By David Davis
PASADENA, Calif. -- Manny Mota stood on-stage at the Pasadena Central Library, holding his right hand in front of his body as if he were a traffic cop signaling vehicles to stop.
Arrayed in front of Mota were his wife, his children, three rows of assorted family members and friends, and some 200 baseball fans, standing and cheering one of the finest pinch-hitters the game has ever known, someone so adept at coming off the bench cold that, after he had retired as an active player to coach for the Dodgers in 1980, manager Tommy Lasorda summoned him from the first-base coach's box to pinch-hit for Fernando Valenzuela in the thick of the pennant race -- and Mota, then 42, came through with an RBI single.
When the applause died down and the assemblage was seated, the 75-year-old Mota attempted to speak. But he was so choked with emotion that he had to pause to swallow his sobs. Then he delivered in the clutch, as he had done so many times in his 20-year career, and thanked his family and the crowd in English and Spanish.
"I am fortunate and blessed that I have been able to do what I love most -- play the game of baseball," he said. "I stand here today before you with a humble heart filled with a lot of gratitude."
Welcome to the annual induction ceremony of the Shrine of the Eternals, the people's alternative to the Baseball Hall of Fame. Whereas the sportswriters who select the honorees at Cooperstown value statistical data above all other criteria, the Shrine pays tribute to those individuals whose talents transcend batting averages and ERAs: the rebels and the renegades, the comics and the misfits, the obscure and the irreverent, the literary and the profane, the pioneers and the game-changers.
Someone like… Manny Mota. He not only turned pinch-hitting into an art form -- and made it a respectable occupation for veteran ballplayers -- but he was among the first wave of quality exports from the Dominican Republic. His success, and his decades-long tenure as a Dodgers coach, helped pave the way for the current generation of stars from the DR.
Mota was one of three honorees inducted last weekend in a ceremony that was part performance art and part nostalgic storytelling. He entered the Shrine alongside Francis "Lefty" O'Doul, a superb hitter who forged hardball ties with Asia (and whose San Francisco saloon may well have been the first sports bar in the beer-drinking universe), and Eddie "The King" Feigner, the barnstorming softball legend who is credited with only 9,700 wins, 140,000 strikeouts and 930 no-hitters.
Feigner, O'Doul and Mota joined a select company of previous Shrine luminaries: Mark "The Bird" Fidrych, "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, Dock Ellis, Marvin Miller, Jim Bouton, Ila Borders, Pam Postema, Moe Berg, Curt Flood, Pete Rose, Fernando Valenzuela, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, Roger Maris, Pete Gray, Maury Wills, Roger Angell, Bill Veeck, Kenichi Zenimua, Casey Stengel, Lester Rodney, Jimmy Piersall, Jackie Robinson, Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Jim Eisenreich, Bill Buckner, Yogi Berra, Roberto Clemente, Rod Dedeaux, Bill James, Ted Giannoulas (aka The San Diego Chicken), Minnie Minoso, Buck O'Neil, Jim Abbott, Dick Allen, Jim Brosnan, Emmett Ashford, Steve Dalkowski, William "Dummy" Hoy, Luis Tiant, Jim "Mudcat" Grant, and Dr. Frank Jobe.
For those keeping score, the lineup features a one-armed outfielder (Gray); a female umpire (Postema), a catcher-turned-World War II spy (Berg); a journalist who wrote for a Communist newspaper (Rodney); a pitcher who claimed that he threw a no-hitter while tripping on LSD (Ellis); a pitcher who liked to sprinkle marijuana on his breakfast cereal (Lee); a pitcher who never played in the majors because he was too wild, but was said to have possessed the greatest arm the game has ever known (Dalkowski); a surgeon who revolutionized the field of sports medicine (Jobe); a union organizer who flipped the owner-player power structure in professional sports (Miller); groundbreaking Asian, Latino, and Negro League players; and a couple of fowl creatures.
"Statistics only tell part of the story and that isn't what's most interesting about the game of baseball," said Bouton, the former Yankee pitcher who took readers inside the locker-room with his best-selling book "Ball Four." "What's most interesting are the characters. The Shrine has excavated them and we see the humanity of them."
The Shrine of the Eternals is the brainchild of Terry Cannon, the executive director of the Baseball Reliquary, a non-profit organization that oversees the annual Shrine election. A Detroit Tigers fan who displays an oversized cardboard cutout of Sparky Anderson in his home in Pasadena, Cannon formed the Reliquary in 1996 to "foster an appreciation of American culture through the context of baseball history."
The Reliquary does not have a permanent space. But the absence of a physical building coincides with the group's overriding mission: to return a sense of imagination to the national pastime and to the fans who support it with their wallets.
"There's been very little corruption from our original vision," Cannon said. "We've stood the test of time."
Now 59, Cannon is deliberate in manner and sports a small paunch. His day job is as a part-time librarian. He keeps the Reliquary afloat with membership fees and donations, modest grants from arts and humanities organizations, support from his wife Mary and a crew of volunteers, pine tar and Topps chewing gum.
"Terry is such an open and trustworthy person that he's able to work with people from so many different backgrounds, from scholars to artists to filmmakers to the players themselves," said Reliquary prankster-in-chief Albert "Buddy" Kilchesty. "They in turn repay those qualities with their best efforts."
According to Bouton, Cannon is "a very unassuming guy who loves baseball. He probably loves baseball more than most people who are professionally involved in the game. He has turned it into a life's work."
Initially, the Reliquary was known for its cheeky objets d'art that Cannon and Kilchesty professed to have collected: a pair of satin panties allegedly worn by Margo Adams, the "road mistress" of third baseman Wade Boggs. A flour tortilla emblazoned with the visage of Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley. A souvenir baseball "autographed" by Mother Teresa. A hot dog desiccated by Babe Ruth.
These artifacts exist somewhere between myth and reality, between fact and fiction, as a tool to decipher out culture, according to Kilchesty. "The intent is to amuse, educate and enlighten," as Cannon put it.
Other projects have resonated beyond the absurd: baseball comedy shows, a baseball poetry CD, baseball art and photography exhibits, programs that honored long-forgotten icons like Louis Sockalexis, Emmett Ashford, and Quincy Trouppe. Long before his work appeared in the pages of Sports Illustrated, the Reliquary championed Ben Sakoguchi and his "orange crate label" oil paintings that depict an "unauthorized" history of the national pastime.
"The value of the Reliquary is that it immortalizes and memorializes that which may be otherwise forgotten," said director Ron Shelton ("Bull Durham"), who has known Cannon since each ran independent film programs back in the late 1970s. "It's about the real history of baseball."
The Reliquary organized a public happening entitled "Lasorda-palooza"-- an art and literary exhibition that chided and celebrated the Dodgers skipper -- and, in 2010, Cannon marked the 40th anniversary of the publication of "Ball Four" with a day-long festival that featured the world premiere of a documentary about the dearly departed Seattle Pilots. (Full disclosure: I moderated panels with Bouton that afternoon.)
More recently, the Reliquary has teamed with the John M. Pfau Library at California State University in San Bernardino on The Latino Baseball History Project. The collaboration has produced a traveling exhibition, oral histories and reunions, several symposia, and three books about the Mexican-American baseball scene in Southern California (with two other books in the planning stages).
Along the way, Cannon exhumed long-forgetten memorirs of the legendary Carmelita Chorizeros team, which he calls "the New York Yankees of the Mexican-American baseball league" in Southern California. "We've re-awakened that portion of baseball history," he said. "What we've uncovered in the Mexican-American community really needs to be done in other communities, including the Asian and African-American communities."
The Latino Baseball Project has brought widespread popular and academic respect and new devotees to the Reliquary. The organization now boasts over 300 members. (Anyone can join the Reliquary; among other perks, membership allows one to vote for the next class of Eternals.) San Francisco-based filmmaker Jon Leonoudakis joined up -- and then spent a year following the Reliquary to produce a full-length documentary entitled "Not Exactly Cooperstown."
Cannon is currently in discussions with a local university to house the Reliquary archives. The potential deal would give the Reliquary, which has long operated out of assorted storage facilities, a quasi-permanent home. "We would still operate traveling exhibits at various locales," Cannon said, "but this would give the public access to our research materials."
If Jim Bouton is a spiritual guru of the Reliquary, then its patron saint is the late Bill Veeck, Jr. The former owner of the St. Louis Browns, the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox, Veeck was a peg-legged maverick whose unconventional stylings shook up baseball's establishment. He sent a midget, Eddie Gaedel, up to pinch-hit, hired the first African-American ballplayer in the American League (Larry Doby) and created the exploding scoreboard (among many innovations).
Baseball was a business to Veeck, of course, but he also treated it as an amusement to be enjoyed in the bleachers with hundreds of your closest friends and a couple of adult beverages. As journalist John Schulian wrote upon Veeck's death, "He couldn't stomach the new breed of owners. They were broadcast moguls and fat cats' sons, egomaniacs almost to a man, hungry for power rather than purity and triumph rather than just a good time."
Veeck was in the first class of Shrine inductees, but while he's in the Hall of Fame, many of the other Eternals, such as blacklisted players Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson, are not. That speaks to the philosophical divide between the Shrine and the Hall.
"The inductees in the Shrine are there because they embody something about the essence of the game, the mythology without getting into simplistic views of heroism and accomplishment," Shelton commented. "These are the people who did things that aren't reflected in statistics, people who aren't from any cookie-cutter, All-American, pre-digested Wheaties Box paradigm. These are people who shouldn't be forgotten. There's not a Ryan Braun or an A-Rod in the bunch -- which isn't to say there isn't booze and all other manners of excess."
"There's a place for the Hall of Fame," Bouton said, "but they can't capture the bawdiness, the humor, that's part of the game. That's what Terry and the Shrine has done."
Indeed, the annual induction ceremony of the Shrine has come to define the vision of the Reliquary. The afternoon traditionally begins with the ringing of cowbells -- in honor of uber-fan Hilda Chester, of Ebbets Field fame, who cheered on her team with brio. Renditions of The National Anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" follow. Then come the honorees -- and, in no particular order, hilarity and poignancy.
Last weekend, Anne Marie Feigner, Eddie's widow, traveled from Florida to accept the plaque awarded to her late husband. Wearing a sparkling tiara and standing next to a well-worn wooden urn that contained The King's ashes (he died six years ago), she spoke about his life and career in a rambling address that boomeranged from anecdote to anecdote in no coherent order.
Her speech was in sharp contrast to Manny Mota's expression of gratitude to his family, the Dodgers organization, the game of baseball and the United States of America -- not to mention the low-key acceptance speech delivered by Tom O'Doul, a cousin of the late Lefty O'Doul who dared to appear in Southern California dressed in San Francisco Giants orange and black.
With three very different approaches, three people from very different backgrounds managed to express the exact same thing: their heartfelt passion for baseball. Perhaps only a grassroots organization like the Baseball Reliquary can bring these disparate characters together, talking about a game that the immortal Annie Savoy (as played by Susan Sarandon) so eloquently described in Shelton's masterful "Bull Durham":
"I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms and Isadora Duncan… The only Church that truly feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the Church of Baseball."
David Davis is the author of "Showdown at Shepherd's Bush: The 1908 Olympic Marathon and the Three Runners Who Launched a Sporting Craze." His work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, The New York Times and SB Nation.