Not Exactly Cooperstown

Excellence, in many forms
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In São Paulo’s Museu do Futebol, the closest Brazilian analogue to the minor temples of sport found in American towns like Cooperstown, Canton and Springfield, there is a small, coffin-like room, on one wall of which grainy footage of the final game of the 1950 World Cup is played while an amplified heartbeat pounds. At the moment when the Brazilians, hosting in Rio’s Estádio do Maracanã, allow the final goal to Uruguay, the heartbeat stops. This is the center of the place, meant to remind visitors that a glorious history assures nothing and that loss is the central, defining experience of the game.

Elsewhere there is a spacious hall with white banners hanging from the ceiling, on which holograms of great players are projected playing, as if in flight, but aside from that the only exhibit that focuses on players is a simple one that displays shirts worn by Pelé and Garrincha. Vastly more space is given over to large displays on the basic elements of football and immersive rooms meant to recreate what it is like to sit in the stands at a crucial game. Dedicated to the experience of the game as a series of moments that when properly arrayed tell the modern history of a nation and a culture, it is more or less the opposite of a large hall filled with dull bronze busts and plaques honoring those few who met certain performance quotas, and it makes such monuments, and the arcane discourse that surrounds them, feel as arid and narrow as they actually are.

If there is an American approximation of this place, it’s the Baseball Reliquary, which doesn’t physically exist as much more than a peripatetic series of displays in Southern California libraries and occasional gatherings of fans who come together to celebrate everything that makes baseball worth celebrating: Communist agitators, showmen, Jim Bouton teaching the knuckleball to fans, the memory of the old barrios that were razed to build Dodger Stadium, strange bits of detritus brought in from alternate realities, bubblegum cards and above all what it feels like to pick up a ball and throw it. Sustained by the work of a small group of fans, the minor pledges of a couple of hundred members and the odd grant, the Reliquary is the living inverse not just of a debate over what the principles of accounting do or don’t say about someone like Jack Morris or Omar Vizquel, but the idea that such principles have anything to do with what should be remembered.

"It captures an idea about worth,” says member Don Malcolm, chyroned as an iconoclast, in Not Exactly Cooperstown, a new documentary on the Reliquary. “About fame, about how baseball connects you to the greater world at large, to American culture, to world culture.”

What is that idea? As filmmaker Jon Leonoudakis presents it using such tested principles of baseball filmmaking as talking heads and slow pans over historical artifacts (granted that the talking heads include the San Diego Chicken, and that one of the historical artifacts is a pair of panties purportedly worn by famous Wade Boggs mistress Margo Adams all through a particularly torrid stretch of hitting), it’s that success is a varied and arbitrary thing, and that in baseball it often belongs less to a given walking rectangle who throws the ball real good than to those who represent and embody half-forgotten byways and lacunae, all the small things that come up when you meet someone else who doesn’t just like, but really likes, baseball. The great Frank Thomas will one day get one of those plaques; if his Big Hurt brand malt liquor is to be remembered, though, it will probably be down to the Reliquary.

“Cooperstown,” we’re told at one point, “is built on statistics and championships. The Shrine recognizes that excellence comes in many forms.”

The Shrine in question is the Shrine of the Eternals, a sort of piss take on the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s stolid walls lined with plaques. As it’s described, we see imagery associated with its immortals—Jim Abbott, who pitched 10 years in the major leagues with one hand; Steve Dalkowski, who allegedly threw 120 miles per hour and never made it out of the minors; Josh Gibson, the Negro Leagues legend who may well have been the greatest ballplayer to ever live; Jim Bouton, who threw the knuckler and wrote Ball Four, and Dock Ellis, who is often reduced to an anecdote about having thrown a no-hitter on acid but, as the film stresses, also made rather larger contributions to the game and the world.

It would be a serious mistake to confuse a piss take with a joke, by the way. We see Dalkowski and Ellis and the Cuban legend Minnie Miñoso honored at Reliquary events, and it’s clear from the looks on their faces and from their wavering voices that they appreciate what it means to be recognized for their places in a stranger and livelier history than the one that plays out in the pages of the Baseball Encyclopedia and its successors. And they should! To have your story told in music and art and placed on a continuum with Tony Oliva’s My Favorite Music LP, a melted 45 from Disco Demolition Night, a piece of skin from Abner Doubleday’s inner thigh, Eddie Gaedel’s jock strap and an assortment of Tommy Lasorda-related paintings is to know that you’ve entered the game’s folklore, the invisible tradition that separates it from a long string of randomly generated numbers that when squinted at make some point about meritocracy and excellence in irrelevance.

If none of this tells you quite what the Baseball Reliquary is, that’s okay; as Ron Shelton, director of Bull Durham, says at one point, “That’s what’s great about it, is that you can’t really define it.” It is anarchic, inconsistent, run on lines radically opposed to those of a dominant baseball culture that sometimes seems only to value the most tangible, quantifiable and meaningless kinds of success and something that the sport very much needs.

You can learn more about Not Exactly Cooperstown, including how you can see it at one of a series of upcoming screenings, at http://www.notexactlycooperstown.com/, and more about the Reliquary at http://www.baseballreliquary.org.


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