Baseball reliquary survived and is “better than the truth”

LOS ANGELES – Currently on display at the Los Angeles Central Library until November in an exhibit called “Something in Common.” There’s a San Diego chicken costume, a half-smoked cigar from Babe Ruth, which is probably – maybe? Maybe? — was taken out of a Philadelphia brothel in 1924 and a baseball signed by Mother Teresa. The real Mother Teresa? Well… maybe not.

The artifacts are provided by the Baseball Reliquary, a true organization that combines wonder and whim with deep reverence. Its vibe lands somewhere near the intersection of Cooperstown and Ripley’s Believe it or Not.

The stories told by these gems belong to the ages – as now, so does Terry Cannon, a fun, thoughtful, skilled performer whose curiosity, energy and passion for his projects were boundless. The non-profit Reliquary was the brainchild of Cannon in 1996. Then in 1999 came the Temple of the Eternals, sort of a distant and mischievous relative of the Baseball Hall of Fame.

The last few years have been difficult. The pandemic hit and then Cannon died of cancer in August 2020. Then, as a result of a seismic upgrade, the Pasadena Central Library was closed indefinitely, where members and fans of the Reliquary gathered annually to pay their respects to such versatile and diverse inductees as Jim Bouton (2001), Shoeless Joe Jackson (2002), Buck O’Neil (2008), Marvin Miller (2003) and Charlie Brown (2017).

This baseball summer, with the All Stars playing at Dodger Stadium and past greats like Gil Hodges, Tony Oliva, Jim Kaat, Minnie Mignoso and O’Neal being feted in Cooperstown, the recent silence has raised concerns that the Sanctuary of the Eternals might , was silent forever.

“Absolutely not,” said Mary Cannon, Terry’s widow and accomplice, marking the start of an exciting comeback. “It’s a lot of work.”

The site, closed since January due to technical problems, came back to life in early July. And the 2020 Shrine class will be inducted on November 1st. 5 at a public ceremony at the Los Angeles Central Library’s Taper Auditorium, which will coincide with the closing of the six-month-long exhibit the following day. This class is broadcaster Bob Costas; Rub Foster, known as the father of black baseball; and Max Patkin, “The Clown Prince of Baseball,” was on hiatus for almost two years.

“Fantastic,” said Costas, who, like many others, believed the Reliquary was lost due to the pandemic. “But I’d better come, 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 over statistics, and is funded in part by a grant from the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. Thousands of his books, periodicals, journals, historical journals, artefacts, original paintings, and correspondence are now held at the Whittier College Baseball Research Institute.

“Terry and I conceived, condoned and promoted it,” said Joe Price, who before his death accepted Cannon’s request to take charge and steer the Reliquary forward. With his infectious enthusiasm and mischievous smile, Price seems like a natural choice.

Now Price, Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at Whittier, along with Charles Adams, former professor of English at Whittier, have weathered the pandemic by organizing and cataloging a collection of more than 4,000 books to Library of Congress standards.

Here history and historical fiction are playfully mixed. It’s here that Moe Berg, a former catcher who later served as a spy for the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, crosses paths with Chicago’s 1979 Disco Breakdown Night – with mementos from everyone in the archives. Alas, the yukata jacket that Berg “may” have worn in Japan and the partially melted vinyl record “presumably” from Comiskey Park seem to have lost their certificates of authenticity over the years.

“Oscars always go to movie stars, but everyone else who has water and makes them look good—character actors—is more interesting than movie stars,” said Ron Shelton, writer and director of The Bull of Durham. In 2009, Shelton inducted Steve Dalkowsky, the inspiration for the film character Nuke Lalouche, into the Sanctuary. “In a way, the Hall of Fame honors movie stars, even though many of them are dishonorable characters. Reliquary is about everything but movie stars.

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

“He was amazingly brilliant,” said Shelton, whose book on the founding of Bull Durham, The Church of Baseball, was published this month. “I use weird in the most positive way. He not only had his own drummer, he had a kind of vision that accompanied him. The reliquary is truly a work of the imagination. The archive lives in your mind and sometimes in your heart.”

Shrine’s first class in 1999 included Kurt Flood, who sued MLB to challenge a reserve clause that prohibited player movement; Doc Ellis, perhaps best known for claiming to have quit a no-hitter while high on LSD, but who was also a civil rights advocate; and Bill Wick, the maverick owner who was the master of the show.

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

They are authentic, as is the canvas peanut bag that contained peanuts “packed for Gaylord Perry’s peanut farm.” The sacristy box “reputedly” used by a priest at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City to perform the last rites for the dying Babe Ruth in 1948? The athletic belt “allegedly” worn by Eddie Gödel, the smallest person to appear in an MLB game, at 3ft 7in? With a wink, Price admits that the provenance of some of these items is “definitely questionable.”

“You know, what was really hard to find was a kid-sized sports belt,” said Mary Cannon, who added a few touches to make it look like it was from St. Louis Browns. “We went to so many stores to find this item.”

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

A visual as simple as grocery store groceries can be a powerful force to spark the imagination. As a joke, while in Grade AA Williamsport in 1987, catcher Dave Bresnahan threw a potato into left field during a fake throw to trick an opponent into running from third base to an out-out home. A distant nephew of Hall of Famer Roger Bresnahan, Dave was waiting for the ball runner at home plate. He was immediately released and never played again. As a memento, Mary Cannon carved two potatoes, at least one of which is archived here at Mason’s jar.

“We didn’t know that formaldehyde would make them dark brown,” she said, adding, “There are all these great stories but nothing, so we tried to create tangible things for people to see.”

Even in the baseball industry, some are unfamiliar with the Reliquary. Nancy Faust, a retired Chicago White Sox organist who created beat music, had to look for her when she was called for induction in 2018.

“My husband Joe said, ‘What is this, some kind of joke? Baseball aquarium?” Faust said. “I said, ‘There’s nothing suspicious about that.’ When I found out who was coming with me, I thought, “Wow! Pretty good company. I am honored to be remembered.”

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

Rusty Staub is perfect, right? Costas said. “He’s not exactly a Hall of Famer, but he’s an important player. There are other players that are not as significant, but you add Rusty Staub before Chet Lemon, because Rusty Staub is the “Big Orange”.

Dr. Frank Job, the inventor of the Tommy John surgery, preceded the pitcher at the Sanctuary in 2012. There is an Astronaut (Bill Lee, 2000) and a Bird (Mark Fidrich, 2002). There is also great diversity in Jackie Robinson (2005) and his widow Rachel (2014), the first female referee Pam Postema (2000) and several Negro League representatives.

Bud once called the Shrine the “People’s Hall of Fame” and the induction traditionally began with Terry Cannon leading the audience by ringing bells in honor of Hilda Chester, arguably the most famous groupie in history.

As Cannon noted at the 2018 ceremony, Chester’s fame began to fade as the Dodgers left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and “while she may have died in relative obscurity in 1978, Hilda is royalty in our fan community. And thanks to our annual memory, we can be sure that the last bell for Hilda Chester has not yet rung.”

And, as it turned out, not for the Reliquary. In Shelton’s memory, it was the poet W. D. Snodgrass who, speaking, often told his audience that every time he told a story, it was true.

“Then he paused,” Shelton said. “And say, ‘I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s better than the truth.’ This is what art does. It’s better than the truth. And that’s where the Reliquary lives.”