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Man with a 'heart of gold' creates Hall of Fame legacy cast in bronze

If you ever go to Cooperstown -- say, if you are one of the nearly 20,000 people who descend upon the town for induction weekend, which begins tomorrow -- and if you trot up the three broad steps off of Main Street, through the arched doorway and into the redbrick baseball cathedral otherwise known as the Hall of Fame, you will come upon three bronze figures: The 6-foot tall likenesses of Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente.

The statues are visible as soon as you walk in, just to the left in a corner of the lobby where they have stood, placid and regal for nearly four years now. These are three of the very few ballplayers who truly did slip the bounds of the game, who by the things they accomplished, the bravery and the resoluteness of purpose, made a difference even in the lives of scores of people who never walked into a major league stadium. The figures, standing sentinel in a museum filled with baseball greats noble and roguish, are as fine a thing as has been added to the Baseball Hall of Fame in a long time.

"I spend a fair amount of hours on the floor," says Jeff Idelson, the museum's president, "and it is no exaggeration to say that nine out of 10 people who come in go over and look at the statues, read the writing that's on the wall."

It's funny how they got here, in the autumn of 2008, the brainchild and gift of a guy you'd like to meet, Bob Crotty. He's a retired Ohioan who made himself a fortune in the industrial laundry business, cashed out in 2006 and now has his own little museum, the one-floor Green Diamond Gallery tucked away on a suburban street just outside Cincinnati. Like the Hall of Fame itself, the gallery is filled with an aura rich in history and memories and the hint of peanut shells.

To get into Crotty's gallery you walk through -- yes -- a narrow brick archway and are met with a carefully curated trove of items, some rare, all displayed in museum style. Arrive at the "Say it Ain't So" section and you find a bail bond signed by Shoeless Joe Jackson to spring his brother from the clink in 1915. Joe was illiterate so this is one hard-to-get signature. The story goes that his wife lightly penned his name and Joe then traced over it.

There are hundreds of signed photos and autographed balls and game-used bats (one for each member of the 500-home run club for example) and game-worn jerseys (Willie Mays' is good and dirty) and replica seats from Ebbets Field.

Crotty does things like this: he had a signed photo of Nolan Ryan. Then he went and got the signatures of each catcher who caught one of Ryan's seven no-hitters, and had the whole thing framed. "Now I've taken something that was a 469 out of 500 and turned it into a 1 of 1," Crotty says.

On display is Zack Wheat's Hall of Fame ring and Hank Aaron's rookie contract. There's a letter that Gehrig wrote to the hotel where he was staying in June of 1939 when he had to leave to check into the Mayo Clinic. You'll find here maquettes of the statues of Johnny Bench and Joe Nuxhall that stand outside the Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati. There are battered old suitcases that ballplayers took on the road in the 1960s. Above one wall hangs what Crotty calls, chortling, "the black cloud": jerseys of Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Alex Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa, Jose Canseco.... We know what these guys have in common.

You can pull from a gallery shelf an album of autographed photos of each member of the 1929 Philadelphia A's: Jimmie Foxx and Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove and the manager Cornelius McGillicuddy, aka Connie Mack. In another corner, Crotty has installed his own old seat, No. 101, from Riverfront Stadium. "There was a lot of beer consumed in that chair," Crotty will say, breaking into laughter.

This is not your ordinary high-priced vanity project. This man knows his baseball and loves it. None of these items is for sale. The Green Diamond Gallery works as a members-only haunt where folks who belong come to linger and explore.

Crotty's favorite spot in the museum, what he calls "my pride and joy" is an area devoted to "Character and Courage" which includes the game-worn jerseys of Gehrig (from 1938) and Robinson (1948) and Clemente (1970). The sculptor's models for those larger-than-life statues in Cooperstown are here, and Crotty also has a U.S. flag mounted and the signatures of 25 Medal of Honor winners. "Those are the only non-baseball autographs in the gallery," says Crotty. "We wouldn't even have baseball if not for people like them."

It was Crotty who suggested to the Hall of Fame the creation and installation of the three statues. "And I'll pay," he said, sensing a chance to leave a legacy. That inscription at the Hall that describes the bronze figures says the three players "set and example of character and courage for others to follow." When the statues were unveiled on Nov. 1, 2008, the widows Rachel Robinson and Vera Clemente were there. "You saw the pride and admiration they felt," says Idelson. "It was definitely special."

That day Crotty said to the assembled crowd that he hoped that the statues would be the beginning of something lasting and not the end of a project. And now the Hall runs a Characters and Courage weekend each fall. A Hall of Famer -- Andre Dawson, Rod Carew -- comes to town and talks to schoolchildren about those very things, having character and courage even at times when those virtues may be tried. When Carew came he spoke at the VA hospital, too.

All of this came out of a gallery outside Cincinnati, a gem of a place, an idiosyncratic hall of fame in its own right, the product of a well-heeled baseball nut who, as Idelson says, "has a heart of gold."

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