Lives of the Baseball Saints

Jessica Gandolf's Cleveland AlexanderThere was something a little off about Jessica Gandolf's paintings of baseball greats Lefty Grove and Don Newcombe. Surely Gandolf didn't realize her portraits were sort of . . . you know . . . gay. And by gay, of course, I mean gay in a homosexual manner to other men.

Lefty Grove lies in a tub, a towel covering his bat and balls, while another man laves him as a mother would gently bathe her newborn babe. Don Newcombe gets a shirtless massage from someone who may be a trainer but who's also a dude. Sal Maglie and Ken Boyer embrace in teammately ease and comfort. Is there something rotten and cynical in me, I wondered, hiding my smirk as the director of Saddleback College's art gallery described the works as "intimate." Oh, yes—intimate they are.

But no, there's nothing wrong with me. I'm fine. It's the Baseball Reliquary, whose collection is currently being lovingly housed at Saddleback in the exhibit "In Their Own League," that's a Fifth Column to the sport and, really, to all of America and her grand old ways.

Some of the works are artists' renditions of the game and its cultural import—straightforward portraits of the Babe and Lou Gehrig, Jackie Robinson and mean old Ty Cobb. There are watercolors of people sliding into base and digital photos of our own World Champion Anaheim Angels from last season (one of Mike Scioscia with a bat is kind of embarrassing and fey). These are all quite straight-ahead, and these are the ones that are included in the slim booklet that accompanies the show. Oh, what a nice little end-of-summer baseball show this will be, people think. Then they get to Saddleback, where gallery director Bob Rickerson painted the floor green and made the show's title a scoreboard. Home: Saddleback College. Visitors: Baseball Reliquary. Get it? Oh, that's really cute, think people.

Then they start seeing the homoerotic portraits. And Bill Veeck Jr.'s wooden leg hanging over the reception desk. And the piece of skin from Abner Doubleday's inner thigh, originally found in a refrigerator in the basement of the Baseball Hall of Fame and which the Hall of Fame had been too squeamish to exhibit. Then comes the Walter O'Malley tortilla, which, according to the Reliquary, was found by a woman who lived in Chavez Ravine and took it as a sign to give up her fight against the forced move from her home. From then on, the woman—who had never shown any interest in baseball!—was a lifelong Dodgers fan. The Walter O'Malley tortilla looks really fake. But the wall text says carbon dating puts it at about 40 years old, so that would be the right time frame. . . . The Reliquary seems to think it might be real!

And Babe Ruth's desiccated hot dog, resting like Snow White in a small glass coffin—the Reliquary thinks that might be real, too! Take this bit of text: "Perhaps no artifact of Ruthiana attests more to his culinary excesses than this desiccated hot dog, partially consumed by the Bambino during an eating binge just prior to his collapse on a train ride in April 1925. Babe reportedly gorged himself on a dozen to 18 hot dogs before blacking out, and a week later, he was at St. Vincent's Hospital in New York, undergoing surgery for an intestinal abscess. New York writers termed his illness 'The Bellyache Heard Round the World,' but in recent years, historians have speculated that Babe actually suffered from gonorrhea and not acute indigestion."

Do you suppose the Hall of Fame would write such a thing about Babe Ruth's gonorrhea? And do you suppose the Hall of Fame would elect people to a "Shrine of Eternals" based on "distinctiveness of play (good or bad)" [my emphasis]? Do you?

Looming over the entire business, just as his leg does, is Bill Veeck Jr. The man who staged Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park in '79 (the torched 78 of KC and the Sunshine Band's "I'm Your Boogie Man" from the ensuing riot is included in the show) and who would reportedly stab himself in the peg leg with an ice pick and then ask children, "Can your daddy do that?" He was a provocateur who hired a midget to hit because he had no strike zone. Oh, yeah, and Veeck also integrated the American League when he signed Larry Doby to the Cleveland Indians in 1947. The Reliquary responds with their own humanism, with shrines to Native American player Louis Sockalexis, whom the Cleveland Indians now disingenuously claim to have been honoring when they came up with their name. The Reliquary wants it known when a story's bunk, and Veeck was their lion, for both his outsized sense of humor and his outsized honesty.

It's honesty you can find reflected in the Reliquary's account of how it came by the Eddie Grant Memorial plaque—a plaque honoring the first athlete killed in World War I in the Argonne Forest: "Unknown to the Baseball Reliquary," they write, "the location of the plaque had been the subject of intense speculation and search by other groups, including the Eddie Grant Memorial Association (EGMA). Fearing the EGMA might engineer an attempt to retrieve the plaque, Reliquary staff had a replica produced and then staged a false robbery in which the original (but actually the replica) was reported stolen. Despite this chicanery, EGMA remains convinced either that the Reliquary is still in possession of the original plaque or that the whole affair has been a hoax. However, according to Albert Kilchesty of the Baseball Reliquary, 'Why would anyone go to the trouble of perpetrating a hoax involving a 100-pound bronze plaque? It doesn't make any sense.'"

"In Their Own League" at the Saddleback College Art Gallery, 28000 Marguerite Pkwy., Mission Viejo, (949) 582-4924. Open Mon.-Wed., noon-4 p.m.; Thurs., 4-8 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Through Oct. 16. Free.
 
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