The Hall Ball: One Fan’s Journey to Unite
Cooperstown Immortals with a Single Baseball
The publishing info:
McFarland & Company
Released June 24, 2020
The review in 90 feet or less
A pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., shouldn’t be just on some bucket “wish list,” but a must-commit adventure, preferably if you can do it with family in various generations. You step back in time. You see a city that’s far more an oasis that you’d imagine in Field of Dreams. And, it has its own dream field — Doubleday Field, where you can compare photos of the grandstands and how everything looks the same today as it did some 80 years ago when the shrine was created to honor the giants of the sport.
It’s been about 10 years now since our first and only visit. A great friend of mine had the idea to take our sons there for a Father’s Day trip – his son actually worked in Cooperstown at the time, at the nearby Ommegang Brewery. It was too perfect. The gang arrived, and that weekend included having a catch on the Doubleday Field, then watching a bunch of former MLB players participate in an exhibition game of sorts. We ended up connecting with Tim Leary, the former Dodgers pitcher, and have stayed in contact ever since. We even had a special basement tour of the Hall to handle some items not accessible to the public, thanks to Brad Horn, who spent nearly 15 years as the facility’s director and VP of communications and education and now teaches at Syracuse.
Whether or not we actually noticed of a small creek that ran next to Doubleday Field as we explored the grounds, we can’t recall. But considering to absorb in that surrounding area of walking trails and quaint neighborhood strolls, we could see plenty of hiding spots for stray foul balls from the field.
We weren’t on a real fishing expedition and didn’t bother trolling it for any treasures.
But one time, Ralph Carhart did.
And this became his brilliant idea for a story.
As it turned out, we were in Cooperstown during the same summer – 2010. Ralph was there with his wife, Anna. During their time, she pulled a ball out of that creek. It was a Diamond brand, intended for high school games, not real major league caliber. But it became eventually “The Hall Ball” (after it was temporarily lost in the car for a couple of days) and a major-league adventure.
Carhart, a Brooklyn-based theater director and manager, decided to fashion his own script – what if this ball was taken to every member of the Baseball Hall of Fame, dead and alive, to connect with it? What if the Baseball Hall of Fame eventually took possession of it and displayed it to share with others?
Of course, with most of the Hall of Famers no longer living at this point, it would take a lot of cemetery visits. Carhart would end up in 34 states, plus Cuba, spread over several years, funded as best he could.
(Maybe to no surprise, the journey left Carhart as the lead for the Society for American Baseball Research’s 19th Century Baseball Grave Marker Project.)
Finding those who have passed was one element. Tracking down the living members would be a feat unto itself. As he explains on page 79:
“Soon enough, I developed a ‘rap,’ a quick four-sentence version of the project I told the players to give them maximum information in minimal time. Specifically, ‘My name is Ralph Carhart and I have been taking this baseball to all the members of the Baseball Hall of Fame, living and deceased. If they are alive, I take a picture of them holding the ball, and if not, I take a photo of the ball at their grave. Once I have photographed all of them, it is my intention to donate the ball to the Hall of Fame. As of today, I have photographed X members. I am hoping you will be number Y.’
“When I gave the rap to Tommy Lasorda, he looked at me incredulously and asked me to repeat myself. I did, and he let me take the photo, but the look of bewilderment you see on Lasorda’s face is genuine. He was the first who made it clear that he thought the project strange.”
Those who know Lasorda, maybe not a surprise, eh?
The encounters along the way are part of the story, of course, as you find out those who couldn’t be reached, remained elusive (think Sandy Koufax) and could be added in future updated editions?
Having MLB official historian John Thorn do a fantastic piece for the book’s forward gives this project a blessing as what he calls “strangely moving … part travelogue, part baseball history, part photo journal.” He also equates the project to flagpole sitting – “all of us who deeply care about some one thing – beyond how they might feel about some one or more persons – will understand” this attempt and “a lucky few of us do get to share that unrequited love in print.”
It’s noteworthy in the intro that Ralph thanks Thorn for his support of the project in the acknowledgements because “it was easy to see The Hall Ball as the Quioxitic quest of a fool, and I felt that more than once.” But in the intro, Ralph explains more about how this was as much an attempt “in a microcosmic way to make this book be about the story of baseball.”
Because we had heard of this project, found the website for it, examined the crisp-colored 300-plus photos from Carhart’s flickr page, and stayed up with his Facebook account — and saw the 2016 New York Times piece about it — the final arrival of this book is an occasion to mark unto itself. It’s also comforting to see how Carhart did connect with Terry Cannon at the Pasadena-based Baseball Reliquary, who bestowed Carhart with the 2019 Hilda Award for his distinguished service to the game as a fan.
Cannon also did him a huge solid in the end.
The trips finally leads him to an expanded chapter to California, “The Longest Road Trip,” and the state that was “the richest remaining source in my attempt to complete the project” with 20 Hall of Famers buried in the state and nine of them in Los Angeles – including Negro Leaguer Biz Mackey (Evergreen Cemetery), Sam Crawford and Bobby Wallace (both at Inglewood Park), Hank Greenberg (Hillside Memorial Park), Walter O’Malley and Effa Manley (Holy Cross in Culver City), Leo Durocher (Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills) and Casey Stengel (Forest Lawn Glendale).
Later, Carhart did what he called “symbolic” photographs – 19 members of the Hall are cremated, and then there’s the tragic story of Roberto Clemente, who was never found off the coast of the Pinones Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico after his plane crash of 1971.
To that end, Bob Lemon is represented with a shot of the Palmcreast Grand Garden retirement home in his native Long Beach, and Roy Campanella and Don Drysdale, who died with days of each other in 1993, are in Forest Lawn’s Hollywood Hills and Glendale parks, respectively. Carhart explains he had to “pretend I was family to get the people at Forest Lawn to show me where Drysdale’s niche once was.”
With Sparky Anderson, Carhart goes to Sparky Anderson Field on the Cal Lutheran campus of his beloved Thousand Oaks residency and finds a yellow seat dedicated to him on the third-base line.
For the project, there were 76 Hall of Famers alive and willing to be photographed out of the 323 members enshrined by 2018. The six alive and kicking who didn’t connect for whatever reason — Koufax, Ken Griffey Jr., Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Nolan Ryan and Tom Seaver, although McCovey was eventually captured at his grave site.
And yes, Ted Williams was included from his holding tank in Arizona.
All of this brought excitement, and doubt, and plenty of other surprises on the emotions meter for Carhart. It’s better to ask him about it.
The author Q&A
To think about the vast array of gravestone monuments you came upon, in so many parts of the country. You mentioned Jackie Robinson’s was somewhat graciously simple, while others are very decorative and called a lot of attention to their lives in the game. There’s the classy one for “Edwin Donald Snider” and all it reads is about how he was “F2 US Navy, World War II” along with “Loving Husband Father and Grandfather.” There’s the simple Josh Gibson that says “Legendary Baseball Player” or Effa Manley that says “She Loved Baseball.” What struck you overall about the difference in style with memorials and what they said about the inhabitants — or maybe said more about those who wanted to make sure they didn’t get forgotten?
One of the fascinating parts of gravestones in general is how indicative they are of the age they were made. Once you see enough of them, you can almost pick what era it was from without having to even look at the dates. For that alone it was an extraordinarily instructive journey. As far as the ballplayers, the simpler stones usually spoke to one of two truths: the player was either particularly humble or they reached the end of their lives without an extraordinary amount of wealth. This was most starkly reflected in the stones that accompanied the graves of the Negro Leaguers. Many of them had government issued military stones, or else something very simple. The Gibson stone you mentioned is significant because, as humble as it is, for the first thirty years after his death he didn’t even have that. His grave went unmarked until an old teammate stepped in and, with the help of Bowie Kuhn and Willie Stargell, had one installed in the 1970s. On the other side, you had some extraordinarily elaborate monuments, like those of Babe Ruth and Henry Chadwick. Ruth’s may have been the largest individual stone of the entire quest and, considering who Ruth was, that is perhaps fitting. Not just because he remains baseball’s biggest name, but his very personality was larger than life. Of course, the extreme end of that spectrum were the family mausoleums of the magnates, men like Jacob Ruppert, Charles Comiskey and Calvin Griffith. They are all spending eternity in graves fit for kings.
Which of the grave sites were most breathtaking and emotional, for whatever reason?
The grave that was the most profound for me to visit was that of Martín Dihigo. Cruces, Cuba, where he is buried, is a very remote town that is about three hours from Havana. Dihígo remains the most celebrated citizen of the town, with the local museum dedicating a large section to him. I was fortunate enough to visit his grave with his son, Martín Jr., who was a brilliant, charming man that had his own brief professional career playing for the Cincinnati Reds organization just before the Revolution. To be able to visit the grave of the man that most Cubans consider to be the most talented national hero to ever play the game, with his son by my side, was an experience I will never forget. This is especially true now because Martín Jr. passed away himself, just last year.
What do you think about the timing of the book, intentional or not, and how it could create some travel-log diversion and history lesson for those who may be still stir-crazy for baseball to start up again?
I have jokingly been telling people that one of the reasons the delayed season hasn’t been as difficult for me as it has for others is because I spend most of my time immersed in the history, anyway. What’s happening in Major League Baseball right now is tragic in so many ways, but years down the line it will simply be another chapter in the very long story of our game. I am hoping that “The Hall Ball” can serve a similar function to those people who are hungry for the crack of the bat and the smell of popcorn on a summer breeze. It’s a window (a small, one, honestly) into the depth and breadth of the epic tale that is baseball, and I hope it helps pass a few hours for those who miss its familiar place in their lives.
Have you got to read “The Wax Pack” by Brad Balukjian about his journey to meet former players from his youth and excitement of baseball cards, and can you see any similarities of your journey? And then note: You were able to track down Carlton Fisk, while Brad didn’t. Any tips for him?
I have read Brad’s book and there are definite similarities. They are both quixotic tales of baseball dreamers. I admire anyone who can come up with an idea that most people would consider to be off the wall, and follow through on the completion of the quest. It speaks to not only the intensity of individuals like Brad and myself, but of the very powerful passions that baseball can create. As for Fisk, I was trying to accomplish something very different than Brad. I only needed Carlton to pause for a photo, which took about thirty seconds of his time. Brad was hoping to get a little more than that. That being said, it likely did not hurt my case that my Red Sox-loving, rather attractive female friend was with me. I got a bit of a grimace for my picture. She got a giant smile and a bear hug.
Cal Ripken Jr. was the only one, you mentioned, who after taking his photo then asked to take a photo with you. What do you feel this says about him?
My experience with Ripken was singular because, unlike most of the other photos (which took place at baseball card shows), I got his picture at a Q & A he was doing for a book he had written. The talk was fascinating, and I learned a lot about him and the things that drive him in life. The autograph line that followed, while perhaps just as long as at a baseball card show, was much more subdued and conversational. Ripken was able to spend a little time with everybody and it was abundantly clear that he was enjoying his time with the fans. I thought it was very sweet that he insisted I take a picture with him. That experience was one of my favorites.
And you likely aren’t a fan now of Randy Johnson based on your experience with him?
I try to hold no ill will towards any of the players that were not enthusiastic about the project. They were under no obligation to let me take the picture. That’s something that I think fans sometimes forget. As much as we wish it, the players are not actually beholden to us in any way. They are men doing a job and if they are the sort of person who is comfortable with the fans, great. If not, that should be okay, too. Honestly, Johnson’s initial rejection, while a little bizarre, was not as off-putting to me as the promoter who was sponsoring him at the later show. He refused to even talk to me. He had the power to make that experience play out differently and he chose not to. It was surprising because all of the other promoters that I worked with throughout the project were so helpful. This was the first one who simply would not budge.
(Sorry, we had to ask the Randy Johnson question, because we have our own memories of him…)
What do you consider the highlights of your trip to California, and especially Southern California/Los Angeles?
The entire California trip was a once in a lifetime journey. It began in San Diego and ended in Eagleville, which is six hours north of San Francisco. To see the full length of California, over the course of a week and a half, and all the geographical diversity that provided was exhilarating. The Los Angeles portion was interesting, in part because it was my first time in L.A. But, when I think of the California trip my mind keeps coming back to Eagleville. There’s 4 million people in L.A. According to the 2010 census, Eagleville has 59. I may live in Brooklyn, but I enjoy peace and solitude more than hustle and bustle. The peaceful surroundings of that tiny town, all of it punctuated by the most delicious smelling wild sage you can imagine … I have fantasies of retiring there in my old age.
The story about the journey with “The Hall Ball” is what we’ll read and embrace. Is there a story in the journey it took to get “The Hall Ball” published 10 years after it started? What was that process like?
I have to admit, my efforts to find a publisher bore fruit pretty quickly. I received a handful of rejections before McFarland contacted me, but they contacted me much more quickly than I was expecting. Going with McFarland did require some sacrifices. There is no hardcover version of the book, which is disappointing, but only for reasons of vanity. The one real sacrifice I had to make was that most of the pictures are in black and white. I knew the pics would be a particularly forbidding aspect for many publishers. There’s one for every Hall of Famer and even a few more on top of that. Asking a publisher to print 330 photos, which are automatically a greater expense to them, was asking a lot. I am just happy they didn’t ask me to cut a single one of them. And if folks would like to see them in color, there’s a link on my website. So, I considered that a sacrifice I was willing to make.
What are your thoughts about the absence of a Hall of Fame ceremony this summer, having it pushed back to 2021, and how that might have overlapped with your book coming out? Was there any intent to release the book to coincide with this year’s ceremony for Derek Jeter, Larry Walker, Ted Simmons and Marvin Miller?
I am heartbroken for the postponement of this year’s Hall of Fame ceremony, on a personal level and on a grander scale. I have long had a vision of standing on Main Street and selling the book during the Induction Weekend, just as I have seen many of my favorite baseball authors do over the years. But, that dream will happen next year (we hope). Of bigger consequence is what that means to the town of Cooperstown. The main engine that motivates their economy is baseball and the greater portion of that comes over those few days of Induction. My fear is that some of those businesses that I love so well won’t survive until next summer. Here’s hoping they do. As for the release, that kind of happened when it happened. The book was on the extreme long end of the window of time that McFarland gave me after they first accepted the manuscript. McFarland makes a point of telling their prospective authors to limit photos and images to one or two a chapter. This book blew that out of the water. I think they took a little longer with this one because they went outside of their normal box to publish it. I am honored they chose to do so with me.
Your last group of Hall of Famers to be included here are the Class of 2018 — Jack Morris, Alan Trammel, Chipper Jones, Vlad Guerrero, Jim Thome and Trevor Hoffman. Could there be an updated version of this book with the 2019 Class of Mariano Rivera, Roy Halladay, Mike Mussina and Edgar Martinez, plus Lee Smith and Harold Baines? And the 2020 Class going forward?
Perhaps someday, in the future, I will decide that I want to update the ball. Who knows? But, as of right now, I consider The Hall Ball to be complete. It was an incredible, life-changing journey, but all roads must end. Besides, I have lots of other stories to tell. The Hall Ball introduced me to the larger world of baseball history and the greater majority of it is made up of players who will never make The Hall of Fame. I want to explore their stories as well.
Who is the player/players you’d like to see in the Hall of Fame someday that remain on the outside looking in?
My go-to answer for this question, until it changes, will always be Minnie Miñoso. He falls just a hair shy of the median Hall of Fame statistics. But, frankly, one of the things that I wish Hall voters (the Veteran’s Committees especially) would do is stop giving so much weight to just statistics. He was an ambassador for decades, a legend in his homeland, and someone who was an icon in one of the foundational cities of professional baseball. My other answer to that question, which is a wrong that could possibly be righted this year, is Doc Adams. I am a huge fan of the nineteenth century, and that is very clearly reflected in the way I begin each chapter of the book, exploring how the game came to be and how it evolved professionally, in each of the states I visited. No one person invented baseball, but if you had to choose one person whose influence was the greatest on the way the rules of the sport were first developed and widely adopted, that’s Doc Adams.
Considering how many of those you met while they were alive, and now they’ve passed away — Ernie Banks, Yogi Berry, Tony Gwynn, Ralph Kiner, etc. – any thought to updating photos of their grave sites as well?
I’ve actually visited Banks. He is buried in Chicago, where my wife’s family is from, and we are out there frequently. I am sure I will likely visit Kiner, and Gwynn, and the six or seven other Hall of Famers who passed after I took the picture with them while they were alive, someday. The ball may or not be with me when I do. It doesn’t feel urgent. I have other things I want to do now.
Does the MLB’s conflicting signals of how it is trying to squeeze a season into 2020 make your book something even more compelling — it might even resonate more with those of us who do find nostalgia intoxicating and want to go back to some more simplier times in how we remember those who impressed us most in the game’s history?
If that is a positive by-product of this sad series of events, I guess I’ll take it. I warn people against too much nostalgia, though. Intoxicating is a perfect word for nostalgia. It is so seductively wonderful that it makes people drunk with the idea of what something used to be. The contracts may have been smaller, but the struggle between management and labor is as old as the game. We remember the times as simpler because when we fell in love with the game, we were simpler. We were children, and we adored it with a simplicity that is wondrous. But, to the men who played and lived the game professionally, it was never simple and neither were they.
What was the ballpark cost for this kind of trip if anyone might be willing to consider trying to replicate it someday? And if readers who feel compelled after absorbing this and wanted to contribute, could they somewhere?
Ballpark? About 40K. I could probably do it for a third as much, maybe less, now that I have. There were costly rookie mistakes that I made, sometimes. Something to consider was that I often visited the graves on tightly scheduled trips. This was coming entirely out of my own pocket, minus a couple thousand I collected through a GoFundMe project. If I was delayed because a particular grave was difficult to find, I ran the risk of losing daylight and having to extend trips. There were also a few cases where I had to go back to the same place a second time, either because I hadn’t fully done all the research, or because a new inductee had been buried in a town I had already visited. I haven’t officially shut down the GoFundMe, but I am about to. I am no longer taking donations towards the project. It feels a little odd to do that now that it’s done. However, I would love for anyone who was interested in chipping in to instead buy a second copy of the book and share it with a friend.
How has the Pandemic Baseball Book Club been something to keep you productive during these times?
It has! It’s been great working with this brilliant, funny group of authors. It is also a humbling experience. We are all sharing each other’s books among ourselves and as I read the work of my colleagues I am blown away. They are so talented, their dedication to research so admirable, and their individual ways of loving the game so enjoyable. Having a chance to be a part of something like this will all go towards making me a better writer on the next one.
How it goes in the scorebook
A trip around the diamond like no other. But it could have been a much more enjoyable trip if presented in a fashion dedicated to the heart of the project.
Not as colorful as we imagined, based on having seen the flickr photos and now seeing them in black-and-white. Not as easy to read, based on each page having two columns of type for some odd reason. A paperback version instead of hardback also doesn’t give it the full presentation it deserves.
But that shouldn’t deter from the essence and heart of the content.
We easily sense how this became a mission that needed to be taken on and told. Especially when it starts at the general burial site of Sol White — unmarked, in a communal grave in an African-American cemetery established on Staten Island. That become a chapter to itself, as does one on Cristobal Torriente because, as Carhart writes, “perhaps more than any other graves in the project, (they) had the most profound effect on me.”
It should not only be be noted, and we should be thanking him: Carhart helped get a headstone installed in 2013 for White, a Negro leagues star who died in 1955. He has also helped facilitate a headstone for Torriente, who he began suspecting was buried in Queens after traveling to Cuba in 2014.
It all should have a profound effect on all readers as well, with the unexpected finds, interesting stories and even more context than expected. That’s the fun of the journey.
In “The Wax Pack,” we got a taste of a baseball road trip when Brad Balukjian tried to connect to former MLB players he had in a collection of baseball cards. It became a cathartic trip for him.
In “Oscar Charleston: The Life and Legend of Baseball’s Greatest Forgotten Player,” we got to see Jeremy Beer finds the grave site of the mostly forgotten Negro League player who helped the Dodgers at the end of his career in their push toward integration.
With “The Hall Ball,” we see the spirit of the journey and the honoring of the past come together with reverence and perseverance.
Perhaps today’s MLB doesn’t give back to the fans the way we once remembered. But if a fan (and dragging his wife and two daughters around with him) is willing to go to all corners of the country and beyond to thank former players for their careers, and what it has meant to a society, books with imagination that chronicle projects such as this are to be encouraged and embraced.
More to know
== A link to Stew Thornley’s website that marks the exact location of every deceased Baseball Hall of Famer’s grave site. With photographs.
== The Baseball Hall of Fame is preparing to re-open on Friday according to New York state guidelines. “On behalf of the National Baseball Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors and our entire staff, we look forward to welcoming visitors back to Cooperstown to celebrate the game we love,” said Tim Mead, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “Members of our staff have worked tirelessly to prepare and enact plans that will allow us to open our doors. Throughout this process, the health and well-being of our staff and our visitors has remained paramount.” Timed-entry tickets to purchase for admittance are at baseballhall.org.