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 Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - RICHARD SANDOMIR

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.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

The Base­ball Hall of Fame in Coop­er­stown, N.Y.

ASSOCIATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Base­ball fans pe­ruse a gallery of plaques of play­ers hon­oured from 1936 to 2003.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Canada

© PressReader. All rights reserved.