When baseball hall almost became mausoleum
Gehrig’s family looked at bringing his ashes to Cooperstown; instead, the Yankee great is honoured by 1 of 317 plaques
The plaque gallery at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown is a place of reverence for fans, who can gaze at the bronze images of 312 players, managers, umpires and executives affixed to the walls.
There is often a hush in the high-ceilinged room, which after Sunday’s annual induction ceremony has five new members: Ivan Rodriguez, Jeff Bagwell, Tim Raines, former commissioner Bud Selig and John Schuerholz, a top executive for the Kansas City Royals and Atlanta Braves.
They are now part of an American institution that, to this day, overshadows other sports’ Halls of Fame.
In effect, Cooperstown is a place where baseball can still comfortably claim to be the country’s No. 1 sport.
It is also a place that might have loomed even larger all these years if a long-ago plan to bring the cremated remains of Hall of Famers to Cooperstown had actually come to pass.
That story begins with Lou Gehrig, who was cremated on June 4, 1941, two days after his death at 37.
The urn containing his ashes was soon locked into a small crypt within his stone monument at Kensico Cemetery in Valhalla, New York.
The gravesite quickly became a lure for fans who wanted to pay their respects to the Iron Horse, whose career ended abruptly in 1939 when he was found to have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
So many people showed up at the gravesite that the grass became shoddy and worn down. Even Gehrig’s widow, Eleanor, stopped visiting.
Her lawyer Milton Eisenberg asked the cemetery in 1944 about the cost of erecting a chain and two poles at the entrance of the plot to discourage trespassers.
“She seeks, by this means, to keep picnickers out,” Eisenberg wrote in a letter to the cemetery.
And just two years later, the Gehrig family and the Hall of Fame began discussions about removing Gehrig’s ashes from Valhalla and sending them to Cooperstown. Gehrig’s parents raised the idea first. And it was subsequently reported by Fred Lieb, a sports writer close to the Gehrigs, in The Sporting News.
Soon after Lieb’s article was published, Stephen Clark, founder and president of the Hall, told Paul Kerr, its treasurer, of a plan he had thought up.
It would be part of a major addition to the museum that would double the Hall’s size when construction was completed in 1950.
Correspondence stored at the Hall details the discussions between the two men. “What would you think,” Clark asked Kerr at one point, of a “memorial tablet to be placed in the wall beneath Lou Gehrig’s tablet with a suitable inscription stating behind it are the ashes of Lou Gehrig?”
Kerr, according to the correspondence, responded with an even grander notion, in which the cremated remains of other members of the Hall could be brought to Cooperstown as well.
“If there are no legal or technical reasons why it should not be done,” he said. “I would think that a repository for the ashes of the immortals would add immeasurably to the creation of a shrine of baseball.”
Transforming the Hall of Fame into more than a museum was a bold thought, although it might have struck some as a little unsettling.
But Clark and Kerr were not kidding, according to the correspondence. They asked Harry St. Clair Zogbaum, the architect who had designed the annex, to sketch a large, outdoor stone memorial for Gehrig, according to documents in the Hall’s library.
Perhaps that would have been where the urn of ashes would actually have ended up. They also asked the village of Cooperstown, which is in upstate New York, for approval to bring cremated remains into the Hall.
Meanwhile, Kerr travelled to Valhalla to see the Gehrig gravesite and reported to Clark in early 1950 that a cemetery executive told him that he would be “very sorry to see Lou Gehrig removed” but that he agreed it was more appropriate for him to be in Cooperstown.
At some point after Gehrig’s parents first proposed sending their son’s ashes to Cooperstown, Eleanor herself embraced the idea. She was the guardian of her husband’s legacy, kept meticulous scrapbooks devoted to his life and career and vetted the script of “The Pride of the Yankees,” the movie made about his life and death.
Perhaps she also thought it would be better for her husband’s ashes to be in Cooperstown because of intrusions at the gravesite in Valhalla.
At one point, there might have even been an attempted break-in by someone trying to steal the urn, an episode she later recounted to her lawyer George Pollack, according to an article in The Post-Standard of Syracuse in 1995.
Until the summer of 1950, the correspondence continued between Eleanor Gehrig and Hall officials as they tried to agree on a plan to relocate the ashes.
But then the talks suddenly ended, perhaps because of a gossip item that July in The New York Daily News that spoke of the plan. Eleanor Gehrig’s lawyer John Looman reminded the Hall of Fame that “discretion” in their talks had been “of paramount importance” to avoid publicity.
After that, the talks never resumed. Nor did the ashes of other cremated Hall of Famers ever find a home in Cooperstown.
Jeff Idelson, president of the Hall, said that the desire of Gehrig’s parents and wife to send his ashes to Cooperstown “speaks volumes about the reverence they had for the Hall of Fame to protect and promote Lou’s legacy.”
“If it had come to fruition, it certainly would have been unique,” he said.
But even without the ashes, there is still Gehrig’s bronze plaque.
It was one of the first in the Hall and, after the latest inductions, it will be one of 317, part of an enduring monument that shows no signs of losing its hold on the American public.
The Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Baseball fans peruse a gallery of plaques of players honoured from 1936 to 2003.