PASADENA, Calif. – Just like a ballgame, the Baseball Reliquary began its 17th annual “Shrine of the Eternals” induction ceremony Sunday at the Pasadena Central Library with the National Anthem.
Unlike any ballgame I’ve ever seen, however, this version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” was, as Reliquary executive director Terry Cannon promised, “One for the Ages!”
The Reliquary is known for opening its meetings with unusual anthem renditions. The lady who whistled it, say. The behind-the-back fiddler …
But nobody – and I mean nobody – in the packed Donald R. Wright Auditorium was emotionally equipped for what Jackie Lee had in store.
Wearing a skintight beige-and-sequined bodysuit, the thin, ropy-muscled 82-year-old made her way onto the stage. She then laid some padding on the floor, bent over and carefully stood on her head.
Once balanced, Lee began to belt out the anthem in full and throaty operatic voice while accompanying herself with choreography of splits and other, um, artistic leg gestures.
“Ohhh, say can you seeeeee … .”
Honestly, I can’t say I really wanted to see.
“By the dawn’s early liiiiiight …”
Though, like passing a burning train derailment, I couldn’t look away.
Approaching the big finale, Lee hopped to her feet. Arms akimbo, she theatrically unleashed the last refrain.
“And the hoooome of the BRAAAVVVE!!!
Somewhere, I’m certain, the dry bones of Francis Scott Key juddered inside his crypt.
The Baseball Reliquary is not your ordinary shrine to the game.
Unlike stat-centric Cooperstown, the Reliquary reveres baseball from an arena of farce, folklore and fandom.
Lee smacked aspect one out of the park.
The latter category, however, is what put me in one of the padded theater seats on Sunday. I came to watch Tom Keefe, my pal and Spokane attorney, receive one of the Reliquary’s highest honors.
The Hilda Award is given annually to what this nonprofit organization perceives as baseball’s most deserving fan.
Keefe earned the recognition by founding the Eddie Gaedel Society in appreciation of the 3-foot-7 character who – in one of baseball’s most beloved stunts – batted once for the long-defunct St. Louis Browns.
The prank took place on Aug. 19, 1951, hatched by impish Browns owner Bill Veeck.
Gaedel drew a walk to nobody’s shock. The fans convulsed with glee.
In forming the nation’s first Gaedel club, Keefe figured it was time to give the diminutive fellow the respect he never received in life. (Save the date: The Society meets annually in downtown Spokane on Aug. 19 at O’Doherty’s Irish Grill & Pub.)
On Sunday, Keefe showed up with a posse that included his daughter, Julia, pub owner Tim O’Doherty, Eldon Johnson, one of Keefe’s high school buddies, society loyalist Tom Cox, yours truly and my baseball-loving son, Ben.
In receiving his Hilda (so named for cowbell-ringing Hilda Chester, a legendary Brooklyn Dodgers fan) Keefe brought down the house with his own rendition of another American chestnut.
“Three score and four years ago, Bill Veeck brought forth from the Browns dugout a new player, short in height, but dedicated to the proposition that a little guy could be a Big Leaguer.”
The Gettysburg Address will never be the same.
Adding to his passion, Keefe came garbed in a full and realistic-looking Browns uniform with “Gaedel” imprinted on the back.
“It’s more Eddie’s day than mine,” Keefe explained after the ceremony.
Winning the Hilda “validates the Eddie Gaedel Society as an organization that celebrates fans. Eddie considered himself a red-hot fan.”
Gaedel, who died in 1961, said as much in a signed, typewritten letter. It can be seen in one of the many Reliquary display cases that are located throughout Pasadena’s sprawling public library, a lovely red-tiled example of Spanish-influenced architecture.
The Reliquary is funded in part by the Los Angeles County Arts Commission. It offers visitors a peek at everything from one of Babe Ruth’s half-eaten hotdogs to a “Slimfast!” shrine to Tommy Lasorda.
Even the athletic supporter Gaedel wore during his only at-bat is on display.
I know. Really.
Nearly all the relics and trophies found here have one thing in common. They represent the fanciful and fan-based side of the national pastime.
That ethic is applied to the annual three recipients who enter the Shrine of the Eternals through a vote of the Reliquary membership.
“Similar in concept to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the Shrine of the Eternals differs philosophically in that statistical accomplishment is not a criterion for election,” states a Reliquary handout.
Individuals are instead elected “on the basis of overall contributions” and the cultural impact they make on the game.
Sunday’s inductees were …
• Sy Berger (1923-2014), the Card Father, the man who “reinvented baseball cards for the baby boom generation.”
• Glenn Burke (1952-1995), the first major league ballplayer to acknowledge publicly that he was gay.
• Steve Bilko (1928-1978), the Babe Ruth of the Los Angeles Angels, the Pacific Coast League franchise.
Portly and good-humored, Bilko in his mid-1950s heyday was said to be more popular in L.A. than Marilyn Monroe. Known for swatting tape-measure homers, he “led the PCL in home runs for three consecutive seasons,” from 1955 to 1957.
The inductions were made special by friends and family members who came to accept the awards and speak intimately and emotionally about the winners.
Berger’s son Glenn, for example, quoted Conan O’Brien as marking his father’s death last year by quipping that, “He will be laid to rest in a shoebox somewhere in an attic.”
When it was all over the baseball fans did what you’d expect.
They shook hands and hung around and shared their love for the game.
Not me. I made a beeline for Jackie Lee, who opened her purse and showed me some of her Venice Beach bodybuilding photos and told me how she performed her first handstand at age 2.
To quote Randy Newman, “I love L.A.”