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
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.
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
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
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
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.
It gets worse.
Did you dream of playing in the
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
A shiver went down my spine. It
suddenly hit me - ‘Wow, this is my watch, my responsibility. Can you imagine
The security, alone, must be
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
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
We get artifacts in one of two
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
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
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.
In touring the Hall just before
our talk, I saw visitors from to 88 years old. How do you go
about maintaining a balance in the museum, where it can appeal to kids and older
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
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 (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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
Even though places like
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
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
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
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
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
States and Latin
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.