It might surprise even the pretzel vendors and newsboys outside on Manhattan's Seventh Avenue, but within the dim regions of the arena from which it takes its name there exists a modest little museum called the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame. It is one of the sacred shrines of sport, and these, in turn, are as curious a collection of tourist attractions as ever presumed to amuse the populace. Known as halls of fame, they dwell themselves, with few exceptions, in deepest obscurity.
To illuminate the way to some of these holy places, and to offer my own devotions while at it, I started out at Madison Square Garden on the pilgrimage described in these pages. My journey ended a fortnight later in an empty field in New Jersey, a point 35 miles distant but one that took nearly 10,000 circuitous miles to reach. Along the way I stood amid thick woods in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, in a leafy park in Southern California, by the languid waters of Florida's Gold Coast. I read immutable words graven in marble, peered down rows of bronze busts, fastened my gaze upon faded snapshots and epic murals alike. But now, against the chance that irreverences might unavoidably infiltrate this journal, a confession: I kept my head unbowed for fear of missing something.
There was enough to see. The sports world has its Lourdeses and Meccas literally by the hundreds, even if many of them, like the National Wheelchair Athletic Hall of Fame or the Roller Derby Hall of Fame, are not really halls at all, but only rolls of honored names that somebody unfurls now and again for updating, usually with a great show of ritual and rhetoric. Of the halls that exist as physical entities—the ones you actually can visit—your travel agent has probably heard of no more than a handful. Could you reasonably expect him to know that the Lacrosse Hall of Fame happens to be located on the campus of Baltimore's Johns Hopkins University? Or that there exists a Missouri Sports Hall of Fame, much less that it consists of a few framed pictures hung in the state capitol in Jefferson City?
Probably not, no more than he might know about the Madison Square Garden Hall of Fame. To visit it, I followed one of the great rivers of pedestrians that surge through the garment district, then took a tributary into the Garden's broad mall, where Muzak washes over the Niagaralike rumbling of trains in Pennsylvania Station below. There it was necessary to make my way through the thinning crowd—a trickle now—go up an escalator and pass through double doors to a desk where raven-haired Sonia Cabezas, one of the Garden's uniformed guides, looked up from her New York Times crossword puzzle and prettily bade me welcome.
June 27, 1971
The room was quiet, sealed off from the sounds of commerce beyond its wood-paneled walls. Other than Miss Cabezas, it was empty, which might be taken as a bad omen. While attendance—50,000 last year—exceeded that of many other halls of fame, the economics of space in Manhattan was such that the Garden had briefly considered converting the 3-year-old shrine into a bar. Actually, the problem was said to be twofold: not Only did too few people visit the place, but those who did often found the pleasures received did not equal in value the $1 admission charge.
"Visitors are occasionally disappointed," Miss Cabezas acknowledged. "They say things like, 'Gee, I thought there'd be more to it than this.' And I tell them, 'What do you expect, basketball players standing around signing autographs?' " It was a fair enough question, although as museums go, this one did seem rather barren. There was a handsome statue of Joe Gans, the old lightweight champion, and exhibits on the history of the Garden were well done. But the Hall of Fame was deficient in the kind of relics usually exhibited at such shrines, those ordinary implements of sport that, because they enjoy some connection with revered figures, take on piety by association.
These relics posed a test of faith: it was necessary to accept on trust, for example, that a spangled jacket on display had actually been worn by ice skating's Roy Shipstad, although it was somewhat easier to credit as authentic the basketball shoes—they were size 15—said to have been worn by Wilt Chamberlain. Such items being few, it is more rewarding to explore the Garden's choice of immortals, which is the term halls of fame customarily apply to their inducted members, the deceased as well as the living.
The Garden honors 88 such personages, their names etched on silver tablets handed down from some private Sinai. One bears the names of Don Budge and Bill Tilden, both of whom are also enshrined—can one be twice immortal?—in the National Lawn Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport. Another tablet lists such masters of the ring as Jack Dempsey and Sugar Ray Robinson, who are also honored in the World Boxing Hall of Fame, located in the offices of Ring magazine above a taxidermist's shop a block away. Gene Autry, star of many a Garden rodeo before he lassoed the California Angels, is included in the pantheon, too, although he is also a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and a cinch for eventual election to the National Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center in Oklahoma City, which accepts only those who have gone to the great bunkhouse in the sky. Let nobody think that only sport honors its heroes.
Perhaps it was merely impatience to get on to the next shrine, the Hall of Fame of the Trotter in nearby Goshen, N.Y., but just 20 minutes was needed to tour the Garden Hall of Fame, and that included an eight-minute film of fragmentary highlights from the Garden's past—a snippet of a Tilden serve, an eyeblink's worth of a Louis hook and so on. This, admittedly, was somewhat less than the time required by one middle-aged woman who has visited the Garden shrine on several occasions, compelled perhaps by the same kind of nostalgia that moves audiences to pay $15 a seat to see No, No, Nanette a few blocks uptown. "She sits through that movie eight or nine times," Miss Cabezas said. "Then she comes out all teary-eyed. The first time it happened, she told us her father had just died. She said he used to take her to the Garden when she was a child."
If the Madison Square Garden hall can conjure up lost youth, the one at Goshen recalls an entire misplaced era, one in which the sulky was king. The Tudor-style building, a converted stable opening onto Goshen's Historic Track, faces Main Street, and from his second-story office in what used to be the hayloft, Phil Pines, the director, likes to watch visitors arriving out front. The usual picture he beholds is a 12-year-old girl bolting from the car even before it stops, with the rest of the family trudging behind, but what he might have seen this particular morning was this solitary pilgrim pulling up in an Avis rental car.
"Here's a letter from one of those 12-year-old girls," Pines was observing a few minutes later, holding up a sheet of blue stationery. "They all say, 'Please send me everything there is to know about trotting horses.' Everything! Can you imagine?" Despite his feigned irritation, Pines tries to oblige such requests, although visiting the Goshen shrine is certainly a more pleasant way to get information. Using horse stalls for display space, the museum handsomely houses such relics as a harness worn by Lou Dillon, the first two-minute trotter and one of 157 immortals—roughly half of them horses—enshrined in the hall.
Pines takes pride in the fact that his Hall of Fame is chartered as an educational institution. One-third of its 35,000 yearly visitors are schoolchildren, and the museum employs a full-time educational director who leads them in playing "Pin the Tail on the Pacer" or singing The Old Gray Mare. Subsidized by harness-racing patrons as a showcase for the sport—admission is free—the Hall of Fame aims, Pines said, to "explain trotting as it relates to American history and to build interest in the sport." Did this mean that he hoped to turn those innocent schoolchildren into horseplayers?
If Pines was discomfited by so sly a question, he never let on. "We're trying to make them educated horseplayers," he replied.
Before I left, Pines alerted me to a shrine I had not heard about, the National Speed Skating Hall of Fame, just 15 miles away in the old Hudson River town of Newburgh, N.Y. A short time later I was on Broadway, Newburgh's wide and joyless main street, where the chamber of commerce office had available a mimeographed list of tourist attractions. It included such nearby points of interest as West Point and Hyde Park and went so far as to mention branch libraries, but there was no reference to any hall of fame. This was quite an oversight, since the speed-skating shrine was located above the bank across the street.
The omission became more understandable a few minutes later. To visit the shrine, one must contact Joe Monihan of the sponsoring Newburgh Lions Club, a bow-tied man in his 80s who is chairman of the club's hall of fame committee. Monihan led me beneath a pressed-tin ceiling up three flights of narrow stairway and, after fumbling for the key, into what was once the city room of the Newburgh Daily News. The room was in disarray. Display cases were caked with dust. Signs were toppled over, and one listing the Hall of Fame's inductees had not had an entry for at least two years. Through a bare window, a shaft of sunlight shone on a dead blackbird that lay on the scarred floor as if it were the hall's prize exhibit.
Monihan regarded the bird a moment, slowly encircling it as he did. Then he concluded with a chuckle: "Well, he must have got in without permission."
The clutter also included a stack of books on museum care, evidence of the high ambitions that reigned a decade ago when the Amateur Skating Union of the U.S. selected Newburgh, home of such speed-skating greats as the 19th century champion Joe Donoghue, as the site of its Hall of Fame. But time has brought change. Along the river where Donoghue once flashed across the ice, stores like Smiling Willie's Snack Bar now stand abandoned, their gutted shells waiting for urban renewal, and such are the vagaries of civic sentiment that Joe's 100th birthday passed last Feb. 11 without public notice.
The Lions, hopeful that the Hall of Fame will one day be incorporated into a proposed winter-sports center, keep it alive, if barely, out of what the club's president, Dan Leo, calls "a sense of stewardship." Meanwhile, all visitors to the shrine are asked to sign a guest book. A similar practice at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., my next destination, would have produced 197,000 signatures last year, but traffic was somewhat leaner at New-burgh. The guest book listed 14 visitors for all of 1970.
Cooperstown is the best known and probably most solvent (and therefore holiest) of all halls of fame, although another shrine, not a sports one, is older. That would be the 70-year-old Hall of Fame for Great Americans, an open-air colonnade on the Bronx campus of New York University that restricts membership to candidates dead for 25 years, a rule that has the virtue of discouraging active lobbying. Its 95 members include a dozen Presidents and literary figures aplenty (among them Longfellow, Poe and Irving), but not an athlete in the lot. It is an oversight for which the sports world has compensated with a vengeance, starting with that glorious June day in 1939 when the Baseball Hall of Fame was dedicated on Cooperstown's maple-lined Main Street.
It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate site for the national game's shrine than Cooperstown, a village of 2,500 residents and almost unbearable Early American charm. Overlooking Lake Otsego—Glimmerglass in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fenimore Cooper, whose father founded the village in 1786—Cooperstown boasts several other museums as well, including the New York State Historical Association. Situated next to Danny's Buy-Rite Grocery, the baseball shrine maintains a low profile, its Federal-style facade indistinguishable from the banks and post office that are its neighbors on Main Street.
To judge by the way people flock to the Hall of Fame, the chance to peer into Joe DiMaggio's locker or listen to Babe Ruth's recorded voice outweighs the fact that Cooperstown is fairly remote, accessible over back roads dotted by quaintly named hostelries like the Shangri La Motel and Sleepy Hollow Cottages. There is another way to get to Cooperstown, of course, and that is to hit 500 home runs, win 350 games or perform similar baseball heroics. So far only 118 have traveled this route, a select company inducted into Cooperstown's high-ceilinged hall with the solemnity of slain warriors received into Valhalla.
It has become ritual among baseball writers to noisily second-guess Cooperstown's selections, a clamor that reached a crescendo last February when Satchel Paige either was, or was not, elected, depending on one's view of the separate section newly established to honor greats of the old Negro leagues. If nothing else, the new section should at least spread the secret that baseball ever excluded blacks to start with, for the only hint of this I came across was a cryptic line on Branch Rickey's bronze plaque. It read BROUGHT JACKIE ROBINSON TO BROOKLYN IN 1947, which by itself could lead one to suppose that Rickey was a New York cab driver, and an uncommonly obliging one at that.
But controversy means publicity, and Cooperstown is the only sports shrine able to live solely on admissions—$1.50 for adults—unless somebody cares to quibble that the goodwill engendered by the annual major league exhibition game at nearby Abner Doubleday Field constitutes a subsidy. Doubleday was the man long credited with having invented baseball in Cooperstown, and the subsequent discovery that the game was really invented by Alexander Cartwright in Hoboken, N.J. poses no problem for Ken Smith, the ex-New York sports-writer who is the Hall of Fame's director. "We call this the home of baseball," Smith advises. "We don't say baseball was actually invented here."
Smith is an apple-cheeked man with tufts of white hair flanking a bald pate like batsmen on either side of home plate. While we visited in his second-floor office, he sat at his cluttered desk, occasionally singing to himself, "It happened in Monterrey a long time ago...," little caring that Monterrey was in the old outlaw Mexican League, which does not even merit a separate section. Smith said that much of his time is spent answering requests for information from people starting new halls of fame, and he showed me a folder bulging with inquiries from such groups as the American Waterworks Association, which had recently organized a Water Utility Hall of Fame.
"They all write to us—we're the Metropolitan Museum of halls of fame," Smith said, using a metaphor that might have gone unchallenged were it not for the next stop on my journey. This was Saratoga Springs, N.Y., home of the National Museum of Racing, a shrine resembling the Hall of Fame of the Trotter at Goshen in a couple of important respects; it stands adjacent to a historic track, in this case the old thoroughbred course beyond the Citgo station on Union Avenue, and it has horses among its immortals—including Man o' War, Seabiscuit and Citation—although any thought that animals in general therefore enjoy favor is quickly dispelled by the NO DOGS PLEASE sign on the front door.
That last prohibition, it turns out, is intended to protect the museum's antique furniture, much of it salvaged from the elegant hotels that flourished in Saratoga Springs when the town was a summer retreat for New York's fashionable rich. Saratoga Springs' grand frame houses are now banquets for termites, but it still has a spa or two in operation and its race meeting every August continues to occupy a prominent place on the sport's calendar.
The museum reflects past glories both of Saratoga Springs and the sport of kings. It abounds in silver trays and gold cups, not to mention a collection of paintings topped off by two dozen oils by the 19th century equine artist Edward Troye. There is also a wing containing portraits of such "patrons of the turf" as the handicapper John Banks Campbell, whose likeness is accompanied by the gently worded inscription: "Racing was the better for his having been part of it." Unfortunately, the floors of that wing had been waxed earlier in the day, so the only way I could inspect it was to wait until Sidney (Sly) Veitch, the custodian, had departed for lunch, the Morning Telegraph tucked under his arm, and then steal on tiptoe past a barricade he had put up.
The wing, like the rest of the museum, was immaculate, and after lunch I tried to make up for my sneakiness by complimenting Veitch on his care. "I want to keep it nice—that's what they pay me for," he replied. A slight figure with an Adam's apple protruding over his flannel shirt, the 67-year-old Veitch said he hired on with the museum after it opened in 1955 as a way of staying close to the sport that had been his life. His father was Silas (Si) Veitch, a well-known steeplechase jockey of half a century ago, and he himself rode jumping horses for many years, but he considers his custodian's job not a comedown but "a lucky break."
One part of the museum that receives Veitch's careful attention is the Hall of Fame, an austere room with plaques listing the 121 honored jockeys, trainers and horses. I asked Veitch what goes through his mind when he goes into the Hall of Fame to clean up.
He misunderstood the question. "Oh, no," he said. "I rode my share of winners, but I'll never be in the Hall of Fame."
The elegance that otherwise characterizes the Saratoga shrine is at odds with the blatantly commercial souvenirs it stoops to sell, including perfumed horse manure at $1.25 the bag. But Saratoga's selection of souvenirs pales next to the medallions, tie clasps, ashtrays, pennants and color slides I found on sale the next day at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. If the souvenir stand there has a breathlessness about it, so does the rest of the basketball shrine, which has set for itself the formidable task of covering the game on all levels—professional, college, AAU, even high school. There are the usual relics, such as a hunk of wood from the Armory YMCA where James Naismith invented basketball in 1891, and the walls are practically papered with group photos of basketball teams.
Located on the campus of Springfield College, the rectilinear and airless building looks from the outside like an arsenal, as if to symbolize Springfield's historic role as producer of small arms for the U.S. military. Actually, the simple design was an economy move that enabled Springfield civic leaders, who had inherited the project from the National Association of Basketball Coaches, to complete the building in 1967. That was six years after a foundation had been laid and then abandoned, leaving a gaping excavation that one local newspaper called "the hole of shame."
To compensate for a meager annual attendance of 20,000, the Hall of Fame not only peddles souvenirs but also prominently displays brochures offering visitors low-cost group life insurance, with an appeal to name the Hall of Fame the beneficiary. Its director, Lee Williams, who once coached basketball at Colby College, is confident that attendance will pick up, and he is enthusiastic about his shrine's hall of illuminated stained-glass windows, one for each of its 76 immortals. "It's awesome, isn't it?" he asked after I toured the hall. "When people get in there, they start to whisper. It's kind of a mood thing."
Williams is the Hall of Fame's curator, archivist, fund-raiser and publicity man all rolled into one, and I spied a letter on his desk that indicated another of the many tasks he performs. Addressed to a Montana State College basketball star of the 1920s, the envelope read: Cat Thompson, Idaho Falls, Idaho.
"Oh, that?" Williams said. "I send birthday cards to all our living members. Just a custom I started." To the outsider, it seemed an inspired touch, one calculated to bring pleasure to members of the Basketball Hall of Fame, even as it brings profit to the sponsor of TV's Hallmark Hall of Fame.
Any doubts that halls of fame were peculiarly an American phenomenon disappeared after my arrival at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. It is true that Europe honors its heroes with great tombs and statuary, and also that Chaucer, himself an old hand at pilgrimages, wrote a poem in which he was transported by an eagle to an imaginary House of Fame. But modern-day shrines? The Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto is just another outcropping of American culture in Canada—indeed, it could easily be confused with the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minn.—while Japan's long-established Baseball Hall of Fame, consistent though it is with the Shinto practice of ancestor worship, was openly modeled on Cooperstown.
Leave it to Americans to confer immortality by ballot, and then to dress up the process with the kind of can-do boosterism that runs rampant in Canton. The Pro Football Hall of Fame holds its induction ceremonies during "football's greatest weekend," an occasion, co-sponsored by the chamber of commerce, that includes a parade with floats and beauty queens, a $25-a-plate dinner for 900 and, finally, an NFL exhibition game at adjacent 19,000-seat Fawcett Stadium.
The Football Hall of Fame has the smell about it of crisp greenbacks and newly minted coin, an odor redolent of a huge infusion of capital—$800,000 from the promotion-minded NFL, another $500,000 from Canton industry—that has enabled it to patiently build its attendance following uncertain beginnings. Last year it drew 122,000, and it expects to reach the break-even point—roughly 160,000—this year. Clearly riding a wave, it continues to defer to Cooperstown as the No. 1 shrine, but it is the slightly grudging deference that the nouveau riche pay to established families whose time has passed.
"We're the on-the-go Hall of Fame," says Don Smith, whose position, that of full-time publicity man, is one that few other shrines can afford. Smith prepares spot plugs for the Hall of Fame that are aired during televised NFL games, and he keeps the Canton dateline in the public eye by disseminating press releases to a mailing list of 950. Showing me through the shrine, a futuristic building crowned by a conical dome shaped like a football (although this was realized only upon completion), Smith called my attention to Red Grange's ice tongs, then showed me a mound of earth, pebbles and all, dug out of the home field of the old Canton Bulldogs. Maybe it was because Canton is the home of Hoover vacuum cleaners, but this last was balanced by a display of AstroTurf.
It is a common figure of speech that somebody has earned a niche in the Hall of Fame, but Canton literally does have niches—individual spaces, each with bronze bust and portrait, for all 63 of its immortals. It was largely because of the space devoted to these niches that this past spring, just eight years after the Hall of Fame opened, a $625,000 wing was added. "Of course, we can't build a new wing every eight years," Smith admitted. "We'll have to reevaluate the situation." It was a welcome assurance, for one had the nightmarish vision of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, its hunger for expansion fed by NFL dollars, eventually stretching to Ishpeming, Mich., home of the National Ski Hall of Fame.
It is best to visit Ishpeming in summer because, and here you are asked to contain your mirth (just as you do when you think of something funny in church), the Ski Hall of Fame is closed in winter. Ray Leverton, the part-time caretaker, will be happy to show you around by appointment almost any time, but the Hall of Fame gets most of its 3,000 annual visitors in July and August, when the Upper Peninsula comes alive with fishermen. In winter life is far quieter as Ishpeming's 8,000 residents, a decline from the 10,000-plus who lived there before the area's underground iron mines began closing down, exchange Finnish jokes ("Hear the one about the Finlander who tried to build a basement on his ice-fishing shack?") and work their snow into 10-foot banks that give Ishpeming the appearance of a walled city.
Ishpeming's Suicide Hill is one of the nation's oldest ski jumps, and it was in Ishpeming in 1904 that the U.S. Ski Association, now based in Denver, was born. But the town's development as a commercial ski center has lagged behind such Michigan locales as Ironwood and Boyne Mountain and tourist traffic does not justify keeping the Ski Hall of Fame open in the winter on the $10,000 budget provided by the distant ski association. The wonder is that the shrine is as presentable as it is, a snowflake-clean building with the knotty-pine coziness of a lodge hall. That exhibits tend toward bulletin boards covered with yellowing clippings from the local Mining Journal adds to the rustic flavor, as does the fact that Gretchen Fraser's name on the hall's scroll of 123 immortals comes out "Gretchen Frazer."
The sponsoring U.S. Ski Association and Ishpeming civic leaders accuse each other of failing to properly promote the shrine. At one point Leverton stopped by the office of Charles (Bob) Markert, who welcomes visitors to Ishpeming as executive vice-president of the local chamber of commerce even while he helps them leave as manager of a travel agency. Greeting Leverton, Markert cried: "Hey, somebody came by the other day and asked when the Hall of Fame was open, and you know, I couldn't even tell him."
"Well, there's a sign on the door," Leverton replied.
"That's two miles away," Markert scolded. "I sure can't see it from here."
Markert's travel agency might have charted a different itinerary, but I wound up next in the Lower Peninsula city of Kalamazoo, home of fast-growing Western Michigan University, whose chronic classroom shortage did not prevent it from converting a large room into a home for the National Collegiate Baseball Coaches Hall of Fame. The shrine ended up at Western only after both Amherst and Williams, opponents in the first college baseball game in 1859, told the sponsoring National Collegiate Baseball Coaches Association they were not interested. The Michigan school was happy to step in; it is a perennial baseball power and played host to the first College World Series in 1947.
The Kalamazoo shrine is not among the biggest, what follows being a more or less complete catalog of relics displayed: six or seven baseballs, a few team photographs, two old bats, a gilded glove, a coin tossed before that first College World Series. As for immortals, these consist of 39 baseball coaches, each honored by a plaque on the wall. According to Bob Culp, Western's athletic business manager, it is not unusual for an enshrined coach to travel 2,000 miles or more to view his plaque in Kalamazoo. "Most of them are very moved," Culp told me. Of course, what they see is not altogether new to their eyes. Culp said that upon selection into the Hall of Fame, every coach was given a duplicate plaque for his home or office.
My next destination was a shrine called the Hall of Champions in San Diego, which is practically virgin territory for halls of fame. Most American games took root in the East, and it is at the Cooperstowns, Springfields and other so-called cradles of sport that their shrines are found. Few sports have their national shrines in the West, an exception being the National Softball Hall of Fame, which, along with the Amateur Softball Association of America, moved from Newark to Oklahoma City seven years ago. More typical are such local operations as the Pepsi-Cola-sponsored Arizona Basketball Hall of Fame or the Coke-backed Arizona Football Hall of Fame, both of which get by without buildings but hold induction dinners washed down, we may be sure, by something cool and carbonated.
But occasionally one finds a shrine in the Western U.S. exemplifying the same spirit that built Hoover Dam. It is only a rumor that a shrine honoring the ladies of the Barbary Coast pleasure palaces—a Hall of Ill Fame—will open soon in San Francisco, but Los Angeles' remarkable Helms Athletic Foundation still exists, delivered last year from the brink of bankruptcy by United Savings and Loan. Now known as the United Savings-Helms Athletic Foundation, it recently moved into the savings-and-loan company's headquarters. It must have been some move, for the awards-happy foundation—it has given out 100,000 trophies, scrolls and medals over the years—consists of two dozen shrines under one roof, including the Helms Soaring Hall of Fame (the Wright Brothers are members) and the Helms Fencing Hall of Fame (D'Artagnan is not), plus separate halls for volleyball, weight lifting and college athletic trainers.
In its own way, San Diego's Hall of Champions is every bit as ambitious as Helms, for it apparently expects its members to be not just immortals but saints, too. Thus it was that the San Diego shrine once delayed induction of native son Don Larsen a full year because of his reputation as one of baseball's most practiced playboys. At least, so said Leo Calland, the Hall of Champions' longtime manager, who explained: "We expect our members to come in with a clean shirt."
The requirement of a clean shirt is understandable when you realize that Bob Breitbard, owner of the San Diego Rockets and the man behind the Hall of Champions, made his money in his family's laundry business. Inspired by Helms in Los Angeles, he and three brothers started the Breitbard Foundation in 1946 as a way of honoring San Diego athletes, and honor them they certainly have, Billy Casper alone having received the foundation's star-of-the-month award 24 times. As a showcase for the foundation, Breitbard opened the Hall of Champions a decade ago in an abandoned stucco building in San Diego's Balboa Park, a 1,400-acre wonderland of lily ponds and mission bells that also contains the famed San Diego Zoo.
Benefiting from traffic generated by the park's other attractions, the Hall of Champions drew 153,000 last year. Its 32 immortals, far removed from the high school athletic directors or Little League stars you might expect, include the likes of Casper, Florence Chadwick (whose induction helped compensate for the time San Diegans gave her a Chevrolet with payments due on it), Ted Williams and Archie Moore. Then there is Larsen, whose year in limbo ended with his inevitable induction in 1964—inevitable because mementos from his perfect game in the 1956 World Series, including his silver-plated shoes and glove, are the museum's most cherished relics.
I left San Diego marveling that anybody could pitch a perfect game in silver-plated shoes and glove and glad that the man who accomplished this feat had been duly enshrined. Of course, San Diego is not alone in insisting on morality, for one can search all the halls of fame in vain for any hint that Grover Alexander ever tasted of the vine or that Jim Brown was interested in any earthly pleasure other than grinding out yet another first down. Where the ancients built temples to their gods and gave them human attributes, the current practice is to honor humans by making them godlike. And in no instance has the apotheosis been quicker or more complete than with Stan Musial in St. Louis, where I stopped on my return east.
There is a large modern statue of Musial outside Busch Memorial Stadium, but homage is even more fulsomely paid him in the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame located inside. Actually, it is not a true hall of fame—nobody is inducted or anything—so much as it is, simply, a sports museum. Or perhaps it should be called a baseball museum, since little space is devoted to other sports, not even to football, which is played in Busch Stadium, too. But the place really is, finally, a Stan Musial museum, a showcase for memorabilia, on loan from the ex-Cardinal star himself, of the kind that his admirers can also find in Cooperstown and in his St. Louis restaurant, Stan and Biggie's.
There is apparently no shortage of Musialiana in the world, the collection at the St. Louis Sports Hall of Fame including a dazzling array of gold watches and pen and pencil sets; keys to cities from Des Moines to New York; a fan letter from Lyndon Johnson ("America gives you its heart"), plus such odds and ends as the baseball Musial hit for his first home run and, before that, a Donora (Pa.) high school yearbook picturing him as a youthful basketball star.
More than merely honoring Musial, the museum was also supposed to make money for the Civic Center Redevelopment Corporation, which built Busch Stadium five years ago as part of an effort—one symbolized by the soaring Gateway Arch a few blocks away—to revitalize the city's shabby downtown area. The Hall of Fame's contribution to that goal has been singularly modest; instead of making money, its annual attendance of 60,000 is a breakeven figure at best. It is assumed that Musial would never back out of the museum and ask for his relics back—he is on the advisory board—but the reverse is not so certain. Officials of Civic Center Redevelopment said they were considering converting their Hall of Fame into a bar. Yet even if that happens, pilgrims might still find it inspirational to visit Busch Stadium. There is always Musial's statue outside.
"We're struggling to keep our heads above water," said William (Buck) Dawson. The same statement might have been heard at many of the shrines visited, but what made it more appropriate in Dawson's case is that he is director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, which occupies a splendid white-stucco building in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Dawson is forever using aqueous figures of speech; e.g., when he complains about the proliferation of halls of fame, he spouts, "I don't want the whole thing to get watered down."
There are an Aquatic Hall of Fame of Canada and a Pennsylvania Swimming Hall of Fame, but Dawson might have in mind some terrestrial shrines, too. We already know that Florence Chadwick, one of 104 immortals enshrined in Fort Lauderdale (and a member of the Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame), is similarly honored by the San Diego Hall of Champions, and she is a logical choice for the International Women's Hall of Fame in the World of Sports, a shrine sponsored by a Cleveland theatrical agent whose previous promotions include the Miss Outer Space pageant. Even at that, she would have nothing on Jim Thorpe, who is consecrated at Canton, a couple of Helms halls and, among others, in a shrine in Anadarko, Okla. that calls itself, with splendid redundancy, the National Hall of Fame for Famous American Indians.
Dawson, a high-spirited man in a Moshe Dayan-style eye patch, has flooded (as he might put it) the Swimming Hall of Fame with exhibits not only on swimming but water polo, scuba diving, canoeing, seashells—almost anything to do with water. However, annual attendance is less than 20,000 and water, ironically, is partly to blame; a block away Fort Lauderdale's public beaches beckon. This constitutes enough of a distraction so that Dawson himself sometimes packs his secretary and folding chairs off to the beach for an afternoon's work under the sun.
One occasional visitor to the Hall of Fame is Johnny Weissmuller, who makes his home in Fort Lauderdale and serves as the shrine's honorary chairman, never mind that a room identified by a sign as his office is really a storage closet. Resourceful in many ways, Dawson makes the Hall of Fame available as national headquarters for both the Swim Facility Operators Association and the American Swim Coaches Association, and he has brought several national swim meets to the Olympic-size municipal pool next door.
"We're finding as many uses for the Hall of Fame as we can," Dawson says. "We want people to know we're here." During my visit, the Swimming Hall of Fame was put to one use that seemed to carry the idea of a shrine to its logical conclusion: a Sunday-afternoon prayer meeting that Dawson allowed to be held on the Hall of Fame's lawn. On the Sunday before, similar religious services had to compete with preliminaries of the Miss Fort Lauderdale pageant, which were also being held on the lawn. Today, however, there were no such distractions, only the sight of yachts silently plying the Intracoastal Waterway in the distance.
There were six worshippers in all, gathered in fellowship to sing the praises of the Lord and to listen as a preacher, appropriately dressed in an aqua-colored suit, inveighed against the waywardness of "a lost and dying generation." They also heard the testimony of a slender blond youth with a guitar. "I used to be a worldly entertainer," he said in a faraway voice. "I thought all there was to life was making a bundle of money and having me a big car. But not too long ago, the Lord spoke to me. Now I know that's not where it's at." He paused and added softly: "Jesus is where it's at." Then he took up his guitar and led everybody in a hymn:
What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear....
As the worshippers let their spirits soar in song, one could only wonder: was there some similar yearning, some like hunger of the soul, that could explain these halls of fame? How else account for the fact that the PGA, until now content with operating its 31-year-old Golf Hall of Fame without a home, has a committee considering the creation of a museum to go with it? Or that soccer, whose history in this country has been less than glorious, has two rival groups seeking to build a national shrine? Or that a Pittsburgh fan named Joel Piatt has offered his personal collection of sports memorabilia—including 20,000 autographed pictures and 15,000 programs and score-cards—as a ready-made hall of fame to any "interested and dedicated benefactor"? Joel, in other words, has a shrine but needs an angel.
And what are we to make of a vacant lot in New Brunswick, N.J., the last stop on my pilgrimage? The 10-acre field, a grassy expanse across from Rutgers Stadium, has been donated virtually rent free by Rutgers University to the National Football Foundation, which has been raising money for a college football shrine since 1954, a mission that was carried out by a predecessor group for nearly a decade before that. Yet after a quarter century of such activity, and even though today the foundation has close to $2 million in its building fund, there is still no hall of fame erected on that field.
Instead, the foundation contentedly goes about its other business, and a substantial business it is. Operating out of rented offices in Manhattan and New Brunswick, it has 114 local chapters that confer awards on high school athletes and makes it its avowed goal to bridge, once and for all, the generation gap. The foundation inducts Hall of Fame members, 315 of them so far (including Jim Thorpe, naturally), at its annual $100-a-plate dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria, an affair attended by captains of industry and Presidents.
With the passage of time, the suspicion has taken hold at Rutgers that 78-year-old Chester La Roche, the retired New York adman who has headed the foundation from the start, does not really want the Hall of Fame at Rutgers, where the first college football game was played in 1869, but rather at Yale, where Quarterback Chester LaRoche graduated in 1918. LaRoche, whose paeans to the American dream are faithfully reprinted at length in foundation literature, responded earlier this month by announcing that George Murphy, the ex-California Senator, had been hired as the foundation's new president and charged with getting the shrine built at last.
As for the delays up to now, LaRoche clings to his ambitions for nothing less than a $4 million building, explaining, "We've waited this long. We should do it right if we're going to do it at all." Meanwhile, the empty field was all there was for me to visit. It was dusk when I arrived, and the gathering darkness made it necessary to strain to make out a large sign, weathered and peeling, that read: ON THIS SITE WILL BE ERECTED THE FOOTBALL HALL OF FAME OF THE NATIONAL FOOTBALL FOUNDATION. It Seemed more a monument to futility than to football, but the setting did have at least one advantage over many of the other halls of fame. There was no shortage of parking space.
Back in New York a letter arrived from Buck Dawson, who had found another use for the Swimming Hall of Fame: he was organizing the directors of all the halls of fame into a national association and had already scheduled a meeting for Fort Lauderdale. The first impulse was to warn the unsuspecting Dawson that any such venture ran the risk of being hopelessly dominated by bowling, a sport with a national hall of fame in Milwaukee plus at least 100 state and local shrines.
I decided against attending the meeting, although the temptation was great. After all, what if a representative had showed up from the National Sports-casters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame of Salisbury, N.C.? And what if by chance I had found myself in his company, perhaps on chairs Dawson had us all carry to the beach? Might not this fellow have discerned in me some faint promise of immortality? We will never know, of course, but what unworthy pilgrim would not blush at the very thought?