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September 14, 2012

"Not Exactly Cooperstown" is a Hit!

A while back, I did what plenty of baseball fans surfing the internet have done…I discovered The Baseball Reliquary.

I was hooked.

The unique collection of baseball treasures (we’ll call them “curiosities and wonderments”) and the treasured (more than two dozen baseball personalities have been inducted into The Shrine of the Eternals) that founder Terry Cannon has amassed since the Reliquary’s inception in 1996 have provided more than its share of water cooler talk.
Heck, even The New York Times called The Baseball Reliquary “A Hall of Fame for Great Stories”.
Enter filmmaker and “seamhead for life” Jon Leonoudakis.
In 2002, the lifelong baseball fan stumbled on a baseball Hall of Fame ceremony where, as he describes, “fans could actually vote for the candidates”.  A few years later, Leonoudakis would spend a year in the life of The Baseball Reliquary and document all that “makes it tick and share the results”.

And the result, friends, is a fantastic gem of a documentary called “Not Exactly Cooperstown”.  Suffice it to say, it's a perfect movie to make you fall in love (again) with an imperfect game.
I had a chance to see the documentary recently (I’ve watched it now twice…back-to-back) and was honored to catch up with both its filmmaker and the man behind the Reliquary.

HOVG:  The Baseball Reliquary has been described as “being inside a glorious baseball attic”.  With that in mind, Terry, what possessed you to actually seek out and put on display the unique artifacts you've unearthed?
TERRY CANNON:  I’ve always been interested in life’s odd and unusual curiosities.  When I was a kid, I attended a pro wrestling match at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles between Freddie Blassie and John “The Golden Greek” Tolos.  Blassie had this piece of tape wrapped around one of his fingers and, when the referee looked away, he kept grinding it into Tolos’s eyes.  Finally, Tolos got really pissed off and pulled the tape off Blassie’s finger and flung it into the crowd.  You guessed it.  I caught the tape and put it into a little plastic vitrine.  For months, I carried that vitrine around and proudly displayed it to all my friends and schoolmates.  By the time I got into baseball a few years later, it seemed only natural to seek out the odd stuff.  I figured out early on that it was a lot more fun to show people Eddie Gaedel’s jock strap than a foul ball you caught at a ballgame…and their reactions were generally more interesting.

HOVG:  And, Jon, what possessed you to make a documentary about the Reliquary?

JON LEONOUDAKIS: I was looking for a baseball subject for a documentary project, and the Reliquary was perfect: unexplored, tough to put into words, plus my own experience of being rejuvenated by it as a baseball fan when I was ready to quit the game. In 2002, I'd had it with the strikes, cheating, steroids, greed and corporatization of the pro game. I heard about the Reliquary's Hall of Fame ceremony and went on a lark. It was a transformative experience that not only brought me back into the fold, but my zeal for the game skyrocketed.  I noticed when I tried to tell my friends about the Reliquary, words just didn't do it justice. A documentary was a great way to tell the world about the Reliquary.  In some ways, the Reliquary has to be experienced in order to appreciate its unique offerings.  The film gives viewers a great sense of what the Reliquary is about and why it has an important role to play in both the world of baseball and American culture.

HOVG:  I'm a fan of the obscure myself.  I'm more into water cooler chatter than actually SABRmetrics and statistics. Of everything in the collection, Terry, what is your favorite item the Reliquary has in its possession?

TERRY CANNON:  I think my personal favorite is a lock of hair from the head of Tom Dewhirst, who played outfield for the barnstorming House of David team in the 1920s and ‘30s, and was known as “the Bearded Babe Ruth”.  The House of David was a wonderful part of Americana, a strange Judeo-Christian religious cult based in Benton Harbor, Michigan, just a couple hundred miles away from where I grew up in Detroit.  From World War I through the mid-1950s, the House of David was known for its traveling baseball club which played against all kinds of amateur, semi-pro, and professional teams throughout the United States and always put on a terrific show, not unlike the Harlem Globetrotters.  I found their mix of athletic skills, showmanship, and proselytizing for their religious sect to be a uniquely American confluence of entrepreneurship and spirituality.  Like Jesus, the players all wore beards and long hair.

HOVG:  Jon, you got to see everything up close and personal while shooting the you have a personal favorite as well?

JON LEONOUDAKIS:  I love the Walter O'Malley Tortilla, because it tells the story of how Dodger Stadium was built, and it's not entirely pleasant. I was raised Catholic, and some of the other religious items like The Baseball Pope's Mitre and the Mother Teresa autographed baseballs are a hoot.

HOVG:  This is to both of there anything out there that you'd like to see make its final resting place The Baseball Reliquary? What would be the "Holy Grail"?

TERRY CANNON:  I’d love to get hold of Ted Williams’s frozen head…free it from that cryogenic storage facility and bring it home to the Reliquary and to all of his baseball fans.  I’d put our best archival minds together to create a display using Ted’s head as the centerpiece of a traveling exhibit.  I’m thinking something along the lines of that old 1950s-era Cold War sci-fi movie “Invaders from Mars”.  Remember that film’s really cool Martian mastermind, that creepy head with tentacles that was encased in a floating sphere?  That’s sort of what I have in mind for Ted’s head.  Of course, we’d utilize modern high technology to have Ted’s head speak.  Imagine how much fun it would be for Ted to give batting tips to current Little Leaguers and say stuff like, “that fucking umpire is blind as a bat”. 

JON LEONOUDAKIS:  Oh, yeah!  I'd love to see the wooden table leg Norm Cash brought to bat against Nolan Ryan while Ryan was pitching a no-hitter.  Or one of the tangerines Boston fireballing reliever Dick Radatz burned into the rear end of a masochist who hired him to do so.

HOVG:  Since 1999, members of The Baseball Reliquary have elected members to The Shrine of the Eternals. What's the nomination criteria and what exactly is the election process?

TERRY CANNON:  The criteria is pretty open-ended.  We are interested in recognizing individuals who have impacted the game on a cultural level or in terms of baseball as a component of the human imagination, rather than honoring the champions of the record books.  We have Cooperstown to do the latter, and we’re not interested in duplicating their efforts.  Each year, the Reliquary’s Board of Directors appoints a Screening Committee (the two standing committee members are myself and Albert Kilchesty, the Reliquary’s Archivist and Historian), which then prepares a ballot consisting of fifty candidates.  The membership votes on the ballot, and the top three vote-getters are automatically elected.

HOVG:  Any memorable stories from past inductions that you'd like to share?

TERRY CANNON:  There have been some great moments, several of which are recalled in Jon’s film.  I think one of my favorite Shrine stories has to do with Jimmy Piersall’s election in 2001.  Piersall couldn’t make it to the ceremony and had his stepson, who was living in Hollywood, accept the induction for him.  The Reliquary’s induction plaques are very different from the bronze plaques at Cooperstown…ours are made out of multi-colored acrylic plastics, and each has its own unique color scheme.  No two are alike.  When we fabricated Piersall’s plaque, I was thinking about those great 1958 Topps trading cards which featured photos of the players against backgrounds of various solid colors.  I remember guys like Charley Maxwell and Ryne Duren were depicted on cards featuring pink backgrounds, which I thought was really neat.  Well, we decided to go with a lot of pink on Piersall’s plaque.  My wife Mary told me it was way too much pink for a ballplayer, and the pink looked too much like Pepto-Bismol Pink.  Anyway, when Jimmy’s son brought him the plaque, the first words out of his mouth were, “IT’S FUCKIN’ PINK!!!!”  His stepson said Jimmy eventually warmed up to it and actually has it hanging in his bathroom, which he said is where Jimmy keeps his most cherished awards, as he likes people to have time to enjoy them while they are using the facilities.

JON LEONOUDAKIS:  My first Reliquary event was the 2002 Shrine ceremony, and Minnie Minoso, baseball's only six decade player, was there.  He was so nice to everyone, signed autographs, and gave a beautiful, touching speech we feature in the film. I told him I was from San Francisco, and he launched into stories of what it was like for him to play games at old Seals Stadium there in his early days. That's one of the key pieces to the Reliquary I want people to know about: great players like “Mudcat” Grant, Maury Wills and Dick Allen show up live and in person and you can hang with them at this hall of fame event where fans can vote. It doesn't cost a dime to attend, but you leave much richer and have the chance to connect with the flesh and blood of baseball history. It's unheard of, and I think it's astonishing.  Another one of my heroes I met at the Reliquary's Shrine event was Dick "Richie" Allen.  A vastly misunderstood player that was one of the elite power hitters of his era, and what a nice man.  He was truly honored to be inducted, and he, unlike Pete Rose, "got it".

HOVG:  What do you mean he “got it”?

JON LEONOUDAKIS:  I'm one of these guys that believe Rose belongs in the Hall of Fame. I was so disappointed when he told Terry he wouldn't be able to accept (his 2010 Shrine induction plaque) in person.  It was clear Rose didn't "get" the Reliquary, and he treated it like just another banquet, which was a huge mistake. Here's a guy who wants to get into the Hall of Fame, then when he gets into a different version of it and could gain some credibility, he doesn't show?  I was stunned.

HOVG: Now, this is completely self serving, but I've gotta there a place in The Shrine for The Hall of Very Good's inaugural inductee Tommy John? If so, who do I have to bribe to get him on the ballot? (A sidenote: The day I interviewed John about his HOVG induction...he was in a Los Angeles preparing to induct Dr. Frank Jobe into The Shrine of the Eternals.)

TERRY CANNON:  No bribes necessary.  I think Tommy John definitely should and will be considered for inclusion on a future Shrine ballot.  Honestly, we’ve been doing this for fourteen years, and we’re always adding deserving candidates to each year’s ballot.  There’s always folks we hadn’t previously considered, or simply have been overlooked, that certainly are worthy for consideration and election, and Tommy is definitely one of those.

JON LEONOUDAKIS: I think there's an excellent case for Tommy John to be considered for the Shrine.  The Shrine is about recognizing people who've made an indelible contribution to the game or impacted it's landscape, and Tommy John certainly fits the criteria in my opinion.  He gave a fantastic speech introducing Dr. Jobe this past July.

HOVG: What's next for The Baseball Reliquary?

TERRY CANNON: The one thing we are putting a lot of attention on now is finding a home for the Reliquary’s extensive research collection.  We have been in discussion with two academic institutions in Southern California which have expressed an interest in serving as a permanent home for our research materials and organizational history.  The Reliquary will continue operating as usual, as a peripatetic baseball museum, but this would allow us to have a home base for our research materials and allow them to be accessed by students, scholars and the general public.

HOVG: And, Jon...any plans for a sequel? What's next for you?

JON LEONOUDAKIS: “Not Exactly Cooperstown” started out as an idea for a TV series. I'm already starting to have discussions with broadcasters about the series, so, yeah, you could say that's a kind of a sequel. Simultaneously, I'm setting up screenings in California between now and the end of the 2012 season. Starting next spring, I hope to mount a tour of the film across the Midwest and east coast. My goal is to produce media about baseball for the rest of my life, and if the core of it is the Baseball Reliquary, that would be perfect.

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