge the reserve clause preventing player movement; Dock Ellis, perhaps best known for claiming to have thrown a hit while on LSD, but who was also a civil rights lawyer; and Bill Veeck, the maverick owner who was a master showman.

At the ceremony, Cannon read a letter Ellis had received from Jackie Robinson praising his civil rights work which warned him that people in and out of the game would eventually turn against him. Ellis was moved to tears. Then I donated a set of her curlers.

These are genuine, as is the burlap sack of peanuts that contained peanuts “packaged for Gaylord Perry’s Peanut Farm”. The “famous” sacristy box used by a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York to administer the last rites to a dying Babe Ruth in 1948? The jock strap “allegedly” worn by Eddie Gaedel, the shortest person to appear in an MLB game at 3ft 7in? With sparkling eyes, Price admits that the provenance of some of these objects “is certainly debatable”.

“You know, what was really hard to find was a kid’s jock strap,” said Mary Cannon, who added a few touches to make it look like it was from the 1951 St. Louis Browns. “We went to so many stores to find this thing.”

By definition, the word “reliquary” means “a container for holy relics”. For Terry Cannon and his followers, more important than the actual authenticity of these “holy relics” is the idea of them.

A visual as simple as the products in a grocery store can be a powerful force to ignite the imagination. As a prank while at Class AA Williamsport in 1987, catcher Dave Bresnahan threw a potato into left field on a fake pick pitch to entice a rival to run from third base to a home plate withdrawal. The distant nephew of Hall of Fame catcher Roger Bresnahan, Dave was waiting for the runner with the ball at home plate. He was quickly released and never played again. In memoriam, Mary Cannon carved two potatoes – at least one of which lives in the archives here in a mason jar.

“We didn’t know formaldehyde would turn them dark brown,” she said, adding, “There’s all these wonderful stories but nothing in there, so we tried to create tangible things to see.”

Even within the baseball industry, some are unaware of the Reliquary. Nancy Faust, the retired Chicago White Sox organist who created music for hitters, had to seek her out when she got the call for induction in 2018.

“My husband, Joe, said, ‘What is this, some kind of joke? A baseball tank? said Faust. “I said, ‘There’s nothing fishy about it.’ When I found out who was with me, I thought, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good company. I felt honored to be remembered.

Faust was inducted in 2018, along with Tommy John and Rusty Staub.

“Rusty Staub is perfect, isn’t he?” Costas said. “He’s not quite a Hall of Famer, but he’s an important player. There are other players who aren’t as important, but you put Rusty Staub before you put Chet Lemon because Rusty Staub is “The Big Orange”.

Dr. Frank Jobe, the inventor of the Tommy John surgery, preceded the launcher into the Sanctuary in 2012. There’s a Spaceman (Bill Lee, 2000) and a Bird (Mark Fidrych, 2002). There is also rich diversity in Jackie Robinson (2005) and his widow, Rachel (2014), the first female referee, Pam Postema (2000), and several representatives of the black leagues.

Bouton once called the Sanctuary a “People’s Hall of Fame”, and inductions traditionally began with Terry Cannon leading the audience in the tolling of bells in tribute to Hilda Chester, perhaps the most famous fan of the story.

As Cannon noted at the 2018 ceremony, Chester’s fame began to fade when the Dodgers moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles and “though she may have died in relative obscurity in 1978, in our fan community, Hilda is royalty. And thanks to our annual commemoration, we can rest assured that the last bell has not yet rung for Hilda Chester.

Neither, as it turns out, has it for the reliquary. In Shelton’s memory, it was the poet WD Snodgrass who, when he spoke, often told his audience that every time he told a story, it was true.

“Then he would take a break,” Shelton said. “And say, ‘I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s better than true.’ That’s what the arts do. It’s better than true. And that’s where the Reliquary lives.