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Voices Spring-Summer 2012:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Play column The Legendary Hall of Fame by John Thorn here.
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Volume 38
Spring-Summer
2012
Voices

The Legenday Hall of Fame by John Thorn

Play 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.).
2. Educators.
3. Preachers, Theologians.
4. Reformers.
5. Scientists.
6. Engineers, Architects.
7. Physicians, Surgeons.
8. Inventors.
9. Missionaries, Explorers.
10. The Military.
11. Lawyers, Judges.
12. Statesmen.
13. Business Men, Philanthropists.
14. Artists (Musicians, Painters, Sculptors, Actors, etc.).
15. Naturalists.
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 Van Winkle.


 






John Thorn 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 Thorn.



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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