Each year since 1989 prior to the induction ceremony for that year’s Hall of Fame inductees, a three-day event entitled “The Cooperstown Symposium on Baseball and American Culture” is held at the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. The event attracts many baseball enthusiasts. The purpose of the symposium is to highlight the contribution of baseball to the overall culture in America, as well as its influence throughout the world. Other stated objectives include: to study current trends in the baseball landscape, to offer an opportunity to appreciate the richness of the sport’s history, and a chance to network and exchange ideas in the classic Hall of Fame setting.
The picturesque town on the shores of Lake Otsego, mythically considered the location of the birth of baseball, is an ideal venue for such an event.
This year marked a return to the normal in-person scheduling, interrupted by COVID in 2020 and with only virtual attendance in 2021. The event celebrated the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s entry into the major leagues. Accordingly, there was also emphasis on the effect of Branch Rickey’s instrumental role in drafting Robinson, a decision that may well be considered a watershed moment in the overall Civil Rights Movement that followed.
Each year, a keynote speaker sets the overall tone for the three-day event. In past years, such notable speakers have included Ken Burns, Donald Fehr, Leonard Koppett, W.P. Kinsella, Roger Kahn, George Plimpton, Marvin Miller, Curt Smith and Frank Deford.
Bob Kendrick, the President of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (NLBM) in Kansas City, was this year’s keynote speaker. The NLBM is the world’s only museum dedicated to preserving the rich history of African American baseball and its profound effect on the social advancement of America. While Kendrick doesn’t fashion himself as such, he is one of the leading authorities of the topic of Negro League Baseball History and its connection to issues relating to sports, race and diversity. He gave a very inspiring speech relating to baseball as the national pastime with relevant stories concerning Robinson and other stars from the earlier days and their struggles to provide for their families during the depression and war years.
In later personal conversation with him, he was very familiar with Columbus’ effort to honor Lowndes County’s Sam Hairston family, one of only five families boasting of three generations of MLB players. Kendrick is also a close colleague of Larry Lester, President of the Negro League Hall of Fame in Kansas City, who visited Columbus at the time. He confirmed for me the struggle Branch Rickey had to decide whether Jackie Robinson or Monte Irvin, with whom I had personal contact in the past, would be the best player to bring into the majors in 1947. The consensus was that Irvin was much the better ballplayer but could not have withstood the hatred that Robinson put up with in his first year with the Dodgers.
Other speakers during the symposium presented a broad range of topics from the rise of, and today’s emphasis on multi-position players; Mickey Mantle’s Route 66 road to the Show; The Back Story of the George Brett Pine Tar Bat Incident; The Norman Rockwell Effect on baseball through his art; and a very interesting presentation on “Snoopy, Baseball’s Top Dog.” Overall, there were 60 speakers during the symposium sessions.
I had been invited to submit an abstract of a topic I might wish to present. All submissions are judged by a committee “in the blind,” so everyone has an equal opportunity. While mine was not accepted, I was invited to participate as a panel moderator. This proved to be a great deal of fun and an opportunity to meet many people. My session was entitled “International Baseball in War and Peace.” One topic presented was “The 1922 tour of Japan” and the other topic was “On the field as civilian and serviceman: Johnny Wright during World War II”. Johnny Wright was a 1946 black teammate of Jackie Robinson on the Montreal Royals triple A team. An excellent pitcher who was also considered to be brought up to the Dodgers in 1947, Wright was too nervous about hatred he might face, and so remained a minor league pitcher.
Among the people I’ll always remember was “Kat” Williams, President of the International Women’s Baseball Center, a professor at Marshall University. She has close connections with the surviving women who played during the World War II era, made famous in the movie “A League of Their Own.” A very interesting, vibrant person, she has authored several books and is involved in the planning of a sequel to the movie.
Other notable experiences included a dinner in the Hall of Fame Plaque Gallery. I was able to offer background about the life-size basswood statues of Babe Ruth and Ted Williams carved by a former classmate at Boston College, Armand LaMontagne. On this trip I was accompanied by my college and ball-playing buddy Bill Nagle, who played in the Red Sox and White Sox organizations. We planned a road trip from this opportunity as our Boston College class reunion followed immediately on the heels of this event. We experienced many highlights and revisited great memories on this trip. While I had visited Cooperstown several times over the years, this Hall of Fame experience was undoubtedly at the top of the list.
Mahoney, originally from Brockton, Massachusetts, played semi-pro baseball in New England before moving to Columbus to work at General Tire as a chemical engineer in 1965. He played ball here for the Columbus Red Birds and frequently wrote Major League Baseball features for The Dispatch over a number of years.