A Review of THE HALL BALL

May 27, 2021
The Hall Ball: One Fan’s Journey to Unite Cooperstown’s Immortals with a Single Baseball, by Ralph Carhart. (McFarland: Jefferson, NC), 2020.  $29.95

 

I don’t know how to review this book, because I don’t know how to read it. It’s not a book to be read in sequence, it wasn’t written in sequence, and in some senses it’s not a book at all, except in the sense that it’s in between two covers and has a title and author and a Foreword (by John Thorn, generous and witty as ever) and all that. Also, it’s sort of morbid in concept, which may not be to everybody’s taste.

What Ralph Carhart did was to get it in his head that he would like to take a baseball and photograph that ball next to every member of the Hall of Fame, which would be a strange ambition in itself except that most of the members of Hall of Fame are presently deceased, in which case Carhart would photograph the ball next to those deceased persons’ graves.

The photographs themselves are unspectacular—if you’ve seen one headstone, you’ve probably seen enough to satisfy your hankering to see a few hundred more. But the concept is sort of staggering. It’s the sort of concept that, for most of us, best resides inside one’s head. "Hmmmm, I could take a picture with hundreds of elderly gentlemen and hundreds of headstones all across the nation holding the self-same baseball. Prolly wouldn’t take but a few years of my life, a few thousand dollars in travel and expenses, plus whatever research and pleading I’ll need to do—great idea! But the lawn needs mowing just now…."

It’s a book that defies organization. Any geographically based project does. Do you want to start in Maine, work your way slowly down the east coast, and proceed to circle the nation along its borders, and then do several more clockwise circumnavigations of the interior states? Or do you want to tackle it state-by-state? In alphabetical order? In order of personal convenience and proximity? Do you want to place a priority on the living Hall of Famers, on the premise that the dead ones will stay dead for a long time, and require less persuasion to pose for a photo? Where’s your cut-off? That is, the Hall will keep electing new members all the time—does your project stop when the book comes out, or do you keep traveling with the baseball to every newly elected HoFer in the aims of completionism? Maybe you combine various methods, visiting old ballplayers and older graves randomly, and organize the book around the random order in which you were able to get photographs taken, making the story one of your personal saga, rather than a narrative of the photographs themselves.

The Hall Ball is sort of like a reference book. You don’t open reference books on page one, and read the rest of the book in order, do you? No, you hop around in them, as your needs and whims take you.

All that said, it’s a surprisingly enjoyable book, even if you don’t see much value or method in the Hall of Fame itself. I was surprised by the people who made Carhart’s cut sometimes because I was occasionally surprised to find that "He’s in the Hall in Fame? I had no idea." Or sometimes even "Who’s he?" If you think of election to the Hall as being fairly arbitrary, especially at the edges, reading The Hall Ball is something like a random hop through the Baseball Encyclopedia. Carhart devotes a paragraph or three to each entry, each containing a hodgepodge of baseball trivia, some shop-worn but others odd and fascinating, and usually accompanied by an anecdote of how each photo (of grave or man) came to be photographed.

These anecdotes were among the most lively parts of the book. You might suppose that taking a snapshot (usually on a standard iPhone camera with whatever lighting was available) of graves and men (and one woman) would be a routine matter, but some of the men in particular responded to Carhart’s request to pose holding the Hall Ball (so marked with those three words: "THE HALL BALL") intelligently and warmly while others were snide, rude, or downright abusive to Carhart.

I found the rudeness especially fascinating. After all, these men are among the most widely photographed people of all time, and most of them were located for this book by Carhart’s trekking all across the country to card-signing shows, personal appearances, inductions at Cooperstown, and the like. In other words, they were there to be gaped at, recognized, fawned over, and yes photographed by anyone with a cell phone. Nonetheless, some of them seemed to resent Carhart, his ambitious project (which he summarized for each of them in a fast, prefatory eighty-eight-word explanation), and the prospect of posing for a photo with the Ball, out of all proportion to the brief process.

Some examples:

When he made his pitch to Johnny Bench, at the 2014 induction ceremony at Cooperstown (where he took many of his photographs over the years), Bench’s response was "So you’re that kind of asshole."

Another JB, Jim Bunning, heard Carhart’s explanation but turned away from him and said, to someone else, "Take me to my plane."

Nonetheless, the two JBs did ultimately stand for a photo. (Carhart’s rejoinder to Bench was a mild "Yes, sir, I’m that kind of asshole," which humble admission may have induced Bench to pose, although Carhart notes he sighed heavily and then swayed throughout the 15-second photographic ordeal, making for a blurry photo.)

Others flat-out refused to pose with the baseball, but agreed finally to do it for a fee. Bob Gibson set a rate of $150 for serving as a model, and the lovely Randy Johnson set an even higher fee for Carhart to capture his handsome face photographically. "Capture" indeed—I was reminded of aboriginal tribesmen whose souls, they felt, would be incarcerated in the camera if they were to permit a photograph of them to be taken. Of course, anyone has the right to refuse a stranger requesting a favor of him, and I’m sure there is a significant downside to being a celebrity out in public, constantly besieged by beseeching strangers requesting odd, intrusive, and time-consuming favors for free, but it’s fascinating how many ballplayers set conditions, terms, fees, and rudeness in Carhart’s path to taking a quick photo of them holding a baseball.

Then there were those who ultimately did not agree, under any conditions, to be photographed by Carhart, whose success rate with living HoFers was a mere 98.1 %, or approximately Tom Seaver’s or Nolan Ryan’s proportion of the vote for the Hall of Fame. Oddly enough, Seaver and Ryan were among that small number of living (at the time) Hall of Famers who refused Carhart’s request, most of them refusing even to acknowledge Carhart’s repeated attempts to contact them. (Almost all of these six men were extremely high vote-getters: in addition to Seaver and Ryan, they were Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Willie McCovey. Is there something about striking out a lot of batters that equates with an uncooperative attitude towards posing for a photo? Beyond Seaver, Ryan, Koufax, Bunning, the comely Randy Johnson, and Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton also gave Carhart a hard time.) Some of these men were gravely ill at the time of Carhart’s request, and as I say, none of them bore the slightest responsibility to agree to being photographed. In addition, there is always the large probability that he caught the rudest or the most guarded of these men on a bad day, and perhaps they would have been among the most cooperative of subjects on almost any other day. Still, it’s instructive for anyone who might ever interact with any sort of celebrity: it’s a mixed bag of reactions that you will get from approaching any one of them, and very often a surprise, even a shock. Personally, I’ve found the major leaguers I’ve had a chance to meet completely random in their friendliness, shyness, gruffness, kindness, decency—just like any other batch of people I might meet, I suppose.

Carhart also had some heart-warming encounters with his potential photographic models. Ernie Banks, of course, was pure sunshine and delight, but I was pleasantly surprised to find geniality beaming from the faces of Mike Piazza, Lou Brock, Pedro Martinez, Alan Trammel, and others. These are quotidian encounters, for the most part, but it’s just as pleasant to find major league stars exuding cooperation and humility as it is unpleasant to read about them acting as if they were merely surly, cranky, churlish, difficult men of retirement age.

Apart from the problems and pleasures of photographing the living, the photos and stories of the dead have their own appeal. Some have magnificent, king-like tombs (are you surprised that Joe DiMaggio’s grave is on a scale with Tutankhamen’s?) while others are buried in mass unmarked graves. Certain grave-photos are completely desolate, such as the one of Pinones Beach in San Juan, where wreckage of Roberto Clemente’s doomed plane washed up. Carhart’s tour of graveyards took him far and wide, to almost every state in the union (there’s no HoFer buried in Alaska or Utah and maybe one or two others), and to several foreign sites as well—some states, like Oklahoma, have a single HoFer buried in it (Lloyd Waner, in the case of Oklahoma, where the wind comes whipping ‘cross the plain) while others feature multiple Famers.  

The Hall Ball project uses juxtaposition. Because we tend to associate players with the cities they played in, or sometimes the places they were born, we don’t usually have a clue where they rest in peace, or whom they rest alongside of. It will be hard for me not to link pairs of players, such as Harry Heilman and Charlie Gehringer or Billy Herman and Gary Carter or Cap Anson and Kenesaw Mountain Landis, now that I know they are buried in the same cemetery.

I keep using the word "buried" but many are interred otherwise: entombed in above-ground mausoleums, cremated, lost at sea, and in the case of Ted Williams, cryogenically preserved for the ages. Carhart visited the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona where Williams’ body "is being kept," as they express it, presumably awaiting such future time as it can be revivified and perhaps once again smack doubles off the Green Monster. Carhart was able to photograph only the general part of the facility that contains the "dewars" of its clients, defined as "the freezing containers," and not specifically the one that Williams is resting in. (This is the one instance in which the word "resting" is not entirely a euphemism.)  His entire body, and not just his head, incidentally, is in one of these dewars.  (If I end up cryogenically preserved, I will insist on being placed in a Laphroaig or a Glenlivet at the least. If I’m going to be there for centuries, why not sip on the smoothest?)

In one of the book’s weirder episodes (weirder than a man cryogenically preserved? I think "Yes"), Carhart tells of holding the actual skull of a Hall of Famer, the Cuban slugger Cristobal Torriente, in his hands—too long and convoluted a tale to be retold here, Torriente’s life, death, and the search to discover his burial site, to say nothing of how his skull ended up in Carhart’s hands, or how a Cuban ex-spy provided the key to Torriente’s grave, is a story that crosses many waters and takes Carhart on a long, complicated journey.

Other juxtapositions include historical oddities, such as Carhart’s realization when he visited the grave of his father’s hero, Mickey Mantle, how close Mantle’s grave lay to the site of the assassination of his mother’s hero, John F. Kennedy.  Sometimes he crossed paths with historical figures without realizing it: he notes that Walter Johnson is buried in Rockville MD, just outside the city he pitched in, but doesn’t note that that same cemetery holds the final resting place of one of my role models, F. Scott Fitzgerald, whose grave I have visited several times while never paying the slightest attention to Johnson’s grave nearby in the tiny burial ground.  I will look for the Big Train on my next pass through Rockville.

I’m sure we all can connect with the various burial sites Carhart details. There probably are some that you, wherever you happen to live, are within easy driving distance of but of which you may be entirely unaware. I’ve mentioned that I used to live within walking distance of Jackie Robinson’s grave, and passed it (on the elevated J train) twice daily on my way to and from work, but Carhart reminds me of the other graves nearby that I could have visited as well: Wee Willie Keeler, as I mentioned here, https://www.billjamesonline.com/a_portal_to_the_19th_century/  is buried in the same cemetery as another literary figure, Nathanael West (who died within 24 hours of Fitzgerald), and there are many other HoFers buried in and around New York City, particularly in Brooklyn’s Green-Wood Cemetery, a gigantic final resting place for many numerous famous New Yorkers, as well as a former battleground in the Revolutionary War, which is how it got started as a place for burials.

While I don’t think of myself as particularly morbid, I never know quite what to do in a cemetery, though I do enjoy visiting them. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, so praying in any form is out of the question, and I don’t believe in the existence of a soul, so there’s no use in communing with the dead, and I don’t think much of performing symbolic gestures, such as laying flowers or pebbles on the graves, or—well, much of anything, even at the gravesides of people I knew quite well personally, such as my parents or other close relatives. So all I do usually is look properly somber, out of respect for those who are praying or communing with the spirits of the dead, and think about the lives of those below the ground.

It takes a lot to offend me, but I must say that I did not take it well when reviewing a film last year on F. Scott Fitzgerald (not for BJOL) in which two amateur historians broke into song (an Elvis Presley tune, as I recall) and did a soft-shoe dance, literally, on Fitzgerald’s grave. Carhart seems to bring the appropriate proportion of decorum and curiosity on his graveyard visits. He breaks the rules occasionally (he had to swipe a ladder or two to photograph the elevated graves of certain players and umps) but he comports himself and his mission well throughout. Even for those disinclined to pay visits to burial sites, he writes about his travels in a respectful and informative way.

It’s amusing the way certain players regarded him and the Hall Ball project as wacky beyond the bounds of decency. It’s almost as if no one bothered to explain to Tommy Lasorda or Don Sutton, to name two Dodgers who didn’t understand each other very well, how enshrinement in the Hall of Fame would necessarily have them encountering folks like Ralph Carhart who have ideas or projects or missions that they might find unusual. Lasorda asked Carhart to repeat his introductory explanation, word-for-word, before agreeing to pose holding the Hall Ball, and then posed with the most perturbed expression on his face in the whole book, and Sutton was a little freaked out when Carhart mentioned the cemeteries, finally agreeing to sit for a photograph. "I still think you’re a squirrel," he felt obliged to inform Carhart. Some folks are just squeamish (you might say "squirrely") on death-related subjects, as if it’s something that doesn’t happen if you don’t think about it. I didn’t know Sutton was among them.

I admire Carhart’s passion to complete his task—in fact, I admire most completionists, even when I can find little value in whatever they’re obsessed with completing, but in his case, the details interest me and they make a rollicking good story.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story are Carhart’s failures: the 1.9% of the HoFers who refused being immortalized (again) by his project (he refers to them as his six "white whales," noting that would make him a maddened, peglegged, blasphemous lunatic of a sea-captain) and most interesting of all, Cooperstown’s refusal to accept the Hall Ball into the Hall.

He had hoped all along as he pursued his project that the actual Hall of Fame would eventually accept it into their hallowed halls, but as it turned out, no.

Their Acquisitions Committee refused to give the Hall Ball a home, for reasons Carhart doesn’t fully understand, nor do I, nor will any of you, I think, but as he notes, the book version is a substantial enough end for the project. Not only can you buy the book, and hold it in your hands, and marvel over its contents (a hell of a lot of cheaper and easier than schlepping to Cooperstown) but you can do so any time you like.

And as it happens, Carhart was able to donate the ball itself, and assorted goodies that went into its story, to the Baseball Reliquary, housed at Richard Nixon’s alma mater, Whittier College in Pasadena, California, so you can visit it there when you’re in the neighborhood. It’s sort of an oddball Baseball Hall of Fame, featuring oddities like Eddie Gaedel’s game-used jockstrap and Dock Ellis’s hair curlers—Jim Bouton referred to the room, formally known as Whittier’s "Shrine of Eternals," as "the people’s Hall of Fame."  

If nothing else, its placement there gives you an excuse, if you need one, for a road trip sometime. Maybe you’ve already been to Cooperstown, and need to visit Pasadena to complete your list of Baseball Halls of Fame by visiting its complement on the West Coast—if you don’t already have such an obsession, you can start one.

Or you can just buy a copy of The Hall Ball, which in any case I strongly recommend.

 
 

COMMENTS (13 Comments, most recent shown first)

Jaytaft
I just ordered the book. Thanks. I get huge, crazy ideas almost every day but, sadly, I'm no completionist.
8:22 PM Jun 8th
 
Rich Dunstan
I was a little surprised to see McCovey on that list, but it could be the timing, as he was pretty sick late in life. He was my favourite player, so when he was elected to the hall, I wrote a column about him in the newspaper I worked at. I sent him a copy, which I later learned was tactless, since I had praised him at the expense of Orlando Cepeda and it turns out they were extremely good friends. Notwithstanding, he sent me an autographed postcard of himself in return.
5:37 PM May 29th
 
steve161
Sorry to lose you, Steven. Your uniquely literary voice has enriched the site.
5:31 AM May 29th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, steve161--I relied on Carhart for my southern California geography. He could have told me that Whittier College was located in Nome, Alaska, and I would have reported that as factual.

This was my final article for BJOL, btw. Bill has decided that my services--185 articles over the past almost-six years--are no longer needed, though I would imagine that all 185 articles will remain posted on the site. Anyone who would like to contact me can do so at stevengoldleaf@gmail.com, and 179 of the articles will appear on Authory.com/StevenGoldleaf in any event. I appreciate all those who've had kind things to say about my writing, and even those who've had unkind things to say about them. Best wishes to all. It's been a blast.
5:38 AM May 28th
 
steve161
Just a nit: Whittier College is in Whittier, CA (both the town and the school are named for John Greenleaf Whittier, and the college's teams are the Poets). If you go looking for it in Pasadena, you'll be some distance from your target. The drive from the Rose Bowl to the college will take you 35-40 minutes in moving traffic, so plan for an hour or more.

The Reliquary was founded in 1996 in Monrovia, which is closer to Pasadena than it is to Whittier. Perhaps that is the source of the confusion. It relocated to Whittier College in 2015. Full details are available at Wikipedia. Attempts to access its website are rejected with "403 Forbidden".

I know two alumni of Whittier College. One is a friend I've known since we were 14, the other is my niece Rachel, now 28. Her graduation was the occasion of my last visit to the college. It took place outdoors in 105 degree heat. They passed out hats, thus no doubt preventing numerous cases of sunstroke.
5:06 AM May 28th
 
georownd
I appreciate the reference to Glenlivet...
9:35 PM May 27th
 
Fireball Wenz
I can imagine AJ Liebling doing this extremely well.
9:34 PM May 27th
 
villageelliott
If [i]you[i] are fascinated by the rudeness...
5:47 PM May 27th
 
Steven Goldleaf
Sutton (and some others) seemed to think anything associated with death, including that word, was morbid. Of course, he may have rethought his position in light of recent developments.
12:34 PM May 27th
 
evanecurb
I knew a guy who worked in a cemetery; you may have heard of him - Doug Graves :)
11:07 AM May 27th
 
evanecurb
Sounds like a fun project! Two things: quotiidan is a new word for me - thank you for that. And Bill James is in the Hall of Eternals, inducted a few years ago. He went to Pasadena for his induction, which I think is admirable. I think it's admirable for celebrities to show up when they receive awards.
11:06 AM May 27th
 
bhalbleib
And is it really morbid to be interested in cemeteries? Baby Face Nelson is buried somewhere in the cemetery where my father in law is buried and I do spend a little time every Memorial Day looking for his grave. (it's a big and old cemetery so there is a lot to explore and I haven't found it yet)​
11:03 AM May 27th
 
bhalbleib
2nd book I have now purchased on your recommendation (1st one was the 69 Mets book). I expect to be as pleased this time as I was with the first one. Thank you in advance.
10:55 AM May 27th
 
 
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