Of the folk in the past quarter-century who have altered perceptions of baseball and its relationship with American history, Terry Cannon
deserved to be the last man standing. But life is inherently unfair, and the life's work of a man who contained more multitudes than any present-day "public spokesman" for the game was cut short this past weekend. (Terry was only 66: by rights, he had another fifteen years coming to him, but such was not to be.)
And so those who appreciate Cannon's unique achievements--a singular combination of intellect and charm, buttressed by a barely repressible whimsy--must wonder about the great torso he has left behind. The Baseball Reliquary
was always a work in progress, but it now faces its truest and most fateful of all possible "Rubicon" moments.
Its depth and substance are (mostly) not in dispute, but was it dependent on a cult of personality? Its Shrine of the Eternals--a far more felicitous and wide-ranging group of personages than Cooperstown--requires a guiding hand to continue its project. And it needs someone to keep the Reliquary ritual intact--the cowbell, the unlikely rendition of the National Anthem prior to the keynote address and the Shrine inductions. Can anyone possibly be as amusingly dead-pan as Cannon in his role as overseer and master of ceremonies?
We will need to find out--and such a discovery is, fortunately enough, deferred due to even greater tragedies that are playing out in America this summer. Presuming that we emerge relatively intact from the effort of the majority to throw off the tyranny of the minority, we'll be able to turn our attention to preserving this sacred-yet-profane anti-institution as the manifestation of a "People's Hall of Fame" in a way that honors Cannon's unique vision and provides a platform for it to take hold as more than the "quirky West Coast phenomenon" that various factions wish to dismissively characterize it as being.
As Executive Director of the Reliquary, Terry Cannon brought together a matchless sense of art curation, historical sweep, unwaveringly and unapologetically left-leaning cultural orientation, and a serious case of silliness to his brain child. He had a great deal of help: his wife Mary
, the wise counsel whose behind-the-scenes efforts brought an anchoring stability; conceptual partner Albert Kilchesty
, the voluble polymath whose writerly skills were so outlandish that they obscured Cannon's own formidable talents; allies and project coordinators such as Tomas Benitez
and Kerry Jo Nakiyama
, who opened our eyes to baseball's impact on immigrant communities; and a bevy of accomplished writers from John Schulian
to David Davis
, who recognized the depth of the cultural synthesis that lay beneath the irreverent, playful veneer of the organization.
The most important of these allies, however, has been artist Ben Sakoguchi
, whose incredible series of baseball history paintings are the pictorial embodiment of what the Reliquary is all about. The symbiosis between Cannon's project and Sakoguchi's unflagging visual invention is one of those rare occurrences where concept and object merge as one without the need for a physical partnership. In a perfect world, Sakoguchi's series of orange crate art-styled baseball paintings would reside in a Reliquary museum, where their shared connection in a more encompassing world-view of baseball's cultural importance and its (often subterranean) impulse for progressive change could be displayed and celebrated.
Cannon had originally felt that the Reliquary should be a "stateless" anti-organization, but he was persuaded to change his mind a few years ago--and his association with Whittier College, where the Institute for Baseball Studies has been housed, helped to put in place a broader platform for events and projects that otherwise were subject to the vagaries of finding appropriate and available venues. The first effort of those following in Terry's footsteps will be to ensure that this arrangement continues.
Why do we need a Shrine of the Eternals? The answer to that is another question: why do we need fresh air? While Cannon and the Reliquary leaned left, the hard-core political content was not worn on its sleeve; while progressive elements and individuals (people of color, women, LGBTQ) had a home in the organization's cultural outreach, these elements blended into its insistence that the idea of an American melting pot was neither moribund nor passé. The Shrine of the Eternals was the perfect instrument to impart such a message to the rest of the baseball community busy factionalizing itself.
It is still that perfect instrument, and it needs to be continued. In 2021, the three inductees from this year will be given their belated due: Rube Foster, the ebullient but tragic Negro Leagues pitcher and entrepreneur; Max Patkin, one of baseball's most fabled clowns; and Bob Costas, the highly-regarded media figure whose reverence for baseball history in its larger sense is unique amongst his peers. Instead of conducting the traditional vote for 2021, the new leadership of the Reliquary should re-iterate their commitment to the literary vision of baseball and its history that is at the bedrock of its mission. They should focus their future efforts around these ideas by adding three inductees for 2021 who capture this better than any others:
--First, Terry Cannon
himself. Cannon's deadpan showmanship, networking skills, and boyish irreverence have kept hidden his other skills, including his own writing. His last act as Reliquary director was to pen a firm but fair rebuttal to the estimable Historian of Baseball, John Thorn,
who had questioned the long-term commitment of 2001 Eternal inductee Jim Bouton to the Baseball Reliquary
. It is a masterful piece of writing, revealing facets about Bouton's viewpoints and character (and his ongoing devotion to the Reliquary) that even his indefatigable biographer Mitchell Nathanson
was unable to capture.
And, of course, the man who thought up and nurtured the Shrine in the manner of a patient but ever-vigilant gardener, is himself an Eternal.
--Second, the great nineteenth-century baseball writer-scholar David Nemec
, whose work takes us back to the dawn of the professional game in America and whose obsession for completism has brought us more information and grassroots insight about baseball's early years than any other writer (even the estimable Thorn, whose approach is loftier and more academic--probably more suited for enshrinement in that East Coast institution). Nemec's multivalent skills as historian and novelist permitted him to write a fascinating novel about baseball in the "exploding year" of 1884, a book with a title that evokes much about what remains important and essential about the spirit within baseball: Early Dreams
Others may eventually eclipse his historical work, but Nemec is the giant upon whose shoulders they will still be standing.
--Third, and not least, the great lexicographer of baseball, Paul Dickson
, whose Baseball Dictionary is one of the game's most essential cultural and historical resources. Like Nemec, Dickson's interests span beyond baseball, but there is something incandescent in their obsession with the game that exemplifies what the Reliquary has been endeavoring to cement into the minds of its membership (and all others who may yet hear its clarion call)--a transcendental relationship between the National Pastime and the nation that still needs it, warts and all.
These three individuals are each Eternals, each an individual who is not reproducible or repeatable in baseball history. The argument for bypassing the standard election process is predicated on the idea that these three capture the essence of what those of us who should appreciate, support and sustain in the impulse to engage with baseball as more than a set of statistics, or as a media spectacle. These choices reconfirm that the Reliquary is a place for a Platonic communion with a game that, unlike any others, takes us back to childhood--reminding us that even in a nation currently torn asunder by chaos and corruption there are symbols that can help us to transcend our ills, forgive our trespasses, and deliver us from evil.
That is why the Baseball Reliquary and the Shrine of the Eternals must continue, so that the vision of the Good Shepherd Terry Cannon cannot, and will not, vanish from the earth. Godspeed to you, Terry, and thanks for everything.
: Richard Sandomir
, jack-of-all-trades at the New York Times
, has published a thoughtful, detailed tribute
to Terry today. In it, he notes that a large portion of Terry's sizable collection of baseball memorabilia will be transferred to Whittier College (where the Reliquary-related Institute for Baseball Studies
is located), and that Joseph Price, a Whittier College professor emeritus, was tapped by Terry to guide the Reliquary to the other side of the Rubicon. Best of luck, Joe.
And from it, we've appropriated what is perhaps the most indelible photo of Terry that is publicly available--an image that reminds us that Terry was born near Detroit and retained his attachment to the Tigers even after relocating to California, where his true calling awaited him. We propose that the Reliquary brain trust invest some of their not-so-plentiful cash in a standee of Terry that can ensure that he will always be present at Shrine of the Eternals induction ceremonies; his puckish sense of humor would surely appreciate the fact that such a presence would ironically echo the efforts of present-day baseball to keep a strange semblance of humanity on hand even as ballparks across America were kept empty in 2020 so that the show could go on.