Baseball Men - The Purist

Our exclusive "Baseball Men" interview series continues with Dale Petroskey, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

Peter Handrinos is a frequent contributor to Scout.com and author of the upcoming ‘The Best New York Sports Arguments:  The 100 Most Controversial, Debatable Questions for Die-Hard Fans'.

 

 

The Baseball Hall of Fame was built on superlatives.

 

There's nothing in sports quite like it - not in the long history since its 1939 debut, the popularity of its exhibits, the restrictiveness of its induction standards, the vastness of its holdings, the expansiveness of its grounds, the centrality of its scholarship. ‘25 Main Street, Cooperstown, New York' may be the single most coveted address in sports, and not just for its few, fortunate inductees. For all baseball purists, the Hall of Fame has the greatness of a shrine.

 

Tending to the impressive real-world operation behind all those superlatives is Dale Petroskey. A 1978 graduate from Michigan State University, Petroskey served as an Assistant Press Secretary in the Reagan White House before moving on to the National Geographic Society in 1988 and then being named the Hall's fifth president in 1999.

 

Today Petroskey is the driving force of a multi-tasking organization that functions as a first-rate museum, elite players' fraternity, public meeting site, and foremost marketer of the game's past and present artifacts. Recently, he discussed what he's done to keep the Baseball Hall of Fame both pure and relevant:

 

 

What did baseball mean to you when you were growing up?

 

My Dad put a glove on my hand at five years old, and from then on I was in love with the game. I played every spare hour, watched it every chance I got, read about it every chance I got. It seemed like [Detroit players Norm] Cash and [Willie] Horton and [Al] Kaline and [announcer Ernie] Harwell were always around the house. Probably, the best five or six days of the year when Dad took us over to Tigers Stadium.

 

I didn't think anybody could possibly love the game like I loved the game. You might see on my office wall, right over there, a picture of four of my siblings and myself meeting Rocky Colavito. Rocky was a great hero of mine when he played for the Tigers [in 1960 to 1963] - a great home run hitter and an outfielder with a cannon arm. When I was confirmed at 12 or 13, I chose St. Rocco, after Rocky. I had to prove there was a St. Rocco.

 

Is that all?

 

It gets worse. (chuckles)

 

Did you dream of playing in the Majors?

 

I did. When I was a sophomore in high school, some Tiger scouts invited about 80 area kids for a tryout, and about 15 of us ended up making the team. We went on to College Park, Maryland and ended up winning the National Championship two years in a row. I had a chance to play with and against future Major Leaguers like Lary Sorensen, Glenn Gulliver, Todd Cruz, Bob Welsh, Chris Knapp. 

 

I was a second baseman who turned the double play well, but I never hit enough, so I had to get serious about school and ended up at Michigan State.

 

With the benefit of that education, you ended up working at White House and National Geographic. How did those experiences prepare you for your current position?

 

Well, first of all, both organizations are well-run and first-rate. If you have the privilege of working in the White House, for instance, you learn there are certain ways things are done, in everything from how memos are prepared to how meetings are run.

 

National Geographic had the same kind of professional standards, and I learned how to manage 1,400 employees and to branch out into books, into magazines, into television specials, into exhibits and fundraising. It was very helpful to work in that world and gain diverse experience, because the Hall of Fame is involved in all those areas.

 

The other thing I learned to appreciate, at the White House especially, was the way an institution can have a power to influence American life, above and beyond its direct influence. In the White House, Americans learn to expect a symbol for our national identity at its best. In Cooperstown, a lot of fans to expect a shrine - one that epitomizes the game at its greatest.

 

I never thought of that connection, but it makes a lot of sense. In both cases, you can sense a very powerful respect, one that goes beyond a particular presidency or certain great baseball players.

 

No question. I'd make that comparison. It's a big reason why people come from all across the country and all across the world to see them.

 

What did you know about the Hall of Fame's workings before you arrived in 1999?

 

A couple of years before the opportunity came along, my young son had a junior membership that entitled him to a spiffy ‘Hall of Fame' t-shirt, but apart from that (chuckles), I have to admit, I didn't have a lot of direct contact [with the Hall].

 

I knew that it was the top of the pyramid in the game, I knew it was a nonprofit, I knew that it was independent but worked closely with Major League Baseball in a number of areas. That was about it.

 

Did you consider yourself a baseball historian at that point?

 

I suppose I was like a lot of baseball fans, in that my knowledge was based mostly on my younger days. I was a real expert of the Tigers of the late 1960's and early 1970's and I considered myself fairly knowledgeable. I mean, I think most of my family and friends would tell you that I was the biggest baseball nut they knew.

 

(chuckles) When I came over here, though, I finally realized out how little I really knew about the whole breadth and depth of the game. On Day One, I started learning more about baseball, and I'm still learning, every day. 

 

Well, you have a lot of material to catch up on. Among other things, the Hall of Fame houses the world's greatest memorabilia collection.

 

There's no question about it - we're talking about very impressive holdings. More than 35,000 bats, balls, gloves, helmets, spikes. More than two million documents. More than 500,000 photographs. More than 12,000 original TV and radio recordings. It's a real responsibility to catalogue, preserve, and present it all, which is one reason we have over 100 full-time employees.

 

About a year and a half into the job, I'm having a lot of fun coming in to work every day, and some insurance guys come in to talk about coverage for the first time. The topic was the replacement value of the holdings, in the event they were lost in a fire or something.

 

A shiver went down my spine. It suddenly hit me - ‘Wow, this is my watch, my responsibility. Can you imagine losing this?'

 

The security, alone, must be incredible.

 

It is. I've tried to emphasize that every employee of the Hall has the utmost responsibility to make sure our holdings stay safe and secure, so future generations can enjoy them, just as we're enjoying them today. It's at the very top of our list.

 

That kind of link between generations is so unique. Outside of baseball, saying ‘That's history' is a way of saying something is irrelevant, but most baseball fans I know are history buffs in one form or another. 

 

We see them here every day. More than 335,000 visitors came to Cooperstown this year, another strong year for attendance, and they come in order to connect to the past.

 

One thing I've learned in interacting with our visitors - they associate baseball with the past, yes, but the whole course of the relationships in their lives. It's about their dad playing catch, as corny as that may be. It's about an outing to the ball park with their brothers long ago. It's trading a baseball card collection - a personal museum holding, if you will - with school mates. Personally, I'm still friends with some of the guys I played with 45 years ago.

 

How do you decide on presenting the game's history, in terms of building the collection and the displays?

 

We get artifacts in one of two ways.

 

Let's say a player's closing in on 500 home runs. [Hall directors] Brad Horn or Jeff Idelson will call up the player's club and ask, ‘Can you guarantee the player will give us something from the game?'. 99.9% of the time, they say, ‘Yes, of course, I'd love to have something in the Hall of Fame'.

 

The other side is in the way that people have things in their closets or attics. They come to us and say, ‘Gee, I was cleaning up at home and came across this, would you like it?'. Then our curators and collections people, who meet on a regular basis, will decide on an acceptance. At times, we might already have ten items just like it, or it might not be all that important, in our view, to telling the story of the game. At other times, we do come across important items and it's wonderful when fans do come forward.

 

There's such a selfless love in it. This place only works because so many players and fans have routinely given away items that might be worth thousands on the open market.

 

That's a good point. It's an overlooked but remarkable fact - the Hall of Fame doesn't pay for its items, ever. Everything we have is donated. We've never paid for an artifact and we've never sold one, either.

 

It's worth mentioning, as well, that we're talking about an incredible scope. This place isn't just for [those enshrined as] Hall of Famers - it's about everyone who's played the game, at all levels, and I'm talking about the Major League level, the Minor League level, college baseball, youth baseball, women's leagues. We're a museum of baseball, honoring all the game's great moments.

 

In doing my research, those were some of the best stories about the Hall. For example, a Little Leaguer registered 18 strikeouts in a perfect six inning game, and she donated the ball from the final out. I remember a fan caught a home run ball, and he talked about passing up a lot of money because he wanted the honor involved in being a part of this place.

 

They deserve to be here, because they touched baseball history. There are so many fans who love baseball so much. It's incredible.

 

In touring the Hall just before our talk, I saw visitors from 8 to 88 years old. How do you go about maintaining a balance in the museum, where it can appeal to kids and older fans alike?

 

We try to keep in mind that the balance does have to be struck. Baseball is in its essence, both a fun kids' diversion and an important, dignified part of our culture. Most often, we favor the approach you might see in the Smithsonian or a comparable museum.

 

That kind of serious approach seems to be shared by most observers. Every so often, it seems, somebody comes up with a little nitpick about the exact plaque statistics or the tiniest mistakes in the display cases.

 

It shows just how much they care. When I hear a passionate debate about a single missing RBI or the logo on a player's cap, it's another compliment and a reminder to maintain the highest standards. It's relatively rare for us to get things wrong, because I think we have some of the greatest researchers in the country, but we're not perfect, either. If someone has a legitimate case, of course we fix [our information].

 

Recently, we came across a letter from a lady who was really interested in [1890's-era player] George Davis. She came across a mistake on the plaque - I forget what it was exactly - but I confirmed she was right and had the plaque taken down and shipped to our manufacturer in Pennsylvania.

 

At some expense.

 

At some expense (chuckles), but we always want to get it right.

 

It's interesting - the Hall of Fame may be held to a higher standard than just about any museum in America. I welcome that.

 

There are, inevitably, some judgment calls to be made in your office. I remember reading that a gambling site offered a valuable, historic ball last year, but the donation was refused. Can you talk about your thinking in that decision?

 

Those are tough calls, but in the end, we really didn't feel that it was the right thing to do. We didn't want to give a gambling site free publicity, and that's what they were really looking for. In a sense, they put us in a corner and sort of dared us to say no.

 

Because the issue related to gambling, it called to mind the stories of guys like Shoeless Joe Jackson and Pete Rose. Obviously, both players are included in your displays, but they're banned from formal enshrinement. Can you talk about that issue?

 

They were great players, and no one would deny they had Hall of Fame-caliber careers, but they're ineligible for a vote. It's sad. It's sad for Pete, it's sad for us; no doubt it's sad for a lot of fans. Unfortunately, Pete put us into that position, and that's something everyone should realize.

 

Do you envision a time when a Pete Rose might be eligible for the Hall of Fame?

 

Our bylaws state that no one on the ineligible list can receive a vote. I think the Commissioner, whoever the Commissioner might happen to be, would have to take a look at the issue and decide to remove Pete from the ineligible list. I don't see that happening at any time soon.

 

Do you welcome media campaigns for Hall of Fame candidates?

 

We, as an institution, have to stay neutral as to the merits of the different candidates, as you know. We never say ‘Vote for this guy', ‘Don't vote for the other guy '- that's not for us to say.

 

Personally, I see [the campaigns] as great positives. You just don't see the same kind of thing in the other sports, or in many other areas of life, where so many care enough to devote time and energy into seeing someone get his due. I'd hate to see a day when any worthwhile contributor is forgotten.

 

One of my pet causes is the Hall's lack of recognition for General Managers and scouts. Do you see a day when that might change?

 

There are so many important people in the game, including General Managers, scouts, trainers. All of them make it run, some in more glamorous positions than others. They all deserve recognition. We're doing an exhibit, actually, sort of ‘From the Little Leagues to the Big Leagues, what does it take?', and you'll see more about General Managers and scouts and trainers within that.

 

What's it like dealing with those who've already made it in?

 

It's a joy. You know all those little boys, dreaming about becoming pro ball players, maybe one of the greatest ball players ever? Hall of Famers are the ones who saw that come true.

 

They seem to appreciate our work in Cooperstown and I have a chance to talk to them, maybe three or four of them, every day. Bob Gibson, Harmon Killebrew, Phil Niekro, Ozzie Smith. This old-time Tiger fan called Al Kaline for his birthday. It's something.

 

I can say this from the heart - they are great, great guys. As you might expect, they love their life, and what strikes me is how much they truly do love those in and around the world of baseball. They have a lot of friendships and stay in touch with countless people, and many of them are still very active in their older years.

 

It strikes me that guys who dedicate their entire professional careers to beating out the competition seem to have such a kinship after it's all said and done.

 

Maybe no one else in the world knows how incredibly difficult it really is to reach the Major Leagues in the first place, and then surpass 99% of Major Leaguers. In our annual get-togethers, the amount of affection and respect in the room is amazing.

 

You know, Hall of Famers knew how good they were, even back in the day. I once asked Carlton Fisk, ‘Did you know when you were playing against another future Hall of Famer? Did you know you were the two best on the field?' (chuckles) He said, ‘Yeah, I knew'.

 

Right now we're in Cooperstown, about a four-hour drive north of New York City. Can you talk about this village and in relation to the Hall?

 

Cooperstown' and ‘The Baseball Hall of Fame' are synonymous. You can say one and everyone knows you mean the other. Why's that so? Well, we're the oldest Hall of Fame, the most well-known and popular sports museum in the world. Beyond that, though, I think it's because of our location out here, in a rural area. Baseball started in the 1800's as agrarian game, so the museum's purpose matches its context. We're exploring the game's history, really, in the kind of place where baseball was born.

 

Even though places like Hoboken, New Jersey probably have a more solid claim as the birthplace of baseball.

 

(chuckles) True, true.

 

Our research tells us that Cooperstown wasn't the true birthplace of baseball, but I suppose my point is that Cooperstown is the place where the game ought to be. There are no huge parking lots around here. Stop out of the office, and you're literally on Main Street, USA, where the shops belong to local owners. There isn't any neon or a lot of flash, but there's Americana in a very down-to-earth, pretty setting.

 

The way you describe your job and the Hall of Fame, I'd be tempted to call you a purist.

 

(chuckles) Yeah, I'm a purist.

 

To me, it simply means loving the essence of the game, stuff I'd associate it with childhood, in large part. It's about dreaming of the Major Leagues, the green grass, getting out under blue skies. I think that's the root of the ‘purity', really. Life gets a little more complicated as you grow up.

 

What are your plans for the future?

 

One of the challenges involved in a place like Cooperstown is that, realistically, not every fan can make it over to here, so it's important to take our exhibits out to the people. We've been doing that for the first time in the ‘Baseball as America' traveling exhibit, complete with 500 artifacts that have never been seen outside Cooperstown. It's been a runaway hit, so much so that our national sponsor, Ernst & Young, wants to take it out to additional cities. We're also looking forward to putting together a traveling show on Latinos in baseball, both in the United States and Latin America. We're partnering with Citgo on that, for a 2006 to 2010 tour.

 

We expect, further, to explore more digital opportunities, through cooperation with MLB.com and e-memberships offering exclusive content to our site. I'm proud to say that we've reached hundreds of thousands of grade school kids through our interactive learning programs, as well, and I have a lot of confidence that our good people can keep up that momentum.

 

After all the challenges involved in serving as President of the Hall, are you more of a baseball fan, less of a fan, or about the same?

 

Oh, you might have guessed - more of a fan. It's been a privilege.

 

 

The complete Table of Contents for the ‘Baseball Men' interview series can be found here.