Tuesday, July 04, 2006


Powered by Peter Schilling Jr.

Having won the stadium game, the Twins in their giddiness have asked the general public for suggestions to improve the new ballpark. The public has responded with ideas all over the map: from the usual (Puckett Park, great seating) to the unusual (wireless internet, removal of the men’s room trough) to the downright bizarre (robots, midget clowns, knishes). If history is any guide, now is the time for the clearheaded to get as vocal as they can, if only to avoid the garish nightmare that is the new Tiger Stadium, with its massive concrete bengals, Mao-sized photos of Ernie Harwell, and the now-diminished outfield fences.

But I’ll leave the dimensions, comestibles, and restrooms to the experts: my suggestion is a Minnesota Baseball Museum right in the park. For inspiration, one need only look to the south, to the Cincinnati Reds Hall of Fame Museum, perhaps the finest shrine to baseball outside Cooperstown. I had the good fortune to visit this wonderful place this spring.

“It’s important that a museum is done right, right from the start,” Greg Rhodes, director of the museum, told me. The Hall is located in its own wing of the recently constructed Great American Ballpark. The idea behind the museum has a long history: according to Rhodes, the Reds and their manic fans had been batting about ideas for over thirty years. When their new park was approved, the Reds took an informal survey of their fans, inquiring as to their wants and needs, much like the Twins are doing now. A museum was right at the top.

The Reds Hall of Fame Museum is an impressive spectacle, part nostalgia trip, history lesson, interactive sporting center, and, at the end, a nice tribute to the players who’ve worn the Redlegs uniforms through the decades. It helps that the Reds have the lengthiest history of any professional team—your first engagement with this storied past is a scale replica of a twenty-five foot wooden bat presented to the 1869 team. As you wind your way through the museum, you climb a set of stairs past a fifty-foot high “wall of balls” (their choice of words) that contains 4,256 baseballs, one for each of Pete Rose’s hits. If you’re lucky, as I was, you’ll be dogged by a friendly volunteer who makes mention of the elephant in the room—no, Pete Rose can’t be inducted into their Hall, either. “But we have just about everything else with his name and likeness on it,” he chuckled. “You can’t evade Pete.”

My favorite section was dedicated to that grand celebration, Opening Day. The Reds have the distinction of being the only team to always enjoy the start of the season at home. (The Senators could also make this boast, but lost that first game by moving to Minnesota and Texas). The Opening Day exhibit features photos dating back to the turn of the last century, old proclamations, newspaper headlines, and tributes to fan groups like the Rosie Reds—‘Rosie’ being an acronym for Rooters Organized to Stimulate Interest and Enthusiasm. Frankly, I can’t imagine a fan club of such zeal in this town, much less a city holiday, replete with a parade every opening day. As much as the new stadium will increase our team’s fortunes and our hometown pride, something tells me we won’t be marching down 5th Street in April anytime soon.

The Reds museum has wisely catered to children, giving them a number of interesting interactive exhibits that adults can appreciate—and embarrass themselves at—as well. I was able to impress one of our hosts by actually striking out the simulated ballplayer in a full count. Yes, it was from the usual sixty feet six inches. I kept from him the fact that a forty-mile-an-hour fastball without movement wouldn’t get past today’s little league, and gloated a bit over the K. The museum also gives patrons the opportunity to slam against a padded outfield wall, hit a major league fastball with the push of a button, and call a game in a television booth. All three resulted in a degree of embarrassment for everyone in our group.

In addition to a number of cool artifacts from the number of Reds champions, the actual Hall of Fame is the showcase of the museum. The room curves, and each plaque is suspended on wires, giving the place an almost heavenly feel. This was a far cry from the vinyl banners that now hang in the Metrodome. And according to Mr. Rhodes, the Hall is a real magnet for former players, who often return to admire their own plaques, or those of former teammates.

Needless to say, the Twins don’t have as rich a history. But they could still have one heck of a museum. You could counter their relative youth in a number of ways. First, the Twins could connect themselves to their original franchise, The Washington Senators. It seems a shame to me that we ignore this past, for the Senators had a number of Hall of Famers and, in Walter Johnson, perhaps the greatest pitcher in history of baseball. The Senators were the basis for the musical “Damn Yankees!”, were storied as one of the worst teams in the sport, and fan-fave Harmon Killebrew is one of the few notables who played for both. Finding artifacts shouldn’t be a problem: the Reds museum often elicits the goodwill of Cooperstown, and I would guess the Twins could augment their team’s historic displays with help from the Hall.

Even better, in my mind, would be to embrace the entire history of baseball in Minnesota. The Twins are famously a ‘state-oriented’ team, not from Minneapolis or St. Paul or Duluth, but Minnesota—why not have a reliquary that celebrates its very rich baseball history?

Consider the Minneapolis Millers, just for a start. Seventeen—count 'em—seventeen Hall-of-Famers wore the flannels of the Millers alone. There was Ted Williams, who was sold in 1938 to the Millers (then an independent team) for a tune-up on his way to the Red Sox. Willie Mays did not see as much of the grainy city, but still managed a respectable .477 in 38 games before the Giants figured they needed to hop on the kid’s back en route to the 1951 World Series. Negro League great Ray Dandridge—considered one of the finest third basemen in history—played the hot corner for three seasons, from 1949 to 1952. Left-handed ace Rube Waddell, who pitched for the Millers as his career (and health) winded down. Personally, I’d love to see a Splendid Splinter display and wonder to myself about a man who was a chronic walker, and try to imagine into which of our neighborhoods he took his long peregrinations.

At Nicollet Park you could have seen Hoyt Wilhem toss his famous knuckler, stood in awe at Monte Irvin out in center, heckled at “The Beast”, Jimmie Foxx, now coaching, and admired the less-than-colorful Carl Yastrzemski or Orlando Cepeda, to name but a few. A museum isn’t just a place to honor the past—staring at the gewgaws of our sport makes the present a mystery as well. The thought of these players at 31st and Nicollet makes that bleak corner seem so much more thrilling.

Other colorful characters made their way through town: future ‘atomic spy’ Moe Berg, whose photos of Tokyo during a Japanese barnstorming tour helped Doolittle bomb the place in '42; Pumpsie Green, the first African-American to integrate the Boston Red Sox (and the last team to do so); Satchel Paige’s barnstormers came through; two of the most memorable women ballplayers came through—Toni Stone of the Negro Leagues and Ila Borders of the Saints; and Van Lingle Mungo, a good player whose name I can’t resist adding here.

This list is woefully inadequate, but if you’re hungry for even more details, grab Stew Thornley’s books (Baseball in Minnesota and On To Nicollet!) or last year’s compilation on our state’s black baseball, Swinging For the Fences, and you’ll see that there’s no lack of history for a museum. Plus, there are probably tons of untapped sources of memorabilia. According to Rhodes, when the Reds were looking to stock the museum, collectors of all stripes loaned all varieties of wonderful curios culled from basements and attics. “They were proud to be a part of the museum,” he said. “For many of these fans, this stuff just sat on a shelf at home… now it’s enjoyed by everyone who visits.”

The Reds made their museum work because they were dedicated to it from the start. “You have to be realistic about it,” Rhodes said. “Make sure you budget for it, and make it a year-round presence.” Rhodes believes it costs a minimum of $350.00 a square foot for good museum space—there are environmental issues in keeping the artifacts safe from humidity, and aesthetically it’s important to hire the right people to make the displays engaging. Rhodes noted that unless you make your museum an attraction on its own, it won’t generate enough income to remain open year-round, which creates problems with staffing, with generating the memorabilia from collectors, who might not be so keen to share if the place were empty or closed all winter.

In spite of being just a shade older than myself, The Twins can capitalize on one of the finest histories of the noble sport in all the land. There can be almost no finer nod to the fans than a Minnesota Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum—it would help ease the pain of high ticket prices, the corporate moniker, the truly nosebleeding seats. And it could just be plain fun besides.

Peter Schilling Jr. can be read regularly at MudvilleMagazine.com and The Rake. As you read this, he will be touring Saudi Arabia in the faint hope of bringing the noble sport to the men and women of the desert.

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