New York State is the home of the Hall of
Fame, although most readers, knowing of my
long connection with the national pastime, will
think I refer to the Baseball Hall of Fame in
Cooperstown. Certainly that institution shaped
the halls that followed it, hallowed or hollow.
But baseball’s pantheon was New York’s, and
America’s, second. More on this in a bit.
Uniquely in our state, a cradle of national
culture with so many tangible remains of its
storied past, ghosts are our everyday neighbors.
To those who wish to enter into their largely
vanished world and learn how it still shapes us,
the Hall of Fame is an idea whose time may
seem passé, but I think it remains a potentially
vibrant notion. A regional hall of fame would
bring local and national attention to its host
city and county, extending the educational and
community development efforts of the region’s
museums, libraries, and historical societies.
How would the public be served? Could a regional
hall of fame, once founded, sustain itself in whole or
in part? How would the candidates for enshrinement
be nominated and inducted? These are operational
issues, for which useful precedents are available.
The original American Hall of Fame was not
the baseball institution in Cooperstown, which
opened in 1939, but the Hall of Fame for Great
Americans, dedicated in 1901 on what was then
a Bronx campus of New York University. In its
early years this brainchild of NYU’s Chancellor
Henry Mitchell MacCracken was a sensation, engaging
the public and the press in spirited debate
about who merited inclusion. The NYU Senate,
acting as a nominating committee in 1900,
received nominations from the public, and if
seconded by a Senator, that candidate advanced
to the vote. Initially, 50 outstanding Americans
were inducted; five people were to be added
each fifth year. Designed by Stanford White as
a sweeping semicircular arc with wings at either
end, the Hall of Fame’s 630-foot colonnade
provides niches for busts and commemorative
plaques of up to 150 honorees.
However, to date, the institution has honored
only 102 individuals. The election process appears
to have stalled as society’s notion of what
constitutes fame or greatness has changed to become more nearly synonymous with achievement
or even that contemptible darling of our
day, celebrity. It is instructive to look at the original
16 categories from which nominees to the
Hall of Fame for Great Americans might arise
(from the official 1900 “Rules for Election”):
1. Authors (Editors, Poets, Novelists,
Philosophers, Economists, etc.).
3. Preachers, Theologians.
6. Engineers, Architects.
7. Physicians, Surgeons.
9. Missionaries, Explorers.
10. The Military.
11. Lawyers, Judges.
13. Business Men, Philanthropists.
14. Artists (Musicians, Painters,
Sculptors, Actors, etc.).
16. Men and Women outside the foregoing
The quaintness of some categories became
increasingly evident and stimulated thoughts of
companion, if not rival, pantheons. As Richard
Rubin wrote in “The Mall of Fame”:
Four decades had passed since the establishment
of the Hall of Fame for Great
Americans, and the country had changed
quite a bit. We had conquered the world’s
greatest military power, only to be ourselves
laid low by the world’s greatest
economic crisis. Radio had emerged and
ushered us into the media age. Inventors
and scientists and statesmen and thinkers
were no longer the heroes of the day.
Athletes were. Yet not a single one had
made it into the Hall of Fame, and none
ever would. The hall’s standards of admission—
indeed, its defining mission—made
that impossible. [Atlantic Monthly 280(1):
14-18,1997, p. 16]
By honoring achievement in a single field,
the Baseball Hall of Fame seemed more in
tune with the times, so successful that few
people today know of the Hall of Fame for
Great Americans and believe Cooperstown patented the American concept, based of
course on the pantheon of Greek myth. Of
the 500 or more physical halls of fame in the
world today, most in the US, 140 are devoted
to sports, and hardly any are interdisciplinary.
If athletes could have their own halls of fame,
why couldn’t policemen, businessmen, clowns?
Today they do, in Miami Beach, Chicago, and
Delavan (Wisconsin), respectively. While many
of these institutions seem gratuitous or obscure
(Crayola Hall of Fame? Shuffleboard Hall of
Fame?), the best have done a public service
in following baseball’s model—a shrine that
honors its past, highlights its heroes, displays
its artifacts, and stimulates research. The Hall
of Fame for Great Americans was a great idea,
but noble statuary in a forlorn venue no longer
fires the imagination.
A regional hall of fame would aim for both
the specificity and educational thrust of the
Baseball Hall of Fame with the sweeping vision
of the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.
Artists and architects, novelists and poets,
military and political figures, and more …
“Great Americans” who won renown on a
national scale in substantial measure through
their regional accomplishments. Local bigwigs,
benefactors, noble mayors, and revered teachers
need not apply.
In a region where adaptive reuse is the watchword,
a Hudson River Hall of Fame would
give a public-spirited new focus to some grand
but troubled old building. It would generate
substantial publicity for other historical attractions
in the Valley. It would drive daily foot
traffic without prohibiting “private sector” use
of the main space to generate income through
special events. It would be home to the personalized
history of our region and restore to us
our heroes, from Alexander Hamilton to Rip
||John Thorn is the author
and editor of many
books, including Baseball
in the Garden of
Eden (New York: Simon
and Schuster, 2011). He
lives in Catskill, New
York. Copyright © John
This column appeared in Voices Vol. 38, Spring-Summer 2012. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.
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